Crossing the Big Lake
I can remember two things that shook my sense of size when I was a kid. One was the Ford Rotunda in Detroit. Like thousands of other families, we went there to see the Christmas display – before it burned down. The other world shaker for me was the fleet of Ann Arbor Railroad ferries – mammoth ships that carried entire freight trains across Lake Michigan. I didn’t have any idea what big was about until I saw those ships.
The railroad ferries also carried passengers across the Big Lake, from Northern Michigan to Northern Wisconsin and back. These ships were so foreign to our experience, that my friend Deeg (that was his name at the time; it keeps changing) speculated that a ticket to Wisconsin would certainly cost $100 or more. I happened to know it cost only $10, and began to plot ways of tricking the other $90 out of him. A few years later, Deeg or Doug or Jesse or D.C. or whatever he’s calling himself these days, showed me how to hop freights, and the situation was reversed: he knew stuff I didn’t, like what it meant when the hoses were hooked, and which boxcars would be set out first on a train. To his credit, he never tried to trick me.
As I wrote Wire to Wire, set in the Michigan of my imagination, I knew I had to include the railroad ferries. I discovered it was hard to write about something so big. I found myself putting mammoth in every sentence. The cliché “as long as a football field” kept trying to get in the prose. In the end, I’m not sure I captured how much space they filled up in my head. They were freakin’ big.
Of course, by the time I finished the manuscript, I’d learned it was the small things – words that aren’t said, a touch, a glimpse of loneliness or friendship – that really matter, and that they are even harder to put on the page.
The ferries still stun me though. I’m going back to Michigan this summer – the schedule for the W2W reading tour is up on the Events page – and though the railroad ferries are gone, some of their car ferry cousins still remain. I hope I get a chance to ride them again.
"Swimming in the Big Lake, taking it easy." Bob Seger's "Brave Strangers." You weren't expecting "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," I hope.