I’m in my mid-twenties when my father and I drive across the ice. It’s night. March. And I’m not sure that driving to an island in a car is ever a good idea, but I don’t argue. I’m holding on to the door handle with both hands because I’ve been instructed to keep my door slightly ajar.
“Just in case,” my father says.
His door is slightly ajar too. He’s gripping the handle with his left hand while steering the car with his right. The tires move over the ice like they move over snow or dirt or even pavement, but I don’t trust slick surfaces or ones that are susceptible to what I imagine is sudden change. Warmth from the heater radiates from the front vents and then disappears into nothing. I feel confused and regretful and nervous. Why am I subjecting myself to northern Wisconsin with my father? I know that out there in front of me is the hump of land we’re headed to, but all I can see is white nothing that stretches on past the beams of our headlights.
We’re taking this chance, not because we don’t know the risk. “I wouldn’t do it,” the bartender at Guth’s had said as we were finishing dinner at his lakeside tavern. We’re going because my father likes danger, and I’ve always been a good daughter who has found herself along for the ride.
In the morning I wake up early. For a few seconds I can tell I am listening for the sound of waves licking the shore. That’s what you hear on this porch in summer when all the windows are open—that and the monotone buzz of fishing boats going about their work. Now everything outside is silent, and it must be too early for snowmobiles. In the next room my father opens the door of the wood-burning stove and pokes around a fire more than it needs to be tended. He’s good at burning things. Not just logs, but bridges to what can save him. I’m starting to figure that out, but I don’t know why his moods swing back and forth like a pendulum for no reason or how they start or how I can get the really bad ones to stop. When I was a kid, the sounds of him tending the stove were comforting. My brothers and I would hear them when we woke up, when we were rolling log-like from one pushed-together bed to another, laughing and goofing around. Steamroller, we called the game, until one of us had to pee and the fun ended. That was before indoor plumbing when you had to walk all the way back to the outhouse, and by the time you did you felt the pull of the lake and its adventures and were up for the day.
When I get out of bed, I feel colder than I ever have in this cottage. I’m dressed in the flannel and fleece I slept in. Mountain clothes—ones I need in Colorado where I live now. I pull on my Sorrel boots. Slip on a down vest. If there’s any life in this frozen air, I can’t smell it. In the main room where my father sits staring at the stove, all the windows are boarded up and all the couches and stuffed chairs are draped with sheets. This place I love looks haunted, and in a way it is. Not with anonymous ghosts walking through walls and whizzing around in curlicues, but with the ghosts of my ancestors—a grandmother and grandfather I never knew who brought their four sons to this cottage every summer of their childhoods for three months. I think that’s why we’re here, in a way—not because my father wants to see the cottage off-season like he told me he did, but because he’s hoping somehow to confront a past that’s spooked him.
Outside I imagine it’s overcast. Inside, the cottage presses down on my father like an anvil, squeezing out all the charming aspects of his personality that were in play yesterday morning when we started driving. He’s wearing two wool jackets, and his face is a pattern of deep lines I can feel on the tips of my fingers without touching. He won’t be talking much today. He’ll be going through the motions of eating and walking and breathing, and his eyes will be empty and glazed. A cigarette burns in the ashtray beside him. It’s his best friend, especially when scaling whatever it is that’s looming right there in the room. My role is what it’s always been: to throw him a belay line and hold steady, to tell him that he’s been a good father, even when I don’t know if that’s true.
The question is not how to do this. I’m old enough now to realize that I’m an expert at being there for my father in a way that no one else in my family has been for years. Before I could walk, my mother tells me, I’d stand on the floor of the passenger’s seat with my tiny hands on the dashboard while he drove—and in many ways I’m still standing and still trying to help.
The question now is if I should be. A twenty-four year old figuring out her own life has no business trying to make an unhappy man happy, especially one who often lashes out with rage at his family and doesn’t really understand that he has. “It would be better for all of you,” my father told me a couple years ago as he drew his signature three-dimensional arrows pointing every which way on a napkin during lunch, “if I were an alcoholic.” At the time I didn’t understand the connection he was making between his behavior and a serious addiction, and it seemed wrong. But I’m starting to think that he might have told me something important. My father’s obsession with dissecting his past and the faults in his character is a kind of disease. It doesn’t always look that bad from the outside—he never stumbles or slurs sentences or blacks out. There are no hidden bottles of booze. But his long periods of silence punctuated with bursts of rage are destructive, and he’s lost jobs and friendships and opportunities because of them. Now that I’ve been on my own for half a decade, I’m starting to understand that all fathers don’t operate in the world like mine does.
