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Entries in Michigan (7)


Blue Highways: Ubly and Port Huron, Michigan

Unfolding the Map

After traveling through Ubly and arriving at Port Huron, Michigan, we come to another crossroads where William Least Heat-Moon has to make a choice.  While fate isn't riding on his choice this time, the symbolism of the crossroads means that sometime, somewhere, we all reach an intersection and must make choices that do have real significance in our lives.  To find this intersection, take your soul to the map, and if someone is there with a contract for you to sign, you'd best resist the temptation.

Book Quote

" I headed east through Ubly, then down the edge of the Thumb, past more shoreline houses, to Port Huron....

"I had to decide. Either the eastward route through Detroit, Toledo and Cleveland, or it was a shorter northeast job through Canada...."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 1

Port Huron bridges at night. Photo by Suzanne and hosted at City Data. Click on photo to go to host site.Ubly and Port Huron, Michigan

This is a difficult post.  It's hard when LHM just mentions a place without any kind of description.  Ubly and Port Huron, both possibly nice places (I've never been to either), are just glossed over as he tries to decide his next route.

One of life's little crossroads confronts LHM in this quote.  Crossroads are a very good symbol for all choices in life.  One can face literal crossroads, like LHM, in which he has to decide whether to take one route over another.  Or one can face a metaphorical crossroads, in which choices need to be made.  Either way, there are often unknowns that will be faced by taking one route over another.  Sometimes, if taking one way or the other leads to knowns, the choices might still not be clear.  One way may be better than another.  One way may be more difficult.  The supposedly easy way might have traps and snares we aren't aware of.

In LHM's case, it's a simple choice of moving through Canada or the US.  I've faced that choice before on driving trips from Milwaukee to the East Coast, depending on which way I've traveled.  Sometimes, I would take a route along Interstate 80 through Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.  However, if I found myself in Detroit, I would have to make the same choice LHM did.  Do I head around Lake Erie to the south and go back to I-80 or go through Toledo and Cleveland?  Or do I just cross the river at Detroit into Canada and head across to western New York north of Lake Erie?  Often the shortest distance was through Canada.

If you're LHM, your choice might be based mostly on this factor.  You're writing a book about blue highways - those smaller, two-lane highways that are rarely traveled.  You're also trying to avoid big cities, and the southern route after Port Huron lies through Detroit, Toledo and Cleveland - all pretty major cities.  Canada would seem pretty attractive, and it would cut time off your trip.

Something that's pretty interesting, however is that by doing so LHM will completely avoid Ohio.  He missed Ohio the first time around, and if he chooses to go through Canada, he'll miss it again.  Ohio is known as "the heart of it all," but LHM's choices will cause him to miss the heart by traveling outside the "body" that is the U.S.

In reality, then, LHM's choices will have an effect on his trip.  He will either have to negotiate large cities or go out of his way to avoid them, or he will cut off a part of the United States in favor of speed and a little bit of a foreign country.

Physically then, a crossroads is a literal intersection.  Most of us don't really pay attention to them.  We pass intersections all the time.  On a city street, I never think about all the intersections I pass.  I usually have a place in mind to go to and a route mapped out in my head.  But think about it - if I have a hesitation, or I if I don't really know where I'm going, an intersection becomes much more interesting and much more dangerous.  My choice might lead to riches or ruin.

In a metaphorical sense, the crossroads has come to symbolize an intersection not only in the physical realm, but also a place between worlds.  This place can be natural, supernatural, paranormal, or anything we subscribe to.  I was just watching a Twilight Zone episode a couple of weeks prior, entitled Little Girl Lost, in which an intersection of dimensions causes a little girl who tumbles out of bed to disappear through a doorway into a different world.  That intersection is a crossroads.

There is some potential danger involved with the crossroads.  Some Christian superstitions have the Devil appearing to people at the crossroads at midnight.  Borrowing from West African and voodoo tradition, Papa Legba shows up at the crossroads.  The danger from these meetings is that a deal may be struck where one sells one's soul for something one wants.

