We are not a rock band, but we could be. Collectively, we are four women who love taking photographs. Sandi Beaudoin, Jeannie Dow, Jo Przygocki, and I have all taken photography classes from Jerry Meier of Meier Camera in Midland, Michigan, so that we can improve as photographers. After six years of asking, Jo finally convinced Jerry to take a class on the road to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Our first stop was Mackinaw City, where we lined up along the shore, set up our tripods, and began shooting pictures. From the challenge of photographing a lit-up Mackinac Bridge while a freighter slid magnificently underneath, to the gentle morning fog and mist percolating above the Upper Tahquamenon Falls, we were focused. I, however, felt like my camera and I were on two different planets. Suddenly, it was exam time, and my brain decided to take a vacation.
Besides my brain being on a separate vacation than my body, I was in pain. I had received two steroid shots the day before, one in my leg and one in my groin, for a nagging injury that is now celebrating its one-year anniversary. I only have myself to blame. Trying to run through an injury is a very bad idea. Since I haven’t been able to run a road race for months now, or even run on the road, my endorphins are at an all-time low. Somehow this lack of a natural high has also affected just about everything else I do. While I stood on the beach with four fabulous photographers attempting to take a shot of the freighter American Integrity going under the bridge as the sky began to darken, I had a case of brain freeze and fumble fingers. Shutter speed? Aperture? Manual? Program? Define those terms! Use in a sentence! By the time I figured out what I should do, the sky was dark, and the freighter was halfway to Gary, Indiana. We packed up our gear and moved on.
Our next stop was the Headlands International Dark Sky Park. After a short four-mile drive, we parked, loaded up our gear, and walked a mile along a spacious path to the shoreline along Lake Michigan. We quickly learned that we should not leave a lantern on, because a voice from the dark will shout “turn your light off.” We also discovered that setting up our tripods while it was still light out would have been very advantageous, because the dark sky park is really, really, dark, and you can use only the tiny red lights on your headlamp. Later, Jeannie said that “learning the relationship between the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture in order to achieve the star trails” from Jerry was crucial in being able to get the shot she wanted. Once again, I learned that I tend to panic when under pressure. The clouds moved in, we packed up our gear, and walked back to the van. It was time to take off our Troll hats (people living south of the Mackinac Bridge) and journey to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and join the Yoopers.
Jo drove us through the night as we made our way towards Paradise, and we began to wonder if “Almost Paradise” was more than just a song. We made our turn and headed to Tahquamenon Falls. We arrived shortly after midnight and settled into the cabin Jo had rented for us near the Upper Falls. With no television or Wi-Fi, we enjoyed the sound of our own laughter and stories.
The next morning, we headed towards Munising for our first attempt at shooting waterfalls. Although all of us had taken photos of waterfalls, Jerry was with us, and we would be able to ask questions and make the necessary adjustments to our camera settings on the spot. Since it was a Saturday, the Munising Falls area was filled with photographers and sightseers. After deciding we had the shots we wanted, we headed to the parking area. Park Ranger Cheryl Debelak provided us with some wonderful suggestions as to where we might want to go next. We explained that I was injured, and so long hikes were out of the question. After brief stops at Miners Falls, Miners Castle Overlook, and Chapel Falls, we worked our way to the Log Slide Overlook, one of my favorite places in Michigan’s UP.
The Pictured Rocks area along Lake Superior is difficult to describe because it is so beautiful, and depending on where you stand, hike, sit, or camp, the terrain can be spectacularly different. At the small overlook above Lake Superior, you can see Au Sable Point and its lighthouse off to your left, and the Grand Sable Banks to your right. At one spot along the trail, the dunes seem to drop off right into Lake Superior. Hiking down to Lake Superior at this point is not for the faint of heart.
As we headed away from the Log Slide, and off towards Grand Marais along H-58, we continued our discussion of what worked and what didn’t work for our photos, referenced songs we liked, and told stories. At some point during our adventure, Jeannie had referred to us as “Jerry and the F-Stops,” and the name fit us like a lens cap. After taking a few shots of the lighthouse in Grand Marais, and, once again, me listening to a complete stranger telling me what I should be doing (How do I attract these people?), we headed to the Lake Superior Brewing Company for dinner and drinks.
Although the place was packed and out of whitefish (WHAT?), we had a great meal and adult beverage of our choice. We also wrote our names on the bathroom door, all with the assistance of our waitress who provided us with a Sharpie. I have never seen a bathroom and its door covered in so many names! If you are ever at the restaurant, look for our names. We are famous now. We went to the gas station across the street where the attendant seemed unaware of the old adage that one should never smoke a cigarette next to someone gassing up a vehicle. Apparently he hasn’t blown anyone up yet. We drove back to our cabin at Taquamenon Falls and relaxed. We had an early photo shoot planned for the morning.
