Maxwell Schwarz: Michigan Left, or the long way home

Tuesday, October 1, 2019 - 5:28pm

Maxwell Schwarz

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The sprawling gray highways will attempt to convince you that the most direct route is the best one. These concrete trails are hypnotic, tiring, blending into each other. You think you’re making progress, getting closer. But somehow you’re still so far away. You keep driving. This is how they get you. Please don’t fall for it.

Roads seem like they’ll lead you anywhere. You can take I-94 eastbound from Chicago to Canada. Detroit has roads spitting off directly in every direction. Roads named after the towns they pass through. Roads named after people. Roads to turn you back around.

“I’ll be taking any beauty I see / And I’ll try to give it to ya.” So shouts Max Kerman on the titular track of Arkells’ 2011 album, Michigan Left. These lovely Canadians from Hamilton may have written a song about Detroit, but these words don’t lead me there. Not yet, at least.

To make a left turn, you have to go right. Then you make a u-turn at a median. This is the Michigan Left. It’s Detroit’s own special concrete conundrum. It takes a little longer. It’s not a direct route. It’s managed to infuriate Michiganders consistently since the first one popped up in 1960. (It’s universally despised, I promise.) But we’ve gotten really good at it. I don’t mean that we’ve gotten good only at taking Michigan Lefts. I mean we’ve gotten good at taking the long way home.

The Midwest is slow. Our towns are small. Most of them are covered by trees. A good chunk of it borders Canada. The chunk that doesn’t is surrounded by golden walls of corn. This is all to say, we have a lot of time on our hands. A good thing, too, because it’ll take you seven hours to get from Detroit to Marquette. But even if you take the most direct route there — I-75, to M-123, to M-28 — what will you pass through? Through Flint and around Saginaw. Though Grayling and Wolverine. That’s all before you crest the Mighty Mac over the Straits of Mackinac. If miss any of it, all you’ve seen is distant white pine and more miles of worn highway.

Wherever you go, you may make a Michigan Left or ten. Stopping to get gas, being robbed of your sense of direction or chasing a bear through the woods in your Jeep because you want to hang out with him (highly discouraged, leave bears alone — I had fun, the bear did not). Without these things, a journey isn’t a journey at all. It’s you, stuck in a box for hours while the world revolves past you. Just because you arrive somewhere doesn’t mean how you got there didn’t matter. That time’s lost if it’s not cherished.

There’s a combined total of over 425 miles of Michigan Lefts stretching across each of these pleasant peninsulas. Their purpose is safety. But their function is humility. Taking a Michigan Left isn’t an impediment. It’s an opportunity to slow down, to ease the highway’s beating on your temples and patience. Every Michigan Left and diversion is the prospect to take in the beauty of a Michigan that’s sprawled out in front of you.

We are all going somewhere. There’s a trail we’ve each been following. Maybe you need to go see your father because he really does love you, even if he has trouble showing it. Maybe you need to meet up for coffee with a friend who’s a little more like a stranger now. Maybe you’re trying to remember how to love someone who’s hurt you. Maybe you’re just trying to get better. Wherever you’re going, you’ll get there. I only hope you’ll remember your Michigan Lefts. Take all the beauty you see and try to give it to yourself — for real this time. Please remember to take the long way home.