Monday, December 5, 2011

Street life in Detroit

     The area near 14th and Michigan Avenue in Detroit is rebounding, with the barbecue restaurant, Slows, as an anchor. The latest addition is the Mercury Bar, which is reopening.  As an a native Detroiter, my hopes are high, but deep inside me is a skepticism born of experience with the city.
     Back in the late 1960s, the Plum Street district near 3rd was a developing entertainment district, Detroit's version of a hippie enclave. There were shops, and hippies and wanna be hippies mixed with the area's older skid row residents. I knew one of the older residents, a house painter who had worked for my grandfather and father. He lived in a basement apartment, and never drove. He had a bit of a whiskey habit, and also a taste for the race track. He was a World War I veteran and had lived his entire life in downtown Detroit.
     I would look him up when I visited Plum Street, and usually found him  on the front porch of the house where he lived, dressed in an old, worn blue suit, sometimes with a tie. He always worn a cap, too. He was an old school bum, the kind of guy we associate with 1930s movies. He wasn't like the homeless  we now have -- he had dignity. I remember him telling me about how some young hippies had bummed some money from him. He was laughing so much, he was crying when he told me the story, because he knew these kids came from well to do families and were just slumming on the weekends. "I've been a bum my whole life, but never a beggar," he said.  I miss those old guys who would hang around the 3rd Street bars, all of which are gone these days.
     At the time, the city of Detroit decided to tear down the entire area, hippie enclave and all and sweep the old bums under the carpet. That happened, and when it did, the city lost another chance to nourish an entertainment district. This has happened way too much and its what makes me skeptical. I also lost track of my old friend, when the neighborhood was destroyed by urban renewal, or urban removal, as some say.
     That happened again during the 1980s. I'd become a patron of the Woodbridge Tavern and other watering holes in the warehouse district near the river, just east of downtown. The Coleman Young administration announced plans for some pie in the sky river front development and pushed many of the taverns and restaurants out of business. The city project never saw daylight, and most of the small businesses never reopened. I sometimes think that nobody really cares about Detroit -- politicians just want to manage big projects, so they can hand out big contracts and get kickbacks.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A perfect day in Detroit

     I love kicking around Detroit, especially with a good companion, but the places I want to go are fairly crowded on the weekends, so to my delight my son was around on a Thursday, and we headed downtown for a look around. I took my usual route from the western suburbs, Michigan Avenue. It appeals to my blue collar roots. The route was used by generations of workers headed to the Ford Rouge complex and to the plants near Ypsilanti. It was also used by baseball fans headed to the old Tiger Stadium. I actually remember when it was Briggs Stadium.
     I'm a Detroit native, and the route brings back memories of when it was a major artery and business district, especially for the Polish. There's still a Polish veteran's hall off Michigan. Detroit people may move, but they don't give up their landmarks easily. 
     Our first stop was the Detroit Institute of Arts, where there was a photo exhibit, Detroit Revealed, which was interesting in a visual way, but I felt it was missing something. The photos of street scenes and faces were art prints. As I walked through the exhibit, I realized what was missing -- the workers, the voices of those who put on bumpers at Fords or built boxcars, as I had done in college. 
     I fled and sought refuge in the room with the Diego Rivera murals, which date to the early 1930s, and show life in the factory the way it really feels. Here were the voices of the workers; their faces grim, their arms muscled from the work. These were guys I could relate to. The murals weren't without controversy when they were unveiled. Folks on the left didn't think they went far enough in showing the toil of workers, and those on the right thought they depicted too much. When that happens, the artist is right on. The right wingers almost got their way, and the murals were almost painted over, but Henry Ford's son, Edsel, came to the rescue and they survived. 
     I've been a fan of the murals since I was in college at nearby Wayne State, and use to sit in the room and read. These days I'm working on a historical novel set in Detroit in the early 1930s, an era beset by labor troubles, and the murals give me a glimpse into what factory life was like during that era.
     After out tour, we went to Slows Barbecue on Michigan Avenue for lunch. It was about 2 p.m., and we got a table right away, a treat since weekend waits to get into the place can be up to an hour. Much of the block where the restaurant is located has been rehabbed, and there's news that the old Mercury bar across the street will be turned into a coffee shop. I thought about the recent news from Wayne County about how a new appointee to Metro Airport was given a sweet heart contract for $200,000 and an expensive package from the county because she quit her job to take the new one. I wondered what developers could do with just a few hundred thousand dollars to redevelop the area around Slows. It makes me sick to think that government in Wayne County and Detroit is wasting so much money on cronyism and corruption, when there are so many projects in need of help.
     After lunch, we casually walked across Michigan, something you couldn't do 20 or 30 years ago because of the traffic. I just hope that some day that traffic returns. We owe that to the workers who helped build this city. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The perfect cabin

