Saturday, June 11, 2022

When in Michigan, You Must Take a Flying Leap Down a Sand Dune


We thought we were probably lost. There were lots of little roads between Traverse City and Sleeping Bear Dunes. Lots of turns onto unlabeled streets, lots of winding country roads, lots of farms and vineyards and orchards full of cherry trees. And when you type a national park into your GPS, you're never quite sure what part of the park it's actually going to take you to. Will you arrive safely at the visitor center, or at a fire tower fifty miles away? The main entrance gate, or the post office where the park gets its mail?

Since we didn't know what to expect, and weren't quite sure where we were going, then, it was even more magical to be driving down yet another little road and suddenly see, to our left, the largest wall of sand I've ever imagined.

It was huge. Incongruously huge. Game of Thrones The Wall huge. Absolutely impossible, except that there it was.

Obviously, we had to climb it!

Okay, climbing a giant sand dune was a little bit like slogging through hell below our feet. But above us?

Only sky.

And look at that view from the top of the climb!

We lounged in place for a while, me recovering my resting heart rate, and the kids playing in the biggest and best sandbox in the Midwest:

Can you imagine living around here and having small children? I'd have taken my two here every single day!

When we'd originally set off, my words had been something like "OMG look at that giant dune let's climb it!" But after deciding that maybe I wasn't having a heart attack, after all, I started to look around me and realized--we weren't at the top at ALL! There was a whole other HIGHER dune just ahead!

We must climb it!

Notice in these photos the concession to Mom's fragility embodied in Will having taken over the Mom Day Pack. Now, Will was the Keeper of Water and Snacks and First Aid Kit and Sunscreen and Bug Spray, and Mom just had to get her own butt up that last dune, the distant figures of her children literally running up that mountain of sand egging her on:

But what did I see when I finally reached the top?

Omg. Another, higher dune.

Must. Climb. It.

And from the top of THAT dune?

Nope. I give up.

Later, when we finally found the visitor center and picked up park maps, I'd learn that the trail we were on was something like three miles round-trip, a distance that we were not prepared to hike with zero prep. If I had this trip to do again I'd have us pack lunches and make a day of just this Dunes Trail, but for three people with just a water bottle each, not even all of us wearing shoes, this was our turn-around point.

Now, to enjoy the lovely walk back!

Although most of us ran most of the way:

And there may have even been some leaping involved!

You probably can't tell, ahem, but the leaping was my favorite part. 

After sandwiches eaten in the delightful air conditioning of the car, I decided it was time to figure out exactly what we were supposed to be doing and seeing in Sleeping Bear, not to mention pay our entrance fee, so Google Maps kindly agreed to direct us to the visitor center. 

Twenty-five dollars later, I had a nice, big fold-out map of Sleeping Bear Dunes to peruse while the kids worked through their Junior Ranger books:

After that, my Junior Rangers and I took the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. The kids weren't super impressed with most of the stops--I mean, not after a whole morning playing on the marvelous and mind-bending Dune Climb!--but this stop was worth it all:

Despite the dire warnings--

Is that exhausted climber... vomiting?!?

--people really were walking all the way down this dune--

--and then crawling back up. The kids and I hiked to an overlook where we joined a vocal community of observers of these intrepid adventurers, rooting for our favorites, discussing what we'd do differently were we in their places (god forbid!), offering advice and criticisms, and cheering every time someone finally finished their long crawl back to the top:

Oh, and we also admired the view, of course:

I had anticipated that Sleeping Bear Dunes would be fun and pleasant, but I was shocked at HOW fun it was, and just how unspeakably beautiful. I'd happily spend weeks back there, rolling down dunes and crawling back up them and lying like a lizard in the warm sand and admiring the clear, blue water. 

And at the end of every day, I'd do like I did on this day and drive my kids back down those windy country roads, past cherry orchards and vineyards, to buy ourselves ice cream from Moomers

I'm pretty sure the cow who made my chocolate caramel nut ice cream is in this photo!

And here's my ice cream, in a chocolate-dipped waffle cone:

Will had a banana split:

And Syd had a worms and dirt sundae:

As Will's time as a child in my home grows very short, I often think with longing about her younger years, when I so often felt overwhelmed and disconnected. I fantasize about time traveling back to our old house by the park and ringing the doorbell, and when an exhausted, bored me comes to the door, I put her to bed with a book and a snack, and I spend the day playing with a very small Willow and Sydney. I drink in their tiny selves, and I enjoy every single second with them. I memorize again all their little features and gestures, and I don't look away for a moment.

My big kids spend their days mostly going about their own business. They have schoolwork and jobs, friends and hobbies, and I am no longer the planet they orbit around; they are no longer my ever-present shadows. I'm not exhausted and overwhelmed by them anymore (or rather, I'm mostly not...), these independent, capable kids that can now mow the lawn and do the laundry and read to themselves and even help me drive the eight hours from Traverse City, Michigan, back to our home. But I miss them, so much, now that I have the space to miss them, and I'm going to miss them so much more when one of them lives in Ohio. And because I miss them in the day-to-day, I cherish these trips with them even more. Mind you, half of them griped most of the time, and both of them griped some of the time. I thought about bailing on the whole adventure more than once, and when that happened only the fact that I wouldn't get any refund on that super expensive cottage kept me on the road. 

But sometimes, every now and then, both kids would be smiling at once. Both kids would be having a marvelous time running down a dune, or sitting at the top of a hill talking to each other about how slow and sad my hiking is, or eating a dish of ice cream the size of their heads. We would be looking at something beautiful together, and they'd be saying how beautiful it is, in the next breath mocking some hapless soul trying to crawl back up a sand mountain so he didn't have to pay $3,000 for the air rescue. I cherished those precious moments with my grown-up Willow and my nearly-grown Sydney. I drank in their funny, clever, quirky selves, and I enjoyed every single second with them. I memorized all over again their changing features and their familiar gestures.

And I did not look away for a moment.

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