Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Michigan Sports Sermon

In Michigan we've become accustomed to success in sports. Between our college and pro teams the Great Lakes State has enjoyed more than its share of deep playoff runs and championships over the past 10 years. So measured against the recent success of the Pistons, Red Wings, Spartan basketball, U-M football, and even the Tigers (occasionally), these past 12 months could, COULD be considered a bit of a downer (exception, MSU). But I have to say, this has been my favorite year to date for sports in the great state of Michigan. For my money, even when my teams are losing, sports are at their best when the games teach us something about life, when there's a parallel between the action on the field and the meaning of it all. If athletic competition truly has the power to make us better people then the lessons of this past year have made it one of the best.

These sports lessons are especially important given the state's financial, political, and cultural crisis. Detroit often touts itself as a tough, blue-collar city. Lately, it's quite the opposite. There isn't too much pulling up of bootstraps or quiet determination and effort. Instead, there's a whole lot of whining, a whole lot of failing, and plenty of people waiting for someone else to bail them out. This goes for the entire state, but it's particularly pronounced in Detroit, where the culture of learned helplessness has become so ingrained that it's practically a religion. But as religions go in Michigan, nothing can trump our fandom. It's time to renounce the religion of failure and visit a new church; meet your preachers, listen to their sermons:

Perseverance from Matthew Stafford: Finally the Lions have a face of the franchise, a reason to cheer. Matthew Stafford is a firey young quarterback who inspires even skeptics like me. After dislocating his shoulder and being removed from the game in week 11 against the Browns, Stafford demanded to go back in for the final play, imploring the coaches, "if you need me to throw the ball, I can throw the ball." I'm converted. Michigan verbally claims to share Stafford's grit and determination, but saying and doing are two very different things. Time for us to knuckle up - even though it hurts, even though it's dislocated - and get our asses back in the game. Watch Matthew Stafford "Wired" - it will give you goose bumps:

Loyalty from Tom Izzo: The blood of the Yooper runs thick as pasty gravy (yes, I dip my pasties in gravy... SHAME). Izzo could have taken the money, he (potentially) could have coached Lebron James. Instead, he remembered that he loved his state, and that his allegiance could not be broken, especially by Ohio. I salute you, Coach Izzo; your love of the Great Lakes State is second only to my own. On the issue of loyalty, I'm looking at you, Michiganians now living in Chicago - take off your wimpy Cubs hats and get back to Michigan. Look, traveling the world, gaining perspective, making something of yourself; these are important steps in life. But there's also something to be said for the Motherland. When the Mitten is in need, we all have a duty to answer the call:

Dignity from Ernie Harwell: Harwell taught us how to live with grace and dignity, and how to go out on top. I'll never be as beloved, but I hope in the end that I'm as appreciative and grateful, and that I go out on a high note. Cheers to you, Mr. Harwell. It's important to remember to take a deep breath, smile, reflect, soak in the sun, be thankful. Michigan has a lot to be thankful for, and the more we celebrate our ourselves, the more we succeed. Watch Mr. Harwell's farewell speech:

Class from Armando Galarraga (and Detroit fans): When the perfect game was taken from Galarraga I blew a gasket. There's no telling what I was capable of - rioting, homicide, torture - who knows? Then, Armando's quiet class, his seemingly instant emotional distance from the injustice put me at peace. Baseball exists to entertain us and inform us about the human condition; there is a space between the game and life. Galarraga recognized that space, and he inspired a city to cheer an umpire who might have otherwise been burned at the stake. The unrehearsed grace of Tigers fans as they cheered Jim Joyce the next day was nothing short of a miracle. Judge not, let he who is without sin cast the first stone, etc. Armando, you are wise:

Humility from the Michigan Wolverines: The Michigan football team was knocked down a few pegs by the NCAA. It's difficult to tell whether Michigan fans have yet achieved any level of humility; maybe they won't, maybe U-M is soon to rise again. But therein lies the lesson: Humility is difficult to achieve, particularly when great success is the norm. The ivory tower of U-M football has had its head in the clouds for so long that the fans have forgotten what the view is like on Earth. This same lofty self-perception manifests itself in our day to day lives here in Michigan. For every city in the clouds - for every Ann Arbor, for every Birmingham, for every Traverse City - there's a small town that is struggling on the ground. It's important that we be proud of our success if we live in a city of privilege, but remember that we're all a part of the same team. Travel your state, support small towns, mingle with your fellow Michiganians. Every little bit helps.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Thumbs Up to Michigan's Thumb

I expected Michigan's Thumb to feel like the U.P. with warmer water, but my first visit showed the area was nothing like I imagined. I know people farm in Michigan, but my life experience has centered around other industries and pastimes: Boating, fishing, manufacturing, teachinghiking, boozing. I'd driven through Ravenna on the outskirts of my hometown of Muskegon a few times, but rarely had I stopped to say hello to a true blue farming community. Enter Elkton, Michigan.

