It’s rough when you have to play “rodeo clown” with your own mind. For Burt, that’s pretty much what he had been doing for most of his life.
The previous night, he decided to go get piss-drunk with his friend Lenny at the Hideout, which was his favorite watering hole – and less than a half mile from his house. It wasn’t to celebrate anything, or because it was Friday…it was because sometimes – getting piss drunk was the only way to drown out “the messages.” Getting drunk didn’t erase them – but dulled them enough so that he could pretend he didn’t have to respond to them.
In this case, he didn’t want to know that an intoxicated 40-something year old woman had wandered off from Jon’s rental cabin and her husband wouldn’t be able to find her the next morning. But Burt knew…and didn’t care. And then the phone rang – the land line – and he knew he couldn’t ignore the call.
“Burt? Are you up,” the slow, mellow drawly voice said, whom Burt recognized as Jon’s, even though he was barely awake and still a bit drunk from the night before (and “cotton mouthed”). “We need you to help look for someone who went missing last night. She’s one of my cabin renters. And can you bring your ATV?” Jon was the head of the Green Lake Township volunteer “posse” that occasionally served as “backup” for the county sheriff’s department for various fire/rescue services.
While Jon knew that Burt had an uncanny “knack” for finding lost and missing folks, he didn’t know “how” he did it.
“Yeah, I’ll be there in about 15 minutes,” Burt said.
“I’m at the cabin – a bunch of folks are already out searching for her on foot. You can meet me out here.”
While riding his ATV out to Jon’s cabin on this October morning – the cabin was perched on a hill surrounded by state forest land. He already had a good idea where to look… and it helped that he knew the lay of the land well from having ridden his ATV on the trails surrounding the cabin more times than he could count. ATV riders were the bane of existence for a guy named Estes who owned a home right off the seasonal road (called a “two track” by the locals) leading to Jon’s cabin. He had multiple signs around his property saying “NO ATV KEEP OUT!” Clearly this guy didn’t do his “homework” before buying the land – which was smack in the middle of dozens of miles of trails used by ATV riders in spring, summer and fall – and snowmobilers in the winter. He was hoodwinked by his Realtor, who knew full well that this property was smack in the middle of “two track land.” One could only picture the guy shaking his fist at all of the ATV riders/snowmobilers who dared come into his line of sight and poison his ears with their engine noises (the guy was a shut-in and rarely left his house, which was actually just a double-wide trailer that had as of late seen better days). Jon said he was a retired negotiator with the UAW from downstate, but otherwise, nobody really “knew” this guy (only that his last name was Estes, because it was on his mailbox at the “main” road).
Like people from “downstate” like to refer to the whole area of Michigan’s lower peninsula’s northern parts as “Up North,” likewise, people from “Up North” tended to refer to all areas that weren’t “Up North” as “downstate.” But that was still nicer than folks in the Upper Peninsula referring to everyone else as “Trolls!” Just don’t ask anyone from Michigan where “Up North” begins because you’ll likely get at least 50 different answers!
Burt knew the woman had way too much to drink the night before (hey right there with you, baby, he thought to himself) and she had sneaked out after her husband and kids went to sleep with a flashlight. She wanted to see if she could find any whip-poor-wills, because she was a “birder,” and knew they had creepy reflective eyes. Whip-poor-wills, part of the “nighthawk” family, were nocturnal birds which usually stayed close to ground and low-lying branches (they even laid their eggs on the ground). You’re far more likely to hear them – than to see them. Their calls – which sound pretty much like their name – either really annoyed people who heard them – or were music to their ears. And Tracy – who went out to look for them – happened to like their creepy calls. She was hoping she’d see one – and catch a glimpse of their eyes, which reflected red in headlights.
Not everyone loved whip-poor-wills, though. Jon said another of his frequent cabin renters – whose name was Will – would go outside and shout at them – “Shut the f— up.” Will and his wife Myra would wind up moving to the area a few years later. Myra happened to like the whip-poor-will’s sounds! Jon said being able to hear whip-poor-wills was a sign that you were truly in the “middle of nowhere.”
Burt “saw” that Tracy had wound up taking a “squat” on her drunken walk – aka taking a leak outside while she was out walking, and a small gust of wind blew at the wrong time, meaning she wound up pissing on her clothes a bit (now you see why he wanted to get piss drunk the previous night – he didn’t want to see this). Wow, it must suck to be a woman when you have take a piss outside, Burt thought… A short time after she took the piss, her flashlight batteries died – and she tried finding her way back to the cabin (unsuccessfully, as it were). The skies were a bit overcast that night, and even if not shrouded in clouds, the moon was anything but full – so she didn’t have that light to help guide her. She had little to go on other than to try staying on the two-track. She would wind up passing out in a big sandy patch not far from some dense pine woods.
