photo: flickr/xray10

Beaver Island Sunset, photo: flickr/xray10

After the sheer chaos of India, the neon-lit crush of Macao and the freeway frenzy of suburban Dallas, Beaver Island, MI has been a welcome respite. It’s slightly off the beaten track, which adds to its appeal. To get there, take a plane to Detroit or Chicago, then another one to Traverse City, then drive an hour up to Charlevoix, then hop into a six-seat puddle jumper for the final 15-minute flight to the island, the largest in Lake Michigan.

Beaver Island is about 13 miles long and six miles wide, with a year-round population of around 550. Its fairly flat landscape features forests and meadows, several lakes and the small town of St. James at its northernmost

flickr/kafka4prez

flickr/kafka4prez

point. My friend Dan, who I know from San Francisco, moved here with his partner three years ago after falling prey to the isle’s bucolic charms.

Having had enough of California, he was ready to come home to the more grounded style of living in Michigan, where he’s from.  So he bought 10 acres, cleared a plot and had a big old wooden house built.

It was quite a transformation from San Francisco urban living: here he’s got to drive 15 minutes largely on dirt roads to get his mail, clear the road in front of his house with his own snowplow, and worry about things like coyotes, road grades and illegal logging. Still, the tradeoff was well worth it.

Not that I have to worry about anything while I’m here. I just sleep late, play Wii games up in the tower room, plug into the wifi network, enjoy a few of the thousands of DVD’s he’s got, take long walks in the woods, or read in a big comfy chair…until I fall asleep in it. Maybe I’ll stack a little wood. Or, maybe just do nothing.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Strangite)

But Beaver Island has not always been the halcyon retreat it now is. At one point, it was proclaimed the kingdom of a schismatic sect of the Mormon Church, a utopia that fell under the sway of an authoritarian who had himself crowned King before being shot to death by two followers. James Jesse Strang considered himself leader of all Mormons after the death of the Church’s founder, Joseph Smith, although Brigham Young had the vote of the majority.

James Jesse Strang

James Jesse Strang

So, undeterred, the “Strangite” Mormons moved to Beaver Island in 1848 and eventually drove out the Irish settlers already there. After the coronation in 1850 (held in a log “tabernacle” and complete with metal crown, red robes, breastplate and wooden scepter), Strang grew more and more autocratic, lording it over his followers, putting many restrictions in place – as well as taking five wives and fathering 14 children.

Two men he’d had flogged because their wives did not meet his strict dress code decided enough was enough. One day in town they shot Strang in the back, right on the water’s edge, an event that’s rather creepily reenacted by local middle school students on occasion.

After Strang’s death, the community was set adrift since no successor had been named and they left the island. Little remains of the Mormon era — sadly, the royal regalia has been lost, but the Mormon printing house is still around, as is the King’s Highway, the island’s main north-south thoroughfare that the Mormons built.

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