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Monday, May 25, 2009

Up North

Northern Michigan is not like the rest of Michigan. The lower part of Michigan - the bottom half of the mitten - is much like the rest of the Midwest. Been to Indiana or Illinois? That's how lower Michigan is. It's a lot like Ohio too, except hillier, and with junkier roads.

Outside the cities, lower Michigan is mostly farm land, patchworked with corn and wheat and soybeans and peppered with fruit orchards. We have forests down here, but it's mostly new growth woodland, almost all of it planted within the last 150 years. The land is gently rolling, with very few truly flat areas, but definitely no mountains.

Upper Michigan is not like that. Upper Michigan is like a completely different country. While it suffered it's share of logging throughout the nineteenth century, there are still thousands of acres of pristine woodland. The land is very hilly, practically mountainous - hilly enough where snow skiing is a very big deal in northern Michigan, and we proudly boast several world renowned ski areas.
When you're driving up north, you feel like you can reach out and touch history. Stories of the Native Americans who originally lived here are made more real by the unbelievably dense forests. The rivers and roadways and even the strip malls boast names that transport you easily back to the seventeenth century - names like Bear River, L'Abre Croche, and Cross Village.

You can drive for miles and miles up north without seeing much of anything. The roads are hilly, with sharp curves here and there to break up the monotony. If you're looking out the window, you'll see A-Frame houses and log cabins, with vast stretches of dense tamarack forest in between. And ever so often, you'll come across Seasonal Roads.
An impassable seasonal road in Charlevoix County.
Seasonal Roads are a testament to the mettle of those who choose to live in Northern Michigan. "SEASONAL ROAD," the sign proclaims. "Not maintained by the [insert county here] road commission." And that means that these roads are deeply rutted, sometimes washed out, and often impassable without four wheel drive. They snake through deep, state-owned forest and are mostly used by people on four-wheelers or snowmobiles.
It is not at all unusual to drive these roads and stumble upon a cross, or a few crosses, marking the resting places of those whose homesteads had been made in these woods a century or more ago.

This particular cross in the only evidence of the family Sobie, whose name is burned in the seven foot monument, and whose descendants have placed large logs around what must have been the original homestead. If you get out and explore a little, you'll see a few broken bricks, largely buried in forest floor, and a tiny headstone with no carving. Has the engraving been worn away by centuries of rain storms and bitter Michigan winters? Or was this a family so poor that there never was an inscription? Perhaps it wasn't a homestead at all - perhaps this was a logging camp, or missionary's home, or a converted Odawa family. There is no way to know, but one thing is sure - the wild has overtaken this place, and the beauty and solitude are breathtaking.

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