Escanaba: Gateway to the Upper Peninsula

Escanaba Airport

Escanaba Airport

It was 1:35 pm in the afternoon when I touched down at the small Delta County Airport.  I was greeted with nothing more than an obscure terminal with one line for baggage check and an even smaller baggage claim.  The land from about a mile up in the air was an enormous lake, hundreds of thousands of trees, and only a handful of roads.  I had made it to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  If you mention Michigan to most Americans, they’ll think of that mitten-shaped state that lies on top of Indiana and is surrounded by the Great Lakes.  But beyond Detroit and Grand Rapids, there’s that big hunk of land that is sandwiched by Lake Michigan to the South and Lake Superior to the North.  Welcome to the Upper Peninsula!

"Welcome to Escanaba!"

“Welcome to Escanaba!”

I was there to visit my brother-in-law who had a summer home on Lake Michigan.  First, he picked up my family and I from the local airport in Escanaba, one of the larger towns on the Upper Peninsula, or “UP” as it is better known as.  For me, I was pretty stoked.  It may not have been the wilds of Africa or the jungles of Cambodia, but I dig visiting new parts of America; it allows me to see the little things that make each part of this great nation so unique.  For example, have you ever noticed that when you drive from the northeast and into the south, you stop seeing IHOP’s and you start seeing Waffle Houses?  But I digress.  We headed out to US 2, which is the main thoroughfare that cuts through town.  Famished, we pulled over for lunch at a Culver’s, a regional fast-food chain known for “butterburgers” and homemade frozen custard.  As cheesy as this may sound, this was something I was really looking forward to.  One of the benefits about sightseeing in new states is the opportunity to sample regional specialties that you cannot find in your own neck of the woods.  Being from Long Island, New York, you’d think we have everything under one roof.  Contrary to Huey Lewis saying that New York is the city where “you can do a half-a-million thing all at a quarter to three”, you won’t find a Culver’s in the Big Apple or Long Island.  Situated throughout mostly Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois, this chain serves up some of the best tasting burgers, and in a fast-food setting which is even rarer.  And the menu just screams Midwestern, with items like cheese curds, frozen custard, “butterburgers”, homemade root beer, and breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches.

"Culver's: Best burgers and custard in Michigan!"

“Culver’s: Best burgers and custard in Michigan!”

 

"Who ordered the Butterburger with fries?!"

“Who ordered the Butterburger with fries?!”

Less than an hour later, with my belly full of burgers and fries, I hit the road once again.  I was awash in a landscape of water towers, motorcyclists, and frozen custard stands.  At any moment, I though we’d be in the middle of a circus parade or church picnic.  It was everything I expected.  I didn’t know whether I was transported back to the 1960’s or if I was in a cliched postcard tableau.  Either way, I was loving this scene.  It reminded me of when you see politicians on TV talking about the “Real America”, although they often refer to it in sort of a smug, condescending tone.  They talk about these parts of the country as if they wax nostalgic about the “good-old days” before things like “big cities” supposedly ruined America.  Oh, please!  The only thingeye-catching about this part of the country was that there were more places selling frozen custard than there were gas stations and mailboxes!  It’s the little things like that that fascinate me about what makes each part of America so unique.  As far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as “Real America”.  Although, I do hope Long Island gets a Culver’s franchise soon.

Big Bay de Noc

Big Bay de Noc

As I continued the long drive down US 2, the view morphed from roadside mini-malls and gas stations and into towering trees and freight train overpasses.  Where typical highway fare like McDonalds and Philips 66 stood, the vista of Lake Michigan came back and it was a most welcome sight.  To be accurate, the body of water was Big Bay de Noc, which empties out into Lake Michigan.  And the body of water that my plane flew over as it was descending into Escanaba was Green Bay.  And no, I did not see Lambeau Field from the sky.  The sunlight practically glistened off the slight-dark, azure surface even on a partly cloudy day.  On the other side of the highway, the houses were not your two-story suburban castles of Long Island and New Jersey.  They were one-story bungalows with brightly painted rooftops and giant piles of firewood, all stacked so neatly, that you’d almost think they were playing Tetris with timber.  Those woodpiles were another reminder that I was at the edge of the wilderness.  In a place where towns are few and far between, life here runs to the beat of a different drum.  I couldn’t help but be impressed by how big those timber piles were.  And where there’s smoke, there’s fire; where there’s chopped and stacked logs, there have have got to be fisherman and hunters.  Sure enough, a few more miles of driving yielded Polaris-ORV’s in the drive way with trailers for carrying weapons and game kills.  Not to mention the thickness of the forest just had a bounty of wildlife.  Maybe not bears, but buck deer and eagles were just a few of the fauna that call this part of Michigan home.  For me, I’m no hunter, let alone gun-owner as well.  Being from Long Island, the only I hunt for is a parking space!  I just hope my time in the Upper Peninsula wouldn’t result in me being hunted for sport!

Off the beaten path in the UP

Off the beaten path in the UP

I was not in Northern Michigan to hunt, fish, or do chores suitable for Paul Bunyan.  I was there to visit my brother-in-law and his family who had a summer home in the small town of Garden, approximately 50 miles from the airport in Escanaba.  There is one thing I liked about the drive: it is hard to get lost.  With pretty much one major highway separating the landscape around Big Bay de Noc from the civilization of Escanaba, US 2 is the sort of the main street of the UP.  One of my favorite signs I saw along the way was a wooden sign for the nearby Hiawatha State Forest.  What was so special about this sign, you ask?  It looked like something out of an episode of Yogi Bear.  The look of the vintage sign, it might as well have said “Welcome to Jellystone!”

"Welcome to Hiawatha National Forest!"

“Welcome to Hiawatha National Forest!”

About admin

I am a graduate of Stony Brook University, and I have a degree in History. I am an avid traveler, with an extensive knowledge of geography, a passion for photography, and a knowledge of animals too. I enjoy pop music of the 1980's, fine dining, movies, baseball, basketball, and rugby.
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One Response to Escanaba: Gateway to the Upper Peninsula

  1. Alisoun Brewster says:

    Jared–what a great write-up of Escanaba and the wonderful north woods! You know how much I love it up here–I am so glad you were able to experience a little slice of this wonderful place.

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