Sunday, June 01, 2008

Travelong...Err, I Mean "Travelogue"

Okay, we’ve finally reached the moment that no one has been waiting for: the time to write a detailed entry about my trip home to Michigan.
I had been talking to someone at work about the UP and how small it is, and I threw out a guess as to the total population. Later, I checked out the Wikipedia entry and discovered that I had overestimated by about 20,000.
I further learned that while the UP comprises nearly one third of the total land mass of the state, it only contains about three percent of the total population.
Flying out of Dulles, the thought occurred to me that going back home is like taking a trip into the past using a defective time machine that actually deposits you in some alternate timeline in which things are mostly the same, but not quite how you remember them.
This is to say that while I’m away some things change, but for the most part things, and in particular people, stay the same.
In any case, after meeting up with Brad in Minneapolis, we made our way to Hancock via one of the standard “puddle jumper” prop planes.
The flight attendant was surprisingly cute, and as I sat in the aisle seat – airplane seating is the one place in the world where I feel like I’m a really big person – her hips kept bumping my arm and shoulder every time she went past. I can tell you that she was very firm and toned, though I’m sure she was black and blue by the end of the flight.
When we arrived at the airport it became clear that this was her first flight to the UP, as she made several references to the jetway.
Not in the UP, sister; we just take the stairs down and walk to the terminal in the open air. Said air being about thirty degrees cooler than the air in Virginia, and fifty degrees cooler than the air in Texas where my brother lives.
Brad had agreed to pay for the rental car, as there was no point in us both renting a car, and the site he booked it through said that the rental desk actually closes at 6 PM. He’d rescheduled the pick up for the next day, as we were arriving after 11 PM, and Jourdan had driven up, with my mom, to get us.
Turns out the travel site has erroneous information, and the rental desk was open, so Brad was able to get the car that night.
My mom rode back to her place with Brad, and I rode with Jourdan to keep her company. I found it kind of funny that she drives the same kind of car as Kathleen, so I was dropped off at one airport in a Kia Sportage, and picked up from another in a Kia Sportage.
After staying up and visiting for a few hours, we decided to crash, and I learned that my mom’s couch is not ideally suited for sleeping on (Brad got the spare bedroom). My mom offered to sleep on the couch and let me take her bed, but seriously, what kind of son would make his mom sleep on the couch? Well, I’m not sure of the answer to that, other than that it’s not the kind of son I am.
Friday morning my mom made breakfast, and after we all got ready we got in the car and stopped by to visit my sister Kim at work. Then we headed out to Winona so that my mom could put flowers on the Katajamaki family plot, where my grandparents, aunt, and uncle are buried. My dad, as you may recall, was cremated, and so is not buried there.
(I’ve probably mentioned this before, but Maki is only part of a traditional Finnish family name. There’s usually some descriptive prefix – Kataja, in the case of my family – that precedes it. A lot of Finns dropped the prefix upon arrival in America – and some went the extra mile, dropping the prefix and taking the English word for Maki, which is “Hill,” as their last name. Not so with my family, until my grandparents had kids and chose to name them simply Maki. This is why my paternal grandparents had a different last name from mine. There are all kinds of Makis in the UP, all of whom had in the past been some different kind of Maki, like, for example, Leppamaki, or Palomaki, or Rintamaki. The dropped prefix is why there are so many Makis around yet most of them aren’t actually related to each other. As an aside, at various times I’ve had people misunderstand me when I’ve said that my name is Jon-Paul Maki, thinking that I’d said my name was Jon Palomaki. And of course there’s the old joke: What do you call a Finnish prostitute? Rentamaki.)
We were going to have lunch at the hotel/restaurant in Twin Lakes, but decided to head to the Chinese buffet place in Houghton, where I received the following fortune: A short stranger will soon enter your life with blessings to share.
Given my predilection for petite women, this works really well with the whole “in bed” thing.
We also stopped by the cemetery where my mom’s parents are buried so she could put flowers there (after we managed to remember where their graves are).
