Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Upper Peninsula

Tell someone you're going to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and they suddenly affect a thick Minnesota accent, hunch their shoulders and leer at you as though you've just admitted to a death wish and start jabbering in Minnesotan "Ah! Da You Pee, eh? Yoopers yoopers!" and they lurch away gibbering and giggling. Yes I did find it a little disconcerting. 
The odd thing was we were aiming for Da You Pee as we prepared to leave Wisconsin but we actually arrived quite by accident. We drove for what seemed a lifetime through green forested tunnels maintaining a sedate 60 mph and 18 mpg when we came upon a small town. A childhood in Italy will give you a taste for bread with many meals and we had none in the van. I wish I could summon up stores on demand but in any case a large sign in a small run down community commanded us to stop, so we did.
Oddly enough masks were in evidence everywhere and I wondered if it was by local ordinance as nowhere  else in Wisconsin had anyone taken coronavirus very seriously. I asked the young lady behind the counter how you pronounce the name of the county. She looked at me as though I had just sprouted antlers and offered me a pasty menu. I asked again. She stared.  "Go Geb Ick" she said slowly as though speaking to an imbecile which was smart of her as she was. Gogebic County sounded very Scandinavian to me but that was as far as I got. I feared asking her for the origins of this weird word and we went back to our home with frozen pasties (Anglo empanadas basically) for consumption later with a loaf of sliced white bread which my wife thought was a waste of calories but I thoroughly enjoyed with my left over ribs. 
Wakefield was in our rearview mirror and our destination was a Harvest Host stop, our first ever. Harvest Host is an app that requires you to pay $79 a year and gives you access to farms distilleries vineyards cider makers and any other wholesome outdoor industry that is willing to put up with RVers overnight in exchange for a purchase of a wine tasting or a meal or whatever they offer. It is an amazing program with widely varied hosts and locations but every one is an adventure - outcome unknown. This stop was a ski resort -amazing no? - who offered us a field to park in and access to their bar and outdoor dining area.
Indianhead Mountain is a hopping ski resort but was relatively quiet the night we spent there. They were amazingly kind and let us use their showers and their bar offered socially distanced facilities and gigantic platefuls of food including deep fried green beans.  We spent about $40, the cost of a simple overnight spot in an organized campground. I also met a guy riding a BMW motorcycle and we fell into distanced conversation. He was riding to Montana to visit his daughter and when not in Michigan he keeps a winter home in Key West. Yes indeed, you can't get away from the place. In normal times Id have invited him back to the van for drinks but we both acknowledged the limitations put on us by the damned virus.
Our van was behind the trees  with three other Harvest Host guests and we sat outside after ordering the evening special from the vivacious and delightfully opinionated server behind the bar. It was she who made it known to us that in fact we were in Michigan not Wisconsin and a quick study of my map showed we passed from one state to the other somewhere in the woods west of Wakefield. No wonder they were all wearing masks. Yes our gypsy server of the flowing black hair and flashing eyes confirmed for us we were in the Republican/Fascist upper peninsula where there are no eligible men (I was way too old) and weed is legal in Michigan. She made it sound like the best thing about the state but we discovered lots more to like. The odd thing was legal pot didn't actually seem to turn Michigan into a depraved nest of drug addicts, things just rolled on as normal from a first timer's perspective.  Of course the You Pee held to its own standards of weirdness as we were to find out. Everyone was very nice too even the undercover Fascists...Ah youth. 
Our dinner was beer and excellent ribs and perfect fried chicken - normal enough - and a side plate of something as weird as deep fried beans only more so. The potato cake was faintly like hash browns but inside there was some sort of creamy layer like sour cream fried in. Just different enough to let you know the time/space continuum has altered slightly up here. Yoopers.
There are more than a few forests in the U.P. and we seemed to drive every single one of them. This area was a complete contrast to charming small town Wisconsin, an invisible (it turned out) line cutting through the forests to the west. Where Wisconsin is pretty and organized and clean and tidy and small town, the U.P. is wild and wooly and the next best thing as far as I can figure to Alaska. I can only judge from the videos I have seen as Alaska is in our future. In our coronavirus isolation we avoided big towns like Marquette but along the main roads we drove we passed small towns, stop signs and not a single fast food joint. It was refreshing yet a little disconcerting at the same time.
