We were Up North last week, which in Michigan is as much a state of mind as it is a part of the state. We left in the middle of a heat wave, and once we crossed that 45th parallel the thermometer on the car somehow read twenty degrees less than it did on the asphalt and concrete of the city far behind us. All my digital things suddenly stopped working. For seven straight days we did not see a television set, which meant we didn't have to see any of those commercials the state tourism board produces with Tim Allen reading poetic descriptions of the many splendors of Up North. We were living a Tim-Allen-narrated commercial complete with beach sunsets and slow-motion jumps off wooden docks and trout fishing in rippling creeks we had all to ourselves. I can't stand Tim Allen, but I love being up north so much if he tenderly asked me to jump off the Mackinac Bridge I wouldn't even ask which side.
That's not to say everything Up North is perfect. It sometimes feels like we are twenty years younger than anyone else vacationing there, but I suspect going there is simply proof that we are getting old. Still, if the state tourism board believed in truth in advertising, they would also pay Wilford Brimley to read a poem about Michigan's majestic Indian casino architecture and our many varieties of fudge. In rhyming couplets.
Every summer we spend a week at a cottage twelve miles northwest of the small resort community of Harbor Springs, just off a road that must have been declared one of the best rides in America by Motorized Tricycle Magazine. You couldn't throw a Petoskey stone up there without hitting some geezer on a three-wheeled motorcycle. Motorized Tricycles: All the inconveniences of traveling by motorcycle, without any of the cool factor. Motorized Tricycles: Easier on Your Prostate Than a Harley. Motorized Tricycles: One less wheel than a car, but twice as ridiculous! The motorized tricycle industry should really hire me to write them some slogans. Tricycles: now for everyone who wears diapers.
Harbor Springs, Michigan, is a really good place to go if you want to see the sad reality of what actual people look like wearing the clothes on those headless mannequins in that Nautica store at the factory outlet mall. I don't own a pair of shorts, but whenever I travel to Harbor Springs I wonder what good yachting advice and bad stock tips I might pick up by dressing like a local. I imagine dropping into the Claymore Shop for a polo shirt, khaki shorts, an embroidered belt, and a pair of those gross shoes old men wear without socks. I might even buy mandals or those unnerving plastic shoes with delineated toes, but if I really want to sit at the Little Traverse Yacht Club with the most recent issue of Sailing Magazine to observe just how tedious and awful moderately rich people truly are, nothing but Sperry top-siders would do. In truth, even in a perfect Harbor Springs uniform I would still be so slovenly they would all just assume the homeless First Gulf War vet the country club hired years ago to prospect for golf balls in the water hazards was back on his meds. Then I would probably see some teenage kid with perfect blond Cobra Kai hair wearing shorts the color of an orange dreamsicle laughing at some joke I wouldn't understand about jibs and booms and I would start frothing angrily at the mouth and muttering to myself until they would be all, Nope still off his meds. Of course, none of those people would be locals (unless you call people who own million-dollar cottages they sleep in twenty nights a year "locals") and most of them probably live a few miles down the road from me in Grosse Pointe Farms or Birmingham. That dude glowering at us from the corner waiting to fill up my water glass who couldn't wait for all of us rich downstate assholes to get the hell out of town so he could spend his miserable winter field dressing deer and getting into high-speed snowmobile chases with the local game wardens: he's the local.
I may have exaggerated some of that, except for the me being slovenly part. We did go out to dinner once at a fancy place in town and my wife pointed out (correctly) that my t-shirt was inside out. I played it super casual though. I was all, I know, as I pretended to stretch my arms and deftly ripped the tag off the back of my neck. Problem solved.
At some point along the way we picked up another kid, a friend of my daughter's who had also been vacationing Up North. When your daughter turns seven you start to see your whole iron fist of influence over her crumble behind tiny hands kept close to mouths, an unbreachable wall between you and whispered secrets and giggles and rolled eyes when they think you're not looking. You can yell all you want but that furtive murmuring is mostly what matters now (and as much as that hurts, the sting is tempered by seeing her with another little person who has become a really great friend). This particular friend needed a ride down state when we were leaving so we put the lizard's travel case on someone's lap and squeezed child #3 into the middle seat and set forth on a five hour drive without any movies or nintendo thingamajigs or even a truck stop Wooly Willy.
Wait, did I not explain the lizard?
A few months ago when a "dragon's egg" (i.e. the dessicated tennis ball) we found on Belle Isle refused to hatch, my daughter somehow got it in her head that she wanted a real lizard. She did all kinds of annoyingly cute research and somehow saved up $40 to buy this albino leopard gecko she named "Mason" who lives in her room and eats disgusting worms that live in our refrigerator (I can't tell you how many times I've reached for the hummus only to pull out a tub full of squirming grubs). Mason kind of looks like a sleepy octogenarian and he devotes 90 percent of his limited energy to hiding from sunlight and tiny, sticky fingers. We couldn't exactly leave him at home for a week (even though I'm positive he would have enjoyed the quiet more than he would have missed his diet of disgusting worms with names that sound like eighteenth-century diseases). So Mason the Gecko got to experience Up North too. Tim Allen: Even tropical lizards need a break from the ordinary, to spend an evening under the stars and dip their suction-cupped toes into the soothing waters. . . of pure Michigan.
The dog had to ride in the back of the station wagon in a little wigwam constructed from birchbark I'd peeled off a few dead trees the day before. I'm pretty sure I scraped off all the weird little larvae that had been on the bark before I put it all in the car, but I wasn't sure. I think it was cricket larva. Anyway, if anything hatched I figured we could just feed it to the lizard if the dog didn't eat it first. Despite how miserable the poor fellow looked back there in his little larvae-infested wigwam I told him he was lucky he didn't have to vacation with Mitt Romney and his Mormon brood. I wasn't sure what I was going to do with all that birchbark yet, but I was pretty sure it was going to be awesome, and totally worth how cramped the seven of us were in that station wagon for the five hour drive.
