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The Paradox of Paradise

Why I hope to spend More Time Up North by living in Detroit

Growing up as one of the many metro Detroiters who clog up I-75 on summer weekends to get away from the swelter of city life, I developed a serious infatuation with certain places up north. It started with my family’s cottage, and over the years expanded into an entire list of secret and sacred spots that felt refreshingly far away from the pace of my “real” life downstate. On my list of favorite places: the sunset side of Torch Lake, the Bellaire dairy twist whose tacos I became obsessed with one summer, Deadman’s Overlook in the Jordan River Valley, the weathered dock pilings by the old cannery in the ghost town of Glen Haven, the Empire Bluff trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes, and the ice cream counter in the back of Alden’s general store, where the scoops are enormous and you can pay for a waffle cone with pocket change.

Some of these places were discovered on family trips around the area, and they became ingrained into our annual summer traditions. Other places I stumbled upon on my own and kept secret for myself. And then there were some that were given to me by generous friends. Like during the summer I was 19, when I crushed hard on an art school boy whose parents had a condo in Harbor Springs. He introduced me to his own favorite spots, like the Tunnel of Trees on M-119, and the wild beaches of Sturgeon Bay. One night we hiked Boyne Mountain, climbed onto the roof of the ski resort’s warming hut, and spent awhile gazing at the lights of Petoskey across the water of Little Traverse Bay. Crazy romantic, yes, but no matter how hard I hinted, the boy didn’t like me in the way I liked him. It all worked out though, because by the time we parted ways at the end of the summer, I had fallen in love — with new places up north I might never have discovered otherwise.

Over time, many of the spots on my sacred places list became ones I had to see every year. It didn’t feel right to let a summer go by without hiking to the dunes at Cathead Bay, or grabbing a sandwich from Gurney’s Bottle Shop, where they’ll top your order with anything and everything — except sliced tomato. Despite disgruntling many a tomato-loving tourist, the folks at Gurney’s stand by their theory that tomatoes ruin the texture of the shop’s incredible homemade bread. I love them for that, and I love taking one of their sandwiches down to this little park just east of the Harbor Springs marina, where I can eat sitting with my feet in the grass. After college, while most of my friends took off for jobs in New York City and Chicago, I moved back to metro Detroit but kept an eye on Northern Michigan. By then it had become my dream to live there. My freelance work as a regional travel writer frequently took me to towns like Traverse City and Petoskey, and soon it felt like more of me was living up north than downstate. So when I was offered a job at a Traverse City magazine, I thought I had landed the ultimate gig: living and working in paradise, surrounded by all the little places that fed my soul.

But the reality of living in paradise was far from what I had envisioned. I spent my first full summer there in a blue-gray cubicle, down the hall from windows through which I could hear people walking and laughing on their way to the beach. By July, Traverse City had become overrun with tourists, and I hated them, not just because their numbers made it hard to find a parking spot near my office, but also because I was wickedly jealous that they were out enjoying my new home while I was stuck in front of a hot computer. Weekends, when I should have been enjoying the beaches and hiking trails, were swallowed up by the chores that I inevitably neglected during the work week. As the months went by, I became less interested in exploring and fell into the rhythms of everyday life. I hardly ever made it out to my family’s cottage, and not once in three years of living in T.C. did I make it to Harbor Springs for a Gurney’s sandwich. In truth, I saw less of up north while living there than I did when I was living in Detroit. As soon as I made this beautiful place the backdrop to my daily grind, I let up on the pedal to keep seeking out the magic in it, and everything became ordinary.

At a certain point, this complacency crossed over into actually wanting to leave the area. Not only did I no longer feel the urge to get out and see my favorite places, I felt turned off by many of the things that originally had charmed me: The small towns went from cozy to stifling, the beautiful white winters dragged on and on, and the glory of summer felt like something I could never really indulge in because I was too busy trying to get by. So I moved away — really far away — to another paradise that had special significance in my heart: the coast of Maine. And I should have seen this coming, but the same thing happened there. After the initial thrill wore off and it came time to start making a life, the region’s mystic allure dissipated like steam off a pot of boiling lobster. And there I was, bored again in a beautiful place, only this time I was a thousand miles from home.

We all know about absence and the heart and the whole deal about growing fonder. So it hasn’t surprised anyone that I’m moving back to Michigan less than a year after arriving in Maine. But what has confused people is why I’m not moving back to my former “happy place” in the Traverse City region, and am choosing Detroit instead. I’ll be first to admit that some of the realities about living in southeast Michigan again have me freaked out: things like rush hour traffic, pavement, no topography to speak of, and having to lock my doors (something I haven’t done in four years). But in exchange, there is the beauty of a unique urban landscape, a vibrant culture and rich history, tons of local pride, and a new chapter in which the city is rewriting its own story. All those years I spent lusting after the supposed ideal life four hours north were years when I wasn’t giving Detroit a fair shake. This time around I’m looking forward to getting to know and love the city, for better and for worse. I don’t expect it to be paradise. I don’t have any expectations, actually, and for that reason I have a better shot at not feeling let down.

But beyond moving to Detroit for its own merits, I’m not moving to Northern Michigan because I have learned that surrounding myself with paradise all the time isn’t perhaps the best way to enjoy paradise. I want the places I fell in love with up north to remain magic in my mind, and not lose their luster through familiarity. It’s like this, according to my processed-meat-loving boyfriend: If your favorite food is hot dogs, you might dream of a life where you could have them at every meal. But too much of any good thing can dull the pleasure of it, and eventually you might get so sick of hot dogs that you never want to see another one again. So if you want to make your love of hot dogs last, you save them for games at Comerica Park, or barbecues at the Belle Isle beach, when you have all the right fixings and a cooler full of cold drinks.

At the risk of comparing up north to ballpark meat, there’s truth in the hot dog lesson. I’m not saying I’ll never again entertain the idea of living in Northern Michigan, but for now I’m content getting my fix in a way that, five years ago, I thought I was done with forever: by joining the crush on I-75 over summer weekends, and savoring up north in small doses. My hope is that by keeping a pleasant distance between me and my favorite places, they’ll once again hold the magic that first hooked me.

PS: I’m already compiling a new list of places in Michigan to check out this summer. The list includes Port Austin and the U.P.’s Keweenaw Peninsula, neither of which I’ve ever seen. What Michigan places (new adventures or old favorites) are on your list?

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