Wow, it's been a long time. Hope you missed me. But not too much, because I wouldn't want to be the cause of your life seeming more empty or meaningless than usual.
I've been on hejira with my mom, a pilgrimage to the ancestral lands of Michigan and Ontario, where we mingled and kicked it with a host of bizarre and wonderful (or wonderfully bizarre?) relatives and in-laws. So many, in fact, that it's going to take several posts to tell about them all. And to complicate things further, I'm only back in New York (just got in late tonight) for one day before it's time to take off again on the biggest pilgrimage of all, to Baltimore for The Fest.
Some people thought it was kind of crazy to go on a 1500 mile journey (not counting several thousand miles more of plane riding to get both of us to the Midwest) with a nearly 90 year old lady (not that I'm getting any younger myself, either), but when you consider that the focal point of the trip was a 100th birthday party for Mom's favorite cousin, well, what's the big deal, right?
Last time we went on a trip, Mom and I flew out from the West Coast together, but this time she and I were coming from opposite coasts, so she had to make that part of the trip on her own, which was probably the scariest part of the deal for her, but she came through it like a trooper. We met up in Detroit at about 9 pm and started driving. Yeah, it would have been nicer to spend the night near Metro Airport and get an early start in the morning, but as it happened, we had nearly 600 miles to cover in less than 24 hours, so we had to knock off at least a hundred or so the first night.
Which would have been no trouble if Michigan's highways, at least the ones we were on, didn't bear a striking resemblance to the permanent state of disrepair I found in a trip to East Germany just prior to the fall of Communism. Oh, plus the fact that I got lost three times trying to match Google map directions to actual road signs. The deal was that we had to get to Traverse City, which is in the upper northwest corner (Detroit's in the lower southeast corner) by lunchtime for a flying visit to one of the last remaining cousins from my dad's family, then up to the top of the state, over the mighty Mackinac Bridge, and deep into the heart of Michigan's mysterious Upper Peninsula in time for dinner.
My mom's brother and his wife are not native Yoopers (Upper Peninsula = U.P. = Yoop, etc.), but they migrated up to the Soo (Sault Ste. Marie) back in the mid-50s, when the bridge had yet to be built and you could still travel north via train, but had to hop off and take a ferry when you got to the Straits of Mackinac. After a few years they moved over to Marquette, the U.P.'s principal city (population approximately 25,000, i.e., similar to that of certain city blocks in Manhattan) and have been there ever since. At the time they built their house, it was not uncommon for bears to come wandering through the yard, but apparently it's been a couple years since one has been sighted, which might be just as well, since my aunt and uncle are now in their 80s, and though they've been keen hunters all their lives, she's now nearly blind and he's partially deaf, so you don't necessarily want them whipping out the rifles or shotguns, especially now that a few other houses have been built in the vicinity.
But my uncle still gets out on a regular basis to deal with the ten or so feet of snow that falls each winter, beginning in October and usually lasting until April (or sometimes May). He used to have his own snowplow, but now he relies on a snowblower, which sends drifts flying over a 20 foot area instead of piling up all in one place. And if you think that's a bit too much physical activity for a man in his 80s, bear in mind that both he and his wife took up long distance running when they were in their 70s (this was after the heart attack he suffered when he was my age.
Although they're passionately devoted to the U.P. and its way of life, they're rather low-key compared with dyed-in-the-wool Yoopers, who can best be described, if at all, as being somewhat akin to... well, actually, I don't think they can be described. Perhaps you'd be better off examining the creative output of Da Yoopers, who also hail from the Greater Marquette area.
But while Da Yoopers take the eccentricities and foibles of the U.P. and turn them into burlesque, Lakenen Land , located not much more than a hop, skip and shuffle down the highway from my uncle's place, showcases the fiercely independent U.P. spirit on a more sublime albeit still reasonably hilarious level. Tom Lakenen is a local ironworker who likes to collect and cut up scraps of iron and other industrial detritus to make giant sculptures that range from whimsical to beautiful to just plain out there in a world of their own.
And feeling that his sculptures not only represented, but also deserved a world of their own, Tom created one, putting them on display on several acres of wooded land he owns along Highway 28 and inviting the public in to explore (for free) his Jurassic (there's a huge green dinosaur clearly visible from the road) Sculpture Park.
Local authorities have been hounding him ever since, outraged at the idea that a citizen could take it upon himself to set up a public park (he's also put in a couple ponds, outhouse facilities, benches and tables, and an information center/shelter) that clearly outdoes most of the efforts of the city and county fathers, but so far Tom has adroitly fended off all efforts to shut him down, thanks to a growing reservoir of support from both locals and tourists. And for the handful of you who may actually journey down M-28 one of these days: don't miss it. 10 or 15 miles east of Marquette; watch for the dinosaur.
What else? We stayed a couple days, went walking on the sand and dipped a toe into Lake Superior while fending off flies (another reason that so few people live in the U.P. is that the place is, as already mentioned, beset by massive amounts of snow for six months of the year, and massive amounts of insects, black flies, mosquitoes and deer flies being among the most pestilential) for another four, leaving the inhabitants approximately one month in the spring and fall respectively to rest up from shoveling and swatting. We dined at what has to be the most amazing and well-appointed Perkins Restaurant (this is the same chain that used to be known as Perkins Pancake House, right?) in the world. Rather than the usual plastic-and-neon dismalness, this place was all hand-hewn lumber with cathedral ceilings and chandeliers made out of antlers, not to mention the elk head the size of a refrigerato and the moose head the size of a Volkswagen that hung over the dual fireplaces. Oh, and the food was good, too.
So yeah, the Upper Peninsula was rad, and it goes without saying that my uncle and aunt are, too, but after two and a half days we had to head back down to the land of the apple knockers and trolls, both of which are derisory names bestowed by the Yoopers on Lower Peninsulans. Apple knockers, I don't know why, except they grow a lot of the fruit down there, but trolls, well, it's because they live below the bridge, get it? Yoopers, by the way, are called stump jumpers, among other less printable things, by those who are less than admiring of their way of life. It was a 450 mile jaunt back to Detroit, but we'll get on to that tomorrow; for now, we'll have to bid a fond farewell to the U.P. and all its weird and wonderful denizens. Next stop: 100th birthday party time!!