One of the lookouts at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Livi Brooks-McLaughlin first came to Northern Michigan from England when she was fourteen years old. Now 17, she shares this essay about what Leelanau County and the Sleeping Bear Dunes have come to mean to her and her parents, Brendan and Michelle, taking us, first, to the setting in her British boarding school.
My morning eyes were constantly flicking between the blurs of English literature scholars and the romantic words of Edward Thomas’, ‘The Glory’. Welcome to 9am at Dean Close School. Presuming that you are not familiar with British boarding schools, I feel obliged to set the scene—stressful, tense, and silent.
Our teacher had just invited one of the pupils to draw on their own ideas from the poem. You could hear a pin drop, and perhaps the odd sigh of relief from other students that are thankful for not being picked on first. It was almost certain that whatever the first person put forward it would be slated by the Teacher, and God forbid, even laughed at. The chosen student proposed the poem to be about ‘Nature’ but that was already too evident, and in English Literature, you do not write about the evident. She stared at him with disgust and kindly warned him of his likely failure before traversing her eyes along the back row. I, of course, sit on the back row. I looked down, submissively, as you do, with an essence of hope that you may be avoided. I hear it: “Livi.” The name ‘Satan’ would have sounded more delightful. My head jerked up, and our eyes met.
“Describe to me what Thomas is experiencing in this poem.” I skimmed through the lines, and naturally a few stood out. I found myself relating to the poet. Edward Thomas, as always, had come across a place of beauty, a place that despite the solitude makes him feel fully content. In this particular poem, he discusses how being without this place of beauty causes him to feel empty and thus, discontent.
I completely comprehend. Bizarrely, one might say. I am seventeen and by no means a ‘Romantic’. But I, like Thomas, feel entirely at home in a place of nature. Whilst Thomas is depicting a scene from Rural England in the early 19th century, I am referring to Leelanau County, Michigan, USA.
I can confidently assume that no one in my class, or even in my prestigious boarding school, has any idea what this place is or how it could possibly have such an effect on me, which to me is a good thing, the part that it is not common knowledge. When I first came here three years ago, I recall my first sunset on the lake; I had never experienced anything as sublime. I felt as if I had just found out the world's best kept secret.
But how did I find it out? How did I, a fourteen-year-old British girl end up in Northern Michigan? “By plane,” is the comical response I use to divert people from the otherwise obscure truth. But the longer story is that I discovered Northern Michigan through a friend who I met on a Royal Caribbean cruise, and who I spoke to everyday after that on the infamous social networking site, Facebook. We were really young, and there was nothing we enjoyed more than learning about each others’ contrasting lives. He wrote to me about everything. From school, to childhood memories, all of which from him were rich with the special qualities of “a life up north” and I loved it. I envied him immensely. I found myself daydreaming in class about it; the crystal clear lake and giant golden sand dunes. To me, it was all so magical. To this day, I will never know why at such a young age, I felt so strongly about a place I had never even visited.
I tried to educate my parents about it; I tried to sell it to them the way he had sold it to me. I tried to sell them the unstoppable beauty that came with all his idyllic stories. But what sold it to them the most? When we visited and they saw Lake Michigan for the first time on July 25th 2010. We all went for a walk on the Good Harbor Beach, and I honestly don’t think our hearts came back with us. Ever since that day, all we do is talk about how much we adore it here. Like Edward Thomas, we, too, decided to, “Begin to seek as far as heaven, as hell, wisdom or strength to match this beauty.” But the truth is, the beauty here is unmatchable. We have been all over Europe, and indeed the rest of the world, and stayed in the most glorious hotels and eaten food that was rated with the maximum Michelin star rating. We have even been to the Maldives, one of the most desirable and luxurious destinations in the world. Nothing can compare. Nothing makes me more satisfied than a slice of warm cherry pie with whipped cream from Cherry Republic and watching the sunset after a hike up to Pyramid Point. To me that is euphoric.
Since our first visit, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has been voted “The Most Beautiful Place in America,” but I want to take it further and say it really is the most beautiful place in the world. My life has been filled with wonderful memories full of this place and the amazing people who live here. We spend every day at home looking forward to our next visit, and I cannot thank Austin enough for instilling in me the dream of a life up north, and for letting us in on what we like to call “a little slice of heaven.”