I cheated in Michigan. I got in a car, and I went to Canada. Those acts were neither trainey nor American. But the former got me to a wedding on time, and the latter gave me a great view of the Detroit skyline. Sometimes it’s better to break the rules.
My buddy Alec flew up from Tampa (which he calls the “Cultural Siberia”), rented a car, and picked me up in Ann Arbor, a charming little city an hour east of Detroit where our friend Rob lives. The three of us used to row together on the crew team in high school. Rob put me and Alec up and took us out barhopping.
Is there a better way to find America than to barhop in each of its cities?
Don’t answer that.
Ann Arbor is a really cool town. The University of Michigan is interspersed among houses and businesses within the city, and its downtown features numerous coffee shops and bakeries, a grocery co-op, nice bars and restaurants, wide streets lined with trees and flowers, and handsome wood and brick buildings.
That night they had a classic car show going on, and Michiganders filled the streets and businesses on a warm, sunny evening. “Is this, like, every person in Ann Arbor” I asked Rob.
He said, “No.” I don’t think he got the joke. I’m not sure I do either.
We got friendly service and free peanuts at the first bar from a woman who said she’d been serving tables for nearly 40 years. At the last bar, where hipsters (I’ve encountered a lot of hipsters on this trip, maybe that’s just a thing right now) stood outside smoking and chatting, the big burly bouncer saw Alec trip and knock a flier off the wall and blackballed him by drawing two X’s in magic marker on each of his hands.
We sent Alec to the bar to buy the next pitcher, and he came back with the goods. Eventually we walked the two blocks home to Rob’s, setting our alarms for an early start toward Ana’s wedding five hours north by car.
Earlier that day, after Alec picked me up and while Rob was at work, Alec and I drove a little over an hour east into Detroit. We got turned around and confused by the numerous highway interchanges and one-way streets, but the roads were empty enough that we could redirect and u-turn with ease.
Not just the roads, but the whole city feels ghostly, like a spirit that once was. Alec and I sat outside at the Detroit Brewery and had lunch while an elevated rail car did laps above us. The cars looked pretty well empty, as was the sidewalk save for two homeless men who asked us for change while we ate. One of them offered me toothpick American flag. I said no thanks.
We walked around the field where the Tigers play. It was just us and a Korean family. We went to the outdoor market and found a harder Detroit, ordered Coney dogs from a waitress who could’ve kicked Alec’s ass. Then we said what the hell and went to Canada.
Windsor, Ontario lies on the other side of the Detroit river, but finding the tunnel over was a difficult task. It took something like four u-turns and seven right-hand turns to get in it. We came out on the other side and a man in an orange vest signaled us to make a sharp turn into the customs lanes. So sharp, we thought, that we pulled in all the way to the right into the lane with the word “open” in green lights and no cars in line.
When we pulled up to the window, the customs agent glared at us and, after a long pause like Dirty Harry or something, said, “You guys think you’re the smart ones going into the lane with no cars?”
Alec stammered and I shouted something over about the guy who told us to take a hard turn. With unmistakable disgust, the agent grabbed a carbon-copy pad and jotted down our car’s information. “Why you guys up here?” he asked.
“We want to go to Tim Horton’s and maybe get some poutine,” Alec said.
“We’re in Michigan for a wedding,” I said.
Sneering, he asked for the rental agreement but not our passports, put a pink slip in the windshield wipers and instructed us to pull into the shed on the right. When we pulled in and parked, three agents swarmed the car and asked us to stand by the wall. We had close to nothing in the car: my camera on the dash, two bottles of water, a paper bag with trash from the Coney dogs, two empty paper coffee cups. But the agents searched through all of it then said we could go.
The city itself didn’t offer much excitement, save for the fact that we were standing in Canada. One place called itself a restopub. Another place advertised as a poutinery. From the other side of the river I got the best view of Detroit’s skyline–a stand of newer GM towers off to the side from the older, dilapidated buildings.
We reentered America using the bridge, and Alec insisted on telling the customs agent that our reason for visiting Canada was to go to Tim Horton’s and eat poutine, both of which we were too full too actually do. “You came all the way from Florida for poutine?” the U.S. customs agent asked.
“We’re in Michigan for a wedding.”
The next morning we drove five hours north toward Sleeping Bear Dunes outside of Traverse City where our friend Ana was getting married. Someone should’ve told me Michigan was so gorgeous. I always imaged flatness and snow, but the northern part of the lower peninsula overlooking Lake Michigan was stunning.
They held the wedding atop a bluff overlooking the lake. We took a chair lift up to the ceremony. Every shade of blue shone off the lake and sky and haze in the distance. That night we danced with strangers and made new friends and in the morning drove back to Detroit where I got on the train for Chicago.