An Argument for the American Midwest

At the end of last term, I was stuck in Newark Airport for ten hours with only an NBC store and an Earl of Sandwich for company. I blew through two ham and cheeses in the sandwich shop pretty quickly, and moved onto the news store. Because all my books were in my checked baggage, I did a very public happy dance when I realized the place had a book section. Even better, ‘ A Moveable Feast’ by Ernest Hemingway was on mark down.

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I had always known that Hemingway had grown up going to Michigan in the summers (Petoskey to be exact), but I had never known that he wrote about his time there. In ‘A Moveable Feast’, Hemingway chuckles at the fact that Gertrude Stein tossed away most of his short stories. She only saved one: ‘Up in Michigan’, written in multiple seedy Parisian bars while Hemingway wove tales about fond memories of his homeland.  I realized that it was the first time I had ever read anything that took place in Northern Michigan, a place near and dear to my heart. It was the first time in a long time I had read something that, instead of taking a dig at the Midwest, extolled its virtues (contemporarily speaking, Breakfast with Buddha is a notable exception.) And so I thought, do people know what they’re missing? Do they realize that one of the greatest places in America is right where you’d least expect and never hear about? If it was good enough for Hemingway, it should be good enough for everyone. So here’s why you should visit Michigan, specifically the Upper Peninsula, and not because Kid Rock sang about it in the only Kid Rock song that anyone knows.

My mother is from St. Ignace, Michigan. Her mother was from Newberry, Michigan, and her mother was from Houghton Hancock, Michigan.  Each generation travels a little farther south, but they never leave the hand-shaped, lake-surrounded, Upper Peninsula. My generation is the only one to venture out of the state. Referring to themselves as Yoopers (sound out “UP”), the UP is a true American enigma. It has no Chicago, as Illinois does. It is completely unrelated to its Lower Peninsula: Detroit is a distant, motorized song that sounds nothing like it, and the hipsters and frat stars that have over-run Anne Arbor speak literally a different language. The UP isn’t Canada and it isn’t rodeo enough to be Montana.  It’s its own strange smorgasbord of disappearing American culture.

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Unless you are attending a trapper convention or State Fair (my town is the proud host of the LAST Michigan state fair) you will likely have no official reason to come to the UP. But like all great travel jewels, you should go there anyway. It’s got something for everyone. There are rolling golf courses where you can race golf carts against moose. The lakes and beaches are some of the prettiest you’ll find, and because they’re freshwater, you don’t have to pay for hair rehydration after a summer of swimming in salt. There are drive-ins everywhere, and mom n pop donuts are a nickel.  You can drive for hours and hours and stop at each little town all the way from Wisconsin to Canada and never hear the same hunting story twice. The UP has some of the most well-preserved French and British colonial sites, the highlight of which is Mackinac Island, a small island off the coast of St Ignace with horse carriages instead of cars. With breathtaking hikes, universally praised fudge and a hotel with the longest porch in the world, the Island is the most marketable of the wonders of the UP.

Attractions aside, the reason people return to the UP every summer, move back for retirement or never leave at all is because of the natives. In a lot of ways they never left the 1950s – even June Cleaver would struggle to keep up with them. Their houses and gardens are immaculate: you have never seen violets more tenderly cared for.  Each house is its own community, with connections and beefs with other clans fought over green bean casserole dinners and Budweiser porch nights. It isn’t just that everyone knows each other in these small towns. Because they grew up together, their identities are eternally intertwined with their neighbors, postmen, fishmongers, and poker pals. The story of a Yooper is never an autobiography, and you’ll never come across more generous people.700636f510ee5be6b5786456f54d9aa6

Maybe this is the best way to describe the Yoopers: When my mom was in medical school, one of her friends was driving down with his girlfriend and ten of their cousins from Marquette to Lansing. It was a bitterly cold night and there was already five feet of thick snow, and the county sheriff closed the Mackinac Bridge, the only way to get from the Upper to Lower Peninsulas. There were stuck. They knew no one, and it was 1979; there were no cellphones or internet, and they were in a blizzard in a tiny town at midnight. My mom’s friend got a directory out and found the Theut address.

Without hesitation, my grandparents stacked up all their chairs and couches, gathered blankets and pillows from the other Theut kids (there were six of them) and put all twelve kids to bed without having met a single one of them.

I once asked my cousin why he loved his town so much. He paused and said, completely seriously, ‘Because, let’s be honest, there is nothing to really do here, and you have to make it up as you go along.’ And that’s the best way I know to describe it. Everywhere else I’ve been there is a long list of ‘things’ to do: museums, monuments, restaurants, concerts. In the UP, it’s all about who you do it with.

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