When I moved to Marquette on the brink of a teary and violent coming-of-age, I was twenty-two and fell immediately in love with the freighters sulking in and out of the city’s two harbors at erratic hours, and the ore dock where they sometimes landed. From the sixth floor of a fancy hotel where I worked, I watched the ships’ rusty beaks plow through calm summer waters, the force of their motion rootless and immeasurable. My vantage never allowed me the sight of people; I could only imagine the deckhands, salty despite the lake. The ore dock, too, had a hulking quality, steadily illuminated at night and often masked by fog in the day as ships adhered themselves to its limb, awaiting a harvest of ore pellets. Chicago and Duluth and other ports awaited beyond. Together, it was all so still: the ships docked peacefully, peopleless, the trains and ore jennies often stagnant too, slinking along at covert times—a bright 7 p.m.–twilight, or dawn. On the long walks I took through the city and to the shore on my interminable, solitary afternoons, the size of the ships and the ore dock carrying the train rattled me from my depression, however briefly. I crooned wetly, and then silently.
My love affair with the iron ore industry in the Upper Peninsula was, at origin, a romantic one: I’d grown up in a remote tourist community in lower Michigan, where in my adolescence I waited tables and swam in tepid Little Traverse Bay beneath enormous seasonal cottages. Even miles from the town where my family lived in a tiny ranch-style house, our power over the land there was evident: our roads were long, flat, and empty save for farmland. But north of the Mackinac Bridge, the landscape unwound into bulges of granite and iron. And though Marquette was also often a horde of tourists in the summer, the ore dock and its ships boasted a mineral indelibility, industrial relics I’d never seen up close.
Sometimes, to marvel, I walked the city for hours at a time. I was alone in Marquette, with a fresh bachelor’s degree, I’d moved to the area for a graduate program I felt too childish to even begin. I knew almost no one, and I lived alone. For its romance, I relished the new solitude; but as for its function, as for an end to these wretched means—I was answerless. I stared gap-lipped at the ships and their ore docks if not for their beauty, then for something to pass the time.
Here in my new home, where I’d already spent the better part of twenty-two eating over my sink and wiping my mouth with the backs of my hands, the vacant spaces were below the earth’s surface, serving profit and power well beyond the lakeshore. In my old home, where for so many summers I’d wiped my hands clean of other people’s bacon grease on a dirty apron, the vacancy lies in the empty homes, abandoned each September by tourists. There was something honest about the freighters carving apart the Superior shelters of my new town and something wrinkly and wrong about the numerous vacant homes in my old one. Here, the big hulking statues were not empty, not lacking utility for most seasons. Here, the ships slogged through the harbor, magnetic and steady. And the ore docks, and their promising solitude—they waited in moonlights I was often too drunk to appreciate.
But now, the terrifying aloneness I faced had numbed my hometown resentment. It could’ve been the heat, or maybe I’d just never really seen a boat that big before, but that summer they emerged from the Superior horizon as if getting born.
The circumstances of the freighters and the ore docks are hollow and hard to fathom: driving westward from Marquette, one can see the terraced remnants of earth on the horizon, piled up at Tilden Mine. Trains shuttle the harvests east toward the lake, where the iron range meets its watery terminus. Now that the twentieth century has closed and all but taken the ore industry with it, the process and its functions are erratic and hard to locate.
Prior to the twenty-first century, Upper Peninsula mines were of the shaft variety. For meters and meters, workers hacked away at the earth from within. The invisibility of the task rendered the grounds weak, and entire tracts of town were sometimes closed off due to the risk of collapse. In Negaunee, these grounds have since been filled with water and are once again safe to travel, though still eerily abandoned.
On certain days, I wandered through Negaunee and Tilden Mine’s Ishpeming and imagined the cavernous mines and their tunnels filled with monarch butterflies; I imagined the towns empty and gone, a time both prior and proceeding.
Back home, I’d imagined different things: I’d imagined us townies flocking to the empty homes. For one hundred-and-some years, they’d been coming to build their castles here, swelling narrow tracts of private land with palatial cottages. So, I’d imagined us taking up in their houses, empty come winter, hoarding our scavenges in their vacant cabinets and drained toilets. I imagined us, the townies, our teeth skewered into our gums in the dead of winter, in some Polaroid before those houses, holding dead turkeys by the talons. We’d be the essence of survival. We’d stay alive in the face of what profit had deemed unbearable, our poverty useless and undefined. But in all provable memory, I had only spent certain adolescent weekends kissing classmates in those empty cottages.
Often, the frivolity of my hometown still disturbed me. In most waking memory, I’d needed the income from my waitressing jobs to afford my other ventures, yet I cursed these useless chardonnay brunches and linen-clad mannequins in shop windows. And the cleanliness, how civilized it was all supposed to be: it was overwhelmingly incongruent to my sweat-stained work uniforms and tuition bills that had sometimes caused screaming matches in my family.