A famous story is involves the bluesman Robert Johnson.  He supposedly was a mediocre bluesman until one night he met the Devil at the crossroads, and exchanged his soul for a better guitar.  From then on, the legend goes, he was the best blues player alive until his untimely death by poisoning at the age of 27.  Hear a wonderful radio show, called Radiolab, explore the legend of Robert Johnson:

Another famous story about crossroads involves Oedipus, whose tragic fate began at the intersection of three roads when killed his father.  This act, very symbolic in that he could have chosen another metaphorical life road, led to his marriage to his mother and eventually his downfall and blindness.  Contrast this with Heracles, who stood at the crossroads and had to choose between Pleasure and a life of ease, or Virtue and a life of hardship and immortality.  The ever-so-good Heracles chose Virtue.  How many of us would do the same?

From these stories, it can be see that danger can lurk at the crossroads, but also hope.  The Christian symbolism of the cross represents, of course, martyrdom but also hope and resurrection.  I've made choices at my own life's crossroads, and sometimes have chosen the wrong way and have paid dearly for my choice.  At other times, I've heeded my choices and chosen wisely, and have benefitted.  The next time you come to an intersection, treat it with some respect.  After all, it may not seem to be representative of anything, until you realize that every choice you've ever made, easy and difficult alike, as come at an intersection of paths.

Musical Interlude

As mentioned above, the legend of Robert Johnson is such that the crossroads, the devil and his amazing blues guitar playing is the stuff of legend.  Enjoy the Crossroads Blues by this master of the Delta blues.

If you want to know more about Ubly and Port Huron

City of Port Huron
Port Huron Museum
Port Huron Times Herald (newspaper)
Village of Ubly
Wikipedia: Port Huron
Wikipedia: Ubly

Next up:  Sarnia, Ontario


Blue Highways: Bad Axe and Ivanhoe, Michigan

Unfolding the Map

We're going to go Mediaeval and get Romantic in this post.  While William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) travels through Bad Axe and tries to locate Ivanhoe, Michigan but only finds a church, I will look a little more into the place's namesake and explore Romanticism in general.  It's going to be fun, really!  With a cartoon at the end.  Do an heroic quest for the map to locate Ivanhoe!

Book Quote

"....I was on state 142, just west of the farm town of Bad Axe, and looking for Ivanhoe.  Later when I was - apparently - in Ivanhoe, I had found only a church,..."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 1

Google Earth screen capture of St. Columbkille Church and Rectory in Ivanhoe, Michigan.Bad Axe and Ivanhoe, Michigan

After moving through Bad Axe, LHM really makes an effort to find Ivanhoe, Michigan.  I surmise that his interest is based on the novel by Sir Walter Scott.  I don't know if Ivanhoe is named for the novel but I will spend the post on this possibility since the novel touches on some themes that I've already covered in previous posts.

So, what is Ivanhoe?  It was written by Scott and published around 1820 or thereabouts.  I've never read the book, but the author was trashed by one of my favorite writers.  More about that later.

Ivanhoe is a novel based in Romanticism and Mediaevalism.  Romanticism was in many ways a reaction against the ideals and progress of its time.  In Europe, first the Enlightenment and then the Industrial Revolution led to many changes in society.  Rural lifestyles were supplanted by the growth of cities and the rise of new technology.  Social movements formed as well, upending the traditional class systems.  In the midst of this, Romantics looked inward, focused on emotion and feelings, believing in natural law (universal laws derived from nature rather than man-made law) and gazed longingly on a mediaeval past and a simpler, happier time.  In America, Romanticism helped birth some of our greatest literature - James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans is an example - where Native Americans were noble savages helpless to preserve themselves against the industrial and military might, and intrigues, of France and Britain in their attempts to conquer North America.  It also led to the Transcendental Movement associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Romanticism not only fueled literature but also art and music also and had a large effect on politics as well.  In Germany, its ideals not only inspired Richard Wagner's great operas, but also may have culminated in Nazi ideology which was based in large part on a hatred of industrialization and the idea that with enough "living room," Germans could be strong and mighty heroes that would return their country to its traditional pastoral and rural past.

