A Long and Winding [and Beautiful] Road
By Patrick Sullivan | Nov. 7, 2020
Kathleen Stocking’s name might sound familiar to anyone who’s lived in northern Michigan for a while. She’s written books of essays about the region that have won nationwide acclaim, notably the well-reviewed “Letters from the Leelanau.”
Her last name might sound familiar for another reason, too. That’s because her father, Pat, better known today his formal name, Pierce, built a scenic drive in the 1960s near the shore of Lake Michigan that’s become one of the jewels of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which this year celebrates its 50th year.
Kathleen Stocking never saw a penny from the sale of her father’s land to the U.S. government all those years ago (and neither did her father, at least not in a meaningful way), but today she doesn’t resent that the land was taken forcefully and her family’s legacy was turned into a national attraction. She said she’s glad the way things worked out, though she cannot believe how much has changed in the years since her childhood in Glen Arbor.
OLD FASHIONED VALUES
Even though Stocking grew up in a rural home, the daughter of conservative parents who worked the land, Stocking said she was never saddled with notions of what the traditional role for females in society should be.
“My father grew up on a pioneer homestead, and he had eight brothers and sisters and they all worked,” Stocking said. “There was no sense that because you’re female you’re gonna sit here in this little chair and learn how to crochet, you were going to haul water from the well, and you were gonna do whatever.”
Stocking grew up around sisters. Since no brothers survived childbirth, Stocking said that she became the “designated boy” in the family.
That role came with some perks. “I didn’t have to wear dresses,” she said. “We had workhorses for the mill, and eventually we got riding horses, so my job was to take care of the horses for the mill. I had outside jobs. I could stack wood. I could shovel the walks.”
Her father had grown up near Cadillac and struggled during the Great Depression, when jobs at the lumber mill vanished and he had to work with his parents on a subsistence farm to survive. He was arrested once for poaching a deer, she said.
As the Depression waned, Stocking’s father learned to work heavy through the Civilian Conservation Corps. He was not educated, but he was smart, and he worked hard.
Stocking’s father met her mother, Eleanore, around that time, after she’d taken a job as a teacher at a one-room schoolhouse in Hoxeyville.
“He would come over every morning and start a fire in the woodstove in the school so she could come into a warm classroom,” Stocking said. “And they fell in love and got married.”
Eventually, her father became a lumberman in his own right, and his business took off.
“Every time he would buy a piece of property to cut the trees, he would keep the property and then sometimes develop it, and sometimes sell it,” she said. “And that’s how he made money.”
Stocking recalls accompanying her father into the woods while he worked and how naturally the dangerous, difficult work came to him. When her father instructed Stocking to sit still at a certain spot in the woods until he returned, she said she knew it was a matter of survival.
“And then I would hear, ‘Timber,’ and the tree would come down, and the whole earth would shudder,” she said. “It was like I understood without being told that it was a matter of life and death that I stay there, even though he didn’t try to scare me.”
Stocking got another kind of education growing up in post-war Leelanau County. As she got older, she came to understand that her family was well off, much more so than other families — such as those of the men who worked at her father’s mill.
“I was very struck by the fact that my family had lots of nice clothes and books and bicycles and a beautiful home on a hill above Lake Michigan, and that the children of the mill hands lived in shacks that were heated with wood and weren’t always warm, and they didn’t always have enough to eat,” she said.
A SLEEPING BEAR STIRS
For years around Glen Arbor, there was talk of something coming, but how life on the land they knew would change, and when, nobody knew. Stocking’s father knew more about the land's value than most, so, beginning in the early 1960s, he decided to do something about it.
“He sees the federal surveyors coming in when he’s out in the woods, and he asked what’s going on, and they say, ‘Oh, there’s gonna be a national park here someday,’” Stocking said. “So, because he already owned a lot of land, he just bought up more. He thought, ‘Well, they’re gonna buy my land.’ But he didn't think it was going to take 20 years from surveyor’s stakes to the national park.”
In that sense, the Stocking family had a different relationship with the federal government than many other residents, property owners who had bought and developed land in a place they loved and wanted to hold onto.
Stocking said that as she watched the process unfold, it struck her that much of the ill-feeling toward the park stemmed from the tone-deafness of the government agents who arrived to acquire the land.
“People were objecting to the national park because they were losing their homes,” she said. “The guy in charge of land acquisition was a former bomber pilot. He was really aggressive. So, I mean, not only were they losing their homes, but they had to deal with a fairly ruthless federal government institution of eminent domain.”
There is another reason why Stocking is at peace with the way the government turned her father’s land into a park, even if that transaction also got ugly, in the end. She said that she always knew that, even though he was a lumberman, he wanted to see the land preserved.
