Last February, Chicago looked like this:
and my house looked like this:
I was working on line edits for The Princesses of Iowa, which I’d imagined would look like this:
…but which, unfortunately, looked a lot more like this:
So when some friends of mine suggested we rent a cabin in Michigan for a weekend writers’ retreat, I was in.
The other women were both working on their dissertations, and I imagined a long, luxurious weekend of companionable silence and hard work.
And wine, of course.
Marisol came down from Minneapolis, and we drove from Chicago to Michigan together. We got to our cabin in early afternoon, an hour or so before Allison was scheduled to arrive from Indiana. The afternoon was cold but sunny, which in February counts as “spring-like” in the minds of Midwesterners. So we decided to take a walk on the beach.
It was kind of hard to find the beach under all that snow, but we got there eventually.
There were giant sand dunes shaped by wind and snow. We climbed them, feeling like intrepid explorers, then crossed a wide icy plain and climbed a second row of icy sand dunes. From the top of this second ridge, we could see the waves of Lake Michigan lashing against the bottom of our dune, freezing and eroding and re-freezing the dunes with every splash.
After a few minutes, it occurred to us that the dune itself was being eroded, which meant that the ice dune we were standing on was itself shaped like a wave, with the underside hollowed out by water.
In other words: not actually that safe.
We climbed back down the dune and headed across the wide, snowy plain that stretched between the two dune ranges. We were maybe halfway across when it occurred to us that we might not, in fact, be walking across ice-covered sand, but ice-covered freezing Lake Michigan water instead.
About a minute after that, I fell through the ice.
I should mention here that I was wearing Mary Jane crocs.
Why, you ask? Well, there are a number of reasons, but they all basically boil down to a) I hadn’t been planning to go ice hiking, and b) I’m an idiot.
As I struggled to pull my legs out from the frozen lake, one of my crocs slipped off and disappeared under the ice.
So then I got to plunge my arm back into the icy water to rescue it.
After that, we made our way carefully across the ice field toward the second set of dunes and then the snowy beach. Marisol, as it turns out, is some kind of ice goat who managed to stay on top of the snow’s thin crust all the way back.
I, on the other hand, fell in several more times.
By the time we got back to the cabin, I was shivering and wet, and needed to change clothes and throw everything in the dryer before I could do anything else.
Then Allison arrived, bearing food and wine, and Marisol and I ran down to help her bring everything in from her car. Passing my car in the driveway, I asked, “Does that look flat to you?”
Allison reassured me that she’d changed hundreds of tires, and that we’d take care of it in no time. I wanted to take care of it before it got dark, in case something went wrong, so we set to work. We put logs behind the tires so the car wouldn’t roll back down the hill, and then set the jack under the front tire, congratulating ourselves all the while for being such awesome, strong, capable women.
We pulled the spare tire out of the trunk.
It was also flat.
We called a bunch of mechanics to see if one might be able to help us, and finally found one who promised to keep his shop open long enough for us to pile the flat tires in Allison’s car and come on in.
So we jacked up the car and attempted to get the flat tire off. Except we couldn’t, because the lug nuts were totally rusted on. OF COURSE THEY WERE. We did everything we could think of to get them off. We covered them in WD-40, used all our strength, even tried standing on the wrench. Nothing worked.
By this time it was after six and getting dark. We’d been checking in with the mechanic by phone but he was losing patience with us. We sighed, packed it all up, and decided to deal with it in the morning.
That night, we made a beautiful dinner of homemade pizza, salad, and lots of wine. We built a great fire in the stone fireplace and drank lots of wine. We didn’t write, but we talked about writing, and our goals for the weekend. The three of us hadn’t been in the same room together in probably ten years, so of course we had to catch up, and then tell stories about the old days. But we’d write in the morning.
The next morning, Allison and I loaded the flat spare into her car and drove to the next town, where a nice old man answered our questions about how we might get the other flat off the car. We needed a special kind of wrench, he said. Go see my buddy down at the hardware store, he said. Tell him Earl sent you.
We did, and we did. We got a giant fancy wrench, extra long with extra something that was supposed to give us more leverage as we tried to get the lug nuts off the car.
And then we spent an hour sitting in the lounge of the mechanic’s shop, watching Fox News.
Of course, this was just when the protests in Wisconsin were beginning to heat up. I’m from Wisconsin, and my mom’s a county social worker whose job was being directly affected by the Walker bill, so let’s just say I had some strong feelings about the whole situation, feelings that didn’t exactly mesh with Fox News.
As Allison and I sat there, becoming more and more crazed with rage, we also began to feel more and more like outsiders. Here we were, a couple of very well educated super liberal city girls sitting in a small-town Firestone in western Michigan.
Lots of tongue-biting, is what I’m saying.
By mid-afternoon we were back at the cabin with one repaired non-flat spare tire and a big fancy wrench. Marisol came out and once again, the three of us attempted to get the lug nuts off.
The big fancy wrench broke in under a minute.
We called Triple A, and they said they’d send a dude out to help us. While we waited, we talked about the absurdity of the situation. Allison and I told Marisol about Fox news. We may have started to drink.
Finally, Mr. Triple A showed up to help. Mr. Triple A was a giant dude who laughed at our jokes. We liked him immediately. But he couldn’t get the tire off the car.
I started to make plans in my head. Plans about how I’d just live in this cabin from now on. How maybe in the spring I’d push my car into the lake and hitchhike back into the city. How I’d just be carless now.
Mr. Triple A got a very large wrench from his truck, fixed it on the lug nuts, and then jumped on it until he got them off.
“That’s how you do it,” he told us.
“Oh, is that all?” we asked. How obvious! We could have gotten the darn thing off right away if one of us were a 300 pound giant man!
By the time Mr. Triple A packed up and left, it was time for dinner, so we headed into our cabin, cooked ourselves a lovely dinner, built a beautiful fire, and drank another few bottles of wine.
On Sunday, we wrote. It was everything I’d imagined: all three of us, spread throughout the room in companionable silence, working hard at our respective tasks.
An hour later, we packed up the car and headed back to Chicago. I’d made it through approximately three pages of line edits.
M. Molly Backes
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