I'm in love with Chicago AND Northern Michigan (part 4/finale)

I'm in love with Chicago AND Northern Michigan (part 4/finale)

Ashley and I have a healthy TV truce. I have basketball. She has The Bachelor. When either one of these shows are on, the remote control is off-limits. And it works because we’re both secretly invested in each other’s show.

What happens every time at the end of The Bachelor (or Bachelorette) is the main character will be in love with two contestants. They’re in tears when they talk to the camera. This is hard. I can’t decide. They both have my heart. ABC ratchets up the suspense. Gives us two hours of well-timed commercial breaks throughout the finale. It all leads up to the two final contestants arriving in separate limousines. They pull up to their potential engagement ceremony. The car comes to a stop. Door opens. Camera pans up from the dress shoe, shows the face of the person… who will finish in second place.

I can now empathize with the Bachelor. Northern Michigan is in one limo, Chicago in the other. And I’m completely torn.

After Part 1 of this series, I thought it was a done deal. I was ready to go with Northern Michigan. Time to sell the condo. But man, Chicago charged back in Part 2 and Part 3. At the end of those posts, it felt equally clear: How could I ever leave this city?

But Northern Michigan strikes back strongest in the fall. September, October, November, Northern Michigan has home-field advantage. Right as I was preparing my Northern Michigan break-up speech, Petoskey emailed me this photo. A personal invitation to the fantasy suite.



The next day I’m on the bike, stopped behind the 36 bus on a crowded Chicago street. What do I see in front of me? Traverse City. As I’m breathing in the exhaust, there’s Traverse City right in front of me. Pssst, remember that Northern Michigan air? Remember having some actual space on the road. Talk about an exhausting experience…

And every fall, I start thinking about Bayne’s Apple Valley in Freeland, Michigan, about 10 miles away from my hometown (Midland). Granted, it’s a real geographical stretch to label Freeland as Northern Michigan, but eh, I’m gonna do it anyway for the sake of this post. In my humble opinion, there is no better place for apple cider and donuts on the planet than Bayne’s.

Bayne’s is the type of place where renting a car and driving five hours north to stock up isn’t all that crazy. You do those things for love. Honestly, what’s crazier is going a year without Bayne’s apple cider.

When you look at the other vendors on Bayne’s shelves, you’ll see a common theme: Northern Michigan (and I mean actual Northern Michigan, not another generous rounding-up). They carry glass bottles of milk from Shelters Farms in Kalkaska. Shelters’ motto: “Our cows aren’t on drugs, they’re on grass!” There are bags of crackers and granola from Black Star Farms in Traverse City. And balsamic vinaigrette from Redheads in Lake Leelanau. I was doing some more research on the Redheads brand and I came across this heartfelt letter in 2017 from one of their owners, Sarah Landry Ryder. She was explaining why they were closing down their cafe and tasting room in an effort to focus more on their growing product line. She opened with a paragraph that reads like a love letter to Northern Michigan.

As I draw a long, deep breath into my lungs and pause at the tippy top of the inhale and hold; with the sun beating down on the 45 degree day, and blasts of leaf blowers and chain saws buzzing in the distance… I can smell that Spring has Sprung! What an exciting time of year, warm sunshine, brisk air, cool winds. A scent of new beginnings, the smell of the earth thawing. I adore living in Northern Michigan as she bellows through winter, spring, summer and fall, leaving me thrilled about being on the magic carpet ride through her seasons!

People in Northern Michigan love their place like it were a member of their own family. Like a main character in their story. Sarah’s letter above, or the writings of Kathleen Stocking, or Jim Harrison, they write about home the way Shakespeare’s characters wrote about love. And as I’m reading through this letter, you can tell she’s poured everything into her business, growing it into an essential part of the Lake Leelanau community.

