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Driving Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Morgan & Owens The Red Barn, off Route 28.

Photo: Morgan & Owens

Sprawled out like a running squirrel—its hindquarters linked to Minnesota and Wisconsin, its head reaching eastward into Ontario, Canada—Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was the forested hunting ground of Hiawatha and the Ojibwa tribe. In the early 20th century, iron and copper barons, lumber tycoons, and shipping and auto magnates (including Henry Ford) fished the Great Lakes for salmon and stalked silver-birch woods for white-tailed deer. Great fortunes were torn from the earth, prosperity came and went, but the rugged natural charms of the region still seduce outdoorsmen. The remaining cities—Marquette, Negaunee, Calumet, to name a few—are former boomtowns that went bust long before the era of office parks and outsourcing arrived. These places now resonate with a quirky, nearly forgotten history. Like Alaska, Appalachia, and Amish country, the U.P. is an out-of-the-way, out-of-the-past American preserve.

As a child of suburban Detroit, I experienced the U.P. in Partridge Family fashion, aboard an old yellow school bus on summer-camp excursions. My recollections are sensory: the smell of army surplus stores and woods carpeted with pine needles, the taste of locally made fudge and the meat pies called pasties, the bracing feel of chilly Lake Superior and the mist from a waterfall.

Last summer, I revisited the U.P. as a history buff and cultural anthropologist, behind the wheel of a Dodge Magnum. I set a course through the region with two fellow Michigan natives and antiques hounds: Joe, a photographer, and Katy, an art curator. Situated on the south shore of Lake Superior, midway between the eastern and western edges of the peninsula, Munising was the first stop on the way to our ultimate destination: Copper Harbor, the northernmost point of the U.P.

Munising is the departure point for boat tours along the Pictured Rocks, a 15-mile stretch of sandstone cliffs and caverns on the shore of Lake Superior. The Pictured Rocks’ names derived from the erosion that sculpted the cliffs into profiles, including Indian Head, and architectural formations, such as Miners Castle. Their beauty is discovered up close in the abstract striations of leaching mineral deposits that paint the rocks like a Morris Louis canvas, in rusts, greens, and ocher.

From Munising, Route 28 led us westward along the shoreline to Au Train, a sandy stretch with picket fencing, wild beach grass, and surprisingly temperate water. A few miles off the main road sits Red Barn Antiques, where tables are filled with agate, hematite, and crystalline formations of rosy metal covered in verdigris—a preview of Copper Country’s geological treasures. I also found a stash of hand-painted Munising bowls—local wooden ones that date back to the first half of the 20th century.

Just west of Au Train, we spied a folk-art construction that sprang from the dedicated labor of an inspired individual. Much like the Upper Peninsula itself, which exists on the remnants of a storied past, Lakenenland is a roadside sculpture park that makes use of industrial scrap in the form of whimsical, large-scale monuments. Tom Lakenen, a 45-year-old welder who purchased the 37 1/2-acre tract, created a path for cars, and has since installed some 65 works. “I have nine 150-page notebooks filled with messages from people around the world,” he says. “I’m hoping one day that Bill Gates will drive through.”

Lakenenland is a sweet but sobering experience, a bit of artistic alchemy in a place stripped of its resources. “There’s poverty here,” one shopkeeper tells me, “but there’s pride.” It is not one of those parts of the Midwest where hotels provide 24-hour room service and Frette linens. But there’s value: lodges, cabins, and motels have fireplaces, mounted deer heads, and a nonironic use of knotty pine, and are yours for a pittance in the U.P.

The six-floor Landmark Inn, overlooking Lake Superior in Marquette, is a lovely exception. Built in the grand hotel style of the 1930’s, it weathered years of neglect—a symbol of the region’s economic highs and lows—but was renovated in 1997. The storied inn, with stained-glass windows and antiques-filled rooms, has played host to visitors as varied as Amelia Earhart and Maya Angelou.


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