Twenty-five years ago, after my husband’s mother died and left us a good sum of money, we bought a beach house on Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The beach house was a two-story board and batten house painted a dark, earthy brown. There was an old wraparound deck, weathered gray, and stairways on either side of the house.
Inside there was an enormous stone fireplace and hearth built out of beach rocks and rooms full of furniture made from driftwood. The house was crammed with furniture which the previous owner left behind, giving us a sick feeling the day we moved in that somehow the deal had gone south, and we hadn’t really bought the place.
We loved this house in an immediate and all-encompassing way and we made the six-hour drive with our three kids from our home in Milwaukee to Grand Marais every few weekends even in deep winter when the snow would blow through the sliding glass door facing the lake and pile up in drifts in the living room.
Because we were new to Lake Superior and ignorant about the power of the weather – the fierce cold and the unbelievably powerful winds coming out of the northwest – we suffered many mishaps. Chief among these were frozen pipes. There was a list of steps written down on yellow legal paper detailing how to shut off the water, drain the water heater, and put antifreeze in the toilets. We did those things but imperfectly, so plumbers often came to our house, hauling their giant bags of tools over the four-foot snowdrifts in our driveway. One weekend, a plumber huddled in a crawlspace behind our bathtub, running a blowtorch the length of a frozen pipe for what seemed like hours.
Whether that was what started the fire, we never determined. It could have been a squirrel chewing through electrical wires outside or maybe a candle left burning or the bag of old fireplace ashes we’d swept into a paper bag and left by mistake in the middle of the living room floor.
By the time the fire took hold, we had been gone several hours. It was too much staying there, too risky with the power going on and off, so when the plumber said he was done, we hightailed it, holding hands down the driveway to make sure we didn’t lose anybody in what was becoming a white out, a blizzard so thick people don’t know where they are or where they’re going.
The house blew up. We’d left propane canisters in the camping closet, another rookie error. So, after flames erupted in the January night, the house exploded. We know this because a local photographer sent us pictures – a stack of them showing the fire’s progression. I looked at them once and then hid them in the attic where I wouldn’t be able to find them for years.
We didn’t come back until spring. Everything was gone except nails, hundreds of nails that had scattered when the house blew apart. Pieces of glass, the smallest nuggets of windows, and here and there, tiny things we had loved like the lace edge of a pillowcase, the metal water scoop that we’d used to dump water on the sauna rocks, pieces of the garish orange carpet that had covered the floor of the kids’ bedrooms.
We built a new house.
Because we were sad and feeling guilty for possibly burning our own house down, although we never knew what caused the fire for sure, we were careful to build the house on exactly the same spot as the old one. We did this so we wouldn’t block the view for the neighbors to the east, the view to the west being the most precious since it included not only a long peninsula with the Au Sable lighthouse at the end but the enormous sand dunes of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. It was, as the realtors would say, a priceless view, so we couldn’t bear ruining it for anyone else. This is hard to explain, but it made us feel better to tuck ourselves in to the footprint of the old house. It felt like our apology to the world for the inconvenience and unsightliness of our fire.
This meant that we built back several feet from where we would have been allowed to build. It’s complicated but the zoning laws on Lake Superior say that one must build fifty feet behind the traverse line, which is a demarcation that cannot be seen, and only professional surveyors can ascertain. It’s mythical in that way and very powerful. The traverse line is like a gold thread if you’re seeking to build because it determines your view. But we were ignorant of this and full of mourning and shame about our old house so we built where we could see the footings of the old house, like somehow, that would make everything better.
It took a good long time, but we healed up after the fire. That we had a modest but beautiful house as replacement, with an enormous deck that enabled us to see the dunes and the lighthouse and our new neighbor to the west several hundred yards away made us happy. We painted the house red, for obvious reasons.
Our neighbor to the west, a woman who had suffered both the loss of her husband and one of her daughters, became our friend and we would stand on our decks and yell conversations at each other. Our dogs would prance on our porches, and we would hear sprinkles of each other’s music playing during our sunset drinking. We knew enough to be grateful. And joyful. We were, after all, on the shores of the greatest inland lake in the world, Canada lay to the north, freighters passed by on their way to Superior, white pelicans sometimes soared past on their way south. Each day was the bluest blue. And the sunsets were enormous and spreading, all across the lake and the beach and our houses and us.
Then, as it happens, someone bought the property between us and our friend to the west. The new neighbor’s plan was approved by the township zoning administrator. It said on the plan that she would be building an enormous two-story house exactly fifty feet behind the traverse line and eighteen feet from our property line. She had been hinting at this for a while, spending months making demands and being angry about the location of electrical wires and gas lines. People like that, who are relentless and addicted to conflict, usually win, we think, but nonetheless we make calls and voice our complaints. We tell officials that the proposed house is too big, five times larger than ours, and a danger to the natural habitat. We wonder out loud if she is planning a hotel instead of a home and talk to lawyers in two different cities. Neither thinks we have a case. She is within her rights, they say, and she’s fifty feet behind the traverse line, the gold thread.
It is sad to be fighting in this place that we love. We eye the old footings of our burned down house and wish that we’d moved the new house up when we had the chance. It never occurred to us then to block our neighbor’s view, whether out of guilt or the desire to avoid conflict or, worse, make someone else unhappy. Fundamentally, we cared what the neighbors thought, and we didn’t even know them then. I’m proud of that, our community-mindedness, even if having thought this way results in a new neighbor blocking the view of our beloved light house and sand dunes. We’ve looked at them plenty already. More than most folks could ever imagine.