By DAVID ROMPF
It’s mid-January, and I’ve come to northern Michigan to see a frozen river layered with fresh snow. On winter days, a long time ago, a young woman skated across this river to be with the man she would eventually marry. She lived in Hancock, a town draped on hills opposite my vantage point in Houghton, which sits on highland and spills, like its sister, to the Portage River. Her beau lived on the Houghton side and worked in a hotel with cupolas and a grand ballroom, two blocks up from where I stand observing the expanse of ice. I can’t understand how she skated after a snowfall, or in bitter wind and blizzard whiteouts. Maybe it’s easier than I imagine, the new accumulation a minor obstacle on the way to her sweetheart. Or maybe there’s an area upriver, near the lift-bridge, where the blanket is swept away by gusts hurled from the west-pointing claw of Lake Superior. One hundred and ten inches of snow have already fallen in the easternmost part of the Upper Peninsula this winter; several inches remain on the river. Traversing on foot would require snowshoes if not skates, but I am unprepared either way.
I’ve travelled here from New York via Chicago, two worlds away, stepping into deep pristine powder while my aunt and uncle sit in their sleek pick-up truck, with seats warmed at the push of a button. I see no one on the river, not a skater or a thrill walker, not a paramour or a seeker of any kind. Here and there, wisps of snow swirl upward like bursts of crystallized smoke.
I’ve rafted down the Rio Grande, lived on the banks of the River Thames, panned for gold in the American River of the Sierra foothills, swam naked in the Klamath and kayaked up the Wailua, but more than any other river, it’s the Portage that courses through my imagination: the girl wakes early or slips away from school, strides down the hill, hurries her feet into skates, and glides across to Houghton. On a cloudless afternoon the glorious white river glints with melt, but the skater has learned to judge the thickness of ice. Up here, the sub-zero days come soon and often, but no temperature is too low for her, and no amount of wind disrupts her routine. Once she steps on the ice, she is free and flying as close to Earth’s surface as any bird seeking prey, her petite but sturdy figure composed against the fiercest season. In my mind she has made an art of carving a path. Back and forth for the rendezvous, and for a club sandwich in the hotel’s restaurant or a malted shake in the downtown diner. Back and forth every day: a disciplined rhythm of desire, pushing away from her land-bound existence. Did the Houghton boy ever skate over to Hancock to see his girl? No one knows the answer.
I’m obsessed with this story because it is the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard. Obsessed too because the skater from Hancock and the boy from Houghton were my grandparents. Although their son—my father—died exactly a year before my visit, I continue to hear his voice tell the tale. During winter’s arctic clutch, romance and grief have delivered me to this river.
On the banks of the Portage, I stand on territory that once belonged to the Ojibwa, also known as the Chippewa. Before wars, forced removals, and cessionary treaties, their domain once stretched from the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, down through North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and almost all the land and water of current-day Michigan. According to several sources, one meaning of the tribal name is “those who keep records of a vision,” a reference to the Ojibwa tradition of etching pictographs on birch bark scrolls to capture observations about astronomy and the seasons—and to document stories passed down through oral history.
From the first time my father mentioned his mother’s skating, the story seemed legendary, an enchanting myth I struggled to grasp as truth. I envisioned the river as a boundless, daunting ocean. Later he introduced to the story a mesmerizing detail. “Her skates were wooden!” he said, tilting his head in disbelief. “Can you imagine that?” My grandmother’s over-the-river courting began around 1915, a time before the existence of nearly every convenience at our current disposal. I tried to conjure how wooden blades could carry anyone over a span of ice; the idea seemed as ancient as a horse-drawn carriage. From research I later learned that my grandmother’s blades were actually fashioned of steel attached to wood platforms—leather straps nailed or screwed into the base wrapped around her ankles and toes, securing her shoes—a distinction my father never made clear. Earlier versions of these skates originated in Holland and further evolved in Scandinavia, but the very first skates, discovered in the region that is now Finland, were made of horse and sheep bone.
My grandmother’s skates would now be collectibles in the marketplace for nostalgia. I’ve spent hours browsing in online curio shops, studying skates that probably resemble hers. The specimens appear rustic, hand-made. With a couple of clicks and a credit card I could own a pair of “Antique Wooden Strap-On Ice Skates, Very Good Condition” for seventy-nine dollars. The seller, as if to tantalize, includes this note in his listing: “Could still be used.” I returned to those skates several times and stared at the picture, zooming in and out, and finally answering the call to action: add to cart. But when and where would I use them? On Wollman Rink in Central Park, with the city’s hard edges as backdrop? Or when the narrative, as unfinished lore, lures me back again to trace my grandmother’s course on the Portage? Seventy-nine dollars is not much to try on an accessory of her desire, but in truth those skates would never fit.