But as you grow, the people on your team will eventually be ready to launch their own thing. It’s like coaches in basketball; Bill Self, John Calipari, and Gregg Popovich were all once assistant coaches to Larry Brown. The sign of a great coach is partially from your own success, but maybe, even more so, is how successful your assistants become when they have teams of their own.

At Redheads, the “assistant coach” in their cafe was Brian Figueroa, known as “Chef Fig.” He was ready to chase after his dream of opening his own restaurant. Sarah and her sister/co-founder, Christen, understood this calling to go start something of your own. After all, this was them 20 years earlier.

We talked it over for hours until we both knew that his heart loved our customers, our mission resonated with him, and our food was fantastic, but he needed to step out and go after his own dream, create his own “Kejara’s”.  And as much as I hated to have him go…I understood…maybe better than most 🙂

Chef Fig now runs “Fig’s Breakfast and Lunch” over on 202 Main Street in Lake Leelanau. As one new restaurant grows, the other needed to adjust. Sarah was trying to keep the cafe going plus keep up with their growing product orders from places like Bayne’s. Plus coaching volleyball, traveling, being the mother of two kids. There are only so many hours in a day and she’d been maxing them out for two decades.

In all of those years, I have never felt that my time running the cafe was near its end.  It’s my baby.  We did it. We beat all the incredible odds against us and created a farm to table, sustainable, organic, local, vegan & vegetarian, award winning restaurant for 20 years! Goal accomplished. 

There’s a reason something you buy from a place like Redheads tastes better and fresher than a massive international operation with 5,000 employees. Deeply caring about each product takes a lot of time. And it hurts. You lose a bunch of sleep. And it takes 20 years of doing these types of intense weeks, over and over again. Weeks that really only the owner themselves knows just how hard it was. There’s a lot of painstaking work that goes on behind the scenes to create that end customer moment of, “Woah, this is really good. Where’s this from again?”

The Redheads cafe is gone, but in a way, it lives on over at Fig’s. Both places feel like they wouldn’t be where they are now without the other.

Now, as The Redheads product line grows and ships to more locations around the state, more people will become fans. More people start sharing their story. Maybe soon their delivery map will stretch to Chicago.

Welp, that sure muddied up the Lake Michigan waters.

Go ahead and crumple up the Northern Michigan break-up letter. How can you beat that type of small-town feel? Alright, Chicago, I’m sorry. It’s time. We had a good run. I think I’m ready to make my final decision.


But then Pastoral, the great artisan cheese shop on Broadway (that would be right at home on Front Street in Traverse City), sends me the following note. It might be hard to read in the image, but the message said they collaborated with Mawby Vineyards from the Leelanau Peninsula to make a limited release, only available at Pastoral.

Mawby is about a 30-minute drive from my parent’s house along M-22. Pastoral is less than a minute walk from our condo. In that moment, I was actually the one closer to the vineyard. Chicago was saying, “Don’t go to Northern Michigan, we’ll bring Northern Michigan right to you.” To up the ante, Chicago is also bringing Kilwin’s to Wrigley.

Chicago is great at this, having its own local spots but also bringing you the best from all around the Midwest. All around the world. Two people in Chicago could be shopping “local” but buying completely different things. It’s hard to beat that level of variety.

Chicago vs. Northern Michigan. I mean, at this point, do you just flip a coin? I feel like I’ll be right either way.

So I went back to Part 1. Alright. Time to re-read through everything. Review both sides again. But what I noticed wasn’t the pros and cons of either place, it was how this whole thing started with a Chicago rut. A feeling of being in a great place and yet, it was the same old thing.

Now, to be fair, Chicago and Northern Michigan are both incredibly special places, but I started to wonder, if any great place can have a rut, does that also mean any place can be great? Is the secret less about the location and more about how you experience the town; about slowing things down, finding your town’s Wendy’s Pies from Scratch, discovering a basement bar like Galway Bay, or walking into the local bookstore.