Later in the afternoon we went over to Kim’s house to visit for a while, and then the lot of us went out to have dinner at Pizza Hut.
From there, my mom, Brad, and I went to the casino, where I won $40 pretty early on, but eventually ended up giving it all (and more) back.
On Saturday there was an open house for these “luxury condos” that had been built right next to the bridge on the Hancock side. And I mean, right next to it.
We’d decided to check them out just to see what they were like. For what they were asking, the condos were not impressive, having virtually nothing in the way of high-end features, and no amenities apart from a heated parking garage. Apparently the developers expect people to pay all of that money for the view, which is impressive…if you like watching cars going by constantly.
We had a late lunch at the Kaleva Café, a place that derives its name from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. Most people pronounce it Ka-LEE-vuh, though it would more properly be pronounced “KULL-uh-VUH.”
The thing about small town restaurants is the service is always great. The wait staff is always friendly, cheerful, and solicitous.
Except, you know, when they aren’t, which was the case at the Kaleva. The waitress – eventually – came to our table, plopped the menus down, stared at us in silence until we gave her our drink orders, then stomped off. She didn’t get any friendlier from there.
However, and this ties in with my aside about my last name, the one bright spot was seeing this on the menu:

I, of course, couldn’t not order it.
It was essentially just a Big Mac knock-off (apparently there’s also a breakfast sandwich called the Egg McMaki), and wasn’t too bad, though it was pretty messy. Somehow that seems appropriate.
In the afternoon we went to a graduation party for some relative that I don’t know, which was as exciting as it sounds.
That evening, after eating at KFC, we headed to the casino again.
At KFC we used some coupons, and mine said that I could get potato wedges or any individual side. When I asked for cole slaw, the girl said, “Unless it says otherwise you have to get the potato wedges.” I pointed out the “individual sides” thing and said, jokingly, “Don’t argue with me! I’ve done my homework.”
At the casino I lost early and lost often, until I was down to my last $20, at which point I won about $100, which brought me somewhere past the break even point.
Normally I stick to your standard quarter slots, eschewing table games (too many people to deal with), and those fancy penny, two penny, and nickel machines with all of their wackiness and confusing forty-five line games and bonuses and whatnot, though given the popularity of the wacky games it can be difficult to find straightforward slots.
Some of the slots, I learned the hard way, allow you to choose how much a credit is worth, and generally default to $1. I went through several turns on one, playing three credits at a time and assuming that I was only playing seventy-five cents at a pop, before realizing that I was giving it $3 each time.
Brad likes to play roulette, and after having watched him play both nights, I decided to give it a shot. I was actually doing pretty well, but by the time I started playing we were getting ready to leave. Still, I started out with $20 worth of chips and ended up walking away with $55. So not bad.
Sunday was the graduation party, and despite the forecast, we ended up having a pretty nice day. It was actually pretty hot, though sometime in the afternoon the sun went away and the wind kicked up and the temperature dropped at least ten degrees.
By that time the party had dwindled down to just family, though eventually a few other people showed up, and many of those assembled started playing drinking games. I never saw the appeal of drinking games, really. I mean, for me, the only game I needed to play when I drank was the one in which I grabbed a beer and drank it. I won every time.
Beer was running low by the time my mom got tired and I brought her home, so, being the only sober one besides Kim, and venturing out into the world anyway, I was elected beer bitch. I stopped at a Citgo on the way to my mom’s place, but it was closed. The only other place that sold beer that was still opened was the Wal-Mart Super Center, so I headed there after dropping my mom off.
I was standing in line behind this young black guy whose shorts were hanging all the way down past his ass. I didn’t really think anything of it – or even notice, really – until this girl in another line said, “Excuse me. Your shorts are falling down.” He responded, a little annoyed, “I know. That’s how I want them,” though he did actually pull them up.
She said, “Oh,” and shook her head in disbelief, laughing with a sort of shocked bewilderment.
She and I were leaving the store at about the same time, so I said, to her, “Were you just being a smart ass with the shorts comment?”
Her response was that she’d “never seen anything like it,” and when I told her that it’s pretty common, she said, “Well, I guess I just wasn’t raised that way.”
