PORT AUSTIN – There is something fascinating about seeing what happens when you take a bunch of Detroiters out of their natural urban habitat and drop them into this unassuming village.
That is the premise behind “Detroit Up North,” an extravaganza that takes city residents into the Thumb of Michigan. The destination for this diverse group was Port Austin, the definition of rural beauty. It was a weekend of beaches, biking, kayaking and friendly rummaging. The three-day getaway (which took place June 7-9 this year) is loosely organized in that you only have to participate when you feel like it. But it is hard to avoid the pull of this friendly crowd, full of youth and sass.
This is the second year Detroit Up North has invaded Port Austin, and you could see how the town embraced the participants. There were signs up in many storefronts, welcoming “The D” and thanking them for making the trip. Truth be told, organizer Jim Boyle and his family are sort of royalty around these parts, and Boyle’s likeability quotient is pretty much through the roof since he admitted his love and admiration for his mother in The Detroit Free Press a month ago.
So what is the point to this strange journey two-and-a-half hours north of Detroit? It was simply to slow down, let go, change the conversation, create new friends and honor the simpler moments that bond us as a community. Did you need to leave Detroit to do this? Probably not. But it certainly helps to be in a tiny burg like this to see one another in new ways, and, more importantly, to embrace the beauty of the urban when contrasted against the rural.
There is room for conversation about what makes Port Austin similar to Detroit. There are empty storefronts – small restaurants that couldn’t drum up enough business, vacant lots where old buildings burned down and no one has redeveloped. There are plenty of barns falling apart, like a rural form of ruin porn. And there are desperate people aplenty, willing to rob or sell drugs to make a living. No one ever said lakefront property makes you any better than anyone else.
Surely there were many memorable moments, but for me the dinner Saturday night was the highlight of the weekend. I brought along a willful 5-year-old kid there (she was feeling poorly and wasn’t in a social mood), so my stay was briefer than I would have liked. But the vignettes I saw there were so charming that I would have stayed all night.
The location for dinner was a small, grassy field next to the the Little Yellow Cottages, where many of the Up Northers were staying. These cottages housed a couple here, a family there. Let me set the scene: These cottages are squished within inches of one another, painted like something out of a “Hello, Kitty” cartoon. They are far from any commercial coffee joint. But these small inconveniences fade when you see that you are within a hundred feet of Lake Huron, a postcard perfect beach and a grand breakwall that let you walk out over the water like a rusted tightrope.
The jamboree was in full swing when we arrived. There were kids playing together outside, sharing last generation’s Barbie dolls. Some Gen Xers were playing bags, setting up teams among any takers. The older generations sat on lawn chairs and chatted. The young moms and dads sipped beer and talked about the summer break about to begin.
Yet it still felt like Detroit. There was Andy Didorosi’s velodrome bus, a marvelous piece of The Detroit Bus Company right there amid the blacktop roads, humble churches and humbler homesteads. There was evidence of city pride everywhere you looked, whether it was the McClure’s Pickles t-shirts or old English Ds on faded sweatshirts.
We weren’t forgetting Detroit. It was a respite from the emergency managers, the talk of art museums and who deserves our van Gogh. There was real talk besides what city you REALLY live in, whether you understood the gentrification issue or what you do for a living. The mood was light, the food was smoky and filling, and I’m sure no one went home without meeting someone new.
It was sublime to see the faces of people I only know on Facebook or Instragram. It was downright heart-warming to have perfect strangers greet you with a high five and a plate full of warm, roasted pig (yes, there was a massive pig roast-slash-community meal involved). And I adored the conversation around the amazing installation of BARN art (really, a barn! There were multiple barns in the running for the honor) via Steve and Dorota Coy of the Hygienic Dress League. The front is the iconic pigeon, the corporation’s logo. The back will be a kind of American Gothic. It’s worth the drive north just to see the detail and colors on these large images, painted so dramatically against the faded barn wood. The locals took notice — enough to wonder why someone would paint a barn in the first place.
By Sunday afternoon, people shook the last of the sand from their Tevas and headed back to reality. Port Austin is wonderful to visit – it is the kind of place you’d love to stay if you were retired or could telecommute from a beachfront cabana. My parents live there about six months of the year, enjoying the quiet lullaby of the water, the bright pink-and-orange sunsets and the “shorts in church are OK” lifestyle. That’s what Port Austin is all about.
But there is a city that needs these travelers, and Detroit wouldn’t be the same without them.