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Around Michigan

Published
September 7, 2021
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OUR next stop was Alabaster, where there is a historical market and an offshore landing facility for an old gypsum mine which no longer operates. It looks like a huge barn, floating on the water. I stopped an old couple in a pickup truck who told us about it; the people around here are really nice. We stopped at a small antique mall, and I bought a fake fur hat. We went through East Tawas and Oscoda and then we stopped at the

Sturgeon Point lighthouse. It was a short trek, and it was worth it.

We talked to a couple from Gregory, in the west of Livingston County, who were looking for Petoskey stones. Petoskey stones are a remarkable form of fossilized coral. When polished, they look like a turtle’s shell, and they are the state stone of Michigan. These curious objects are called Petoskey stones because they were first found near a town named Petoskey. This sounds like an Eastern European name, but the town is actually named after a nineteenth-century Méti (part French, part Algonquian) fur trader and chief, whose Algonquian name was Pet-o-Sega.

Our next top was Presque Isle which, as the French name suggests, is not quite an island. The sky was just turning to dusk. There were two lighthouses, one from 1840 and one from 1870, it was quite beautiful. Michigan is girded by no less than 149 lighthouses. We got to another lighthouse just on dark, the Forty Mile Point Lighthouse — too dark to take pictures.

We pressed on to Mackinaw City at the northern tip of ‘mainland’ Michigan, known as the Lower Peninsula, at about 7 p.m. We checked into the appropriately named Lighthouse View Hotel. We had a good dinner at a restaurant called Audies, a couple of hundred metres from the Mackinac Bridge that spans the Mackinac Straits between the Lower Peninsula and the part of Michigan known as the Upper Peninsula to its north.

Mackinac and Mackinaw are different spellings for the same thing, pronounced Mackinaw. The name is thought to come from an Algonquian word, mikinaak, meaning snapping turtle, and could mean ‘many turtles’.

The straits are windy, and so in English the word Mackinaw also refers to what we would call a freezer jacket in New Zealand: that is, a short jacket made from really tough, tight woollen fabric. With a woollen cap on top, the Mackinaw gives the classic Rust Belt working-man’s look, like Robert de Niro in The Deer Hunter.

The Upper Peninsula is sandwiched between Lake Superior and Lakes Michigan and Huron. They are technically one lake because there is no change in water level along the Mackinac Straits. Lake Superior stands seven metres higher.

I ordered fish, which turned out nice.

We got up early the next morning and hit the road up to Sault Ste Marie, Michigan, at 7 a.m. This town stands on the St Mary River which flows between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. On the opposite shore was the larger town of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, where we didn’t go. The name means Saint Mary Rapids in old-fashioned French. In Michigan, at any rate, it is pronounced ‘Soo Saint Marie’.

The rapids are at the Lake Superior entrance to the St Mary River. They are bypassed by the Soo Locks on the American side and by the Sault Ste Marie Canal, which also has a lock, on the Canadian side.

It was still dark when we stopped at a Nicky D’s hamburger joint. Then we went to the park on Water Street where we saw the local landmark of the Indian Burial Mound. We also saw the reproduced stockade section of Fort Brady and the Fort Brady historical marker. Next, we drove a little east, and saw the SS Valley Camp, a bulk ore carrier launched in 1917 which is now a museum ship.

There we saw a huge stone power plant from the early 20th century as well, and several historic houses side by side on Water Street. One had been inhabited by Douglass Houghton, a nineteenth-century geologist who first identified mineral ore bodies in the area. The other was the John Johnston House, named after an early settler, one of the first Europeans around. He was a loyalist during the American Revolution.

We left Sault St Marie behind and headed for the Big Bay Point Lighthouse on Lake Superior. We went west on route 28, filled up the car and then carried on. Sitting in the parking lot of Big Bay Point Lighthouse, I decided I need to start making arrangements to hire a car and drive to Standing Rock. Bill thought I was a little bit crazy.

There was already a light snow on the ground. On the way back, we were stopped on 28 by a state trooper, for doing 66 miles per hour in a 55 zone. The trooper looked like he could have been on a recruiting poster, chiselled jaw and all. He was nice and we got off with a warning — man were we lucky. Bill showed me some more of the countryside, which was beautiful. We stopped at a restaurant called White Tail in Brevort, just north of the Mackinac Bridge, which was excellent. I had bean soup and a bison burger and blackberry pie à la mode. We checked out old Mackinaw Lighthouse; then the snow started, and the roads were slick and dangerous. We stopped in at a café and thought we had better carry on because the snow was getting worse and we wanted to be sure of getting back to Detroit, and to be sure of meeting Bill’s mother in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on the way.

We carried on south along the western shores of the Lower Peninsula. Bill was going to show me some of the social contrasts in rural Michigan too, which after all that history I was very interested to see: the so-called twin cities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. The two are right next to each other but Benton Harbor is mostly, in fact overwhelmingly black and quite impoverished, while St Joseph is just as overwhelmingly white and much more prosperous. You can tell the difference between the two, stark contrasts really. More so because these towns are not very big, each with a population of about ten thousand, even though they are called cities.

I remember we talked a lot about class, what it means, and how we define it. According to a 2011 Michigan Radio article by Mercedes Mejia, called ‘Bridging the Gap between Benton Harbor and St. Joseph’, in Benton Harbor, forty-three percent of families lived below the poverty line while in St Joseph, it was six percent. And families in St Joseph, which the locals call St Joe, earned more than twice as much as their neighbours across the river.

We saw about fifteen cars that had skidded off the road. Taking it easy on the dodgy snowstorm highway, we sang songs and listened to Frank Sinatra on the way to Bill’s mother’s place. It took eight hours to do what should have been a four-hour drive as the snowstorm got even worse, and we didn’t get in till a quarter to ten at night.

I got up at 9:30 am and found that Bill’s mother, Nancy, was still in shock about the election result and couldn’t quite get over the demise of the Democrats across three branches of government. She invited over her friend Ally, who was 75 and brought muffins.

Nancy had spent the last few years travelling the world, she had been to Vietnam, Cambodia and New Zealand. I had a look at her New Zealand photo album which had postcards and maps and fantastic photos of her travels. Ally talked about her life while we ate muffins, scrambled eggs, smoked fish and oatmeal bread (what a wonderful fry-up) and chatted for about two hours about potential race riots after the presidency. She stated her granddaughter, who was adopted from Ecuador, was frightened about Trump’s presidency.

Then we drove back to Detroit and Bill kindly took me to the Amtrak railway station, and I picked up my tickets to leave. I was going to catch the train to the town of Minot in North Dakota, and then hire a car to get to Standing Rock, where the protests were being held against the Dakota Access Pipeline. I thanked Bill so much for showing me all over Detroit and taking me to meet his friends. It had been a great time and it was nice to see a familiar face, especially as Christmas was around the corner.

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