I can pretty much guarantee that she was an Apostolic Lutheran – live around them long enough and you can tell just by looking at them, though when they’re with their families of 12+ children it becomes even easier to spot them – but even so, the fact that she was so dismayed by the baggy pants thing is just baffling. I mean, how sheltered a life do you have to live to have never seen that before? Even in the UP, dressing like that has been pretty common for at least fifteen years.
When I returned with the beer my sister Kristy commented upon discovering that I had the foresight to buy cold beer that at least I remembered that much about drinking.
Kim works for a Pepsi distributor, so she’d set up a portable soda fountain outside for the party. Venturing out to get myself some Sierra Mist, one of Jeremy’s friends, who’d arrived in my absence said, “There better be Jack Daniels in there.”
Deciding against a more appropriate response of “Blow me,” I simply said “Nope.”
At this point, Jeremy said, “This is my Uncle Jon, by the way.”
Eventually, wanting to avoid lengthy, beery farewells, Brad and I managed to sneak out sometime around 1 AM.
Monday morning the coldness that had moved in Sunday evening decided to stick around.
Brad and I went to Perkins for breakfast. The place was packed, as it was apparently the only restaurant open, a fact which, when scheduling staff for the day, management hadn’t counted on, so they were seriously understaffed, and the whole process took longer than it ought to have.
When we got back to my mom’s place we spotted our brother-in-law Ken loading up a chair that my mom was giving to him and Kristy – my mom didn’t come to breakfast because she was waiting for Kristy, Ken, and Todd, who’d spent the night at Kim’s, to stop by – and I noticed that it was actually snowing.
Nothing stuck, but there were definitely flakes falling.
That afternoon we went to see the latest Indiana Jones movie, which was entertaining (you can read Scott’s review if you haven’t seen it and are interested), and after eating dinner at my mom’s we went over to Kim’s to visit for a while and say our goodbyes.
That evening my mom’s friend Kathy stopped by and visited for a while, and, eventually, as I had to get up early in the morning, it was time to turn in.
And that was pretty much my trip. I’ve already given you the gory details of my long and horrifically boring return to Virginia, so that pretty much covers it.
Of my family, Brad and I are the only ones who live outside of the UP, so at various times throughout our stay there we each had to field the question, from assorted people, of when we plan to move back.
We both responded with some variation of “Well, ‘never’ has a pretty nice ring to it.”
After all, both of us left for a reason, not the least of which is that the fact that it snowed on freakin’ Memorial Day is not exactly an uncommon occurrence and is barely noteworthy.
I’m the first to admit that it’s a beautiful area – at least for a couple months out of the year, though sometimes, on a really good day, even the snow and cold can have a sort of harsh appeal – but there’s just nothing there.
There are so many people who sing the praises of small town life, elevating it to near-heavenly status, but I’m of the opinion that the people who do so either never actually lived in a small town, have their memories too clouded by nostalgia to remember what it was actually like, or had life experiences so vastly different from mine that there is simply no way in which we can find common ground.
Going to the mall, for example, was like seeing the opening scenes of some documentary about the devastating effects that a plant closure has had on a community, and it’s always like that, and has always been like that. It’s bleak and it’s depressing and there’s just no vitality to the area, and I could not, for the life of me, find a reason to stay.
I don’t mean to fault the people who do stay – though I’m at a loss to understand the people who leave and return – and I’m not looking down my nose at the place or the people (well, maybe I’m looking down my nose at some of the people), but I did my time there. It’s done, and the whole place is pretty much the quintessence of the expression “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” More to the point, I didn’t want to live there.
So, yeah. That’s a big “no” on moving back.
But I do love my family, and I miss them, so the annual visits home will continue to be a tradition for a long time to come.
This particular visit seemed extremely short, though, especially with the late arrival and early departure eating up a fair amount of the available time. So the next trip will require better planning and time management.
But anyway, there you have it. I went, I saw, I left. It’s not exactly veni, vidi, vici, but then I’m not exactly Caesar.

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