STATE 26 - MICHIGAN
12/09/2011 - 12/10/2011 25 °F
Michigan is a state filled with lakes and natural beauty. It has more coastline than any state (other than Alaska) and touches 4 of the Great Lakes. Michigan is the 11th largest state (approximately the size of Wyoming, and largest east of the Mississippi River). Although Michigan is the 8th most populated state, over half of that population lives in a single metro area. This metro area is not known for its natural beauty, but rather for being the car capital of the world. The home to General Motors and Ford, Megan and I are headed to Detroit!
Fittingly, we are not entering Detroit by plane, bus, or boat, but by automobile. Southern Michigan looks exactly like Northern Ohio, farms surrounded by corn fields. But it wasn't long before we passed signs that we were entering Motown.
The fields slowly transitioned into factories and clouds of steam. We passed the plant that builds the Ford Mustang and the Mazda 6 and another factory that stamps the panels for Ford cars. The oil refinery tried to distract us (unsuccessfully) from the eyesore of pipes and dirty buildings by painting the natural gas containers in patriotic colors or as a giant basketball.
My friends who grew up in Detroit warned me several times that I need to be careful going around downtown (they stared at me in wide-eyed horror when I said I would walk from the casino to Ford Field, a distance of a few blocks). One friend even said that red lights are optional when driving around downtown ("if you feel threatened at a red light, just go through it and get the heck out of there!"). With manufacturing covering up any natural beauty and constant warnings about safety, I was pleasantly surprised when we entered downtown.
Even the gray skies of a Midwest winter couldn't cover up the history that exuded everywhere in this city. The classic architecture of older skyscrapers standing next to their flashy neighbors told the story of a once-prosperous city with a rich history reinventing itself. Despite stopping at several red lights, no one ever approached me (in fact, no one was really even in the streets since it was so cold out). We parked in the parking deck of the Greektown Casino (it was free parking) and made our way down to the street level.
Now, as I have already mentioned, I talked to several Detroiters in preparation for this trip. I was told explicitly to not try to walk around downtown, but use the public rail system called the People Mover (jokingly called the "Mugger Mover"). Since I didn't see any hooligans running rampant through the streets, I figured it was safe to leave the parking deck and walk across the street to the People Mover station. We paid our dollar to get on and started our tour around the city. While I consulted the city map to get my bearings, we took in the sights of downtown Detroit from the warmth of the rail car. Very few people could be seen on the streets below on this late Friday afternoon, and only a handful of cars were driving around. Downtown looked reasonably clean for such a large city, and the area next to the Tiger's baseball stadium and Ford Field looked a little more lively. The stop we wanted to get off was only 200 yards away from where we originally boarded, so after completing an entire circuit we got off at the jewel of the Detroit skyline, the Renaissance Center (home of General Motors).
Megan and I walked around the Renaissance Center to reach the shoreline of the Detroit River. We could see the city of Windsor, Canada just on the other side of the river. The sun was starting to set, and it was very cold. We stopped for a quick picture before continuing our walk along the waterfront. In the picture below, Canada is on the left side of the river and Detroit is to the right.
At the end of the walkway along the river, we stopped at Joe Louis Arena, the home of the Red Wings (Detroit's Professional Hockey Team). Before the Hurricanes moved to Raleigh, I was a big time Red Wings fan, so it was pretty cool to see the arena (the building itself wasn't really much to look at otherwise).
We wandered into the plaza park between Joe Louis Arena and the Renaissance Center. We continued moving through downtown back towards the Greektown area (where we had parked). It was a little early for dinner, but we were both starving and figured we could beat the dinner rush by grabbing an early bite to eat.
Greektown is a historical downtown area that features many Greek Restaurants, deserteries, and the Greektown Casino. Originally a Greek neighborhood, the area is now more of a commercial area, but the city and neighborhood took steps to preserve the Greek atmosphere.
