Joseph Horton: What makes the Mitten?

By Joe Horton, Columnist
Published March 19, 2013

I often teach an essay called “Michigan.” In it, Mohammed Naseehu Ali details his journey from Ghana to Michigan to attend Interlochen Center for the Arts. During the long winter months, he sharpens his outsider’s eye to identify three types of Michiganders: “…there is the Poet, who spends lots of time observing nature and writing about it; the Outdoors man, men and/or women who engage the elements through skiing, ice-fishing, and hunting through the sullen months of winter; and the Sports Fanatic, the ordinary Michigander who passes endless hours watching sports on television.” My classrooms full of students — both native to the state and new — are quick to say there’s more to the Mitten. Plenty more, they say. But when talk turns to what Michigan actually is and to defining what being a Michigander actually means, the classroom splits — alliances form, tempers flare, claims are staked, and authority and credibility are invoked to the breaking point.

For the outsiders, summarized in broad terms, Michigan is distilled into a parade of opposites. The state becomes a contrarian collection of everything left behind at home. Californians point out the “constant” gray, “absolutely freezing” temperatures and the delightfully empty highways — no, no, they’re “freeways,” you know. East Coasters note, en masse, on how polite and “nice” everyone is, and Southerners wonder why everyone is so reserved. International students — a category so broad as to be often unusable — do regularly share common ground in comparing their home cuisines to Michigan’s big-portioned, less-flavorful attempts at replication. For most of the newly arrived, an appreciation of Mitten geography and culture is passing and general: Canada’s close, Detroit’s a disaster and there are a ton of big lakes around. Not only have many never been to the Upper Peninsula, but also a not-insignificant number have no idea that Michigan even has an upper peninsula — and just forget pronouncing “Mackinac.”

Natives and long-timers, then, frequently find themselves left to defend or dismantle Michigan’s stereotypes, and I’ve found this at first produces surprising unanimity. Yes, they say, we do point to where we’re from on our hand, but only in response to the blank, “you’re-from-where?” stare. No, not everyone owns a boat, but everyone knows somebody who owns a boat. Yes, we have plenty of great lakes, and we can name at least four without an acronym. Sports are a major unifying component of Mitten life, and yes, part of being a Tigers fan is appreciating (if not secretly enjoying) suffering, but fandom is fracturing too: the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry seeps into all facets of life, from high-school graduation cliques to families divided blue and green over generations with neither side giving ground. Yes, we have two peninsulas, and of course the Upper Peninsula is weird, but it’s our weird, so back off.

But there is one issue that vexes the Michiganders. As this schizophrenic Michigan March drags on in its cruel game of bait-and-switch and guardedly optimistic conversations inch toward cabins and cottages and trips “up north,” the question is collectively begged: Where, exactly, is “up north?” Past Midland, some say. Or Mount Pleasant. Just anything above the thumb, insist others; if you draw a line flat across the end of the thumb, that’s north. Some draw a higher line — Traverse City or Gaylord or Grayling and above. A few even venture that north really means above the bridge only. No agreement. No compromise.

Consider, then, that our University not only serves its state but also serves to introduce a huge number of outsiders to the state. What responsibility do native and longtime Michiganders have here in shouldering Mitten identity? What introduction should natives offer the new, and what good is that introduction if basic geography, “the north,” is so divisive and variable?

I’m not in a position to say, since I’m an outsider. I’m from Colorado, which on the Michigander radar generally appears as a single giant mountain rearing up in the Far West populated solely by Bronco-jersey-wearing, John-Denver-humming skiers with Coors beer-helmets and handfuls of GORP. Before moving here four years ago, I’d never heard of a powder puff game or Sweetest Day. I thought Faygo was a cleaning solution (and, really, isn’t it?) and a “Michigan turn” was the acquired patience of driving forever in a one-way wrong direction.

But as a teacher of writing, I believe that process is as valuable as the product. For me, the truth that “up north” is a state of mind — the enduring definition, offered up by a student semesters ago, is the wonderfully simple, “ ‘up north’ is where your cabin is; ‘up north’ is where you go” — suggests a private space in a public conversation, a place bounded by tradition yet boundless in idea, that helps me better appreciate Michigan. Here, understanding can’t always be found on a map, but you’ll know it when you’re there. Or, as a good Michigander friend of mine says, invoking his grandfather, “Michigan’s a destination state. There’s no reason to be here besides being here.”

Joe Horton can be reached at