Driving through northern Michigan

It has been five months since I have been to Europe, for me a record. After the mad wanderings of the past few years, it has been good to stay home for a while, although I certainly miss Esperaza.

During the summer I have had the opportunity to go on a couple of interesting, more local trips, into both the Arctic and the near US states. It was really a pleasure to explore some of our neighbour’s territory, and last week found us driving home from Toronto to Winnipeg.

The drive is good; from Toronto we headed to Sarnia and into Michigan before heading north and driving the length and breadth of this interesting state. It is, for those who have not been there or studied its geography, deceptively large, and peculiarly shaped.

We stopped on our first night in Gaylord, a village touted to emulate a small Alpine village. Apart from the obvious lack of Alps, the descriptions were misleading; oddly -gabled buildings astride a normal, gas-station and big-box infested highway would have been more accurate. The hotel was fine, and as pasteurised as one might expect a Hilton to be, although their air-conditioning sounded like rush-hour on an aircraft carrier. Food in town was harder to find, and although we rocked on up to the “Big Buck”, with predictably gargantuan servings of various American specialities, we left thirsty.

They brewed their own beer; actually an admirable pastime and I have to say they do it well. However, their wine making leaves a lot to be desired. Astringent, weedy and, one has to say, tasting as if it had been made in Central Michigan, it was on sale at an eye-watering $9.50 for 4½ ounces. Now even in metric units, this is a price that would normally be paid for some nectar of the gods, and not this backwater naughawine.

However, suitably fortified we headed north and crossed the Mackinaw Bridge to the Upper Peninsula. We did choose the one day of the year that pedestrian traffic in permitted on the bridge, and consequently thousands of folks took advantage of this regulatory relaxation, and wandered toward us. Watching the walkers, of absolutely every shape and size, did lead to some unkind comments and some small wagers as to some individual’s potential of completing the five-mile walk alive.

It did add an hour to our journey, however, and thus our run across the northern section of the state was a touch more hurried than we might have liked.

This is the land that the economy seems to have left behind. Once clear of Mackinaw, the next two hundred or so miles of highway was littered with “For Sale” signs. Fully two-thirds of the motels and RV parks were for sale, and in many cases, it appeared to be a forlorn hope.

Where are the tourists? We supposed that now, rather than driving and stopping when tired at a motel showing a “vacancy” sign, folks simply got on their iPads, Pods or Phones, and heading straight for a brand name, booked a Best Western, Days Inn or similar, rushing by the independents, unable to reach the brand-obsessed on-line traveller. Cars are also better today, and the daily distances we cover are longer, allowing travellers to congregate in one of a few thriving centres rather than spreading the wealth more evenly throughout the state.

It is a sad state of affairs, and the economy of the “UP” was clearly hurting.

We stopped in Fargo, ND as well, principally to look at a building that we might invest in, but also because of the small towns in the upper mid-west, Fargo really stands out.

Its downtown is attractive, full of life and small businesses. This, principally due to the investment made by a local family who sold their software company to Microsoft for $1.3 billion or so; and let me tell you, that sort of money goes a long way in a smallish town. Of particular note is the lovely Hotel Donaldson, a terrific spot and worth a detour of anyone’s trip. That does assume, of course, that one is anywhere in the vicinity to begin with, which given Fargo’s location, is improbable.

And so to Brussels.

The last time I was here I had arrived on a Capitol Airways flight from New York, and given that Capitol went bankrupt in the 1980s, this was some time ago. As I look out of the window, I see planes from seven airlines, only three of which existed on my last visit. How things change. I am not here for long, heading in a couple of hours to Copenhagen on one of these new airlines (Brussels Airlines). I shall have time to scoot into town there for a beer with an old friend before the final flight of the journey to the magical Faroe Islands.

And more of the Faroes tomorrow.