Just got back from Up North where, like so many other Michiganders (as well as people from other states, such as Illinois, Indiana, New York, Kentucky, and even from other countries such as Canada), my family and I spent the Labor Day Weekend. A mass exodus from the lower part of the state to the upper part of the state is an annual tradition come Labor Day (also Memorial Day and 4th of July) here in Michigan. If the state of Michigan were a giant scale you could literally feel it tipping northward as people piled into their vehicles, loaded down with camping equipment, food, bicycles, water sporting goods, etc, and head up I-75 (mainly) for Up North. If you remain behind, which we often do, you can literally feel that there are less people around.
Of course, Up North in Michigan means different things to different people. For us it means Brutus, Michigan, a literal crossroad on the map, on 31, half-way between Petosky and Mackinac City. My in-laws have a cottage up there, although I use that terms loosely, since their cottage pretty much dwarfs our house. It has two big bedrooms with their owns baths, soon to be three when they finish the downstairs, plus a room for kids with two bunk beads and another full bath down the hall. It has a big wood deck and digital cable.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking it. It’s nice. But it doesn’t really jive with my childhood up north experience, which meant my grandparents’ cottage, which was about the size of a big garage, with a couple of very small rooms with bunk beads and one bathroom that was so small it was difficult to move around. Showers were limited to five minutes — there was an egg timer in the shower. Also there was a sign above the toilet that read: IF IT’S YELLOW LET IT MELLOW, IT IT’S BROWN FLUSH IT DOWN. There was a small black and white TV that got only two stations, both of which were fuzzy, despite the big antenna towering above the tree tops. Didn’t matter. We didn’t waste time watching TV. From the moment we got there until we collapsed from exhaustion we were going, running, heading to the water, playing in the creek nearby, mucking about with the local kids. I remember there was a small store and gas station with a bait shop and this old phone booth in what was called town.
Anyhoo…now, being in Brutus, means knocking around Petosky, which has a lot of money and big summer houses, or in Mackinaw City, even Mackinac Island, if you want to drop the ferry fee. There is also Burt Lake. And this year we rafted down the river nearby, the name of which escapes me at the moment. This year it also meant watching Return of the Jedi broadcast against the wall of a building in the park downtown.
For us, Up North, also means sleeping late, read a lot, going for walks, sitting around a fire late at night.
Oh yeah, Addy went tubing for the first time. At first, she didn’t want to. But her aunt offered to go with her. Once Addy got a taste she was hooked and ended up going alone. She loved it.
Normally, Colleen is the one that goes for walks. I usually lazy around as much a possible. But this time I decided to get up off my butt, since I seem to keep tipping the scale in the unhealthy direction more and more these days. There is this trail that was once a railroad bed with track but the parks services have pulled up the tracks and the trail is there for walking and biking, perhaps cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in the winter. I covered a few miles and it was pretty cool. I’m hoping to bring my bike up next time to ride the trail, see where it’ll take me. My understanding is that there is a trail that runs from Gaylord up to Mackinaw City, and I’m wondering if this is the same one.
Like I said Up North means different things to different people. It isn’t strictly a geographical location. It is a sense of place. A way the air smells, and the way the wind blows. For me in particular it is pine trees and the way they smell in the cool air, but even more than that it is blanket of fallen pine needles on the ground beneath the trees. That reminds me of my earliest trek up north, with my dad and brother, on a camping/fishing trip, way up in the UP. It left a real impression since my family didn’t often go up north. We usually headed south to see relatives in West Virginia. Also, it is an image from that Hemingway short story, Big Two-Hearted River, the main character, Nick, beds down for the night on blanket of brown pine needles.
Up North isn’t just a place on the map, it is a place inside you. It is memory itself.
Anyhoo…before I get to weird about it. On the drive back I wanted to mark the approximate place where I sensed that we were no longer Up North. And near as I can figure, driving on South I-75, it ends around that spot where the green sign above the expressway displays I-75 and 23 South, announcing Saginaw, and 23 North veers off toward Standish. It is not at Saginaw proper, since at that point Saginaw is still some 20- 30 miles away, but at that particular place on the expressway. After that the land flattens out, feels too open to be Up North. I think the Pine tress were all but gone too.