“I think he was really an environmentalist,” she said. “He loved the land. He had to make money in lumber, but he loved the wilderness. He loved the woods.”
SCHOOL WITH THE WEATHERMEN
Stocking may have come from a well-off family, and she led a privileged life growing up in Leelanau County, but privilege looked different in the 1950s compared to today. He mother dried out Wonder Bread bags so that Stocking and her siblings could wear them over their socks, in their boots, to keep their feet dry.
After a bucolic childhood in northern Michigan, though, Stocking attended the University of Michigan in the mid-1960s, where she was catapulted into a turbulent time in American history and met truly privileged young people.
Her recognition of class differences that had formed when she was a child in Glen Arbor crystalized to make her something of a radical once she got to school.
She ended up living with a group called the Weather Underground, an insurgent group of students who became famous for their actions against the Vietnam War.
“They became very violent, you know,” she recalled. “They started out running a children’s daycare in the basement of the Quaker church and [then] they became more and more radical.”
Stocking said that even then, she was more reporter than actor; more of an observer than a revolutionary.
“They started out as students. But because of the war in Vietnam and because of the shooting of people in the South, everybody became more and more radical,” she said. “I always ended up where things were happening. But in retrospect, I think I was always more of a writer than what you call an activist or a participant. I wanted to see what was happening and why; I didn’t necessarily want to make things happen.”
Today, she said she’s astonished at how fast her world went from long pleated skirts and saving yourself for marriage to Vietnam protests and the credo, “make love, not war.”
Still, even though in some ways the anti-war movement was progressive then, Stocking said she also found it to be chauvinistic, and after she ended up moving in with the Weathermen, some of the tactics and the overall mood made her feel uncomfortable. People she lived with came back from the Democratic National Convention in Chicago beaten and wounded. Others would soon blow themselves up on failed attempts at domestic terrorism. Ultimately, though, Stocking said, she was treated as a country bumkin.
“These are very well off, coddled children of the very wealthy. And I had grown up in northern Michigan, so they figured I was a northern Michigan stump-jumper [hillbilly],” Stocking said. “And I knew how to cook and clean. I cleaned and cooked prepared the meals and did the shopping and cleaned this funny little house, it was the size of a doll’s house, in exchange for my rent. Because they’d always had servants, they treated me like a servant.”
“EARLY DAYS” AT THE RECORD-EAGLE
After her time at U-M, and her brush with the Weathermen, Stocking moved to New York and worked for Women’s Day magazine. She worked on things like features on how to construct a teeter-totter at home, complete with instructions.
When she returned to northern Michigan, she attempted to freelance at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, and she discovered that it didn’t matter where she was – national magazine or small daily newspaper – female writers were expected to produce female writing.
“I started out at the Record-Eagle a thousand years ago,” Stocking said. “First, I started in 1975, freelancing for them and doing profiles. And then it was early days, so they didn't really have female reporters. They put me on ‘society news.’”
The paper might have been backward, Stocking said, but fortunately for her, it had an editor who was ahead of his time. Ed Klein was from New York, and he was progressive, she said.
“He was definitely not prejudiced against women,” she said. “He hired me because he liked my feature writing. And I kept doing features when I was in society news. … And I did the club news. And I had no experience in journalism. I had to learn how to write in the third person.”
Later, Stocking got a shot at covering real news after she pestered her editors to get more meaningful news assignments.
“I was a thorn in their side,” she recalled. “Every time we had a staff meeting, I think it was every week or every two weeks, I said, ‘Oh, you know, give me something to do, because obituaries and weddings… The copy room said my weddings were like something out of Salvador Dali.”
When another reporter left, she got a shot at covering Kalkaska and Antrim counties, a big opportunity for an ambitious writer stuck on the society page. She got an ultimatum from an editor, though: “Kathy, you have two weeks. If you can take [the] beat and do it well, you have a job. If not, you will have none.”
She said she thrived on the hard news beat, and even appreciated covering government meetings, because while they may seem boring on the surface, there was always something happening; always a question to look into.
Still, the work frustrated her. She said she always wanted to ask more questions and write deeper stories, but often all her editors wanted was something short. Instead of an expose on tribal fishing rights, she said, they wanted seven inches of copy.
Then came a career-changing story — a woman in Kalkaska had murdered her husband in 1978, and in what was at the time a novel defense, the woman claimed that she was made homicidal by years of spousal abuse.
Stocking covered the case and interviewed the woman, Jeannette Smith, in jail. At the same time, laws were murky about certain press freedoms, and when the Kalkaska prosecutor demanded the Record-Eagle turn over Stocking’s notes on the case, threatening her with jail if she didn’t, the newspaper caved and handed over the notes.
