August 31, 2011

The Upper Peninsula

I love the UP. A few years ago, I decided I hadn't been up there in too long and flew solo, going through the Pictured Rocks and the Porkies, before taking a route of questionable directness home through Duluth and Minneapolis. I saw no bears. Last year, I went up with my friend Josh and brother-in-law Jon. We again hiked the Pictured Rocks, but spent the remainder of our trip tooling around in the beautiful Huron Mountains northwest of Marquette, finding waterfalls and swimming in them. We again saw no bears. But I did come home with poison ivy.

And this year, it was Dad's turn to accompany me on what has now become an annual pilgrimage. Let me start off by saying we didn't see any bears. We did, however, see a coyote trotting off the road, and got a pretty good view of a bald eagle.

Dad, I think, had never seen one in the wild before and he was thoroughly impressed. I'd never seen one this close, but at camp a few years ago I saw one come flying in from a long way away, all glorious and majestic, wings flapping beautifully, soaring in the Michigan breeze, only to be annoyingly buzzed off by a couple of seagulls. It was beautiful, then disappointing. This time, though, we walked along the beach, pausing every few steps to get a closer picture. They really are beautiful birds.

The UP seems like a place where nature generally wins the battle. We stayed at Fort Wilkins, up at the tip-top of the Keweenaw Peninsula. If you take the road to the west, you can creep up Brockway Mountain and on a clear day see Isle Royale 50 miles out (we hit it on just such a day.)

(this view from Brockway Mountain does not show Isle Royale, which for the record is where I want my next venture to da UP to be.)

At Copper Harbor, they started a fort to protect the miners in Copper Country during the copper boom back in the 1840s. But it didn't last long and they shut it down. Everyone, it seems, got pretty bored. You get a real sense of this walking around the restored buildings on the fort grounds. The area is beautiful, but only if you're into that whole beautiful nature thing. There's not a whole lot else to do up there. The reputation of Michigan Tech, 50 miles to the south of Copper Harbor, and the rest of the UP for that matter, is that people drink for entertainment in the wintertime. They drink to stay warm too, I guess. This seems to have been true for the troops at that fort, judging by the stuff on the historical markers at the park. Yoopers have embraced it.

Apart from Marquette, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of commerce. The only thing to live on is what has been there for a really, really long time - natural resources. In the 1800s they mined copper. In the 1900s it was the iron industry and logging. Now, there's still a lot of logging (and paper mills to coincide) and tourism - people who pretty much just want to see nature. And lighthouses. (I still don't really see their appeal. Sorry, lighthouse apologists.)

The UP, I've heard, has 33% of Michigan's land and only 3% of its population. That means 97% of Michiganders are trolls (who live under the bridge.) You get a real sense for this as you drive the highways. First, there aren't all that many. There are huge tracts of land away from the highways that most people will never see without a snowmobile or a 4-wheeler. Second, the highways are lined with ghost towns, many of which have dead tourism efforts. And these, actually, are some of the most fascinating spots in the UP. Why did people ever live here? Where'd they go? What did they leave behind?

No question, I love the UP. As dad and I drove around, we realized that we were visiting some places that most Americans - and even most Michiganders - will never, ever see. I don't know many people who've been as far north as Copper Harbor, or as far west as the Porcupine Mountains, or hiked the trails of the Pictured Rocks. And that's kind of a shame because they're some of the most beautiful places in our wonderful state.

You should go see them.

August 18, 2011

Anecdotal evidence

Yesterday I got a call from Pastor Gary at Rush Creek Bible Church, the church I grew up in and the one I still consider my "home church," though I've been gone for years, it seems. Since tonight is the Men for Missions Steak Fry, they asked me to come and share a short story about what God has been doing in Puerto Rico. I told him sure, I'd be happy to - After all: Public speaking is no longer a big deal for me. (Sidenote: Public speaking is still a big deal for me.)

And so I immediately started to think about what I would share. I get one story, one anecdote from the summer, and I need to make it count. And as I cycled through my memories from my time so far in Puerto Rico, I started to realize that most of my big impressions have to do with my personal growth. I need to get up in front of these guys and share something about the ministry, a story about where I saw God doing big things in the lives of the kids, counselors, others around the ministry.

And the thing is...

I'm struggling to come up with one.

That doesn't mean God didn't do big things. It just means I didn't see a lot of them firsthand. Maybe there's a disconnect somewhere. I know our counselors have some big things they would share, and I wish they could be here to do it. As a program director, especially in my first year, I spent a lot of time planning, putting out fires, preparing the next thing, processing the last thing, recovering, sweating, cleaning, thinking. And that doesn't leave a lot of time to be actively involved in the present. In other words, not a lot of time in direct heart-to-heart perfect-for-a-story-back-home ministry. I spent a lot of time trying to make sure everything was right for others to do that, but not a whole lot doing that myself.

