I take a yearly trip to Door County with my sisters-in-law. If you are not from Wisconsin, Door County sits on a peninsula of land that lies between Lake Michigan and Green Bay. The long shoreline has many natural areas as well as many little towns with shops and restaurants. It’s a beautiful place to visit. This year, I saw how visiting a place I’ve been before can play tricks on your memory.
On my way back home, I took a detour to Cave Point County Park. I was tired and really just wanted to go home. But as I drove further and further down the road, something kept pulling me forward.
In the parking lot, I grabbed by phone and my camera and followed a family with a small dog down to a path with numerous place to look out onto Lake Michigan.
The lake was wild. I could hear the waves hitting the cliffs before I saw them rolling up and down. When I came to the first overlook, I saw the whitecaps thundering into the limestone below. They hit so hard the water it exploded against the cliff. Before I knew it my legs were wet from the water shooting up to where I was standing. This continued as I moved along the pathway taking pictures at every vantage point, until I was completely soaked from head to toe.
As the name implies, the water has worn away parts of the limestone and created caves where the water rushed in and created small waterfalls and tide pools. As I walked around I tried to remember if I had been here before.
I knew Wisconsin had famous ice caves that form in winter that people walk to when the lake freezes over. Had I visited those caves before? Were these the same caves? I had a memory of walking the beach in the summer to where the ice caves would be.
But, this couldn’t be the spot. There was no beach here, only what appeared to be the abyss of Lake Michigan and the waves crashing below me. Yet, as I walked along the path at Cave Point County Park, I felt as if I was passing my own ghost. Had I stood in this spot before? That one? It felt as if I had.
I figured out why the park seemed so familiar when I returned home. I looking at photos from another year when I had visited Door County, not with my in-laws, but with my husband. There, I saw pictures from this very park. And although they looked similar, the pictures were not the same.
The water was much calmer the day we had visited six years ago and we were able to climb down onto rocks that were not accessible the day I visited on my own. As for the ice caves, that was a different memory. Those are located on Lake Superior on the Bayfield Peninsula in Bayfield County. We did visit this part of the state too, but on a separate occasion.
A Lesson in Memory
In looking up how memories are processed it makes perfect sense. Because the park looked so different to me when I visited it the second time, it felt familiar, but I wasn’t able to recognize it. The mind uses environmental context in remembering things. For example, if you learned a word on a flash card with a red background, you would begin to associate that word with red and not another color and remember it as well with other colors. Since the lake and shoreline were so different, my mind couldn’t process the park as the same the first and second time.
It’s the same thing that happens when you see someone you know in a different context. If you see the mailman in a restaurant, you may know that you know him, but not be able to figure out how because he is out of context.
As for thinking this was the ice caves, I would guess that I made the jump from “cave” in the name and seeing the small caves at the park to those that I had seen when I viewed the caves in Bayfield. My mind was filling in the gaps, trying to decide why this place felt familiar and replacing it with other memories.
It’s a fascinating experience to watch our mind at work. The lesson in memory was more than I bargained for when I drove down that road. It just proves that sometimes it pays to take the long way home.