Ivanhoe itself is a novel set in a time of change.  The Normans had conquered England, and the last remaining Saxon families are having to decide their allegiances.  Wilfred of Ivanhoe, son of a Saxon lord, pledges allegiance to the Norman king Richard I (the Lionhearted) and disrupts his father's plans to marry his ward, Lady Rowena, to another powerful Saxon lord and possible claimant to the throne.  In this backdrop of change the winners (Normans) are consolidating their claim to England and marching forward through history while the losers (Saxons) look back longingly and helplessly upon what they have lost.

I've never considered myself a Romantic, but I've struck similar tones at times throughout this blog, particularly about the potential harmful effects of technology.  I have wistfully looked back on times when people spent less time on their cell phones, IPods, IPads and Facebook and actually talked with each other.  I have fondly remembered when a busy signal meant that the person you were trying to reach would not be available for awhile.  I have recalled a time where cable television had only thirteen stations when I grew up.  At times, I have felt like a modern Ivanhoe, caught between a world of yesterday and today.  Like Ivanhoe, I have embraced the present (my Richard I is computers, media at my fingertips, music when and where I want) and yet yearned for the past I've lost (my Lady Rowena is the simpler life that I used to lead without all of these things).

I've already mentioned that one offshoot of the Romantic movement might be Nazism.  Mark Twain, one of my favorite authors, lays another fault at the feet of Romanticism, particularly that espoused by Sir Walter Scott.  Twain writes that Sir Walter Scott:

sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish
forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government;
with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds,
and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society.
He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any
other individual that ever wrote.  Most of the world has now
outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them;
but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still.  Not so
forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully.
There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth
century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter
Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical,
common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up
with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an
absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried.
But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner--
or Southron, according to Sir Walter's starchier way of phrasing it--
would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed,
and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is.
It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major
or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it
was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations.
For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also
reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them.
Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and
contributions of Sir Walter.

Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed
before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.
It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had
any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might,
perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition.  The Southerner of
the American Revolution owned slaves; so did the Southerner of the Civil War:
but the former resembles the latter as an Englishman resembles a Frenchman.
The change of character can be traced rather more easily to Sir Walter's
influence than to that of any other thing or person.

Mark Twain
Life on the Mississippi

I'm not sure if it's fair of Twain, as much as I like him, to blame not only the character of the South before the Civil War, slavery, and the Civil War itself on Sir Walter Scott.  Perhaps he was making him the figurehead of the Romantic movement.  In that case, the progressive forces of industrialism and modernity, moving in the Union, won the war.

In fact, LHM is sort of on a Romantic quest in his trip around America and he too laments some of the things that are changing and that are lost.  I believe each one of us will always wrestle with those two sides of our Janus.  The forward looking, modern and ultimately hopeful sides of our characters will always fight, even a little, with the side of our character that looks back and wonders what we've left behind, and whether our progress has really been worth it.

Musical Interlude

Possibly the apex of music of the Romantics, Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries is the beginning of the third act of Die Walküre, which is the second opera in his Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle.  You'll recognize the tune from Apocalypse Now.

Of course, Romanticism may have reached it's true apex a few years later, in Warner Brothers' short cartoon What's, Opera Doc!  "Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit!"


If you want to know more about Bad Axe and Ivanhoe

Bad Axe Chamber of Commerce
History of Bad Axe (YouTube Video)
Huron Daily Tribune (newspaper)
Wikipedia: Bad Axe
Wikipedia: Sheridan Township

Next up: Ubly and Port Huron, Michigan


Blue Highways: Harbor Beach, Michigan

Unfolding the Map

We stop in at the Crow's Nest in Harbor Beach for a beer with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), and watch people dance.  While LHM is a little dismissive of the band and the dancers, it leads me to exhort my male Littourati friends to learn to dance and dance more.  To see where Harbor Beach sits, waltz on over to the map.