To some extent, that is the job of the director - you're supposed to make sure that the goals are met, let others handle the tasks. I would be a terrible micromanager. But I still think that somewhere along the way, I would have gotten a pretty good anecdote to share.

There are anecdotes. There are naughty kids, crazy games - and confusing ones, the kid who puked during Fear Factor, the darnedest things kids said, and other summer camp anomalies. Generally, the stuff that goes wrong makes for better stories. It's low-hanging fruit when it comes to reflection. But it doesn't always make for inspiring stuff for the folks back home.

And so I think, in the 2-3 minutes I get, I won't be sharing just one small touching anecdote, but one big one - that we had a good summer, that kids learned that they need to live fearlessly as followers of Christ, that a few made decisions to turn their lives to Him for the first time, and that they had a lot of fun doing it.

And, of course, that nobody got seriously injured in the process.

August 16, 2011

While home

I wondered if there was going to be significant culture shock being back in Michigan after being in PR for 7 straight months.

I am happy to report: Not really. Not that bad. I've been enjoying the lack of humidity. Michigan in the summer is a good place to be, though everyone tells me it was wicked humid a few weeks ago before I got here.

I have yet to get into Lake Michigan, and enjoy a body of water without salt creeping into all of my nicks and cuts and flavoring my lips.

I've been able to visit my home-away-from-home at Grace Adventures. And in so doing, pitched in at Unityfest where I manned the Gaga pit and did some belaying at the climbing wall before I saw the Newsboys. I almost met them afterward, and would have were it not for the fact that to meet them, ya gotta have some merch in hand for them to sign. Still, great show.

I also saw Willie Nelson in concert, and though that wasn't on my bucket list or anything, and I hadn't planned on it until the day before, you generally don't pass up an opportunity to see a legend in concert, especially when it's free. Willie Nelson, for the record, is short. And downtown Grand Rapids made for an almost-perfect venue on a nearly perfect day.

I shot 9 holes with two good friends yesterday. It my first time on the course in, I think, two years. I might have gotten out once last year. I crushed my first drive and finished with a 50. For the record I cannot remember ever shooting under 50, so I was pleased.

We went over to one of their houses after and watched the Tigers game. I'll be going to at least one and hopefully two while I'm home. This is a good year for them. I can't wait to see them in person again.

I'm trying, at the advice of a friend who has been overseas and come home for a month, not to do too much in the time that I'm home. I need some rest. Some me time. Some get-fed time - I'm going to have to make sure to spend some time in The Word. So this week is primarily an open book, get up when I want, get a little bit of work done - not too much - hit the bicycle to pedal around Jenison.

I've had the chance to answer "how's Puerto Rico?" about 100 times. I have a script in my head now. But being home, being away, gives you a chance to reflect on things in a way that you can't while you're in the thick of it. You only get really good perception after the fact. I added up my hours the other day for the month of July, just thinking about how much I worked. I figure I worked a 70 hour week, an 80 hour week, and a 95 hour week in there. I think I got two real days off that month. And I was wiped out at the end of it. It's no wonder our counselors were too. The hours, though.... That's part of the gig and you can't escape it. By design, summer camp is a crazy, busy season. I think I bankrolled a few days off in that time.

And so now, I'm taking much needed time off with some people I've missed. Just being at home at night, doing nothing... I think that fills me up.

August 10, 2011

Travelogue: August 9, 2011

Yesterday ended up being a rough day of travel, and I guess this is the sort of thing you're supposed to blog about. It definitely could have been a lot worse, but I don't know if the day could have been longer. So here's a timeline of my day:

5:30 am - Rise n' shine. I had wisely packed everything the night before, but had some trouble sleeping. When the alarm went off I got right up.

6:00 am - Hit the road. The drive to the airport from CDC usually takes about an hour and 20 minutes, but with San Juan traffic you should budget at least two hours.

8:00 am - Arrive at the airport. I promptly received a phone call that one of my flights had been cancelled, but no worries - they'd rerouted me through Detroit and would actually get me into Grand Rapids sooner. I passed through security pretty quickly - was treated to the full body scan - and on the other side, called my dad with the good news.

9:45 am - In the air. Open seat next to me = legroom. They showed Water for Elephants and, being the huge Robert Pattinson fan I am, I was riveted.

1:45 pm - Land at JFK, where they have this:

That's a Best Buy vending machine. I could have bought an iPod from one vending machine, taken a few steps, and bought a Fanta from another. I guess this makes sense as a business model. I mean, Best Buy wants an airport presence, but doesn't really want to staff it or pay a lot of rent, so cram a few things in a vending machine and let the disposable income roll in. I felt like a total hick standing there taking a picture of a vending machine, marveling at the technology and novelty of it. Of course I didn't buy anything from it. Turns out the JFK airport is a pretty expensive place.