Greek restaurants lined both sides of the street, so I patiently waited (while my stomach growled impatiently) for Megan to check all the menus before finally selecting one. The restaurant, New Parthenon, was authentically decorated and we had a very attentive Greek waiter. We ordered the flamed cheese for an appetizer, which our waiter exuberantly shouted "Opa!" when he lit it on fire, and then a Greek platter that had nearly everything (hummus, pita, stuffed grape leaves, moussaka, and lamb shank to just name a few). Great service, great food, and it was surprisingly inexpensive!
After dinner we walked to a cafe to get some Greek desserts. Baklava, sweet rolls, and all types of cakes filled the cases. It was tough to choose just one, so we got multiple desserts to make sure we didn't miss out on anything!
Megan had never been to Canada, and being this close, she couldn't resist the urge to cross the border. After our desserts, we walked back to the car and headed towards the Great White North.
We paid a toll on the American side of the tunnel, went under the Detroit River, and arrived at the traffic jam entering Canada. Cars slowly divided into lanes to cross the border. I picked the wrong lane, as the lanes on either side were passing three cars through for every one in our lane. As we pulled up to the Canadian border guard, I put on my cheeriest face and prepared for a pleasant conversation (all the Canadians I know are extremely nice and easy going). This guy was not nice or easy going. Here is how the conversation went:
Guard (before I had even stopped the car): "License plate number."
Me: "Hold on one second, I have to look it up." (it was a rental)
Guard (after waiting impatiently for 5 seconds): "Come on, give me the license plate number."
Me: [license plate number]
Guard: "Why are you driving up from Cleveland?"
Me (slightly confused): "Huh? I've never been to Cleveland, we are driving in from Detroit." (no duh)
Guard: "Who is the car registered to?"
Me: "I'm not sure." (and once I realized this was the WRONG thing to say, quickly added) "Enterprise, I guess."
Guard (now furiously tapping away at his terminal): "Why are you bring a rental into Canada?"
Me: "I got a rental after I flew into town."
Guard: Where are you headed?
Me: "I'm not sure, we are going to grab a bite to eat."
Guard (raising his voice and asking incredulously): "You don't know where you are going?!?"
Me (now realizing I just made another big mistake, I strained to remember the name of the bar we were headed to)
Megan (sarcastically): "We are headed to Danny's," (the name of the all male strip club), "do you like it?"
Me (cutting Megan off): "Sunny's, we are going to Sunny's".
Guard: "Place must not be very good, I've lived here all my life and never heard of it."
At this point Megan was frustrated with this guy's attitude, I was trying to stay polite to the guard and hush Megan, and the guard asked a few more questions before reluctantly handing our passports back. Leaving the guard behind us, we traveled 45 minutes into Canada (I had wanted to find a neighborhood bar far from the border so that Megan could get a real Canadian experience, not just drunken American 19 year-olds).
We pulled up to the tiny neighborhood bar and found two seats at the bar (there was only 25 seats total in the entire place). We were easily the youngest people there by 20 years, and I'm sure the only non-regulars in the place. The bartender took our drink order, and then immediately identified us as Americans. After finding out we were from South Carolina (he didn't understand that there is actually a North Carolina), he asked some friendly questions about the States. A veteran bar-fly sitting next to Megan (who had obviously has quite a few before we arrived), began talking her ear off. Canadian NHL Hockey, working in Alberta (western Canadian Province), Hurricanes hockey, CFL Superbowl, and more hockey were his favorite topics. At the encouragement of her new friend, Megan ordered poutine (fries with gravy and cheese curds), a Canadian specialty. As Megan drank more beers, more and more people became interested in the conversation. I had to fight off people wanting to buy us beers (no way I was crossing the border drunk after the experience earlier), and Megan ended up getting her food on the house. When it finally time to go, Megan and a herd of Canadians fought me to stay longer by bribing me with more free beer.
