October 21, 2017

Up in Michigan as a Platform

Ernest Hemingway in northern Michigan. Credit: Wayne State University

Ernest Hemingway never forgot where he came as a writer after all his worldly adventures. Northern Michigan laid the foundation of his writing career with his Nick Adams stories. The great natural beauty and isolationism of northern Michigan was his base, his platform.

From the New York Times:

A neighbor was driving the newlyweds through northern Michigan to the train station. The car crested a hill, and suddenly Little Traverse Bay spread out below them, wide and blue and shining. ”See all that,” Ernest Hemingway told his bride. ”Talk about the beauty of the Bay of Naples! I’ve seen them both, and no place is more beautiful than Little Traverse in its autumn colors.”

The year was 1921. But Hemingway fans still find almost magical beauty in the places that shaped his imagination when he was young, whether they go there when there are boaters on the bay or skiers on the trails.

The Traverse Bay area of northern Michigan, about four hours from Detroit by car and less than 100 miles from the Canadian border at Sault Ste. Marie, still has a few streams where you can catch salmon with your hands if you wear your waders. Or you can sip coffee at a general store that he mentioned in a short story called ”Up in Michigan.” You can walk down a road that was steep and sandy when Hemingway was young, and that still has no name. You can sit on the dock where, in the story, the blacksmith Jim Gilmore seduces the waitress Liz Coates. Or you can walk to the spot a few yards away where, in real life, Hemingway was married for the first time. And you can canoe the Big Two-Hearted River, though Hemingway never did.

┬áLater in life Hemingway wanted people to think that his place was at bullfights in Spain, at cafes in Paris or on safaris in Africa. But he never really erased the map of northern Michigan from his mind. As he saw it, northern Michigan was a rough world of old loggers’ camps and Indians, fishing and hunting, and freight trains rumbling distantly through the night. It is the world of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, a place his sister Madelaine once said was so isolated that when you arrived, the waves were the loudest thing you heard.

Traveling off the beaten path can still provide a rich source of material, overlooked in the high traffic social media frenzy taking place today. Better to make your own path than beat someone else’s footprints into a cloud of dust. Listening and observing are skills becoming obsolete like penmanship. Everyone wants their own platform and facetime. Hemingway built his platform in the isolation of northern Michigan before venturing out into the media glare. Others have done so in more extreme conditions, a prison cell for some of the greatest writers, to living on the streets for some of the greatest fighters. The great ones start within. Hard conditions make them stronger and better.

Little gems and nuisances are not lost in the isolated areas. A woman in northern Michigan is asking an elderly man to come over again Sunday afternoon to tell her son more about his exploits in World War Two. As they talk, I move closer and listen. They notice me listening and let me into their group. We’re in a town completely isolated from the rest of the world with the exception of a tractor supply company store across the street. Out here there’s nothing to do but listen so we listen to a wonderful story.

When I was a kid, a Michigan high school football team in the conference was ranked the best in the nation, and perhaps is still the greatest football team of all time nationally. They outscored the opponents 443-0, in the highest level of competition. The following season my father took me to watch them try to continue their streak of not allowing a score. Heavy rains forced nearly all the fans in the stadium to leave early. My father the historian and sports fan insisted we stay and watch to the end. The stadium was nearly empty when the other team scored, snapping the historic streak. History can be made, even when few are watching.

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