One of the reasons I think I have been enjoying the UP so far, and finding it such a refreshing place to visit, is that in some ways it feels rather removed from what I consider to be mainstream America. The lifestyle in the areas we have passed through feels more laidback with a slower pace of life than I have experienced anywhere else; and there is little evidence of the mass consumerism and sprawling cities and suburbs that are littered about in the other states we have passed through.
However, these thoughts only spring to my mind when we arrive in the city of Marquette, the first large ‘normal American’ city we have come across in the UP; and I suddenly realise that we haven’t actually seen a Walmart store during the whole time we’ve been up here. So what? You may say. But if you have ever visited the USA, you will be well aware how prevalent large chain stores are – especially Walmart; and so when I tell you that in the whole of the Upper Peninsula, all 16,500 square miles of it, there are only 6 of these shops to be found, well, that might give you an idea of how unaffected this area is by the norms of America as it were.
And for me, personally, this is a good thing. This is the side of America I like, one which still has small towns, a little bit of individualism and a hefty dose of nature to boot.
Therefore driving through Marquette feels a little like visiting an alien planet right now. And although we would like to stop and maybe have a look around because it does contain some nicely historic looking buildings and a superstructure on the waterfront that looks like some type of industrial pier which I’m dying to discover its purpose, we simply can find no place to park the bus. Not a single solitary spot. And so we must carry on our way with a sad backward glance.
Now at this point I probably should fill you in on some plans I have been making, because our direction of travel has taken on some focus over the past couple of days. Do you remember when we first crossed into the UP and I spoke to a nice chap in the visitor centre about hiking and he told me about Isle Royale, the National Park which is actually an island sitting in the northern part of Lake Superior? Well, after a bit of poking and whining I finally managed to convince Loops to drive me all the way up the spur of the UP to the town of Copper Harbour, where I could get a boat to and from Isle Royale for 5 days of hiking; and although he wouldn’t come hiking with me, he would patiently wait to see if I managed to not get eaten by bears or wolves and came back. Obviously I was super psyched by this idea – hiking and camping on an island on my own where there is lots of wildlife to see and hear AND a boat ride to boot!
However, my amazing trip was not meant to be it seems. I called every company offering boat trips to the Isle only to discover that they were fully booked for the remainder of the season. Actually, that’s not quite true; the gentleman from one company told me that he had space to take me over to the island, but that all the return trips were full. So as long as I wanted to live at the National Park for the duration of winter with no supplies, I was all set! Well, I guess I could have just waited for the lake to freeze over and then simply walk back across….
Anyway, after getting over the gutting realisation I was going to miss out on this awesome experience, I tried to find something else in the UP of the same ilk that would lift my spirits and get me out into nature. I toyed with the idea of trying some of the North Country Trail that I’d seen the hikers from earlier in the week, but in my research found it to not be well signposted or supplied for the section and length of time I wanted to hike. Instead, I have set my sights on another much touted area of the UP – Porcupine Mountains State Park in Ontonagon – you can’t read anything about hiking in the Upper Peninsula without finding the ‘Porkies’ (as they are known) popping up and being advertised as the place to go. So, that’s where we are headed to from here on in.
However, after tallying my hiking equipment, I have realised that the one thing I need but don’t have is fuel for my stove. So before we leave Marquette we need to find some, and even though normally buying fuel has never been an issue in the past, up here in the UP it takes driving back and forth across town and trudging through four stores before finally managing to locate what I need. I guess maybe there are one or two slight drawbacks to living in the boonies after all?
By the time we’ve done faffing about it’s getting late, near 8pm, and we have to drive another 20 miles or so to find our parking for the night – the Elks Lodge in Ishpeming.
We chug into the car park in the pitch black near 9pm, and surprisingly find the lodge open, albeit with only three people in it. We are welcomed into town by Jen, the lady behind the bar, and Mavis and John, two Elks members from nearby Clarksville. Now I will admit, it’s be a pretty tiring day all round; we have driven about 55 miles today which equates to about 2 and a half hours in the bus with all of the small roads, stopped for a fun frolic in the waters of Lake Superior (where we saw a rather cool face carved into a rock cliff) as well as our stressful couple of hours in Marquette searching for stupid fuel. So really, I wasn’t in the best of moods for then having to try and socialise with three strangers late at night.