Where I stand, the Portage is about a quarter mile wide, and wider in spots upriver and down. Flowing in from Lake Superior, it slices between the mainland of the Upper Peninsula and Copper Island, which is stacked with Hancock’s storefronts and houses, and continues to flow eastward into Portage Lake, with bays named Torch and Dollar, before emptying through a narrow canal into Keweenaw Bay. Nestled on the bay’s southern shore, thirty miles east of the Portage River, is L’Anse, a township of two thousand people where my mother and father lived after they married. I was born there in a one-story hospital with two wings containing a few rooms along each corridor; the building now houses the Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College. Part of the township lies within the L’Anse Indian Reservation spread over ninety-two noncontiguous square miles.
One winter day in L’Anse, after my mother bundled me in a snowsuit of puffy nylon, my father took me on a sled ride through town, continuing to the bay, which, though it did not always freeze sufficiently to support human weight, had been transformed that year into a vast polar moorland dotted with ice-fishing huts. Beyond my father’s ranging curiosity and sociable nature, I don’t know what possessed him to pull the sled on a mission toward the ice fishers, the blades leaving shallow tracks on the gleaming floor of our universe, our snow-filled hamlet receding behind us, as if it no longer wished to exist.
Floating and sailing—these were the sensations of sledding across a frozen bay, a young boy towed by his young father, a father who, like his own skating mother, felt at home on the ice, quietly intent on his quest, a man at ease, not yet afraid of anything. Our dreamlike pace, not fast or slow, seemed removed from earth-bound velocity. I remember the whoosh and crackle of the sled as it engraved the ice with the contours of our being. Our lives began here. During the day, the world was white and gray or white and cobalt, and at night a full moon turned the bay into a luminous puzzle piece of creation. We would evolve from the singing of breeze and blades. The stilled bay held us, and the great sky seemed to ensure our safety, and our future.
I do not recall my father talking with the ice fishers or if we saw their slithery harvests. Back at home, after he told my mother where we had been, she said we might have both fallen into the bay, turned an awful blue, drowned before anyone could save us. My sister, not yet a year old, would be fatherless, my mother a widow before she was twenty-five. What would happen then? But my father had known what thin ice looked like. In winters as a child, he slid in his shoes over ponds and lakes and rivers. He had longed to give his son a first sled ride on the bay. A preternatural feel for the ice guided him, and he trusted his ear for the sounds beneath his feet.
Every other weekend, many years ago, I drove two hundred and twenty miles each way to see a man. I was living at the time in the Oakland hills, in a cottage converted from a garage surrounded by soaring eucalyptus and pine. He was finishing a degree in a town on California’s Central Coast; those weeks when I stayed home, he drove up to see me. Back and forth for two years on U.S. 101 through a region compressed by the Pacific Ocean on one side and, on the other, the western edge of the Central Valley, a fertile, landlocked hothouse that draws massive walls of fog from the sea. I began by packing clothes into a duffle bag and driving the sharp curves down toward Temescal Creek, which never froze. Once past the stream, I made my way onto a freeway built entirely within the zone of the Hayward fault.
Through landscapes of salad green and brittle brown, I checked the odometer often and looked for landmarks of the miles travelled: lush artichoke fields, pungent cattle ranches, forgotten and dried-up tracts of nothingness, endless perfect rows of pinot and chardonnay vines, those rows themselves a map of thirsty, painstaking dedication. In Salinas, halfway down the coast, I stopped for a cup of coffee and an egg sandwich, but only for a few minutes. I had no interest in lingering.
Some weeks I slipped out of the office on Friday without telling anyone, my bag already stowed in the trunk of the car, leaving early enough to avoid the weekend traffic. I felt I was getting away with something—a grand larceny of employer time—and perhaps my grandmother felt this way too, when she fled Hancock for Houghton, sneaking away from authority.
Though, through fault zones and encroaching vapor, I did not think about my grandmother’s story, which over the course of my father’s retellings had become his own. Across land once covered by a warm shallow sea, I did not think much at all. The miles seemed a void in which the car lurched from violent blasts of wind, and my body, fraught with reverberations, verged on crumbling. My mind seemed to empty into the fog. I could not reach into myself for a thought until I had reached my destination and saw him standing before me—until I had reached what seemed the other side of a continent, arriving at a beacon of fervor—and while my mind had emptied, my lungs filled with one long breath of yearning.
