We’ve had some slightly cooler weather here in Florida (which means I got a shiver when I was walking to the coffee shop in shorts), and that shiver reminded me of our trip to Michigan’s UP in July. (Probably because that was the last time I was cold.) Laughable, really, as Florida’s November is still warmer than the July summer weather in the UP, but when I woke up this morning and the mist was on the swamp and a cool breeze blew, I thought of the cool back roads we biked down to the lighthouse on Big Bay Point, and remembered that lighthouse we visited.
Big Bay Point is on a thin, very thin, piece of land that separates Lake Independence from Lake Superior, like an eyebrow over the Lake Independence eye. We rode down there that July morning, on a crisp, almost cold day, two miles on old pavement and two miles on side gravel and dirty roads, deer and summer homes on the edges, up to the old white and brick building, its big light on top that is still functional.
Back in 1882, the Big Bay Point Light was commissioned by the Lighthouse board because, “The point occupies a position midway between Granite Island and Huron Islands…..These two lights are invisible from each other and the intervening stretch is unlighted….Quite a number of vessels have in past years been wrecked on Big Bay Point.”
While a few people have now found this part of the Upper Peninsula, (Big Bay has a population of 224, but that may not include the lake side summer houses), it is still pretty isolated, and was especially so 150 years ago. It could only be reached by boat from Marquette, or by walking the 24 miles from Marquette. There are no people and no roads farther north. Not then, and still not today. The roads end here in Big Bay.
There is one hotel up here in Big Bay, one gas station with the only food market, and one bed and breakfast; this lighthouse. Otherwise, there are woods and water, and that only increases as you go north. And the Big Bay Lighthouse is as north as we go.
That day, the lighthouse was closed for tours, but we wandered the land around it, following the footsteps of those who kept this place before us; east to the steep cliffs straight down to the dark, cold Lake Superior, and west to the old outbuildings. Around an old privy and a shed to hold the oil that used to keep the light running.
Beyond those, the fields of wildflowers, where a lone bald eagle soared over the thick woods. Small trails run through them, and then dip briefly into the woods, where we could see across the channel to the coastline that curves north.
The isolation wreaked havoc on the people who once lived here; there are reports of murder, of accidents, of people going crazy. They say the lighthouse is haunted by their memories, but all we saw were the views that they saw: the bright flowers, pale blue sky and deep blue waters of the ‘unlit middle’.
And it’s not hard to understand the loneliness of the keepers here, is it? These people who lived on the precipice here of something dark and dangerous, but who were called not to get pulled into it and instead do the opposite; tend to the lights. And the first part was usually enough to overwhelm them, because the first part is the hardest; to stay alone next to the deadly deceptive waves and not to be overcome. To keep themselves apart from the darkness. And it often couldn’t be done. But when it could, when the keepers could look out into that black water and hard cliffs and stay, the second part comes almost naturally; because if you can stay next to the darkness and not be overcome, you begin to think of the others who cannot.
You begin to look across to the ships that have no idea where they’re sailing. The ones that have no idea they’re heading for deep darkness with sharp rocks beneath.
And when you know this, you realize your job may not even be to man the rescue boat. Your job isn’t to stock the life rafts. No, your job is to shine the light, to light up the darkness a little, to show the others what exactly they are sailing into and where exactly they are. And maybe, just maybe, to show them there’s a way around.
And others not on that cliff or not in that water may not understand the power of the light, may not understand the importance of being in that one specific place, but you do. You know them being able to see the dangers ahead, that saying, yes, I live here and I see you, is probably the greatest thing you could do.
So for you who have charge of your ‘unlit middle’ where people wreck and flounder, but who are able to keep themselves separate from the darkness; it’s hard and sometimes we go crazy and sometimes we run away, but when we find ourselves again, we always come back for the light.