Michiganders know the state gets a bad rap, but we remain captivated by its peculiar charms.
Like many people who grew up on the Leelanau Peninsula, the “little finger” poking out of the Michigan mitten, I spent my boyhood trips to the shore scouring the sand for Petoskey stones: little round rocks covered in a distinctive interlocking honeycomb pattern. I didn’t realize until well into my mid-20s that Petoskeys aren’t a precious metal — they’re actually small pieces of fossilized coral, dating back to the Devonian Period. And they can be found in only one place: northern Michigan. My friends and I polished our Petoskeys and turned them into jewelry for our mothers and aunts and girlfriends. They wore it all, walking around town hunched-over, their bodies heavy with Petoskeys.
It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago as an adult and started dating non-Michiganders that I realized not everybody is beguiled by Great Lake fossils. My first gift to my future wife, a month after we’d started dating, was a Petoskey necklace. She looked at it as if I’d just handed her a macaroni bracelet. “Are you being serious?” she asked.
I was embarrassed by the rejection, but mostly confused. I’d spent my life believing that Michigan contains everything that a person could reasonably want or need. It has rock jewelry, perfect views of the aurora borealis, Mackinac Island fudge, winning college football teams, no toll roads, more than 120 lighthouses and endless beachfront property, stretched across a longer coastline than any state’s save for Alaska’s. We’re also the only state with hand-based cartography. You can hold up an open palm, point to exactly where you live in Michigan — as long as you live on the Lower Peninsula — and be immediately understood. Beat that, other 49 states.
Growing up, I was vaguely aware that a world existed outside Michigan, but I assumed it was all variations on Canada. Michigan had everything that mattered. When I heard people on TV talk about the East Coast versus the West Coast, I assumed they meant Alpena and Muskegon. When somebody tells me they’re going on a summer vacation, my first response is always, “Up north?” Because that’s how we vacation in Michigan. We all drive upstate. If they tell me they’re actually heading south, I don’t know what to think. “To Ann Arbor?” I’ll ask, perplexed. The idea that they might go to Florida or any other vacation destination south of the Michigan border never occurs to me. July is Cherry Festival season! Everybody goes north.
It’s still disconcerting to me how outsiders, even fellow Midwesterners, feel about my home state: that it’s blighted, abandoned, despair-inducing. When I mention that I’m from Michigan, they’ll say things like, “I don’t know how you survive the winters up there.” Or “It’s amazing that you let both Michael Moore and Ted Nugent live there.” They’ll invariably bring up Detroit, which seems unnecessarily hostile and nit-picky. It’d be like if I met a New Yorker and immediately asked, “The bathrooms at Penn Station are pretty nasty, huh?” Yes, we know, and no, we don’t go there.
We know that Michigan has its faults: lake-effect snow, roads that resemble post-World War II Dresden, a hollowed-out auto industry, and Devil’s Night, the only annual holiday dedicated to looting and fires. You could look at all the evidence and decide that Michigan is a joke. That could be true. Or maybe you’re a coyote and we’re the Texas Horned Lizard.
The horned lizard, a spiky-boned reptile indigenous to much of the southern U.S., has a brilliant defense against predators. When it feels like a coyote might be intending to eat it, the horned lizard squirts blood out of its eyes, at a distance of up to five feet and right into the offending coyote’s mouth. Apparently the blood tastes nasty, so the coyotes lose their appetites and run away.
I’d argue that Michigan uses the same defense. What’s that? Popular Science just claimed that everybody will be moving to Michigan in 2100 because it’ll be the U.S. state least affected by climate change? Um… wait, did you hear we’re poisoning children in Flint with the water? That’s happening right now. And we’re not stopping! We’re like, “Whatever, poor kids. We’re out of money! Keep drinking the cancer Kool-Aid!”
Flint’s water crises is the Michigan equivalent of blood squirting out of a lizard’s eyes. Obviously Michigan’s water isn’t all poison. Just like the Texas Horned Lizard isn’t always squirting blood from its eyes. But that’s what we want you (i.e. the coyotes) to think.
Every Michigander lives with the fear that Michigan is constantly in clear and present danger of being colonized by enthusiastic outsiders. Late one night a couple of years ago, I got a panicked call from my mother. She had just learned that the chef Mario Batali, who owns property in Leelanau, invited the U2 guitarist the Edge up to Michigan, and the pair were spotted together at a farmers’ market in my hometown, Northport.
“You don’t think he’ll buy a house here, do you?” she asked, referring to the Edge. “He lives in Hollywood or Ireland or whatever. He wouldn’t want to come here, do you think?”
“I have no idea,” I told her, sleepily.
“What if he comes back with the rest of his band and they all buy summer homes?” she wondered aloud. “That’s the last thing we need.”
“I don’t think Bono wants to move to Michigan,” I assured her.
“Don’t be so sure. Nobody thought Tim Allen would move to Michigan, either, and now he’s doing tourism commercials.”
“I’m pretty sure he came here when he was eight.”
“They’re going to keep coming!” she said, ignoring me.
There’s an episode of Seinfeld that perfectly sums up the Michigan anxiety. Maestro, the orchestra conductor wooing Elaine, brags about his vacation villa in Tuscany, Italy, but then gets nervous when Jerry mentions that the area sounds beautiful. “Well if you’re thinking of getting a place there, don’t bother,” he says curtly. “There’s really nothing available.” That’s Michigan in one quote. We want to be desired and envied. Please visit our state and buy our fudge and marvel at our perfect beaches. But then leave. Forget “Pure Michigan.” Our state motto should be “There’s really nothing available.”
I don’t live in Michigan anymore, but I visit the state every summer, and now that I’m a father, I’ve begun introducing my 6-year-old son to Michigan culture. I’ve taught him that soda should always be called “pop,” and the most important decision he’ll ever make is between Flint-style and Detroit-style Coney Dogs, and that snow (to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin) is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.
I’ve taken him to our beaches and taught him how to search for Petoskeys. I held his hand as we walked the shoreline of my youth, and watched in amazement as he discovered his first Petoskey stone. I might have nudged him in the right direction. “Look at that pretty stone,” I told him, forcing his attention towards the water.
We polished his Petoskey, and I told my son that he’d found something remarkable, and how he may not realize it now, but this was the beginning of an endless Easter egg hunt that would consume him for decades, and then repulse him for just as long. I told him why the stone was special, not because it’s especially beautiful but because it’s unique — those snooty ocean coasters can’t claim to have better versions. I told him how he’d grow up and give a Petoskey to the woman (or man) he wants to love forever, and they probably wouldn’t get it, but that’s O.K., because the fact that outsiders don’t get it is part of what makes being from Michigan so precious and rare.
Someday, I told him, he’ll feel like a fool for getting excited about it. But in the blink of an eye he’ll be middle-aged, standing in a lake that feels like home, staring at the water and trying to find another dumb rock, and he’ll forget how much he wanted to leave this place as a teenager, because now it feels like the only place on earth that matters. He’ll make grand declarations (at least in his head) to move back someday, before Bono and all his rock star buddies buy the really nice homes.
Then I realized that my son was barely paying attention to me, which was fine. He needs to learn these things on his own.
[This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the April 23, 2017 issue of the New York Times Magazine.]