There’s no law that you can’t come to this island off-season, but few people do. The islanders here are summer vacationers who like the buoyancy of water, and most of the cottages aren’t winterized. After breakfast I decide to set off on the snowy trail circling the perimeter of the island.
“Dad…” I say at the door, feeling as if I must ask my father along, but knowing—even before it happens—that he’ll ignore me.
Outside it’s cold, but I wish it were even colder. The VW Beetle that has stranded me here sits beached, looking whale-like on the ice, and I still don’t trust water that can hold up the weight of a car.
In Colorado winter is risky because the mountainous terrain is more vertical than horizontal. Without the incline, snowfields and glaciers wouldn’t be that dangerous, and, of course, avalanches wouldn’t occur. Blizzards and white outs and post-holing take on more serious dimensions when the ground isn’t flat. The landscape in Wisconsin, by contrast, is easy to negotiate, and except for my ignorance about how and when lakes change form and my knowledge that even cars can drown, the natural world surrounding me seems clear and safe. The snow is beautiful, and I love all of the white. Birch trees play hide-and-seek, and the sounds of blue jays and a species of hammering woodpecker touch my soul and fill me up. This is the kind of landscape I’m most familiar with from my childhood, but I’m not sure it would comfort me now without my years working as a backcountry ranger in the mountains. The mountains have taught me about hypothermia and silence and crampons. I’ve slept in snow caves and searched for snow-buried bodies with a probe. I know storm clouds and when to wait them out. More than once I’ve skied at midnight under the light of a pulsing round moon. There is, I suspect now as I move along the trail, a way that nature can make you strong enough to survive a father like mine.
This island we’re on is shaped like an arrowhead. Eighteen cottages dot its sharp edges like pearls on a necklace, and the short side where the clasp would be set is too marshy for building. Most of the cottages have been handed down through family members for generations, and most come with stories that I can open up and read just by looking at their snow-covered doorsteps as I pass. Some are suspenseful, but end happily. Mr. Ludwig, for example, was rescued one night when he fell overboard while trolling for fish.
But other stories that survive are tragic and mysterious. Divorces and drowning and murder can happen to island people in Milwaukee and Minneapolis and Michigan, and once they do, the details of what happened are absorbed deep into the wood and windows and roofs of the cottages and can’t easily be rubbed out. There’s the story that Mr. Dillinger hanged himself and that’s why no one ever stays at his cottage and its porch has rotted away. And there’s the story about the Babs and the Dodges, next-door neighbors on the island who became bedfellows when Mr. Dodge started sleeping with Mrs. Babs and Mr. Babs started sleeping with Mrs. Dodge.
The past rises to the surface in winter when there are no distractions, when someone isn’t waving to you from their dock or passing you on the trail or looking for blueberries at the same place that you were planning to pick. In summer, life on the island is busy and full. Sometimes, though, when I was a kid, night scared me, like when I returned from taking the boat to the boathouse by myself and heard a sound I didn’t know or when I was a teenager and a couple of us would walk around the island after we assumed everyone was asleep. Without a moon, nights on the island are a beautiful shade of black and stars sparkle like glitter but I never wanted to be last teenager in line. It wasn’t too scary on the arrowhead sides of the island, but past the Ebert’s when the trail veers away from the lake and into the marsh, my laughing and chattering always softened to whispers. The terrain wasn’t what I was nervous about or the bats or the dense underbrush. I was afraid of something from the past pulling me somewhere I’d never been, somewhere I didn’t want to be.
As kids we always seemed to navigate the island counter clockwise, but today without realizing it I’m moving around in the other direction, and nothing looks like itself. The lake is a long sheet of paper that reminds me of desert or prairie without grass. Far out beside Treacherous Bay, tiny specks might be ice fishermen looking for their luck in a hole.
Water has become land, but once I’ve circled the entire island and am standing in front of our cottage again, I no longer sense the awe of nature as much as I feel disorientated and anxious, pulled back to where I started because what other choice do I have? My father’s smoke still curls from the concrete chimney. There is no wind. Except for a slideshow of memories looping through my brain, the row of boarded-up windows in front of me is a blank page that I realize I’m trying to read.
I like to imagine that before electricity arrived on the island, life each summer might have been like camping, and my father might have enjoyed walking to the community icehouse each morning to get ice for his family’s perishable food. I do know that when he was about ten Leonard Guth taught my father the art of paddling a canoe and that someone shot through the taut fishing line instead of through the musky’s head when my grandfather caught his big one, and that one summer’s night my grandmother fell into the hole in the outhouse and had to keep calling for help. When my father told me these stories, though, I never knew what they were supposed to mean, and I still don’t. I always had the sense that they might not even be real, that they might be covering up the past and that there might be other stories that my father wasn’t telling me, and that these were the ones that mattered, the ones I still need to hear.
