We are Stardust
A weekend getaway takes a turn for the worse and then an unexpected revelation about life, death and love ever after
This doesn’t bode well; it has the makings of an omen, I thought as I gripped the steering wheel of my damaged rental car and squinted into the fading light.
No, don’t think omen, my God, how dreadful, I chastised myself. But, but … three things in row … in one day … stop it. Now, here, alone in the darkening woods, is not the time. I pressed the gas pedal and forged ahead.
Twelve hours earlier, the day and my mood had started as sunny, warm, and idyllic until, just hours into my journey, both began spiraling into darkness.
I’d booked the ideal Labor Day weekend trip — hiking, kayaking, national parks — the great outdoors. It provided a quick and easy way out of the city. Since I’d moved to Chicago the year before, I continually looked for ways to get out.
The stars just weren’t aligned. I moved in the dead of winter, and then the pandemic hit, and then the protests and looting happened, the worst of it right in my new neighborhood. So instead of being the adventurous, exciting, fun-filled lifestyle of my dreams, it was a claustrophobic prison hellscape.
Then there was the other more authentic truth about this trip. I’d spent this same weekend the last several years running from memory. I was traveling to occupy my mind so that it couldn’t idle on grief-filled thoughts of my brother David. On Labor Day five years before, he was randomly shot and killed in a road rage incident. He was only driving his car down a Detroit street.
How to Forgive a Murderer
My brother’s homicide remains unsolved. With no face and no name, there’s no one to hate.
There were no reasons, no witnesses, no suspects, or closure — just emptiness where once there was a brother.
So, this year, like the last four, I planned an escape.
My travel day seemed perfect, so, heavy backpack loaded, I walked 15 minutes through the city to the car rental lot. In no time flat, I was cruising down the highway. I pointed north away from Chicago, heading into Michigan’s upper peninsula. Traffic was light, I was listening to an inspirational audiobook read by Oprah, and before I knew it, I was leaving Illinois and entering Wisconsin.
Five hours later, my little white car crossed into Michigan. I hadn’t set foot in my home state in nearly a year, though I considered this part “home” in name only. This was the upper peninsula, aka the U.P. I was born and raised south of Detroit and had barely ever been to the U.P., so it hardly counted as home. If I thought that would make it a place safe from the past, I would soon learn otherwise.
This trip included a kayak tour and hiking excursion with a company in Munising all the way north as far as you could go before hitting Canada. They’d guide me along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with its colorful, layered sandstone formations on the shores of Lake Superior. We’d also go hiking through part of the Hiawatha National Forest.
After two days, I’d make my way east to the Porcupine Mountains for more hiking before traveling back south through the Chequamegon–Nicolet National Forest. I’d make a quick stop in Madison to check out a few Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and head home.
It seemed like a wonderful plan until five minutes into Michigan when the first of three bad things happened, and the whispers of memory began to speak.
I crossed the state border and pulled into a gas station. While there, I received a call from my tour company saying they were canceling my kayak and hiking tours the next day due to the expected harsh weather. They couldn’t rebook for the weekend because they were already full, but I could get a refund or have credit good for five years. Well Hell. I tossed my sunglasses on the dashboard and blew a gust of frustrated breath out the window.
I’d already rented a car and driven half a day for those tours. I sat in the parking lot and debated my options. If Oprah had taught me anything in the last five hours, it was resilience. While I may not be able to get on the water, I could still hike on my own, which I decided to do. I would not let this setback disrupt my peaceful weekend plans.
I pulled out of the gas station and kept going … about six more blocks … until I got in a car accident.
The light was red, and I pulled into the left turn lane with cars already stopped in front of me. I saw them, and I was stopping when suddenly, I hit one.
After we pulled over to the side of the road, the old man in the big truck I hit said, “Didnya see me, hon?” To which I replied, “No, I didn’t.” To my honest recollection, his truck was not there until I struck it.
The accident was minor and didn’t injure anyone or anything except my rental car, which had damage to the left fender, front bumper, and hood. However, it still seemed good enough to drive, and the old man and I decided to part ways as friends.
That old man and his truck had appeared on a breeze, like that winged messenger of the Gods that flits about the universe as a harbinger of sorrow. The encounter disrupted me from my stupor and put my senses on full alert. It was as jarring as an unexpected smack to the back of the head. He was gone as quickly as he appeared, and I was left alone with my damage.