Meanwhile, Stocking had been contacted by some downstate papers who wanted her to do some freelance work for them in northern Michigan.
“I just became bored. I wanted to do ‘why.’ ‘Why’ was what interested me, and all of the things that were complicated,” Stocking said.
LIFE AS A WRITER
In those days, a person could make a good living as a freelance journalist, though Stocking said even then that she would often put so much work into a story that she wouldn’t even want to calculate what her hourly rate might be.
“The Detroit News paid me $1,500 to do a cover piece for their magazine on Michigan Indians,” she recalled. “Well, if I never left my house and made three phone calls, I would have made money. But I went and talked to as many people as I could, whether it was Detroit or Copper Harbor, and I had to know. I had to know. I wanted to know.”
Still, that freelance work proved fruitful, because it got her attention and eventually a job at the Detroit Monthly magazine, this time writing essays.
She got some books of essays out of the library and read them and realized she could do that; realized maybe that was what she should be doing.
“I thought, ‘Oh yeah. I can do this. I can do this easily,’” she said.
She was there for a decade and wrote many of the pieces that would win her acclaim in her published collections of essays about life Up North; then the magazine changed and became more conservative and her editor was fired so that ended.
For the next decade, she continued to make a living as a writer, winning awards and landing grants for writing projects. She said between 1979 and 1989, she earned $200,000 that way, which was enough to live on.
Soon, though, another tidal wave of political change swept over her life. Those grants and awards vanished as the 1980s progressed and a new wave of Republicans sought to cut taxes and eliminate government programs.
“And then all of that money dried up,” she said. “There used to be a Michigan Council of the Arts. I remember my first grant for $10,000 for creative nonfiction. Basically, they just sent you the money and said show us when you’re done.”
A decade later, the grants came with strings attached, and Stocking said she saw the writing on the wall.
“The last grant was for about $10,000, but it required that I teach at-risk kids at TBA and I figured out that I was making about a dollar an hour and I had to produce another book,” Stocking said. “So, I did it. And then I thought, ‘No, I’m not ever doing this again.’”
Stocking made another life change. She moved to California and worked in the prison system. She traveled to El Salvador. And then she signed up for the Peace Corps, where she did two stints, in Romania and Thailand.
She returned to Traverse City 10 years ago, and today she still writes books of essays about the Leelanau Peninsula. Currently, she’s working on one called “Dogs and Islands.”
LOOKING BACK AT SLEEPING BEAR
Today, Stocking, a mother of three successful adult children, lives in an apartment in Traverse City overlooking the Boardman River. She visits the park, but usually only if she’s got out-of-town company.
Back when she was in her 20s, after she returned to Leelanau following school and New York City, she helped operate the scenic drive as a private business for her father. The scenic drive itself was a response to the park and the aggressive posture of the government.
When the government finally got around to assessing his land, Stocking said they low-balled her father, leaving him with few good options.
“They offered him a bad price. … And they said, ‘Oh, you don’t like this? Well, we’ll condemn you and we'll take you to court,’” she said.
Meanwhile, he had to pay taxes and he couldn’t sell or develop any of the land. He applied to Empire Township to have the land rezoned recreational and he built the road that would be his namesake.
“Then he put in a scenic drive and charged, I don't know, a dollar and a half, two bucks a car, so that he could make money to pay his taxes while this was all winding its way through the courts,” Stocking said. “In the process, he discovered he really liked making parks.”
And she said that’s what he was going to do, finally, when the government settled and agreed to pay him $3.5 million for the land in the mid-70s. He was going to put the money in a trust and build a park on 5,000 acres of land near Kingsley and create his own park, Stocking said.
Then, she said, his life took a tragic turn.
“He died the day after he got his $3.5 million settlement,” she said. The official cause of death, she said, was a heart attack.
There was talk, early on, that Pierce Stocking would even lose his claim to the scenic drive he created, but Stocking said that, fortunately, that did not transpire. There was talk about naming the drive after Senator Patrick McNamara, who had introduced the bill in Congress.
“They wanted it to be the McNamara Scenic Drive,” she said. “Well, the local people all rose up and said, ‘Oh no. Pat Stocking built that. That should have his name on it.’”
NATIONAL WRITERS SERIES – Author Next Door: Kathleen Stocking
By Anne Stanton
What makes a person want to be a writer?
Troubles, I think. Someone, not me, said somewhere that a person starts with a wound they need to heal and once they figure out how to do it by creating – in art, writing, music — then they can do that in a way that helps other people work through things. Stephanie Mills, another writer, said, “Writers are the shamans of our time.” I’d add to that: musicians and artists. We interact with our environment and then produce out of that, hopefully in ways that will help our fellow human beings cope with their existence.
What made you want to be a writer?
