Awake in a dream of America part three. Pink Car Nation.
Alice’s parents turned out not to be homicidal psychopaths. They were nice and friendly and didn’t welcome me to the family homestead with a shotgun and a warning to stay away from their daughter. They did put me up on a folding bed in the basement however so it wasn't entirely certain that they wouldn’t imprison me there forever if I transgressed in some way. Fortunately, this did not come to pass.
Trenton was a suburban town in downriver Detroit. A mix of white and blue collar commuters who laboured on factory floors and offices working for the large carmakers, power plants and engineering companies in the area. The riverside location played host to a mix of parkland, old industry, watersports enthusiasts and anglers.
Apart from George and Barbara Bush who lived there for a couple of months in 1945, Trenton was home to no famous people and pretty much nothing of interest had ever happened locally in the entire history of the republic. People went to work. People came home. People did stuff on the weekends. As far as I was concerned though it was brilliant. Trenton had supermarkets like Kroger and Meijer that were open twenty four hours a day and that sold hundreds of different kinds of breakfast cereal as well as a dazzling array of firearms. For insomniacs in need of chocolate krispies and a hunting rifle at two in the morning it was nothing less than wondrous.
I used to love just wandering around in a kind of consumer daze learning about all sorts of crappy food I hadn’t previously required or known existed. My big find was “Pop Tarts”, cardboard-like pastry filled with rubbishy jam and topped with sugar frosting that was swept off the floor of a cement factory. You stick them in the toaster and after a few minutes they pop up and now they taste like hot cardboard filled with crappy jam and topped with cement. These were unheard of in the UK at the time and for some reason that I can’t now explain they were a huge favourite of mine. Possibly I liked them because my inner six year old loved the idea of breakfast being a poorly disguised cake.
Whenever there was an opportunity to go to a supermarket late at night I would volunteer to help and aimlessly wander the aisles. Soon no-one wanted to go to the shops with me because the time it took to find me again was out of all proportion to the time it took to buy milk and go home. People started keeping me in sight just as you would a small child. I was probably only one random, retail detour away from being put on a rein.
Detroit was a real eye opener. Not long after arriving I saw a sign indicating that I was on Telegraph road and felt a small glow of pleasure as I drove down a location from a Dire Straits album. Apart from this one familiar road sign though pretty much everything else was unfamiliar to a boy from a small rural village.
I had been nowhere like Detroit. I had seen nowhere like Detroit.
The Renaissance centre, Greektown and the business heart of the city was skyscrapers, monorail and bustling modern town. Just a couple of streets away though whole areas of buildings had fallen in to complete ruin. Prosperity and poverty co-existed literally side by side. Housing and industrial premises lay in piles of rubble where they had fallen and this was so normal that nobody even noticed. I walked down streets where the erect, inhabited buildings were in the minority and dereliction the order of the day. I just couldn’t understand how things ever reached such a state.
It reminded me of nothing more nor less than pictures of London and other cities in the aftermath of second world war bombing raids but those older scenes made more sense to me. At least back then someone was actively trying to bomb the place to the ground. Detroit looked to be achieving something similar through the use of political and economic policy. Every day my local paper of choice, the Detroit Free Press or occasionally the Detroit News, seemed to wheel out a new list of layoffs and closures or imminent closures involving local manufacturers. These would be joined by stories about crises at all levels of local government be it Detroit city, Wayne county or Michigan state. The whole area seemed to lurch from one disaster to another with barely a pause between episodes. Meanwhile, every day, the people went to work, came home and did stuff on the weekends and while I admired their stoicism, I did wonder how Normal evolves into perpetual Chaos.
For me however this was all background noise and easily ignored as I carried on in my personal, tourist gawker bubble. A highlight of this time was a visit to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn. For a man who said that “History is more or less bunk” old Henry certainly put a lot of time, effort and money into preserving and cataloguing it.
The site is immense and is filled with far too much stuff to get through in any single visit. Greenfield Village is an outdoor collection of the houses and workshops of the famous creatives who helped make America such an industrial powerhouse. Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park labs are here as is the Wright Brothers bicycle shop and the Firestone family farm among many others. Not reconstructions mind but the actual premises. Moved in their entirety and rebuilt, brick by painstaking brick, here in Mid-Michigan. The collection doesn’t just include the main building but often the living quarters and staff accommodation as well.
