A Case of the Human Condition: The Center of the Universe? It’s a Little Beach in Michigan, of Course

My son Peter gets to know the outlet at Lake Michigan. Photos by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, August 9, 1987

Up in Siskiyou mountain country, in the northwest corner of California, there is a spot known to the Karuk tribe as Kota-Mein. In the Karuk language, Kota Mein means “center of the world.” Like their ancestors before them, the Karuk people hike up to sacred spots like Kota-Mein, Chimney Rock and Doctor Rock to talk to the Great Spirit and to receive power.

I have never been to Kota-Mein, but I have been to Bass Lake, Mich.

If I were drawing a map of the world, its center would be at Bass Lake, just where its outlet flows into the great, blue Lake Michigan.

My mother at “her” beach.

I have lived in California for nearly two decades, but like my forebears – my mother, her mother Toto, her mother Nana, and her mother, Grandma Harlow – I return to Bass Lake every chance I get.

I am drawn there as surely as a Michigan mosquito is drawn to the juicy ankles of anyone foolish enough to venture outdoors after dark in a Michigan summer.

Chimney Rock and Doctor Rock have been compared by their devotees to black holes in space, vortexes, whirlwinds of energy. Those spots on Earth have, it is said, the power to give the worthy pilgrim a vision of transcendence.

Last month, I left my husband behind in the Eastbay with a freezer full of spaghetti sauce and meatloaf.

The children and I boarded a Boeing 767 for a pilgrimage to Michigan. I wanted to show them my secret spots. Peter, 6, and Christina, 3, were enthusiastic.

They donned hats and mosquito netting to pick raspberries in the woods with their grandfather.

They watched the cherries being harvested. They caught a toad and inspected a patch of poison ivy.

Peter and Christina in the outlet aboard a classic inner tube.

Peter and Christina aboard a classic inner tube.

They learned to soothe their mosquito bites by wiping them with spit.

They met their great-aunt Ruth and made friends with a half-dozen second cousins, some of whom were drawn here, as we were, all the way from the West Coast.

They chased minnows in the warm, brown water of the Bass Lake outlet.

They took wet fistfuls of the creamy, miraculously clean Lake Michigan sand and let it drip off the ends of their fingers to make dainty drip castles.

They heard the story of the drip castle party their Uncle David and Aunt Alice once threw on the shores of the Pacific.

My brother and his wife, also a Midwesterner, once invited some California friends to a beach party, promising to initiate them in the intricacies of drip castle building.

They discovered, to their chagrin, that Northern California sand does not drip. The project was a flop.

Christina and Peter and their inner tube drift toward Lake Michigan.

Christina and Peter drift toward Lake Michigan.

When they grew sweaty, my children waded down the outlet into the Big Lake. They threw their bellies onto the breaking waves and dove for the smooth rocks buried in the sand.

Again and again, they climbed aboard a much-patched inner tube and drifted down the outlet into the Big Lake.

The hours passed.

My mother sat on a beach towel spread on the sand, watching her daughter and grandchildren. “This is life,” she sighed.

Behind her, Lake Michigan’s waves crashed noisily on the beach, just as they had crashed when I was a girl and when she was a girl and when our great-grandmothers were girls.

When I was a seventh-grader, I painted a picture of this beach in art class. Sand, grass and lake blended together in a misty – and I thought – very successful portrait of my beach.

My art teacher was displeased. “It doesn’t look real,” she said. “Too sweet.”

Before we left, I showed Peter and Christina one last secret spot – the view of the Big Lake and outlet from a high sand bluff to the north.

From this bluff, there is nothing to see but beauty. Even the human bathers, many of them grown fat on too much cherry pie and sweet corn, take on a certain grace when seen from up here.

Lake Michigan — aka the Big Lake. Photo 1987 by B.F.Newhall

I had my Nikkormat along and, as always, I took a picture of the outlet.

The Siskiyou Indians forbid photographs of their “power sites.” When my pictures returned, I saw that, sure enough, it had happened again.

My magical spot was gone. What I held in my hands was a 3 ½ by 5-inch glossy of — just another beautiful beach.

I’ll have to go back and try it again.

Used by permission  The Oakland Tribune

Thin places — it’s a term that’s become familiar to me in the years since I first wrote this piece. Thin places, according to a New York Times travel story,  are spots on earth where the distance between heaven and earth collapses. This little beach, for me, is such a place.

Read more about our family summers on Lake Michigan at  “Respect for Our Undeserving Elders.”  And more about Lake Michigan at “The 1000-Mile Walk Around the Lake I Didn’t Take.”




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