As we headed back to the border crossing, Detroit's skyline shone across the river. It was pretty impressive.
After going under the river and emerging on the American side, I was the only car in sight. I slowly headed towards one of the crossing booths, and right before entering the booth I realized that it was closed. I swerved to what I thought was an open lane, and then a series of really quick, bright flashes went off (the kind when you run a red light). My heart dropped as I realized I had probably just tried to run the border and snipers were locking targets on my car. A puzzled guard leaned out of the booth and motioned for me to pull forward. Swerving to switch lanes at the last second, stopping 20 feet before I was supposed to—so much for not looking drunk. The American guard gave me grief about the rental car and asked to search the trunk, but I guess I was more prepared this time to be interrogated. Thankfully we were allowed back into the country and headed to my friend Chris's parents' house for the night.
The next morning, we awoke to find our car dusted in snow and completely frosted over. One more reason for living in the South (or at least having a garage).
Megan and I drove out of Detroit and headed south to Dearborn, the site of The Rouge, a gigantic Ford manufacturing plant. We were going to the Ford Museum, a massive museum with rooms and rooms of collections. The first thing we see coming in the door? One of the most recognizable automobiles in the world—the weinermobile.
The first section of the museum we walked through focused on Henry Ford's engine that was used in farming equipment. Giant combines and harvesters stood next to displays showing how Ford's engines helped power Michigan's agriculture. The coolest part? I got sit behind the wheel of the harvester!
The museum had displays on life in America during the 20th century demonstrating what is was like to grow up in each decade (you could practice hiding under your desk for bomb raids, listen to a radio broadcast of War of the Worlds (that people originally thought was real), dance in an 80s music video, or watch a nickel movie with WWII updates). The museum also had hundreds of cars, including the car JFK was shot in (bringing back memories of investigating the JFK assassination conspiracy in Texas), the bus Rosa Parks rode on when she was arrested (which was cool since Megan and I had just walked the bus route in Montgomery), and the original Ford car.
There were additional sections of the museum focusing on aircraft, train engines, and humongous steam engines. Most of the sections had displays where you could sit in the aircraft or walk though the train. A new section of the museum was about to open, "Driving Across America", which featured row after row of old cars. And no roadtrip through America is complete without a stop at McDonalds.
The museum was cool, but it focused more on history and cultural education than Ford and his company. That all changed once we boarded the bus to go into The Rouge and view the manufacturing facility.
Ford tried three times to start a car company, partnering with the Dodge brothers in one failed venture and leaving the future Cadillac Motor Company in another. On the fourth try, Ford finally made his mark. As we learned in history class, he created the assembly line, paid his employees more than the national average, and implemented vertical integration of production (meaning he took raw materials all the way to finished product). The Rouge is the crowning achievement of all those innovations. A river was built to allow raw materials to be dumped next to the manufacturing plant. Iron ore was forged into steel on site, as well as raw materials being turned into glass. The place is massive, and it is still in use today.
The tour guide spent a large chunk of time talking about the environmentally friendly innovations at The Rouge. Bee hives next to orchards between buildings, a living roof, porous concrete that filters rain water, and modified wetlands surrounding the complex have been added to present you with an image of an environmentally friendly company. As great as these innovations may be, I still couldn't see the beauty of the Michigan wilderness around the endless factories and smoke stacks.
However, the tour did allow you to walk through the factory where they build F-150s, and it was incredible. The basic frames enter at one end, and a completed car drives out the other (just like in Ford's original assembly line). Everyone had a very specific job, and the cars never stopped moving on the assembly line. One guy put speakers in, while another attached the steering wheel. One guy's job was to open and close every tailgate to make sure it was attached correctly. While the jobs may be boring, it was pretty efficient.
After taking a loop around the factory, we left the Ford Museum and The Rouge. Our trip through Michigan was over and it was time to move on. We continued South, leaving Michigan the same way we entered—in our automobile through fields and farmlands.