What happens up North stays up North

This weekend was the Fellowship trip “up North,” to allow us to experience the far reaches of the glorious state of Michigan all decked out in the magnificent colors of fall. And to provide a little enforced togetherness and bonding amongst our motley crew. Grambo & CC RiderOn Friday, Chris and I headed out with Fara Warner and Thomas Kamilindi as our passengers. As the entire state of Michigan is perpetually under construction, with highways narrowed down to one unmoving lane, we weren’t as expeditious as we’d hoped. But we passed the time swimmingly. I was privileged to share the back seat with Thomas and learn even more about Rwanda. Then, Fara and I decided to amuse Thomas with our limited French speaking skills. (Actually, amusing his wasn’t our intent, but certainly the overall effect.)

I feared we would be late to arrive as we were told to be there well in time for a 6 o’clock dinner. However, we were the first group to arrive at our digs, pulling in just around the same time as Birgit, KWF program manager and general saving grace. (It would be tough to overstate what a great asset she is to the program and how she’s turned wrangling all of us to one event or another into a graceful art.) Our destination was the rusticBoyne Valley Lodge , a rustic place with rustic lodging for rustic trips into the rustic. As far as places to stay go, it was pretty rustic, the sort of place built to accommodate large groups of high school students on ski trips. There was a dark, wood-paneled central room with a giant fireplace smack in the middle and four long picnic tables for accommodating meals. The walls were decorated with sort of a hodge-podge reflecting the passing of years – fading fake floral arrangements accompanied by oversized sepia-toned photo prints of the town several decades past, an American flag hanging from the ceiling and wall plaques asking for the Lord’s blessing.

On either side of the center room stretched a hallway, one leading to guest rooms, the other leading to more guest rooms, a game room and the outdoor heated pool. At first, I was pleased to learn that our room was one of those closest to the center. Why, I cannot say, since I’m the world’s lightest sleeper. But perhaps the crisp fall air was making me delirious. Or maybe I thought it would help me be first in line for meals.

Chris and I put our bags in our room, which was equipped with bunk beds enough to sleep eight – and little else. Wood paneled walls and a tiny window made for extremely low light, which may actually have been for the best. We had a sink in our room and a bathroom with a shower that dribbled water on those patient enough to wait for the water to heat. But it was clean and, frankly, probably the closest I’ll ever get to camping.

In truth, you simply can’t take a car ride with Thomas Kamilindi and hear about his life in Rwanda and then complain about your lodging. Especially when the KWF is footing the bill. And so the others straggled in and after we all got settled in our digs, we sat down to a dinner of lasagna and let the fun begin.

I’m not sure if it was Rainey who first plied the jukebox with quarters but I enjoy blaming her for the subsequent hour of perhaps the worst selection of music I’ve ever been privy to. Nothing good comes of hearing both the Macarena and Chumbawumba in one evening, let alone twice (each) in the space of an hour. Yet, we mingled around as some played pool and others (mostly children and parents with no other choice) got in the heated pool outside.

To say it was a fun evening is both an understatement and a necessary generality. I learned to play Squinch, a card game Stephannie brought. (The fact that it had a full page of instructions tells you how well I adapted to it, although by some mathematical fluke I did actually win.) And around us, much, much alcohol was consumed. And then the singing began.

John Bacon & Gail GibsonI’m not certain, but I believe the songs began when Gail was forced to make good on a bet she had with John “Jub Jub” Bacon – something to do with Michigan trouncing Michigan State a few weeks ago. Gail was a great sport and read/sang the Michigan fight song for the gang. Then, people were sharing tunes like crazy. Stephannie wowed us with her classically trained voice. Thomas sang a song in French. Sedat sang one in Turkish. Charles "C-Deuce" Clover sang a desperately sad-sounding Russian song. (When Chris asked him later what the song was about, he said, “I can’t remember. Something sad. I mean, there aren’t really any happy Russian songs.” Point taken.)

In addition, Min-Ah sang a traditional song from South Korea and, for some reason I can’t quite recall, Graham “Grambo” Griffith and John Bacon sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” At some point, Jamie “Black Eye” Butters whipped out his guitar and we did some well-intentioned – though not exactly harmonious – group numbers. I think what amazed me most was when he played Yellow Submarine and I looked up and everyone knew the lyrics – Min-Ah, from South Korea; Semiha, from Turkey; Thomas, from Rwanda. Even the Brits in the crowd seemed to be familiar with The Beatles. Go figure.

Thomas & Rainey get down!Speaking of Brits, Steve Titherington took over the guitar at one point to regale us with what he said was a traditional English number – and proceeded to lead everyone in a rousing rendition of “Jolene.” It was actually very cool – at the risk of treading on some pretty clichéd ground – that our real bonding started sharing songs and music. It really does have an amazing capacity for bringing people together and serving as common ground among cultures.

And, apparently, so does liquor. Thus, as the night went on, there was dancing. Lots of dancing. Semiha whipped out some bright orange scarves and led an impromptu belly dancing performance featuring Fara, Clover, Rainey and Vanessa. Pretty soon, Thomas was inventing a new dance – aptly titled “The Kamilindi” - which involved grabbing one foot behind you and hopping around on the other. This all turned into a performance by Kamilindi and the Rwandettes, who are bound to hit the road anytime now. Check your local listings for a performance near you.

