I recently saw Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys. It was a great concert. The group might be lumped into the bluegrass category, but the music had many influences, including blues and rock. A tagline of theirs is accurate: “Eclectic Americana from the Heart of America’s Third Coast!” By the “third coast,” I assume they mean the Great Lakes, for while the group may now call Nashville home, its roots are in Michigan. (Quick. How many Great Lakes border Michigan? And how do you count Lake St. Clair?) Lindsay Lou, the lead singer with the great voice, was raised in the Upper Peninsula, and this got me thinking about the UP, a place few among us, I suspect, tend to think about.
That has been largely true for me even though I was raised in Wisconsin, a state that borders the UP. Even so, growing up I think I only knew two things about it. The first was that if I drove through Green Bay and kept driving and driving, and then drove a little bit more, I would get to the Upper Peninsula. If much of northern Wisconsin is bleak and cold, I assumed that the UP was even more so. And I knew that Iron Mountain was in the Upper Peninsula and that Iron Mountain had one of the few major ski jumps in the United States.
My brother, after he graduated from college, moved to Michigan, and on one of my visits I noticed a book with jokes about those in the Upper Peninsula, Yoopers I believe it was spelled. My brother told me that those in southern Michigan often made fun of Yoopers, who were seen as isolated hicks. Certainly for much of its history, the Upper Peninsula was segregated from the rest of Michigan. It is geographically separated by the Straits of Mackinac, a five mile stretch of water. A magnificent bridge was completed in 1957, but before that only railroad and car ferries, which often could not operate in winter, connected the two parts of Michigan.
That bridge had to have made a great difference to the Upper Peninsula, but the UP is still isolated from much of the rest of Michigan. From Marquette, the largest city in the UP, to Detroit, it is a seven hour drive of 460 miles, and the drive to the state capital, Lansing, is about an hour shorter. Marquette is much closer to Milwaukee, “only” 292 miles to be traversed in under five hours. And it is a mere trifle of 179 miles to Green Bay from Marquette. In many ways the UP shares more with Wisconsin than the rest of Michigan, and surely there are more Packers fans there than Detroit Lions fans in the Upper Peninsula. (Of course, the Packers win a lot more than the Lions do. But then again, what football team doesn’t?)
I have only been to the Upper Peninsula once. After another visit to my brother, the spouse and I drove through Michigan with our packed camping gear, and after a brief sojourn on Mackinac Island, we were in the UP. Our stay was short, but it produced many memories.
We went to Sault Ste. Marie, and visited its famous tourist site, the Soo Locks, which connect Lake Superior with its twenty foot drop to Lake Huron. According to some sources, these locks are the busiest in the world by cargo tonnage, and 90% of the world’s iron ore is transported through them—80 million tons each year with a value of $500 billion! From seven to ten thousand ships traverse the locks in its ten month season each year, which means on an average day 30 ships make the nine hour trip with the largest ships over a thousand feet long. The first of these locks was opened in 1856, and the locks are now owned, operated, and maintained by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. (Perhaps this should lead to a discussion of the importance of the federal government and infrastructure construction and maintenance to the American economy.)
I have two other memories besides the locks from Sault Ste. Marie. There is a crossing over the locks to Sault Ste. Marie, Canada. On the American side, a car had been pulled over, and it looked as if it had been stripped. Its seats had been removed and placed alongside the road as well as many other objects that I assume came from the vehicle. I knew nothing about the car or its occupants, but I was reminded about how few rights any of us have when we cross the border into the United States, and that includes American citizens.
We went to lunch in a tavern. I must stress that this was August. We entered one door and were in a small space facing another door which contained a large sign, “Galoshes must be removed here.” Many Yooper jokes immediately came to mind.
We went to a campground in a state park on the shores of Lake Superior, which, of course, is the largest body of freshwater in the world. The spouse and I have different memories of how Superior looked that day. I remember its being beautiful—one of the deepest blues I have ever seen. The spouse remembers nothing but slate gray water stretching further than any eye could see. We both agree—let me stress again this was August—that it was, trying to be as fair as possible to the UP, not overly warm. Many of the campsites were already taken, but to our surprise a beautiful spot on a rise that jutted into the water was available. It afforded wide views of the lake and easy access to the (incredibly cold) water. Many of the sites around it that did not seem as desirable were occupied, and while we may have wondered a little why this spot was available, mostly we just blessed our luck.
We were experienced in getting our campsite prepared. We followed our routine for putting up the tent, which was about six feet square and six feet at its highest point. We noticed that our camper neighbors were staring at us in silence. None had given us the usual greeting we usually received at a campground—“Hello”, “Where are you from?”, or “First time here?” Every so often, they did seem to exchange a look with the other campers and then returned to staring at us. Our tent up, we unpacked our other gear and sat down to admire the scenery. As dusk approached, a little breeze came up. With darkness closer, what might be called a little wind blew. With darkness even closer, what might be called a gale force arrived on our spot, which now seemed to be situated to catch the wind perfectly leaving the other sites untouched. Our tent had left perpendicular and achieved a forty-five degree angle. It looked as if it was soon going to depart for Canada.
We packed up our gear and took down the tent, which, because of the hurricane-force gusts, was much harder than putting it up. Once again our camper neighbors merely sat in their chairs and silently observed us. When we had finally thrown the canvas in the car, those neighbors, without saying a word to us, nodded at each other and shared the tiniest of smiles. Although I am sure that some applied, even I was not in the mood for a Yooper joke.
We survived the night at another site and next day drove through the UP. What we saw looked largely desolate and unprosperous. The land looked inhospitable for farming, and it was hard to figure out how people made a living. On the other hand, everything indicated that not many people needed to be supported since few people lived there.
We took a break and went into a state park that contained unusual structures. The plaques indicated that these were the remnants of a once-thriving iron industry, and the signs told us about coke making and the extraction of iron from its ore, and so on. The spouse and I exchanged comments about our ignorance, how little we know about this iron process, and how we would not survive in a new iron age. Soon we were near a twelve-year old girl and her younger brother. He was clearly as mystified as we were by the structures. The girl quietly and patiently explained to the boy, pointing to a vase-shaped construction twenty feet high, “That is where the troll lived.” The spouse and I shared a smile, and one of us whispered, “That is as good an explanation as we could give.” We left the UP after that, driving through Wisconsin to visit my parents.
I find that a trip to a new place is almost always worthwhile; something different is learned or experienced. Even so, I am not sure that you should put the Upper Peninsula on your bucket list as a necessary visit. On the other hand, the UP does produce good things. If you have the chance, go see Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys. That is definitely worthwhile.