grand haven winter ice midwest follk

How to Listen to Gratiot Lake Road’s “Read This If I Don’t Make It Home”

Gratiot Lake Road is a Michigan-born, Virginia-based folk band. Their latest release, Read This If I Don’t Make It Home, is for below-zero trips to watch the sun set on the frozen waves of Lake Michigan.

gratiot lake road read this if i don't make it home michigan virginia folk

First, pick a day when the sun has emerged from the persistent winter cloud cover. The absence of a cloud blanket will make the air much colder, but your vitamin-D-deprived skin will be longing for some UV exposure, and so you will opt to bundle up and embark on an adventure anyway. You’ve got that tough Midwestern pelt. You can handle it.

Get in the car and put Read This If I Don’t Make It Home in the CD player. Gratiot Lake Road’s music has been described as “for the days you put on your warmest socks.” For this trip, you’ve not only done that, but you’re also wearing long johns under your jeans and two sweatshirts under your coat. The album’s eerie, icy tones suit this winter excursion well, and its ominous title lends a thrill to the journey.

“All Heart & Sandstone” begins your drive west into the sun. It is charged with tension—an anticipation of potential danger and forward motion in spite of it.

Once we were invincible / driving around with our eyes closed / all heart and sandstone

Like sandstone, you are porous and brittle. You absorb and filter, and you flirt with your own breakability. That’s part of the draw of this trip—conquering the massive waves that threatened to pull you under in summer, seeing what they look like stunned, and knowing that you’re but a few slippery inches away from the misstep that will send your clothes-laden body plunging back into the lake’s icy depths.

lake michigan water frozen ice grand haven

“Leave Your Light On” and “Creatures Much Worse Than Ourselves” communicate a similar uneasiness, exploring human demons and our tendencies to give in to them at our own expense. “Creatures Much Worse Than Ourselves” ends wavering with a space-y, atonal amalgamation of sound that seems lifted right off of the 2001: Space Odyssey soundtrack. You arrive at the lake’s shore and step onto the frozen sand which cracks and crumbles in peculiar ways beneath your feet. Looking out at the hilly, icy expanse in front of you, you may as well have stepped onto another planet.

The ballad “To The Sea” maintains that otherworldly sense of wonder as you approach the shoreline, but it has a tone that smiles. It is one of the brightest tracks on the album, and it joyfully captures the bewilderment you share with all the others who have made the journey here today, whose backs are facing you as they look out on the expansive lake.

…this isn’t what I dreamed / but it’s better than I hoped / I have learned to hope / and we’ll all make our way / to the sea where the waves / will swallow our fears someday

black and white lake michigan ice

You explore the shattered layers of ice that sit in a valley just before the slick hills that drop off into frigid water. Someone near you remarks that they remind him of peanut brittle. You walk across them, hearing the ice crack and break into smaller pieces with each step you take. When you step on a virgin slab and your foot falls through, you feel a rush of adrenaline. You’re not in any real danger, except from falling on your ass and making a fool of yourself, which you will do not five minutes later.

ice grand haven midwest folk

Walking slowly and carefully, you ascend the slick hill that narrowly separates you from the edge of the frozen mass. You take a biting inhale and become aware of how cold your hands are. You are surrounded by gleaming white ice, overlooking the lake and some icebergs floating a couple hundred yards from you. It is simultaneously beautiful and terrifying.

Oh how my lungs fill with cold / how it stings my eyes and burns my throat / sending my love across the lake / but how can i keep on / shouting louder still against the crashing waves

The songs on this album are sweetly sad. Swelling cymbals, string harmonics, and a plucky minor-keyed banjo work together to create a reflective and sorrowful atmosphere. The lyrics dance with danger, fear, and regret. The soundscape is cold and unforgiving as the frozen lake, and is softened only by the warm, crackling fire of Emaleigh Jensen’s breathy voice and Ben Jensen’s steady guitar.

The sun sinks lower and a dark bank of clouds on the horizon threatens to cut the golden hour short. Still, the smooth ice glints as the light turns pink. Make the most of these remaining moments by exploring the reaches of the frozen lakeshore. The tracks on this bittersweet record will descend to quiet barrenness with the sun. A red glow lines the edges of that bank of clouds that robbed you of a proper sunset over the lake. It will not provide enough warmth to take your attention away from your now-numb fingertips and toes.

I am a splintering oak / when the cold winds come / when my heart goes numb / when all your letters and notes / couldn’t give me hope couldn’t keep me warm

grand haven icy planet lake michigan

Before you leave the lakeside, stop at a nearby brewery. Thaw yourself. You brushed elbows with your demons, stood mere inches from plunging towards expiration, and fell on your ass more than once. You survived, and it was beautiful.

Stream and download Read This If I Don’t Make It Home here.

Photographs by Marie Orttenburger & Steven Holmes