HORTON BAY, Mich.
James Vol Hartwell shoves a couple of 8-by-10 papers into my hands. "Read it, read it," he says. • We are perched on chairs set on a hilly lawn. In front of us is a busy road, the only road, which runs through this Michigan village. Next to us is Hartwell's Red Fox Inn Bookstore, tangled with every imaginable book by and about Ernest Hemingway. • In my hands is a copy of Hemingway's meditation on fly-fishing. We are close to the spot where the writer and his new bride gathered with guests after their 1921 wedding. From here they would cross the road — it was dirt then — to a cottage called Shangri-La and the reception. The church is gone, but Shangri-La remains a vacation rental. • "Read it out loud," he insists.
I feel the weight of the occasion. Sometimes when you travel, you have a moment that you know will stay in your mind forever. It becomes a touchstone that takes you back to that place, that time. I know I am going to have a moment at this moment. I start to read Hemingway's musings on Horton Creek. Barely an hour earlier, I stood at its banks slippery with moss, leaned over and plunged my hand into the frigid water.
"Horton's Creek, where we fished, was a beautiful, clear, cold stream but so covered with logs and brush that casting was impossible. We used angle worms, looped several of them on the hook with the ends free and dropped this bait under the logs or in any open places in the brush."
James Vol Hartwell snaps the papers back. You see what Hemingway is doing? You see how the way he writes mimics the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of the water? You see? Well, I don't, until he continues where I left off. He'd read Epilogue: On Fly Fishing many times before, practicing the rhythms to emphasize the running water.
Because when your grandfather taught Hemingway how to fish and you're a keeper of Hemingway's Michigan flame, that's what you do.
"When he awoke in the night he heard the wind in the hemlock trees outside the cottage and the waves of the lake coming in on the shore."
Ten Indians, a Nick Adams short story, written in Madrid, 1926
Hemingway's writings are firmly rooted in place. He is more popularly associated with Key West, Cuba, Paris, Spain, even Africa and Idaho, where he ended his life in 1961 and is buried, than he is with Michigan.
But Hemingway, who was born outside Chicago, spent his first 20 summers in northwest Michigan's rural paradise. The treks north for him began in 1900 when he was just 1 and stopped after his 1921 marriage to Hadley Richardson. The clear lakes and streams and their attending solitude fed his love of the outdoors. He learned to hunt and fish here, and enjoyed the freedom to explore.
Michigan summers loomed large in Hemingway's memory, and he immortalized many places in his writings, including the Nick Adams short stories. He mentions the "rich snobs" of Charlevoix in Summer People. Petoskey is the setting for his first novel, The Torrents of Spring. Horton Creek is mentioned in several stories (though he wrote it Horton's Creek), including The Last Good Country. Windemere, the Hemingway family cottage on Walloon Lake, now a private residence, is prominent in Ten Indians, among other stories. Hemingway and Richardson honeymooned at Windemere.
And the Petoskey diner Jesperson's is said to be the setting for The Killers, which opens with a couple of guys sitting at a long counter arguing about the menu.
Patrons can still sit at that long counter and order a slice of pie or an awesome grilled cheese sandwich with tomato and onion. It's only open for lunch and is closed part of the winter. Co-owner Bill Fraser, who is also Petoskey's mayor, tells us that Hemingway sat on the stool second from the end near the front door and drank lots of coffee.
Many Hemingway scholars have documented these references, but the Michigan Hemingway Society helps us out on this trip by posting plaques at various spots that influenced his work.
We stay at a B&B in "snobby" Charlevoix, which we didn't find that way at all despite two exclusive summer housing compounds that don't allow us regular folks through the gates. The Belvedere Club and Chicago Club duel for the toniest historic homes on either side of a small opening that leads to Lake Charlevoix. We drive around the fringes to see how the other half summers. The city's historical museum has the original wedding license of Hemingway and Richardson.
In Petoskey, we book a few nights at Stafford's Perry Hotel, where the story goes that Hemingway slept there, too. Across the street is the old train station, now sadly attorney's offices instead of a refurbished historic site open to the public, and the defunct tracks that brought Hemingway's family to the area.
We hang with a young boy and his grandfather fishing on Horton Creek and meet Chip Lorenger, who has put a lot of love into the old general store, where Hemingway likely stopped for penny candy way back when. He serves tapas on the weekends (a nod to Hemingway's wild times in Spain?) and has two B&B rooms upstairs.