But as I am continually finding these days, I really need to just get over myself and man up, because after Loops guilted me into going inside, we spent a good hour having a rather lovely chat with our three new friends.
Jen was full of hiking tips for my upcoming Porkies trip, advising me what not to miss out on, and reassuring me that although I haven’t been hiking in four years (good gracious, has it really been four years?) and despite the literature warnings of ‘difficult hiking’, it’s nothing near as hard as the AT.
Mavis and John on the other hand were full to the brim with interesting facts and stories of the local area and its history and were an absolute delight to listen to. I found out more about the mining culture here and its decline, the fact that John and Mavis have remnants of an old blast furnace in their back garden and that pasties have the shape they do with a really large crust so that miners could hold the crust with their dirty hands and eat the main pie cleanly for lunch. When I explained I was surprised to see pasties here, being a Cornish invention in my mind, John told me that many of the miners were immigrants and had brought the pasty with them when they came to mine from England; which made me smile.
John also told us about his work in the Coast Guard where he was responsible for maintaining lighthouses in the area and also told me what the massive structure that had grabbed my attention in Marquette was – an iron ore dock.
According to John, once iron ore has been mined, it is crushed up to form pellets which are then transported by railroad to the dock. The train cars arrive on the top of the dock and tip their cargo into holding pockets along the dock and when a ship arrives to load up, there are channel arms lining the dock that lower and point into the open cargo hold along the length of the ship. The pellets are then released and the hold of the boat fills up equally. In case you wonder what that looks like, Michigan Radio has kindly made the You Tube video below so you can see it. Anyway, I found it all very interesting!
Once we realised it was getting late, we thanked our hosts for their hospitality and Loops’ free drink (how nice is that?) and Mavis was so lovely, she even gave me a hug before we left. What wonderful people they are.
We decided to hang out the next day in the area, as it turns out we’ve hit a holiday weekend – Labour Day. So I catch up on my assignment work, practice my crocheting skills and by the afternoon I want to get out of the bus, so Loops and I take a bike ride over to….well….a really strange place called ‘Da Yoopers Tourist Trap’.
I can’t exactly explain Da Yoopers, it’s more like an immersive experience you just need to have to appreciate, but basically there are two shops side by side, one selling tourist items that are Michigan or UP based – quirky items that would make you smile and that have a slight ‘special person’ quality about them, to promote the idea the Yoopers really are their own breed of people. For English folk, you might compare it to jokes made about people who live on the Isle of Wight or maybe come from Norfolk; you catch my drift?
The second shop is a gem and stone store, given that there are tons of types of stone to be found in and around Lake Superior, but it also contains some really interesting examples of iron too, showcasing the working history of the UP.
The most unusual feature of this place though are the ‘exhibits’ placed around the outside of the buildings. For instance, there is a massively sized deck chair you can sit in and feel like you are a midget. There are several ‘world’s largest’ working exhibits, such as the largest rifle and chainsaw; and then there are a whole collection of unfathomable randomly staged scenes, many including deer. Well, here, just look at some pictures and tell me what you make of it…
My favourite is the sign which proclaims “Welcome to Yooperland – relax – enjoy – spend all of your cash – but please don’t move up here.” And I suppose if I lived in a place that had the trappings of nature, a slower pace of life and when winter hits feels like everyone else in the world doesn’t exist; I wouldn’t want other people discovering it, falling in love with it, moving here and changing the tone or feel of it either.
It’s time to pull out the next day and make our move over to the Porkies, 120 miles away. Before we do however, we must wait until mid-day, for the Labour Day parade is taking place.
Now, we don’t have such a holiday at home, so I can’t tell you the origins of it or anything, but what I can tell you is that I saw many people walking past where we were parked; and other people lining the streets and greeting and clapping for them. The people walking had large banners proclaiming what union they belonged to – electricians, plumbers, sheet metal workers etc. – and occasionally were throwing candy to people in the crowd. Everyone seemed fairly happy and there was a nice community spirit to the whole thing. And that’s about all I can tell you regarding it.
Once the roads were clear, we fired Belle up and began our trip west to go and see what the Porkies had to offer.