How I Learned To Love Being From Michigan (Again)

Like many people who grew up on the Leelanau Peninsula — sometimes called the “little finger” of the Michigan mitten — I didn’t realize until well into my mid-20s that Petoskey stones aren’t a precious metal.

A Petoskey stone is a fossilized coral that can only be found on the coast of northwestern Michigan. Its distinctive honeycomb pattern is one of the most aesthetically perfect designs ever created by nature, or so I was led to believe as a child.

What other explanation could there be for the excitement these stones gave our parents? When I found my first Petoskey and presented it to my mother, she reacted as if I’d just plucked a water-logged Ivy League college acceptance letter out of the lake.

My friends and I spent most of our childhoods scouring the beaches in hopes of spotting a Petoskey. When we found one, we plucked it from the shallow waters like a prepubescent Indiana Jones.

We polished our Petoskey’s and turned them into necklaces and bracelets and earrings for our mothers and aunts and girlfriends. They wore it all, covering their bodies with heavy rocks. The women in my hometown had hunched-over postures from Petoskey jewelry, like medieval slaves covered in iron shackles.

It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago as an adult and started dating non-Michiganders that I realized not everybody is beguiled by Great Lake fossils. My first gift to my future wife, a month after we’d started dating, was a Petoskey necklace. She looked at it as if I’d just handed her a macaroni bracelet.

“Are you being serious?” she asked.

I was embarrassed by the rejection, but mostly confused. How could she not be enamored by my Petoskey gift? She was from Pennsylvania, where they didn’t have mysterious minerals covered in magical hexagons. She’d seen exactly as many Bigfoots as she’d seen Petoskey stones. But she wasn’t impressed.

It was perplexing. I’d spent my life believing that Michigan contains everything that a person could reasonably want or need. It has rock jewelry, perfect views of the aurora borealis, no toll roads, coveted fudge, (occasionally) winning college football teams, 10-cent-per-bottle recycling returns, islands where even vice-presidents aren’t allowed to drive, and endless beachfront property stretched across the longest freshwater coastline of any state in the nation.

We have 140 lighthouses. That’s more lighthouses than anywhere else in the country. Jealous much?

We’re also the only state with hand-based cartography. You can hold up an open palm, point to exactly where you live in Michigan — as long as you live on the Lower Peninsula — and be immediately understood. Beat that, other 49 states.

Growing up, I was vaguely aware that a world existed outside Michigan, but I assumed it was all variations on Canada. Michigan had everything that mattered. When I heard people on TV talk about the East Coast versus the West Coast, I assumed they meant Alpena and Muskegon.

When somebody tells me they’re going on summer vacation, my first response is always, “Up north?” Because that’s how we vacation in Michigan. We all drive upstate. If they tell me they’re actually heading south, I don’t know what to think. “To Ann Arbor?” I’ll ask, perplexed. The idea that they might go to Florida or any other vacation destination south of the Michigan border has never occurred to me. July is Cherry Festival season! Everybody goes north.

It’s still disconcerting to me how outsiders, even fellow Midwesterners, feel about my home state: that it’s blighted, abandoned, despair-inducing. I know Michigan has its faults. There’s the lake-effect snow, roads that resemble post-World War II Dresden, a hollowed-out auto industry and Detroit, the only U.S. city with an annual holiday devoted to recreational arson. Michigan is home to both Ted Nugent and Michael Moore, arguably the most loathed celebrities who won’t shut up about politics on both the Right and Left.

You could look at all the evidence and decide that Michigan is a joke. That could be true. Or maybe you’re a coyote and we’re the Texas Horned Lizard.

The horned lizard, a spiky-boned reptile indigenous to much of the southern U.S., has a brilliant defense against predators. When it feels like a coyote might be intending to eat it, the horned lizard squirts blood out of its eyes, at a distance of up to five feet and right into the offending coyote’s mouth. Apparently the blood tastes nasty, so the coyotes lose their appetites and run away.

