Because It Tests Us... Why We Love Lake at Winter

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On just our third visit to the Saugatuck/Douglas area, my partner Gary and I impulsively bought a knotty-pine cottage outside of town. We had immediately become smitten with this little piece of heaven. We fell in love with Lake Michigan with its stunning beaches and vistas with its dunes and forests with our little resort town and its quaint shops, amazing galleries and wonderful restaurants with our little cottage that reminded me of my grandparents' old log cabin where I used to summer as a kid.

OK, let me stop right here and be a bit more specific, a bit more honest: We fell in love with the lake in the summer.

When the temperature and the sunsets and the tanned tourists lull you into an other-world tranquility.

Sure, we drove up to Saugatuck once or twice in the winter from St. Louis. When we saw on The Weather Channel that temperatures were milder and there were sunny skies for driving.

But then we decided to move here. So we could stop running from our rural upbringings and recapture our serenity. So I could write full time. So I could pursue my dream and become the next Henry David Thoreau. So I could create "Wade's Walden."

But my existential pond make that, the whole damn lake was frozen the winter day we moved.

On that moving day, the reality of the lake in winter slapped us hard in the face, just like the stiff northerly breeze that registered 15-below zero. The day we moved my first real winter day at the Lake I slid across our driveway like an Olympic bobsledder, I watched my snot freeze instantaneouly like the icicles off our roof. I stopped and looked around our three acres of woods really, looked around in that reality sort of way, not that dreamy, ooh-isn't-this-so-pretty-on-vacation way, and saw nothing but frozen, dead land.

And then I fell. Again.

We hadn't even unpacked a box, and I already wanted to undo the biggest mistake I'd made since I'd given myself an Ogilvy home perm in high school.

"We can go back right now," I said to Gary, a bit too hopefully. "Truck's still here."

"No, we can't," he answered. "This is for you, Thoreau."

Thoreau wasn't ready.

My first week in the country, this Banana Republic-wearing, catch a Parker Posey independent movie city boy sat inside his little cottage bah-humbugging himself into a dark funk, desperately missing the buzz of urban life and the neighborhood Starbuck's.

For starters, our new, rural home was silent. Eerily, creepily, lose-your-mind silent. No sirens, no highway noises, no neighbors, no car alarms nothing. It was too quiet to work. Too quiet to write. Too quiet to do anything. No resorters within 150 miles. So I sat in our cottage and stared catatonically at the pine walls, creating images out of the knots, actually naming them "Alien," or "Frog," or "Anna Nicole" and then hanging Post-Its with these monikers underneath, like they were paintings on display at the Louvre.

The second week, I stood in my bathroom mirror and tweezed my eyebrows until I looked surprised, nearly crazed, like Bette Davis in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane." I wrote short, nutty, two-sentence letters to friends in the city that simply stated, "I think I saw a Yeti today. Please send me a Henri Bendel candle. I ate four cans of soup by 2 p.m."

Gary truly feared for my sanity and begged our cable and internet providers to make us a priority. Finally, "Big Jim," a 400-pound mountain of a man taken to wearing a curiously tiny conductor's cap, came to saw down trees all around our house to make this possible.

And the day we finally got wireless and DirecTV, the day I became reconnected with the world, it began to snow. Not just snow, mind you, but Kathy Bates-Misery-inspired snow. "Lake-effect snow," I would learn it was called.

Panicked, I trudged my way to "The Little Store," which was, in fact, a very little country store about a half mile from our house. It took me nearly an hour to walk that distance, where, in a depression, I bought four sleeves of cookie dough, two gallons of milk, and for some bizarre reason, a packet of sparkplugs.

I stayed at The Little Store for three hours. I simply didn't want to go home.

The next day, a Saturday, Gary and I were awoken by what we thought was the sound of thunder only to peer out and discover a literal swarm of wild turkeys perched perilously high in our surrounding pines. They rumbled and squawked, and eventually flapped very unglamorously down outside our windows to feed on corn we'd scattered for the birds. And though these wild turkeys were downright ugly, they were also stunningly beautiful. They began to remind me why I had moved to the lake. Because nature's beauty literally enveloped us.

That morning, as wet flakes of snow continued to fall, Gary and I, accompanied by our 80-pound salvage mutt Marge, made our way out into the winter weather and played like children, strutted around just like those wild turkeys.

The next day, which turned sunny and brilliant, we made our way into town, where we were the only ones in our favorite coffee shop. We sat in overstuffed chairs for two hours, reading newspapers and magazines, chatting with a few locals who stopped in, feeling as if we, for once, not only owned the entire town but also actually belonged here.

I thought I had turned the corner, but then it was Monday again, and I was alone no co-workers around to gossip about the weekend, or talk about "Big Brother." My funk returned. I watched all-day marathons of "Green Acres" and "Match Game." I didn't shower. I wanted to shop in a mall and buy pointy shoes and drink no-fat white mochas. I wanted my life back.

The next weekend, as I tossed and turned and stayed covered in bed, Gary pulled the covers back, and said, "It's time to see the water."

I muttered something inappropriate and offensive, like Sarge used to utter to Beetle Bailey, and was promptly shoved to the ground. I put on longjohns and a turtleneck and a parka and gloves, and Gary drove me to Oval Beach.

"This is our summer routine," he said. "And now it's our winter routine."

We stumbled onto the windblown beach just as the sun was beginning to break out. I pulled the hood of my parka down and, quite literally, gasped. The vista was stunning, the antithesis of summer, but still breathtaking in its own right, like visiting Alaska. There were mini-glaciers stacked along the shore, waves lapping and freezing atop one another. It was eerily silent, a solid sheet of ice extending far into the lake, quieting the sound of the freezing waves that struggled to come to shore. It was also eerily beautiful, a blue-black ice palace. We walked along this sandy corridor, protected on one side by the ice and on the other by the snowy dunes, the sand still whistling under our feet, just like it did in the summer. And we turned to look at each other and said, without actually saying a word, "This is breathtaking. This is where we belong."

That scene that simple view of the Lake, which I would quickly discover could miraculously transform and mutate its image, depending on the season, like a liquid Gwen Stefani literally blew me out of my funk, reminded me why we moved to the Lake in the first place. It wasn't about what I was missing. It was about what I wasn't embracing. It was about simplicity, not being simple, a clouded perspective I had carried over from my rural childhood.

We embraced the rest of our first winter, learning to cross-country ski along dunes that overlooked sparkling lakes. We stood under pines dusted with snow and then shook them until Poof! we were covered. We made S'mores inside over our old stove, and watched deer frolic and birds chirp as we drank hot chocolate on our screened porch, our bodies covered with blankets.

We became children again.

And while I know I will always welcome summer with open arms, like a crazed castaway who finally gets a visitor to his forgotten island, I also know that I will make my way into our woods just like I did this past summer in search of cool and quiet and sprawl my body under our row of giant cottonwood trees. I will wait for a strong warm wind to come and blow the cotton, which will drift down over me like summer snow. And I will look up and fool myself, pretend it is winter, knowing it's just a few months until I can become a child again, until the lake is all mine.