Michigan, surrounded as it is by the great lakes, stands out from all the arbitrary squares drawn on maps by men. I don't suppose any schoolchild, anywhere, learning the names of the fifty states, ever had trouble remembering the mitten shaped state. Taken in isolation, as a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, it is patently obvious what the shape represents - unlike, say, one of those square states out west. Michiganians like to dwell on their uniqueness.
There is a great demand for the aerial views of the local peninsulas in the tourist shops in Traverse City - so literal yet so beautiful. Upmarket orthodontists place elegant steel-framed aerial photographs in their waiting rooms, next to expensive indoor palms. The combination of blue and green excites the eye and soothes the mind. An aerial photograph helps to explain the fascination of the area - so clean and well defined. We live in a peninsula state, in a county which is itself a peninsula. By definition, peninsulas are more inaccessible, more out of the way than the rest of the mainland. Once you venture up a peninsula you have nowhere to go, so you must turn around and come back the way you came. We are not on the way to anywhere. We are, literally and figuratively, geographically and ideally, a place set apart.
This is a unique part of the world. Ask anyone around here, and they will tell you that. There really can be very little dispute on that subject. During the sixties, when I lived in Petoskey, our fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Schultz, explained how the astronauts had commented specifically on being able to pick out Michigan from space. The Earth is a crystal blue ball, shrouded in wisps of mist, and Michigan is a beautiful landmark, even from space, she told us. Naturally this heartened us.
Stories about astronauts glimpsing God, and Michigan, have a way of inserting themselves into the collective myth kitty of our consciousness. It is a flattering notion to think that our little part of the world is uniquely special. So strong is the notion that a fresh generation of journalists has been unable to resist shaping the story to fit the needs of the community. Witness a front page article in the Leelanau Enterprise of March 9th, 2000 entitled "Room with a view: Astronaut picked Leelanau from space." The article begins with the ubiquitous "unique" angle: "People decide to settle down in Leelanau County for a variety of reasons, but Jerry Linenger's reason was unique. It was a view of Leelanau from the Russian space station Mir that led the retired Navy captain and NASA astronaut to move here."
It's a human interest story, a story about lifestyle migration, and a story about the importance of community. Linenger has written a book about his life-threatening stint aboard the Russian spaceship Mir, about the loneliness he experienced, and the desire for a restful and meaningful reintegration into community and family connections. He has found that community in Leelanau County, and is able to live anonymously, "paddling my kayak to my office every day lately." Leelanau county is a portrayed as a place to settle down, a place that stands out from space and looks nice to astronauts. It seems a good place to play possum, a nice place to raise up your kids.
Another leitmotiv running through the story is the notion of Leelanau's respect for the privacy of celebrity. Linengar's relationship to community is tempered by a need for family privacy and anonymity, a wish hitherto respected by The Enterprise, as explained in an aside: they agreed to delay interviewing Linenger until after his book came out, despite knowing of his presence for a year. "It was like he dropped off the planet for two years when he came here," says Cheryl Cigan, local bookstore owner. A less benevolent interpreter might conclude that Leelanau County is a place where elephants come to die, but in fact, northwest lower Michigan is an ideal place for anonymity. We have been brought up with celebrity and moneyed interests and have learned not to ask too many questions of our seasonal guests. Nowadays more and more seasonal guests evolve into settled-out community members.
Buried in the newspaper story is the more prosaic and more fundamental explanation for Linenger's lifestyle migration choice. It seems that Linengar's childhood memories include family visits to northern Michigan from their home in the Detroit suburb of Eastpointe. Which came first, the revelatory glimpse from space, or the remembered object of desire? The sense of place and the stories people tell themselves are so deeply ingrained that it's sometimes hard to gain a clear perspective of where we live, and why. Sometimes the stories are shaped around convenient and ready-made forms.
In grade school we had already learned that the acronym for the six great lakes which surrounded us spelled out the cabalistic mnemonic "HOMES": Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. It was as if the very cartographers themselves had conspired to name this place specifically for us. Michigan was our home, and it was so ordained by the centrality of our position amongst the great lakes, and the names of the surrounding lakes. Some years later I found out that French children are taught to think of the shape of their country as being a house, and that France is their home. It seems the urge toward rootedness is universal.
Living as we did on the shore of the lake which gave its name to the state (the only state to be named after a great lake), we felt as if we were indeed the focus of something special. This feeling was reinforced by the concentration of wealth which found its way to us in the shape of summer residents. Surely the rich guys could choose to live anywhere, but the fact that they chose the northwest coast of lower Michigan for their summer homes was proof positive that we were special. Money always chases beauty. We were glad to be the focus of something so unique.
Mark Smith is a teacher at Leland Public School. Among other things, he edits and webmasters a journal of student and teacher writing, The Beechnut Review.