Geographically speaking, Michigan is weird.
Looking on a map, it’s the only state cracked into two parts– the lower “mitten” half (described to me by a Detroit friend as, “America’s high-five!”) and the upper peninsula, a.k.a. the U.P., a.k.a. the Yooper. The sordid history behind this is that Michigan and southern neighbor Ohio had cattily fought over a narrow strip of land in the Toledo War of 1835, and to shut them up Congress awarded the Toledo strip to Ohio, but gave new state Michigan a chunk of Wisconsin Territory as a consolation prize. The two states are still rivals, but they’ve channeled their aggression into college football.
The peninsulas are divided by the enormous freshwater seas of Superior and Huron, and joined again by the five-mile Mackinac Bridge, which is open to pedestrians only one day a year– tomorrow, a cause worth my beautiful long roadtrip across the Yooper.
Today I drive from Wisconsin nearly directly north through the U.P. to Lake Superior. I should confess something: for some reason I imagined the Yooper as Siberia or the Alaskan wilderness. I warned my friends I might not have phone service, I wondered if my rental car would survive the unpaved roads. It was a mild surprise that the peninsula was indistinguishable from the rest of the surrounding states, with maybe just a bit of a stronger accent in its uncannily friendly residents. My first stop– pretty much when I realized I was in Michigan and not still in Wisconsin– was in the tiny town of Watersmeet, mostly because I rolled past a school building declaring it was the “Home of the Nimrods.” I stopped for a pasty in a nearby shop and chatted with a resident about it, he misunderstood that I was asking about the Nimrod name and instead sheepishly apologized for the unmidwestern pride of the sign itself– “oh yah, we’ve got a really good team. They were on tv.” I assumed he was bullshitting me or maybe talking about a local news snippet, but later I googled Nimrods and yep, they were the subject of a Peabody-winning documentary. Well okay then, Yooper. Stay humble.
I drive directly to Lake Superior and pay my respects, then backtrack to the town of L’Anse to buy a cold sixer at Dick’s Pump and Munch– no, really– and then navigate a snarl of dusty mining roads to the high point. Despite the navigation challenges it’s a beautiful route, thirty miles through tall trees that tower over the roads and block out the sun. I drive all the way up to a tiny parking area inches from the high point, but then turn around and pass back through my dustcloud to park further back down the road and walk the last half-mile or so up– it just seems right, somehow.
The high point is a clearing in the trees marked by a powder-blue sign and a matching park bench overlooking a fire barrel filled with ashes and broken glass. I snap a photo of the sign and sip at my summit beer, but after the trip here this nondescript clearing seems a bit anticlimactic. I’m restless after the drive, though, so I walk the perimeter of the clearing, squinting out into the trees trying to spot deer or squirrels. At one point I notice a bit of a muddy path leading off from the clearing, and I step down out of the grass to walk it a ways.
The thick forest outside of the clearing is dark and immediately about ten degrees colder. Moss paints the northern face of thousands of slippery tree trunks. The drone of an ATV engine in the distance stops and I’m suddenly aware of silence– there’s not even a breeze strong enough to rustle these giant leaves. I walk towards a space that’s lit like it’s another clearing, scramble over an enormous slippery haystack of a tree root, and drop down onto a ledge– what I’d thought was another small clearing in the woods was a sharp dropoff to an expansive view down below.
The treetop canopy slopes downhill for eight miles and ends abruptly at the shore of Lake Superior, a smudge of blue only slightly darker than the clear sky above it and stretching out until the two are indistinguishable at the line of the horizon. Beyond that faded streak the choppy waters run uninterrupted to Canada, and in awe I silently raise a toast to the wild, beautiful, deadly majesty of the largest lake on the continent.
About the beer:
Michigan has some fantastic strong IPAs and stouts, but my hand wavered over them at Dick’s Pump and Munch and I selected the milder, smoother Bell’s Amber for this dusty September trip. It was a perfect choice, smelling slightly musty like the late summer Yooper trees themselves, and tasting the same way, sweet and earthy with a bit of a greeny citrus bite. Perfectly balanced.
photo taken below the highpoint, just because the view matched the label so well.