I’d argue that Michigan uses the same defense. What’s that? Popular Science just claimed that everybody will be moving to Michigan in 2100 because it’ll be the U.S. state least affected by climate change? Um… wait, did you hear we’re poisoning children in Flint with drinking water? That’s happening right now. And we’re not stopping! We’re like, “Whatever, poor kids. We’re out of money! Keep drinking the cancer Kool-Aid!”

Flint’s water crisis is the Michigan equivalent of blood squirting out of a lizard’s eyes. Obviously Michigan’s water isn’t all poison. Just like the Texas Horned Lizard isn’t always squirting blood from its eyes. But that’s what we want you (i.e. the coyotes) to think.

Every Michigander lives with the fear that our borders are constantly in danger of being colonized by over-enthusiastic outsiders. I can still remember where I was when I learned that (now-disgraced) celebrity chef Mario Batali, who owns property in Leelanau, had invited U2 guitarist The Edge up to Michigan for a mini-vacation, and the pair were spotted together at a farmer’s market in my hometown of Northport.

I got a panicked call from my mother at midnight. “You don’t think he’ll buy a house here, do you?” she asked, referring to the Edge. “He lives in Hollywood or Ireland or whatever. He wouldn’t want to come here, do you think?”

“I have no idea,” I told her, sleepily.

“What if he comes back with the rest of his band and they all buy summer homes?” she wondered aloud. “That’s the last thing we need.”

“I don’t think Bono wants to move to Michigan,” I assured her.

“Don’t be so sure. Nobody thought Tim Allen would move to Michigan, either, and now he’s doing tourism commercials.”

“I’m pretty sure he came here when he was eight.”

“They’re going to keep coming!” she said, ignoring me.

There’s an episode of Seinfeld that perfectly sums up Michigan anxiety. “Maestro,” the orchestra conductor wooing Elaine, brags about his vacation villa in Tuscany, Italy, but then gets nervous when Jerry mentions that the area sounds beautiful.

“Well if you’re thinking of getting a place there, don’t bother,” he says curtly. “There’s really nothing available.”

That’s Michigan in one quote. We want to be desired and envied. Please visit our state and buy our fudge and marvel at our perfect beaches. But then leave. Forget “Pure Michigan.” Our state motto should be “There’s really nothing available.”

I don’t live in Michigan anymore, but I visit the state every summer, and now that I’m a father, I’ve begun introducing my 8-year-old son to Michigan culture. I’ve taught him that soda should always be called “pop,” and the most important decision he’ll ever make is between Flint-style and Detroit-style Coney Dogs, and that snow (to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin) is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

I’ve taken him to our beaches and taught him how to search for Petoskey’s. He found his first one last summer, and we celebrated. I told him why the stone was special, not because it’s especially beautiful but because it’s unique — those snooty ocean coasters can’t claim to have better versions. I told him how he’d grow up and give a Petoskey to the woman (or man) he wants to love forever, and they probably wouldn’t get it, but that’s O.K., because the fact that outsiders don’t get it is part of what makes being from Michigan so precious and rare.

It doesn’t belong to everybody, and there are few things in this world that don’t belong to everybody. It’s just a dumb fucking rock, and someday he’ll feel like a fool for getting excited about a dumb fucking rock. But in the blink of an eye he’ll be a middle-aged man, standing in a lake that feels like home, staring at the water and trying to find another dumb fucking rock, and he’ll forget how much he wanted to leave this awful state as a teenager, because now it feels like the only place on earth that matters. He’ll make grand declarations (at least in his head) to move back, before Bono and all his rock star buddies buy the really nice homes. He’ll wonder why nobody had thought to build a wall at the Michigan border. Keep the foreigners out, and get Ohio to pay for it!

My son was barely paying attention. Which is fine. He needs to learn these things on his own.

I’ve written for Vanity Fair, The NYT Magazine, and Playboy, among many others. I’m the author of 10 books, including my most recent, “Old Records Never Die”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store