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Nov. 5, 2022

Fly Away Home Snowbird: Reflections on Fall in Michigan

Fly Away Home Snowbird: Reflections on Fall in Michigan

Fly Away Home Snowbird  

It's that time of year when the trumpeter swans disappear from our little northern Michigan lake. Our family has called the modest home on that lake "the cottage ." Lately, the Canadian geese come and go after short visits while migrating south. The pervasive smell of Fall is in the air on this brilliant late October afternoon. The leaves on the trees are changing to brilliant hues of yellow and crimson. The maple trees usually lead the fall color parade. This year the red leaves seem deeper red than usual. 

Ferns in a nearby woodlot quickly turn brown as the crisp morning temperatures dive. The giant oak trees soon follow the ferns, changing to a stunning array of fall colors.

There is something about this time of year that waxes nostalgic. Perhaps it's something so simple as being unable to walk outside without a jacket or the ducks moving on after making this beautiful lake their home for the summer. A few months ago, a dozen tiny ducklings emerged to greet the world for the first time. They followed their mom in a straight line around the lake as if it was something they had learned in a military boot camp.

All the ducks and geese are leaving soon to visit their faraway southern home, where the warm sun will greet them upon arrival. Reliably each Spring, for 34 years since we have been at this retreat, the ducks and Canadian geese find their way back to this corner of the world.

In Michigan, Fall ushers in change and the inevitable long cold winter soon to follow. As I grow older, this time of year reminds me of how resistant to change I have become.

At the local grocery stores, the most recent vintage of Michigan apple cider is prominent on the store shelves. Next to the apple cider are Carmel apples, with nuts on the top. Fresh Michigan cider is the surest sign that Fall has arrived.

With the season's first batch of steaming chili in the crock pot, I sit and think about all that might lie ahead. No, I am not planning something grand. Life is unpredictable. The world seems more unpredictable lately than ever. COVID-19 changed many things and the world in which we live.

Deer camp was indeed the best of times. Fall won't be the same anymore without Joe and the hunting camp.

Last November, my friend Joe died of cancer just five days before deer hunting season. For 33 glorious years, we spent each November together during hunting season. We shared stories and recounted tall tales from our 50-year friendship dating back to the glory days in East Lansing, Michigan.

In more recent times, we shared books we read over the past year. We lamented the state of the world and chatted about gypsy moths, old trucks, our kids, and the deer we missed on opening day. It felt like time stopped for this one week each year when we took to the woods, ostensibly to hunt whitetail deer. The yearly respite gave old friends time to catch up on things.

Campfire @ Johnson Lake

My thoughts wander to winter and the endless summer on the Suncoast of Florida.

White sand beaches, reading a good book around the pool, or creating a new art project are in store. Mom called it loafing. In working-class Flint, where I grew up, that was not necessarily seen as a positive thing. She thought only the rich had time for loafing around and not working.

It's 1,325 miles from my winter retreat along Tampa Bay to West Branch, Michigan. That distance is far enough to recalibrate my thinking. Realistically it is only as far as the two-hour flight from Tampa to Detroit. Yet the distance gives one a perspective of another place and culture. 

Florida Shore Birds Sunset on the Suncoast of Florida

Change is definitely in the air this Fall.

One of the most unmistakable signs of Fall in northern Michigan is when the outdoor thermometer dives to 32 degrees by sunrise. It's time to put away the outdoor furniture and grill. The time has come to tidy up the house, pack some clothes and close up our beautiful cottage.

Over the past decades, this ritual has played out as my retired neighbors do this very same dance. Most of my neighbors are retired auto workers. They prepare to head off to sun-kissed winter enclaves like West Palm, Daytona Beach, Bonita Springs, Sarasota, and Largo, Florida. A few "Snowbirds" only make it as far as the mountains of Tennessee or the fine beaches of South Carolina, just far enough out of reach of a winter blizzard. Come May, these "Snowbirds" will predictably return to the rolling hills of northern Michigan looking tanned and rested. Yes, they dodged another winter, perhaps missed the blizzard of the century or a March and April that don't give up on winter.

