Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

September 13, 2004 Marquette, Michigan.

I left Brimley on a Tuesday, planning to head to Marquette for one night and then up to the Keewenah Peninsula, the uppermost arm of the UP. Matilda had other ideas. En route to Marquette she staged a work slowdown, barely edging above 50 miles per hour all the way there, and slowing to 35 on the hills. So my first night in Marquette I emailed the Vanagon list about mechanics up in the UP.

I was referred to Marcia, a friend of someone on the list. She doesnít have a Vanagon, but she is a VW person, and her friend Brian suggested I talk to her. Wednesday morning I showed up at the florist shop where Marcia works. After a hearty laugh when she heard how I came to be there, she conferred with a friend, and they referred me to their mechanic, Max. And as Brian had suggested she might in his email, she offered to put me up if I got stuck in town waiting for parts.

Well, I got stuck for two days. And then when the first part didnít solve the problem I got stuck for another three days, putting an end to my plans to visit the Keewenah Peninsula. But being in Marquette for six days was nice. Itís nothing like the ďrightĒ side of the UP, I could tell I was ďout left.Ē Marquette is home to Northern Michigan State University. At twenty-five thousand inhabitants itís the largest city in the UP, so in addition to being a center for education, itís a medical center. Itís also the center of the iron mining community of the western UP and eastern Wisconsin, and therefore union stronghold; a sign hanging from one building downtown read ďUnions, the people who brought you the weekend.Ē Itís a democratic stronghold in the mostly-Republican UP. It had a nice YMCA where I worked out every day. Itís got a good food coop, a great coffee roaster, and quite a few bookstores, used and new. And I realized, as I talked to people, that for all that I said I wanted to meet people who are different from me, it is so much easier to be with people who are like me.

People come to Marquette; they donít just grow up there. Marcia had moved from downstate Michigan, where she grew up, because her then-husband was in school. She was happy to leave her home town, a strongly Dutch Reformed Christian community that she found narrow-minded and illiberal. She has been in Marquette for ten years now, working in the florist shop; jobs are hard to come by up in the UP. Nowadays sheís beginning to think more about what she really wants out of her life, instead of just having a job to get by. That could mean leaving Marquette, though sheís not ready to decide about that yet. Her partner Sven lives up the lake a ways, where he makes guitars for a living. In the summer he goes to folk festivals most weekends, to sell guitars and sometimes to perform as well. He grew up in a small community in Wisconsin Ė Marcia teases him about being a cheesehead. The three of us, along with Svenís dog, climbed up Sugarloaf Mountain outside of town, where they showed me a splendid view of the lake and the town, and told me about their view of the community and the UP.

Marciaís house is delightful. Itís a cozy one-bedroom place a block from the lake, which she rents from a friendly woman who lives across the yard. Marciaís interest in flowers extends beyond her job, and her house is surrounded by flowerbeds and pots and hanging plants. In her kitchen she had two parrots and two canaries, who fly freely around the house and make a great racket when strangers come in. While I was there Marcia had temporary care of her bossís dog Cleo, a tiny creature who shivered continually if she wasnít curled up in front of a heater. With her huge ears she seemed almost like a rodent on a leash. At first I ridiculed Cleo, but after a few days she got used to me and I fell in love with her. When she curled up in a blanket on my lap while I was working at my computer, I was delighted.

Marquette seemed like a comfortable place to be. I could almost think of living there, for a while at least. Iíd take up cross-country skiing, and see if I could find a little house like Marciaís. In the summer Iíd paddle on the lake and if it was warm enough Iíd swim. Iíd become a regular at the Dead River Coffee House, and join the food coop. Iíd become a regular at wonderful old Carnegie library on the top of the hill, too. Iíd join the Y instead of going as a visitor. Iíd go over to the university and see if I could do anything useful there Ė see whoís working on environment issues or Third World development. Iíd explore the town more, learn more about its history, and get to know the area.

Hmm. Interesting idea. I canít quite see it happening, but still interesting.

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