Sunday, July 24, 2011

Up North...!

Where I grew up, in that most intemperate of all American climates, Minnesota, we used to talk about Going Up North -- by which we meant that we were going to take a drive to Duluth or Grand Marais (there's more than one!) or Lake Mille Lacs (yes, I know -- I can't help it if Americans don't know French) or even Brainerd and Bemidji.  Bemidji is the home of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.  I understand that people from other states think that Paul and Babe belong to them.  Wrong.  Babe and her owner hailed from Minnesota.

Minnesota really does have over 10,000 lakes, and Brainerd is a resort community situated smack in the middle of a half-dozen of them.  Duluth (in the early 20th century, home to the dread Finnish Socialists -- how scary is THAT?) is now one of the most entirely delightful small cities in America, with a splendid array of old Victorian B and B's, a gallery district near the waterfront, and a spectacular walkway from the B and B district along the water to downtown.  I was shocked during a visit a few years ago to see how sophisticated Duluth had become.  It used to be imagined as an outpost of human civilization, as if everyone lived in igloos.  And of course part of that reputation is well-earned, given the fact of temperatures so low in winter that you can't even think about taking a long walk.  In fact, throughout Minnesota, from about November through March, people look a lot like pillows moving along on two sticks.

In Michigan, Up North means Mackinac (pronounced Mackinaw) Island or, short of that magical place (marred only a bit by endless fudge shops and too much hawking), towns like Traverse City and Charlevoix and Petoskey.  It's a true wonderland.  To get there from Detroit, you drive through some quite ordinary, if lovely, farmland (flat, green) and then, increasingly, the woodlands encroach until you are moving through a long, green tunnel.....miles and miles of it.   It can be mesmerizing.  I had to turn on the radio at one point to stay awake.  Then, when you finally get to leave Interstate 75, the tunnel gives way to charming small towns, collectible shops, rolling farmland, and glimpses of the bay, with roads running along the lake shore like curly ribbon.  In July, there are plots of corn, lots of cherry vendors ("Washed Sweet Cherries!"), and potato patches.  It's candy for both eyes and mind.  I also bought a truckload of cherries, of course.  Ambrosia for the tummy and a reminder of simpler times in life, when all it took was a bag of farm-fresh SOMETHING to rescue a bad day.  Wanna see some pretty Michigan flowers?

Up North can be extremely wild and scary.  Some years ago, in 2001, when I decided to run away from home for a month or so in my VW (my first husband had died and I had to think long and hard about the future), I crossed the bridge into the upper peninsula and promptly got lost in the woods -- not on purpose.  It was terrifying.  You can actually run out of gas and starve to death.  But if you do NOT get lost in the woods, northern Michigan has dunes and woods and cliffs and soaring flocks of waterbirds and woods and walkways along gorgeous lakes and woods ...  Did I mention the woods?

I stayed at a particularly dreadful Day's Inn.  Never, ever book a room at the Day's Inn in Petoskey, Michigan.  The beds were both swayback, as if doing an imitation of old horses -- the toilet didn't flush -- the sink didn't drain -- and when I mentioned these things in the morning, the manager said without cracking a smile, "Well it doesn't cost much, does it?"  But it did.  It cost more than 130 bucks with tax.  What kind of management style is that???

I skipped the so-called breakfast, for which in any case there were no available seats.  Instead,  I went downtown in Petsokey, which is a charming place to go -- found a woman who looked friendly, described myself as a Day's Inn Refugee, and asked her where I could find breakfast.  She recommended a great place called the Bistro on a side street, where I found a lovely, ungreasy tomato-basil omelet, fresh fruit, and good coffee -- not to mention a really nice wait person who didn't keep asking me if everything was all right -- and, most important, didn't tell me everything she was about to do ("Now I"m going to pour water," "Here's more coffee..."  or my all time favorite, "How is everything?" after only a bite and every two minutes thereafter.....)(this from an ex-waitress who was trained in the good old days to just DO it).

On the positive side:  On Friday night, I set out in search of a decent dinner and found myself in an area of Petoskey called Bay View, which of course wanders along the water.  Bay View is a dazzling collection of Victoriana.  There, I took a chance on Stafford's Bay View Hotel, a rambling place built in the late 19th century and apparently operating at a high level ever since.  After a truly savory, well-prepared cedar plank of whitefish, I went on a short tour of the place.  It has 30+ rooms, all different, marvelous views of the bay with seating, nice gardens, a sun room, gathering rooms -- just the thing for a fiber arts retreat.  And it only costs about 250 (with meals) for a weekend.  This bears thought.  I need to find a visitor willing to teach an intensive workshop in the woods!

The Charlevoix fiber festival, held each year in mid-July, occupies a place called The Castle.  To get there from Petoskey, you need to drive THROUGH Charlevoix, which can be a disaster.  The fiber fest is held during the so-called Venetian Festival, the name for which someone had better explain to me someday, and it's simply impossible to get through the town, particularly if there is a foot race -- as there was yesterday.  So I waited with everyone else and finally took a side road to get around the snarl.  What some people won't do for YARN!  Next time, I'll lay better plans.

The Castle is (how can I say this?) a bit weird.  Why would such a thing exist in upper Michigan?

It was a fun time, well-organized, and possessed as usual of the world's best caramel corn vendor on the castle green.  But as compared to the last time I was there, I think the number of non-yarn offerings has expanded (that's GOOD for non-yarn people -- really good for spinners and rug hookers -- not so good for me).  That's not to say I came away empty-handed.  Oh no.  Deb McDermott of Stonehedge Fiber Mills -- the maker of the incomparable Shepherd's Wool in East Jordan, just down the road from Charlevoix -- had experimented with hand-dyed sock and sweater yarns, so I snapped up almost all the fingering yarn.  She has some kettle-dyed wool-silk that I also will snap up if she esn't sell it (no point in selling at a discount if you can sell it full price).  I found Barb Lambrecht of Winding Creek Wool, from whom I've bought yarn and scarves and hats in the past -- and grabbed some really spectacular handspun wool made basically from scraps.  I even bought several bags of the raw materials so that our spinners can replicate what she's done.

And of course I found the gifted and delightful Kim Leach.  Kim is from Palmira (Palmyra?), Wisconsin, a town I've never visited, nor do I know exactly where it is.....despite my fairly close knowledge of the Wisconsin landscape.  (I adore Wisconsin).  Kim's yarn line is Happy Hands.  She makes Toe Jamz sock yarn (good for more than socks) as well as other gorgeous yarns.  She has a great-and-getting-greater color eye -- what a talent!  Just eccentric enough to be fascinating, never dull, and always technically first-class.  No muddy borders in Kim's offerings.  I bought a fairly large stack of Toe Jamz in colorways like Brown Eyed Girl...and walked off with some pretty amazing alpaca-wool in a watery colorway.  Here's Kim (who is about 5 feet tall!!!)!

Kim says she could be talked into holding a trunk show in the studio in late autumn -- I surely hope so.  She is someone worth meeting, a joy to know, and one of the forces of nature that make life a little better when you see the smile, hear the optimism in her voice, touch the beautiful yarn.

I drove home amidst hundreds of people who decided to beat the traffic by coming home early (!) and suffered mightily from road construction and a car accident that left grizzly images in my brain -- but it was great fun to get to the studio before closing and dump all of the  yarn on the floor, to the amazement of customers enjoying the Saturday Knit-Together.   It's become a kind of custom:  When I am on the road and apt to return before closing, people hang around.  What a delight.

More later.   svb

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