My friend Danna Ephland’s pink flamingo earring hung from my rear-view mirror. When my hound dog Truffle and I had visited Danna in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on a cross-country road trip, she had gone upstairs and rummaged around to find a pair of pink flamingo earrings. She and a friend had bought them on a road trip to Florida back in the eighties. Danna handed me one and kept the other. “This way we’ll always be connected,” she said.
Now the flamingo earring swung back and forth as I pulled out of the Comfort Inn parking lot and back onto the road, shivering from the morning cold. We passed the “Welcome to Chelsea, Est. 1834” sign and drove through the downtown area with old brick buildings and maroon signs directing you to shopping or to the library or to Jeff Daniels’ theater, The Purple Rose. There was a huge American flag at half mast. The Jiffy Muffin factory’s huge grain elevators with the iconoclastic blue Jiffy box painted on the side reminded of the many times during high school that I bought blue Jiffy boxes and made Jiffy muffins which I’d slather with butter and maple syrup. Tourist signs in Chelsea are similar to the ones I saw in Paris, France, with arrows to send you walking in the right direction. The town is adorable.
I kept driving north through Chelsea toward my destination, Pinckney—Caroline Kirkland’s old stomping grounds. I wanted to hike here with Truffle in honor of Kirkland’s travels with her greyhound D’Orsay. Caroline Kirkland should be mentioned right along with Hemingway when Michigan authors are mentioned, but after a widespread readership in the 19th century, she is only now receiving some contemporary attention.
On the road, something was happening inside me, a certain synergy or flow or connection or, well, something I couldn’t articulate. If I were Steinbeck, I could have taken a swig of Scotch and decided the working man was my thing. If I were Kerouac, I might have pulled out an old typewriter and decided that a perpetual scroll was my thing. If I were William Least Heat Moon, I certainly would have decided that blue highways were my thing. But, as a woman on the road with her dog, I just thought that driving and reflecting and petting the hound were my things. Sometimes, you’ve just got to believe. A blue sign made to look like a Michigan state road sign confirmed my thought: WITH JESUS ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE.
Then again, if I were Caroline Kirkland in a horse and buggy on her frontier—which is now Michigan—I would have taken out my reporter’s notebook, taken down stories of the backwoods people, and written a novel. Kirkland traveled these parts with her dog, D’Orsay. His nose often got the better of him, causing him to frolic and generally not pay attention to his mistress until he had to be tied to the back of the buggy. A New Home, Who’ll Follow?, published in 1839, was at first successful because of its authenticity, but it was later condemned to what contemporary historian and editor Sandra A. Zagarell calls a “literary rubbish heap”—the place where “sentimental” women authors are buried alive. I suppose this essay might be headed there, too: it’s got a deep flamingo friendship with a woman, it’s got a love affair with a hound dog named Truffle, it’s got a passion for a soft-hearted and little-known woman writer named Caroline Kirkland. The authenticity in her writing was so evident that everyone in her frontier town could tell who they were in her books and essays. Everyone stopped speaking to her, and she had to move.
Traveling—or writing—reveals our inner nature, and it also allows us to be different while we are away from home and hearth or writing with pen and paper. Yet Kirkland does not change on the dirt path with horse and buggy; she remains the same traveling from the East Coast to what was still called the frontier, which she described and criticized with an astute social and cultural eye. Always a “lady,” she rode side-saddle when on a horse, rode a buggy through bogs, riding the highs and lows of homesteading one hundred miles west of Detroit.
All that remains of what Kirkland might have seen is the Pinckney State Recreation Area. Yet when I turned into the Half Moon Lake parking lot, five Chevrolets, four brown and one white, pulled in beside me. The drivers and passengers got out of the cars, laughing and smiling, and I couldn’t help noticing each had his or her own ample fat butt. I had passed a Chevrolet plant, and assumed they were on a road test. It was a positive scene to see in Michigan, the automotive state. The drivers were dressed not to offend or to inspire but to sit at a desk and process paper and occasionally test-drive new cars. I thought I caught a whiff of new-car smell from across the parking lot.
Pinckney was a swampy area in the 1830s, almost (or only, depending on perspective) 180 ago. Now the area isn’t exactly wilderness. The well-worn trails were easy to walk on, especially the boardwalks over marshy areas and bogs where Kirkland’s buggy would have gotten stuck. Truffle kept his nose down, wiggling his butt back and forth in what I had come to realize was a rabbit-tracking stance, and, sure enough, in just a few minutes, Truffle stopped and pointed.
Truffle tried to lick the hand of an elderly woman walking past, but the woman pulled her hand away quickly. The woman and her husband had come out of nowhere. Both wore orange caps and orange vests and had orange streamers tied to their backpacks. Each carried a walking stick and looked very serious.
“I’m sorry about his tongue,” I called after them, but the woman ignored me, and the couple walked quickly onward. Hardly something that would have happened in the 1830s—or was it?
Renée E. D’Aoust’s narrative nonfiction book Body of a Dancer is forthcoming from Etruscan Press, December 2011. Her recent journal publications include Drunken Boat, Rhino, and Trestle Creek Review, and her dance reviews can be read online at www.culturevulture.net and www.ballet-dance.com. D’Aoust has received “Notable Essay” listings in the Best American Essays series and support from Idaho Commission on the Arts and the Puffin Foundation. She holds degrees from Columbia University and the University of Notre Dame. For more information, please visit www.reneedaoust.com.