Alpena, Americana, & The Great Cardboard Boat Race

don’t know about you, but big-time Fourth of July spectacles—with their fighter jet flyovers and crowds jostling for the best position to see the over-the-top fireworks displays—just aren’t for us. Nope, small-town Independence Day celebrations are where it’s at: the American Legion brass bands, the parades down Main Street, sparklers and hot dogs and kids wheeling around on streamer-bedecked tricycles. Each little town adds its own signature events, too, from street dances to pie-eating competitions to, yes, regattas featuring boats made entirely out of cardboard. It’s a slice of true-blue Americana served with a big helping of small-town charm that’s easy to lose touch with for those who fly the coop. But you won’t need to bring your smirk or an overdeveloped sense of irony to enjoy it all. Alpena native and New York City-based writer Elissa Englund explains why.

It’s been years since I’ve lived in Alpena, but I still tell people I’m going home when I leave New York City and head back to Michigan. And this morning, for a few moments after I wake up in my childhood bedroom, I forget I’m not still 16. It takes me some time to remember that it’s 2011, that I now use the guest towels and that my bedroom is the office.

In the kitchen, my mom leans over the stove, humming as she adds cheese to a pan of scrambled eggs. Outside, against the backdrop of the Thunder Bay River, my dad guards strips of bacon as they crisp up on the grill. I smile at the unintentional embrace of traditional gender roles and reach for the coffeepot. Mom moves the pan off the heat and examines my outfit.

“Your headband is crooked,” she says, adjusting the red-white-and-blue-striped ribbon I’ve tied around my hair. “But your lipstick looks great.”

My friend Laura arrives then, and I tie matching ribbons to her wrists and thread them through her headband. Since high school, we’ve loved to dress up for holidays and random occasions. Now that we’re adults living on different coasts—her in Washington and me in New York City—I often find myself looking around the room at parties and realizing I’m the only one in costume.

We eat our American breakfast of animal products and coffee and rush to St. Bernard’s Church, where my parents were married more than 30 years ago. We’ve met there for the Fourth of July parade since I could remember, perching on the steps and on the curb to watch the floats and the tractors and the marching band. But now, the kids fighting for candy on the street are no longer me and my cousins, but my cousins’ kids, who are only a few years away from being too cool to scream about Bazooka. My family members stand on the lawn behind them, trading sarcastic quips and giant Midwestern bear hugs over the sirens of the approaching parade.

The next hour provides a patriotic display of modified tractors, handmade floats, antique cars and marching bands. A Jesus-themed float with grammar errors passes us, and I snicker for a moment before realizing my family won’t be amused. There’s a Statue of Liberty made from green garbage bags, which prompts my uncle to cheer and shout my name. An elderly couple on Rascal scooters whizzes past, a blur of American flags and barking poodles.

When I moved to Manhattan—the city of parades for every nationality and occasion—I was surprised to learn that our independence didn’t warrant one. I remember standing for a few seconds in the sweltering American heat and staring up at my beloved new city, with its skyscrapers and sewer smells and screeching subway cars, and feeling so far from home without this silly annual ritual. One year, I went to the Hudson River to watch the fireworks, which are said to be spectacular if you can get a view around all the buildings. Police herded us like cattle onto a pier, where we stood for hours in the sweaty crowd to wait for dusk. Now, as I join my family in the breezy Midwest on a perfect 80-degree day, I can’t believe that for a moment before I came home for this visit, I had been annoyed about missing the Fourth in New York.

America The Ironic

The boat is sinking—fast. The six crew members struggle furiously to paddle to shore, ignoring the puckering cardboard and the water rushing in through the folds of the box, but it’s of no use. They’re doomed. One sailor, a teenage boy wearing an orange life vest, refuses to go down without a fight. In the few moments before the box bursts open, he thrusts his paddle into the river and sends waves of water at the cardboard boat next to them.

Its passengers—four 20-somethings in a handmade boat designed to look like a case of Landshark Lager—ignore the splashing and continue paddling, leaving the failing vessel in their wake. Finally it goes under, sending the six crew members crashing into Thunder Bay. The crowd screams and cheers for the sunken boat, and they scream louder when the winner crosses the finish line. I cheer with them, even though my favorite didn’t win.

