ROAD, n. A strip of land along which one may pass from where it is too tiresome to be to where it is futile to go (Ambrose Bierce, quoted in Charles Kuralt’s A Life on the Road).
There are 303 miles worth of road between Ironwood, at the far western end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and St. Ignace, the quaint tourist town at nearly the far eastern end. The 303 miles across the “U.P.” stretch from an historic, iron-rich mining area, through beautiful, sparsely populated forest and lake country, to a seasonally busy area of summer cabins, boating, sailing, fishing, and fudge and taffy shops; fall hunting and winter skiing; and sundry, and souvenir shops and tourist traps.
St. Ignace, on the north shore of the Straits of Mackinaw, is where the Mackinaw Bridge taxis to a landing after flying five-miles-minus-28-feet from Mackinaw City, on the south shore. Huge freighters and hundreds of private yachts pass under this 3rd longest suspension span in the United States to get from Lake Huron to Lake Michigan or vice versa. Yoopers—colloquial shorthand for [Michigan’s] “Upper Peninsula-ers”—are justifiably proud of their really big bridge.
Their are a lot of ways to get from Denver, Colorado, where we live, to Yooperland, USA, where my wife was born. For many years we rushed from Denver to Interstate 80 in southwest Nebraska, aimed ourselves east toward Interstate 35, turned north to the Twin Cities, then zig-zagged northeast, over the river and through the woods, past at least half of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes, to Ironwood—Michigan’s western gateway to Yooperland. Last summer, however, we wanted to visit Burna’s Canadian cousin—retired Ice Age Paleontologist and Wooly Mammoth specialist, Jim Burns and his wife, Sheila Jones. So we drove straight north from Denver to Cheyenne, then took US 85 all the way to the Canadian border. We took our time. We noted the ancient sea bed north of Cheyenne, Wyoming and the coal mining in Newcastle; the Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse monumental sculptures in western South Dakota; and the sand hills and oil fields around Williston, North Dakota. The next day we crossed into Canada and hurried east to Winnipeg.
By definition, it takes lots of road to add up to a road trip. But our visit last year to a Canadian cousin jiggled us out of our usual domestic, cross-country rut. It seems that a “proper” road trip requires more than miles of roads. Highways that limit us to 55 miles per hour and go through or near towns and important places are much more interesting than the sanitary, drive-by uniformity of Interstate highways that demand a minimum speed of 60 miles per hour. A proper road trip requires stopping to reflect: What did we just see? What did it feel like? Why was that important? What shall we explore next?
This summer, Ironwood was our first pause to reflect. We went out for our annual pizza with everything, including anchovies, at the Liberty Bell in Hurley. We sat around the dining room table with Burna’s mom, talking about aging, only driving to church and the grocery store, and no longer playing bridge. We stopped by grandparents’ family graves: William and Mabel Burns and their two children: Gail, who died of rheumatic fever in the late 1930s, before penicillin, and Robert, who died during pilots’ training in North Carolina early in World War II. We talked about how sad it is to see a hometown slowly decline, but how great it is that wifi is still available after hours if you hold your smartphone near the front door of the old Carnegie Library.
The road—east across Yooperland toward the Big Bridge, then south to Gaylord and Goshen—took us toward two granddaughters and their high school graduations. On the way the road trip turned into a generational journey: from the graves of grandparents and a father, to a check-in with mother, visits with high school friends, then on to reunions with daughters, sons-in-law, granddaughters and grandsons, and sundry extended family members. In the writing, Yooperland had become a metaphor for a bridge between the past and the future, parents and children, growing up and coming home to a place where we began, but to which we can never really return.