Our last morning in the UP proved to be cloudy and misty. We headed to the falls. We were the first vehicle in the parking lot, and as we walked along the path, we began to hear the sweet sounding roar of the falls. I set up my tripod from above the falls while the rest of the group headed down about 100 stairs to shoot closer to the falls. I was jealous. I cursed my leg, my stupidity, and my stubbornness, and then I attempted to photograph the falls.
While alone, the more pictures I tried to shoot, the more frustrated I became. I got out my notes, and I tried to get my brain to work. When the group came up from the falls, I complained that I absolutely could not get a good shot. Jerry immediately looked at my camera settings and explained what I needed to do. I breathed a sigh of relief, and we headed to another part of the falls.
While the group, once again, climbed down to another vantage point below the falls, I focused my camera from an overlook facing the top of the falls. This time I got the shot I wanted. Although I have yet to get one of those dreamy waterfall pictures that Jeannie, Jo, and Sandi are so good at taking, I know that I will get one eventually. As Sandi said during one of our discussions on the trip, learning to “take my time and do the math,” is essential to taking a good shot. Clearly this is something that I need to work on.
We stopped briefly at Whitefish Point and shot a few photos before beginning our drive home. Our conversations in the car were also instructive as we reflected on what we learned. We also pondered non-photographic knowledge such as the amazing number of songs that have the words “sunshine” or “rain” in them, the five things men and women should never say to each other, and we discussed our plans for the immediate future after our weekend.
There is something to be said for taking the show on the road, and the benefit of having the teacher along to guide you on your way. Being with friends I happened to meet along my journey into photography was the best part of all. This made me think of the creative writing classes I used to teach at Saginaw Valley State University, and the connection between nature and writing. I tried to take my classes outside at least once a semester, and I wish I had done this more. The similarities to taking photographs are quite apparent. For me, the creative process works best, despite repeated failures in taking photographs or receiving rejections on poems or essays I have submitted for publication, when I am living and breathing my subject matter. When Jerry taught our classes in Midland, we did not spend all of our time in the classroom and talk about pictures. Instead, we were out in the field shooting pictures of a full moon rising, car lights, sunsets, people, and buildings with unique architecture. What is it about the interaction between nature and humans that subconsciously forces us to get our creative juices flowing?
I imagine most of us have pored over photographs remembering the people in the photos, reminiscing about the landscape, and telling stories about the time someone did something memorable enough to warrant bringing out the camera to shoot a picture. What if you are in the photograph? How does that alter your perception of the moment? Do your memories instantly trigger at the moment of recognition? What if you were not in the photo, but, instead, were the photographer? How will your memory store the moment? After three days of shooting photographs with this group of photographers, not only do I have photographic evidence of my trip, but I also have a new appreciation for the art of photography. Sandi said it best: “The more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know.” My learning curve has been as steep as a Sleeping Bear Dunes Climb.
Ten years from now, I can only imagine what my memories will be of this particular moment, or the stories I will tell about my weekend with Jerry and the F-Stops. In the song “Photograph,” by Ringo Starr, he suggests that “all I’ve got is this photograph.” Sometimes that can be a beautiful thing. Freeze Frame.
In the classic movie Animal House, Bluto, portrayed by the late John Belushi, rallies his fraternity brothers to stand up for themselves after they are kicked out of Faber College. Recently, I felt a little Bluto-ish as I neared the finish line of the Alden 10K road race in Alden, Michigan, on July 25th. After one of the toughest 10Ks I had ever participated in, I was thrilled to finally see the end. Oh, the heat! Oh, the humidity! Oh, the three killer hills in the first two miles! As Bluto says towards the end of his speech, “When the goin’ gets tough…the tough get going.” I knew I would have to dig deep to cross the finish line. “Wait for me,” I yelled to no one in particular. It was my first time being last in a road race.
Alden is a gorgeous village along the border of Torch Lake in Northern Michigan. Lush rolling hills compliment the woods and open fields. As my son Matt and I arrived in Alden from Higgins Lake that morning, we noticed the pressing dark blue skies. Despite hoping for a short downpour before the race to cool things off, the sky held its steady gaze. Shortly before the race began, the sun burst through the clouds like a one-eyed panther staring down at a group of slowly roasting runners and walkers: 260 for the 5K and 92 for the 10K. We were off.
After a short uphill segment, the 5K runners and walkers split off to the left. Silently congratulating myself for being tough enough to tackle a 10K on a nasty summer day, I looked ahead at the hills ahead of me and told myself I could do it. By the time I approached the final hill in the first two miles of the race, I wondered if I should turn around and join those much wiser 5Kers. A woman pushing a child in a stroller passed me and said, “Only one more hill to go.” Why was she so perky when I was miserable? Perhaps she didn’t get out much. Was I even sure there was a child in the stroller? Was it a gallon of water? A keg of beer? Focus, Melissa, focus.