When the cardboard regatta ends, everyone slowly trickles back to the Maritime Festival, joking and laughing in their patriotic flag T-shirts. I hear the sounds of a band warming up and catch a faint whiff of popcorn. The few National Marine Sanctuary staffers look proud: the cardboard regatta’s first year was a success. Since 2001, the sanctuary has held the festival—which includes events like fur-trading re-creators, local bands, a hand-jive competition and a storyteller—but the cardboard boats are a new addition.

It’s so different from the past few summers, which I’ve spent sweating in the New York heat. It’s not the silly race or even the parade; I’d find all these elements in the other places I’ve called home: in New York City or Detroit or even East Lansing. I’d join my peers as they watched the fun through giant sunglasses, gripping onto cans of overpriced PBR with vague smirks on their faces. They’d have fun, but it would be the kind of fun acceptable to people my age, the kind punctuated by a wink that says, I know this is stupid, and that’s why it’s OK.

But as I look around today, there’s just a sense of fun. People are enjoying themselves, but they’re not looking around to make sure everyone else knows that they’re in on the joke. They don’t care. It’s sunny and there are hotdogs and ice cream, and later on there will be fireworks. And it’s America and today feels pretty damn American, in a good way that actually makes me feel a little proud.

As Laura and I head toward the hotdog stand, I spot a woman wearing the wolf-and-moon T-shirt that Brooklyn’s ironic hipsters loved to sport a few years ago. (It’s out of ironic fashion now.) Unlike everyone I know, however, she’s wearing it because she likes the wolf and the moon,and because it was probably on sale at Walmart, which is one of three stores that sell clothing in Alpena. It suits her, actually, and I feel a bit embarrassed, but I don’t know why.

Almost Famous

We make our way toward Starlite Beach on the Lake Huron shore, where a sand-castle contest has been going on since dawn. When I was a teenager, my cousin Ryan won every year. I remember his sunburned Irish skin blazing against his masterpieces, which were enhanced with colored water and hours of planning. Now the sculptures seem less grand, less meticulous, than they did when I was younger. I want to ask him if he noticed it as well.

I pass another cousin, Mike, working on a surfing scene, and he grins and waves as he continues sculpting the wet sand. There’s the requisite shark scene, which is actually quite scary—there’s something about the way its eyes stare vacantly and the sand streams from its sharp teeth like blood—and an impressive John Deere tractor, which will be a crowd pleaser.

Laura points toward the end of the beach and begins to laugh. At the end of the sculptures and castles crouches a boy, about 11, who is intently burying his sister in the sand. He’s left her head, hands and feet exposed, and she grins at me through missing teeth. A pink flag waves next to them (they’re entry No. 2) and the boy drops his shovel as we approach.

I crouch down to take a photo and he laughs. “Am I going to be on the Internet? Will you make me famous?” He turns to his sister, who can only wiggle her toes and fingers. “Hey, I’m going to be famous!”

A few blocks away and a few hours later, the Eagles cover band 7 Bridges takes the stage at the band shell. Laura and I take our time getting there—it’s an Eagles cover band, after all—and when we arrive, fans on chairs and blankets dot the entire hill and the lawn surrounding it. People even crowd onto the sidewalks and spill into the marina hundreds of feet from the stage.

The band struts on stage, all big hair and machismo and muscle shirts, promoting their album and their T-shirts as if they’ve earned the fame they now have, and the crowd goes nuts. When they begin playing, people stand up and dance, mouthing the words and closing their eyes as if the real Eagles were rocking out. A man stands up in front of me, his pants low enough to provide a clear slice of crack, and I realize he’s wearing a World Trade Center T-shirt. A menacing font reads, “Never Forget.” Everything about this, everything about him, is so Alpena—small-town, nationalistic, vaguely threatening but strangely naive—that I roll my eyes. His girlfriend approaches, shaking her dyed-blond hair as her cleavage hangs out.

I turn to Laura with a snarky comment on my tongue but realize that she too is smiling and nodding her head to the music. She hates “Witchy Woman,” of course, but it doesn’t mean that she can’t enjoy the sunshine, the music and even the weird man dressed as a taco at the Taco Bell stand. And it’s not ironic. I’ve been in New York so long, I’ve forgotten I don’t always have to wink.


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