December 18, 2015: INTO THE AMERICAN WILDERNESS
In the American wilderness it rains a lot, four days straight in our case. We crossed the Mackinac Bridge, five miles long, in a strong wind. Apparently there's always a strong wind in the Straits there, and trucks follow a guide vehicle at 25 or 30 miles an hour in order not to be blown off the bridge. We were driving to Marquette, on the shores of Lake Superior, to attend Lorraine's granddaughter's graduation from Northern Michigan University. Smart girl. She graduated magna cum laude.
At the end of the bridge, we turned west on US 2, and drove fifty or sixty miles--distance doesn't seem to matter in the American wilderness--into the heart of the heart of the country, steady drizzle all around us, and fog, and the cedars and bogs that make this place wild. We saw not a single animal coming or going. There were no deer carcasses along the side of the road. We caught occasional glimpses of the northern shore of Lake Michigan. Then we turned north, drove another twenty miles, and turned west again toward Marquette. Here it was truly bleak, a road without a single bend or curve in it for 25 miles, then, after a right turn, more of the same. A few tiny, pathetic communities along its route, then more bogs, more cedars, the bogs brown with winter, the shrubs leafless, the millions upon millions of cedars identical, indistinguishable. In the distance you could see an occasional car approaching in the opposite lane, see it from miles away, and then in the blink of an eye it was past you. If you ran out of gas in the American wilderness you faced probably a thirty-mile walk to a gas station, or would have to depend on the ambiguous kindness of strangers. During our four days, or was it three, we saw not a single police car. But ceaseless drizzle.
Marquette is a long strip mall, with a small town at the end, on the shore of Lake Superior. I had a drink with someone I know at a sports bar on a side street. We struggled to find words. We attended the graduation ceremonies, where the commencement speaker was a retired colonel. He told us that the American Dream was not dead after all.
In the Middle West, people are fat. Short women, thick bodies, like Eskimos, for whom fat is a survival technique. Here I think it represents a kind of solace. Food is a pleasure that never fails, when there are no other reliable pleasures. You cannot get a decent newspaper in the American wilderness. The Sunday New York Times could be had at Starbuck's, but it wasn't there when we stopped to buy one. But it didn't matter, because the lighting in American motels is always so dim that you don't have enough light to read by anyway. It was daytime TV, or nothing.
We made it all the way back to Saginaw in one day, in pouring rain, at 80 miles an hour. There we stayed not in a motel, but in a large old inn, once a mansion, where we were the only guests. Our room was the size of a rather grand New York apartment, perfectly preserved with its original furnishings, its original silks, paintings on the walls, books filling the bookcases, most of them Reader's Digest Condensed Books, and windows you couldn't open. It was difficult to find a restaurant in Saginaw. Saginaw is bleak in an entirely different way from northern Michigan--a downtown abandoned, no people on the streets, old mansions in ruins, America after a nuclear exchange. Another kind of wilderness. Saginaw was bleak and ugly.
The Upper Peninsula was bleak and oddly beautiful, even in winter. Nick Adams went there to be alone after returning from the devastation of the World War I trenches. Bleakness so relentless has a kind of grandeur to it. It diminishes you with its extent. It seems to come from God. It is not about you.