It would be easy to confuse this day with any other that came before it. It’s gray in the sky and cold in the air. It’s wet underfoot. It’s snowing in Northern Illinois. The Cubs are in last place. I put on a light jacket this morning, the sort that I’ve worn almost every day since I put my heavy jacket away, too early. I pulled on my boots, not because I needed them for walking through snow, but because they are shoes that I wear when it’s cold and fallish, and it’s nothing if not cold and fallish. My drive to work was about the same as it usually is, except for a most unwelcome sign of the season. Not the season we’re in, which is somewhere between spring and winter and late fall, but the season to come. It’s almost summer, and I know it because Tim Allen just told me so.
I typically black out when his voice pulses through my speakers, so I rarely pick up the entirety of his content, instead settling for snippets that I absorb while drifting in and out of consciousness. There is a common theme running through these commercials, aimed solely at the ears of Chicagoans and their disposable vacation home or vacation seeking dollars. The theme is not The Cider House Rules. The goal of these commercials is not necessarily to make you want to do any one specific thing, as the copy suggests, instead the goal is to make Michigan sound like an exotic, wild place. I’ve been there, and it isn’t, but that’s not the point. They pull town names that sound far away, like some island that I’ve never heard of in some part of Michigan that I’ll never go. Or some small town with an Indian name that sounds super amazing, but is, in fact, just a place with a few antique shops that open for a couple months in summer. Today, Tim told me about Escanaba. I assume the writers picked that town because it sounds elusive and very unlike anything related to a large City. They thought it would entice a few people to visit, but they hadn’t counted on me having been there many, many times.
I was first introduced to river fishing for brown trout on the Escanaba River. The river, as you guessed, flows into the town of Escanaba before dumping into Lake Michigan. It was four years ago, I think, when I first pulled on my waders and walked through the admittedly wild scene that surrounds this freestone river. I was immediately hooked on fly fishing. The trout were colorful, the effort rewarding, the end of day exhaustion worthwhile. We fished that day until the light failed, and we returned to the hotel in the great town of Escanaba to get cleaned up and head out for dinner. Though it was only late September, the town had the distinct feel of a place that used to be more important.
When fishing, we seek out bars to eat at. Even though I don’t drink, it’s important to finish a day of healthy exercise with some fried this and some fried that. We found one suitable bar in town, and walked in to find that it was just us and a few resident drunks at the counter. The waitress was pleasant, and we ordered the fried bits while asking questions about the town. We asked where everyone was. We asked if it was always this lonely feeling. We asked what had gone wrong here in this town that certainly didn’t feel very alive. She told us that the town was a paper producing town, and that the mills were shutting down, one by one. There were a few still open, she thought, but she figured they’d be closed someday soon, too. She didn’t exactly know.
The next morning, we went to fish by Lake Michigan, in the river, where we might find lake run salmon and steelhead and big, hook-jawed brown trout. Instead of being idyllic, as we had imagined, it was industrial, the river coursing through concrete retaining walls, in and around the town that used to host industry, maybe of the paper variety. We fished for a while, having put in at a bridge that looked accessible. It wasn’t long before we met a friendly angler, who told us that he was fishing further upstream, and that there were fish to be caught there. We walked up to where he was, and sure enough, catching ensued. We fished the day away, and when darkness came, we drove deep into the darkness, home.
We didn’t buy any souvenirs in Escanaba that day. Had we wanted to, I’m not sure there were any to be bought. Billboard advertising worked its magic on us, and we stopped for some pasties before leaving the UP. They were bland and bad, which was a huge disappointment as the place we stopped at offered up The UP’s Best Pastie. Something strange happens when you leave the Upper Peninsula at night. You drive and you drive, from Escanaba towards Wisconsin, in the dark. There are small towns, with small town billboards, but those towns mostly feel like the last person to leave had already turned the lights out. You drive into the darkness, and then you see the lights of a distant town. You drive closer. And closer. Until you come to the bridge and realize that those lights are in Wisconsin.
When you pass into Wisconsin, there are people smiling and laughing. There are lights on and children playing. You feel as though you have switched your television from a black and white movie on AMC to a blockbuster on HBO. There is life and happiness and prosperity. There is also a very long drive left. Mapquest puts Escanaba at 311 miles from Chicago, but that makes it sound somewhat close. It isn’t. Escanaba is every bit of 5 hours from Lake Geneva, which means it’s considerably longer from Chicago. And for what? To go to that bar and have that waitress tell you about the paper mills that may or may not still be there?
While I assure you Escanaba offers nothing for you, I think you should plan a trip. Pack the car. Buy the kids all sorts of treats. Charge the iPads. Gas the family cruiser. Head North. Once you enter into Wisconsin, quickly turn left onto Highway 50 and go straight to Lake Geneva. I can send you pictures of Escanaba, assuming I had my flash turned on.