Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Michigan 2017

Photographs and stories made while traversing the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.

- Sunset over Burt Lake. Indian River, Michigan.

There's a song Ohio State football fans like to sing: "We Don't Give a Damn for the Whole State of Michigan." As someone who's spent their entire life in Ohio and definitely understands sports rivalries, but is completely apathetic towards OSU, I think anyone taking that song literally is missing out. Michigan's an incredibly diverse and interesting state. For the longest time, I only knew it as Detroit, a city I love. It wasn't until a friend's wedding, a few years back, that I realized there's more to The Great Lakes State than just The Motor City. Back then, what we had assumed would be a quick jaunt across the border, turned into an all night drive much farther north than we realized. These days, I'm a lot more accustomed to just how large Michigan is (and I've still never seen more than few miles of the Upper Peninsula). My girlfriend and her family have vacationed there for a long time, and when I get the opportunity to join them: it's always a really nice getaway. On this most recent trip, I had to leave the vacation earlier than the rest of the group, facing a day long trek back to Cincinnati. I decided to take my time and check out some stuff along the way.

- An abandoned ice cream stand near Traverse Bay.

Even Michigan's touristy areas have a gritty charm to them. You'll find million dollar beachfront properties sitting next modest riverside cabins. There's also plenty of local businesses mixed in with chains. Some of them are thriving, favorites for visitors and residents alike. Others sit by the roadside, shuttered remnants of the tourism industry. For an area that's such a summer attraction, you'll be hard pressed to overhear an annoying Jimmy Buffett cover band. Maybe that's because this state is also a winter destination, a place that never feels like Panama City, Myrtle Beach, or Hilton Head. It's a Midwestern riviera along a state that features interesting urban centers and tales of industrial might.

This particular road trip begins at a rest stop overlooking Interstate 75 near Gaylord, MI:

I had a few particular destinations in mind, but no real timeframe, free to stop and see anything interesting that came up. I ditched I-75 for US 27, a former main artery in the state. Along the way, faux alpine lodges mixed with shuttered businesses and vacation homes.

- A closed general store near Otsego Lake.

- A closed ice cream stand in Waters.

Like Route 12 featured previously, US 27 once held its fair share of roadside attractions. Many of them died off when Interstate 75 came into existence, such as the former "Underground Forest:"

Underground Forest was essentially a taxidermy museum featuring animals that can be found in the region. Built into a hillside, tunnels were lined with information and displays. History on the internet varies, but the place apparently opened in 1957 and only lasted until some point in the late 60's as most travelers began using a then-new interstate rather than the old highway.

I knocked on the doors of trailers parked out front, hoping to chat with someone about what might come of the building other than being used to house a fire pit and few chairs inside. No one was home though.

A postcard of Underground Forest in its prime:

Further down the highway, dirt roads lead to "Bradford Lake Hills" and the wild turkeys guarding the old sign out front:

Eventually, I came upon and old military truck sitting in front of a mid-century motel:

The Pineview Motel shares a common ownership with Pineview Military Surplus, a local shop marked by the aforementioned truck and inert ordinance sitting out front.

Walking in through the mosquito nets, the place felt like the field headquarters of a military operation. More than just a surplus store though, it's also a museum.

Pineview has been owned by Dan & Chris Klatt who, via their website, define themselves as "an ordinary couple that just happen to own an unusual business." They took the shop over in 1997, featuring not only a 2500 sq. ft building, but also a Quonset hut out back:

Their daughter-in-law, Courtney, was kind enough to take time out of her day and show me around.

In a room lined with history, one of the most interesting pieces she showed was the diary of her grandfather: an American WW2 vet who fought across Europe even after being liberated from a stay in, and escape attempt from, a German POW camp.

In rural Northern Michigan, you can read the poetry and eyewitness accounts of a man who survived one of the greatest conflicts known to man. A unique story within a historical event that's so thoroughly scrutinized and researched.

- Abandoned motel near Grayling, MI.

US 27 continued on for miles repeating between charming fishing lodges and abandoned motels. In Grayling, the military themes of the day continued as Army helicopters flew in formation overhead. Soldiers guarded the gates of the local National Guard outpost while their off duty counterparts joined me in line at a gas station ATM.

At American Legion Post 406, locals strolled in for lunch past the historic aircraft, tank, and artillery displays out front:

I hopped back on 75 for awhile, driving on the interstate that had killed off so many of the businesses that once lined 27. I hated to do it, there's far less to see. Ultimately though, it is faster and I hadn't really made a lot of distance compared to the large dent already made in time.

In West Branch,  I pulled off to walk along the main drag of Houghton Ave with its charming historical buildings and classic cinema.