There are National Forests tucked away in the expanse of green and we walked the Ottawa and drove through the Hiawatha. The brown signs with yellow lettering were comforting reminders of not being actually on a different planet, it just felt like it. Traffic moved faster than Wisconsin ( and faster than somnolent lower Michigan it turned out) and most vehicles were pick ups and well worn trucks at that. I started to feel like an out of place pansy in a real man's world.
Rusty was fascinated by trees and undergrowth and leaves that crackled and he walked delicately as though ready to be pounced upon by he knew not what. Just like us in fact.
Look at these pictures and multiply them all the way to the horizon in every direction. Vast endless tracts of forest. If it were up to Michigan there would be no global climate change.  This state must be consuming far above its weight in carbon dioxide. It was absolutely stunning.
The names of small towns sounded Nordic or German or something and everyone was white and ethnic diversity seemed more like a mild rivalry between Norway and Sweden than anything of greater substance. Churches were Lutheran just like the lamented Prairie Home Companion towns but these people are grown ups and busy storing nuts for winter hibernation. They ooze toughness.
Layne fell asleep halfway through one forest or another and I listened to the BBC Sounds podcast enjoying radio shows of my childhood as the miles flashed slowly by.  It was great fun as the van floats smoothly and easily at 60 miles per hour and I had no worries about cops or other traffic who passed Gannet 2 on the endless straightaways with ease. And then I saw a sign to a boat launch so I woke Layne by pulling a u-turn and driving back to the break in the woods. Parent Lake. Perfect.
Rusty rooted around for an hour while I laid on my back and counted clouds and idly took pictures and willed myself to get back on the road. This was perfection, a warm afternoon a gentle breeze and a full refrigerator with no need to be anywhere anytime at all.
Northern grass, the lawn type not the smoking type, has made Rusty a happy van lifer.  At every stop he looks forward to breaking out and checking the scene. He eats his evening meal in one go and he sleeps soundly in his bed at night. It seems as wholesome a life for him as it is for us.
Layne woke up eventually and we debated what to do. I asked the former public defender to define "No Camping" and whether that included just tent camping or sleeping in your vehicle. On the whole we figured it meant not sleeping in your vehicle as well but they worded it as no camping so people could still launch their boats at odd hours. I know they do this as I have heard them talk about lake fishing on Prairie Home Companion, fast becoming our cultural reference to decode these strange places.
Then we had to wonder who would patrol the boat launch ramp and move us along but we decided that in a land where darkness falls at ten pm we should probably spend the next four hours driving not lounging. South of Marquette we passed through a town where I snagged this picture of one of the weirdest cultural peculiarities of Michigan. Read the sign on the picture below and imagine that if they did that on South Beach in Miami half the street would murder the other half. In these polite communities it is entirely normal to render a firm stop sign incomprehensible. Layne kept yelling at me not to stop on these signs as she feared getting rear ended. Stopping at a stop sign has become genetically encoded in me. Michigan doesn't care.
More Lutheran churches whizzing by as black clouds rolled in and darkness started to fall. we confidently assumed we would find yet another of the many rest areas and roadside stops we had seen in Wisconsin. Not in the U.P. Not in the Hiawatha National Forest. Nowhere.
Small towns surviving on God knows what kind of an economy...Logging perhaps? At least they had proper stop signs.
This is what faced us as, below, we drove steadily toward the Mackinac Bridge, the connector to the rest of Michigan to the south. On and on we drove and darker and darker it got. Neither my wife nor myself are prone to irrational fear and we have both traveled extensively but after a while we both agreed Da You Pee at dusk was getting on our nerves. What about that? I would ask as a wide spot flashed by at a steady 60 mph. Nope she replied, too exposed. I knew what she meant.  We saw narrow side roads muddy between the trees. No way, we both said at once. The darkness became total and only a few distant headlights reminded us we weren't completely alone.  The Promaster droned on into the night and with only 4500 miles since new I had every expectation we could get back to civilization without a breakdown Stephen King style. I was surprisingly wide awake and ready to drive to the damned bridge even if it meant staying awake till one in the morning. No bogeyman was going to get me!
