The story goes that if you see two Michiganders holding up their palms and stabbing with their index fingers, you know what they are doing. They are telling each other where in the state they are from. This is because Michigan is shaped roughly like a palm, albeit with a very stubby thumb.
One slow night at a Burger King, one of the staff, a cheery grandma, sat down to chat. She kept stabbing at the crinkled webbing between her thumb and index finger, saying, “Wine-dot, wine-dot!” Turns out she’s from Wyandotte, which is more like where the thumb meets the wrist.
Still, a whole segment of the state doesn’t conform to your average palm, unless contorted greatly. That’s the Upper Peninsula (UP), shaped like a pointing finger—or maybe a gun aimed at an upraised palm. That notion of a gun comes to mind only later.
UP is separated from the rest of the state by the vast expanse of Lake Michigan; separated too by a gulf in outlook and self-belief, at least as perceived in UP. I mean, this sign sums it up: “American by birth, Yooper by the Grace of God!” (“Yooper” from “UP-er”). I saw that soon after I crossed into UP by driving north on the Mackinac bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world, and it too figures in Yooper self-image. Here, they refer to other Michiganders as “trolls”, because they’re from “under da bridge”.
Yooper facts: (clockwise from top) A house rooting for Barack Obama in UP; D’Souza’s friend Powell focuses on his target; road signs by a lane in UP. Photographs by Dilip D’Souza
And there’s the pride of UP— originally from England, though in UP it is identified with Finnish immigrants. The pasty. For miles, every little shop or restaurant advertises them “fresh” or “hot” or “yummy”, and eventually my indifference to new cuisines wears down. Choosing a small establishment at random, I stop for a taste. Inside, a prominent note advises: “It’s not PAY-STREE. It’s not PAY-STEES. It’s PASS-TEE!!! Yooper Food of Da GODS!”
This food of da gods is a crisp pastry-crust filled with a steaming mix of meat, vegetables and unidentifiable creamy sauce. Whether its antecedents are English or Finnish, my pasty is singularly devoid of taste. I have to struggle through it, and I do so only because I’m hungry.
Next to me on the wall is a glass-fronted showcase, and it houses a grubby blue football jersey with “97” on it. The handwritten label on the case says: “2001 game worn jersey—Tracy Scrogins DE, used in the last game in the Silverdome”. In case you were wondering, this is not Tracy Scoggins, the actor. I mean, I really can’t see her playing in the last game in the Silverdome and flinging her shirt into the crowd. So it must be Tracy Scroggins, football player with the Detroit Lions, who played their home games in the Silverdome outside that city.
So I am sitting next to a shirt a beefy football player wore through a game, likely sweating buckets, and then somebody bought the thing and stuck it on this wall. Nor is it the only such item. Next to it is a green and yellow jersey with “Brown 93” on it, and it once belonged to Gilbert Brown of the Green Bay Packers (“one of the greatest run stuffers of his era”, I learn from Wikipedia). This pasty suddenly seems even more devoid of taste.
But naturally, you ask: “Dilip, you idiot, how do you know those were real game jerseys? For all you know they might have put any old garment up on the wall, stuck a sign on it and here you are, cringing from it!” Well, sure they might have. But you didn’t see the “Certificate of Authenticity” on the Scroggins showcase, and I did. It certifies that this is indeed the specified jersey, it bears the very official-looking number of 2A08470, and it is signed by a Stephen Rocchi, who carries the very official-looking title of “professional sports authenticator”. Now there’s a profession for ambitious youth everywhere: Authenticate sweaty sports garments.
A couple of bits of excellent Yooper fudge finally help the pasty go down, and I get back on the road. The major highway through UP is Rt 2, a two-lane affair much of the way. Since this means that you might get stuck behind a slow-moving truck, the highway features regular “passing lanes”. That is, the one lane in your direction expands for a while to two lanes, and you can overtake. Nearly every time there’s a passing lane, there are accompanying signs. Here in UP, they come in four flavours:
• Passing Lane Ahead
• Keep Right Except to Pass
• Next Passing Lane, 5 Miles
• Next 127 Miles, 77 Passing Lanes
Three of those signs, I understand. The first tells you that this is your chance to overtake Aunt Millie going 27 miles per hour in her Oldsmobile ExtremelyEnormousCar. The second tells Aunt Millie that she should allow the procession of impatient drivers she has held up for a week to pass. The third says that if you don’t accelerate now, you’ll be stuck behind Aunt Millie for another week. But the fourth? As far as I can tell, it’s meant to make you reflect: “Ahhh, why bother? At 27 miles an hour over 5 hours, I’ll get 77 chances to overtake Aunt Millie! So I’ll just trundle along, maybe stop for more trinkets I don’t need, maybe force down one more tasteless pasty.” In other words, this is a subtle message from folks responsible for promoting tourism in Yooper-land. But not even they could have gotten me to my final memorable experience, one that made me think of UP as a gun pointing at the Michigan palm. That experience comes courtesy friend Bill Powell, hunter and gun enthusiast like many Yoopers. “I hate the Republicans,” he says, handing me a slice of venison, personally shot and cured. “But the Dems want to take away our guns, so who’s left to vote for?”
Possibly because I’ve never fired a real gun, I don’t have an answer. So Powell decides that he will take me shooting. His .22, .45 and a rifle, his wife and him and me in his Chevy pickup, we drive to where he practises, on the edge of a patch of forest.
With his .45, he tells me: “You need to hold it pretty firm, because it kicks pretty good. But you’ll be OK, your forearms are pretty beefy.” They are? I would have thought “spindly” and “skinny”—but I won’t argue with “beefy”. I have the .45 firm, but when I pull the trigger, the damn thing kicks like a mule and it’s all my beefy forearms can do to hold on. Powell must think I’m coming along fine, because he sets an oil can down on the ground and hands me the rifle.
“Go for it,” he says.
I sit, rest elbow on knee, sight through the scope, position the crosshairs, and slowly—“slowly”, says Powell quietly—I squeeze the trigger.
Through the scope, the can simply explodes. Powell explains that the “hydrostatic shock” from the bullet is responsible. Whatever it is, I am in shock. Did I do that? What comes to mind is, oddly, the famous picture of Sarah Palin posing with a moose she has shot. Was she shocked too, the first time? Did she wonder too, if she was really capable of doing that?
I don’t know, but now I have shot a real gun. The result, this twisted metal. Yes, this is what I did. No, it doesn’t feel good.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org