Book Quote

"At the Crow's Nest we drank 'America's Only Fire-Brewed Beer,' a brew remarkably interchangeable with any other American beer....

"Two young women drinking Scotch and Coke sat and waited to dance.  The one with deep, dark eye sockets relentlessly worked a stick of chewing gum.  The other, wearing snakeskin knee boots and golden slacks that fit as if gilded to her, was slender and had the eyes of a lynx.  Boys in yellowed shirts took her to the dance floor one after another.  They were stumps.  Dancing out of her pelvis, she swirled around them like smoke, moving across the floor, inching back, sliding away.  The siren went off, and the strobes flashed her into a wispy possibility.  The boys were dying for her, but they got drunk and sat down.  She danced on alone against the amplified drums and moved through the shadows of other dancers.  Six college boys from Ann Arbor came in to drink Heinekens, and one had a few turns with the lynx, but only his shoulders and hands danced.  No one else even tried."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 16

Downtown Harbor Beach, Michigan. Photo hosted at CityData. Click on picture to go to host page.

Harbor Beach, Michigan

Of all the lessons that I've learned in life, there is one that I try to pass on to my younger male friends.  Needless to say, they never listen to me.  So I will throw it out to the Littourati and others in the netiverse...

Men, if you are interested in meeting a lot of women, learn to dance.

As far as I can tell, there seems to be two general laws of human behavior.  The first and almost inviolate law is that American men love The Three Stooges, and American women think they are stupid.  I can count on one hand the number of women that I've met over the years that are Three Stooges fans.  I'm not sure why this law seems so prevalent, but my suspicion is that the Stooges take men down to their monkey brains, whereas women are much more advanced and rarely access that area of the brain.  They are more likely to like the refined and intelligent slapstick of Laurel and Hardy or The Marx Brothers.  Men like them too, but are easily able to just enjoy the pleasure of stupid noises, fingers poking eyes and hammers hitting heads.  Lest you think I'm too much off the mark, then here's some proof for you.  Women are more analytical in approaching jokes, whereas men are not.

The second almost inviolate law, it seems, is that American men don't like to dance, and women do.

This is not a universal law, at least not as universal as The Stooges.  There are men who love to dance, and women who don't.  However, men who love to dance are usually seen as different in some way.  Either they have made dance into a career because of an innate talent, or if they truly, truly love to dance they risk being labeled as "less than a man" or possibly "gay."  Of course, my gay friends embrace the label, but they are adults who've embraced their images, as are the straight men who dance who don't care what people think. 

However, in one's formative years in junior high school or high school, learning anything more than the rudiments of movement to music is perceived as "not cool."  Most men don't know how to dance properly, and dancing is a surefire way to make you look bad.  I remember, before going to my first school dance, my mother asking me if I knew how to dance.  I did a few steps that I thought were interesting, and she laughed at me.  It was not a kindly laugh.  It was a laugh that said I was going to look stupid on the dance floor.  I didn't have many dance moves, and like most men, I couldn't really move certain parts of my body, particularly my hips.  I was tall and gangly and kind of looked like a spastic stork on the dance floor.  In fact, most of the guys who danced in junior high or high school dances I attended moved as little as possible, in order to not look bad.

Girls, on the other hand, just knew, innately, how to move their bodies.  They seemed to be able to disconnect their midsections from the rest of their bodies and make those midsections do things that amazed and astounded me, as well as kindling in me the fires of teenage desire.  Anyone who has seen an attractive and good belly dancer will know what I'm writing about.  Even to this day, I am often struck about how good most women look while dancing AND what joy they take in it, even as the guys they are with look stiff and uncomfortable.

