February 20, 2022

FTV: Weird Scenes . . .

Okay fans of The Doors, complete the lyric begun in the title:  Weird scenes . . . inside the gold mine (which comes from The End, the final track of their eponymous debut album)I purposely made this a little too easy so it would serve as a red herring.  With my apologies to Jim Morrison and the boys, the whole title is intended to be ‘Weird Scenes Along The Highway’ because that is what popped into my head driving down the road listening to The Doors one sunny day.  They hit that line in The End and I suddenly had visions of jumping snapping turtles pass before my eyes (more on this a little later).

     The circle encompassing my driving experiences is not large by any means.  Up to 2005, the furthest south I had ever driven in Michigan was to Ann Arbor, Detroit (and nearby Windsor, Ontario), and Coldwater.  My most southerly Wisconsin destination was Elkhart Lake for the races at Road America.  Before 1974, my furthest driving venture north was Calumet.  There were other travels by car, van, and bus (both school and commercial) farther north (Hearst, Ontario during a field study trip around Lake Superior) and south (Chicago for an eighth grade science field trip), but only as a passenger.  The two years our daughter was attending graduate school in Boulder, Colorado, I expanded my driving range quite a bit, although it was more of a ‘co-driver’ situation.  Anyone who spends a fair amount of their time driving the American highways and byways is bound to see some strange things in their travels.  Maybe traveling home from band gigs in the wee hours helped me collect more than my share of ‘road oddities’ but thanks to The Doors, I now feel compelled to remember a few of these ‘weird scenes along the highway’.  I am not normally a betting man but I would lay odds many of you have seen even stranger things while traveling in your vehicle.

     Elkhart Lake reminded me of the night we rescued one fifth of the Northern Michigan University basketball team.  I was behind the wheel of a friends beat up Chevy station wagon while he and his girlfriend were snoozing in the back seat.  We were returning to Marquette having spent the weekend sleeping under the stars on a sheet of plastic while attending races at Road America.  We left after the Sunday afternoon races and being late August, it was pretty dark as we motored the home stretch between Escanaba and Marquette.  On a God forsaken stretch of US 41 between Rapid River and Trenary, we came upon a car parked on the shoulder.  Standing next to the car were three guys sporting the distinctive green and gold NMU letterman jackets.  As we passed them, I put on the brakes, did a U-Turn and drove back to where they were standing.  There were no other cars on the road so I stopped on the opposite side, rolled down the window.  My two back seat passengers were just now waking up and were a little confused.  “Hey Leroy,” I called over, “you guys having car trouble?”  

     NMU forward Leroy Robertson and I had been in a freshman class two years earlier.  When he recognized me, he said, “Yeah, it’s dead.  Can we get a lift to the college?”  The basketball team had been to Escanaba for an intersquad game/fundraiser for the Escanaba schools and were on the way home.  Leroy was at least 6 foot 6 (maybe 6 foot 9 with his impressive afro) but slim as a reed.  His two companions were as tall but bulkier than Leroy so by the time they were shoehorned into the front and back seat, I didn’t have much wiggle room in the driver’s seat.  As busy as US 41 can be, we didn’t see any other traffic moving in either direction until we hit Beaver Grove just south of Marquette (a fact they commented on wondering how long they would have been out there waiting for a lift).  When we dropped them off on campus, the three ball players were having a good natured discussion about whose turn it was to fetch the broken car so we assumed this was not the first time something like this had happened to them.  

     Not all of the groupings I would see on the road were human.  During the summers of 1972 and 1973, my dual jobs kept me on the road between Marquette and the Huron Mountain Club two or three days a week.  I would finish my dishwasher shift on Thursday and then drive to town to pick up the band equipment truck for one of our Knockdown gigs.  By 2 AM Friday morning, I had eaten breakfast at one of the all-night fast food joints, dropped off the truck and headed back to the club.  The Friday gigs were a little better because Saturday was my day off.  I could sleep in Saturday and save the drive back to the club for early Sunday morning after our Saturday gig.  Midway through July of 1972, I began noticing a pack of coyotes sitting just off a bend in the road halfway between the HMC gate and the main club compound.  Sometimes I would see three or four adults and on occasion there would be a few pups with them.  It was a running joke around the dishroom:  “Hey, did you see your coyote posse last night?”  It became such a common occurrence, I began to slow down or stop, roll down my window and talk to them.  They never ran off and with God as my witness, they sure looked like they were listening.

