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Road Trip For America's Future with Tim Murphy

A 51st State In...Michigan?

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 11:11 AM EDT

Iron Range: An abandoned ore dock on Lake Superior in downtown Marquette. Trains used to run on top of the dock, where they'd dump their iron loads into barges waiting below.Iron Range: An ore dock sit empty in downtown Marquette. In its heyday, trains would ride the rails to the top, then dump their iron ore into the barges waiting below. (Photo: Tim Murphy).Marquette, Michigan—My first impression upon driving into Michigan's Upper Peninsula was that this is what Alaska must feel like. Quite a statement, to be sure, coming from someone who's never set foot in Alaska. But there's something undeniably different about the place.

Part of it's visual: You can drive for 40 minutes without seeing a house let alone a town, and because the virgin White Pine forests of the UP (as it's known) were basically clear-cut over the last century-and-a-half, the younger trees look, at least from the road, as if someone has gone into Photoshop and scaled them down but left the sky as is. In other words, you feel higher up, not only in relation to the Mitten of lower Michigan, but relative to the ground itself.

But there's a cultural element, too. For most of its existence, the UP has been isolated from the rest of the state, bordered by three of the Great Lakes plus Wisconsin, and accessible to the rest of Michigan only by boat until the late 1950s when someone finally built a bridge (and Yoopers, as natives of the UP are known, immediately began talking about blowing it up). Its industries are iron, copper, timber, and paper—and that's pretty much it;  as Mike Delke, a woodcarver, told me at the UP State Fair in Escanaba, "You hear a lot of talk about depressed economic areas now. This has been a depressed economic area from the beginning."

The Upper Peninsula has about as much in common with Detroit as Manhattan does to Manhattan, Kansas. And that's why, for the last 150 or so years, Yoopers have talked about blowing up the bridge, breaking away, and starting a state of their own called "Superior."

"That's always been something on the back of people's mind," says Skip DuFour, president of the Upper Peninsula Steam & Gas Engine Association and a resident of the UP for 40 years. "The practicality of that is probably not realistic. I think where that comes from is that the lower peninsula gets a lot more favorable treatment than the upper peninsula. One example would be if you jump on I-75 and drive over the Mackinaw Bridge to Toledo, and see how many rest areas you see. They're everywhere."

"And then take route 2 from Ironwood to Menominee—" He takes off his hat, emblazoned with the outline of the UP, and traces the route. "If you go from here to here on US-2, which is our equivalent to 75, you'll find one restroom.

"They probably feel that because we're Yoopers, we don't need modern restrooms. We can just use trees."

Are they right?

"It works!"

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