     One possible benefit of the real estate meltdown may be that some of the older cabins in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula will survive, instead of being torn down and replaced with modern second homes. Older cabins have a cozy feel to them with their pine paneling, rustic decks and screened in porches. They can sag a bit, but that only adds to their allure. They may only have one small, cramped bathroom, but who wants to spend the day in the bathroom when you can be outdoors.
     In my travels through Michigan for the past 35 years, I've watched as older rental cabins have been replaced with new, modern ones fully equipped with cable TV, wall-to-wall carpet and microwaves. I feel like I should clean up before going inside.
     But there's one place I love to stay at that has resisted change. It was built in the 1950s and is on a small like in the Michigan/Wisconsin border country. There are no neighbors on the lake, and not a building in view of the deck that overlooks the lake. It's small by today's standards, one bedroom, with a sleeping couch in the living room, but it has pine paneling and a stone fireplace.
     There's a telephone for emergencies, but no television. A book case holds old hard cover books, most dating to the 1940s and 50s, and there's a radio. So the activities in the cabin at night after a day of hunting consisting of talking, reading or sitting in front of the fire -- all through backs.
     The guys I hunt with there are all experienced outdoors men and I learn things from them from their stories, another old time tradition. While we may now live a more convenient life, we've lost something important along the way.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The last day in the woods

A sadness comes over me on my last day of a hunting, fishing or paddling trip in the Upper Peninsula, one that prompts me to find a quiet place to sit on a stump or log, away from companions, usually spending about 30 minute enjoying the silence, knowing it will be a long time before there are no people or noise around. It doesn't work in the Lower Peninsula -- too many people. It only works in the vast spaces of the U.P., the more desolate the landscape the better. This fall my little ritual was performed in a hunting place in the eastern U.P. I call the Thornapples, a special spot where I first hunted my dog Maggie nearly 20 years. Most would quickly drive past it, if they even ventured out there on the sandy and often mud filled roads. There are no towering trees or waterfalls, just scrub land cut over more than a 100 years ago and left to recover as best as possible, the white pines replaced with the Thornapples, a bush with many thorns, as the name implies, that bear tiny apple-like fruit. It's a great place to hunt woodcock on their annual fall migration south. It's a tough place to hunt and I'm often plucking them out of my legs until Thanksgiving.
It was the last day of our eight-day hunt, and my 63-year-old legs were hurting, so I told my younger companion to take a swing without me, so as not to be slowed by an old guy like me. I sat on a downed log and did my devotional thinking, and then got up and started walking again towards where I'd heard him last shooting and calling his 12 year old dog. The Brit came wandering out of the Thornapples and came right to me. I figured that in dog years she was probably older than me, so I held her by the collar and made her sit and do her own thinking about the last day of the season. She didn't object, even though bird dogs have a drive to keep hunting, one that I often fear kills older dogs. Maybe it will kill me some day, but there couldn't be a better way to go than sitting alone on a stump in the U.P. woods contemplating the solitariness of being in the woods alone on the last day of a good hunt with good companions.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

From the Keweenaw to Monroe

As a travel writer I've been in every county of Michigan, but I still have my bucket list, which includes spending six weeks on the road following the fall colors from Copper Harbor to Monroe. My starting point would be on top of Brockway Mountain, near Copper Harbor, which offers a view of the surrounding mountain ranges and Lake Superior. I'd start the trip in mid-September and end it about Nov. 1.
Here are some spots I'd stop at:
* Big Bay in the Huron Mountains northwest of Marquette. I'd paddle Independence Lake, and take a drive on County Road 612, which goes through the mountains, and make stops to hike to the Yellow Dog River. The Thunderbay Inn is a good, cozy place to stay, with a bar-restaurant, and the prices are reasonable.
* Marquette: The view of Lake Superior is worth the stop. The Landmark Hotel gives you a good vantage point. It's one of the top notch places to stay in the U.P.
* Lake Superior lakeshore. Follow M-28 to Munising,  stopping along the way to look at the big lake. In Munising, take a boat tour of the Pictured Rocks, which are trimmed with fall colors.
* Munising to Grand Marais. Take H58, which is now paved all the way to Grand Marais. Stop at Chapel Falls for a small hike in the woods. Also, check out the restored lighhouse at AuSable Point. 
* Grand Marais to Newberry. Follow H58 along Lake Superior, and stop along the way for walks on the beech. Head south on H17 to Newberry, where you'll find plenty of motels and restaurants.
* Tahquamenon Falls. If you've never seen them, fall is a great time of year. Less crowds, and fall color to boot. 
* Mackinac Island. The crowds are down, and its cooler, so walking around is a joy.
* Cross Village. Take County Road C 66 west off of I-75, and spend time exploring the little village perched on Lake Michigan. Stop at the Legs Inn, a quirky bar-restaurant hand built from local wood by its founder. Follow M-119 south, which is called the Tunnel of Trees, to Harbor Springs. It's slow going because of the winding road, and traffic.
* The apple harvest. The fruit growing region along Lake Michigan from Traverse City to Manistee is worth several days, if you like the harvest season and road side stands. I usually buy too many apples and pears because I know the money is getting right in the pockets of Michigan farmers.
* The elk herd. Gaylord and Vanderbilt on I-75 are the gateway to the Pigeon River State Forest and its elk herd, which is active in the fall because its mating. Check with the DNR for sites where the elk can be seen. 
* Float the Au Sable River. The crowds are down, and it's a good time to paddle one of the states best trout streams. Grayling is a good place to cast off, but Mio has even less crowds, and the river is wider there. It's all easy  paddling, even for a novice. 
* The Thumb. This region is often overlooked, but it has a certain charm in the autumn when the farmers are in their fields harvesting sugar beets, beans and corn. Stops in towns like Bay Port, Bad Axe, Caro and Cass City offer a glimpse of rural life. They're not touristy and there are more grain elevators than gift shops.
* Southeastern Michigan. There's more to see here than factories. The Huron-Metro park system offers access to the Huron River and lakes. There's some good hiking in the parks, too. Apple orchards and cider mills abound. 
* Monroe. It's almost a forgotten place, but it was the hometown of General George Armstrong Custer and there's a museum there to honor him. Monroe is a low-impact city on Lake Erie. For a pleasant afternoon, check out Sterling State Park, just north of Monroe. It offers a view of the lake and picnic areas. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