     The strangest part of the pack of coyotes story wasn’t written until the summer of 1973.  I was asked to start work a month earlier than the rest of the kitchen crew.  Normally, I would have been there in early June but this year I was there the second week of May.  Ted, the kitchen manager, assured me that even with a kitchen staff of one (me), he could cover for me on nights when I had band jobs.  At the end of my first week back at the club, we only had Friday and Saturday gigs.  On the way back to the club early Sunday morning, I was just passing through Big Bay when it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen my coyote buddies in over eight months.  The thought of them being on the same corner waiting for me seemed ridiculous enough that it made me chuckle.  The chuckling stopped when I rounded the coyote bend and hit the brakes.  There in my headlights were four pairs of glowing coyote eyes right where they had been the summer before.  To this day I have pondered if coyotes have ESP, but perhaps I flatter myself too much.  Maybe Coyote Corner was just their natural gathering spot, a ‘coyote nightclub’ if you will.

     One of the oddest things our whole family observed happened on US 41 between Marquette and Negaunee.  We were traveling back to Ontonagon after visiting my mother and father.  We were following a smallish sedan that looked like it had seen better days.  The road was going uphill and a little to the right.  That section of the four lane highway included a grassy median/ditch.  One of the kids said, “Hey, look at their back tire!” at which point we all focused our attention to the left rear of the car.  The left hand tire had decided to jump ship and looked like it was trying to pass the rest of the car.  We slowed down and watched as the tire angled off to the left, crossed the median, two more lanes of traffic, and then began rolling along the guardrail on the farside of the highway.  The tire did not hit any other vehicles and ended up leaning against the rail once it stopped rolling.  The three legged car cleared the guardrail on our side of the road and braked to a hasty stop, at which point the left rear axle dropped to the pavement.

     When he heard the story of the car passing tire, my dad said he had a similar experience with a trailer tire on a straight stretch of US 41 somewhere between The Cozy Inn and Parent Lake.  We had a homemade flatbed trailer we used to haul building materials to our camp on Huron Bay.  Dad said he was driving west when he spotted the left wheel of this one axle trailer detach and move over to the center line.  Dad slowed down so he could ease onto the shoulder only to see the now independent wheel pass him, hit a bump and then veer to the right.  As it exited the highway, the free range tire bounced over a water filled ditch and disappeared into a dense cedar swamp, never to be seen again.  The old wheel must have been in poor shape as the lug nuts were still attached to the axle which helped fix the problem without dad having to leave the trailer parked on the shoulder.  In that he was transporting a spare trailer tire to camp, dad simply unstrapped the spare from his pile of lumber and left the disappearing tire and wheel to the swamp creatures.

     Hearing this story for the first time thirty years after the fact, it struck me that this stretch of US 41 might be inhabited by some evil sprite who liked to prank people driving by.  Dad confirmed  this was the same area he had also abandoned a burning mattress bound for camp.  Dad was still smoking back then and he made the classic smoker’s mistake of flipping a cigarette butt out of his window.  It wasn’t long before he realized his mistake – the glowing butt had landed among the cargo he was transporting on the same trailer.  Among the items was a double bed mattress which was on the top of the load but strapped under some windows.  When he pulled over and untied the windows, the influx of fresh air resulted in a sudden burst of flames from the smoldering boxspring.  A quick flip and the mattress and boxspring were blazing away at the side of the road.  When all the burnable parts were consumed, dad flipped the metal spring into the water filled ditch to cool it off and then strapped it back on top of a tarp so it wouldn’t get the rest of the load dirty.  The spring frame was still put to use at camp:  weighted down with a couple of cement blocks, we would drag it behind our beater camp truck to smooth out the road.  If it wasn’t some pranking sprite, then perhaps the trailer itself was cursed.

     A few miles east of the cursed section of US 41 mentioned above, a sixteen mile long tributary of the Sturgeon River crosses the same highway.  There is a popular rest stop at Tioga River bridge with restrooms, picnic area, and a hand pumped well for fresh water.  It was within a mile of this turnout where we had our one and only moose sighting.  Not long after MDOT posted a “Moose Crossings next 35 miles” sign near Parent Lake, we were joking about the likelihood of seeing a moose in Upper Michigan.  Less than ten miles past the sign and just past the Tioga River turnout, we noticed a young antlered moose grazing in the swamp grass south of the highway.  Twenty years earlier I was pretty sure I saw a cougar crossing the highway in that same area but I never told anybody about it because everyone knew (then) that there were no cougars in the U.P.