After more than three hours of listening to my son's coyote impression we stopped at another Michigan tourist destination. The town of Frankenmuth is supposed to be German or something but it's also famous for being Christmas all the time I guess. The entire town looks like it was designed by a nine-year-old boy who still believed adamantly in Santa Claus and whose only exposure to German architecture came from the Bavarian follies of Mad King Ludwig II (note: there was a similar faux-Bavarian town up the highway called "Gaylord" but as soon as we got to the main drag there, a cadre of wet, shirtless boys from the high school wrestling team started yelling at us that we were unclean. I told the kids to cover the lizard's eyes and earholes and we high-tailed it back to I-75).
Frankenmuth seemed like a fine enough place to stretch our legs. My wife, the kids, and the lizard all went inside a place called The Bavarian Inn (Home of the Other Famous Chicken Dinner), while I walked the dog around town. (It wasn't that hot out, but I have an irrational fear that I'm going to offend some histrionic PETAphile by leaving the dog in the car for five minutes and come back to find the police towing it away and I'll have to chase after it like the principal at the end of Ferris Bueller's Day Off and I'd really like to avoid that if at all possible. Last year I left the dog tied up outside our neighborhood pizza place and when I came out five minutes later some woman was scratching him and letting him lick all over her face and she kept saying in a stupid dog voice: We should call the humane society, shouldn't we, boy! Whoever left you out here should be taken out back and shot, shouldn't he! I wanted to argue DOGS AREN'T PEOPLE, LADY, but I had the satisfaction of knowing that the dog she was kissing had eaten a chunk of homeless-man sidewalk poop on the walk over, and my only regret was that I'd yanked at his leash to keep him from gobbling up the rest of it).
While I missed out on a famous chicken dinner, I did get to see the entire main drag of Frankenmuth, which is the sort of place a modern de Toqueville might come to observe some of the bizarre and uniquely American rituals that define our contemporary character. Frankenmuth is pretty awesome. The town's entire economy seems to be built on the same principles as a high density feed lot at an industrial cattle farm, maximizing caloric intake while limiting the amount of physical exertion one must expend to experience all the town has to offer. Shuttle buses and horse-drawn carriages haul eaters from the fried-chicken quarter to processed-cheese-spread row, and then to candyshoppe alley, strudeltown, and the fudge district. The Frankenmuth fudge district, like fudge districts everywhere, is marked by the presence of people crowded around foggy windows watching young fudgemakers go through all the steps of traditional fudgemaking on a large marble slab. Where this marketing idea came from I don't know, because to any sane person a deeper understanding of what makes up fudge should immediately prohibit subsequent consumption. They all offer free samples, which must feel like little recompense for the pornographic alchemy of butter and sugar just witnessed. If you find yourself in the fudge district but are in the mood for something more savory, a half dozen nearby cheesemongers offer free samples of multi-flavored cheese curds and processed cheese spreads, including (of course) fudge-flavored cheese. On a Saturday evening, Frankenmuth was bumping with tourists. I even overheard some of them speaking German. Why would Germans come to Frankenmuth? I can only presume watching Americans waddle across a phony, flat Bavarian landscape somehow soothes the pain of losing the last two world wars.
The whole town of Frankenmuth seems to be owned by some family called the Zehnders, which I could look up on Wikipedia but I'm just going to assume is some secret arm of the German military intelligence performing experiments on just how much the gluttonous American public is capable of eating in one sitting. When you order a famous Zehnder's chicken dinner, not only do you get a huge plate of fried chicken but, approximately 23 side dishes, most of which seem to be slight variations on the traditional German potato poof. I did leave the dog in the car briefly to join my wife, children, and adopted lizard inside. They were eating in the bar area, where a video playing in a constant loop showed the massive scale of the kitchens required to produce that many chicken dinners on a daily basis. A matron of the Zehnder family bragged about the industrial fryers that could host a thousand chicken thighs at a time and the hot-tub-sized vats of mashed potatoes. There was something almost refreshing about the industrial scale of those kitchens, given the effete Michael Pollanization of our contemporary food climate. Tim Allen: Leave all that artisinal, slow food nonsense in New York or San Francisco. Here in Pure Michigan, we make chicken dinners like Henry Ford made Model Ts.
As we were leaving town, I noticed several billboards along the road advertising bariatric surgery. Surely it was no coincidence.
(Full disclosure: at the Bavarian Inn I bought some cheese curds and a feathered Tyrolean hat for my son to go with his beloved lederhosen).
After Frankenmuth, it should have taken only an hour or so to get home, but once we hit the northern sprawl of Oakland County, construction cones pared the three-lane highway down to one, which meant we got to listen to my son's coyote impression for an extra half an hour. Behind us, a hero in a big truck started to block the left lane to prevent any of those totally horrible people who refuse to merge until the last second from flying past all of us sensible rule followers. A true hero, him. Who are those people, the ones who see a short stretch of open highway before a merge and decide it's theirs, like young lovers in some song Bruce Springsteen wrote in 1979 before he turned old and boring? As I shook my fist at an SUV driver who went to the shoulder to pass that slow-moving hero I realized I sounded like such an old man. This was what they don't talk about in those Tim Allen-narrated television commercials, I thought, as the car crawled past a landscape scarred by signs lit up for the Rainforest Cafe and some restaurant apparently owned by Toby Keith. Sure you can go Up North, but inevitably you have to head back south, to the traffic, and the heat, with the grumpy kids and their over-scheduled lives that are the real reason you're starting to feel so old.