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Hern's Island & The Stairway To Heaven
written by: Rando Mithlo
I'm telling you this story as a warning. A warning that the world we know is not always as you’d expect - That there are places on earth that offer no protection. Not from what other folks do, mind you. I'm speaking of places themselves that make little sense. In fact, you'll never know what you might find in the remote backwoods of America, as I'd guess you could say for anywhere on this globe. Where one footstep can fall differently than the other, and just like that you vanish, sometimes without a trace.
I grew up on a farm outside of New Era, Michigan with my twin brother Tim and my three sisters, and like many folks in the fruit belt, our parents were cherry growers. My early years were spent working in the orchard or our private cannery. When not in school and the season was in full swing, we worked tirelessly to get our product on the shelves of area grocery stores - A&P being the largest chain. Some were as far away as Traverse City and Ann Arbor. It was during the summer months we made the majority of our profits, but more than not, it was barely enough to live on and pay our bills after defraying costs of equipment payments and some services during production in which we couldn't do ourselves.
Our strongest years were the early 70's when tourism in the area was at its height. Resorts on Lake Michigan and Stoney Lake were a draw to the upper class from Chicago, Detroit, and the like.
It’s during this time many tourist attractions popped up all along the main highways US 31 and State Route 20. We had ice cream stands, antique markets, miniature golf, an Indian trading post, we even had a mini amusement park, named Stoneyland that featured a few small roller coasters.
We too enjoyed these places when it was time to have fun and oh man, there was nothing better than stopping roadside to get soft serve on a cone, or beating my tomboy sisters with a hole-in-one at the Craz-E Golf.
But then the energy crisis hit tourism to the area pretty hard around 1973, and as the economy languished five years down the line, it seems they all had disappeared. Most of them went bankrupt and slowly become roadside eyesores, and therefore sad reminders of our summers past.
There among these attractions was a place known as the Hearn's Island Mystery Spot.
Hearn's Island was really just a two-acre peninsula that jutted out into the western edge of Stoney Lake. Only a four-foot wide stream separated it from the mainland to give it island status, a small footbridge was used to gain access.
This wasn't your average Mystery Spot you'd find around the Midwest, sure it had that crooked shack and when entered, it leaned enough to make you believe you were looking under a table when you were standing on top of it. You also might have been wowed by the host teenager, pouring water into a trough and others gasping as it appeared to flow uphill. But this Mystery Spot had a strangely unique attraction known as the 'Stairway To Heaven'.
Oh yeah, and by the way, don't bother looking for Hearn's Island in any atlas, it was removed from all maps by 1975 and for good reason.
My friends in high school used to tell stories about Hearn's Island - often the story was that it's a haunted Indian burial land and the earth would swallow you if you go there.
The Mystery Spot closed abruptly in late August 1972, only a year after it opened. It could be that it lost money and they pulled the plug on the operation, but a lot of us here believe the disappearance of a Valley State University student by the name Lina Malkin had something to do with it. She went missing in the same area shortly before the closure. The cops think she may have drowned in Stoney Lake, but they never did find her body. Is it Coincidence? Maybe, but this place has had its share of strange disappearances over the last century according to a piece I read in the Grand Rapids newspaper. For instance: In 1934, a fifteen-year girl old named Violet Andersen, was playing on the island with a few friends. These friends claimed they heard Violet moaning and when they turned to look for her, she was gone. She was only a few yards away from them and had just vanished. They never found her.
Also way back in 1907, a thirty-three-year-old state of Michigan worker, named Delmer Coyne, disappeared while with a small survey crew in the same area. His remains were discovered three months later over 300 miles to the north in remote Ontario Canada, just a few scattered bones and clothing.
The only way they identified his remains was by an addressed postcard from his mother tucked in the pocket of his trousers. He was the only one missing from the area ever found.
Now the island is owned by the U.S. government and restricted from access, but inquiring teens can be persistent, We had to find out the real truth for ourselves.