Not sure. It started very early. Here’s what happened to me. I was raised as a boy for the first ten years of my life. My parents had three male babies who died, two at full term and one in the third trimester. I became the designated boy, transgendered without the surgery. When puberty hit and it gradually appeared that the boy plan wasn’t going to work long term, I had a lot of thinking to do. I had to think about my parents’ marriage, their grief, and a whole lot more. In the meantime, I’d had ten years of almost unlimited freedom, unlike my four sisters, and that was a gift. A gift and a wound, I’d say, that combination, makes a writer. Or did in my case.
Why did you decide to create a trilogy, books about your village, your state, your world?
I didn’t decide to do that. It just happened. I wrote about my village of Lake Leelanau and the Leelanau Peninsula because a wonderful editor in Detroit, Kirk Cheyfitz, asked me to write an essay a month about “whatever you’re drawn to” up north. I wrote about my state because I finally had enough money to venture beyond the Leelanau Peninsula. Then, when the auto industry left Michigan and the magazines in Detroit were in economic trouble and I needed a job, I decided to follow Kirk’s advice and go toward what I was drawn to, but further from home. When I came home in 2013 to stay, I realized I had a trilogy.
Why did you want to travel, and especially why did you want to go teach in prisons and work in the third world?
Probably everyone has a natural curiosity about the world. I always did. And after years of having my shoes nailed to the kitchen floor, I had a pent-up, ravening curiosity about someplace, anyplace, beyond where I was. I had never been interested in travel as a leisure thing, going to Paris for instance and staying at a nice hotel and visiting the Louvre, and coming back and telling people about the delicious onion soup in the food hall at the Bon Marche. I wanted to go places I knew nothing about and couldn’t imagine. I wanted to stay long enough to know how people, real people, lived every day. How should one live in this world? That’s the central question of existence and the central question of classical literature, too. If you think about it, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Homer – that’s what they were tackling.
Are you a good traveler?
I’m a terrible traveler. My children and friends were filled with foreboding when I decided to work in the prisons of California, go to El Salvador, travel alone.
How were you able to do it?
Guardian angels, I think.
What makes you a terrible traveler?
Everything. I hate to be hot, cold, dirty, hungry, tired. Those are pretty much constraints of travel. I daydream a lot and don’t pay attention to what’s going on around me and when you travel that’s dangerous. One of my friends, warning me not to go work in the prisons, pressed his hand to his forehead and imitating me, said “I’m feeling a little strange, a little bit dizzy, I don’t know what it is,” which apparently is something I do a lot but wasn’t aware of it.
Are you glad you went?
What’s your advice to everyone who thinks they want to travel?
Go. See. Do. You’ll never be sorry.
NATIONAL WRITERS SERIES – Author Next Door: Kathleen Stocking
By Molly Stadler
When I went to meet Kathleen Stocking for this interview, she instructed me to look for “a 1950s cheerleader gone to seed.” She came through the door of the coffee shop and we sat at a booth before she got up to grab a root beer. Stocking spoke with a quiet thoughtfulness. Every word had its place and she had a lot to say. She told me of her youth and how she would stay in the woods with her father, Pierce Stocking — the same as the Pierce Stocking of Sleeping Bear Dunes — watching him work as a lumberman. Her appreciation and bond with nature comes from those hours spent with him.
We also conversed about her new book, From the Place of the Gathering Light, a collection of essays about the Leelanau Peninsula. While she was growing up in Leelanau, the term “locals” was held with a sort of disdain. “In the 1980s and 1990s the area went from being this sort of backwater place to being a popular tourist destination and suddenly ‘locals’ turned into a term of esteem.” From the Place of the Gathering Light is a commentary about the goodness of the people of Leelanau working together to preserve the land, and also about the world’s exploitative attitude toward all things, especially nature.
Stocking started writing young. She explained to me the creativity of her youth, making little books bound by too much glue, in which she wrote stories about running away from imaginary witches chasing her in her home. She went to the University of Michigan and quickly ended up in a writing group.
You can tell Ms. Stocking has a heart from the way she speaks, musical and warm as if there are bells on the tip of her tongue. That notion is confirmed by the beautiful services she has done for the world. Over an almost 20-year period, she volunteered to work with the Peace Corps, taught prisoners English in California, and has graced us with her wonderful writing which includes countless articles and four books. Ms. Stocking has also left us with pieces of advice for young writers and people alike.
Here are words of wisdom from a woman who traveled the world:
• Experience everything.
• Fame, fortune, and social status all equal nothing.
• Don’t float around. Have purpose.
• Trust your gut.
• If you don’t like what you’re doing, find something else to do.
• Money isn’t everything.
• Don’t do drugs.
• You have a right to be loved and feel joy and to be in this world.