It’s extremely well done albeit a little surreal. After a very short while I started to forget that this is a confection of a village and imagined Edison storming over to the Wright’s place to complain about getting yet another puncture. The Wrights could claim that it was all Harvey Firestone’s fault because he was making terrible rubber and they could all call on Abraham Lincoln to mediate and settle the resulting dispute, etcetera, etcetera.
Inside, the museum was no less awesome, with endless exhibits of timeless Americana. Unsurprisingly, there are an awful lot of cars with a real emphasis on the glory days of the American motor industry. It isn’t just automobiles though. The place is absolutely crammed with all manner of stuff and just like the outdoor village they have pulled in lots of things which were a part of the history and culture of the nation. Some of it didn’t resonate with a tourist just off the plane but it certainly had an effect on my companions. One thing which is a more recent addition since then is the bus in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. The actual, real life, public omnibus from Montgomery and the pages of my school history book. Just sitting there in the museum and beautifully restored. That alone would make a return trip worth my while. The list of interesting, important or remarkable things on display just went on and on. There didn’t seem to be any particular order and the random serendipity of it all only added to the pleasure. It seemed that we were on more of a treasure hunt than a museum tour. If you ever find yourself within several hundred miles of the place I would thoroughly recommend driving in for a visit.
With accommodation onsite you could probably spend days wandering around without repeating yourself or needing to leave the premises. We strolled happily out at closing time and journeyed back to Trenton, stopping for dinner at a Chinese restaurant en-route. As I watched the lights of the city go by in the dark it seemed like I was a very long way from home indeed. And that fact was just fine by me.
For all manner of reasons Alice wasn’t getting on well with her parents at this point. As usual with my complete lack of awareness and no shortage of distractions, I missed quite a lot of the tension in the air but even a bumbling idiot could spot the obvious on occasion. She was going to return to East Lansing and university at the end of Summer but with tempers stretched, already the end of summer felt like a long way away.
Somehow, we ended up planning to spend a week or two out of town. Camping and cycling around the North Western part of the state and seeing somewhere a bit different. I don’t know who had the idea first but Alice’s parents were certainly happy enough to lend us a car for an unspecified amount of time while we went off on our own. This was to me just another sign that America was different. When I turned seventeen years old and became eligible for a provisional driving licence it very quickly became clear that my dad was as likely to lend me his kidney as his car. Cars were things that people, especially sons, just didn’t get to borrow yet here in Michigan folks clearly just passed vehicles around to anyone. It was a very John Hughes moment and I loved that America was turning out to be just like the movies.
We headed towards Traverse city intending to explore some of the Lake Michigan shoreline, Sleeping Bear Dunes and the Leelanau peninsula. I had a borrowed bike, we could take all the time we wanted and we had not a care in the world. Life was pretty good. We avoided bigger towns as they were busy but once off the beaten track the people just melted away and we hardly saw a soul. The small town of Lake Ann was utterly deserted and we paused only briefly before pedalling on. There was a general store which was closed and some houses but no sign of any human inhabitants. Not for the last time I was struck by how few people live in this enormous land. We camped by beaches, in forests and in quiet campsites. The roads were empty and the scenery was lovely and every so often we would round a bend and the view out over the water would open up before us.
It has been said many times before but the Great Lakes of North America are an incredible sight to behold. Camping by a beach and looking out over the vast expanse of water that is Lake Michigan it was impossible for me to think of it as anything other than oceanic. Prior to this I had always kind of assumed that the “lakeness” of the lake would be obvious to the most casual onlooker but even looking across the narrowest point to Wisconsin there was no indication that a neighbouring state lay just beyond my view over the “Sea”. I was always surprised on jumping in that the water was fresh. Then, after a few days I was surprised that I was still surprised but, in all honesty, it would probably be just as surprising today. It really is a hugely impressive stretch of fresh water.
Cycle trip over we returned to the car and retraced our steps back to Trenton. The break seemed to have cleared the air back home well enough. We survived the summer without any major frostiness and Alice and I got ready to relocate to East Lansing. Home of Michigan State University, El Azteco Mexican restaurant and an environmentally friendly way for me to earn money legally.
Thanks for reading.
The fourth and final part of this story can be found here;
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