On a warm morning in May a few weeks before my brother Tim and I graduated In '78, He and his girlfriend Teri rode with me out to the site of the former Mystery Spot in my old Plymouth.
We parked in the gravel lot that was choked with spring weeds and lingering brown leaves from last autumn. The footbridge had been removed and now stood an 8 ft. barbed chain link type fence surrounding the island's perimeter. I had prior knowledge of the fence and brought a pair of my father's aviation snips to work around that. We all walked over to the fence line and saw the green and white U.S. Forest Service sign warning us to 'Keep Out' but in our brazen minds, we took that as a dare.
We crossed the small creek and walked a bit around the fence until I found a good spot out of view of the parking lot, to cut into the chain links with the snips. I found it very difficult and had to use all my hand strength to cut just one. Thank goodness Tim and Teri found a place in the fence where someone had already done the work for us.
We slipped through the opening in the chain links and quickly found the gravel path that led to the attractions. I found an old Mystery Spot brochure on the path that despite some weather damage, you could read a lot of it. On the back fold, a freckled girl with pigtails floated in midair, tethered by a rope. The people watching her stood mouths agape and the girl grinned nervously. The title under the picture read 'The fabulous Stairway to Heaven.' I showed it to Tim and Teri and asked: "What do you make of this?".
Tim replied, "What the hell..?".
Teri laughed at the cheesy picture and sang a few lines from the Led Zeppelin song of the same name. The picture showed a pair of stairs off to the left and right of the floating girl. I figure this is what we need to look for when we enter.
We followed the path around some weedy overgrowth until the entrance came into view.
The ticket booth had smashed out windows and black spray painted graffiti on the door that read: “Tickets to Hell”.
Teri clearly didn't like seeing that, she appealed to my brother to leave. He calmed her down by telling her that she'll be fine, that she's with two big strong guys to protect her.
We pushed the gate open and it creaked with weathered hinges. The next building was the 'Gift Shoppe'. a small one-story structure that was slowly being enveloped in ivy and other brush. The door was locked but Tim gave it a good blow with his size 13 sneaker and the door popped open, skidding to a stop on the flat floor. He turned to us and quipped “Ta-da!”.
Tim went in first followed by Teri and then me. I was amazed by the condition of the place, other than some more graffiti, it looked like the place closed just yesterday. Yo-yos, frisbees, wallets and other trinkets emblazoned with the Mystery Spot’s question mark logo, all sat neatly placed in bins. T-shirts and sweatshirts were still pinned to the wall above the undisturbed racks of them below. The checkout counter had a cash register that did appear to have damage to the open drawer. However, it was not what you'd expect for a place that's been closed for this long. A giant fan sat in the far corner near the big window facing the entrance. Above it, some vandal wrote 'Evil Spirits", big enough to cover the length of the wall. Teri said, "Tim, I'm scared!". He put an arm around her waist and said, "It's just graffiti, baby...don't worry." She frowned and with a finger, nervously twirled a strand of her long red hair. We left the gift shop and walked to the crooked, grey shack, entering into its leaning floor. Tim balanced himself on a wall and rocked back and forth.
"Hey, Troy what does this remind you of?"
"Something outta Bugs Bunny!", I said amused.
Teri jumped up next to him and balanced on one foot, she looked to be having fun now.
I noticed out the window, a net over an area in a clearing. I told the other two we should check it out. We all strode over to the place on a wood plank walkway that ended at a platform - it was clear that a set of stairs had been removed from here with its four sawed-off posts. "This is it!" I said. I was pretty excited that we found it: The Stairway to Heaven!