The next morning when we pack up, it’s early. Neither of us mentions the warmth in the cottage or worries out loud about how high temperatures must rise before they’re able to change the form of a lake. My father wears only one jacket as he shovels ash from the belly of the stove with a concentration I know well. I’m pretty sure that outside it’s “socked in”—an expression I learned in the mountains to talk more accurately about the weather.
In summer, departures from the island are a production. Someone has to strip the beds and haul the sheets and towels to and from the Laundromat in Elcho while someone stays behind to clean, but my father and I pull up stakes easily in winter: washing nothing but dishes, folding the used linens back up and piling them just where they were in the center of the beds as if no one has been here. We haven’t even been upstairs. I scrape off our leftover dinner from the plates, watch my father move in slow motion as he places yellowed copies of the Milwaukee Journal back into the kindling box. He’s smoking again, still in another world that no one but he can enter.
Because you don’t have to worry about waves getting you wet, it turns out that crossing to the mainland by car is easier than by boat. Without saying a word, we simply stow our suitcases and trash in the trunk and take our places in the front seat. Above us the sky is a single cloud. In front of us the cottage is framed in the windshield like a 19th- century painting. As my father backs up and points the car in the direction we’re headed, the distant shoreline comes into view as a long abstract line. I turn towards my father’s profile, wanting to say something and then changing my mind. Somewhere out there this lake is thirty-nine feet deep; we’ve already backed up onto depths that are over our heads.
Over the years I’ve grown up assuming that my ancestors were well respected both on and off the island. My grandfather was president of a small-town bank. All of his sons, except my father, ended up as presidents of small-town banks too. And the story I’ve always told myself was this: that my father, the artist of the bunch, who supported his wife and three children as a photographer, wasn’t a black sheep as much as he was a shinny gem—the son with the talent. Driving across the ice, however, after spending two days alone with my father in the cottage for the first time, I’m not so sure that the past was what I, or anyone from the outside, might have thought it was. Who were these relatives of mine that my father lived with when he was a boy? What kind of complicated and troubled relationship did he have with his parents? Why does this man who gave me life oftentimes disappear into silence as dark as death?
Maybe because it’s broad daylight or because the whole lake is empty or because rain starts bearing down on the windshield like tiny knives, I finally understand my father is someone with secrets I can’t save. For a long instant, this knowledge doesn’t seem like much, but then I realize it might be everything, and I feel lighter, as if I’m hovering over the ice. Beside me, my father still sits driving with his hands on the steering wheel. Below us I imagine walleyes and bass and northern pike, not frozen in place in mid-swim, but lying low in the oxygen-deprived dark at the bottom of the lake, most of them surviving until spring. That’s when Guth’s comes into view like a tiny anchor, and I know our little car will make it across the ice and pull up on shore like some kind of odd amphibious vehicle. It will probably be raining harder by then, and my father will keep the motor running as, stoop-shouldered and sad, he transfers our trash from the trunk to the dumpster.
After that he’ll turn left out of Guth’s parking lot and take to the wet highway, and I’ll realize that he’s driving at too fast a speed, the windshield wipers going back and forth as if they are slapping the glass. At that point my heart will acknowledge the weight that has been passed right on to me. It’s a weight that could crack any surface, still pull me under.
It started with Charles Baxter. His story titled “Snow.” And the brothers trying to impress a girl with a car that went through the ice. For ten years I would find myself peering through Baxter’s iced-over lake at his two-door Impala: its whiteness and huge trunk, its “sloping fins just a bit green in the algae-colored light.” I often imagined sleek fish sliding past its radio-antenna and windshield wipers and front grille. I could even make out what Baxter couldn’t: that the car wasn’t just a “practical joke,” but an image capable of haunting one woman stuck in a state without snow.
The trigger came seven years later when I met Nickolas Butler after reading “Beneath the Bonfire,” his story about a girl who finds herself scuba diving in a January-frozen Wisconsin lake. Kat never wanted to ease herself into a wet suit and “plunge through” a hole in the ice, but with her wild boyfriend’s urging, she did, feeling fear “reach up from the bottom of the cold, black winter lake.” The end of Butler’s scene, when Kat tries to surface and feels “the lid of the lake against her scalp—the top of her own icy coffin,” terrified me. That’s when my perspective changed from looking down through the hole in the ice to looking straight up through it towards the sky.
Once those two stories lived together in my mind for a few months, I knew I would write an essay similar to “My Father and I Take a Vacation.”