They called us trolls because we lived for nine months of the year below (that is, south of ) the bridge. The Mackinac Bridge connects the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with the Lower Peninsula. For the five miles of the bridge, all you see is water and sky, blurring out at the edges. People died erecting its towers and suspending its cables over water three hundred feet deep—they say the body of at least one man is trapped in a concrete tower. In high winds, tiny un-American cars like mine have been blown off the bridge, down to the storm-blackened Straits of Mackinac. I imagine the impact every time— flying free from the car, the beautiful water like an anvil driving the bones in my toes all the way up into my soft neck.
Some people who live far from the Great Lakes don’t know that Michigan comes in two pieces disconnected by water. The Lower Peninsula looks like a mitten, a comfort to trolls far away from home, who can always, when asked by strangers where they’re from, raise their right hands—palm forward and lined like a road map, thumb out to the side—and point to their hometown. But the mitt of Michigan is not charming to the billy goats above the bridge. Yoopers, as they often call themselves (a phonetic version of UPers), are surrounded on every side by the largest quantity of fresh water on the globe; they’re flooded with evergreens and wild animals and independence. Even though they’re attached by land to Wisconsin, Michigan’s downstate capital, Lansing, rules them. Detroit, in turn, through its sheer size and auto industry clout, rules Lansing, and yoopers hate Detroit in every way. That’s where we’re from, 350 miles to the south.
The yooper boys I knew told my sister and me they felt sorry for us, all the secret ways the city must be ruining us: to live where things are assembled, and the noise, the grease and sweat that must work its way into our skin. And the stench of the Three Sisters smokestacks, and the Rouge River, the Detroit River, none of which they’d seen—but they could imagine the scent of things burning that never should have been things in the first place. And the blacks. The blacks, with their hot crack pipes and babies and guns that were not at all like their own guns. To accept concrete and traffic and crime and the constant hazy glow that unravels the significance of stars; to live by deforming, more and more every day, what we had been given, down to the compacted dirt under our feet—how could we stand it?
They said all of these things in ugly or touching or frightened or silent ways. And I for one believed in places that didn’t looked humbled by humans, where more things grew than were produced, where I could thrill myself for whole moments at a time that I was the last person on earth. I believed those boys were right and I was, by some misfortune, a troll.
Most of us downstaters get as far north as Mackinac Island: we take a hydroplane ferry across the Straits of Mackinac, eat fudge, swoon around the Grand Hotel, pretending we have erased crass modernity but secretly complaining that the island doesn’t allow cars.
Those who actually cross the bridge find that the U.P. is at least ten times as big as Rhode Island and has only one area code for its sparse population. The seven-month winters and towns of thirty or forty people drive off the weak and the ambitious. The U.P. might as well be Alaska—ours only because we’re greedy. And, as Alaska was for its gold, the U.P. was prospected for timber and shipping routes almost two centuries ago by the shy, the sturdy, the malignant, and the insane. But this is just the history of America, distilled.
Some people press on past the bridge, though. A handful of downstaters, like my family, perch nervously in their subdivisions most of the year, waiting to snap alive in the U.P. for a few summer months. My suburban family heated our house with a wood stove, cut and split the wood, raised and canned the year’s vegetables, made our own clothes; in short, we did everything we could to live in a time when living required more effort. So when we packed the car up tight each June and drove north, it was understood we were going home. Of course, we noticed the satellite dishes, the Schlitz, the propped-up cars in the U.P.; and, frankly, we needed them in order to claim we liked the wilderness and its rough love better than the yoopers did. A favorite sentiment of my parents’ as we’d watch a pink sun drown itself in Lake Huron, our bathing suits still wet, sand in the seashell curves of our ears, quiet everywhere except for the rhythmic wash of the waves and our own breath, which were one: Remember this when we’re trapped in the middle of the crowded winter.
Even thoough my sister and I wore hand-me-downs and homemade pants, we lived in Detroit and read National Geographic, we’d been to both coasts— weeeee’d been to Europe, for god’s sake. We never spoke of these things with our locals, though. We knew that what could give us power in Detroit, like Europe or hair spray, was a liability in the U.P.
We were “summers,” people who spend their summers in the same vacation spot every year. Summers are displaced people: we learn not to be at home at home. But my sister and I knew enough to need a home, and so we wanted their home. We wanted to be more local than our locals. And we thought we had a way in: we could trace our family to founders of the minuscule town. The boys could see our grandfather’s childhood home falling to bits at the base of the hill that sloped down to the bay. We were no mere “tourists.” Oh how my sister and I curled our lips against the tourists. They stayed in the handful of rental cabins just down the shore from us and pulled up with inboard boats behind too-shiny trucks. They came to fish and slap mosquitoes from their pale thighs. They stayed for a week or two, thought it was pretty, wrinkled their noses at the sulfury well water and said how the fishing wasn’t as good as last year. They used this place, but they didn’t need it, and it didn’t dictate to them what was both beautiful and true for the rest of their lives.
All summer we swam with our locals, ate Zingers and sometimes venison steak with them, looked through their yearbooks with them, fell through the rotten boards of their tree houses with them, got summer jobs with them, drank in the woods with them, sometimes we kissed them, broke our hearts with them. And then, every September, we drove back south without them.
Come the next June, we needed them to circle us, sniff our hair, knock us down, and accept us back with them, as one of their own.
Let’s face it: my sister and I were fresh meat to the local boys. Their charms had become stale to the local girls by the time we’d discovered one another. They recited every story they knew by heart in accents that made us giggle— Oh yah? Tell me aboat it, eh? They smiled at the charming miniatures of themselves in our rapt eyes.
When kids realize the end of their road is not the end of the world, they wonder if they could have fallen into a better place, a better spread of chromosomes. They are on the verge of a dissatisfied life, a grown-up life, the life of a summer.
Sure, the boys thought they might eventually get laid, but what they really wanted, what we did give up easily, was the sense that they had fallen, by the love of no flimsy god, into the best place on earth. Their wondering was over and their dazzled lives could begin.
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