“It is not down in any map: true places never are.” ~Herman Melville
Amy, Jan and I had attended the National Writing Project Annual Meeting in San Francisco in 2003. A map of the United States hung outside of the meeting room, and teachers were asked to put a dot on the map representing where they live. When Jan went to stick on the dot, we realized that the map did not include the Upper Peninsula — an entire third of our state! Apparently, the cartographer thought the U.P. had sunk into Lake Superior.
Through the past ten years of traveling together, Amy and I have had many experiences where people either didn’t know that the U.P. exists, or they have the impression that we are just a bunch of funny talking hicks. We even get that stereotype from some people in the mitten, the lower peninsula of our state. For example, when attending a Writing Marathon in Traverse City, also in 2003, Amy and I had suggested that we host the next Writing Marathon in the U.P. One teacher adopted a bad rendition of a Yooper accent, saying, “What will we do once we cross da bridge, eh? Grab a pasty and go to da outhouse?”
The guy, a Hemingway look-alike, went on to note that pretty much all we do in da U.P. is watch da Pack and toss around da pigskin. At least the real Hemingway appreciated the U.P, where he fished with a couple of buddies in 1919. Hemingway’s Nick Adams’ story “Big Two-Hearted River” is located near Seney in the Upper Peninsula. Hemingway chose to write about the Big Two-Hearted because of its poetic name; however, he actually fished and described the nearby Fox River. Although Hemingway only visited the U.P. once, this place apparently left an impression on him. He wrote about it in two later stories, and he also wrote a poem mentioning Seney while he sat in a Paris cafe. Hemingway writes about a “moveable feast,” and perhaps when he was in Paris, he wished he could move his feast back to the U.P.
I looked in disbelief at our Hemingway-esque marathoner, who probably meant no harm, while Amy grew a bit defensive of where we live. “You need to come and see what the Upper Peninsula offers,” she said. “We have universities, sophisticated people, a great arts community, beauty and culture…” We later did host a Writing Marathon and invited teachers from downstate. Two joined us and we were delighted to have them, but wished that more would have been willing to make the drive to see what we find special here.
I know that we aren’t the only regional group in the United States to feel misunderstood. A few years ago, I mentored a student teacher from Alaska and a sophomore asked him, “Is that a part of the United States?” He said he gets that a lot.
While Amy and I were in Austin last month, we met a teacher who had lived in New Mexico but recently moved to Alaska. She said when she tried to place orders over the phone from New Mexico and was asked for her address, she’d often get told, “Oh, we don’t ship to Mexico.”
“Not Mexico,” she’d say. “New Mexico.”
“No, we don’t ship to anywhere in Mexico…”
Jay Leno should do his next “Jay-Walking” about the places people don’t recognize as a part of our country. I admit it’s true, though, that while many people don’t know about the U.P., if you travel wearing a U.P. Writing Project t-shirt, or one saying “NMU” or “Michigan Tech,” you likely will have someone approach you who has been to the U.P. or knows someone here. We do get that “it’s a small world” feeling a lot, too, and people who know the U.P find other Yoopers approachable.
One thing about living in the U.P. is that we find ourselves traveling long distances to be with others. We just attended at National Writing Project of Michigan conference downstate. It took us about five hours to get to Central Michigan University from Marquette. While we overheard a couple of teachers from downstate complaining that it took them too long to get to Central, we felt thankful that it was only five hours rather than six, seven or eight, which we drive when we go to Lansing, Kalamazoo or Battle Creek.
Amy’s dad remembers working on the Packers’ stadium one time years back and a contractor was surprised that he drove all the way to Green Bay from Crystal Falls to work.
“I can’t get my guys to drive 20 minutes,” the contractor said. Her dad shrugged. That’s just what we do when we live in the U.P.
The Upper Peninsula is 320 miles across — like I said, one-third of the state’s landmass — but with 328,000 residents, only 3 percent of the state’s population. Anyone who has driven the straight, flat, infamous “Seney Stretch” that goes 30 miles without a gas station knows what I’m saying. Maybe that Papa look-alike ventured to Seney to see what Hemingway wrote about and never traveled farther to see what the rest of the U.P. offers. If he had journeyed a little farther up the way to Munising, he could have viewed the gorgeous Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore; its majesty rivals other more famous scenic spots in the country. Lots of tourists also enjoy the U.P. for winter recreation, such as skiing and snowmobiling, although be cautioned: some areas boast winter snow records of almost 400 inches! Yes, some of our students do drive snowmobiles to school.
Next week, Amy, Jan and I are heading to Big Bay for a UPWP retreat. Big Bay is where U.P judge and writer John Voelker’s famous Anatomy of a Murder was written (under the pen name of Robert Traver). The 1959 Otto Preminger movie, starring Jimmy Stewart, was filmed in Big Bay, Marquette and Ishpeming.
Jeff Daniels’ Escanaba in da Moonlight, a deer hunting comedy, was filmed in the U.P., too. Yes, we can laugh at ourselves and the Yooper accent for which we’ve become known. We have a store in Ishpeming called Da Yooper Tourist Trap, which has all kinds of innovations, such as the world’s largest working chainsaw and the world’s largest working rifle. We have a band called Da Yoopers, which sings lyrics such as, “You play bingo up in L’Anse, with your mother and your aunts.” I’ve played bingo in L’Anse many times, so the song rings true.
I just hope people realize that there is more to us than those silly jokes reveal. Our city of Marquette has won many national awards, from one of “America’s Most Livable Communities” to “Dozen Distinctive Places Fan Favorite” to the “Number One Place in the U.S. to Bike and Live.” So, this isn’t such a bad destination after all; in fact, it’s pretty great. You’ll find that true places are often the lesser known locales. You might like to make a visit yourself to this unique place that not everyone can point out on a map.