The drive back, from south to north, always seemed longer. There was no hope in the yellow grasses and rocky outcroppings. I wanted nothing more than to get off the road, jump out of the car, and collapse into bed at home, though hadn’t I left home behind in the college town by the sea? My Oakland cottage, on those Sundays after returning, seemed abandoned, uninhabitable, the woods around it darker. For another week I would eat meals alone until he was at my door, and in two weeks I would drive back down the hill, transfer from one freeway to another, gulp coffee and an egg sandwich at a barren road stop.
A few years later I moved to New York for a job and he moved to the Midwest for another degree. Again—still—we traveled back and forth, the flights lasting a third the time of our drives up and down California. We rose above the horizon with heightened anticipation, fell asleep and woke up at the end of a pleasing arc. He waited for me curbside, or I stood ready with food, wine, and the blinds open to a splash of lights—evening in Midtown Manhattan. After he moved again, we boarded trains and commuted up and down the eastern seaboard. For nearly nineteen years, as long as we had known each other, we lived apart. Eventually the distances became one vast expanse straining our rhythm. The end came as a debacle, the slow melt then sudden shattering of river ice in spring.
Before my father first told me his mother’s story, I knew my grandmother not as a skater but as a lover of blueberries. We visited her during summer vacations in Michigan, after our move to California. On one of those trips, I rode a motorboat across a serene gray lake to explore the woods on the other side. The forest there was thick with birch, pine, ferns, and shrubs loaded with blueberries. I snapped off half of a blueberry bush and brought it back to her where she sat, waiting in a chair near the lake’s shore. She picked the berries slowly, one by one, smiling as she relished each. She never told me about skating across the Portage. Perhaps it had been too long ago. Or she might have felt self-conscious talking about her bold pursuit of a man at a time when men were expected to do the pursuing. If not that, perhaps marriage itself—a goal achieved—superseded a story that in her mind merely described a mundane commute over ice, an account of winter days in the life of a small-town girl who, it seems to me now, grew up on top of the world.
Could my grandfather skate at all? In old pictures he appears stern and unsmiling but mischievous. He wears glasses, a white shirt, and a black bow tie, a sign of lifelong dapperness. I don’t see a skater in him or, for that matter, a romantic. As a young man he was handsome and slim, like his only son. In a photograph taken in his twenties, he’s unsmiling again, dark-eyed, with a gravitas that belies the light-heartedness he shared with my father. Another image shows me as a baby perched on his lap. We’re at the end of a couch, with leaf-patterned wallpaper behind us. Gazing away from the camera, he seems aloof; his mind has wandered. He dislikes having his picture taken. He would rather be sitting at a poker table or walking alone in the woods, looking for deer, not to hunt them but to witness the animals quietly grazing: maybe this search for a gentle, fleeting creature was a clue to his particular romanticism. In this picture he looks worried, or stunned. In less than a year, before I turned three, he would be dead. Everything I know about his life with my grandmother comes from my father’s stories and less than a dozen fading photographs.
At the Portage, my breaths feel as deep as the immaculate snow, and the snow itself seems instantly familiar, its crunch underfoot an echoing voice. With my feet submerged in a drift, I look across the hushed river and up toward the lift-bridge, searching for anyone who might have reason to venture across. The ice is witness to a fanciful urge that surely isn’t mine alone: to walk or skate on a frozen mantel while water flows beneath its provisional surface, placing oneself at the center of a breathtaking veneer of safety to reach the other side—an urge, in other words, to conquer the improbable. Halfway across a river, or sledding far enough out on a bay to watch a town disappear, your life may interlock with all life and, at the same time, you may be set free from the puzzle.
From here, I can’t determine where the snow ends and the ice begins. Near the blurred border, my legs tremble ever so slightly. Though river and land seem merged, their oneness is a temporary illusion. A shiver comes over me but it is not from the cold. I shiver because my father is gone and only his stories remain. Time does not stand still, but the frozen Portage at this moment gives me a glimpse of the past. I consider walking toward the midpoint between Houghton and Hancock to view the towns as my grandmother saw them in her wooden skates. Two towns, two young lives, the ice itself: what would it all look like from the center? Would I hear my father’s story differently?
Despite my longing to cross, a part of me wants to leave the ice untouched for today, the story unchanged. This was her river to romance, her path to see a man, theirs for a marriage of forty-five years. The stage belongs to them. The story began as a memory, and the memory has become mine to tell.
I turn from the ice and stomp my boots clean.
David Rompf’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harvard Review, Arts & Letters, The Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. Several of his essays have been selected as Notable Essays of the Year by Best American Essays and Best American Travel Writing.