If you’re graduating, chances are you have plans to move somewhere more glamorous than Michigan. And fast. Countless new University degree-holders are fleeing the state for big cities, but by putting their careers on the fast track, they’re missing everything else along the way.

Scott Bell
A few blocks away from the eastern terminus of US-12, Michigan Avenue and Cass Street. (ROB MIGRIN/Daily)

As students head straight to law firms after graduation, fewer are joining the Peace Corps, volunteering or heading to Europe to find themselves. That internship might be a quick way to get where you’re going, but the final destination isn’t always as fulfilling.

The highway to Chicago is an alluring path for many students.

A car speeding down I-94 away from Tiger Stadium toward the Windy City is exactly where many students picture themselves after graduation. But before the giant highway existed, a smaller road, US-12, served as the main route to Chicago.

The route began as a foottrail named the Great Sauk Trail. It slowly widened as settlers began to travel south of Michigan more extensively. The road was paved in the 1920s, designated as a highway in 1926 and officially named US-12 in 1961. It begins in Detroit as Michigan Avenue and runs almost directly to Chicago, then eventually to Washington State.

Along the road lie towns even Michiganders have never heard of: New Buffalo, Three Oaks, Galien and White Pigeon, which blend into a dull blur out the window, lend character and color to a drive down US-12. People in each town call the road something different – in Coldwater, they call it Chicago. In Detroit it’s Michigan Avenue. In some spots, it’s called the Great Sauk Trail.

In late December, dozens of Stryofoam snowmen were leaning up against Stanley Johnson’s trailer, which was parked in his front yard. Johnson lives in Irish Hills, about 45 minutes outside of Ann Arbor, in a house that looks directly over US-12. He was selling the snowmen for $5 a hit, but when I didn’t have exact change, he gave me one for free. Johnson does OK business with travelers down the highway, he said, but the highway is becoming increasingly less used as smoother and more direct expressways are paved across the state. He sells more snowmen in Ann Arbor to his co-workers at Mott Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

In Sturgis, I stopped for a cup of coffee off the highway, which is also the main street of the town. The young man behind the counter looked at me scornfully when he saw I was reading the local Sturgis newspaper.

Apparently even young people in the towns littered along the highway have a different destination in mind. Bigger cities and brighter futures can be an effective distraction to anyone – especially if you’re living in Detroit or Sturgis.

He tossed me a copy of The Chicago Tribune. “Here, you can read a real paper,” he said.

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