I stopped for lunch at a spot called Logger's Depot, feasting on an "Arizona Burger" topped with A-1 Steak Sauce and onion straws in a room of idle conversation and classic rock songs. The food was good, the local beer even better. Unlike the road trip before this one, I didn't find myself feeling isolated, lost, or anxious. Sipping that beer and looking out the window in a town known for its timber industry felt perfect in the moment.

- Abandoned hotel and restaurant off of I-75 near Bridgeview.

I made it to Burton, a suburb of Flint, where one of the day's few planned destinations was located: The Miracle Twin Drive-In Theatre. The former double screen "ozone" hasn't shown a film since 2008. Aside from the two screens and a few speaker poles, there wasn't much left. You can read more about the place in its history in today's other post here.

- Pedestrian bridge above the highway near the drive-in theatre.

After the drive-in, I realized I needed to make up some distance compared to the time I was spending wandering around Michigan. I didn't have to be back in Cincinnati at any certain point, but I had also been on the road since 9 a.m and wanted to sleep in my own bed as opposed to my car. There were still things I wanted to see and still a lot of the state to cover.

After pulling over several times to try and remember where it was on the map, I finally made it to a farm off of US 23 in Whitmore Lake that I remembered passing on the way up. Something fresh seemed like a better snack compared to the pretzel M&M's I had been eating all day.

However, the farm and your opportunity to pick your own strawberries, were only available on the weekends. I arrived on a Monday afternoon to find the hours posted on a sign near the electric wires which serve as a deterrent to anyone thinking of visiting outside of business days.

I stopped at a nearby truck stop to glance over a map and debate which destination to return to: Detroit, a city I'd been to many times previously, or, Route 12: the highway of forgotten roadside tourist attractions that I visited back in 2015.

Detroit won after I saw an advertisement for the Tigers above the truck stop urinal I was utilizing. Maybe I'd catch a game at Comerica Park, a great modern baseball ground that I hadn't been to since I was a kid?

- Woodward Ave., Detroit.

I probably would have if Miguel Cabrera and "the Tigs" were home, but they had an interleague matchup in Pittsburgh that night. One I found out about as I pulled into a parking garage near the quiet ballpark.

- Sculptures in downtown Detroit.

Nevertheless, Detroit still had some things I wanted to see. Like Cincinnati, Michigan's largest city also recently opened up a light rail streetcar line. Dubbed the "QLine," the modern tram ended up being the perfect way to travel to a local taco place that had been recommended to me.

I hopped a train to Midtown, finding Cincinnati's vehicles to be far nicer, but Detroit's stations to be far better.

I took the recommendation of the employee behind the counter as The Four Tops played over the restaurant's speakers. Located in Marcus Market, the meal from local Alley Taco far exceeded the modest expectations set by wannabe food critics on Yelp.

I ate my tacos and had short conversations with passing panhandlers as a few raindrops chased away a nearby family enjoying ice cream. Back on the train, I grew annoyed at the woman having an incredibly loud phone conversation regarding where the photograph of her nephew was located (it could be on her phone, but it's probably on the computer). I moved to the front of the train and unintentionally eavesdropped on other conversations. One man was describing the gentrification concerns of the redevelopment projects along the rail line and describing the history of the area as we rolled by, another man was hoping that there would be cheap tickets available for the Kid Rock concert that would christen the soon to open, brand new arena nearby.

I realized I was getting to the end of the day, my patience becoming strained, but I had one last thing to look for. I dug up some notes I had taken on Toynbee Tiles for a recent article. I wanted to see if any of the cryptic street messages existed in Detroit as Cincinnati had lost all its originals. Unfortunately, Detroit seems to have too.

I made a few more photographs in the fading light of a summer evening and retreated to my car in the parking garage.

- Detroit skyscrapers and a passing "people mover."

I sat in the back for a bit, writing and editing before finally settling in for the drive home. Even nearing 10 pm, the setting sun made the sky glow red while the LED lights of recently completed interstate construction made the supports of overlapping highways appear menacing. Both GPS apps gave me odd directions, one eventually routing me through a suburb where industrial scenes gave way to ones of summer. A local baseball game was being played in front of a sizable crowd beneath public park lights and the line at a classic looking ice cream shop kept growing longer. I thought about pulling over and reaching for the camera one more time in the day, but the border was close and the interstate detour ending.

I got back on I-75 and flew through Ohio, where the rest stops are filled with bright fluorescent lights and the sounds of AM radio amongst the smell of powerful cleaning supplies. I finally made it home, the skyline of Cincinnati in the distance as I pulled off my exit.

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