Waiting out the storm in the UP

Everybody deserves a break from the constant shriek of politics. I took mine in Michigan.

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Storm clouds over Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.

Storm clouds blowing in over Lake Superior Saturday night. They merely passed over without having much effect.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Last weekend I drove about 700 miles. On Thursday, 350 miles, almost due north, through Wisconsin to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Then 350 miles back on Sunday. Quite a long way, really.

Why? The 60 hours in between. The company: I drove with my brother, reunited with old friends there. We’ve been meeting in the UP for more than a decade. Nature: the deep woods, the ever-changing, frigid lake, the wild turkeys. The food: tomahawk chops from Peoria Packing. Beef jerky picked up at Held’s in Slinger, Wis.

You’ll note that we brought our food. UP cuisine — pasties and donuts — not so hot. Though the town where we stay, Ontonagon, now has a juice bar, The Squeeze on Main, and I grabbed a salad there for lunch Friday. Not bad, if a little short on lettuce, more like a bowl of chicken, cheese and sliced apples with some greens mixed in. A Yooper salad. At least there were no Beer Nuts in it.

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A six-hour-plus drive, but that was also part of the fun. Usually the car ride is seen as a necessary evil to get from Point A to Point B. Wasted time. But on this trip, the 700 miles was an unfolding diorama of beauty, the rolling vistas of farmland, shrouded in mist in the morning, glorious in the midday sun. Undulating fields of corn, yellow-tasseled and ready to harvest. Alfalfa in big round bales, each weighing a ton, either left to dry or because the farmers haven’t had time to collect them yet. The raw forest pushed back from the highway — deep green pines and white-trunked birches.

A lot of industry up there too. Even the town names suggest products: Winnebago, Land O’Lakes, Oshkosh. The vast Harley Davidson plant. Just passing through, I don’t see how you can feel anything but hopeful about America, despite our deepening problems. When didn’t we have problems?

Sure, there were scatterings of Trump flags, and “Let’s Go Brandon” signs. At least they’re concise. “I’m a dupe in thrall to a liar, bully, fraud and traitor,” is a lot to fit on a sign. I did sincerely marvel at yard signs plugging Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, which made me want to stop and ring the doorbell and earnestly inquire. “Really? Ron Johnson? The guy who tried to shrug off his sedition because it only lasted ‘a couple of seconds’? The man’s an idiot.”

And how would that conversation go? I wince whenever someone refers to our national debate. As Tom Waits sings, “Everybody’s talking at the same time.”

Part of a yard display in front of a home in Ontonagon, Mich.

This is only part of a yard display in front of a home in Ontonagon, an old mining and mill town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, about 350 miles north of Chicago.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

There were also signs for Democrats, and 99 out of 100 homes didn’t feel the need to broadcast their political affiliation at all.

Politics has a way of shriveling into chaff and blowing away in a forest. Saplings rise under towering trees that were saplings when Kennedy was assassinated. “It is a triumph of lunacy, of rottenness, the dirtiest hour in our time,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote a friend that day, words that bear a strange relevance today. Lunacy may not have triumphed, yet, but it’s kneeling in the on-deck circle with a confident look on its face.

I sat on the beach and watched the waves roll in. Odd thing about a wave — it doesn’t arrive all at once, but rolls along the shoreline, the crest breaking in endless sequence. Even as it rushes in, the undertow is pulling back, in this complicated simultaneous advance and retreat, which probably is applicable to our political world as well. Some tumble forward into the future while others draw back into the past. It’s still the same lake. New room has to be made somehow for the next wave coming in.

Before sunset Saturday, a storm boiled up over the lake. Ugly roiling clouds, rushing in from the north. An end-of-the-world sky. And then it blew right past us and was gone. I don’t want to suggest our current gales will just fly past — I believe we haven’t even gotten to the Really Bad Part yet. But there is an underlying natural world that carries on no matter who is in office, from the wheeling of the cosmos to the cycles of nature. Optimism is certainly premature, but like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, hope makes a great place to visit and forget about all this toxic cacophony for a while.

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