Michigan is everything America was, is, and could be all packed into what can look like a campfire on souvenir t-shirts. My wife Cecily and I recently cut through the state on a road trip that saw us boomerang from Beverly, Massachusetts to Chicago, Illinois and back. My sister-in-law was getting married in northern Illinois, so in addition to celebrating with family, Cec and I decided to use the occasion to break out of our COVID cocoon. We picked Michigan as a featured stop. Cecily had been secretly carrying on with Michigan behind my back after we saw a band called the Michigan Rattlers open a show in Boston. They blew us -- and the headliner -- away. They quickly became one of Cecily’s favorite bands, and we were both struck by their presence and their music's ability to project a sense of place we didn't know but might want to see. Until then, all we knew about Michigan was:
You grow up hearing “America the Beautiful” and I live in a beautiful place. But the beauty around you is often dulled into normalcy because it’s the setting for all of the mundanities of daily life. Vacations are supposed to remedy that, but COVID forced me to really see and appreciate the beauty of Massachusetts’ North Shore because I couldn’t leave it for over a year. One of my favorite biking and birding spots is just three miles away, but I never knew it existed -- and I’ve lived here for nearly fifteen years -- until COVID shook the kaleidoscope and changed the view. That’s another reason why we chose Michigan; because COVID inspired us to look for beauty in places we may not have considered before. People around here plan vacations to Florida, or to Vegas, or -- if they’re really ambitious -- to Italy. They don’t go to Michigan. Didn't Michigan spawn McVeigh? Didn't armed men "storm" the capital over COVID restrictions? Weren’t some of them arrested for plotting to kidnap the governor? Aren’t the cities rusted, broken, and dangerous? Maybe, but we found beauty in the state and in the act of being there. We would go back in a heartbeat.
Suttons Bay felt like the kind of resort town one might find in Maine, only "unsalted" and sans lobster. There was a small, colorful strip filled with restaurants, coffee and souvenir shops, and a small theater all promoting the idea that life was different on the M22 -- the state highway that followed the coast of Lake Michigan along the Leelanau Peninsula. We had booked a room at the M22 Inn - Suttons Bay, which is a holdover from the days when driving was a new and exciting way for middle-class families to spend their leisure time. We were across the road from the lake, though the view was more beautiful than it was practical as it lacked a beach. Our room was large and clean, just a few miles away from downtown, and last updated in the 1980s. Still. It would do, mauve and all. We dropped our bags and headed into Suttons Bay for dinner buoyed by nostalgia for a time we barely knew, when cars were tipped with chrome.
COVID's impact was evident everywhere. We never saw a member of the motel staff, as check-in and check-out was entirely remote. Our room was open with keys waiting on the dresser along with a number to call if we needed anything. In town some shops stood closed, others had signs apologizing for service issues brought on by staffing shortages, while some were only open with limited hours. We had trouble landing a place to eat until we found Hop Lot Brewing Company just outside of town on the way back to the motel. We dropped ourselves into one of the many outdoor tables situated among the fire pits and corn hole games in a large, inviting courtyard surrounded by beautiful trees and tried to shake the miles off. Despite being ordered from our phones via QR code, the food at Hop Lot was tasty and made with care, the cider was sweet and cold, and we found the grumpy weariness that came from a day spent on the road only to struggle to find a meal quickly fading away.
When Cecily and I travel, we like to connect with locals if at all possible. I remember a trip to Puerto Rico where we spent a couple of hours at a kiosko in Luquillo sharing stellar mojitos with the bartender and a regular who were schooling us about the pros and cons of Puerto Rican statehood. Something like this happens to us wherever we go, but despite being out in the world after more than a year locked away, we had simply made our bubble portable. We were Spartans using masks as shields, with weak strings of drifting conversation tenuously connecting us to people sorta nearby. We looked at the itinerary for the next day's winery/cider-house bike tour between bites and sips as the sun dipped behind the trees. Lights strung on wires among their branches gave our bubble a warm glow.
Grand Traverse Bike Tours is right in downtown Suttons Bay. They would provide hybrid bikes, choreograph stops at wineries and cideries near the trail, and pick up any purchases we made and have them waiting at their shop at the end of the day. There’s a freedom that comes with moving from one place to another on a bicycle, particularly if those places allow you to consume large quantities of alcohol. I know you can be cited for driving under the influence on a bike in Massachusetts, and probably on a bike trail in Michigan, too. Thankfully, pedaling from place to verdant place kept us alert, even at our fairly leisurely pace. Being in a car with Cecily during our trip was probably the closest we came to feeling as safe and secure as we had traveling pre-covid, and this comfort followed us on bikes in Suttons Bay. In the open air we could risk being maskless, and this buoyed us as we navigated masking inside each winery before reaching an outdoor table where we could eat and drink mask-free.
