Friday last we drove from Niagara to Sarnia – a town just on the Canadian side of the Canada/US border. We narrowly missed a huge winter shower on the roads and arrived in sleepy out-of-season Sarnia to find a good few inches of fresh snow everywhere. We settled into a motel, tracked down a lovely local pizza place and walked to it (quite a way) through the lovely fresh white stuff. Firenze was more café than restaurant (no frills, excellent food) and we got the usual friendly chat and amazed reactions (‘you’re away for how long?? How do you manage that??’). Then we went back to the motel and to bed - hoping the US guards would look kindly on us in the morning.
Morning came and we sat only 15 minutes on the bridge over the river St Clair (apparently it can be hours in the summer). After that we stood an hour or so in the immigration office waiting for our ‘entry docs’ (along with a whole crowd of other people) and then away we went – onto the fairly knackered roads of Michigan state. Very quickly things looked different – the stars and stripes waving instead of maple leaves of course but other things too – more battered cars and less big, fancy trucks, no Tim Horton’s coffee shops (they’re EVERYWHERE in Ontario) and, as I mentioned, big potholes in the roads. The state of Motown it might have been once… not anymore.
We were headed for relatives of mine in Ann Arbor and we drove the quiet way in (via Flint rather than Detroit - we have a lot of cities to negotiate on this trip and we try to keep to quieter roads if we can). We pretty much went straight there – straight to a cup of a tea and a piece of cake (these are relatives of mine on my Dad’s side and so, at least in part, English).
Ann Arbor is a university town (technically it’s a city but it’s pretty small and compact and it feels more like a town... you can even walk here, for a decent distance, without looking like a freak). We have spent a lovely, chilled-out few days here and features included:
- Buying our first ever Girl Scout cookies on Main Street. We’ve seen them on the TV but never bought or eaten them before.
- Seeing the local squirrels everywhere. They are fox squirrels (photo in the slideshow below). We saw our first Cardinal (red bird) as well. And lots of deer out in the countryside.
- Seeing snowdrops (also photo below). People in the UK have been mentioning spring flowers for a few weeks now but these are the first ones we’ve seen over here. You will notice that we are gradually wearing less clothes outdoors too (‘look – no woolly hat!’). It’s a shame really to be in Ann Arbor (city of trees… hence the squirrels) before it turns green for the spring but this was the only way we could fit it in with the dates and distances. The main green we saw here was all the preparations for St Patrick’s Day… banners, t-shirts, everywhere!
- Exploring the university area (very much the heart of the city). The institution in question is the University of Michigan and everywhere you go you see its students, its logo, its buses (I loved the blue and yellow buses – completely free for all to travel), its buildings, its frat houses, its hospitals, its merchandise (college sports are religions it seems… more than that possibly). I heard U of M referred to as the ‘Harvard of the mid-west’ – it is a good public university and people are very proud of it.
- Some great t-shirt slogans. I liked ‘Ann Arbor – six square miles surrounded by reality’ (thanks to Elmo's for the welcome and photos). There was also ‘Detroit – you wouldn’t last a day here’… people talk a lot about Detroit here as it’s very close but very different (to say the least). We did want to see Detroit (Motown Museum, Fox Theatre, people bringing the empty parts of the city back to life… like here) but we couldn’t work it in the end. Plus it was really nice to see these particular, very lovely relatives (don’t get to see them often – some we’re never met before) and it seemed right to spend as much time with them as possible. And now we’re heading off east today because we are on a clock of sorts. This was a short but very sweet visit.
- A very good, free university art gallery. It has a great range of work and some really informative materials alongside it too. From one exhibit I learned a lot about how the west was won (how about 1823’s “the right of occupancy is subordinate to the right of discovery”… hmmm…). They had a lovely Whistler (he was a tonalist apparently… never heard that one before), a couple of Picassos and lots more besides (plus we got a chance to linger as h was having fun with the host relatives).
- Lots of lovely cafes – some even offering a range of vegetarian (and even vegan food). Lots of posters for organic food too which I haven’t seen much so far. Even a Fair Trade shop (not food related). A university town for sure (and one with a solid pinko reputation).
- Also second hand bookshops, arty cinemas, second hand record shops (yes, records), little galleries and art shops. Borders opened its first bookshop here in 1971 and whilst it is still here for now its days feel fairly numbered. Some of the shops in the city have tiny ‘fairy doors’ on the side somewhere too (photo of one in the slideshow).
- A fun kids museum called the ‘Hands-on museum’ (hence h let loose in an ambulance… amongst other things – see photos).
- A trip out of town along the side of the Huron river to see pretty little Michigan towns like Dexter and Chelsea (and to visit the teddy bear museum in the latter – and yes, that is a Stars and Stripes teddy bear mosaic in the photos too). The area around was all big houses and churches – apparently people even go to the churches here too (we saw a boy in a Bible Bee t-shirt at the museum… that’s national Bible quiz, people, so get cramming…).
Of course like everyone else around the world we have been keeping an eye on the news and wondering just how bad it will get in Japan. I see online that some people are writing poems for Japan, others are praying, others are watching 24 hour video footage. It’s hard to take in these ‘elsewhere’ huge disasters wherever you are but we are on the road just now so what can we do but move on? Next stops Ohio and New York State.