LANSING – Humans, like all other animals, have an innate desire to find the right place, an ideal place.
A place that feels like home, a place that allows you to grow into better versions of yourself. And, of course, be it selfishness or love, people will protect this country that they feel is part of them.
Tim Mulherin, author of Sand, Stars, Wind & Water (Mission Point Press, $16.95) found his sense of place in Lower Northwest Michigan during his first visit to the area 35 years ago. The natural beauty of the area immediately captivated him.
Every Sunday during the pandemic, while the rest of the world was in shambles, Mulherin wrote all day and returned in his mind to his happy place of Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties, recalling and reliving his fondest memories.
“I would get in my head and come back up here,” he said.
The pandemic gave him the impetus he needed to write, an outlet he’s been using since he was in his 20s.
Although he feels happy about writing the book, Mulherin says he feels a little residual guilt because he likely contributed to more people visiting Northern Michigan to see its mesmerizing beauty for themselves, people who might not treat it with respect the area he respects.
On a recent visit to Good Harbor Beach at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Mulherin saw littered plastic, forgotten beach chairs and campfire ashes scattered across the sand.
But on the same beach, he and his wife Janet witnessed families watching epic sand dunes melt on the shores of Lake Michigan for the first time, which brought a lot of joy, he said.
“I want people to love the region properly,” he said.
Plus, having been in the area for so long, it’s easy to go places that no tourist will ever find, he said.
Having lived most of his life in Indiana, what he calls the greatest corn and soybean field in the world, these Northern Michigan counties offer pristine nature to an outdoor enthusiast.
“I had fallen in love with Lower Northwest Michigan and wanted nothing more than to be one with the locals,” he wrote.
And though his home base is still Indianapolis — a result of family ties — Mulherin will reside in his modest Cedar vacation home as he travels through Michigan, mostly downstate, as part of a tour promoting the book. his, he said.
“I’m on an appreciation tour,” he said.
Though certainly busy, Mulherin finds meaning in the work he does now, something his previous job as a K-12 school administrator lacked, especially when the pandemic forced schools into virtual learning, he said.
Plus, working from Cedar allows him time to enjoy the natural beauty of the area while hiking, fishing, hunting, biking and stone hunting.
He finds that his satisfaction increases when such activities are done alone, he said.
As he wrote, “I need miles of woods and open trails that are largely devoid of beings like myself. I need to be able to walk in peace with the company of a select few or two who appreciate solitude and what nature has to offer.”
He likens his exhilarating northern attitude to that of a child, and credits the region with inspiring that childlike playfulness that adults too often repress and compromise to make ends meet, he said.
Mulherin is grateful that he no longer has to compromise, “his mind no longer terrorized by trivial pursuits,” he wrote.
Now, he is working on a new book that addresses the impact of tourism, climate change and the pandemic on Northwest Michigan in an accessible way through his stories, colored by the voices of experts and residents of the region, he said.
“The older I get, the more freely I speak,” he said.
And he will speak freely.
Mulherin acknowledged that many of the conversations he’s had so far about the kind of change the region is facing are both harrowing and sobering. Already, sour cherry farmers are unable to meet quotas and food processors are re-sourcing elsewhere to countries like Turkey with more favorable growing conditions.
And those who know the area know how important cherries are to its identity and economy.
In fact, the last week-long National Cherry Festival was the peak of what Mulherin calls “the annual tourist invasion.” Each year, over 500,000 tourists flock to Traverse City, the sour cherry capital of the world, to enjoy beers, live music, art and cherries imported mostly from Washington, as the region is in cherry picking season.
It’s held outside of downtown in what locals call “open space” on Grand Traverse Bay, which effectively concentrates tourists in one area and allows more seasoned visitors—like Mulherin—to where no one else is.
“It’s like a fly trap,” he said.
Although many area residents fear the employment and chaos of the influx of visitors, local businesses depend on tourism to survive, especially in the long winter months, he said.
With this understanding, Mulherin and local residents hope that tourists can love the region while minimizing the damage.
“You’re welcome, but please be polite,” he said.
Besides the cherries, another big draw is the scenic 117-mile stretch of M-22, which effectively commercializes the area with black-and-white highway sign stickers, hats and hoods, he said.
“I don’t think you should brand this region with a logo. It’s bigger than that,” he said. “The M-22 is truly a state of mind.”
It is a state of mind that reconnects with nature through active engagement in nature. It’s about respecting the planet we share and paying attention to how wonderful it is, he said.
“Being present in nature and seeking to understand our place in it and respect it seems to escape very few of us these days,” he said.
“We were born to love the planet.”
And so it is not selfishness, but love that drives him to defend his quintessential Northern Michigan country. That’s why he calls one of his favorite spots “Anonymous Lake” and leaves some of his most treasured trails unnamed in the book.
Once you find a place that feels like home, protect and respect it. And if you haven’t found it yet, “keep looking. You will find that special lake spot of yours one day,” he wrote. “A place where you’ll want to keep it all to yourself. Believe me.”