Perhaps I too fell victim to the pretty prose and powerful imagery of those Tool Man joints that promise us all so much if only we’d pluck ourselves from a listless life and plant ourselves in the supposed fertile soil of Michigan. I have spent more than a little time deriding those commercials and rebutting the points made and mocking the idea that anyone, anywhere, makes mermaid tails by the shore. The concept of those Coke versus Pepsi commercials is that the Coke guy really, genuinely likes the Pepsi. His life is set up in opposition of it, but deep down, if given the opportunity, he’d choose the Pepsi and throw his Coke based life away. In much the same manner I knew that I too, sooner or later, would have to taste from this great Michigan cup that Tim and friends continually push my way.
And this is what brings me to the current. I am now embedded, as a reporter in war, secretly, quietly, making my way through and around the town of New Buffalo, Michigan. I have driven to the dark side. I left Lake Geneva, and my friends and family, and my clear lake and my buoy tethered boat that bobs so pleasantly, at roughly 10:30 am yesterday morning. It was drizzling in Lake Geneva at the time, a display that mirrored my mood for the egregious error that I was about to undertake. I was conflicted about helping the Michigan economy with my alpha consumerism, but I knew I had to see what rested behind door number two. My kids started crying and generally behaving badly immediately upon the slamming of the door, as if they knew what awaited them and were as uncertain about it as I was.
As we plodded south, a most unnatural feeling that lies in square opposition to my belief that summer trips are intended to begin with a northerly bent, my mind raced. What if I found my way to Michigan and actually liked it? What if, throughout years of setting up Lake Geneva as the superior vacation home option, I felt a pull to Michigan that I could not escape? What if I arrived, and found no fault, only the fulfillment of my water-loving dreams? Such a discovery would certainly ruin my life, uproot my family, and lead me down a slippery path of chasing my personal utopia wherever it was found, even if that land of Canaan turned out to be Michigan. These were thoughts, bothersome ones, and I tried to swat them out of view like so many flies at a summer picnic. Flies, that’s what I was sure Michigan was full of. Flies.
I decided, about 3 miles east on I-80, that the fireworks billboards alone would be enough to keep me from sojourning to Michigan for my weekend retreats. The signs are dizzying, distracting, and the existence of strip club signs, casino signs, and fireworks signs, made me question the caliber of that Michigan bound audience. Is everyone on this road a 19 year old male? I wondered this silently while my kids fought in the back seat. I crunched the numbers in my head, desperate to find a way that the firework king could turn a profit after all those billboard checks. My son finally decided that he must have to sell one million dollars worth of fireworks per day in order to do so. I concurred.
My nervous energy increased when I saw the sign for New Buffalo. We were 9 miles away. Nine short miles until I would meet my adversary. I would meet it like a man, head on, and we would battle in a way that we hadn’t battled before. Previously, I would sling arrows from the comfort of my own watery utopia. I would line these arrows up and I would release them east, hoping to make contact but oblivious as to the proper trajectory and the exact latitude. I was close to ending the confusion, and my heart beat a little faster than normal, even outpacing my perpetually high blood pressure. I took Exit 1 and drove west, towards the water. I was afraid. I was trembling. What would I see here? Would I see the most perfect example of vacation home bliss ever assembled? Would the streets be paved not with asphalt or concrete but with gold and silver? Would I be greeted by a town greeter who would wipe the sweat from my travel-weary brow and offer me an ice cold glass of refreshing unicorn tears that might replenish both my soul and my tired body? The air was heavy with anticipation.
It is early morning now. I am sitting in the lobby of my hotel, writing. A freshly stacked stack of Summer Home For City People rests on the shelves that line one end of this modernist hall. What hotel am I staying at? I cannot tell you. I might be an embedded reporter, but Geraldo I am not. Through the glass I can see the front end of my car, currently covered in a camouflage mesh that I draped over it shortly after my Monday arrival. The mesh is flapping in the wind, as it seems most things do in Michigan. It is windy here. Probably always windy. The fear that I might find something so fine the course of my life would be changed forever has subsided. My homesickness grows. And my belief that Lake Geneva is the finest vacation home destination ever discovered remains more intact than it ever has been before. New Buffalo, as seen through these eyes, is a huge embarrassing disappointment and should be ashamed to have ever thought it could stand toe to toe with Lake Geneva.
I came here open to the idea that I might love this place. I travel to Door County every once in a while, and I find Door County to be overflowing with Lingonberries, yes, but also to be steeped with natural beauty and charm. It is a pretty place, it just happens to be way too far away to compete with Lake Geneva for the minds and wallets of vacation home loving Chicagoans. New Buffalo, I feared, would be as Door County, beautiful and serene and charming. After an afternoon here, I must admit that it is not the worthy adversary that I made it out to be. It is a town, sure, on the water, okay, but it is not a town with polish and prestige that Lake Geneva and Fontana easily are. It is a town that reminds me more of Elkhorn, or Walworth, and while those are fine towns, they are not on par with Lake Geneva. New Buffalo looks and smells to me like a town in some sort of transition, with more than a few empty or unfinished or unopened storefronts dotting the limited strip that I assume to be their “main drag”. It is a town lacking shops, at least to the level of Lake Geneva, and my wife was quick to point out the boutiques carry little in terms of clothing that might be found in the closets of most discerning vacation home owners. There are popcorn shops, plenty of ice cream shops, but there seems to be little else. The restaurant we ate at last night looks to be the New Buffalo equivalent of our Gordy’s, and if this is the battle by comparison, Gordy’s has the bout won before even stepping into the ring.
Today, I will spend my time and very little of my money in New Buffalo. I will wander the oddly wide Main Street, and I will wonder how this place pulls my prized demographic. I will attempt to understand this phenomenon where lakefront homes lack piers, and where evening boat rides are only accomplished with the assistance of a car, followed by a long walk, and ending with the untying of a boat resting in harbor that appears to be filled with the thickest of Chocolate milk. I will explore, and I will report back tomorrow with more of my findings. For now, I must go and evangelize the masses, my only tract being a trunk full of Summer Homes For City People. I think the wind just ripped the camouflage cover off my car.