My brother had been an auto body guy, repairing car bodies and applying award-winning paint jobs. I wished badly then that I could text him a picture and say, “Hey, Whaddaya think this will cost me, haha? Good to keep driving?” But I couldn’t text him anymore, so I had to rely on my judgment.
Cautiously, I continued north.
I wanted to get to Munising before dark because the backwoods roads didn’t have any lights, or in many cases, paving. I didn’t have confidence that my car was in perfect driving condition; the crunched hood, mostly, worried me. I had visions of it flying open and smashing my windshield.
What the roads lacked by way of paving and electricity they made up for in beauty and grandeur. There is something about a forest of tall, straight pines, miles deep along a Michigan roadside, that has a way of embracing you like no other trees can do.
It took a few more hours to get there and I found it a much smaller town than I envisioned. The sun was beginning to set, and I breathed a sigh of relief that I wouldn’t be out driving alone in the dark wilderness. My relief lasted until I stopped at my fifth fully booked hotel. It turned out every single hotel within 50 miles of Munising was full and I didn’t have a reservation.
At this point, I started to question a lot of things.
Mostly about myself and my failures as an adult. But I also wondered what messed up universal forces had conspired to create the type of person who would travel alone into the remote woods on a holiday weekend and not have a place to stay in the first place. But I didn’t have much time for self-loathing; the sun was setting.
My options were that I could drive to the next “big city” 50 miles away and try to find a room there — but I was told they were likely already booked too — or I could sleep in my car.
I was exhausted. It was nearly dark. My GPS was flaky in these backwoods. The car might not be stable.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said aloud to myself as I drove around looking for a place to park and sleep.
I drove up and down the streets until I found a private subdivision off the Pictured Rocks shoreline. The random houses were spaced far apart from each other on a dark stretch of densely wooded road. In between two places, the space of a few football fields, I saw what looked to be a lightly used four-wheeler trail. After a few passes, I decided it was the place for me.
Quietly, I backed my car about 30 feet into the spot so I couldn’t be seen from the road and could make a quick getaway in case a property owner with a shotgun and a dislike for trespassers showed up.
Then I sat and nervously waited for the light to fade entirely from the sky and hopefully, with it, the likelihood that anyone would see my car and question me.
It was an uncomfortable passage of time.
The woods were not unfamiliar to me. David loved them and when he was alive, we frequently camped on the property of a friend of his in northern lower Michigan. He loved to be out in the woods, around the bonfire, riding four-wheelers, shooting guns at targets, sitting by the lake, kayaking the river.
We’d spent many summers among the Michigan pines and lakes in tents and boats, on beaches and campsites. We logged hundreds of hours in places like this one.
It was with no small irony that I found myself now, in trying to avoid my brother, in a place where avoiding him would be all but impossible. For he was with me here as surely as if he sat in the passenger seat.
I hadn’t camped since he died. This was the first time I’d spent the night in the woods amongst the stars without him. The first time I’d felt the crunch of Michigan pine under my feet and allowed myself to revel in the scent as it wafted up to my nose. How had I forgotten that smell? That I, too, had once loved it.
While I was driving, I was so tired I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and now, sitting under the trees in the quiet stillness of the coming night, I was as alert as I’d ever been.
I waited and the light grew fainter. No cars passed and no people arrived. I didn’t even hear any animals. There can be a stillness in the woods that is startling. How many times while camping had we been on night walks and grabbed each other’s arms and said, “Ssshhh, did you hear that?” in the quiet of the night where only the wind whispered.
Finally, in full darkness, I changed into the one pair of pants I had, put on my rain jacket, reclined my seat, and stared out the window as the stars appeared.
In the city, we don’t have stars like that.
These stars were layered 50 deep and they just kept getting deeper. Some were huge and sparkling and others were just a tiny pinpoint in the sky. Like you separated every speck of powdered sugar in the bag and just threw it up there and made it glow.
The night was getting colder, so I used my little quick-dry towel that I’d brought with me for after the kayak as a blanket. It wasn’t much, but I was grateful for it. I had a few rolled t-shirts that I used as pillows. That was it for bedding and I hoped it wouldn’t get too cold. I could start the car if I needed to, but I didn’t want the noise to drawn attention.
David had every camp amenity known to man. We used to make fun of how he camped like a king, complete with a large, decorative carpet laid out in front of his tent so no dirt could enter. I laughed at the memory of calling it the “Taj Mahal of Roscommon County” and wondered what he’d say about my accommodations now.