First things first; the drive into the Thumb might be the oddest drive in Michigan. You first have to fight through the decaying fortification of Flint or Saginaw, and once you break through there's no telling whether the gates will be open when you're ready to leave. Then you're in the country, cruising up two-lane highway 53, and suddenly your weekend vacation seems very permanent, very final. A few rolling hills, tractor supply shops, antique stores, and fields, lots of fields - the Thumb has you.

The further north you drive, the flatter the landscape, until eventually you're in a checkerboard pattern of farm fields of beets destined for Pioneer or Big Chief sugar. It's then that you realize the Thumb is in many ways the heart of Michigan, both a throwback to our past and a modern day reminder that we don't need big business to survive, we just need grit, determination, and elbow grease. Then again, the lack of trees is depressing. I heard a fire wiped out the forests, creating fertile soil, and launching the transformation that turned the region into windswept farmland. Impressively large windmills line the horizon, providing energy for farm co-ops (I assume). The windmills are quite a sight, and serve as proof that alternative energy wind farms can be productive on land (keep them out of the Great Lakes). Other than that, the occasional community church and railroad crossing are about all you see, and cattle, lots of delicious cattle.

Before our big night on the town in Elkton, we took a drive out to the shore, which seems to appear out of nowhere. One minute you're driving down dirt country roads lined with ditches so deep I'd call them canals. The next minute you're breaking through the tree line and looking down a narrow sand path that leads to the choppy blue waters of Saginaw Bay. It was my first visit to Saginaw Bay; looked basically like any other spot on Lake Huron, though the e-coli warnings were a bit of a turnoff. The temperature quickly dropped as the fog rolled in and I could see why this land was so good for growing crops, between the humidity and the rich dirt. I planned on swimming but had to put on a sweatshirt to walk on the cool, foggy beach, so I only dipped my toes and threw driftwood for the dog. Beautiful scene, and warm water for the time of year.

Our reason for a tour of the Thumb was to visit the Hitching Post Inn, an old saloon in "downtown" Elkton. The upstairs inn is no longer in use, but the bar is still in serious service. Bartenders and barflies smoke cigarettes on the front porch, and inside there's the standard fare stripped to its bare bones - pool table, hardwood floors, small stage, amusing bartenders - so perfect. On tap there's Bud and PBR, and I was informed that the only import was Labatt, for the unbelievably low price of $2.75 a bottle - draft pitchers, $5.00. I'd like to get on my high horse about supporting Michigan beer, but it just wouldn't seem right in that environment. The menu is mostly pub food (good pizza, apparently). I recommend the deep fried parmesan balls - to die for, and a meal in themselves. The band - I wish I could remember their name - was fantastic. They covered old country tunes and CCR, and the drummer sang backup, which always moves me. 

Now, there was a brief bar fight, and one incredibly intoxicated lady threatened to kick my wife's ass, but I suppose I'm worth it. Those minor scuff-ups were largely overshadowed by the community feel of the bar. The band's entire family came out to support the show. Everyone, EVERYONE danced. My dog was greeted warmly, and enjoyed plenty of ear scratches on the porch. Most of all, our entire table of outsiders - dressed in leis and birthday hats no less - was welcomed with the kind of stoic affection that one only finds in rural communities.

The Thumb is pretty simple, really. Come as you are, swim at own risk, drink as you please, and if anything goes wrong, rub some dirt on it.

Addendum: The Hitching Post Inn's Facebook page is a great resource for drink specials, etc. 