Like the geese and ducks, there is a rhythm to their coming and goings.

Snowbirds walk magnificent beaches, visit southern landmarks, take cruises or enjoy city life in a southern coastal town. The snowbirds return with beautiful stories, perhaps of meeting new friends, watching spring training baseball games, or about a trip, they took to a Caribbean island.  

The return of the "Snowbirds" to our Michigan water wonderland is marked by reunions with children and family, boating, and perhaps the mandatory visit to Mackinac Island to visit the Lilac Festival.   

Becoming a "Snowbird" for me was an evolutionary process.

It started in the 1990s with a few weeks away during winter that eventually became a few months. Eventually, I cut back to part-time work, flying back and forth between homes.

In recent years many "Snowbirds" have given up on that lifestyle and sold their summer homes in Michigan. That is a bridge too far for me. Summer months in Florida involve living with oppressive heat and humidity. It is a peculiar version of winter in reverse. More importantly, I am scared to death of hurricanes.

Leaving family and friends for a place with "Old People Ghettos" and grumpy people from New York honking their horns at each traffic life takes some getting used to. Some call Florida "God's Waiting Room." That is not an apt description. There are many "Old People Ghettos' in America; consider Arizona, Texas, Georgia, and the Carolinas. These places are some of the most beautiful places in our nation.

Sunset at Dunedin Marina

I've often asked myself why I became a "Snowbird"? Why don't I find one place to settle down?

My fondest memories growing up in blue-collar Flint, Michigan, include:

  • Vacations on the shores of the Great Lakes.
  • Visiting Mackinac Island.
  • Fishing for perch on Lake Huron.

We loved visiting my aunt and uncle's cottage at Higgins Lake, where our families gathered.  

Michigan's water is brilliantly clear and blue, and the sandy beaches are a superb playground for young children. Northern Michigan was simply splendid. From a young age, I dreamed of having a "cottage" in northern Michigan near a lake. That dream eventually came true.

Michigan is in my blood and has remained so 60 years later. However, winter in Michigan was never part of what I liked most about living in Michigan.

As my parents grew older in retirement, they didn't want to hang around Flint for the next blizzard. They started to visit Florida during winter, staying in the Tampa Bay area, Bonita Springs, and later Stuart, Florida.

I am more like those ducks and geese than I realize as I follow the sun.

During my senior year in high school, my best friend invited me to visit his grandma and grandpa during Spring Break in Bonita Springs in southwest Florida. I remember seeing for the first time an orange tree in their yard. His grandpa also had a cottage in Northern Michigan. With the seed planted long ago, I eventually became a "Snowbird."

During a visit in the early 1970s, I remember Bonita Beach was littered with beautiful shells. The beaches looked like those I grew to love in Michigan. So it was not hard to fall in love with southwest Florida. Friends and I returned to Naples during spring break during college and law school.

During my visits, I would visit this deserted place called Vanderbilt Beach. It was a pristine and virgin beach with mangrove trees everywhere. There was Wiggins Pass State Park nearby. Florida had yet to develop what is now known as North Naples. After visiting this place for parts of 3 decades, I knew I would like to get a vacation home.

The near disappearance of General Motors from Flint left professionals like me with some stark realities to consider.

The deindustrialization of Flint, Michigan, left me trying to sort out the evolving slow-motion economic decline in Mid-Michigan. The situation in Flint was mainly demoralizing. It was clear that my children would never stick around Flint after graduating high school. That indeed became our reality.

The desire to leave home was for young people who needed to explore the world and find their way. Wherever you go at my age, you likely have nothing to prove. However, after nearly 40 years of working in criminal law, there is a deep desire to find a place of peace. I did my part in Flint, Michigan, to make things better. It is time for new generations of Flintstones to build a community of their design. As for me, the time had come to Fly Away Home.