It's safe to go back in the woods

Summer is on the wane and the campgrounds will soon be deserted. While some lament the passing of summer, I don't. And it really hasn't ended, it's just that Labor Day for many means its time to head back to school, and shut down the summer cottage. This is the time between summer and fall, and I start coming alive, after suffering through the heat of July and August. It's time to take up the fly rod again to pack in as many fishing days as possible to sustain me through the chill of winter. Michigan poet Mike Delp calls going fly-fishing "pulling the rip cord." I'm headed to what I call my lost rivers, ones that for some reason or another I haven't fished in a decade or so. I'm going through old sets of county maps looking for the makes I've made on them for the last 30 years, looking for my old access sites. The coffee-stained maps, perhaps five or six sets, many of them with missing pages, lost years ago. I worry that those pages are my lost rivers, pages that were so well-used that they fell out of the book. They contain notations of places to fish and what flies worked. Perhaps I'll just have to work from memory, and that's often the best way because then you prompt yourself to remember just the good times.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

High gas prices, weather can keep travelers near home

As a travel writer, I usually spend holiday weekends at home or close to it, knowing that better days are ahead for gas prices and weather. It's been a grim spring, with the rains. But there are usually plenty of unexplored places near home to keep a family occupied on Memorial Day weekend. Here's a quick look:
* Check out The Henry Ford for a day. If it's raining, stick to the museum.
* Dinner in Detroit's Greektown. When's the last time you were in downtown Detroit? Greektown offers many moderate-priced meals.
* Your local park. Mine is Hines Drive in western Wayne County where there's a great bike trail and a fitness course near Hines and Ann Arbor Trail.
* The Huron-Clinton Metro Parks in southeastern Michigan offer bicycling, hiking, paddling and other outdoor activities.
* Sterling State Park five miles north of Monroe offers a great beach on Lake Erie.
* If you're looking for a day at the beach and live in a southern Michigan city, check out Saugatuck on Lake Michigan, it's only a few hours west of Metro Detroit and even less from Lansing and Grand Rapids. The resort town offers dozens of restaurants and trendy shops, if its raining. The rooms there can be expensive, so check out lodging in Holland, just north of the beach town, for better options.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Dreary Days of Spring

While others may be hoping for a break in the fighting in Libya, I'm glued to the weather channel waiting for a break in the weather so I can get out on a river, lake or stream. If I don't, I'll end up as crazy as the Libyan leader. The weather forecaster doesn't give me much hope, as I sit hear looking in the yard as the cold rain falls. There are some buds on the pussy willow bush, but if I remember right, I've usually cut them by this time of year, which tells me it's a late spring. Even a glass of whiskey isn't much solace on a day like this, so I've turned to looking at the photos I took last summer for a canoe/kayak guide that's coming out in May. The photos remind me of the warm days on the Pere Marquette River or of days spent kayaking along the Sleeping Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan. Guess I'll just have to wait it out.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

St. Pat's Day Destination

Sean O'Callaghan's Pub in Plymouth Michigan is going to be awful crowded on St. Pat's Day, and for good reason, it's one of the top Irish bars in the metro Detroit area, and a personal favorite. There's a large selection of beer from the British Isles, and many brands of Irish whiskey. I usually ask the bartender, who is usually from Ireland, to suggest one, and I've never been disappointed. The food is authentic. I've had the corned beef and cabbage and the fish and chips. The decor has an Irish pub feel to it, and one could wander around half the night looking at the prints on the walls.