Eventually I learned formal dancing.  In my thirties my wife and I started taking dance lessons.  Waltz, foxtrot, two-step, polka and swing.  I found that in the confines of the rules of formal dancing, I was good.  I could keep time and rhythm, I could guide my wife around the dance floor and it was me, with the combination of moves that I led, that made her look good and because she looked good, I looked good too.  After that, I began to get compliments from women who were slightly envious of my wife about our dancing.  These women wanted to be on the dance floor, but their husbands/boyfriends didn't dance.

In the past couple of years, I learned that you don't even have to formally know how to dance to impress women.  Your willingness to dance will simply suffice.  Some former high school classmates told my wife that at the dances, I always danced with them.  They felt they didn't get much attention from other guys, but I always asked them to dance.  I had forgotten all this, but they remembered it twenty-five years later.

Are you getting the picture, guys?

All you have to do is dance or be willing, and you will be in a much better position to make women notice you.  All that whining about how you can't meet anybody will be past history.  You'll meet lots of women.  You will be in demand because you dance.  Knowing how to actually dance will help you even further.  You may even meet your true love on the dance floor.

Some years ago, after my wife and I learned some formal dancing, we went out to dinner at what used to be a speakeasy and dance club in San Antonio.  The tables were arranged around an oval dance floor, and at one side was a large dais where a big band was set up.  People could get up and dance before, during and after dinner.

One thing we noticed that puzzled us was that there were many couples of mismatched age there - older women in their 60s to 80s dancing with younger men in their 20s.  It seemed too far-fetched to surmise that so many grandsons were taking their grandmothers out dancing.  The men were good, too.  Later, we learned that there was a thriving business where young men who could dance offered their services to older women who wanted a night of dancing.  Either they were now alone, or their husbands didn't want to go dancing.  So they hired young men to accompany them for the evening.

Guys, I don't expect you to learn to dance so you can take older women out dancing for money.  But, I write that story because again, it demonstrates that no matter what age, women love dancing.  You are depriving yourselves if you continue to live in dance ignorance.  If there's one thing I could change about my youth, it would be simply this: I would have learned to dance.  I probably would have had a lot more fun.

Of course, if you are a jerk, no amount of dancing knowledge will help you, besides perhaps fooling some women until they really get to know you.  But, if you have a decent personality and self-awareness and esteem, dancing could be formidable addition to the range of qualities that will make you attractive.

Think about it, men!  I'm just sayin'...

Musical Interlude

Just in case, guys, you need any more proof, James Brown is here to exhort you to Get Up Offa That Thing.  A great dancer, I don't think James had any trouble getting the ladies.  (Here's a secret for you, Littourati.  I love funk music, and whether out or in the privacy of my own home, funk will get me up offa my thing and I WILL dance to it.  Parliament, Funkadelic, James Brown, Earth Wind and Fire, you name it.  It's just our little secret, though.)

If you want to know more about Harbor Beach

City of Harbor Beach
Harbor Beach Chamber of Commerce
Wikipedia: Harbor Beach

Next up: Bad Axe and Ivanhoe, Michigan


Blue Highways: Caseville and Port Austin, Michigan

Unfolding the Map

Are you rooted to your place, or are you rootless?  I have felt rootless, but now I have a desire to be rooted for awhile.  Americans, surprisingly, are a pretty rooted people overall.  So while William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) continues his rootless way, we'll pause for a moment and I'll reflect on rootlessness and the desire to settle.  To root yourself in where we are, plant yourself at the map.

Book Quote

"Away from the bay and lake, Thumbland was agricultural land: sugar beets, navy beans, silage; but on the bay from Caseville to Port Austin, the Thumb was an uninterrupted cluttering of vacation homes, tourist cabins, motels, and little businesses selling plastic lawn-ornament flamingoes and used tires cut into planters.  The houses and cabins and businesses pressed in tightly, and in the few places where beach delivered itself to the road were 'no trespassing' signs.

