Every roadtrip* hits its peak. You don’t know when or where it’s going to come or what’s going to happen, but worry and care vanish, inhibitions cease to inhibit, and a clearer path appears. It’s the point where vacating and creating truly synthesize, where obstacles are overcome. After a long night of catharsis, life starts anew.
These events–grand and unplanned–happen only in places where we have no business being, places we know nothing about. The entire mind-clearing event must be shared by all roadtrip participants and must be a series of perfectly aligned happenstances. Everything is left to chance, and chance delivers. You have to have enough buildup, the right number of drinks, and you have to be in the right place. It also helps if you don’t have to be anywhere the next morning.
On the Upper Peninsula trip, catharsis came in Marquette. At almost 20,000 people, Marquette is the largest city up there. All Dan and I knew going in was that it had an ore dock (saw a postcard photo of it in Ishpeming), an electronics store (told by a 35mm news photographer in Houghton), and a regional university. We spent an entire dark and cold June day working our way east from Houghton–where our legendary stripper encounter the night before could almost have been the highlight of the trip.
We arrived in Marquette just before the weak presummer sun set on the trail of shit towns destroyed during the long wane of Michigan’s copper empire. The city’s outskirts, seen from a state highway dotted by regional chains that faintly resembled their national competitors, looked like a sprawling nowhere, a perfectly Lynchian Lumberton. Both the people and the landscape communicated a delicate balance of hospitality and terror.
Downtown, Marquette looked and felt like a Canadian Maritime city, like a half-sized version of Saint John, a place where honoring expensive architectural traditions once symbolized the industrial importance of the region.
We drove right through downtown to Lake Superior. The giant ore dock, where trains had once dumped millions of tons of iron ore pellets into waiting ships, turned out to be abandoned. This was heartbreaking. Worse, the immense trestle over downtown, which had carried the trains over city streets, had been completely removed. Even in America’s smaller cities, industry and functionality are now hidden from everyday view.
Dan and I decided to work with the fading light and try to get some decent shots, even though we knew that every tourist who arrives in Marquette probably does the same thing. Dan disappeared on the other side of the dock. I walked out on an adjoining pier where the locals had their boats tied up. As I shot, a dude approached me from behind and stopped to talk to me.
“What boat are you on? I’ve never seen you down here before.” The dude looked like a younger version of my Uncle Lenny, mid 40s, white and gray polo, curly Italian hair.
I didn’t understand his question, so I asked him to repeat it. He meant: which boat did I own? In as few words as possible, I tried to explain that no, sir, we don’t have a boat and we don’t belong on this dock, we are two guys from New York who as continuously as possible roam the continent with cameras in hand, attempting to find meaning in America as well as in our own lives.
“You guys have a tent?” he asked.
Yes, I told him. We bought it in suburban Milwaukee but we hadn’t used it yet.
“Don’t stay in a motel. Head on up to Tourist Park. You can get a camping permit for fifteen bucks and take a cab right downtown from your tent.”
This sounded great. I told him how disappointed we were to find the ore dock abandoned. No problem, he said, there’s a working one about four miles up the shore. Up there they were “dropping pellets pretty regular.”
Before we left, he asked where we planned to eat dinner. The North Woods Supper Club, I told him. A good friend recommended it. He made a wincing gesture and shook his head.
“No, you want to eat at the Vierling, great microbrewery. V-i-e-r-l-i-n-g. Right there on Front Street. You can park anywhere on the street…or you can take a cab from your tent.”
Intrigued by this notion of taxi-camping, I reconvened with Dan and we headed up the shore of Lake Superior to the massive, working ore dock, which we found easily. There were no ships there, but we photographed it anyway, shooting the many mineral red ore chutes illuminated by the setting sun.
We found Tourist Park in the woods north of downtown, and we were checked into a riverside, “rustic campsite” by two shaggy, teenage dudes who occupied a little office. A few cars were already on-site, scattered among the trees, and a pitched tent accompanied each car. Dan and I opened the package that our tent came in and neurotically read the assembly directions.
The park workers, and the sun, were gone by the time we were set up. I 411’d a cab. The operator asked me if I wanted Checker Cab or Apple Cab. Checker, I said. I heard a faint click and the sound of ringing.
“GUY FAULKENAGEN CHECKER CAB HOW MAY I HELP YOU?” said the phone. I explained my situation, which took some effort, hung up, and cracked a Red Bull. I wanted to drink drastically. We had seen and shot a lot. We were as far from work and the East Coast as we were going to get. Now was the time for drinking.
20 minutes later, a yellow minivan pulled up. Inside was an utter giant of a man, who barely regarded us as we entered the vehicle. As Dan and I got in, his cellphone rang. “GUY FAULKENAGEN CHECKER CAB HOW MAY I HELP YOU?” said the dude. Dan and I looked at each other. The one-man taxi operation–suddenly reminiscent of Lawrence**! Ghost of expurgation past! Dan pulled a Red Bull from his coat and cracked it. At the PSSST! of the can opening, Guy Faulkenagen turned his tremendous head towards us and hit us both at the same time with a look of utter contempt. It’s just Red Bull! I said. His face relaxed a bit, and his throbbing neck muscles rotated the massive head back to face the direction the cab was going.