Grand Traverse had us stopping at Black Star Farms, Shady Lane Cellars, Suttons Bay Ciders, and Mawby Wines. We were looking at roughly seven miles out and another seven back, which was a lot for us. Fortunately, the bike trail itself is mostly level and very well maintained, but we had to go on-road and up some hills to get to a few stops. Sometimes we walked if a particular hill was too steep. We did a lot of pedaling, and tasted a lot of fermented fruit juice, but didn’t appreciate all of it. That has more to do with us, as Cecily and I aren’t big wine drinkers, and we like our cider on the sweet side whereas the American cider market leans towards dry. Still, each place was simply beautiful. Black Star Farms is a “160 acre winery estate” with an inn on-site that offers gourmet, farm to table meals complete with wine pairings, and guests can stroll through the vineyards or hike some of the trails running through the property. We settled into a table on a deck overlooking the vineyards and ordered a flight; and while we were tempted by a few wines, their apple-cherry cider was the winner. Having never been to the area before, I’m not sure how crowded it should have been, but it seemed like we had more space than we should. That cuts two ways with COVID. You want enough room to feel safe, but you want a place like Black Star to be crowded enough to thrive. Maybe we were just early -- it was barely after 11:00 -- but wasn’t day-drinking a thing in wine country in the summertime? We had another glass of the apple-cherry cider, bought two bottles, and then wobbled, er -- pedaled -- to Shady Lane, where Grand Traverse had a delicious lunch waiting for us in insulated coolers.
Shady Lane sits on an “historic estate” and claims to offer “an experience worth having” in addition to wine. The grounds were beautiful, and they had an amazing outdoor bar, but the staff seemed a bit put out by having us there, and people at a nearby table were complaining about their daughters-in-law and the perils of shopping. They seemed immune to the same novelty and charm we found so intoxicating (I swear it wasn’t just the wine) in Suttons Bay. This was a bit sad, but understandable. Work is work; life is life; and both can be mundane -- even in the prettiest of places. We finished our lunch and moved on to Suttons Bay Ciders, which boasts of having the best view in Northern Michigan. They might be right. Their deck stands over tree-filled hills that roll right down to Lake Michigan, and they have this beautiful border collie who chases frisbees through the trees and brings them back minutes later. We found much of what we tasted to be too dry for us, but the ice cider was quite nice, and while I regret not trying the apple brandy, we had bikes to ride, and we were wobbly enough already. When we finally made it to Mawby, we were tired and a little hurried as we wanted to get back to the bike shop before they closed. We were going through the motions on and off the bike. We had already ridden about 12 miles at that point, and it was another 4 back to the bike shop, so glasses moved from tables to mouths like feet on pedals.
We didn’t do much bird watching that day. Birding is a casual activity that requires time and patience. We were on a schedule, and most of what we saw were fleeting glimpses of familiar birds -- an American Goldfinch, a Robin. A Red-Winged Blackbird, and a Cedar Waxwing. I had never seen a Waxwing before this summer, and now they seemed to be everywhere I looked. Despite being rushed, I did add two birds to my life-list: a Purple Finch, and an Indigo Bunting. The birds, the wine and cider, the scenery, and the company roll together in my memory like a blurred out montage from a video for a happy song by the Cure or some other dreamy shoe-gaze act, all gauzy and bright and warm, which is exactly how I felt at the time. Unsalted. Unhurried. Content.
Normalcy isn’t the only thing that can blur a place’s natural beauty. It can be blunted and obscured by things that happen there. Two days after my wife and I left the Leelanau region for Detroit, this Washington Post article about how white students “auctioned” off their black classmates over social media came across my news feed. This mock slave auction took place in Traverse City, where my wife and I would have wound up if we followed the Leelanau Trail to its southern terminus. School administrators and community leaders took the incident as evidence that students and staff needed more training about what it takes to live in a diverse community, while others argued that the “slave trade” group on Snap Chat was not indicative of who and what Traverse City is as a whole. Proponents of this bad-apple point-of-view claim that the district’s equity resolution was an unwarranted attempt to slip critical race theory into the curriculum. One parent, a “White mother of two who graduated from Traverse public schools,” told the Post, “We were all brought up not to take someone’s race into consideration. That’s what we’re guaranteed in America.” But some students did just that: they singled out some of their classmates on the basis of race and subjected them to a humiliating reminder that it was once legal to buy and sell people who looked like them. I wonder if the people who stood up against the resolution were motivated by something they wouldn’t say aloud, that Traverse City students don’t need diversity training because Traverse City isn’t very diverse. The town is 90 percent white, but that didn’t stop Nevaeh Wharton’s classmates from “selling” her for a hundred dollars before ultimately giving her away.
Even under the pressure of a global pandemic, we cannot live in a bubble; not really. In communities that are physically closed because of COVID digital roads continue to push and pull information to us and our children, no matter how fast we pedal. This year, students in two other communities -- one outside of Fort Worth, Texas and another outside of Portland, Oregon -- conducted their own “slave auctions” on social media. While people and politicians argue whether or not systemic racism exists, America the Beautiful remains ugly and unwelcoming in ways you can’t see from the seat of your bike, though the people you ride by may be on either side of that ugliness. Southern trees once bore strange fruit. Oregon was meant to be a “white utopia.”
What happened in Traverse City doesn't make my memories of the area any less gauzy and golden. The ugly things that happen in beautiful places challenge us to make sure that all Americans can enjoy that beauty, especially when most of the Americans who live in our community look like us. “America the Beautiful” isn’t just about the physical beauty of the country, even though those are the lines most people seem to remember. Other lines talk of brotherhood, something I don’t think some students in Traverse City remembered or that the ones they bid on felt. It recognizes that our nation has flaws -- an act some people feel is now divisive and unpatriotic -- and asks for God’s help in mending them. It mentions gleaming alabaster cities, which describes Detroit, our next stop, in its prime.