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Driving Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Morgan & Owens The Red Barn, off Route 28.

Photo: Morgan & Owens

With a population upwards of 20,000, Marquette is a veritable U.P. metropolis. After exploring downtown, with its turn-of-the-century architecture and a Deco-era movie house, we followed Route 28 to Negaunee. There, in the basement of the Old Bank Building Antiques Mall, we found Modernist Munising wood tables amid hunting gear, taxidermy, and antique typewriters.

A 60-mile west-to-north dogleg took us past the black stone ledges of Canyon Falls to the Shrine of the Snowshoe Priest, overlooking L’Anse Bay and the Keweenaw Peninsula. Tepees mark the turnoff to the hilltop monument: a 35-foot-tall brass sculpture of Bishop Frederic Baraga, a 19th-century Slovenian priest who established missions throughout Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The peripatetic priest is carrying the tools of his trade: a cross in his right hand and a pair of snowshoes in his left.

At the bottom of the hill in Baraga, traffic started to gather in front of Drive-In, one of those classic burger joints you don’t see much of these days, where a teenage waitress clips a tray to your car window. Several hot dogs, curly fries, root beer floats, and frozen custards later, we drove along the Portage River into Houghton and Hancock, twin towns that mark the beginning of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

In Hancock, we prowled the grounds of the Quincy Mine—overgrown with weeds—which is now a museum filled with relics from the boiler house of the world’s largest steam hoist. Hancock has a ghost-town feel, and the only consolation we found came from Amy J’s Pasty, a bakery that makes traditional Finnish ground-meat-and-potato pies, based on the Cornish pasty, and nissua, sweet bread made with cardamom.

Quaint hand-carved signs mark the streets that led us to the Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn. Bill Frabotta, a former portrait photographer from Detroit, calls himself “the lighthouse keeper,” and regaled us with the history of the place, the largest and last manned lighthouse on the Great Lakes. Frabotta then hustled us off to Fitzgerald’s in nearby Eagle River for a dinner of pecan-crusted walleye with Michigan dried-cherry butter.

At its northern end, the Keweenaw is a string of harbor villages and mining towns circumscribed by Route 26 and U.S. 41, two country roads that form lazy loops around the mountains and shoreline of the peninsula. We stopped just up the road from the lighthouse on Route 26 at the Jampot, a Ukrainian bakery in a cozy cottage run by bearded monks from the Holy Transfiguration Skete monastery. Choosing among the vast variety of exotic seasonal jams—such as native thimbleberry and chokecherry—the heavenly cookies, and the liquor-soaked, cheesecloth-wrapped fruit and pound cakes was a $150 task.

From the highway, Calumet rises up seemingly out of nowhere, an Andrew Wyeth landscape of buildings with nearly vertical pitched roofs and church spires. Once the home of copper tycoons, the town has splendid examples of Finnish-influenced turn-of-the-century architecture as well as a former opera house that now hosts country music and oldies shows. Walking down the weathered streets, where parking meters cost a dime an hour and are installed on the sides of buildings so they won’t be buried in winter snow, it was hard to imagine how wild and woolly this town might once have been when it was infused with freshly minted moguls and a polyglot mix of immigrants a century ago.

But everywhere we looked, there are ghosts of the region’s past. At a German bistro called the Harbor Haus, where waitresses in dirndls serve schnitzels and grilled Lake Superior trout and whitefish, a 1,720-pound specimen of native copper is planted in the ground, ushering diners toward the lake-view restaurant’s copper-clad doors. In a gravel parking lot outside a shuttered gem and mineral shop, Katy and Joe collected gunmetal-gray stones with flecks of glittery hematite that sparkled in the sun.

Driving north toward Copper Harbor, the terminus of U.S. 41, nature overwhelmed us. As the car wound and twisted through an asphalt roller coaster, towering old-growth evergreens gave the air a heady alpine scent. Up ahead, the road appeared to be a black ribbon, unfurling into a canopy of forest green: the Tunnel of Trees. Once we emerged we found one last scenic byway, Brockway Mountain Drive, which leads to a summit of 735 feet with endless views of the jagged cliffs above Lake Superior. Standing there, watching the sun set on the great lake beyond, it was easy to see how much—and how little—the world below us had changed. Looking out from on high, we could not recognize the remnants of progress and industry; we saw only treetops and rocky hillsides, rooftops and sailboats—a majestic landscape that, for hundreds of years, has given visitors like us a sense of wonder and promise.

David A. Keeps is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

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