After you return from vacation, people will ask “How was your trip?” They don’t really want to know. It’s a rhetorical question, like “How are you?” You’re supposed to say, “Fine!” and allow the conversation to end. Modern society has embraced this affectation so we can pretend we care about other people’s lives and aren’t self-absorbed narcissists.
So I’m not going to tell you about my family’s vacation in northwest Michigan. It was fine. I am going to tell you about the region though, because I’m tired of fancy vacation spots getting all the press.
Sleeping Bear Dunes is in a national park along the northwest Michigan coastline. The name Sleeping Bear comes from a solitary dune that is shaped like a sleeping bear. At least it was back when it was named by the Native Americans. Now it’s eroded and looks more like a turtle in profile. The name Sleeping Bear remains, however, due to an enduring Native American legend and an unwillingness to pay for new signage.
According to the Sleeping Bear legend, a long time ago Wisconsin caught on fire. No explanation is offered as to how an entire state caught fire. Maybe that kind of thing used to happen. Anyway, the legend is that a bear and her cubs crossed Lake Michigan to escape. The mother bear fell asleep when she reached the Michigan shoreline and became Sleeping Bear Dune. Her two cubs died in the lake and became islands. You’d expect them to be named “Dead Cub Islands,” just for consistency’s sake, but they went with something else.
Northwest Michigan is also known for its abundance of charming lakeside towns. Charlevoix, one such town, has a charming downtown filled with charming shops (which, technically, makes them “shoppes”). Charlevoix has two fudge shoppes. Presumably your average tourist is a vigorous consumer of fudge, because fudge can also be found in most other Charlevoix establishments, including restaurants, gas stations and liquor stores. I estimate that approximately 90% of Charlevoix’s tax revenue is generated by fudge sales.
The other 10% probably comes from sour cherries. The economy in northwest Michigan used to rely on logging and fishing. They ran out of trees and fish, though, so lumberjacks and fishermen started hanging around the house all day, driving their wives crazy. Someone noticed that cherry trees grew well in the lakeside climate, and decided to plant more. The conversation probably went something like this:
Unemployed Lumberjack: I’m going to plant a cherry orchard. This will be a big money maker for us.
Unemployed Lumberjack’s Wife: Yes, of course it will. In fact, you can plant the first one right over my dead body.
UL: While I respect your cautious nature, I have decided that we will make our town the Cherry Capital of America.
ULW: I want a divorce.
So all the newly single fishermen and lumberjacks devoted themselves to growing cherries and succeeded in making the region America’s main source of sour cherries. Their ex-wives opened fudge shoppes.
The cultivation of sour cherries is not the cash bonanza one would expect. The northwest Michigan farmers realized that sour cherries taste, well, sour, and require some clever marketing. People were convinced to mix sour cherries with about 10 cups of sugar and cook it inside sweetened dough to make what came to be known as “cherry pie.” This arguably edible food caught on over time, and even inspired a song by the same name. Or, I don’t know, maybe that song was about something different.
As interstate commerce increased, people were able to buy fruit that actually tasted good. Sales of the sour cherry consequently decreased. Luckily, the cherry farmers realized two important facts: (1) people buy anything they think has health benefits and (2) people believe food that tastes bad is good for them. Suddenly the fact that a sour cherry tastes like a ball of menthol with skin worked in its favor. Sales soared, assuring the future of both sour cherry farms and dubious health claims.
Consider spending your vacation dollars in Northwest Michigan instead of some big show-off city like New York. But if you’re in a Las Vegas frame of mind, go to Las Vegas. Because whatever happens in northwest Michigan doesn’t stay there – northwest Michigan expects you to clean up after yourself.