Howard Frank Mosher
From North Country
(Houghton Mifflin, 1997)
Notes from the Upper Peninsula8:00 A.M. Within an hour after leaving the Soo this morning, I drive out from under the lake-effect morning cloud cover into a sunny, summery day. Still, at this time of year you can't travel ten miles anywhere in the North Country without some reminder of impending winter. Back in Maine it was highway crews stringing up snow fencing. Here on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, signs announcing ICY PAVEMENT and BLOWING SNOW keep cropping up. Otherwise, the countryside is wooded and poor-looking, with rusted trailers and tarpaper shacks hunkered back off the road in the scrubby underbrush, reminding me of northern New England.
9:00 A.M. I am looking down into the tannin-stained depths of a stream in Seney, the starting point for young Nick Adams in my all-time favorite fishing story, Ernest Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River." Seney was a train trestle over a trout stream when Nick visited it in the story. The entire town, including all thirteen of its saloons, had burned to the ground around the turn of the century, been rebuilt, and promptly burned to flinders again. Today it's still scarcely more than a whistle stop, just one store and a few houses, and the stream still looks to be a likely spot for the big speckled beauties that Nick admired off the trestle. I'm tempted, again, to fish but decide not to. There'll be plenty of time for fishing in Montana.
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9:30 A.M. The back of a loggers' boot hill just outside Seney, a hodgepodge of
wooden markers tilting crazily above sunken graves overrun with myrtle and
ground pine and inscribed with the following legends:
CHAS DEWEY AGE 33 DIED FIGHTEN.
10:00 A.M. North of town a few miles I stop again and walk a short distance off the road into the woods. Suddenly I could be standing next to Nick Adams, looking out over the dark islands of pines in the sandy barrens at a faraway, sparkling river, and the distant blue ridge just south of Lake Superior, exactly as Hemingway described them. But I resist the temptation, a few minutes later, to strike off onto a side road to visit the actual Big Two-Hearted, knowing that the only place I'll ever truly find Nick's river is on the pages of Hemingway's eternally lovely story.
10:30 A.M. PRIMITIVE ROAD FOR 50 MILES. The sign intrigues me. Just how primitive is a primitive road? Do you need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to attempt it? I pull over to reconnoiter. Beyond the tantalizing sign, the road snakes between Lake Superior and a dune as high as a Vermont hay barn. In spots sand has drifted hubcap-deep over the road. This is as close to the Upper Peninsula's original wilderness as I'll ever get, I think, and pull out onto the narrow track to see what this primitive road is all about.
11:45 A.M. High atop a sand cliff at the west end of the Grand Sable Banks, in the Superior National Forest, I come upon the site of what, in its day, must have been as original a logging enterprise as any in the North Country. On this spot a century ago, white pine logs hurtled down a five-hundred-foot wooden chute resembling a ski jump from the clifftop to the lake below, to be rafted east to the big sawmills in Grand Marais, Whitefish Point, and Paradise. The half-ton pine logs sped lakeward so fast that their friction ignited flash fires on the smooth wooden surface of the chute; men stationed at intervals on the face of the cliff doused the fires with buckets of sand. Yes, I know all too well what havoc those redshirted wood cutters wreaked upon the U.P. forests, and I find myself rejoicing that at least theoretically such devastation can never again spoil this or any other national forest. But even so, the thundering log chute is a stirring sight to conjure up in this wild, empty, and once again, after nearly two centuries of rapine, unspoiled place on Michigan's North Coast.
5:30 P.M. Marquette, Michigan. The waterfront is unaccustomedly quiet this afternoon because of a Mesabi miners' strike. No freight-car hoppers line the Burlington Northern's looming ore docks, which gleam darkly in the watery sunshine, thrusting out into the harbor like truncated railway trestles going nowhere. Yet even with the port shut down, Marquette has the rugged look of a working harbor. With its hulking docks and hilly, narrow streets that all seem to run down to the lake, it's a promising place to continue my search for Upper Peninsula lore.
6:00 P.M. Outside Marquette's red sandstone courthouse, the site of a famous libel trial in I913. The flamboyant Theodore Roosevelt had brought a libel suit against an Upper Peninsula newspaper, and in the grand old tradition of San Juan Hill, the last of our two-fisted presidents won his case. For compensation, the Marquette jury that found in his favor awarded him exactly six cents: "the price of a good newspaper." Some decades later a sensational murder trial in the same courthouse inspired a brilliant young Marquette district attorney named John Voelker to write, under the pen name Robert Traver, a story set in the wilds of the U.P. and involving an alleged rape, a shooting, and some of the most exciting courtroom scenes in an American suspense thriller. Overnight it became a runaway bestseller and the basis for an enormously popular film of the same name, Anatomy of a Murder.
6:30 P.M. And here to my delight I discover the signatures of Anatomy's stars -- Jimmy Stewart, George C. Scott, Lee Remick -- inscribed in the sidewalk outside Marquette's Nordic Theater, where the film premiered. Yet as I stand on the main street of Voelker's rough-hewn port, gazing at the famous names outside the theater, I have the sensation that something's askew. I look up and down the sidewalk, mainly empty at the weekday supper hour; look back at the signatures; and then it hits me. The cement blocks in front of the Nordic look much more recent than the rest of the sidewalk. In fact, they look far too new to be authentic. It takes an hour of inquiries, but finally the editor of The U. P. Action Shopper News illuminates me. Back in 1959 a number of Marquette's most influential townspeople deemed the movie Anatomy of a Murder risqué because of its focus on the Remick character's panties, which were trotted out and used as sensational evidence in the courtroom scenes. Soon after the sidewalk blocks with the offending signatures were cast, Marquette's scandalized town fathers came together and decreed that they must never see the light of day, at least within a country mile of the city's prim and proper main street (overlooking, I'm told, a whole row of waterfront taverns and whorehouses). Fortunately, a forward-looking local farmer rescued the inscribed slabs from the demolition ball and stashed them away in his barn, where they languished in ignominy until 1986, when they were rediscovered, brought out into the light, and installed in front of the Nordic. And so it came to pass that for twenty-seven years the delicate sensibilities of this wide-open shipping town were preserved from the Babylonian influence of Jimmy Stewart's name on Main Street, small-town Victorianism having prevailed over small-town boosterism.
Thus enlightened, I move on west along the route of the voyageurs, deep into iron-ore country, laughing to think how tickled John Voelker must have been by this splendid instance of the blue-nosed hypocrisy he poked fun at throughout his distinguished literary and legal careers in the harsh and beautiful Upper Peninsula.
Copyright © 1997 by Howard Frank Mosher. All rights reserved.