DRIVE TWENTY MILES north of Marquette on CR 550 and you’ll come to an obscure asphalt road. Turn left, and the road soon turns to dirt. You’ll see no signs or buildings, but just press on.
You’ll find yourself plunging deeper into a forest of maples, oaks, hemlocks, and evergreens while your vehicle kicks up dust and traverses a a rustic one-lane bridge.
Continue over the rut-filled road for about two miles and finally–relieved that you didn’t get lost–you’ll arrive at the home of Aya Jane Waite and her family
Aya (Eye-uh) has spent most of her 18 years on this land in the foothills of the Huron Mountains.
She and her family now live in a two story home that her father, Michael, has been building for the last several years. But when she was younger, Aya, her two brothers, and their parents lived in a 300 square foot home that Michael had built there. That’s 300 square feet, total, for a family of five.
“I didn’t yearn for a larger house,” Aya tells you, “because on the outside there was plenty of space. That was also my home.”
Aya, as you might have surmised, is not your typical American teenager. She’s the offspring of two gentle, talented souls. Her father Michael is a singer-songwriter of considerable renown here in the U.P. He also does construction work. Her mother Erica is a classically trained dancer who has done the lion’s share of homeschooling for Aya and her two brothers.
“The important thing about homeschooling is getting along with your family,” Aya explains. “I have a wonderful family. I’m really grateful to them.”
And very soon, Aya will be leaving them to spend nearly a year in the teeming city of Nagpur, India, population three million, as an exchange student sponsored by the Rotary Club. Talk about a lifestyle change.
She welcomes it. She wants to see the world. And India? Well, it makes sense because despite her youth, she’s already a certified yoga instructor. Over the winter she taught six classes a week in Marquette.
Aya comes across as someone older and more thoughtful than the average 18-year-old. Most of her acquaintances are adults, and much of her time has been spent alone in the forest, hills, and snows of the Upper Peninsula.
“Wisdom comes from silence, stillness, nothingness,” she says quietly. When she says it, it doesn’t sound pretentious or pseudo-sophisticated. It’s how she feels, it’s what she has experienced.
When she talks to you, her soft blue eyes remain focused on you. No looking away. She picks her words carefully but she smiles and laughs easily, and occasionally punctuates her conversation with charmingly girlish giggles.
In a sense you can look at Aya Jane Waite as a throwback–to the way things used to be in a rural America, away from the teenage culture, away from our obsession with technology, away from the busyness of our lives.
Or maybe she’s in the vanguard. Maybe she and her family, nestled comfortably in this all-embracing forest, are showing us another way to live in the 21st century. A slower, saner way.
“Things have been speeding up,” Aya says. “People move at such a fast pace. It’s fast, fast fast! Living here has given me a chance to slow down, to be still. And there’s so much that we can hear if we just listen.”
Oh, but maybe she’s missed out on other things.
Like television, for one. The Waites don’t get cable. “I think it’s been a healthy thing for me,” Aya explains. “I think otherwise I would have given it too much time and not learned as much as I did out in the forest.”
There’s also pop music. She doesn’t know the singers or the songs. Her taste runs more to Norah Jones, Regina Spektor, Paul Simon, and her dad. “At nights when we were kids, he’d play the guitar and he’d sing us to sleep.”
And there’s also the issue of boyfriends. She hasn’t had any.
“No…I haven’t needed them yet,” she tells you without embarrassment. But what about in the future? “Well, probably, I guess…(She laughs)…I haven’t partaken yet, mostly because I’ve been spending a lot of time with older people, and with myself and my family. If I lived in town I’d probably run into more people and be more a part of the culture but I don’t think I’m missing out on anything at my age.”
A most unconventional young lady.
But don’t misunderstand. Aya’s not some eccentric girl leading a hermit-like existence. Not even close.
She comes into Marquette a few times a week for yoga classes and other errands. She’s able to make phone calls from her home, she has a Facebook page that she occasionally visits, and she listens to Public Radio 90 to stay in touch with the rest of the world.
But those are diversions. The core of her being remains here deep in the forest and the foothills.
When she needs to clear her mind and settle her soul, she takes off on a 20 minute jaunt up to the top of Oaky Top Mountain which gives her a stunning view of Marquette on one side, and Big Bay on the other. And of course, there’s also the lake, the trees and the sky.
Will she miss it when she heads off to India? Will she get homesick? Not really. “Travel will show me the true value of this place,” she tells you. “When I come back, I’ll have different eyes on where I live.”