2:30 - Lunch time. After surveying all of my options, I chose a meal at Wendy's. Cost: $10. Had I wanted a Snapple, that would have been an additional $3.69. I think it's the perfect storm of having a captive audience and being in a place where the cost of living is ridiculously high.

Also, JFK airport - at least the Delta terminal - is crowded and short on seating. Not a great experience for the average traveler. They're going to redo the terminal, and I think they're doing it with Snapple profits.

3:00 - I rest my eyes for a little bit in an empty corner of the terminal, but not for too long. Better to stay awake, lest I conk out and miss the boarding call.

4:50 - Original departure time for Detroit.

5:30 - Revised departure time

5:51 - Revised departure time again.

6:27 - Final revised departure time. All that while, I really could have left the airport. But how was I supposed to know? I spent those hours wandering around the terminal, watching my departure time get later and later, thinking that it was increasingly clear I'd never make that connection from Detroit to Grand Rapids that was supposed to get me into town at 8:40. Also, one thing they don't have in Puerto Rico is good brewed unsweetened Iced Tea. I found it at Starbucks for $2.40 which, compared to a $3.69 Snapple, seems like a steal.

6:35 - We actually board the plane. And we do it out on the tarmac. Walked out there, up the steps, not using some fancy gate apparatus. That's fine with me, though, because it gave me a chance to feel for the first time in a bunch of months an atmosphere not saturated with humidity. But then, even after almost 2 hours of delay in the airport, we spent the next two hours sitting on the runway, waiting for fuel and for traffic to clear up. The guy in front of me said this happens all the time at JFK. He was flying with his little cousin who kept asking if we had taken off yet, if we were there yet, that sort of thing. Finally he told him "We're not actually going leave today. We're gonna take off tomorrow morning."

8:30 - Lift-off. Finally, we're in the air on the way to my beloved Michigan. Not a terribly long flight, at an hour and a half. But had everything gone according to plan I would have been descending on Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids right then.

10:00 - We land in Detroit. DTW, for what it's worth, has a really nice Delta terminal. It's clean, wide open, the stuff there isn't quite so expensive, it's laid out pretty simply, and there are lots of seats. And they have a neat fountain. I've decided I appreciate DTW. Since I didn't have much time to make my connection, I sprinted to a monitor and found out that the last Grand Rapids flight, which was supposed to leave at 10:25, was departing from another terminal. More sprinting.

10:10 - I step up to a gate where everyone is just standing around with no sense of urgency. What I hadn't noticed on the Departure screen was that this flight was delayed until 12:10 am. They had a seat for me. I ask the lady if I can score a meal voucher because of the delays. She says no, they don't give them out if it's weather related. I won't hassle her. There were tons of delays on the day and I don't want to be the grumpapotamus demanding she put right what Mother Nature was largely - but not solely - responsible for screwing up.

10:20 - Suddenly with lots of time to spare, I find a customer service rep at another gate and give him a more detailed account of my day - cancelled flight, delay at the reroute, delay now here - and he was more than happy to give me $12 in vouchers for meals. The McDonald's employee encourages me to use every last dime of it, so I walk away with a full meal, two apple pies, and a Diet Pepsi for the road. Forgot the napkins, though.

12:15am - We board the plane to Grand Rapids. I'm in a sleepy kind of funk. I've been up for 19 hours. Just get me home.

1:00 am - We take off. They announce the flight is 19 minutes.

1:05 am - "Flight attendants, please prepare the cabin for landing."

1:19 am - We land. The terminal smells funny. It's a familiar smell, not a good one, but not too offensive.

1:30 am - Hello mom and dad. Lots of hugs. No balloons, no crowds, no singing, just a perfect little moment.

1:40 am - bags in hand, we walk out to the car. The air is cool. It's been more than 20 hours, and it's good to be home.

August 8, 2011

Excited to fly

Tomorrow, I get to fly the friendly skies, and I'm excited.

I get to visit the airport and witness the spectacle of thousands of people dispersing out into the world. Oh, the places they'll go! Where did they come from? Where are they going? What brought them here? What takes them there? (answer: airplanes. Airplanes do that.)

Check-in is super easy these days. Their friendly staff will keep the lines moving - all I need is my confirmation number.

The views from airplanes are always fantastic. On the first leg, I'll see Manhattan as I land at JFK. On the second... Cincinnati. Cincinnati, Ohio. Yessir, the 'nati. On the third, the fine, familiar streets of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

I'll ride in mild luxury, my mind at ease as the trusty folks at Delta carefully and respectfully ensure that my luggage makes all of its connections. They'll bring me my complimentary beverage, maybe some peanuts or pretzels, and I'll drift off to sleep.

