The stretch between Angola, Indiana and Coldwater, Michigan is bit of no-man's land. No longer quite Indiana, not quite yet Michigan. Maybe the state police cars or lottery tickets look different on one side or the other. Maybe the license plate ratio shifts a little one direction on one side. But mostly, it's flat, open farm land filled with flat, open folks, under a flat, open sky that's usually dull grey or a muted, cottony blue.
As you head north toward and around Lansing, though, you start to see a sort of post-industrial flailing you don't see much in Indiana. When the factories closed and the jobs left in Indiana, the towns either scrambled for a new identity or just gave up and let themselves die. In Michigan, those same kind of towns shake their fists at heaven and say, "By God, it's factory jobs or we die trying!"
North of Lansing the apple orchards and cider mills ushers you toward Ithica and Claire. The further north you go, the more beer and home-made jerky you say at gas stations. The more apple cider -- cherry pie -- homemade ice cream shops you pass, so many you wonder how they can all stay open year, after year, after year. And they do.
Before, long, rolling orchards turn into denser woods, thick with pine trees and birch and a feisty undergrowth of fern and maple. The pine tower over the others, though, and the undergrowth only find maturity when their elders pass along. The bright green fern and maples seem to know this, for they grow with wild exuberance, not as if to say, "Hey, let me see how tall I can get!" but instead to say, "Hey, let me just get the most of the year I have."
Towns like Grayling, Frederic, and Mancelona aren't post-industrial. Maybe post-logging. Maybe pre-tourism. Maybe just small towns that were always going to be small towns. They have bars, but most of those close early. Same with the gas stations, some of which also sell savory pastries called pasties. They have friendly, small town people who might wish for better economic times, but not so they can move out of their small town homes -- so they can fix up their canoes, their snowmobiles, their campers. So they can get as much enjoyment out of the land where they live as the summer residents do. But economic times are bad. Their canoes are rusted, their snowmobiles jammed up, and their campers leak. And the friendly small town, folks, smile and nod as the summer residents come through to gas up their cars, motorboats, and jet skis.
The cottage is a summer residence.
They call it a cottage, not because it's small and quaint, but because it is a retreat from the world. No cellphones. No internet. No cellphone-based internet. There's a phone with a number almost no one knows, and a mailing address that gets no mail, but one year did get a census form. There are neighbors, and sometimes you hear their power tools or their grand kids through the thick wall of woods that surrounds the cottage, but if you see them it's only on the open road between retreats, or because you want to.
The cottage is steeped in evolving traditions, the active memory-making of four generations. The generation that built the cottage has passed, but their spirit has saturated every bit of wood, stained glass, and well-loved furniture in the place. Gramma's place has been taken over by a parliament of ceramic owls. Grampa's place been filled by an array of photographs representing the evolving and changing family over the years. It's not the same, but it's enough to remind the rest of us to tell the fourth generation about those they will never really know.
I'm part of the third generation, by marriage.
And this is the northern Michigan I have been very privileged to know over the past ten years.