By Ryan Brown
“Michigan is shaped like an oven mitt and is about as exciting.” –Bill Bryson
Michigan’s geography is often the brunt of a lot of people’s jokes. Bill Bryson hits the subject pretty much on the nose; Michigan is shaped like an oven mitt. But I prefer mitten to oven mitt. It sounds warmer and reminds me of Christmas and white snow.
In Michigan, we are quite proud of our geographical heritage and we use it to streamline fourth-grade geography. You just invert your hand and point to the corresponding knuckle or vein line. “I’m from right here. Western Michigan. By the lake.” And when people flippantly remark, “Do that Michigan hand thing,” or “Where are you from in Michigan? . . . Oh, he’s doing that hand thing,” I just have to shrug and accept the facts. I’m from Michigan.
The odd thing is I can’t remember anybody ever sitting me down and explaining the whole hand technique to me. It must just be something you pick up, something in the well water. It’s probably not a genetic trait because I don’t technically have any claim to Michigan-ness. You see, I’m not a true Michigander.
Yep, people from Michigan are Michiganders. I know, it sounds like the masculine singular of goose: gander. But it’s probably the most original of all the state demonyms. By birth I’m an Iowan, but my father’s from a little place called Orem, Utah, and my mother’s from Falls Church, Virginia—just outside of D.C. They met at BYU and then moved to Iowa for chiropractic school.
By the age of two my father had graduated from chiropractic school and we moved north and east to rural Western Michigan, and I now call the small village of Shelby home. The sign at the edge of town reads, “Welcome to the Village of Shelby: Where the North Begins,” but there’s no demarcating line that I’ve ever seen. It’s a thriving metropolis of 1,800 people; mostly farmers and factory workers, but we’ve got a couple of librarians, school teachers, and bartenders thrown in the mix. It’s small, quirky, consistent, and it’s home.
Leaving Shelby to attend college was a bittersweet moment. The excitement came through when I stood up in the academic portion of our graduation ceremonies as colleges and scholarships were announced. There were one hundred and sixteen of us graduating. Besides me going to Utah, Megan Beckman was going the next furthest away to Notre Dame in Indiana. I’m sure I would have seen people staring—if not for the bright lights on the stage—when I stood up and the host announced that I would be attending Brigham Young University. They announced the names of my parents and then I sat down, knees shaking with fear from the crowd and the future, but sporting a giant smile. The excitement ate away at me from the moment I received my acceptance letter to BYU, until I stood with burning eyes, so determined not to cry, saying goodbye to my mom outside of my freshman dorm. Bittersweet.
Some of my graduating class attended Muskegon Community College, a thirty-minute drive, south on U.S. Highway 31. MCC offers degrees in paralegal studies, veterinarian services, business management, and some others, and it’s a great opportunity for a ton of kids. But somehow I always felt like it would just be high school all over again with the same social clicks and the same mentalities.
I knew people in my graduating class who had never been out of the state. We took a field trip to Chicago at the end of my eighth-grade year, and Dan, my friend and fellow greyhound seatmate, said that it was the furthest he’d been from home.
I’m sure that I paraded the fact that I was born in Iowa, and that I’d been to Utah, the Grand Canyon, and Washington D.C. on vacations with my family. But now, coming up on my senior year here at BYU, part of me wishes that I’d stayed in Michigan.
My best friend stayed. The guy who I competed with in everything. Warren ran faster than me in cross-country, but I got better scores than him in Biology. He got a better part than me in the school musical, but I had a better story than him in Creative Writing. After I got my acceptance letter we talked about how Warren would come to visit me during spring break. He would see how the campus was and maybe talk to somebody about transferring. He never did make it out, but we still go out to lunch when I’m home for the holidays. We go to the Brown Bear, the best of the three restaurants in town, and order Bear Burgers. We heft two-pound patties and talk about the good old days with streams of juice running down our chins. I ask about his wife, the run-down of who’s recently gotten married from our high school class, and how my old homecoming dates and high school crushes are doing. When we’re finished we’ll laugh and then slap each other on the back and part ways for another couple of months. It isn’t that I avoid Warren—it’s just that my life seems to be shifting from the Midwest to the West.
The dry, desert air is starting to feel natural, and when I visit home in the summer, Michigan’s sticky humidity feels unusually stifling. I skied a little in Michigan, but I’ve found out that Utah and its mountains may not be lying when they brag about the “Greatest Snow on Earth.” But what I’m falling in love with, even more than the skiing and the weather, are the forward progressions, the waiting opportunities, and encouraging vistas that I keep catching glimpses of. Chances for careers, money, travel, and change now imprint themselves on my conversations with my friend, Warren. When we talk I feel this yearning to stay in my town forever. But it’s coupled with a fear of regrets, of stagnancy, and of settling into a routine.
I can see some of the side-effects of staying when I look at my friend. He’s got a bit of a gut, a beat-up SUV, and has started cheering for the Lions. He can exercise and burn off the gut, and the SUV is almost a necessity in Michigan when the snow falls. But becoming a Lions fan? If we were living through the 90’s and Barry Sanders was still playing for the Lions (Barry Sanders, voted the #1 most elusive running back in the NFL) I could maybe understand his loyalty. But Barry has left us, and even in Michigan you know you’re pretty far gone when you start rooting for the Lions.
Sometimes I worry that if I move back I’ll become stagnant too. I guess when I think about moving home—getting a factory job, finding a wife, buying a house, having kids—what scares me the most is the thought of missed opportunities and lingering regrets.
That fear is countered by the small-town familiarity, knowing everyone on your street, their extended family, and their in-laws. That warm familiarity that surrounds everything in my town. Belonging is such a satisfying concept. When you belong you always have a place to be, someone you know, something you can do. It’s like a pond I remember on the old gravel and tar road that led to the house where I grew up. The pale-green water filled with leaping bullfrogs and dragon flies paused and hovering in flight, frozen above the surface. We used to ride our bikes down the road to catch frogs and play around the stream that fed the pond. Once, we saw a blue racer. The snake sped into the grass before we could cut off its path, as if it knew the life of captivity we had destined for it. That’s how I feel. I’m the blue racer down by the green pond: at once drawn to the warmth of the water, the silence of the unmarred surface, and again scared away by the thought of being captured.
When we lived in the old farmhouse down the road from the pond, we were about seven minutes from Lake Michigan’s beach. During the summer we’d wait until Dad got home from work and then we’d pile into our van and spend the evening swimming, building sandcastles, and watching the sun set over the waves. Western Michigan’s sunsets are truly amazing, disappearing over the water and shooting out golden rays that streak across the horizon.
Lately, the only time I’ve spent at the beach are the couple of days between whatever summer work I’ve chosen and the start of a new fall semester. It never feels like enough, and I always leave the beach wanting to stay just a few hours longer.
But I guess it’s a good thing that I still feel like that. I can visit Utah, with its huge mountains, and still remember the stillness and the sunsets of Michigan.
Writing this makes we want to return to that little town, and it’s just about time for another visit. I’ll drive up the highway after a late night flight and watch as the lights of cities and neighborhoods disappear in my rearview mirror. I’ll turn off U.S. 31 by the abandoned gas station and crest the hill overlooking the town—my town. It’s a small place, not very big, special, or accepting to change. But I can’t seem to get away, because—well, because it’s home.