North to Heaven, South to Hell
By Ian Haubert, Junior
It’s one of those tediously stark winter days. You know, the ones without a single cloud in the sky, except for maybe a few worthless, cigarette-smoke wisps around the edges. The ones where all the trees on the wooded hills, normally the highlight of your average highway scenery–which is bleak to begin with–protrude, naked and grey, from a blanket of yellowed plants and obscenely moist patches of mud. Everything’s brown, like those big concrete walls they have everywhere in cities and things–the kind that don’t look right without a fair dusting of graffiti on it and a few plastic bags milling around at their feet. Fifty degrees and not a cloud in the sky. I’ve heard enough about what a beautiful day it is out today–it’s disgusting.
You might think it’s because of how vividly it reminds me of things like cigarettes and litter that I’m not a fan of that type of aesthetic, but, when I get to considering it, I think it’s quite the contrary. See, I can’t really come up with anything more to describe about it without getting boring or repetitive, but, if it were snowy and twenty-five, or summer time and all leafy and cloudy everywhere, I think I’d have a lot to say. I’ve always liked that sense of adventure, of not quite having a handle on everything, so that it’s all kind of blurred and dreamy and sweet around the edges. That’s something you just don’t get when everything’s stripped down and the sun’s oozing into every cool, tight place and making it all bright brown and steamy. At least when there’s snow or leaves on the branches, you’ve got some blanks to fill in. It’s pretty disenchanting when you can see everything.
It’s pretty much the same way with people, a lot of the time. Before you can see anything, it’s kind of easy to fill in the blanks and imagine they’re real great people. When you start exploring them more, though, you start crossing your hopes for them off your list until you’re left with a compulsive liar, a conceited actor, or someone who’s actually decent, but they’ve just got the wrong priorities. The difference between scenery and people is that you can afford to fill in the blanks with something nice when it comes to scenery. I’ve figured out that you can’t afford to kid yourself when it comes to people; some of them count on that. There’s a fine line between sympathy and getting screwed over. Now, don’t mistake me for some kind of misanthrope; I know plenty of people who are decent and whose company I can enjoy quite a bit. It’s helpful that I’m not close enough to most of them that I have to scrutinize them, though. I’ve yet to find someone who’s so similar to me that I’m really, really fond of just spending time with them. I’m not talking about romance–romance is about the closest thing to the art of filling in the blanks with all that sappy, fantastical stuff that I can name. I think my social aspirations tend to be more intellectual and quite a bit higher than most other people’s–I want to know people. Most of them are more concerned with trading jokes and selling each other things, though–so it’s not real easy to do.
Sometimes I just get sick of it all. Especially on days like this, when you can see everything. At this point, you’re kind of just waiting for the sun to go down. Or waiting to sit down and watch TV. Or both. If you stand back and think about it, it’s kind of depressing to have to be looking forward to something like watching TV, but when you’re coming from the same old place you’ve got to be going back to in the morning, it can be nice to forget about all the details. See, on TV, everything’s real simple. All the people mostly just have a little, superficial role to play and everybody, even the leads, has got his own little niche. Now, there’s nothing really wrong with just enjoying that kind of thing, if it’s pretend, but if you start to think that real life can be dumbed down like that, and you’re your own little actor, with your own little role to play, you’re liable to lose yourself. Oh, I’d bet there are plenty of people out there who would tell you just the opposite, that coming to grips with that role is an enlightening experience, the Holy Grail of the Quest for Self. They’d probably make it out to be some kind of rite of passage, or something, like it’s part of growing up or whatever. Growing up. Do you call growth? Because that’s all it is, if you just try to play your role. You’ve really got a whole lot of things you can do and be, and to get your “role,” you’re just cutting all of them away except a few. It’s not a growth thing; it’s actually a pruning thing. Of course, you’ve got to look close and think about it to realize it, and even then you might not even care. People have found plenty of useless things to care about instead of the important stuff… plenty of convenient ways of blurring their vision: fashions, frivolities, drugs, alcohol, whatever. I’m not saying I’m the world’s poster child for sobriety, or anything. Like I said, I’m probably going home to watch some stupid program that grossly misrepresents real life and take a minute to forget about mine. That doesn’t make those things any more okay, though. And it definitely doesn’t make knowing people any easier.
I told you I don’t like concrete architecture and graffiti, but I can sometimes appreciate it. Between my house and here, there’s an overpass that has “North to Heaven” scrawled in plain, unflamboyant black lettering on its face if you’re coming from the south. Even better, if you’re coming from the north, it says “South to Hell.” I get a kick out of that every time I see it, somehow. I live in Michigan, by the way. My family’s got this place up north that we used to go to pretty much every summer, and it’s really not too far off from heaven up there. All the evergreens and old hardwood forests, and then those crazy cliffs and stuff once you get to the coastline–there’s nothing else like it. Lake Superior’s got some of the clearest water you can imagine, too. Most of the places we’d go boating or swimming or whatever, you could always see right through to the bottom, where there are all these big, perfect boulders are sitting that kind of make you dizzy just looking at them. And then there are the sunsets. If you’re in the right place at the right time, there’s nothing like them. Sometimes, the sun goes down behind storm clouds or fog or something, but other times, there’s just the right amount of cloud cover and the whole sky turns all these shades of red and orange and purple, like it’s all just burning out, and the sandy cliffs you’re sitting on and the hemlocks and the firs and the pines and the endless waters are all gold, all the way to the horizon. It’s like its own little world. It’s absolutely surreal.
Our cabin’s not very big or very fancy. It’s almost like a little shack or a hut or something. It’s kind of back in the woods, so we always had to drive when we wanted to go to the lake, but that’s ok. Sometimes, houses along the lakeshore can kind of ruin its appeal. It’s not very clean in the cabin, and the water’s pretty hard, so it’s almost like camping to stay there. It’s always a good time, though. As for the driveway and the roads you take to get to it, I thought they were bad in the summer. Unless you know every inch of the way, I can guarantee you’ll crash when they’re covered in snow and ice and the sun’s long gone. I’ve been here enough to drive it in my sleep, though, no matter the weather. Don’t worry; I’m fine. Honestly, I’m more concerned about finding the spare key under all this snow.