Next to the Horton Bay General Store is James Vol Hartwell's place, the Red Fox Inn Bookstore. If you want to learn something about Hemingway's Michigan, start here. Figure in lots of time and come before the snow flies.
"In the afternoon, after the sun had crossed toward the hills, the trout would be in the cool shadows on the other side of the stream."
On Writing, a Nick Adams story, first published in 1925
Hartwell's entire life has been intertwined with Hemingway's. He's in his 60s, and the Red Fox Inn has been in his family more than 100 years. It was an inn and tavern at one time, famous for its fried-chicken dinners.
Today it's a bookstore dedicated to Hemingway. Besides stocking the writer's work, there are rows and stacks of books about him, including the recent bestseller The Paris Wife, a fictionalized history of his life with Richardson. I think about her while in Horton Bay. Hemingway treated her badly and they were divorced in 1927, and he went on to marry three more times. Horton Bay was such a lovely place to start a marriage, but his insecurities and ambition, plus all that boozing, doomed the union.
What if they'd stayed in Horton Bay or moved to nearby Petoskey to gaze at Lake Michigan and never gone to Paris? Maybe that would have meant farewell to A Farewell to Arms and a lot of other legendary work.
Hartwell looks a bit like Hemingway with square jaw and short gray beard. Add a few more pounds and a cable-knit sweater and he might have a shot at the annual Hemingway look-alike contest held every July in Key West. We visit with Hartwell twice over a couple of days, finding it difficult to tear ourselves away from his stories. He says his grandfather, Vollie Fox, gave Hemingway fishing lessons when he was a very young boy.
Hartwell sees lots of folks like us come through, curious about the writer's early influences. An annual conference of the Michigan Hemingway Society in Petoskey, Oct. 4-6 this year, brings busloads of devotees to Horton Bay.
Across the driveway is the Horton Bay General Store, where proprietor Lorenger is also trying to preserve the past. He channels Hemingway's works less and relies more on a collection of interesting antiques. There's hardly anything original in the 1876 building, but he does have a fine wine selection and he's one heck of a baker.
Inside the store, we sit on wooden swivel stools at the counter for a sandwich and soda and some chitchat about Horton Bay.
"They come looking for Hemingway," says Ken Lawrason, the grandfather who showed us his trout-catching technique on the creek. "But things have changed here. The roads are busier. The creek is not as full of fish. You have to enjoy it for what it is."
His words rattle in my head as we drive past Shangri-La toward the water where Horton Bay spills into Lake Charlevoix. Across the bay is Ten Mile Point, referenced in The End of Something and Up in Michigan. Over and over, a woman tosses a stick to her water-loving dogs. They are enjoying Horton Bay for what it is right now.
"Night in Petoskey. … The town asleep under the Northern moon. To the North the tracks of the G.R.&I. Railroad running far into the North."
The Torrents of Spring, written in Paris, 1924
In the summer, Petoskey swells with tourists. Whether by plan or happenstance, U.S. 31 skirts the edge of downtown, which means several blocks of ice cream parlors, gift stores, jewelry and clothing shops, plus restaurants and booksellers, are free of fast-moving cars. It's pedestrian friendly. There are fewer than 6,000 residents but it seems like a much bigger town. A box of fancy crackers at Symons General Store can set you back 8 bucks.
In a park near the old train tracks, Hemingway was said to have watched bare-knuckled boxing matches. The only skirmishes we see are between mothers and toddlers wrestling for the remainder of the ice cream cones. On Howard Street, a few doors down from Jesperson's, we sit on another bench, licking the last of our own cones. I scoot over so that two women can join us. They are locals.
I ask one of them about the winter and the 120 inches of lake-effect snow. "I couldn't imagine leaving here and going to a place like Florida," she says.
That's where I am from, I tell her. I am not offended, and she continues as if I couldn't possibly be. She says nothing about Ernest Hemingway and how her town influenced him. If Hemingway had met this diehard Petoskey-ite, might she have ended up in one of his stories?
When you follow the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway you entertain ghosts, or at least ponder the possibility of meeting the offspring of the people he knew in northwest Michigan. I could imagine my benchmate as the rooming-house caretaker Mrs. Bell in The Killers or perhaps as the inspiration for Liz Coates, the girl disillusioned by love in Up in Michigan.
If not her, maybe her grandmother.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.