Hunting for Unicorns

When I was a kid, my family and would often go up to Mackinac Island, a tiny little isle that sits in the place where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet (kind of).  Mackinac was enchanting to me as a child because it existed in kind of a time bubble –– there were (and still are) no cars on the island, the most prevalent type of establishment is fudge shops, and the homes are these enormous Victorian palaces that seemed like they must have housed the wealthiest and most sophisticated of fur traders.  I was always most intrigued by two things about Mackinac: the first was that there were actual people who lived their all year round (how many?  I guessed maybe 60, but according to the 2010 census, it’s actually 492) but the lives of those who made their homes on wind-swept, isolated dots of land surrounded by water fascinated me regardless of specific Island.  The second reason was the Grand Hotel, a 385-room white tank of a building on the hillside, a testament to WASPy days-gone-by, complete with the world’s longest porch (reputedly), high tea every day, uniformed ethnic maids and a shrine to the Christopher Reeves movie Somewhere in Time, which was filmed there, in the lobby.

My beloved boyfriend was sweet enough during this last visit to indulge me on a $10 (a person!) self-guided “tour” (read: entrance fee, and that’s it) around the Grand Hotel.  As we wandered the halls looking at the art –– which fell into one of two categories: “chintzy” or “satirical” –– I came across the below article, framed:

October is Unicorn Questing Month

In search of a one-horned medieval symbol of purity

by Mark Abley

The Gazette

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” a poet once called it. Today we know it was a month of pumpkins and red trees, Thanksgiving and the World Series.

But October has other meanings, too. Just ask Bill Rabe.

A retired public-relations man, he lives in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., just a stone’s throw away from Canada. At 70, he’s reached an age when a lot of men slow down.

Not Bill Rabe. For him, January brings Dancing Cuckoo Week, June means World Sauntering Day, and July had the Mackinac Island Stone Skipping Tournament.

But Rabe’s year is crowned by October. For on Mackinac Island, not far from Sault Ste. Marie, October is Unicorn Questing Month.

Be warned: a quest is not the same thing as a hunt.

“Only thing you can hunt on the island is a squirrel,” Rabe says. “Of course, a deer will swim over from the mainland sometimes.”

And couldn’t deer be related to the fabulous unicorn?

“Not at all,” Rabe retorts. “Deer have got too many horns.”

A unicorn, you’ll remember, has only one horn, growing proudly in the middle of its pale forehead. Unicorns have been rumored to exist for millennia – the Bible contains a few references to them – but nobody ever suceeded [ed. note: sic] in capturing one. In the Middle Ages, the unicorn became a symbol of purity, often linked to virginity.

Unicorns also were a symbol of truth: “If you stood in front of a unicorn and you were guilty,” Rabe says, “he would shish-kebab you.”

Now in the forests of Mackinac Island, during the first 11 days of October, Unicorn Questing Season is reserved for people with bows and arrows. At other times, Rabe’s official licenses say, questing devices may include general levity, iambic pentameter and sweet talk.

The season culminates in Unicorn Follies, a weekend of revelry at the Grand Hotel. A four-storey building, built in 1887, it lives up to its name: the hotel has more than 300 rooms and 500 staff.

The follies begin with a cocktail party at which questing licenses are issued, new members welcomed, and everybody listens to a tape of the Irish Rovers droning on about unicorns. When enough rusty nails and brown cows have been imbibed, in walks a fair maiden with a unicorn on her arm.

“The unicorn is my son James,” Rabe explains. “He’s 22, and he’ll do anything to wear a tuxedo. So he gets dressed up in a white tie and tails, and then he puts on a rubber unicorn mask.”

James Rabe and his rubber mask reappear at the costume ball. One year a bush and quail showed up; another year, two people came disguised as Hershey bars.

“At the bottom of her costume,” Bill Rabe recalls, “the woman wore a little sign: NO NUTS.”

To wash down the drinks, there’s a lavish buffet, for which the hotel chef carves a meter-long unicorn out of ice. You don’t have to worry about drinking and driving, because Mackinac Island has no cars.

When the guests have dispersed, Rabe returns to Sault Ste. Marie. But he doesn’t just wait for Dancing Cuckoo Week; all year long, he does publicity for the unicorn.

Since the Unicorn Questers were born 21 years ago, Rabe has given out more than 80,000 licenses. A unicorn also appears in the seal of his Sons of the Desert Society.

The Sons of the Desert, in case you were wondering, are devoted to Laurel and Hardy films. In Rabe’s mind, if no one else’s, they’re associated with Hush Labels, which produces silent records.

Back to the unicorn. “It’s a symbol of the impossible dream,” Rabe says. “It’s a symbol of why man is here. It’s a symbol of the meaning of life.”

And what is the meaning of life?

Well, if you want to join the Unicorn Questing Society, you have to swear the following oath: “I was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad.”


This year’s edition of Unicorn Follies has been sold out for weeks. If you’d like to go next year, be ready to fork out about $500 U.S. a couple per weekend.

For more information, write:

W.T. Rabe, 1204 Davitt, Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. 49783, U.S.A.

So my task now is to write to the above address (though I fear Bill Rabe has expired?) to inquire about this year’s festival, and, failing that, to contact the Mackinac newspaper.  I want to attend and write something about it.  Or maybe just attend.  Whatevs.

Interestingly enough, this is one of at least two nonsensical holidays born at the Grand Hotel.  World Sauntering Day, another of Rabe’s faves, was created “to remind us to take it easy, smell the roses, to slow down and enjoy life as opposed to rushing through it.”


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