Beneath the net was a sloping depression about 15 feet in diameter, and then a hole the size of a truck tire at the bottom. It looked pretty deep and I leaned on the edge of the pit to get a better look. I felt a weird sensation and pulled back. I felt light-headed and wondered if there were chemical vapors seeping out of the hole. I then see Teri and Tim do the same. I had the idea to find a stick or a rock to throw down the hole to gauge its depth. I walk toward the trees and found a long birch branch. I hear Tim yell "Teri!" I turn in time to see her slumping over and tumbling into the pit toward the hole. My brother, fearing the hole himself, frantically reached from the edge for her. He got a hand full of sandal but she slid out of it. Teri's eyes were closed and she was clearly out cold. Tim yelled for her to wake up. She got close the hole but didn't go down in it - instead, she started to float up and up like a helium balloon until her back was pressing against the old netting overhead. It was like slow motion, we stood awestruck. I couldn't believe what I was seeing! The net started to rip from her body's pressure and her right leg dangled upward through the tear. "Shit, the net is dry rotted!" I yelled. Tim looked at me in utter disbelief, frozen in fear. I scream "Snap out of it Tim, she gonna fly to the moon if we don't get her down!"
Tim nodded and started looking around for something to use. We only found sticks, but none long enough to hook her with, so I thought climbing the posts to detach the netting on two sides and pulling her down would work. I told Tim to climb up the pole across from me. I did my best monkey shimmy up the thin pole but fell way short of reaching the net bindings that were about 12 feet up. Tim couldn't even muster a try. The net ripped again allowing her left foot to protrude too, I knew we needed a rope and quickly or Teri was going the route of Violet Andersen and Delmer Coyne!
I told Tim to look for a rope or a hose over by a small outbuilding, while I ran to the gift shop and looked. I thought, if I tied some t-shirts together I could fashion a rope. But we were running out of time. My head hurt with panic. I dashed to the clothes racks and grabbed a handful of garments when I noticed a yellow extension cord leading away from the large fan. I pulled it up, revealing a substantial length of it, I yelled in joy! I dragged it out to the pit, where Tim was standing there bawling. I slapped him on his arm and he acknowledged me. "Dammit, listen to me! Your gonna save your woman!"
"How, Troy, she's gone...going?", he babbled. I wrapped the cord around his waist and cinched it tight, leaving enough loose cord on the end to tie around Teri's waist as well. "You're gonna float up there and get her. I will pull you two down...okay, got it?"
He nodded. "You gotta hold your breath, can you do it?" He again nodded. I said, “Okay, go get her now!"
He stood wavering at the edge of the pit looking at the hole. "Now!" I screamed pushing him. He took a huge breath and jumped down. He started floating until he was able to grab at Teri's arm. He floated into the net with her, the added pressure completely ripped the net at its weakest points.
Tim and Teri floated through the netting until they were vertical to one another, Tim’s eyes grew as he sloppily hooked the loose end of the cord through Teri's belt. He blew out his breath, screaming "Get us down!” The cord's slack was almost tight, I wound it around the closest net post, pulling with all my might until the two were away from the weightless zone. They fell to the ground with a thud. Both were unconscious now. I pulled them a good distance away from the hole and was relieved to see them both breathing.
While waiting for them to wake, I walked back over to the edge of the depression, staring and wondering. It is then, I noticed three different flip-flops alongside Teri’s sandal lying around the area half buried in the sand. I looked up into the blue sky overhead in a broken state, my emotions overran me, and I sat down, choking with sympathy for all of them.
Three weeks later, Tim and I graduated high school and all was well, despite some bruises. Soon after, Teri broke up with Tim, blaming him for almost getting her killed, but how could any of us know something like this even existed. It flew in the face of science if, in fact, this was a spot where there was no gravity...I still don't understand it.
These days, I fly a crop dusting plane during the growing season, now that I have my pilot's license. I do fly near Hearn's island, but never over it. There's a block structure that I can see now around the spot that appears pretty high, so that's good!
We told no one about that day and did our best trying to forget it. We never even discussed it amongst ourselves. We were just embarrassed kids reminded of how weak we are no matter how macho we’d act. How everything that could go wrong, did, and the different reactions that bleak situations can force on us. We can mark those lessons learned.