"Whoever called Americans a 'rootless' people never saw the west shore of the Thumb, where houses used eight weeks a year block off the lake every day of the year.  If Americans are truly rootless, why weren't a few lodges and hotels built to leave the shore undeveloped as the 'rooted' Europeans might do it?  As it is, the rootless family drives up from Ypsilanti to spend its allotted time cutting grass, painting the boathouse, and unplugging the septic tank."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 15

Point Aux Barques Lighthouse in Port Austin, Michigan. Photo at Click on photo to go to host site.Caseville and Port Austin, Michigan

If you've been following me a little, you know that the "rootlessness" concept that LHM references in his quote has been on my mind lately.

For most of my adult life, I think that I've been that stereotype of the rootless American.  I haven't necessarily been a constant nomad, never able to pitch my tent in one place for long before I have to move on.  Rather, I've settled down in one place for a period of years and then moved on.  After growing up in Fort Bragg, California, I lived in Milwaukee for nine years, San Antonio for five years, New Orleans for four years, and Albuquerque for seven years with about ten months in that Albuquerque stay in Lubbock.  Recently, my wife and I have been debating whether to stay in Albuquerque or whether our fortunes should lead us elsewhere.

And at this time, my instinct is telling me to stay, or at least find someplace where I can root myself.

I agree with LHM.  Americans, despite our stereotype driven by our early doctrine of Manifest Destiny and stoked by the images of rootless cowboys and wanderers in the Old West, are a pretty rooted people.  A USA Today report on American's geographic mobility in 2008, citing data from the Pew Research Center, showed that a majority of Americans stay close to home because of family ties.  56% of Americans have never lived outside their home state, and 37% of Americans stay in their home town.  And if I read the recent US Census data correctly, less than 12% of Americans moved away from their traditional home between 2000 and 2010.  Of those who moved, two-thirds stayed within the same county and 83% stayed in the same state.  Only three percent of those who moved chanced living abroad.

In other words, we are a pretty rooted people.

I believe part of the reason is the size of the United States.  In Europe, for example, one can travel in a matter of hours through very distinct countries with different cultures and customs.  Even the European Union experiment has not led to differences in national feelings - in many ways it has enhanced nationalism among ordinary people who take pride in their Germanness or Frenchness or Englishness.  Yet on a higher level, more Europeans, at least to me, appear to be willing to look at relocating to other countries - after all, you're only a train ride or a quick flight from home.  In the U.S., the distances are larger and more daunting, especially in the western half of the country.

Another reason might be economic.  The lure of jobs is powerful, though in the U.S. it doesn't necessarily trump family ties.  It seems to me that in times of economic hardship, Americans tend to rely on family and pull closer together, rather than moving apart.  I'm not sure about this completely, but that is my instinct.  I saw this when I lived in New Orleans.  People who lived there were very close to family and tended to stay there, or if they moved they didn't move for long.  Other factors also played into this, including the uniqueness of the city and its culture.  But family was a huge reason most New Orleanians didn't leave.  The devastation and disruption caused by Hurricane Katrina was incalculable, because so many people were forced to leave their families, friends and the city that they identified as home.

I think a third reason is Americans' attachment to private property.  Again, I'll use Europe as a comparison.  Europeans also have private property, but it seems that they aren't as attached to it as a concept as we are in the U.S.  With so many countries in Europe classified as social democracies, there is a much more expansive concept of community and shared public space.  In other words, there are less Europeans who own property, more who rent and are part of cooperative movements, and therefore less attachment to something that is rooted in one place.

Americans, on the other hand, are rooted precisely because we buy property and own it.  The American dream is to own a house and a little patch of land upon which it sits.  Thus, the ownership roots people into one place.  From there, if we are wealthy enough, we branch out and buy vacation homes or cottages, such as the types that LHM references along the western part of the Thumb of Michigan.  Unfortunately, that rootedness leads exactly to what he describes - houses sitting vacant most of the year except for those few weeks that people come to use it.  Also regrettable is the closing off of potential public space - access to beaches and the like. 

