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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Destination: Mighty Mac Part Three

first siting from I-75

Michigan's most famous and photographed bridge spans the Straits of Mackinac with a 5 mile stretch between Mackinaw City and Saint Ignace. Between the two peninsula's of the State of Michigan the water reaches a depth of 295 feet under the middle of the bridge. It took 350 engineers to design and implement the exhilarating and terrifying venue outside of a theme park.

It is marvelous to behold. Unlike San Francisco's red giant, the Golden Gate, it doesn't stand out immediately. The approach on I-75 is shrouded with trees and the first glimpse is as thrilling as seeing Modor for the first time. From the Upper Peninsula side the view is a bit muddled with mechanical surroundings. Which, if you've never been there but always wondered why the tourism industry uses shots from one side only... that would be the answer. Normally it is a sea green color which makes its rise above the shades of blue between sky and water even more dramatic. More dramatic still if you can see it on a clear day with less haze. Never the less, it is a breath catching thing to see rise above thirty shades of green.

It is terrifying to cross. I am afraid of heights. I am afraid of other drivers. When the winds kick up across the straits just right it is dire. Only a few cars have gone over the railing, mostly due to inclement conditions and inexperience. One would be enough to make the crossing a journey of inner conflict. Should I? Shouldn't I? In high winds with zero visibility the answer is I shouldn't. Commercial vehicles and those with high profiles are escorted across in rough weather. Others are encouraged to stay off the bridge. Nothing, including Winter Break is worth the chance of death. However, I have been in a car full of Northern students at Winter Break when we should not have been on US 2 (Upper Peninsula) let alone the bridge and have lived to tell the tale. 

As with all things, curiosity tempered with caution and a bit of wisdom gets everyone back home alive. And somehow, in this less than intrepid adventurer, the desire to visit grows each time. Initial crossing were nerve wracking. The more one crosses the less one fears. Which means at some point one begins to take the thing for granted. The day we were here the winds were high and we were fighting the car to stay on the highway before we ever got to the bridge. As the main goal was to acquire the fabulously well kept secret of Michigan smoked fish from the straits, we stayed on the south side and toured the small town of Mackinaw City. 

It isn't a very big town at all for the amount of tourist traffic it handles in the Summer months. We went midweek and the place was nearly deserted. Downtown Mackinaw City has preserved much of its Victorian era charm. New construction tries to keep in step with the old. But sometimes someone gets a little crazy as with the Starbucks. Mackinaw City sits on the site of the Fort Michilimackinac. Originally a French outpost and trading post for the French-Canadian trade system, it changed hands with the British and then was abandoned in 1783. Fort Michilimackinac was a collection of low wooden structures. The Starbucks building seems to pay homage to the early fort's history. For my money, probably would have made a better fort due to the three stories and windows.

Fort Michilimackinac was attacked by native Ojibwe in a trojan horse maneuver that resulted in the fort's move to Mackinac Island. I think that it the buildings had been taller than the walls they might have seen this coming. Then again... 

Very little Native American culture remains anywhere here in the state outside of kitschy tributes. Baubles and doo-dads in the gift shops, a painted carved cigar store Indian, a few murals and some handmade baskets that might actually be made in China, are what this amazing culture has been reduced to. There are Fort reenactments to celebrate the French & British history during the Summer months. Nothing about the Tribes holding Pow-wows has hit my radar. When you are walking through Mackinaw City, you don't really think about these things until you get to Mackinac Crossings. 

left, Mackinaw Crossings entrance, right top and bottom, Victorian era architecture, Middle left, window display,
top center, outdoor display, bottom right, purple store front, middle bottom, sculpture from the park in the quad. 

The entrance to the mall which has recently been constructed in Mackinaw City reflects a style called Up North. The bears to each side of the bench are the most reflective of the original culture that I saw all day there. How so? Because the black bear are the main character in the Legend of the Sleeping Bear, a major source of local identity for State Parks, residents along the Michigan shoreline and the tourism industry. Outside of the occasional use of a stylized feather and native blanket patterns little attention is given to Michigan's first people. When I was a kid Native culture was everywhere. Granted, being the subject of roadside hucksterism isn't the most flattering way to be remembered, at least there was a presence that made kids my age ask questions. Now they are reduced to tribal casinos. I don't see that as a step in the right direction.  The Up North style, rustic and stylized, is evident here in the signage. But once you walk into the mall itself, it is 100% Americana nostalgia and consumerism. 

Yeah, this got maudlin rather quickly. Most consumers are going to go and be all excited about the shops. And I was as well, that ferris wheel window display moves! There are shops for little engineering types, nerds, ren-faire fans in addition to food vendors and a movie theater. But somewhere in all of the excitement of finding Doctor Who and Star Trek gear, I couldn't get passed the feeling that there is more to the city than blatant consumerism. The comparison to Cedar Point's Victorian shopping mall in the middle of the theme park when I was there in 1988 didn't help. Once I realized where the facade was, the spirits came in. 

Mackinaw City sits on battle grounds; battles between the indigenous and the foreigner, battles between man and nature, and battles between economic hope and ruin. And when you walk through town unguarded, the past creeps into your blood. Mackinac City is haunted. Unlike the movie ghosts with the wailing and gnashing, clawing and crashing, the souls who haunt this city, native and foreign alike, wonder around wondering about the future. Under all of the color and energetic commerce, I felt the constant questioning. It was hard place for me to enjoy as I bounced between excitement and reflection. 

top, gorgeous signage. bottom left, Starbucks again, middle, cupcake frosting flavored ice cream from the Sweetshop,
bottom right, another view of the bridge from on of the city parks. 

The shops are pretty typical of any small town that serves its citizens well. The number of stores selling logo wear reflects the tourist side of life. If you can shield yourself from the clingy despair of citizens past this is going to be an enjoyable stop on your way north. Once we were further from the center of town, out in the coastal parks down by the ferries, I enjoyed myself much more. With the winds high as they were we ate lunch in the car in one of the parks. And I was able to go out and see some of the shore life up close. 

This gaggle caught my eye. As I was making the attempt to photograph them performing some of their antics, I found myself being buzzed by what was either a Cliff or a Barn Swallow. It had a bright cinnamon underbelly and the top was the color of violas. Its flight pattern resembled a bat. It was fast and hard to catch. Once he took notice of me, three more came in for a look see. I was the only human out near the water's edge so I must have been something of a novelty.
These gees paid me little mind and in fact, seemed to behave as if the camera was a bit intrusive. I may not have caught them diving for fish or performing that weird neck ballet thing that they do but I got them swimming in their flight pattern. Once they were on the move, the three that I stalked had turned into a dozen and a half. I do wonder though, how does one tell the male from the female? 

Once these geeese were stalked it was time to stalk the Mighty Mac. 

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