After John Case told me he had been taking pictures of a mother cougar and her cubs within the confines of the Huron Mountain Club near Ive’s Lake, I had no doubts of what I had seen.  Sharing both revelations with my father, he surprised me again – he had seen a cougar crossing US 41 near the Tioga River a decade before I did.  The one he saw was traveling north and mine was going south, so perhaps it was the same one on some ten year long adventure.

     I remember reading a blurb in the papers in the early 1970s about a pink flamingo being spotted in the slough at the head of Keweenaw Bay between L’Anse and Baraga.  This was not one of those plastic lawn flamingos, it was the real thing.  As it turned out, my future wife and mother in law witnessed this event first hand on one of their frequent trips to visit my brother-in-law Matt.  Matt was seriously injured by a drunk driver while attending NMU.  Multiple trips to see him during his long recovery were physically and mentally taxing for the whole family.  On one return trip, they had driven quite a way past the head of Keweenaw Bay before my mother-in-law Ruth asked my wife, “Did you see anything unusual as we rounded the bay?”  Both had seen the out of place and hard to miss wading bird but were tired enough to not trust their own eyes.  Even though I was not there to see it personally, it still ranks as probably the most unusual Upper Peninsula roadside observance I have heard of.  Minus the cougar and the moose sightings, my weirdest observation on a highway took place just south of Big Bay on County Road 550 in broad daylight.

     On the way to Marquette from the HMC for one of my weekend gigs, I stopped at the little general store on the edge of Big Bay for a pop.  Being early summer, it was still quite bright at 7:30 p.m. but there were dark clouds brewing up a thunderstorm.  As I started down the road toward Marquette, I noticed I could not see Disappearing Mountain.  This is a large hill one can see on the straight stretch of CR 550 just outside of Big Bay.  It appears to sink below the trees as one gets closer to it but on this day, it was shrouded in a thick fog.  As I got closer to the first curve in the road, I realized the ‘fog’ was a heavy downpour of rain obscuring the mountain.  The part of the road I was on was perfectly dry but it vanished behind a thick curtain of rain.  It was an unusual scene, but the really weird part was what was happening a hundred yards in front of the curtain of rain.

     At the right edge of the road, there was a large, dark mound about the size of a wheelbarrow load of dirt.  Just after I noticed it, the mound jumped up and to the left, landing a third of the way across my lane.  As the distance closed, it jumped four or five more times, landing on the left shoulder of 550 after the last bound.  I had seen some extremely large snapping turtles on Pine Lake at the club so there was no doubt in my mind it was a huge snapper.  This jumping mound of a turtle was similar in size with a shell of at least three feet in diameter.  Seeing a large snapper did not surprise me nearly as much as seeing it jump like it did.  I am not certain if it was the weather, mating season, or some combination of both that caused this frisky behavior, but the information about snapping turtles jumping was filed away in my brain for future reference.  There would be no way I would get anywhere close to a big snapper after I saw how quickly they can get around when the spirit moves them.

     My favorite ‘weird highway thing’ in Ontonagon County had to be the ‘UFO over cow’ sign on the Greenland Road near the old Wilber Ranch cattle crossing.  There was a time when this area was a hotbed of UFO sightings and apparently someone decided to commemorate that period with a unique cattle crossing sign.  It was the typical highway yellow diamond shape highway sign with the silhouette of a cow on it, but above the cow there was another silhouette – a typical saucer shaped UFO.  I am glad I happened to have my camera with me the day I spotted it (I still have the photo to prove it in my computer files).  I can not say it was a souvenir collector, MDOT. or aliens who removed the sign, but the next time I went by, there was only half a sign post left standing.  Eventually, that too disappeared.  If anyone out there has more information on this strange cattle crossing sign’s history, you know how to reach me.  In the meantime, keep an eye out for those weird things one can only observe while driving the highways and byways of our fair land.

Top Piece Video:  Okay, it isn’t The End and Roadhouse Blues won’t let me post a video, so here is another song about Rockin’ Down the Highway!