Our attachment to private property has its benefits, but it also has a lot of costs.  The only reason that we have not had to reckon with those costs very much as a society is that there is a lot of property available.  We can go and be our own little islands in the midst of the American cultural sea.  We can become rooted in a very familial way.  In Europe, where private property is at a premium, people have developed a different sense of community and there is a greater openness to mobility.  In poorer countries, where private property is a luxury available only to the very wealthy, we get back to rootedness - people stay with family because there is no other place to go.

For me, after years of wandering, the call to become more rooted has been stronger.  It's not that I want to cut myself off from exploration and understanding.  My years of wandering, however, have meant that my traditional home in California, while always "home," is not really my home anymore.  I haven't had a place that I could really feel is my home and place where I will stay for a while.  I feel like I need that as I move into the second half of life.  I just want a place of my own for a while.

Musical Interlude

I found this song by a group called Thrice.  It's called In Exile and the lyrics capture exactly the sense of rootlessness and wanting a place to find peace that I've been feeling.

If you want to know more about Caseville and Port Austin

Caseville Chamber of Commerce
City of Caseville
Huron Daily Tribune (Bad Axe newspaper covering Caseville and Port Austin)
Port Austin Chamber of Commerce
Village of Port Austin
Wikipedia: Caseville
Wikipedia: Port Austin

Next up: Harbor Beach, Michigan


Blue Highways: Midland, Michigan

Unfolding the Map

Traveling past the huge Dow Chemical plant in Midland, William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) notes it and moves on toward the Thumb of Michigan.  I'll reflect a little on chemicals that have become, like it or not, a part of our society and a part of us.  Trace a chemical path to the map to see where Midland is located.

Book Quote

"On a map, lower Michigan looks like a mitten with the squatty peninsula between Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron forming the Thumb.  A region distinctive enough to have a name was the only lure I needed, but also it didn't hurt to have towns with fine, unpronounceable names like Quanicassee, Sebewaing, Wahjamega, or other names like Pigeon, Bad Axe, Pinnebog, Rescue, Snover, and - what may be the worst town name in the nation - Freidberger.  People of the the Thumb have come from many places, but Germans and Poles predominate.

"I headed due east across the flat country, past the great industrial pile of Dow Chemical at Midland..."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 15

Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan. Photo by Bill Puglianno/Getty Images and seen at the Britannica website. Click on photo to go to host page.

Midland, Michigan

In the quote above, LHM references the Dow Chemical plant in Midland, Michigan.  In fact, the chemical giant was actually founded there in the late 1800s.  Throughout the 20th century, Dow Chemical and others like it led a revolution that ultimately helped bring about great advances in humanity's way of life.  There was even a time when it was "sexy" to be in the chemical industry, as this Dow commercial from the 1980s shows.

Or so that's what we've been told.  As we move into the 21st century, we more and more often see the dark side of the chemical revolution.  Cancers and other types of illnesses are on the increase, some linked to chemicals invented in the 20th century and into which we put our trust.  That which we create sometimes comes back to bite us.

I was thinking about our uneasy relationship with chemicals earlier today, before I started writing.  Today is Easter, a day of resurrection and hope in the Christian tradition.  I was in the shower and looking up to where some mold was growing on the ceiling thanks to the condensation that settles there day in and day out, and thinking that I need to wipe it down with a mold killer.  The mold killer is, of course, a chemical.  That chemical is potent enough that the instructions warn users to only utilize the product if the room is ventilated lest they breathe in and be overcome by fumes.  That got me to thinking about how many chemicals I use to clean the bathroom.  I use sprays to clean the toilet, sink and bathtub surfaces.  I use a toilet bowl cleaner with a brush to clean the inside of the toilet.  I use a floor soap with solvents in it to clean the bathroom floor tile.

That got me wondering about how many chemicals I use to clean the kitchen.  Surface cleaners, stove cleaners, scrubbing chemicals for the kitchen sink, and soap with solvents for the floor.  All of these chemicals near where I prepare my food and therefore, am probably ingesting.