I tried to think positive thoughts, but it was useless. My calves felt like two sets of bad dentures. My hamstrings hummed like an out-of-tune guitar. I knew I would die of thirst before I reached the finish line. Skeletons danced before my eyes. Poor, poor, pitiful me. By the time I got to the top of the last hill and made the turn onto a dirt road, I realized there was only one woman behind me. She looked determined to beat me.
At the first of two water stops, I ran through a sprinkler, sucked down some water, and poured the rest of it on top of my head. Hot and smelling like last week’s roadkill, I had 4.2 miles to go. At least the dirt road went downhill. The reds, blues, and yellows of the runners far ahead of me flashed before me as they turned right and headed into the wooded area of the race. As I thanked the volunteer at the turn, I quickly turned my head. The woman behind me had gained on me.
The road morphed into a sandlot for grownups and off-road vehicles. What the hell? If I had wanted a beach run, I would have gone to Sleeping Bear Dunes. Step, slide, sink, step, slide, and sink. My ankles rolled to the left and right. Eventually the road became easier to navigate as it twisted through a tunnel of woods, ferns, and imaginary bears. In my nearly demented state, I believed that bears hiding in the woods were sucking up the runners who had once been in front of me. By this time, I saw only two runners ahead of me, and felt the hot breath of the woman behind me. I tried to run a little faster and catch up to the runners in front of me, but my body shouted no. I started walking. The woman who had been following my sorry butt for the first three miles passed me. We began battling back and forth for last place. I became insanely covetous of her purple tank top.
Before long, we were on paved road again. I spotted a few runners in front of me. I charged ahead and passed the woman in purple. It didn’t last long. I figured she was messing with me. She looked to be in her twenties. She probably kept saying to herself that she wasn’t going to let some AARP member beat her. At what I hoped was the final turn in the road, I thanked the volunteer sitting on the tailgate of his truck, and I confidently informed him that I was last. He said he would wait a few minutes to make sure. I hope he didn’t wait long.
As I hit the final stretch, a man on a bicycle rode up to me—the sweeper. Don’t fear the sweeper! Embrace the sweeper! I decided to chat. I learned that Dan rode his bike almost every day. I envied Dan on his shiny bike wearing a non-sweaty t-shirt. He looked clean. He smelled good. He promised to ride in the rest of the way with me. He probably wanted to make sure I would reach the finish line before sundown.
As I turned yet another corner, I saw my son in the distance near the finish line. He had finished the race far ahead of me, so he had been there a long time waiting for me. I turned to Dan and said: “He probably thinks I died somewhere on the course.” Dan laughed, sort of. A group of people sitting in their yard, presumably to cheer on the racers, seemed surprised when I ran by and bowed. I shouted, “I’m last,” and they clapped for me.
Near the finish line, I thanked Dan and said I had better give the last bit of the race my best kick. I nearly ran into a man picking up cones as I turned to approach the finish line. “Wait,” I yelled. “I’m still running.” At least the timer on the race clock was still running. Everyone else was gone. I ran to the water table. A volunteer told me they were out of cups. He handed me a jug of water. Ah, the nectar of the gods! I began searching for bananas, grapes, or any kind of food. I was starved. Matt told me that they had already hauled away the food. How could that be? I was less than two minutes behind runners 90 and 91. What the hell?
As Matt and I walked towards the awards area, we met up with my husband’s aunt, cousin, and some friends. Matt walked over to the results posted on the side of a building. Since I was starving, Aunt Barbara bought me a muffin from the Muffin Tin. It was better than the best steak in the world. I ate and drank from my jug of water. I would survive.
Matt soon discovered that he was fourth in his age group and had just missed out on an award. He wanted to stick around for the raffle to see if he had won anything. He walked over to the results again and came back with a smile on his face. “You aren’t going to believe this.” “What?” I said. “You were third in your age group. You get an award.” Apparently my age group, 60-69, only had three runners.
So there I was, outrun by 91 runners, two of which happened to be in my age group. No bears had attacked me. I had survived the hills. I had made it through the sand. The two women who finished in front of me both came up to me and wished me well. The woman with the stroller smiled and said she would see me next year. A cute little boy smiled at me. He had apparently enjoyed his ride in the stroller.
As we sat at the Alden Bar and Grille eating our post-race breakfast and drinking very tall beers, I realized that although exhausted, I was able to smile in a Bluto-ish goofy grin. Even though I looked like a squished snake who took a little too long to cross the road, I had completed another road race with my son. I had won an award. I also managed to win a free muffin and beverage in the raffle. It was a good day to be me. So what if I was last?