Exploring the Soul of Place: New Book Conveys Stories of Northwest Michigan

By Dave Dempsey

Author Timothy Mulherin

Author Timothy Mulherin’s new book, Sand, Stars, Wind, & Water: Field Notes from Up North, sees the Grand Traverse region through the eyes of a frequent visitor who has fallen in love with its natural beauty and character. In this interview with FLOW, Mulherin talks about what inspired him to write the book—and the good and bad he sees on his saunters along the shoreline.

How would you describe your book to somebody who’s not yet picked it up? What is the story that you tell?

The book has three major themes: place and identity, enduring friendship bonded by love of the outdoors, and environmental concern due to the increasing visitor pressure on the region and how we can coexist and successfully manage this human impact. The reader will find that humor is in no short supply 

I first came to northwestern lower Michigan in 1986 at the invitation of my best friend, a Traverse City native, who tended bar with me in Indianapolis while we worked our way through college. When I drove in on M-72 from Kalkaska and saw Grand Traverse Bay for the first time, it was absolutely love at first sight. I spent my first 10 years on the planet in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. My parents moved us to Indianapolis in 1966 under unfortunate familial circumstances. I stepped off the TWA prop plane and onto the tarmac—and was in a state of shock I’ve never completely recovered from: not a mountain in sight; flatland as far as the eye could see. I was a stranger in a strange land. But when I visited Grand Traverse County and the surrounding region for the first time, with all of its natural splendor, it was a life-changing experience: I had come home.

Describe several of your stories, and explain what they’re about and how they fit into the book’s overall theme.

“M-22” characterizes the overarching theme of place in the book and how people connect with areas of striking beauty such as Leelanau and Benzie counties. M-22 is now a heavily branded destination, and the logo is ubiquitous (and can be frequently spotted as vehicle window decals in Midwestern cities like Indianapolis). I explore what makes this road, and the land it winds its way through, so special for me, and what I believe makes it so appealing and memorable for those who travel this incredibly scenic highway.

“Invasive Species” starts out talking about the many damaging aquatic species that are afflicting the Great Lakes, and specifically, Lake Michigan. It then veers into the increasing popularity of northern Michigan as a tourist destination and all that comes with that. How we identify with place carries an inherent obligation to take care of it—for visitors and locals alike.

 “One Helluva Sail” portrays the adventurous spirit of my consummate outdoorsman best friend and our close relationship, built over many years and countless diversions, which pervades a number of the pieces. In 1996, we sailed the 30-plus nautical miles from Charlevoix to Beaver Island—big lake on a small boat. His admirable sailing skills got us there and back in one piece, despite the rough seas on the way home. He’s my surrogate big brother, and this story shows how big brothers can influence younger ones to step outside of their comfort zone, which, if you survive the experience, is truly good for the soul.

How long have you been thinking about writing the book? What was the impetus for completing it now?

I served as the CEO of an urban public charter school in Indy during the pandemic, which was enormously challenging, having to make public health decisions during a national emergency. The silver lining for me is that I realized that my love of writing, which began four decades ago while pursuing my English degree and then journalism master’s degree, and my later college teaching experience, deserved my attention. The adage that life is short came sharply into focus for me during the past 15 months. It was time to return to my calling.

What are you seeing on the beach when you walk it this summer? What does it tell you about people’s concern and respect for the outdoors?  

I’m spending nearly a month at our seasonal cabin in Cedar [in Leelanau County] this summer. Every morning I drive down to Good Harbor Bay Beach and hike southwest toward Pyramid Point. My walks are quiet meditations before the visitors set up camp for the day. However, my solitude has been disturbed by the amount of trash that is littering the shoreline. Some of it comes from boats, some from storms clawing at coastal properties, and much of it from folks spending the day at the beach. It’s an extraordinary amount of refuse. My question is, why? People should inherently respect our nation’s beautiful natural resources. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore—and the entire region, for that matter—is a national treasure. Enjoy your visit, and leave no trace—other than goodwill. There is a palpable tension growing due to the increasing tourist pressure and the thoughtless disrespect for nature that insults those who call this special place home. I realize that most people are respectful and pick up after themselves, but those who don’t are making quite the negative impact. It really doesn’t have to be this way. 

What would you tell people who want to keep the area beautiful for future generations?

We’re all just passing through in this life. As the Indigenous people tried to explain to the Europeans when they first made landfall here in North America, and have repeated ever since, none of us really owns this land. We are all called to be stewards of the Earth. If we made it a way of life to behave as if our children are watching—and they are, you know—this world would be a better place. So, visit, enjoy, and fall in love with the region and its people. It’s easy. Just remember that it’s everyone’s responsibility to respect the land and leave it the way we found it for those who come after us.

Like most of us who know the area, one of the primary attractions for me in northern Michigan is water. I love being on, in, or just near Lake Michigan, as well as the region’s many inland lakes, rivers, and streams. It’s always something of a spiritual experience for me, especially trout fishing in the Jordan and Boardman rivers. And that’s because trout can only live in clear, clean waterwhich is nowhere to be found in central Indiana, where I currently reside. That water Michiganders and visitors enjoy is such a gift and should never be taken for granted. The work of FLOW, to protect and preserve the vital natural resource that is the Great Lakes, is so critical and worthynow more than ever before. Such essential organizations deserve our thanks and ongoing support.

For more information about Tim Mulherin and his book, Sand, Stars, Wind, & Water: Field Notes from Up North, visit Mulherin’s website.

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