“Let’s take a look at that big sandy patch,” Burt said to Jon. You know that spot that you thought would be a good place to do a beach volleyball game? That would probably be a good comfy spot to sleep if she wound up sleeping outside.” The two-track leading to Jon’s cabin had a lot of sandy patches on it – this area was heavily logged in the 19th/early 20th century, and though many new pines were planted on it since then, there were still plenty of “brushy” and sandy areas.
Sure enough, that’s where they found Tracy, whom was still out cold – sleeping off whatever she’d drank the night before (Burt knew it was boxed wine). She was wearing a medium-weight fleece jacket and pants, so she likely didn’t get too cold (temps had dipped into the ’50s the previous evening).
“Hey Jon – I’ve gotta run… I need to go open up the shop,” Burt said. He had finished working on someone’s riding mower and knew they would be coming to pick it up…also someone was supposed to buy an outboard motor he was selling (it was a running joke that Burt always seemed to have an outboard motor for sale – he would sell one, and seemingly by magic another one would be produced out of thin air, as people liked to joke). The Hideout owner Tony even let Burt use the bar to help sell his outboard motors…
“Go on,” Jon said. “Maybe I’ll see you at the next Hideout fish fry night. And maybe you can kick my ass this time in a game of pool.” Like many “Up North” Michigan bars/restaurants, Friday was all-you-can-eat “fish fry night.” Jon and his wife Jane had been in the Hideout earlier last night, before Burt had drunk himself into a Foreigner induced frenzy and started thinking about his old girlfriend Tonya…
“Beat you at pool? That’ll be the day,” Burt said! “Let’s see you beat me at darts!”
Yes, people did like to joke about Burt. His mullet hairdo hadn’t changed since the late 1980s – his clothing, his musical tastes that didn’t venture out of the early ’80s “arena rock” era, and joked about his love of Jagermeister – and his drinking too much of it on some nights. There was some speculation that Burt was the only reason you could get it “on tap” at the Hideout. What was no joke though – was that everyone knew that Burt was the best in the area when it came to small engine repair. He also was no slouch with repairing the 1960s-early 1980s “muscle” cars that were made in the “backyard mechanic” era – when folks could do pretty much all repairs on their cars in their garages/yards (before computers ruined the party). Though he always did great work – and his prices were fair – sometimes he was a bit “leisurely” (especially with car repairs – he was a perfectionist with those). Most of his customers were understanding about this – and honestly – whom else were they going to go to for their repairs in these parts? There was little competition for Burt’s small engine repair business in Green Lake Township. In the winter months, he was working on snowblowers and snowmobiles. In the summer months? Lawn mowers and all watercraft motors. And ATV engine repairs in the spring, summer and fall months. If he couldn’t fix your engine, chances are he had another one in his “collection” he could replace it with. During busy times, he would sometimes bring in students from the high school’s auto shop class to help him out (he was actually a decent teacher). They would sometimes get school credit for the hours they put in at Burt’s shop.
Tracy would get checked out at a hospital and get released later that day… Other than being a bit dehydrated and hung over, she was no worse for wear…
Burt’s friend Lenny was very, very excited to have a story to write about all of this! He was the writer/editor/publisher of the Tri-County Gazette, and usually only reported on council meetings, local festivals, “police blotter” stuff (usually just stolen lawnmowers dog attacks, drunken boating/ATV/snowmobile accidents), high school sports, etc. His “Tracy” story would be a front page story for sure! He had heard the “posse’s” call on his police scanner (which he kept at home). He even managed to get a few words from Tracy herself..
Here’s the headline:
DOWNSTATE WOMAN OK AFTER NIGHT SPENT IN WOODS
Lenny, with his flair for drama, kind of “embellished” the story a bit – mentioning that coyotes and black bears were common sights on state forest land, he went into great detail about the flashlight batteries dying, but didn’t talk about her failed attempt to pee outside (hey he might have engaged in “yellow journalism” from time to time, but not THAT “yellow!)” Jon’s nearly constant battle with porcupines was in the story (Jon would spend nights out there shooting porcupines – who always tried eating the cabin with all of the voraciousness of Hansel and Gretel eating a gingerbread house). Lenny also mentioned in the story that Tracy was quite an accomplished amateur photographer, and had taken some pictures of Jon’s cabin before she’d wandered off on her nocturnal adventure…
Jon’s “cabin in the woods.”