Travel: Return to Marquette County
Musings on the small-town experience, then and now.
I grew up in a pristine, rural town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where every dirt road seemingly ended in a waterfall. Where many of those dirt roads still remain unpaved. Where it took 30 minutes to get bussed to a bustling metropolis of 5,000 people for high school and people literally knew every neighbor—and every neighbor’s business.
Such quiet, sleepy towns aren’t made for introverts. At least not this introvert. It took me years to get over what I considered incessant snooping, whether it be why I wasn’t listening to hair bands (the U.P.’s music of choice in the ‘80s), why I chose to sit next to a particular boy on the bus or why I didn’t go to church the morning after prom. For many years, I thought I may never go back, except to visit family—certainly not to enjoy myself!
But the Upper Peninsula is full of natural wonders. Aside from the aforementioned waterfalls (including the spectacular Tahquamemon Falls, a must-visit destination and one of the largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi River), there are cool adventures such as a summertime boat trip to view Lake Superior’s many shipwrecks and visiting a natural luge run in winter.
Not that I wasn’t exposed to this in my youth. I remember journeys to watch the leaves change color and a visit to the Soo Locks, a feat of engineering that raises and lowers boats on the Great Lakes. Strawberry- and blueberry-picking excursions that resulted in freshly made (and enjoyed) pies. Hikes up Sugar Loaf Mountain for unencumbered views of Lake Superior. But sometimes you have to get away from something to appreciate it.
And get away I did. I moved to Chicago fresh out of college; my career then took me to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and then to Augusta, Georgia, where I reside today, the second-largest city in Georgia.
The birth of my grandson recently took me back to Marquette, where I spent my college years. At 35,000 people, it’s the largest city in the U.P.
After plenty of quality time and snuggles, I found myself back at Presque Isle, where I spent every spare moment in college. Not the beach end, although you can find miles of unspoiled shoreline if you wish. My vibe was in the craggy bluffs, my spirit animal before anyone coined the term. It was where I went to get inspiration for my English classes, to get lost in thought, to hide out without being hidden. It was where I went to be me. How I longed for those days when I’d find an isolated spot to sit and meditate.
The drive out to Presque Isle takes you along Lake Superior, past the ore docks, another entrancing spot. I can’t help but think of the area’s heritage and history as I pass by—the importance of the Great Lakes in the shipping industry. This major marine highway has been traversed as early as the 17th century and was crucial in connecting indigenous peoples with European settlers before the Industrial Revolution.
And though Presque Isle’s small zoo is no longer, the area is still rife with wildlife sightings, whether it be shore birds, frogs, otters or deer.
Marquette draws more tourists today, but not much has changed. Sure, the restaurants now require reservations (even on a Wednesday), but crowds are far from what Chicago or Orlando sees. And that’s just the way I like it. I can take a walk down Third Street and peruse the titles at the independent Snowbound Books, grab lunch or dinner at Vango’s, a Twinkle cone at Frosty Treats and find lively groups, not overwhelming crowds.
We always want what we don’t have. If our hair is curly, we want it straight. If it’s summer, we wish it were winter. If we grew up in a small town, we long for the big-city experience. I’m grateful I grew up in a time when things were more innocent, and the outlook was more wholesome. We knew our neighbors. We might not have always gotten along, but we always looked out for each other. Not that that doesn’t happen today, it does. I live in a beautiful neighborhood with a strong sense of Southern hospitality. Do I know my neighbors? Some. Is there plenty of greenery and parks? Yes, but to me, there could always be more.
Times have evolved, and that’s to be expected, but when I go back to Marquette, I feel there’s a small piece of time that stands still. Maybe it’s the memories of the experiences I’ve had. Or the promise of experiences I’ll still have. But I still go chasing those waterfalls. In fact, there’s one right behind my girlhood home.