Going West, Via Heading North

Revisiting ghosts of family past at Michigan’s Higgins Lake.

byZach Bowman|
Going West, Via Heading North

Twenty years ago, Higgins Lake was humming with talk of zebra mussels. Nearby Houghton already had the little invaders with razorback shells, and it was only a matter of time before the menace made its way north, hitching a ride on the belly of a boat. There were signs. Public notices and drawings of diligent defenders of the lake hosing off their vessels before and after each launch.

Then, as now, it’s a place worth guarding. The water is clearer than a glass from the tap back home. The bottom, sandy as any Florida Keys beach, is visible 20 feet down, pocked in places by stones or shells or the odd blade of grass. Local lore says, “Sixth most beautiful lake in the world.” Such modesty.

The last time I burrowed into the heart of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, my father was younger than I am now. He packed us all into our two-door, two-wheel drive Nissan Hardbody, and drove the 12 hours north, straight up I-75, to the place where my stepmother spent her high school days. The town was little more than a scattering of dirt roads and the one grocery store her father owned, back then.

Beth Bowman

She was a fierce thing. Rode a Honda Rebel and flew a Cessna through the billowing nimbus over Knoxville. Drove a 5.0-liter Mustang GT. Red, with one thick black stripe down the hood, like a warning. Quit her corporate job to start her own business designing and illustrating. And when my father found himself waging a custody battle on my behalf, she turned that ferocity to the fight. Made sure she got me out of the worst of it.

She taught me much. A galaxy of domestic things: how to fold a towel and make a bed, do laundry, cook a meal. Write an invoice and shake down delinquent freelance clients. Execute a clutch-drop burnout.

She never wanted a child of her own. Took the time to tell anyone who would listen that she hated kids and preferred her dogs. For fifteen years we wore our uneasy coexistence threadbare, bickering over any and every trivial thing. She stopped flying, stopped riding. Parked the Mustang for good and traded away her fearless heart for one wrapped in the false comforts of television, Facebook, and alcohol. For a routine. She became so terrified of change that any deviation from her norm could spark a tantrum. Divorced my father, eventually. We haven’t spoken since.

Beth Bowman

It's one of a hundred reasons why I tried so hard to avoid Michigan. That’s the miracle of prejudice—how little it takes to spark, how long it burns. The problem is, there are only so many ways west. We’d driven out the southern route and back across the middle way. All that was left was the huck north.

Some part of me was compelled to show Beth this place. To walk our daughter to that clear shore and see the surprise in her eyes.

And it is surprising. We’ve seen water in every shape and form, from the twisted, seeping bayous of the Florida panhandle to the welling lowlands of Louisiana. The Atlantic in all its forms, from the cold and rocky coast of Maine to the warm crystal beaches of the Keys. The spotless finger lakes of New York and ink-spot bodies of the Adirondacks. The frigid, coursing brooks of Vermont. None of it compares.

Beth Bowman

Kiddo runs to the lapping shore and puts her feet in the water, splashing, high-stepping, and laughing. Grabbing fistfuls of sand and shell and holding it up in amazement, the awe in her bright and clear. It’s worth it.

I can see the mussels out there, clumps of them. Proof of the unwinnable fight against nature’s persistence. That the side that pines for stasis, for a safe routine, is always the one that loses. Like all invasive species, the danger is in how voracious they are. How, with no predators to quell their numbers, they will overwhelm a body of water, drain it of the algae juvenile fish need to survive, until there are no fish left.

There is an upshot. The mussels are filter feeders, screening the already pristine water. Higgins is a different lake now than it was when I waded its shores as a child. Clearer even than in my memory. Clearer than it was when my stepmother snuck out and stole the family Nova for no reason beyond needing to see her town in the darkness. To see the change in its dirt streets.

Beth Bowman