I can't say why we got the creeps but we did. And we have a veto rule when traveling. If either of us feels something or some place is "off" we can veto stopping there. We were falling over each to veto stopping anywhere on that endless highway.  Darkness made the woods come alive on either side of the highway and we wondered what nameless horrors they hid. By day they were beautiful but at eleven o'clock at night they gave us the sweats. Rusty got no vote but had he had one I dare say he would have joined us in nixing every road  side turn out as a potential overnight boondock. Bugger this I muttered and I determined to keep driving. What a ridiculous way to travel. And then...
A lovely blue rectangle appeared in the beam of the headlights. "Rest Area 1 Mile." It was empty and lovely and quiet and ready for us. To ask me to explain why my irrational fears were assuaged by a rational and normal highway rest area is more than I can manage but we pulled in and set about doing chores. I emptied the porta-potty and Layne emptied the trash. I walked Rusty who contented himself with the lighted areas of the parking lot. 
A car pulled up and then another and the occupants got out hugged split up and one car left. The man in the other explained from a social distance that his daughter and grandchild had been visiting and his son in law had flown to a nearby airport (somewhere civilized I assumed) and had driven up to meet them at this benighted spot where the young man picked up his family for the drive back to New Jersey. Granddad had a 90 mile drive home deep in the U.P. somewhere. The conversation was so pleasant and normal and human the Stephen King night sweats retreated and we waved goodbye happy we had no more driving to do. Another car pulled in and left the engine running while the occupant slept under a street light. We felt lucky to have our beds and home right there with us. 
We had more You Pee to come but the heater skelter drive ended here in the fog by ourselves snug for the night in the Seney Rest Area.

North Woods

They call north Wisconsin the North Woods and they are being slightly coy as they stretch for many miles, primeval forests....And apparently parked school buses used as advertising billboards.  We paused here to consult our oracle: the book of paper charts. 
Rusty likes to jump out of the van every time the engine is turned off. He actually scrabbles at the side door to be let out. It gives the impression he is not so keen on van travel but I think the rewards are starting to pay off for this stay at home stray dog.
One of our traveling pleasures that has been denied us on this coronavirus journey is the slow exploration of local groceries which frequently reveal much about local culture. These massive jars of spices held some attraction for my wife who doesn't jar or can as a rule but is getting into pickling vegetables.
I don't  think cheese curds agreed with us as a short while after having a slice of curd with bacon we were fighting each other to get to the porta-potty. They really do squeak when you bite them which is disconcerting and as much as I try to  like them they still don't do much for me. I had them on poutine in Canada with not much more success I fear. I love cheese but not curds.
Mask wearing was iffy and distancing was not much good either so we were glad to get in and out before crowds built. 
Pondering choices and how to store them...van life with a small fridge. Actually it is really quite fun being able to buy foods for a fridge and freezer while on the road.
We did see a Harley distribution center or something on the edge of town, a place they call Tomahawk very pretty and neat and among it all I really quite liked the billboard:
Wisconsin seems to have a very refined civic sense in most small towns, and summer brings out beauty and no roadside trash. I rather envy them their style.
Curds no but cheese yes. She wore a mask though other customers didn't so we tried to avoid them as we picked up several smelly cheeses including brick cheeses which used to be formed with bricks. Makes sense. That and a bottle of red wine and a garlic laced summer sausage and dinner was set.
In summer pretty, in winter I'm told it can be harsh. Won't be here to find out!
Sorting out lunch in the van.

We spotted a side road leading nowhere so I backed up off the main road and we parked amidst the bucolic sounds of the woods on a hot sticky thundery afternoon.
From Wisconsin we moved on the Michigan and as much as I liked Wisconsin I found Michigan much more so, for reasons I shall try to explain as we go along.