The Latin motto on the State of Michigan’s great seal — “Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam, Circumspice” — says it all.
Translated, that means, “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.“ And it is a great — no, perfect — set-up for all the wonderful “Pure Michigan” TV commercials extolling the beauties of our state. And naturally, it seems only right that Sleeping Bear Dunes, near Traverse City, has just been anointed by the “Good Morning America” TV show as the most beautiful spot in the nation.
My wife, Kathy, and I took our summer rest at our cabin on the south shore of Lake Superior earlier this month, and just finished the eight-hour drive back to our home near Ann Arbor.
The state motto says “peninsula,“ singular, not “peninsulas,” because it was adopted two years before Michigan became a state in 1837, at a time when we didn’t yet have the Upper Peninsula.
And the northern half of our state still gets short shrift.
Sadly, not as well known as it should be to the “trolls” (folks below the Mackinac Bridge, in UP-speak), the Upper Peninsula this summer was hot and very dry.
When you walked in the woods, you heard the parched pine needles crackle under foot and saw the bracken fern turning yellow. Dry weather like that terrifies local folks, for good reason.
One lightning strike could set off a roaring forest fire that can consume thousands of acres in a fiery flash. But, ah, the sights, sounds and smells of the UP!
The soft whish of the wind blowing gently through the pines bringing the unforgettable scent of needle and bark. The deep, intense and cloudless blue sky. The stars burning bright on a dark night — seemingly as close as the tips of your fingers.
When you swim, eyes open, underwater in Lake Superior, the cleanest body of fresh water on the planet, the distance is turquoise and the sand below, golden in the sun. And if you are a fly fisherman, nothing quite beats the flash of a brook trout, all speckled in gold and red and blue, as it rises to your #12 Michigan Hopper.
Once, we paused on our walk to let three sandhill cranes — great birds five feet tall with a bright red top knot and a peculiar hesitant walk — pass silently, not 10 yards in front of us. And as we started our drive south early in the morning, the sun rose through a storm over Lake Superior in globs of red and orange and yellow, with shafts of light piercing the dark clouds, as though it were the hand of God made manifest here on earth.
There is no place on earth as wonderfully pure and fresh, as Michigan’s UP — and no place that can look so sad. This always has been a hard land, a tough place to make a living winter or summer, sparsely populated to start, with far too many people now totally out of work.
On our drive down, we passed five, 10, 20 abandoned houses, the fallen roofs each covering the graves of some family’s once modest hope for a clean, well-lighted home.
There are many abandoned small motels along the way, paint peeling, the windows cracked and trees starting to grow in the parking lots. Our favorite — the “Generic Motel,” just outside the tiny village of McMillan, seemed to have disappeared.
The parking lots around the Indian casinos were jammed, although it was hard to say whether the folks inside were having fun or merely desperate for a big score to try to beat the odds.
Then, when you come across over the Mackinac Bridge — itself a delicate triumph of steel and grace and soaring air — things suddenly change. The pine and hemlock vanish, to be replaced by hardwoods like oak and maple.
The soft sand dunes and hard granite glacial erratic rocks give way to softer mounds of grassy farmland and rolling hills near Vanderbilt. And a couple of hundred miles farther south, it’s, well, lush and green and settled and no longer savage.
The air started to get humid as we stopped at a gas station just south of Grayling, and as we drove on familiar roads near our home we saw the vegetable gardens ripe with produce and the corn standing tall.
The late Judd Arnett, who wrote a column in the Detroit Free Press from 1959 until the early ’90s, used to refer to “Michigan, my Michigan.”
Old Judd, who would have been a century old this year, had it right. There is no place like Michigan, our Michigan, and we all have a stake in preserving its natural splendors and restoring its economy to its former glory.
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