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Michigan's Upper Peninsula – Over the Top
updated: Oct 15, 2011, 9:45 AM

By McSeas

Tooling up, across and down Michigan's Upper Peninsula was enjoyable, even though the tour didn't work out as planned. We bypassed a ride farther north to the south shore of Lake Superior, deciding instead to spend some time in Seney, the little town of author Ernest Hemingway's youth.

Saying that visit was a bust may be going too far, but there really wasn't much to it. "The Big Two-Hearted River" that ol' Ern wrote about was actually the small one-hearted stream, the Fox "River," that runs through Seney. Not much to it, despite this visit being on the heels of the usual heavy snow and rainfall year.

We asked a couple of country girls manning a pit-stop gas station about the Hemingway thing and they said that it appeared to be a bust, and that even the locals had become bored with it all and hadn't bothered to open the small Hemingway museum around the corner. There aren't many corners in Seney but we decided to forget it anyway. Took a stroll down to the banks of the Fox and confirmed that it was in fact a stream - and thought there were probably some fish in it.

The countryside in these parts was green and fairly tree covered despite loggers being at work far and wide. Several log-laden trucks passed us as we drove on. More forest biting the sawdust.

Lunch was moderately interesting as we enjoyed a "pasty" cooked at a pleasant café out in the boonies. Signs advertised "pasties," pronounced "PASS-tees," not "PACE-tees," as in burlesque houses. Spousie had enjoyed pasties in the UP an undisclosed number of years ago. Persons of Finnish extraction dominate the UP population, and pasties are their "thing."

They wouldn't be mine, as they were a bit dull to serve as "specialties." About the size of a jumbo taco and shaped like one, these north Europe tacos are baked in their own folded-over dough, the filling being chopped veggies and meat. That's it. A real bust except a small pitcher of brown gravy accompanies the pasties and soaking them in it improves them, if not the condition of the diner's innards.

Old Carpinteria pal Frank Manning spent some LONG winters in the UP back in the 60s, when he was an Air Force officer. He was based at K. I. Sawyer AFB, about 25 miles south of Marquette. This would be approximately halfway to Nowhere when you leave Noplace, MI. He writes: "Couple of really small towns were closer, south of the base - Gwinn and New Swanzy, affectionately known as the "Twin Cities." Average annual snowfall at K. I. was 280 inches. That statistic was topped each year I was there with 300+ inches."

So far, I've never heard anything about Marquette except that there's good basketball at the Catholic university of 8,000 students, and a LOT of snow everywhere. We figured Marquette was just another normal, pleasant little city, so we decided to just "make good time," as Dad put it when en route to Texas. We turned southwest there and aimed for Republic, MI, Spousie's short-term home many years ago. It lay alongside Hwy. 95, surrounded by trees and a lot of peace and quiet.

She recalls:

"I lived in the town of Republic for more than a long, cold winter. It's halfway between the slightly larger town of Ishpeming and the town of Iron Mountain, down near Wisconsin. From the time we entered the Upper Peninsula to the time we left, we shared the road with logging trucks, all heading away from the area. Huge mountains of logs of all sizes lay waiting to be transported out.

My town, Republic, was the most destitute place of all. When I lived there, a hunting lodge dominated the local social life in the fall. The carcasses of dressed-out deer hung from the porch lodge, and later, the hunters drove away, the dead deer strapped to the back of their cars.

On this trip, the lodge was not open for business. There was a "For Sale" sign in the window. Across the road, country music could be heard coming from a dark bar. In the window of the house next door hung a sign that said, "Beauty Shop." I went inside.

There were three women in the living room, one sitting in a barber chair with her hair in rollers, another standing behind her, and a third sitting on a couch watching. None of them said hello. The smell of the permanent wave lotion reminded me of the stuff my mother used to use. I asked if they knew the location of the supermarket where I used to shop.

"It's closed," the woman on the couch said. "It's an Ace Hardware now. We do all our food shopping in Ishpeming."

I found the house where I used to live, on a back road by the river, not far from the elementary school at the south end of town. It looked like the school was still functioning, although the only sign of life we saw on the nearby roads was one boy walking aimlessly along, kicking a stone. The little houses looked bleak and neglected, though still occupied - cars here and there, bicycles propped against walls, wood stacked for winter fuel.

We spent the night at a small lodge in Iron Mountain, named for the iron mines that laced the land for miles around. That night -- in mid-September -- the temperature dropped to twenty-nine degrees. We scraped the frost off the car windows at 8 a.m. and drove on to Wisconsin.

Next: Wisconsin, a nice conclusion.

Maple tree leaves were just starting to turn in September.

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Man catches fish, man smokes fish...

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This view of Lake Michigan is from the Upper Peninsula shore, looking westward.

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The Fox River, running through the U.P. town of Seney, was the subject of Ernest Hemingway's story, "Big Two-hearted River."

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