The Most Beautiful Place in the World
By Debra Wierenga

I still call it that, even though I am no longer a child who categorizes things as “best” or “worst” or “most” or “least” and even though I have been to Paris.

It has a beautiful name: Glen Lake. A glen is a secluded valley, something you can’t see from a distance; you don’t know it’s there until you are there, too. At Glen Lake the valley is wide and deep and filled with water that is absolutely clear. Around the edges, where the water is shallow, its color is a khaki green, but the large, deep center is an opaque blue-green--a color that I don’t believe exists anywhere else in nature and that as a teenager I tried to replicate, unsuccessfully and to the great consternation of the man at the paint store, on a wall of my bedroom in the house where I grew up.

Glen Lake is surrounded by trees--pine and birch and aspen and oak--on hills that are shaped, I swear it, like elephants:dark green elephants submerged half-way up their sides in aquamarine water. This summer, as we were sitting at the end of the dock looking across the water at those hills, my six-year-old son asked me if a man had cut the trees to make them look like elephants, and I told him that the sculptor was a glacier that shaped those hills long before there were people or pachyderms. In recent years a developer across the lake has given one of the smaller elephants an irritatingly punkish haircut, but other than that, those hills look exactly the way they did when I was six years old. There is no other place in my world I can say that about.

The trunk of the largest elephant points to a large dune called Sleeping Bear. When I was little, I tried to see a bear in that mound of sand, but I never could make it out. When a cousin explained that, according to the Indian legend, the sleeping bear was buried under the sand, I had some anxious nights wondering what would happen when it woke up. In fact, the bear does roll over in her sleep; the entire dune moves some inches eastward every year. I remember a state park ranger telling us that eventually the dune would fill Glen Lake back in with the sand the glacier once scooped out. For some time afterward I regarded sand as a personal enemy and did my part to push any I found in a westerly direction.

On Glen Lake there is a cottage owned by my father and four of his brothers and sisters. I have spent two weeks each summer there since I was six years old. Before that, we stayed at “the old cottage” a quarter-mile down the way. My parents spent part of their honeymoon there, and my father made my mother go fishing with him their first morning. Since she had no pole, he gave her a line strung from a wooden clothespin. To my knowledge she has never been fishing since.

My father spent parts of his childhood summers on the same south end of Glen Lake where I spent parts of mine and where my children spend parts of theirs. My aunt, his older sister, remembers being up there with her grandmother on an August day in 1930 and receiving a postcard telling of my father’s birth.

The cottage has changed a good deal since I was six. Bedrooms were added, a front deck, central heating, a dishwasher. This year when my sons and I went up we found a personal computer plugged in on the sun-porch. But many of the interior furnishings have been there for years, cast-offs from five different families with widely varied aesthetic and chromatic preferences. The white four-poster bed that furnished my childhood bedroom with the mistakenly colored wall is there; I slept in it again just last week. The driftwood painting I reluctantly committed at my father’s behest the summer I was eight hangs in the bathroom; someone has added a touches of pink paint to make it match the new wallpaper. The kitchen cupboards still hold the heavy, earthenware plates left by the cottage’s first owners and jelly jar glasses whose original contents once covered my slices of Wonderbread.

The place has a musty, dusty smell that is not unpleasant. It is the essence of scores of ripe, preserved lake summers: a pungent concentrate of wet towels, bacon grease, the charred residue of old fires.

Over the years the fireplace in the living room has become a bone of family contention, with the spartan, energy-efficient-insert McCoys squaring off against the sybaritic love-the-smell-of-an-open-fire Hatfields. But the disparate objects on the mantel above it have co-existed peacefully for decades. The porcelain figure of a Chinese woman stands serenely next to the ceramic head of a Maine fisherman, and I have no trouble guessing at which aunt contributed which. But how have they survived all the years and children and conflicting tastes in interior decoration? The bookshelf next to the mantel has some strange bedfellows, too: Reader’s Digest condensed books, fisherman’s “bibles,” real Bibles, and Love for Lydia, the novel that first confirmed for me that, yes, men and women really did do that together in bed.

I always brought my own books up to the cottage: great stacks of them checked out in a state of pre-Glen-Lake euphoria from the Comstock Park Library. I lined them up in columns along the three walls surrounding my upper bunk and then read around the bed: at night, in the morning, and when I could get away with it, in the afternoon when I ought to be out swimming and waterskiing and playing badminton like my cousins. Still, sometimes I miscalculated and ran out of books before I ran out of long northern Michigan days, and then in desperation I read whatever came to hand: Reader’s Digest, The Upper Room, Lydia.

Often I would read outside, on the dock that extends out a little way into the shallow water. On a windy day, the waves knock against the supporting posts and lull you to sleep. On really windy days the water splashes up between the boards and gets your book wet. On calm days, you can press your forehead against the sun-cracked painted planks, peer down into the water, and watch snails making tracks on the sandy bottom.

There is a perfect Glen Lake day. With just two weeks a summer, you don’t always get one. The year I was pregnant with my first child, I got five in a row, which I took as a blessing on my unborn son.

The perfect day at the most beautiful place in the world begins early, while everyone else is still sleeping. The sun is just coming up, tingeing the haze that hangs over the elephants with pink and orange. The air smells of water and hemlock; the lake is flat and glassy. A slick of dew on the dock feels clammy underfoot, but the water itself, as you wade through the shallows, is precisely the same temperature as the air. The shallow goes out a long way in Glen Lake, and in the slanted rays of early sun you can’t see the line where the water goes suddenly deep and cold and opaque. It seems as though you walk forever through the water, as though you could walk right up to those elephants and pat them on their trunks. When the water gets up to your chest you begin to swim and then you turn around to face back to shore.

There is the cottage, a homely little white frame structure. The landscaping around it is raggedy--deer have trimmed the bushes--but someone has planted a border of red impatiens. There is the old pine, the tallest tree on this side of the lake, the one you aim for when you are out in the middle on a sailboat and tacking back toward home. Sound travels clearly over the water, and you can hear the intimate getting-up sounds of people inside the cottage: faucets running, coffee mugs clinking, children calling for towels.

You turn slowly in the water, clockwise. There’s the cove, then the dunes, the big elephant, her smaller daughters. You forget your age, your name, your body. You are a glen dug by ancient glaciers, a secluded valley surrounded by trees.