Climbing the Bear
It is late afternoon and the smell of exhaust mixed with sweat swirls around my head as the bus rumbles along the two-lane highway. The dirty, half-opened window offers no comfort as my head bounces against it, but still, my eyes are getting heavy. The heat and humidity cannot dull the excited, shrill voices of a group of sixth graders returning back to school after a glorious, but exhausting day climbing up the treacherous Sleeping Bear Dunes in Empire, Michigan.
The coolers that once held our PB & J and tuna fish sandwiches are now empty and much to our chaperones dismay, we have moved on to our treasured souvenir shop candy. The old fashioned candy sticks (Root beer was my favorite), Slo Pokes, candy buttons and red, white & blue suckers are being passed around, and kids are bouncing off the old bus seats like grasshoppers.
As I admire my newly purchased Petoskey stone earrings in my hand, I smile and think about my day. Earlier that morning, I had handed over my permission slip to the teacher almost too excitedly and then tried to tone it down just in case they thought I had better stay behind and do some math. Heads were being counted, sandwiches were tossed in coolers and warnings about misbehavior were being handed out. It was almost too much to stay in control.
Once you stepped onto the bus, you had to make a decision. Who was where? Obviously, you wanted to be by the boy who tells you you’re gross, but clearly is in love with you, and also, be seated with your best friend. It is quite a conundrum. Usually, as crappy fate would have it, the cute boys always waited until the end to get on and sat way in the back and you didn’t see them again until you got to the Dunes. Then you were stuck with your friend, talking about the same old stuff, wishing you would have hung out in the bathroom longer.
You gotta hand it to those chaperones. They were doing their best to get us started with fun, yet dumb, camp songs to sing the whole way there. But, like a bus filled with drunk adults on their way to a wedding reception, it always goes awry. And being that we were a Catholic school, our adult supervision was not approving of our “99 bottles of beer on the wall” singing. Where on EARTH did we learn such a vile song?
Beer bottles aside, seeing the dunes in the distance was exhilarating. 110 feet of pure mile high freedom. No books, no teachers, and endless amounts of sand. That massive pile of dirt meant flirting with boys and gossip that would be passed around in note form for months. Did I really want to exert myself trudging up that fat mountain for a spectacular view of Lake Michigan? Hmm. Not really. Did it matter that this massive pile of sand was nestled along thirty five-miles of beautiful Lake Michigan? Did it matter that you could take the gorgeous Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive that overlooked some of the most unique scenery? Or that you could go to Inspiration Point and view the Manitou Islands, Alligator Hill and a view of the Glen Lakes? Nope. When you are in the sixth grade, all that matters is sitting close to the boy you have a crush on, you are not in school learning ANYTHING, and that you will be eating candy all day long from the souvenir shop.
The parking lot was crowded with busses from other schools, station wagons filled with families of tourists and the usual Michigan hippie crowd with their dogs. We unloaded and went through another annoying head count (did somebody fall off the bus while we were in route?) and tried to keep calm before they released us. Once they realized no one had been kidnapped, we were given a set of rules, or “suggestions” as I liked to think of them. Mind your manners, meet back here at noon for lunch, wash your hands when you use the bathroom, blah, blah, blah. Don’t talk to strangers, and most importantly, Pray to God to help you up that mountain.
My first pit stop was always the souvenir shop. Not to buy anything yet, but to see what I had to look forward to. My girlfriends and I would browse quickly, noting that the candy we would require later was fully in stock. The “Sleeping Bear” pins, necklaces and bracelets were there, ready to be adorned. Petoskey stone memorabilia as far as the eye could see. Everything was in order, time to climb.
The problem with going into the shop first was that you immediately lost track of the boys. Flash forward to the future, boys don’t stick around to shop! They were already racing to climb up the dunes. Who would get there first? Who would shove who into the sand first to get ahead? Boys were clearly ridiculous, but we needed to find them.
The initial step into the sand is like stepping onto molten rocks. It is always scorching hot, rough and hard. I considered for a moment, REALLY? I didn’t do well in gym class and now I had to climb 110 feet of hot sand and for what?
But as the sand oozed through my toes and eventually cooled down, I thought, this isn’t so bad. I could see the back ends of the boys I was after and my pace picked up. There were random sized rocks, or “fossils” as the park people like to call them that wedged in between my big and second toe as I climbed. The sky was bright blue and full of sun and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my day.
Halfway up, my calves started to ache and the sun was beating down on us. When was lunch again? We giggled and talked about girl stuff and fought our way up through a rumbling stomach. We finally made our way to the top and the boys were already there. Oddly enough, they seemed to be waiting for us. Breathing embarrassingly heavy, we plopped down onto the sand and tried to act cool. The view was beautiful. Waves of crisp blue water lapped from Lake Michigan onto the shore and a cool breeze relieved us from the harsh ascent. We dug our fingers into the sand around us and the tiny granules flowed through them like the water surrounding us. I felt peaceful and thoughts about the story of the “sleeping bear” under the sand made me feel as if we weren’t alone.
Legend has it that a mother bear and her cubs ran from a Wisconsin forest fire by trying to swim to Michigan. The mother made it, but the cubs did not. She waited on the sandy shore for her cubs. The Great Spirit then took pity on her and raised her cubs up from the depths, forming North and South Manitou islands.
As nice as that was, in contrast, the boys were acting like idiots and I realized then that they were definitely different than girls. They were throwing sand into the air and wrestling each other to the ground, trying to impress us while my girlfriends and I oohed and ahhed at the beauty surrounding us. We sighed, rolled our eyes, and headed back down the hill to eat lunch and to the souvenir shop to get our goods.
I put my head back against the window and smile again. The bus driver’s eyes dart in the mirror from the road to the seats of aggravating kids and the tires continue their tread down the road. I know that I will have to solve a math problem on the board tomorrow and will have to go to another Bible class, but for now, I had my new fossil earrings and an adventure to remember.