Pop Culture
Aug 05, 2009, 06:26AM

Michigan: More Than Urban Ruin and Bland Suburbs

In fact, there's some incredible vacationing to be done.

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Photo by kevindooley

The drive north on I-75 from Ann Arbor, MI isn’t all that beautiful. It’s impossible to explain what makes scenery lovely in one spot and, well, blah in another. Maybe it was the flatness, or the absence of the mountains that infuse my childhood memories of trips to my family in Vermont. Or perhaps it lacked the foreign-ness of the willows and swamp that greeted me in the haunting—though decidedly flat—environs of Mississippi. For whatever reason, poor Michigan just wasn’t doing much.

I sat in the back seat of the rented minivan trying to will the landscape to look stunning. Every so often, gentle hills would poke up out of the ground, and I would hear myself making some sort of forced “Oh, I definitely think it’s getting much prettier” comment. I had convinced my parents that Michigan ought to be the location of this year’s family vacation, and I didn’t want it to disappoint. Until last week, my family’s primary interactions with the state, where I attended college and currently live, have been a series of crappy-weather days in the November to February time frame. They didn’t even get to see one of the weekly winter snowfalls that remind you that the cold season is beautiful.

The eternal spring of summertime in Michigan, though, is where you get paid for sitting through the long (and admittedly depressing) winter. This is actually my first one, as I spent all my other summers away from Ann Arbor. As someone who grew up in Maryland, I cannot describe to you how amazing it is to step outside at 2 p.m. in the middle of July, go for a long walk, ride a bike, play catch, or do anything, and not come home drenched in sweat.

Michigan’s reputation is probably at its lowest point ever. As the American population headed south for warmer climates, Michigan’s winters have helped drive thousands away. Michigan became simultaneously the corporate fat cat face of the unpopular government auto bailout and the face of over-powerful unions. It has the highest rate of unemployment. Even in college football, Michigan represents Big Ten irrelevance and failure.

To counter the bevy of negative press, Michigan has undertaken the national “Pure Michigan” (puremichigan.com) campaign to get tourists rolling into the state, especially when they face the prospect of a serious drop in the local vacationers that make up 70 percent of state tourism according to The Economist’s friendly write-up of the campaign last week. It always struck me as a little silly, though, when I would pass by the calm beaches found on the billboards dotting I-94 west to Chicago. The things that made Michigan a really fun and fascinating place to live and visit for me—the surprising cultural diversity, the art and music scenes that thrive despite economic trouble, the restless energy and determination of the business and academic culture, the nook and cranny neighborhoods scattered everywhere with their own vibe, history, and culture—these are not things easily expressed on billboards.

Sometimes, stereotypes are not lies. The brutish industrial image you have of Michigan does exist, and not just in one isolated town or area. But just as the abandoned factory is a real part of Michigan, so are the billboard’s stirring, cliff-faced coastlines, sandy white beaches, the clear blue water, and the pure small-town Americana. I’m used to having to choose between the Atlantic Ocean, with its eye-searing saltwater and abundance of annoying seaweed and painful jellyfish, or a lake without any real beach or town to speak of. Michigan’s coast combines the best of both and is often half as crowded.

My first visit to the west coast of Michigan—Grand Haven, last summer—was not really what I expected. I couldn’t figure out how the hell Michigan wasn’t a bigger draw around the country. Then I found myself a year later, going up I-75, nervous. I was nervous because it’s Michigan, and people don’t really think much about Michigan except that cars come from here and everything else is kind of sad.

But then, something amazing happened: we actually had a vacation to rival previous ones in London, Los Angeles, and Vancouver/Seattle. The beaches were bustling without being too crowded. We mixed simple outdoor pleasures like biking around the entirety of Mackinac Island with a hot streak night in a casino. We packed into a theater for the Traverse City Film Festival, and checked out an Israeli film, A Matter of Size. We watched the sun set over Lake Huron. I randomly had two of the best soups of my life (the French Onion at Green House Café and the spicy black bean at Dish, both in Traverse City). We even went out on wave runners in Lake Michigan.

I wonder how much my saying this means. When I tell my friends on the East Coast—or even those that have never left the east coast of this state—that Michigan is a legit place to vacation, they kind of shrug. I guess this means I’ve lost my outsider credibility in some way, which I’m okay with, actually. It’s hard to shake the stereotypes or preconceptions, and the only way to do it for sure is see it in person. There’s still a month left for summer. Flights to Detroit can be super cheap (BWI to Detroit is usually $100 round-trip), rental cars are plentiful, and the drives are easy. Oh, and that boring old I-75? Once you get off up north, you’ll be greeted by a pretty drive; the lakes and bays shimmer, the towns sparkle, ships gently move in and out of gorgeous marinas, the cliff faces roll into white sand. It’s amazing. I’ll never forget it. And it’s in Michigan.

  • The Pure Michigan campaign was also rated as one of the Top 10 travel campaigns of all time by Forbes Magazine. As someone who is from Michigan and now lives in Maryland, there is really nothing on the East Coast that compares to Northern Michigan in the summer.

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  • Ah yes. Michigan: America's High Five. Shake hands with the Mitten. The Winter Wonderland and all that jazz. Get to the west coast and it's a beauty. The northwest is a gem as well. The UP is the farthest you can go away to college and still pay in-state tuition. But then you leave. You leave for your new life and your new job. Any job. I left MI in '01 after college and never looked back. My whole family lives out here in MD now and are all doing better. I empathize with your commentary here and agree: Michigan has some beautiful vacation destinations. But no real place to stay. I wish I could say otherwise because I do miss screaming "Flint-town!"

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