Tuesday, August 7, 2012

personal connections to the UP

Sense of place is all about one's personal connections to a place and, better yet, the people one interacts with there. This edition of know-your-place features a guest blogger (a young scientist with whom I collaborate) writing about just such connections.
Part I is about Thaddeus' adventures in the territory around Marquette, Michigan.
A UP Weekend I
by Thaddeus

Perhaps the greatest irony of my life is that for a person who measures 6’4” tall, I am terrified of heights. Full disclosure: I am talking about a fear far beyond which is indicated by symptoms of wobbly-knees or dizziness. At the apex of my six inch vertical leap, I begin to get very angry with Sir Isaac Newton and question what possessed me to leave the surface of our most wonderful planet Earth. I have considered how self-secure I am to withstand to the public ridicule that would befall someone in my age range without a disability using walking canes, if for no other reason than to enter into a more pleasing consort with land.

One of my earliest memories is of my parents taking me to a public library. The library had two floors, and the children’s section was on the second level. If memory serves, the elevator was shrouded in the cobwebs of several generations (if not whole civilizations) of numerous species of spider with a dusty OUT OF ORDER sign that was placed in front of its entrance sometime in 1958. The staircase at this library consisted of large, rectangular marble slabs held together by approximately half the steel distributed from Pittsburgh. A very sturdy structure and a testament to the talent and skill of its designers to say the least. Problem was, there was a gap of about a hand’s width between each offset step that allowed for the necessary incline and the visitor to be able to see through the stairway as they made their way to the second floor. I was so paralyzed by this evil creation as a child that my current stage of literacy is a credit to the wonderful teachers on the ground floor of the elementary school I attended.

The simple truth is that the more of my surface area that is in contact with objects permanently affixed to the ground, the more comfortable I am. This is known by people who know me. “Bob” is one such person who knows me. He and I go back a few years and we have spent not an insignificant amount of time developing a friendship.

A quick note about Bob: he likes to have fun. He loves hiking, fishing, kayaking, biking, building beautiful log furniture…in other words someone who fits in perfectly in Marquette, Michigan.

Another quick note: Bob is absolutely crazy.

I visited Bob this past weekend in Marquette. We had dinner on Friday night at the Vierling restaurant on Front Street. If you have never been there, order a pint of a delicious hand crafted hoppy beverage and don’t be shy about looking through the large windows overlooking the bay or the old black-and-white photos on the walls before your food arrives. (The whitefish, by the way, is phenomenal.)

One picture shows Marquette harbor sometime after the turn of the century. The photo succeeds in representing how busy the port was in a time long since past as the viewer sees immense sepia toned tree trunks waiting to be shipped off to lumber yards. On the horizon, there is a promontory that reaches towards the sky, the tallest landmark of the area from that photo’s perspective. Naturally my eyes were led to this peak, and my throat started to constrict as sweaty hands tried to grasp a fork.

“What’s that hill there, in the back?” I ask, trying to allay burgeoning anxiety through dialogue.

“Oh yeah, I think that is Marquette Mountain,” Bob says. “Cool photo, huh?”

My voice squeaks as I attempt a response and the conversation eventually drifts elsewhere.

Later that evening we discuss plans for the weekend and a couple of ideas were tossed around. Things with Bob always seem to move fast and before I knew it the first suggestion of a crisp autumn-in-August Sunday morning was floating through the open window of my guest room.

“So we’ll head up to Jeffrey’s for breakfast and then hit the cliff?”

“Um, sure sounds like a good plan” I mumble, still in a sleepy haze without having consumed the several cups of coffee required to alert my senses every morning.

It wasn’t until the third cup that I became aware of myself seriously discussing climbing a rock face. Was this actually presented as an option on Friday for things to do over the weekend? What’s more, it seemed as though we were talking about climbing the same peak that I had seen in the photo at the restaurant two days before. I’m not one for hyperbole, but as the server dutifully refilled my bottomless cup of coffee, my mind recalled every detail of minutiae in the photo of the Mt. McKinley of Michigan, from the sherpas leading pack mules up narrow trails to the base camp with wind-tattered tents and spare oxygen tanks.

I won’t bore you with the details of how I managed to scramble up the side of that mountain; frankly, I have no recollection of anything that happened once I started climbing. However, I will say that I think I may be the first person in recorded history to have the ability to consciously decide against having multiple heart attacks, something I learned about myself while I was clutching a shrubby oak tree some 70 feet above where my feet last touched flat ground. Photographic evidence shows a rope knotted to a harness into which I was strapped leading through a pulley anchored by two trees at the top of the cliff to Bob’s own harness at the foot of the cliff. This technique, I was told later, is called “top anchoring” and once the nausea that still accompanies any association with Sunday, August 5th subsides in a week or so, I might read up on how exactly the physics behind it works.

It’s good to have friends, but it is better when crazy friends live a few hours away.

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