On a gusty, mid-October morning while in Door County, I walked a crooked trail through a woodland with my wife, children, their spouses and two grandchildren.
At one point that crisp, blustery day, the wind grabbed the branches of some big maples, pulling them one way, pushing them another, yanking here, there, everywhere. The fall colors being at their peak, the undulations created a riot of dipping, twisting reds, yellows and oranges.
We stopped to watch.
Sprays of the colored leaves swirled from the limbs, gyrating into the air all around like confetti streams. We watched them float to earth like billions of their ancestor leaves before them. A nearby stand of white pines cheered them on swaying back and forth like spectators at a rock concert.
I watched one particular burnt-orange leaf-swirl loop in a circular arc before settling softly onto its final resting place, the forest floor. Its carnival ride over, a new existence begun—nurturing the soil and waiting for its descendent leaves to join it in the eons to come. The action over, the figurative curtain was falling. Time to walk on.
Or so I thought.
When we turned to continue, as if part of a show-stopping finale of a well-choreographed performance, came a surprise ending, created to root us to the spot and gift us one last highlight of sight and sound like the last barrage of fireworks on the fourth of July. A new sound, faint at first, but quickly gaining volume came from above and yanked our eyes upward. A wedge of waterfowl, appeared in the sky, flying in formation, a jagged “V” pattern. It sailed low across an opening in the canopy. Their brown feathers, black heads and necks, white cheeks and white on their throats reminded me of chinstraps on helmets. They made me think of them as teammates. As if it were a single flying machine, the grouping dipped its right flank toward us watching far below as if offering a salute. The Canadian geese’s wings beat powerfully as they lifted away. Their earsplitting, hoarse honks fought with the fury of the wind creating a wild, raw cacophony that screamed, “hey look at us up here!”
We watched them pass overhead, mesmerized. They climbed rapidly and disappeared quickly, their sound fading fast in the rushing roar and whipping force of the powerful currents. They were starting their journey south with swashbuckling swagger, unaware of playing to the crowd below, namely our band of hikers. For that fleeting moment, they were superstars at center stage while the gale and bending trees in the background kept their pounding beat all the while.
I wished them well.
Amid the action, sound and general pandemonium, a new impression crept over me, hard to discern it was so gradual, one of strangeness. At first, I was not sure I felt anything. That’s because what I sensed was tranquility, a stillness that contrasted with the chaos. It formed a cocoon of quiet, a sac of organic silence around us where we stood on the ground. On the soft, pine-needle-covered path where we had stopped, only the slightest of breezes tickled our faces. Small trees and shrubs nodded imperceptibly to each other like polite strangers catching one another’s eyes as they pass on the street. A couple of dust motes or, maybe they were pollen specks hung suspended in the sun beams around us, undisturbed.
In the distance, through an opening in the trees, Lake Michigan stretched to the horizon, its surface glassy, composed and, above all, placid. Minuscule whitecaps crested quietly onto the shore. The wind’s roar, twisting trees and wild geese calling on the downwind as they soared all happened in the treetops and open sky.
The strangeness of the contrast engulfed me. Up above, uncontrolled energy. Down below, sensory deprivation. Well, almost.
Nature had created a flash of juxtaposition, a twinkling of chaos and calm at the same time, an oxymoronic moment if there ever was one. Leave it to Door County for endless surprises.
In that short space of time, no one spoke. I think each of us felt a deep connection to the raucous vibrancy and, at the same time, soft serenity of that time and place and to our shared camaraderie. The scene embodied everything I loved about the Door peninsula.
Were my grandchildren old enough to feel the bond? I wondered. Or does a child have to reach a certain age to feel such spiritual things? I didn’t know.
Still not sure.
But something in that fleeting moment pushed me to decide that now was the hour that I must begin work on my personal legacy to them to help them remember times like this and the rest of Door County that together we had begun discovering.
In that moment, I believe, Good Night, Door County was born.