Maybe I'll get bumped up into first class!

Maybe I'll sit by someone famous!

Of course, all of that excitement will come crashing down tomorrow when I confront the reality of flying.

I'll rise at 5:30 am, shower, scarf down some breakfast, and hit the road with Markus and my bags, fight San Juan rush hour traffic to get to the airport by 8. After the check-in, I'll be at the mercy of the TSA agents. (I'm a big, bearded guy. I don't foresee any... problems.)

Once I'm through, I'll wait until we all bum rush the plane to claim overhead bin space. I'll crouch down in my seat - window seat, otherwise there will be people crawling over me to use the potty the whole way to New York. There won't be a lot of legroom, you have to pay extra for that now.

I'll visit four airports, two of which I have no business being in except for the fact the Delta says I can save $74 if I stop there.

The layover in New York is three hours. That's just enough time to go mad in the airport, but not enough to leave it. I'm gonna find some overpriced food court food. Airports have done away with free Wi-fi. I guess I'll bring a book.

If I start at 6 am tomorrow and count my two hours on the road, I'll spend 16 hours traveling, just to get from the Caribbean to the midwest. (For reference: A direct flight from San Juan to Chicago takes about 4 hours.) When I land in Grand Rapids, I'm going to be exhausted.

But you know what? At the end of the day, I'll see my family for the first time in more than seven months. And for that, I would glad endure tomorrow a hundred times.

I'm coming home.

August 3, 2011

Emily Disappoints

One of the things I hope I'll experience here is a hurricane. The locals, I assume, think I'm stupid. Hurricanes are bad, they're disasters. Don't wish for hurricanes. Don't wish for disasters.

I'd also kind of like to see a tornado. I've had lots of dreams about tornadoes. I rate them scarier and more unpredictable than hurricanes, based mostly on my experience with them in dreams. One minute, you're whitewashing a fence with your buddies from your little league team, then there are some raindrops, then you're driving home for shelter, watching the thing take shape in the sky, then you stop to see some people from your Biology class and, oh yeah, that tornado, gotta go guys, and it's bearing down on you from behind and you get to thinking - I'm finally going to see a real tornado in REAL life and it's not a drea-

Dang it.

Still haven't seen a real tornado in real life. My dad has, I think, but he grew up in Iowa where tornadoes grew on trees. So of course he has.

Tornadoes sneak up and destroy things, lots of things, whatever things they please. They'll devour a whole block of houses and leave a single one untouched. Because they can. Then they disappear. They're phantoms. They're loco, ese.

Hurricanes, they give you plenty of warning. (So I hear.) They start, get huge, then wobble a little bit and head toward land all big and dangerous. They wreck everything, stick around for a few days then burn out somewhere over Georgia.

If tornadoes are the crazy junkies of the weather-world, hurricanes are the big, depressed lumberjacks.

I guess.

But anyway, living in the tropics, the prospect of a hurricane roaring up on shore - I sleep about 40 feet from the Caribbean - before I head back to the Midwest is pretty intriguing. I picture it sounding like a freight train rolling through camp, everyone huddled inside playing monopoly by candlelight, bonding. Living through a hurricane would make a great story. People in Michigan don't know nothing bout no hurricanes.

So I really want to see one. And this storm showed up on the watch list, far away, 90% of the way to a tropical storm before reaching the Lesser Antilles - those little Caribbean islands people take cruises to, the ones that curl down to South America - with plenty of time to turn itself into a hurricane and find its way onshore here. I got my hopes all up. People poo-pooed it, saying it would most likely miss us. They usually do. Still, I knew there was always a chance. No telling what a depressed lumberjack is capable of.

She became a storm and got her name, Emily. They don't name boring storms, do they? This should be good.

She stayed down, crossed all those tiny islands and spilled into the Caribbean. So far, so good.

Then she stayed right out there to sea, almost out of sight, not doing anything remotely interesting. Her clouds brought us rain, but she didn't blow down any palm trees or anything.

Had I not had my ears intricately attuned to the scuttlebutt at the local watering hole (AKA El Frappe) and had I not been keenly watching the NWS Atlantic loop, I probably would never have known that whatever passed over us/by us was a tropical storm. Sure, we only got her slightest, farthest reach, but I saw enough to know that this was a supreme let down.

And so my thirst lives on. Hurricane season is yet quite young, and though I'm heading back to Michigan for a month next week, I'll be back for much of September and October.

I'll be waiting.


I took this picture while PR was under a Tropical Storm warning (clicking makes it big):