Tuesday, May 04, 2004



With props or perhaps apologies to John Steinbeck, we could make that Travels with Charley Tuna.

Traveling to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is often an interesting if not daunting proposition. First of all, it's at least an eight hour haul from TunaVille to Houghton, and that's only if traffic is light, the wind isn't blowing you off the bridge, all the state troopers are taking their break at Krispy Kreme, and getting gas rivals an Indy 500 pit stop.

Driving nort to Houghton (that's Yooperspeak, yo) means adding layers of clothes for warmth while simultaneously sloughing off the daily grind home. Goodbye student population! Goodbye rush hour traffic! Goobye strip malls and chain stores! I'm going up nort!

At a milemarker unknown things start to change. The landscape slowly morphs from thick leafy trees to skinny birch trees with blinding white trunks, just now waking up after a long winter. And evergreens. Lots and lots of evergreens. Fir trees are designed to outlast the brutal cold and snows of winter. They don't make a big deal out of the weather -- why should I? Somewhere along the way time and attitude changes as well, and it isn't until I figure out that what's so different is the absence of bustle that I finally notice that peace and quiet have come along for the ride.

There often isn't much to see traveling up US-127 and I-75. Farmland, trees, red-winged blackbirds and the odd billboard or two. It's just enough scenery to keep you awake, while leaving you the opportunity to be alone with your thoughts. That doesn't happen much in TunaVille either, as defensive driving consists largely of dodging the scenery, be it pedestrian, automotive or antlered.

After several hours and some rolling hills, you finally catch a glimpse of the bridge. For many, it brings great excitement. For me it brings a clenched jaw and white knuckles on the steering wheel. There's nothing quite like a five-mile, one million ton bridge to get that heart racing. The biggest decision in crossing the "Mighty Mac" is which do you fear more: Driving on the outside lane where you could drive right over the edge and die (very, very bad), or driving on the inside lane that blocks other drivers from passing (potentially bad), but is away from the edge (better), but on a lane that is made of steel mesh (bad) which makes alot of noise (bad) and will come apart at any second causing you to plummet into the Lake (very, very, very bad)?

My choice? Inside lane. Hold on tight. Eyes focused on the other side. Talk gently to cars and trucks nearby. Pray for it all to be over soon.

In my defense, I would like to add that at least I'm not quite so chicken-hearted that I require assistance driving across the bridge. In fact such a service does exist for crossing the "Mighty Mack". The Bridge Authority has a "Timid Driver Program" and for a fee "they throw you in the back seat, put a towel on your head and drive."

Once you're successfully over the bridge, and have paid for the pleasure of the automotive hysteria that accompanies gephyrophobia (fear of bridges), you are officially a Yooper. You say "ya" for "yes" and "da" for "the" and "nort" for "north". You instantly begin mocking anybody living "down dere" by calling them a "troll" -- because they live under da bridge. Get it? Ya, dat's Yooper Humor. You wave goodbye to anything resembling a Highway or an Interstate, because it's two-lane from here on in, baby, with a passing lane once in a great while, just to keep life exciting.

And it's beautiful. It's awe-inspiring unbelievably beautiful. Lake Michigan is everywhere. Turn a corner -- there it is again. Past some trees -- there it is again. And without fail, every single time I said just look at the water... as if I had never seen such a thing before. It's not as if I were gazing at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or walking among the ruins of the Roman Forum. It's Lake Michigan.

But seriously, just look at the water.

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