I look around and more people in the Midwest are wearing shirts with an outline of their home state. Michigan. Ohio. Kansas. There’s a local pride spreading. A push back against being labeled a “flyover state.” We’ve got the “Frest Coast.” In Sunday’s Chicago Tribune, there was a note about the “Frest Coast Film Fest” up in Marquette, Michigan (anyone in the Upper Peninsula laughs when Traverse City is called Northern Michigan. To them, that’s down-state). Or, here in Chicago, we have Transit Tees over in Wicker Park and Andersonville who sells a line of “Fresh Coast” t-shirts. The slogan: Everyone’s always talking about whether the East Coast or the West Coast is better, but the Fresh Coast is the only 100% shark free coast in the USA.

You don’t have to be in Hollywood, Venice, Italy, or Cannes, France to throw a film festival. If Hollywood is out of ideas, the Midwest can take it from here. We’ll continue to assemble great film festivals like the one in Marquette, or the Traverse City Film Festival, or the Music Box Theatre here in Chicago that is fittingly called, “Chicago’s Year-Round Film Festival.”

For decades, the Midwest was sold this idea of making everything look the same. A town in Michigan and Illinois were almost identical because there was the McDonald’s, there’s Burger King, there’s Taco Bell. There’s the shopping mall. There’s the Wal*Mart. Get home. Turn on CNN. Turn on Fox News. We’d all receive the same national “breaking news” from a TV studio in New York City. The Midwest was in a bit of a rut.

But now it’s like we’re constantly on a treasure hunt. We’re obsessed with finding the great local taco shop. The best burger in town. We used to only have the “Taste of Chicago.” Now there are neighborhood-specific food festivals. Suburbs. Small towns. Everybody’s getting into this. And cable news now feels greasier than any fast food. We don’t want it anymore. We’re looking for anything else. I think that’s why documentaries are doing so well. Same thing with podcasts. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see local newspapers start making a comeback. We’re all searching for something fresh. 

And more people are starting to add to their places, creating the great new local spots. If you don’t have a local brewery in your town, go out and build one. It’s crazy, it took us until like three years ago in the Midwest to realize, “Wait, I think we can distill whiskey outside of Kentucky?” People are opening more restaurants, more bakeries. Farmer’s markets are growing. All of these places around the Midwest are competing with each other, who can build the better hometown. The fast-food/shopping mall sameness from the 90s is starting to melt away like the snow on an April day (eh, sometimes May).

So, Northern Michigan vs. Chicago. Who will I choose? The truth is, I don’t have to pick one. I can just keep enjoying their healthy competition. Let them continue to one-up each other. Hey, totally fine by me. I think what’s more important is avoiding the rut.

The recipe for a rut:

  • 1/2 cup of cable news
  • 1/3 cup of fast food
  • 1/4 cup of frozen food
  • 2/3 cup of Facebook
  • Dash of Twitter

The cure for a rut: Local. As much as possible. Ordering products from Redheads. Stopping into Pastoral. Buying apple cider at Bayne’s rather than the major grocery store. Warning: You do this too much and you may gradually turn into a hipster (or a hippie). You start writing long-winded things like this blog post.

But when you go local, your town starts to become a main character in the story. Which means there’s less pressure at work. Because when work is the dominant character, there’s this feeling of, “I need this to happen. I need to hit this deadline. I need this title and then I’ll be happy.” But when your Town is running things, it gets a whole lot simpler. Happiness is a mug of apple cider with a couple of Bayne’s donuts.

And then when we do travel, whether that’s overseas or five hours north to Traverse City, our adventure continues. We’ll keep looking for that place’s local spots. We build a deeper connection with each new place. A Here and a There.

Then you come back home to Chicago, put all of the food souvenirs in the fridge, open up a bottle of wine from Old Mission Peninsula, and think to yourself, “I’m in love with Chicago AND Northern Michigan.”

Previous Posts in the Series

This series was all building 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 traveling to 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,” my new the book, which is still trending toward an October release. Thank you for stopping by the blog and see you next week!

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