That’s the thing about death; you’re always wondering, but nothing ever gets answered, never, ever again.
It was quiet too. I live in downtown Chicago and it’s always loud. Screaming loud. Sirens, bells, beeps voices, cars, motorcycles, dogs, airplanes, trains, the constant hum of the buildings … even when it’s quiet, it’s loud.
I’d gotten used to wearing earplugs to sleep at night, but here in the stillness of the woods in the north of the north of Michigan, there was no sound. I didn’t even hear any crickets. It was as quiet as a tomb.
Maybe quiet is subjective. It could be that people used to the sounds of the forest heard things that I didn’t; that my city ears were muted to the softer sounds of nature. I don’t hear the city as much as visitors do. Like the way people who live near a train track stop noticing the train go by eventually.
I tried to sleep. I tossed and turned and rolled from side to side, but despite my exhaustion, I couldn’t relax enough to let sleep take me. Eventually, clouds stole over the stars, obscuring their light. I stared at the silhouette of the pine trees, as black as my thoughts.
Then, like the quiet, it was dark, darker than anything I was used to. I could barely see my own hands. In the city, it’s never dark. We don’t have stars either, but we create our nighttime sky from the buildings’ glowing windows around us.
Here, in this forest, next to Lake Superior in this ancient Indian land, there was no light but that which nature gave, and it wasn’t giving any at the moment.
I must have fallen asleep for a little while because I awoke to a bright flashlight shining in my back window. My heart raced and I jumped bolt upright.
What I’d thought was a flashlight was the brightest full moon I’d ever seen shining like a spotlight down on my car.
I could almost hear him laughing at me, my big brother, still by my side through this long, daunting night.
Though I was a little annoyed at being awakened in fear by its brightness, I couldn’t help but marvel at its magnificence. It was right alongside the Earth, here with me.
Eventually, bleary-eyed, I gave up on the idea of sleep. I tilted my chair to sit and watched as the pine trees around me slowly slowly came into view again.
It was still dim as I was driving down the road to Lake Superior and the Pictured Rocks cliffs. I figured if I was up, I might as well see the sunrise over the lake. When I arrived, only two other couples were at the central viewing platform, but I still took the trail down, down into the woods, closer to the water’s edge.
There I was alone with the great lake, the ancient cliffs, and a sky that turned from grey to purple, pink to orange, and glowed with all the power and majesty the world had to give. It was September 6th, and he had died five years ago to the day.
My breath became visible as it caught on the wind and floated away on the water. The waves pulsed and carved at the colored sandstone as they’d done for thousands of years, and massive black ravens perched on the branches above me as time marched on.
Despite my exhaustion, I decided to hike to the nearby Miner’s Falls. The hike is only about a mile and a half from the cliffs. It promised to be flat and easy through the pines. How different this day would have been had my tour gone as scheduled and I’d have been distracted by a group of people. As it was, alone during this early morning, I had the trail to myself and my thoughts, of course, were of him.
I don’t think he’d ever made it this far north, but he would have loved it.
My sister spread some of his ashes at the place we used to camp. I like to think that maybe some of him made it into the water, and as the lakes and rivers flow, perhaps somehow, someway, he’d make it up here anyway.
As I stood before the falls, mist dancing around me, maybe my brother’s spirit was there too. He could be in the water and the trees and the call of the birds above and glow of sun upon my face.
I realized then what I hadn’t known before: As long as I’m alive, he can never die. Not really. He lives on inside of me, making up a part of me. If my boots crush the pine, and my face absorbs the mist, and my soul takes in the glory of the rising sun, so too does my brother because he lives forever in me.
Things in this world may try to break and take from us, but they cannot alter the spirit of our bones. The ashes of the souls that went into making the sandstone and the lakebeds and the trees are the same souls that created everything, including me.
Whether I live in the city or the woods and I see the stars at night or the light of a million iridescent bulbs and the call of the ravens or the beeping of horns, I, like him, am of this Earth. No matter where I go or where I’ve been, my brother goes with me. We are made of the same stardust him and me.
This illusion of time and place that separates us now doesn’t matter because now is only a pinpoint as fine as a speck of powdered sugar in a sky as wide and deep as every forest there ever was. One day I will meet him there, and we will look down on the world, and, together again, we will laugh. It was never that serious after all, but the pine sure did smell good.
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