In Marquette, I was past all of that. I was safe in my graduate program, safe in my new food service job and safe in my affordable apartment. I was protected by the utility of my new home. The train hummed in and out of earshot, and the ships emerged glowing on the horizon. All of it promised something larger, something more enduring in the beyond.
Still, all summer, I begged for ossification: prior to the move, I had graduated college and broken up with a now-twice ex. My rusty five-speed sprung a fatal oil leak and I split my savings in two to replace it, after which I got into a terrible fight with my parents. In a matter of weeks, I could identify almost nothing about my surroundings. My muscle memory suffered. I woke alone and stumbled into doorways; I tripped often, and my kitchen counters bloomed with coffee stains. My joints felt liquid; I cried at odd times and wrestled a pounding heart at others. I drank too much and ate too little. The crisis was disturbingly classic and inevitable, yet I couldn’t shake the dread and terror of this new coming-of-age. I pleaded with myself to heal, and to feel strong again. But here in my new aloneness, my alone newness, I was quivering.
And still the ore dock remained, flanked by chutes, ore pellets mineralizing the placid lake air. The metaphor was, after some time, unexciting: I was a weak-kneed twentysomething, anchorless and truly alone for the first time in my life, coping with intermittent daytime cries; the ore dock and its ships moved against my tender weight, rigid and erect not because of my flimsy self, but despite it. The vacancy of the mine hollered across the peninsula and quivered in the steel beams in the lake. They were not an example to follow—it would be many years before I was weathered into that kind of strength—but the bellow of the train was perhaps a reminder that if I could not be strong for some time, that something else could be.
July spilled over into August, which never came. I struggled to name my fascination with the ships and their counterparts; I was pulled from sleep by the sound of trains and was still mystified—slack-jawed, almost—each time a freighter glided in.
Perhaps it was the secrecy of the ships that fascinated me, how their skins were opaque and failed to betray the circumstances of those within. Some years before my move, reports surfaced of human trafficking occurring on similar ships in Duluth; Native women relayed particularly harrowing experiences. Therein lay the ghostliness—the quiet secrecy—of the freighters. Miles away, the obelisks in Ishpeming mirrored a deflated industry, but the train that runs from Tilden Mine in the south shades them from obsoletion. In the Upper Peninsula, the past is fractured but still preserved. Somebody is back there in the gone years, holding up the walls of the mines. Maybe they are alone. But maybe nobody knows that for sure.
But perhaps it was the waiting: the way the ore docks waited promisingly for the ships, and the way the ships relied on invisible buoyancy to arrive. They dove elegantly across our strange harbor, confident and exoskeletal.
Perhaps it was the bout of anemia I’d suffered the year before. Perhaps my blood still craved it. Perhaps this was only biology, the way my body signaled a longing for a child (despite my distinct plans to avoid that for some time). What if I stood in one of those empty cottages back home, swallowing the pellets whole, growing heavier and heavier yet never managing to take up more space?
Or perhaps the ships were a substitute for God. Perhaps I slept with my first-floor windows wide open, where anybody could enter, because I knew a greater thing lay only blocks away in the lake, a sleeping beast, a father figure. Perhaps their impenetrability brought me security, or as much a sense of it as one can expect.
Or perhaps it was a longing for utility. The industry back home was so quickly euthanized in the winter season, its relics paused but never removed. Perhaps I loved how useful the ships were, how clear their purpose. Perhaps I longed to be useful, whether in a job I hadn’t found yet or in a lover I hadn’t met or in the graduate program that wouldn’t start for several weeks.
For now, though, I was useless, and with nobody to use. My jaw felt magnetic in new directions when I spoke to strangers. I changed my clothes in the kitchen. I had no smell. Even at the lake, at its jagged brim, my spirit had recalibrated beyond familiarity. I was alone here. I was very, very alone here.
In the Upper Peninsula, solitudes fester and then collide. The sparrowing train, the rigid ore dock, the hulking ships—each spends days and weeks and months on its own, awaiting collision. When one element of industry shimmies up against the other, all of the waiting begins to make sense. The ships and the ore docks would eventually meet, terminating their solitude with utility. I could only believe, too, that my stagnancy, my drifting, would someday be softened by the solitude of others. Vacant, my solitude was unimportant. In its tandem with other solitude, though, there was a blossom.
Perhaps someday I would still be solitary, but ossified, bound to the waters by a compass and a clock. I was many weeks and months and years from that feeling, but in the slow-motion midnights where the ships and ore docks beaconed quilted light across the bay, I still swam.
Kate Liska is a recent graduate of Kalamazoo College (BA, English & Critical Ethnic Studies) and a first-year MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University with emphases in investigative journalism and memoir. Her research interests include Polish diaspora, Polish-Muslim relations, and urban interfaith. In 2018, she presented at the Critical Ethnic Studies Association conference in Vancouver, BC. She is a devout crocheter and kombucha enthusiast.