Guy was a character. Dan wrote a song about him. He had played for Baltimore, back when Baltimore was Baltimore. He had some interesting fares lately, including a lady photographer who was shooting Special Olympics stuff for ESPN. He dropped us off downtown and told us to call him when we wanted to go back to the tent.
The Vierling was okay. I had prime rib with horseradish–why not? The high point of my meal was the giant shit I took between the salad and the main course, Peter Griffin style. I don’t remember what kind of beer we had, but it was alright, too.
Then we are walking around. It’s chilly outside, and there are no people in the streets. We get money from a drive-through ATM on foot. We hear live music around the block. There are not that many blocks, but we have to walk down some alleys to figure out that the sound is coming from above us. Suddenly we are walking up lots of stairs. The buzz has set in. We are at a townie bar, on the third floor of a loft building. The cover band is timid, seemingly unaware that anyone and everyone downtown can hear them. They have a songsheet going around, almost all 90s and classic rock. CRACKERMAN!!!, Dan and I start shouting when songs end. We drink cheap beer upon cheap beer, bottles of stuff like Miller Lite. The place is mostly dudes, and no one looks at us except when they are taking our money. We talk about what we’ll one day do with the thousands of images we’re creating on these trips. The band plays the requested STP tune, and Dan and I love it. We leave. We are wasted.
Out in the street, we hear more music. This time, the music is coming from below us. Close to the abandoned ore dock, there is a cavernous brick club. We decide to enter. The bouncers tell us $2. What the fuck, I say, let’s get out of here. Where I’m from, $2 doesn’t even buy a slice of pizza, but the thought of paying that much to walk into this show deeply offends me.
We stand on the sidewalk. We are about to call Guy Faulkenagen, but for the first time we hear the music. It’s heavy, heavy soul, with crazy harmonica and saxophone overlays. Marquette is delivering–delivering the last thing we’d expect to hear in the land of the pasty. We go back through the door and pay our two dollars each.
What happens next is what Dan tells me happens next. The band continues to lay on extremely thick and not-fake soul. I apparently dance with or hit on every woman at the estabilshment, from the patrons to the female band members. My notes indicate that I speak to the common-seeming “girl with camera” but also to more flavorful characters like the “MILF nurse from Escanaba” and “decent-looking human systems major” wearing a retro Pistons shirt. I sit down with the band at the bar, between sets, and find out that they are up from Atlanta, booked for a two-night stint in Marquette. The backing players are all white soul nerds like myself, and we talk about gear and how bands form and the gas mileage that their van gets. Thousands of thoughts about music and songwriting and equipment rush through my head.
I don’t see Dan for this much of this episode. I think he may have his Vivitar on him…I certainly carry no camera.
Toward the end of the show Dan reappears and starts screaming at me to do bad things with the girl in the Pistons shirt, but I suddenly want to sleep and walk out. We pass the Pistons girl as we leave, and she looks confused. One of us uses the business card we got off of GUY FAULKENAGEN to summon him back to a downtown intersection. He’s much more jovial with us this time, but he keeps getting in cellphone arguments with NMU students trying to get a ride home from a party (“HOW CAN I PICK YOU UP IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE YOU ARE?”).
The next thing I remember is waking up midmorning to the sound of the river rushing by the tent, and the sound of an empty ore train rolling downgrade back to the mines.
Is this really all about a night of drinking in Northern Michigan? Of course not. It’s about how you become your own person. It’s about how you work to end up unspeakably different from the way you were raised, and once in a while have a chance to check on your own progress. It’s about how you live in America–all of America. The more trips you do, the more you get out of them. You have to do them for yourself, not your job, not to satisfy grant or scholarship requirements, not for a one-time thrill. The road teaches you not to conform, not to accept the security of a thrill-free life. The road is out there, but you have to work hard for the opportunity to experience it on your own terms.
Racing eastward out of Marquette toward the 1 p.m. departure of the Munising shipwreck tour, we passed by the working ore dock and saw that a ship had come in that morning. We studied it and photographed it, gorgeous in the almost-summer sun. Thousands of tons of ore pellets made a whooshing sound as they fell into the ship, soon to be headed east to what was left of the Rust Belt. The night before felt like nothing but a bad hangover, but we soon realized that a lot more had happened then and there. The two neurotic, ex-Catholic boys from Queens had once again escaped their backgrounds and experienced a night of total freedom.
*By roadtrip, I mean an exploratory pilgrimage to a selected region–not driving through somewhere in order to get somewhere else, and not going somewhere as a business traveler.
**Lawrence, Kansas was the Marquette of the KC Siege, Summer 2007. I still haven’t processed, written about, or posted any photos from Lawrence.
— Rob Bellinger