What can I say about Michigan’s upper peninsula?
It’s a place where they serve you with paper plates and toothy grins. They say “golly” and “gee” and “pop” – and they’re not self conscious about any of that. Why should they be? They’ve never heard it any other way.
They have camo and guns and the Midwest’s best blueberries. Lots of festivals to celebrate all of the above. Lake Superior is treated with respect, fear, and an obsessive need to be motoring out on it before the 9 month winter comes. Everyone knows the words to the solemn song “Edmund Fitzgerald.”
The TV channels and cell towers are as likely to be Canadian as American. The wilderness is vast and wild and divided up by long, mostly empty dirt roads where you’ll happen upon the occasional moose or motor cycle gang. Hopefully not a wolf or cougar, but it’s possible.
Every other town or road has a Native American name – and if you’re a Michigander you pride yourself in the natural ability to pronounce these (Ojibwa, Kitchi-iti-kipi, Tahquammenon, Chequamegon, Kabetagama etc., easy as cake! Or should I say Kalamazoo!).
There is a town called “Christmas” where every road name is related to Christmas. They love their beer, cigars, casinos, hunting and fishing. It’s the home of the militia so I’d recommend not bringing up the second amendment at any breweries.
There is a town whose sole museum is literally a house made out of a pickle barrel. I kid you not. The UP is actually a parody of itself.
The north shore lies along Lake Superior – a lake any yooper will immediately tell you “doesn’t give up her dead.” A lake that’s stormy and freezing and bigger than all the other Great Lakes combined. The biggest body of fresh water on earth.
Her perimeter is the same distance as NewYork to Liverpool, her depths home to hundreds of ship wrecks. If she was a pool 5 feet deep, her volume of water would be larger than the continental United States.
The term “yooper” comes from “UP” (upper peninsula to you non Michiganders), whereas us who live on the lower peninsula, or below the bridge, are called “trolls.”
I’ve lived many places but Michigan is where I grew up, and I will always call myself a Michigander – but after all these years, this is the first time I’ve crossed the Macinac bridge to see the Yooper life.
In some ways, it’s just what I expected: road stands, greasy cooking, motels, American flags, maple syrup, wood cabins, gorgeous coastline, and people who’ve never left the 30-mile radius they were born in and are perfectly fine with that.
It’s an extreme version of the Michigan I know – and that to me is still a little shocking, I can’t help it. I feel like a tourist in my own state.
I know these people, I’m a Michigander too, but somehow the way we are both Michiganders is unfathomably different. I wear my Michigan-ness in my self sufficient pride: I can fish and I can drive in any weather and I’ve snow-shoed through my neighborhood. But I feel like a phony compared to how truly wild, desolate, hick the UP is.
I’m not Michigan the way they are Michigan.
And reflecting, I’m mostly okay with that.
I like the idea of the UP – this tough northern place that most Americans have never been to. It’s the romantic part of Michigan – the country clubs and strip malls and suburbia of the lower peninsula replaced with miles of dense forest and wild lake and people who are so…independent. It’s romantic to think I come from part of that… I am of that. But isn’t the core of romanticism that something is unachievable? Or…misunderstood?
Because as gorgeous and fiercely proud and unique as the UP is… I could never live here. It’s not me. The cruel winter and empty summer, I just couldn’t. The people content with never leaving their literal neck of the woods. I’d get antsy, claustrophobic, resentful, cold.
So I think I’ll stick with visiting. What a visit it was. And…I can’t wait for my next one.
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