Every year, I fall into a Chicago rut. I think we all do. It usually happens some time in the middle of winter or during the
spring winter "expansion pack" that runs from late March through Memorial Day. The Chicago rut can last anywhere from an afternoon to an entire month.
The rut is when everything starts to feel a little too routine. You wake up. Get on a crowded bus. Work. Get back on the bus. Dinner. Couch. Netflix. Sleep. Do it again. You start to feel like a number.
You know you've hit peak rut season when you start fantasizing about Montana. You take pictures of their tourism ads on the bus. Send to your wife. "Spring break?" You start learning about the Montana state bird (the Western Meadowlark) and begin asking yourself, "I wonder if we could live there?" You casually browse through Montana rental properties until one morning you stop mid-scroll. "Wait, what the hell am I doing?" and that's the end of the rut.
This year, I hit my Chicago rut toward the end of June. The first time I've ever had a summer edition. Right in the middle of the summer rut, we rented a car, packed the trunk with our bags. Ashley sat with Crash in the back seat. I sat in the front like an Uber driver. We set our course five hours north to a magical land that feels like the Midwest but looks like Europe. A state that starts with an M but doesn't end with "ontana." Get the phone setup on Bluetooth, fill the car with the fiery music of Michigan's own, Bob Seger.
Gonna cruise out of this city, head down to the sea
Gonna shout out at the ocean, hey it's me
And I feel like a number, feel like a number
Feel like a stranger
Stranger in this land, I feel like a number
I'm not a number. I'm not a number!
The car gets you to Michigan physically; Seger gets you there spiritually.
Northern Michigan. You look around and there are trees. Tall, healthy trees. Does Chicago have trees? In the morning, you hop on the bike and go ride with your Dad along the lake. Does Chicago have a big lake? Every day you eat fresh cherries and strawberries and grilled asparagus. Everything's fresh. Pure. Nighttime comes later on Old Mission Peninsula. It's still light at 9, 10 o'clock at night. Even the sun doesn't want to go home for the day. When the sun finally sets, the lighting dims like a movie theater, and the night sky starts its show with stars as far as the eye can see. You never see stars like this in Chicago, outside of the Adler Planetarium.
Every time I return home from Northern Michigan, I have the same chill running through my body as someone fresh out of a massage or an acupuncture session. Northern Michigan is essentially my weed brownie. That whole next week at work (eh, maybe the next two weeks), I'm in a strange sort of autopilot. I'm still working but I'm not fully there.
I'm thinking about that cherry pie in Traverse City, the one from Wendy's Pies from Scratch--I don't even know if she has a website. Her storefront is just a booth by the side of "Island View Road," between the bays, right next to Warren Orchards. Your mom called her on a Monday or Tuesday afternoon to place the order. It'll be ready Thursday. Fresh, handcrafted takes time, it can't be Amazoned over in 24-hours. Two days later you head over to the booth, put the money in a box. Pick up the cherry pie. There's nothing mass-produced about this experience. Like they say at Improvised Shakespeare here in Chicago, "You're seeing the opening AND closing night of this show."
When I'm sitting at a brewery in Chicago or outside at a patio bar, I can't help but think, "Sure, this is nice, but it's not The Willows. It's not Mari's Vineyard. It's not Bowers Harbor." There's a vineyard on Blue Water Road called Brys Estate. They serve up frosé (frozen rosé) on hot summer days. Women order these in a heartbeat. Husbands and boyfriends pretend to be reluctant. I mean, if they're serving it up, I guess I'll give it a try. Take a sip. Look out at the lake that feels like an ocean. Stay on high alert in case your high school football coach walks by.
Brys has a "Secret Garden" behind their winery. It's not possible to leave the Secret Garden and still be in any sort of a rut. Back there you can find a field of blueberries and strawberries and then this massive sea of purple, row after row consisting of six thousand lavender plants. Ashley exits the rows of lavender with a post-yoga class chill. I think lavender secretly has the same effects as CBD, but without the Midwestern guilt for trying it. There's a little shop back there with a variety of lavender products including custom-made Moomers ice cream with ingredients fresh from their garden.
Plus another 20+ vineyards spread out between Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsula. These places are incredible. You don't have to travel to France, Italy, Napa Valley. Spend a weekend in Northern Michigan, you're getting incredible wines without the jetlag. You almost don't even want to write about it for fear of the secret getting out, these places becoming crowded like a bus in Chicago.
And when I'm sitting on that crowded bus in Chicago, scrolling through my phone, I look up and everyone's doing the same. Drive around the city, look out at the streets, everyone's looking down.
But up there? If people are looking down, it's usually at a book. A physical book. If the bookstore industry was "struggling" or being replaced by Amazon, that news hasn't reached Northern Michigan. Horizon Books in Traverse City is thriving, stays open till 11 p.m., every night of the week. Their motto: "Find your place." Dog Ears Books in Northport, Bay Books in Suttons Bay, the sense of community you feel walking into both of these places is the same thing Lululemon and other high-end retailers are trying to create in big cities. With malls dying out all around the country, the new trend in retail is all about: "Experiential stores." "Building a community." The bookstores in Northern Michigan look at all of this and say, "Well yeah, we could've told you that 30 years ago."
The Chicago rut was replaced by the Northern Michigan high. And, what normally happens, once the high fades away, is I end up justifying the city. "Up North is supposed to be magical. It's paradise, but it's a retreat. It's an escape; just like Italy or the Caribbean (albeit much easier to get to). The place you go to where everything's perfect. But you can't live there full time. If you did, then all of that stuff would start to fade, right? You'd fall into a routine. Eventually, you'd have an annual 'Northern Michigan' rut. At the end of the day, Chicago is my Here, Northern Michigan is my There."
That's what normally happens, but not this time. The thought showed up: What about living in Northern Michigan? And this time I didn't brush it off with a quick, "Nah, come on. Northern Michigan is a vacation." No, this time I came back to Chicago like an NFL coach making cuts to his final roster. I dropped off the rental car, put the bags away, walked out to the street and thought, "Alright, Chicago, the clock's ticking. Show me what you got."
Ah, it's good to be back. I'm going to try and keep this series contained to four parts. It's all leading up to a new writing project called "The Midwest as a Foreign Country." The overall thesis being: We aren't flyover states. There are so many great things to see, do, eat, drink in the Midwest and for way too long we've been giving the coasts and foreign countries way too much credit. We have great things right here! Stay tuned for this new series on Long Overdue Books (site currently under construction). Also keep an eye out for "Here or There" the book, which is still trending toward an October 15th release date. Thank you for stopping by the blog and see you next week for Chicago's rebuttal.
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Filed under: Travel Advice
Tags: Bay Books, Bob Seger, bookstores in northern michigan, Bowers Harbor, CBD, Chicago, Chicago Bears, Chicago is crowded, Dog Ears Books, frose, Horizon Books, lavender, Leelanau, local bookstores, Mari's Vineyard, Montana, Montana Tourism, Moomers ice cream, Northern Michigan, Northport, Old Mission Peninsula, Secret Garden at Brys Estate, Sutton's Bay, The Willows, Traverse City, Up North, Warren Orchards, weed brownie, Wendy's Pies from scratch