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July 23, 2012

MIKE LUNSFORD: Observations on smooth stones and blue-green water…

It was raining when I began to write this. Although no one could rightfully call what we got this afternoon a “downpour,” it was nice to have my windows open to hear the steady drops of a passing shower tapping on my dry-as-dust deck and hard-as-concrete yard. For some reason, the old weather junker we’ve been trying to jump-start for months decided to turn over and run a little while, and we were thankful for even the tenth of an inch or so that my grass soaked up like a sponge.

We are back after being away for a few days to our favorite place on Lake Michigan. It was hard to leave the beach to return here to our arid yards and withered trees, for we sat in the sand and sun and listened to nothing man-made for hours on end. It soon became hard for us to even remember such dry ground as ours when all we could hear was the constant lapping of the lake’s blue-green waves as they just kept coming and coming and coming at us.

Since my kids are no longer kids, and their work schedules and busy lives now rule the whens and wheres of our trips together, we have fallen into the pleasant habit of visiting the great lake together for a little while instead of planning longer vacations. We like it there because it is quiet and uncrowded, and there isn’t a shopping mall within reasonable driving distance. Thankfully, none of us, my new daughter-in-law included, wanted to see asphalt parking lots or amusement rides, check-out lines or continental breakfasts. We ate in small, locally owned restaurants, thumbed through a few antique shops, and took walks in the evenings, but always it was the lake and its endless shore that called to us, morning, afternoon, and evening.

Unlike last year when we encountered all kinds of mechanical obstacles to get there, and we all baked in the parking lot of a tire and brake shop along the way, we had no trouble in reaching the lake this time around. For a while, the traffic was mean and hurried, but once we shed the Interstates we saw more cornfields than cars. It was 97 degrees when we pulled off the highway for good, and 20 degrees cooler than that when we reached the bottom of the long stairway that took us out to the beach on that first late afternoon. Southern Michigan, like central Indiana, is dry, although I got the sense that folks there have had a little more rain than we have had, which isn’t hard since we haven’t had a decent spit come our way for over two months now.

Seeing the marram grass and the shorebirds and feeling the grit of the sand between our toes for the first time in a year was like finding a favorite cousin at a yearly reunion. We quickly made ourselves at home on the beach, each seeing something different on that far blue horizon, the wind making Brillo pads of our hair and reddening our faces. For most part, all conversations stopped…

I am a bit of a rock hound from years back, and even though I have picked up and packed off a ton of Lake Michigan’s sand-smoothed gray-black basalt over the years, I told my wife that I wanted to collect a few of the more colorful beach stones for our aquarium at home. So, on that first full morning on the lake, she promptly emptied a large plastic zip-top bag and told me to knock myself out.  She was soon stretched out in a lounge chair, a towel for a pillow, a beach umbrella over her head, and a new whodunit on her lap, and rightfully so. Like the watchful mom she is, I know that she occasionally glanced up to make sure that neither I nor her kids, had disappeared in the rip tides, but otherwise she tackled her book, while I walked and picked and discarded and kept what interested me.

By our last day on the beach, I had not only acquired a bit of a sunburn — for as I usually do, I had underestimated the amount of lotion that I needed — but an impressive collection of granites and quartzes and cherts, none longer than the pocket knife I carry in my jeans. I found feldspars (often called “moonstone”) and small geodes, and even a few pieces of “Lightning Stone,” which is actually siderite spidered with calcite veins. I was quite proud of myself.

To be honest, I had a few stones that I couldn’t identify at all, so I turned to an article by Kathi Mirto when I returned home. She is a Michigan rock hunter who posts nice photos of and articles about Lake Michigan on the web.  From her description, I think I also picked up a piece of septarium, a reddish-brown bedrock that, like Lightning Stone, is veined with calcite. Mirto writes: “Another name for [septarium] sometimes is Turtle Stone, obviously due to [its] resemblance of a turtle shell pattern. Sand-smoothed granite and limestone are other common stones found nearby the brown stones. The deep gray and other various colored stones provide a striking contrast from the warm reddish-brown tones.”

Before we left the lake, we hurriedly packed our bags and quickly loaded the family wagon so we could spend a little time on the beach before we turned our backs on it for home. There was just a hint of a breeze that morning and the lake was as calm as I have ever seen it. Joanie and my daughter, Ellen, and I walked down to the water’s edge, not wanting to leave at all, but if a half-an-hour was all we had left, we decided to spend it the way we wanted. I began to look for stones.

In the clear shallows of that serene July morning, I picked up rocks that looked as if they’d come from a jeweler’s tumbler. I found tiny crinoids and corals, too small to have been seen when the waves were rough, and I pocketed two pieces of polished glass, made milky and dull by the countless times they’d rolled across the sands of the lakebed. I filled my pockets.

As we were about to leave that morning, we noticed that a child had written, “Bye” in a ridge of sand that faced the lake. In my mind, I added, “See you next year…”    

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at, or c/o the Tribune-Star at PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Visit his website at for more information about his books.

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