Thursday, September 06, 2012

A (Sub?) Bourgeois in Michigan

So I never got around to putting up pictures from Florida this year; and in April I went to New York City for three days, to mark which event I had planned an elaborate post in which I laid out the logistic planning and expenses necessary to bring all of my children to town and carry it off smoothly even for so brief a visit. Of course we were limited in what we could do even more than usual, but I had not been to town in a couple of years and I have now reached an age where the number of times left me of ever going there, given my past record, is probably dwindled to a disturbingly small number, so it was still well worth it to me to go. All of the pictures from these occasions are stored in another place which I am not able at this time to access. Which is good, because it is past time I abandoned putting up photo albums altogether, and returned to writing literary generalist essays from an original point of view on a wide variety of topics of universal interest...

So I went to the upper Midwest for my big summer trip this year. It has doubtless reached the point of overkill for me with the road trips, but when you are one of those people who doesn't have any job or entrepreneurial skills, or at least finds it mildly embarrassing to have to tout such meager ones as one does have as the sum of a life's achievement--in other words, you cannot positively state that you will have always even one source of income, let alone multitudes of them, going forward--the possibility that someday all opportunity for even such modest travel will be gone inclines you to think you had better go while you can. 

We went to Michigan first. I had never been there. Michigan is supposed to be in a woeful condition, the very heart of the bad times. We bypassed the Detroit area, going up through Ann Arbor, where we stopped to have lunch. Ann Arbor obviously is a big university town, and I suppose still insulated to a degree from the worst effects of Rust Belt de-industrialization. There were at least plenty of people visible who were not completely downtrodden. Once you get past Bay City the state is largely uninhabited. Obviously you don't see much from the road. The landscape and the people you see in gas stations don't emit as obvious an air of poverty and hopelessness as comparable locales do in the south in my opinion. Again, I saw a sliver of the state, but I was expecting much worse. 

It is also true that I went to Mackinac Island, which is one of the swankier places in Michigan. This place is famous, I know now, but I did not know anything about it until I began reading up for this trip, and I thought it sounded interesting. It is interesting, and I think the older children liked it. I liked it, though again with so many young children you cannot do a lot of the things that you might like to do, such as sit calmly for twenty minutes and nurse a drink. But I would still rather go and eat ice cream and carry people up hills than stay home.

The lighthouse above is one of the iconic Great Lakes lighthouses. It is not on Mackinac Island, but on another, larger island next to it that is preserved land. These places here, in case you did not know, are in a busy little space where the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan (connected by a famous and pretty majestic five mile long bridge) and Lakes Michigan and Huron meet.

The approach to the dock. Believe it or not as I get older I do question the value of site-seeing without any more defined purpose than being in a certain place and hoping to absorb something of its value simply by being present. It doesn't work much. Perhaps it is slightly better if there is some mildly strenuous aspect to it, such as walking or bicycling, or doing research, and I do think for young people there is often some real stimulation. But for me, it is all like everything else now. I am clearly not going to change very much, and the qualities that people flatter me as having and claim to be admirable are not such as I am able to hold in any high value, so pretty much anything I do is going to be, and seem to me to be, rather flat. But for all of that, I am speaking now from the vantage point of the end of a busy summer; by February I am sure I will be eager to go anywhere. Also I have not flown or gone to any foreign country other than Canada in eleven years, so maybe that would seem invigorating after a fashion. That would be very expensive though.

Mackinac Island is famous for having banned cars a very long time ago (1898), which law has never been rescinded. I thought the carless atmosphere would be more striking, like it is in Venice, but here the effect was merely like that of being in an open-air amusement park or historical village, because the island is quite small and any sense of a local population is completely overwhelmed by the touristic apparatus. While Venice is also overwhelmed with tourists, it is still a city of some size, it is very old and different from anything to which we are accustomed, and one can still stumble occasionally, out of high season at least, on a few pockets of workaday local life. Or perhaps I just happened to be in Venice when I was younger and was more attuned to my surrounding environment.

My sons wanted a picture of the vintage water fountain with a foot pedal to draw the water. The lad in the sunglasses is not one of my children by the way. One thing I did observe, was that in both Michigan and Wisconsin, to which we went afterwards, every drinking fountain we came upon had cold, and usually ice cold water. This is almost the direct opposite of the situation on the east coast, where finding a water fountain dispensing cold water can be a more elusive quest than finding free parking. I should add that for most of this trip the temperature was 95-100 degrees, and in Wisconsin they were having a terrible drought. It was a little  cooler way up here in the middle of the actual lake. Probably the high 80s. 

My poor daughter, who has no idea where she is or what is going on, suffering in the heat. Intelligent little girl, though. She may have a chance.

View of Lake Huron some high point on the island, I forget exactly which. Despite what I just said a couple of minutes ago, the Great Lakes are, considering them in themselves and separate from my presence among them, a defining part of our country, and I would like to see more of them. I was especially obsessed when I was out there with going some day to Isle Royale National Park, which is a huge island in Lake Superior, part of Michigan but much closer to Minnesota and Ontario, which is the least-visited National Park in the lower 48. You have to be a serious person to go there. Apart from one lodge at the island's far east end, you are on your own as far as sleeping and food and water goes. All the modern guidebooks present it as utterly daunting, real adventure travel. Your bones will ache, you'll be dirty, the mosquitoes are the size of flying mice. In my 1962 guidebooks, they have photographs of smiling suburban families grilling some whitefish they have caught outside their little pitched tents, with their rowboats pulled safely up onto the shore; but to go there nowadays they recommend you undertake intensive training for a year or two beforehand, and the underlying tone is that children who are not very experienced in this type of high-intensity travel shouldn't be brought there at all.

Nice picture of one of the boys. That's all. The two older ones are only a few years probably from not wanting to go on trips anymore. Another grasping excuse to keep taking them.

Outside the fort at the high point of the island. Lake Huron in the background.

Another child, this time on the wall near the famous Arch Rock.

The famous Arch Rock. Sightseers have been making their may up here for a long time. It's a decent walk from the town, 45 minutes or so. Enough to make most people, and certainly me, feel that the drinks they'll have back at the hotel bar when they return were well-earned.

The place to stay on Mackinac is the 1880s era Grand Hotel, which has that archaic elegance and program of meals and dances and events that you can't really put a price on, which is why double rooms without much in the way of 21st century amenities start at $330 or so a night. We, alas, did not stay there, though it is one of the few hotels I have come across in my travels where I do feel I would like to stay some day, because on Mackinac Island it does seem like if you aren't staying at the Grand Hotel you are kind of missing half the point. They must allow children to stay there, though I believe there are etiquette standards, and I don't think they're allowed in the restaurant at dinner and that sort of thing.

The old fort, which kept the island in American hands over the course of more than a century. A little expensive, but, if you are going to go all that way, you shouldn't skimp on too many things--we had already bailed on the Grand Hotel., and, as well the activities and space and displays in the complex are pretty extensive, though we don't really take, or have, the opportunity to study everything in these places with the depth they deserve.

Though this looks like we are all earnestly learning about life while being stationed at this remote outpost in the 1880s (though the posting was coveted compared with being on Indian duty in Arizona or New Mexico), I assure you nobody is learning or retaining anything, me least of all.

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