But there's more.  The food I eat is often pumped with chemicals to help preserve it.  Farm-grown salmon, and many processed foods, are pumped with dyes to give them a correct and pleasing hue.  Processed foods are laced with chemicals for all kinds of things.  Not only food, but stuff I put on - the shampoos and soaps I use, the lotions that my wife uses, the sunscreen that I don't wear enough of - all has chemicals.  We take some clothes to the dry cleaner so that they can be cleaned with all kinds of chemicals.

The water we drink is loaded up with chemicals, some intentional and some not.  Fluoride, a chemical to help protect teeth is intentional.  The chemicals that leech into water tables from farms and sewage are not.  Agriculture uses chemicals for everything from re-energizing soils to killing weeds.  These are poured willy-nilly over commercial farms and thus leech into the soil and then into us.  Factories are supposed to properly dispose of used chemicals, but in the developing world they often don't, adding a whole new list of compounds into the environment that can pose short and long-term dangers.

I'm not trying to necessarily be anti-chemical.  Our basic body functions such as the conversion of food and oxygen into energy is a chemical reaction.  I've often heard that our basic emotions are complex chemical reactions that take place within our brains.  Love, sadness, depression, joy are all chemistry within the individual human laboratory that is our unique bodies.  We depend on chemicals to make us what we are.  It may even have been a chemical reaction that started the chain of events that led to all life on earth.

But those chemical reactions occurred and still occur naturally.  In a way, like we've done with other things, we came to see our ability to manipulate chemicals into helpful creations as a product of our genius.  We saw chemicals and our abilities with them as a hope of humanity, almost worshiping the idea of them in religious terms.  We could only see the upside of our efforts and many times, we didn't understand what the really long term consequences could be.  That carelessness and hubris led to toxic waste dumps, Love Canal, dioxins in the environment, the development of cancers in many individuals because of long-term exposure to chemicals in their workplace or environment.  Here's an example of what we didn't foresee - chemical resistant pests and weeds that have developed an immunity to the chemicals we dump on them, causing us to need to create stronger chemicals to fight them in a vicious circle.  In the early 1900s, most of our bodies were free of man-made chemicals.  Now, in 2012, we are saturated from chemicals that we ingest or which are absorbed through our skin.  Cancers and other illnesses have risen, possibly offsetting some of the gains in life expectancy that chemicals have bought us.

Like any tool, chemicals can be helpful but if we don't pay attention or don't quite understand how to use them, they can really hurt us.  As we learn about their benefits and costs, that knowledge helps but unfortunately, we often don't learn until we are exposed.  I think about when I was a kid, and my father and I would routinely throw plastic items on our campfires.  Of course, you can't help but breathe in the smoke from those campfires, now made toxic by burning plastic.  The place where we camped, at our property in Northern California, was near a railroad and we often took the old ties that were discarded by the railroad and burned them.  They burned really well and very hot and we sat around that fire and breathed in the smoke.  Those ties were treated with creosote, which may possibly have adverse health effects on people.

Dow Chemical is at the epicenter of what is possibly the worst tragedy associated with chemicals, the Union Carbide Bhopal, India disaster, when chemical and gas leaks from a pesticide plant killed at least 3,000 people instantly and perhaps another 8,000 from exposure.  Dow now owns Union Carbide and is responsible for the ongoing civil and criminal litigation.  We have used chemicals to build our society, and some of the seeds for that society were laid in Midland, Michigan.  We may celebrate our progress through chemical manipulation, but we also may yet rue what Dow, and other companies like it, have wrought for us.

Musical Interlude

This is a silly little ditty based on the periodic table of the elements, which lists all the chemicals known.  Since Tom Lehrer wrote this song, there have been other elements discovered, but it still gives you an idea of all the chemicals that are out there and, most likely, in you.

If you want to know more about Midland

City of Midland
Midland Chamber of Commerce
Midland Daily News (newspaper)
Midland Online
Midland Tomorrow
Northwood University
Wikipedia: Midland

Next up: Bay City, Michigan