There are 480 million acres of Midwest, filled with 68 million unique human beings. Hundreds of rivers and lakes amble through plains and forests. No one Midwestern state is quite like the other. For that reason, it can be difficult to understand the Midwest as truly one territory. Were there a library to mythologize the Midwest, the images and ideas of what we are and want to be might astonish you. This series wanders through the stories and imagery, the myths and legends, woven into the fabric of our identities.
You can see the stars in Onaway, Michigan. Tall pines and firs hug the cracked concrete on M-33, scratching at the indigo night sky. Each luminescent speck in the dark is deliberate and warm. Elk calls fill the night. Take M-33 to M-68, and there is a giant metal fish in the middle of town built by a guy named Tim. It is around the corner from a blue brick building, where a man sells old books and records for a buck apiece. On a clear day, you can see Lake Huron from the bend in M-68 that leads into Rogers City.
This is a Michigan, one of many. The white pines and elk — the black bears and shimmering Ursa Major of this boreal eden. These things faded away into concrete as I drove downstate to Detroit. The august elk became confused deer, the white pines shrunk. The stars dimmed and dissolved into the lavender clouds of pollution.
Were you to ask the man who sells records what the Midwest looks like, I couldn’t tell you what his answer would be. I also could not speak for those in Detroit, despite being a native myself. The thick evergreens of the Upper Peninsula cease once you hit the Dakotas. The plains and farmland of Nebraska and Iowa look foreign to the pastoral woodland landscapes of the northern Midwest.
There is no such thing as one Midwest. We differ not only in landscape, but in custom. The accents of Wisconsinites and Michiganders may sound similar, but they’re so acutely different that it becomes a part of our distinctiveness. The only personality trait Midwesterners seem to share is our fierce loyalty to our own idiosyncrasies. When Wisconsin used mitten iconography for a winter tourism campaign, the State of Michigan bullied Wisconsin into surrendering the mitten back to them, the thievery of which Wisconsin was forced to apologize for.
The only other thing Midwesterners agree upon is that Ohio is a sinister incarnation of nature’s most perverse and depressing form. This is a widely agreed upon fact lacking neither ambiguity nor dubiety.
From the back deck of the cabin in Onaway, I could see thunderstorms to the southeast, the lightning carving through the sky in flashes. At that precise moment, those thunderstorms were tearing down power lines and flooding streets in Detroit, but I didn’t know that at the time. I watched the white-blue bursts flicker against Shoepac Lake.
It is often said that thinking you know yourself best is bad form. Having spent every day with yourself, you have come to accept your personal abnormalities as normal, and thus, you would be a poor judge of your own character. While this might be true of people, it is not true of regions. I knew this to be so when a Tennessean told me I sounded Canadian. I have met many Canadians, and not one of them sounds like me.
“Up north” is a relative term. I am sure that the man who sells records in Onaway would not consider Grayling or Traverse City “up north.” For those in Houghton, “up north” is Lake Superior. But up north is a very distinct detail of the Midwestern record. Our slow-moving societies need increasingly remote places, populated by cabins in which to isolate ourselves. As I took part in that detail, watching the lightning etch light into the night, I thought about how I would begin to tell this story. I remembered pulling my Jeep to the side of the road along M-32, the sky completely void of light, the stars tucked behind the dark outlines of pines. It occured to me that, unlike Detroit — or anywhere I had ever been — I was looking clearly and deeply into something much greater than myself. I could see the stars in Onaway, Michigan.