The ferry hums softly as it churns the water beneath. The noise of cars fades into the distance, and suddenly crossing this narrow river feels like traversing an ocean to uncharted lands. You thank Ol’ Mike as you depart, the same man who has piloted wanderers like yourself over to the island since he was just “Mike.” And that’s all you can really be here – a wanderer. There are no guidelines on Neebish Island. No schedules, no police, and no government. There are barely even roads. It’s a no man’s land – its identity torn between the upper peninsula of Michigan and Canada, yet it feels like it belongs to neither - a land all on its own. And of course, this is why you come up here every summer, for the solitude.
You’re so close to your wooden home, yet still encased in the metal that has trapped you for the 10 hour ride thus far. You squirm with anticipation. The ferry docks, and you begin to drive off, silently cursing the car engine for picking up where the noise of the ferry left off. You reassure yourself that the wonder of true silence will greet you soon.
The window is open. The air gently wafts in. It feels as if it’s been getting freshened up just for you. That somehow makes sense though, because there are only trees and water for miles around you, and the polluting fumes of a car like this one only come through here twice a week at most.
The ground beneath the car has been gravel since you got off the ferry, rattling the underside as the wheels kick up pebbles. Yet now, the gravel has faded into dirt, and tall grass populates the middle of the single lane path where wheels never touch. The grass is occasionally tall enough to brush the front bumper so delicately that you wish you could apologize to it for driving here.
As the path recedes into dirt, you notice something else - rather, a lack of something. Since you’ve left the gravel, there is no more crunch under the wheels. You’re even closer now than before, both to your physical destination, and to silence. Only the car engine stands in your way.
You turn a corner and go over the familiar hill where the trees reach out and pull you into their lush canopy, welcoming your return. The sunlight fades ever so slightly, and your eyes slowly adjust. It’s not dim, and certainly not dark; shadows just stand out more in these woods. The driving path narrows, with a steep downward hill on the left and more trees close on the right.
But then, you see it. Driftwood Cabin. The place where so many memories were made for you, your siblings, your cousins, your parents, and even your parents’ parents. The car finally stops, and suddenly the humming that you got so used to whirrs to a halt.
You came here to hear the silence, and at last, here it is. There is no wind swaying the tree leaves or tickling your ears. You wonder whether the birds have gone, or if they all just decided to graciously honor this moment by ceasing their songs. Back home, even distant noises in supposed silence would still come through - cars whizzing by a mile away, bugs and birds chirping right outside your window, and machinery churning away, operating everything in your house. Every moment of your life up until this point in every summer has been surrounded by some sort of noise. But suddenly, there are no sound waves hitting your eardrums at all.
You look out on the still foliage and the clear blue water awaiting you beyond. You inhale deeply, and only at the sound of your lungs filling with untouched air is the silence broken.
Your family begs you to unpack, but there are more pressing matters at hand. You step from the car into the dirt. By now you’ve already taken your shoes off in preparation for this moment. Your feet hit the cold dirt, and your legs take you on autopilot. Your new destination: water. Your feet are calloused from doing this every summer, their thick skin feeling every protruding root sprawling over the path, every stepping stone placed by hand, and even the tiniest of pebbles sticking up from the dirt. You know exactly where each step should be placed in order to optimize your run.
Yes, sometimes things do change here. Your stride has gotten longer over the years as you’ve grown taller. Sometimes small rocks get kicked into unfamiliar positions. Sometimes dirt wears away, causing a root to stick up a fraction of an inch higher. Yes, sometimes you trip, for the path is anything but neat. But every year, you adjust and forget that anything was ever different.
You run past each small cabin, greeting them along the way. First is the kitchen cabin, where you’ve laughed while preparing home-cooked meals for the family with the other clearly unqualified children. Where you attempted to be one of the adults that one night by joining in the nightly poker game and lost horribly. And where you always run to for a quick snack to keep your energy up throughout the long, playful days. You run past the guest cabins, where you’ve sat on the beds and told stories, played card games, and built model freighters and planes.
Next is Harper Cabin – grandma’s cabin, where you’ve spent many hours sitting quietly with her, watching the world outside. You know she’s in there waiting to greet you, but she understands this annual routine of yours.
And lastly, Driftwood Cabin – your home sweet home. Too much has happened here to recall amidst the flurry of running by it, but you know that more memories will be made again soon.
You finally arrive at the dock. It’s one you’re quite familiar with, because you helped build it yourself. The boards are lightly dusted in sand, which quickly coats the underside of your feet. You count your steps: 16, 17, … 19. The board you reach with your 18th step has always been loose, so you take an extra long step to avoid it.
You greet the perfectly still water, which carries both the light of sunset and the sound of even your slightest utterance for incredible distances, undistorted. Your 29th step takes you to the very edge of the dock, and without hesitation, you take a 30th. At the peak of your jump, you think to yourself how wonderful it is that you don’t have to worry about anything being in your pockets. A wallet is pointless with no places to spend money on the whole island. Keys aren’t too useful when nobody drives here until they depart for home. And a cell phone is nothing more than a light-up brick when there’s nothing even close to resembling a signal here.
So with clear pockets and clear mind, you pierce the water. Cold rushes into every part of your body and seeps into your clothes. Swimming around underwater, you feel like the fish that you used to go catch with your grandpa at 6am every now and then.
You come up for air, and amongst the stillness, you hear the call. It happens every year. Though sound is scarce on this island, whatever is produced inside the canopy of the trees is strongly echoed. Family members from cabins all around, each with their own calls of “they’re here!” - quickly spreading the news that more people have arrived for their annual summertime disappearance.