Monday, June 21, 2010

Bela Hubbard on Michigan Autumn, October 1837

The first frost had fallen, and tinged the maples with yellow, orange and crimson; and beech was beginning to assume its russet coat, the hickories their brilliant yellow, gleaming, in the softened autumn sun, like towers of gold! The river banks, densely wooded, and overrun by the scarlet ivy, were truly magnificent. In strong contrast with these brilliant colors of the autumn was the dark green – almost black, in the shadow of the thick woodland – of the hemlock and fir, amid which shone the white bark of the sliver birch, and above all reared the verdant heads of many a lofty pine.
As yet no lumberman’s axe had sought to desecrate these glorious shades, nor the speculator to count the dollars that lay hid in the hearts of these mighty pines.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Muskegon's Sweet 16

Today I read a top ten list of reasons Muskegon is great (here). I certainly can’t argue with the choices, but being from Skeetown I figured I needed to contribute to the conversation. Here’s my top 16 of Muskegon:
  1. Muskegon State Park: Hidden gem on the north side of town – Lake Michigan, hiking trails, channel access, camping, luge, cross-country ski trails, ice rink, the Blockhouse
  2. Bear Lake Tavern: On the channel between Bear Lake and Muskegon Lake with parking for customers with boats. Perch dinners, cheap drinks, and a BLT sandwich with a full pound of bacon.
  3. US 31 BBQ: Loose meat BBQ sandwiches with relish sauce. Sloppy as hell, delicious.
  4. Cheese Lady: Gourmet cheese and finger food at a reasonable price.
  5. Clay Avenue Cellars: Fruit wine made from hand-picked whole fruit. Tasting room in an old gas station.
  6. G&L Chili Dogs: The downtown locations is sadly gone, but the memory remains. Think Yesterdog, think Lafayette Coney Island - decadent.
  7. Hackley Stadium: Home of the Muskegon Big Reds, arguably the best high school football program in Michigan history. A must visit for any sports fan in Michigan.
  8. Hackley House: See how the lumber barons used to live… they lived quite well.
  9. Muskegon Summer Celebration: Summer Celebration has its problems (read my solutions), but still worth a visit. I mean, what other city hosts Ludacris, Toby Keith, and the B-52's in the same series? Also and art fair and carnival.
  10. USS Silversides: World War II submarine, now a museum on the channel between Muskegon Lake and Lake Michigan.
  11. White River Light Station: Haunted lighthouse on the channel between White Lake and Lake Michigan. Great views, great museum.
  12. Hearthstone Bistro: The best gourmet soup in Michigan.
  13. Pere Marquette: National volleyball tournaments, bar on the beach.
  14. Muskegon Community College: Architectural gem built over water, reminiscent of Falling Water.
  15. Mr. Quick: It’s not just fast food. Burger bundles (5 burgers and a quarter pound of fries for $5). Quick’s used to be a chain, but most of the restaurants burned down – now that’s flame broiled.
  16. Getty Drive-In: Old-school drive-in movies. One of the few remaining. 
I’d love to hear suggestions for next time I’m home. Contact me via Twitter @TimChilcote. I challenge you to name a place I haven’t been. Note: El Camino Tacos was once my absolute favorite Muskegon destination, but I’ve heard that since Pablo left the place just isn’t the same. I haven’t been to Pablo’s yet – on the list.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Opportunity Knocks – Should Michigan Answer?

Should Michigan market itself as an alternative vacation destination to the Gulf Coast? Can we do so without appearing crass or heartless? Tourists are likely to avoid the Gulf anyway, so we wouldn’t be stabbing the South in the back or stealing from anyone; we’d simply be seizing an opportunity and taking money that’s otherwise going to be left on the table.

Is Pure Michigan running ads around the country to take advantage of this opportunity? I would venture a guess that California is running ads – are other states? We don’t need to – nor should we – disparage the South in any way or brand ourselves as the anti-Gulf. We just need to run Pure Michigan ads that show off our pristine beaches and clean waters to all those potential vacationers.

I remain convinced that tourism and hospitality are Michigan’s only future. Like everyone, I feel terrible for the Gulf Coast. It seems unlikely that Michigan could “officially” give back, but it’s a thought - would there be a way for Michigan to help in the relief efforts, give back some percentage of what we gain?

It might be helpful to remember that ecological disasters are also taking place in Michigan’s waters, and economic disasters have become par for the course in the Great Lakes State. We’re not that dissimilar from the Gulf, just less drastic at the moment. If we can get these tourists hooked on the Great Lakes now, they’ll return year after year. When life gives you lemons…

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Get Your Grayling On

Grayling, Michigan is my adopted home, and I’ve now spent enough time in the city that it’s starting to feel like Muskegon – I know the roads, I know the businesses, I won’t get lost in the woods, and I know every tenth person by name.

That being said, my comfort has made me complacent. I’ve now resolved to go on one new, interesting adventure each trip. Here is a list of my favorites. If you know any other Grayling gems, let me know via Twitter @TimChilcote

Note: I don’t do the Speak Easy or the Old Barn, and boy do I miss the Blooming Grape.