Sometimes, it’s disappointing to return to the happy places of your childhood. The memories can be like stones in the ocean. Over time, the rough edges get smoothed away, leaving behind a polished version of the original.
I’ve been burned before when trying to recapture the past. The diner of my teens was once of place of deep conversations and delicious donuts. On a recent visit it was filled with rude teenagers and the donuts gave me heartburn. As I sink deeper into adulthood, I’ve made peace with the fact that I can’t bring back the past. I simply enjoy my memories and try not to re-live them.
For that reason, I was nervous to return to Wolf Lake Ranch Resort. It had been 7 years since the last time I left my tracks on it’s sandy roads. The last time I was there I was still a kid. I had just started my first real job. I was single, broke and still bunking in my parents cabin. Now I was returning but with my husband and son. I was now grown-up enough for my own cabin. For the first time I would be writing a check for the trip instead of thanking my Dad for taking me.
I first started going to “The Ranch” when I was 7 years old. It was practically a mini family reunion. Many cousins, aunts and uncles all caravanned up to Northern Michigan together, with us kids switching from car to car each time we stopped for a potty break. This continued, every second week of August, for 10 years. As a child, there was no better way to end the summer than with a trip to the ranch.
I struggle to come up with the words that accurately convey what this small horse ranch on the edge of Manistee National Forest means to me back them. It wasn’t just horseback rides, nightly campfires, swims in the lake or competitive games of volleyball that made it so wonderful. Nor was it just casino nights, the thrill of the speed shows, square dancing or the call of the bell beckoning us to another delicious meal.
It was the people. At the ranch, my cousins became my best friends. Other guests, who happened to book the same week as us became family, returning the same week year after year. The owners, wranglers and kitchen staff became family too. Sometimes, family becomes staff, since every guest in their tweens and teens desires to be an almighty wrangler one day.
These bonds extend outside of the physical boundaries of the ranch. My parents have attended weddings of both staff and fellow guests. They celebrate holidays together and host fellow Ranch folk in their home if someone is driving through town.
There’s something about the ranch that brings people together. At Wolf Lake Ranch, you are away from TV and wi-fi. You willingly leave your phone in the cabin. You are not besieged by cable news or advertising. So what do you do? You sit. You share. You listen. You get to know other people. You get to know yourself.
It had been 7 years since I was last at the ranch and my attendance between 1999 and 2005 was spotty. College, work and the physical distance of living in Georgia got in the way. When we moved to Ohio, I jumped at the opportunity to visit again, though weary about what I would find. How would it be now that I was an adult? How would it be now that I was responsible for another person? How would my husband, a newbie who had been hearing (possibly exaggerated) ranch stories for years, like a place so vitally important to who I was?
Just like when I was a child, my stomach filled with nervous anticipation as we turned left off M37 at the Wolf Lake Store. Long lost memories tumbled through my head as we drove along the lake, noticing how little the densely packed vacation cabins have changed over the years. My heart beat faster as the cabins thinned, knowing around the bend would be the ranch entrance. To my surprise, my eyes filled with tears as we turned onto the property. My brother burst out of the cabin of the Bunk House and exclaimed “Welcome Home” as we parked the car. I deeply inhaled the fresh air and relaxed. I was back and instinctively I knew that I had no reason to worry about ruining old memories. My experience would be different but it would be just as precious.
Twenty-five years after first stepping on ranch property, I’m now introducing a new generation to Wolf Lake Ranch. My new memories will include watching my own child experience the wonder of the ranch. It’s a priceless gift I’ll never take for granted.