Flanked by Fara and Vanessa, Jub Jub then sang some Ray Charles numbers into a beer can. That and the fact that Grambo was practically horizontal suggested it might be time for the wise to head to bed. (Truth is, the wise had headed to bed a good two hours ago.) By the time Chris and I turned in, it was 1:30. We might have crashed had we not been in a room that shared a wall with the main room. A thin, thin wall – as, we all discovered, all of the walls were. But Gerard "Mail Man" Riley and Jub-Jub had decided this would be a smart time for a soccer match.

Fara & Semiha shakin' itUnfortunately, our wall was Gerard’s goal target and, as far as we could tell, Gerard’s a good player. (The next morning, Gerard sensibly explained that if we were to be upset with anyone, it should really be with Bacon for being such a lousy goalie. Valid point.) I’m told the action finally wound down around 3:30, which meant that everyone was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at breakfast the next morning. You know, if they made it to breakfast. (Note: Gail Gibson, who mainlined Scotch Friday night, showed up at breakfast clear-eyed and perfectly coiffed. She clearly has a deal with the devil.)

Saturday, I took a short stroll down the road from the lodge with Bacon, Clover, Rainey and Chris to check out a little creek nearby. It was absolutely crystal clear and chock full of large salmon zipping this way and the other. We made our way back and left shortly thereafter for a quick lunch at Red Mesa Grill (really great little Tex-Mex spot, by the way) in Boyne City on our way to Charles and Julia Eisendrath’s farm for the day.

The farmThe farm – which has been in Charles’ family for decades – is an absolutely gorgeous piece of land, dotted with apple trees and cherry trees, the latter generating enough income to keep the farm running. The main farm house was constructed of two kit houses built side to side, the exterior painted white with bright blue trim and shutters. (When we arrived, Charles already had a couple of former fellows hard at work piling up wood for the wood-burning furnace that is the home's primary source of heat.) At the top sits a crow’s nest we climbed up to in order to get a breathtaking view of the land and Lake Charlevoix. The land also holds two small guest cottages (one that does double duty as a heated garage), a large garage and several out-buildings.

At Charles' suggestion, kicked off our afternoon with a stroll through the woods where a yellow, leaf-strewn path led us down to the sandy banks of the chilly lake. On the way, we fortified ourselves with the most crisp and perfectly sweet apples plucked straight from the tree. At the lake, Chris and I watched as Fara and Clover (a former crew man at the University of Wisconsin at Madison) pulled the waiting canoe into the water and oared their way out into its center. Soon enough, we were joined by a gang of others. Some brave souls – including most of the children and the incorrigible Grambo – rolled up their pants and went wading in the water. The rest of us stood at the shore, huddled inside our sweaters and coats as people took turns helming the canoe.

After a bit, we wandered back up to the farm where our next activity awaited – cider pressing. We gathered up as many apples as we could from the ground, with children scattering in every direction and racing to grab up fruit and toss them into the back of Charles’ tractor. Once enough had been gathered, the pressing begun. It’s a quaint and incredibly slow process, but Drew and Sally Lindsay’s children seem no strangers to hard labor and if it weren’t for their diligent efforts – with help from some grown ups, especially Chris – we may not have had any cider to sample.

Cider makin'Some fellows gathered in the back yard to play the unfortunately-named game of Corn Hole. (It should surprise no one that Gail was responsible for this diversion.) Others of us, though, snuck into the house and warmed ourselves by the fire until it was time to head back down to the Lodge for dinner. Charles and Julia Eisendrath, along with some former fellows from years gone by, joined us back at the ole homestead for a dinner of barbecued chicken, rice, carrots and salad. Then we were treated to an impromptu “program” event, where two of the past fellows talked to us a little bit about life after journalism and the direction in which their lives had headed after the fellowship.

All of us were a bit exhausted by the time everything was said and done, so bed came earlier. (Although, some held their own in a card game until well after midnight.) Sunday morning, there wasn’t time for much other than breakfast and packing before we headed out the door, planning a quick round of shopping at the Birch Run Outlet on the way back. For this leg of the journey, we traded Vanessa for Thomas, as she wanted to shop some more and he, suffering from a cold, did not.

It was a nice trip back. I got a chance to hear even more about Fara’s book, “The Power of the Purse,” which discusses how major companies have finally come to recognize women as important consumers and the adjustments they’ve made to court my gender. (I bought it last week but haven’t started reading yet.) As a former marketer and a woman, I’m intrigued both by the subject matter and Fara’s opinions and knowledge. As a writer, I’m equally interested in the process of book writing itself.

To be honest, I haven’t made any ground on that myself since I arrived here. I’m a bit afraid and unsure of the process as well as grappling with whether or not I really do have a book in me. I’m getting some good tips from those around me and I think I’ll just have to formulate a plan and get started. As Dorothy Parker said, “The art of writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.” I think what I’m most afraid of is getting my ass on the seat, my fingers on the keyboard and discovering I have nothing to say. Although, come to think of it, that’s not something I’ve ever been accused of….