Inside Outer (part two) 

Second of two parts

 

This journey began on July 4 with the intent of hiking the entirety of Outer Drive, more than 40 miles of inexplicably confusing boulevard that stretches from the border of Grosse Pointe Park on Detroit’s East Side to the Downriver town of Ecorse. It is a trek intended to discover the nature of this bewildering thoroughfare, which zigs and zags and twists in every direction of the compass as it meanders along, often skirting the city’s perimeter, sometimes disappearing completely for long stretches, yet managing to form a jangled horseshoe that threads itself inextricably into the texture of this city and a half dozen of its inner burbs. This hike is also leap of faith, a test of the belief that Detroit is a far more hospitable city than its image suggests. Above all else, like all good trips, it is a journey of discovery.

 

 

Exhausted from hiking the 17-mile stretch of Outer Drive extending from Lake St. Clair to Woodward Avenue, I collapse on the bed of this motel room on the dividing line between Detroit’s East and West sides, too tired to even take my clothes off, completely daunted by the realization that another 25 or so miles lie between me and this journey’s end.

My sleep is deep and dreamless.

Waking in the morning, the first thing I do is inspect my right foot. There is a bruise the size and color of a plum just below and in front of my ankle. Pain shoots along the outer edge as I stand. It feels as if someone has whacked my foot a few times hard with a hammer. For someone who fancies himself a real road veteran, I’ve made the worst kind of rookie mistake by undertaking this trek wearing ill-fitting boots.

A long, hot bath soaks away most of my aches, but the foot is hurt. The only question is how badly. Thinking some extra cushioning might help, I add a second sock.

I pull on my pack and head out, limping. It is almost 11 a.m. Another late start. I begin by crossing Woodward Avenue, stepping onto the city’s West Side. The previous day, in talking to a longtime Detroiter about this hike, I was told that my plan to hike Outer Drive from start to finish is impossible. Technically, that’s true, because the road doesn’t actually extend the whole way; there are long stretches where it just doesn’t exist. This is one of them.

On the south side of Seven Mile Road is the serene, grassy expanse of the Detroit Golf Club and adjacent Palmer Park — one of the jewels expected to adorn the necklace that planners envisioned Outer Drive becoming when the road was first conceived in 1918. Things didn’t work out exactly as planned.

According to old newspaper articles, during the late 1920s and early 1930s, residents of the exclusive Palmer Woods area — with neighboring Sherwood Forest joining in and a judge acting as their spokesman — pressured City Council to abandon plans to run Outer Drive past their homes. They were concerned that the added traffic would depress property values.

Even back then, Detroit’s premier neighborhood had clout. A Web site dedicated to the subdivision (www.palmerwoods.org) points out that “during the 1910s and ’20s many major executives from the growing [auto industry] built homes and lived a life of opulence and wealth in Palmer Woods.”

Once home to the Fishers, Van Dusens, and other prominent families, “the classic heritage of this unique neighborhood is still appreciated by the current residents of these magnificent homes,” described as derivative of English Medieval and early Renaissance architecture.

If this is where the lords and ladies of Detroit take comfort in their manors, then the poverty-stricken neighborhood I passed through the previous night is where the peasants dwell. Only Woodward Avenue separates the two neighborhoods, but they are worlds apart.

Hobbling along, I hope to pass a shoe store so that these boots — which clearly weren’t made for walking — can be dumped in exchange for a decent pair of sneakers. My spirits (and my soles) are lifted when a Payless Shoe Source appears up ahead at the corner of Seven Mile and Livernois. But the business district that would normally be bustling on a Monday morning is Sunday quiet. Everything is shut down as the Fourth of July holiday carries over into July 5. Across the street from Payless is a Footlocker. It too is locked up. Plodding north on Livernois, I see two or three other shops with shoes in the windows. It is as if they are all teasing me, taunting with the promise of relief that’s just out of reach.

Kindness of strangers

A few long blocks north of Seven Mile, Outer Drive starts up again, heading west from Livernois. The inviting, broad green median is back, and so is the upscale housing that marked so much of the previous day’s route. The brick Tudors, with their finely crafted stonework — the homes that architect Tom Sherry says give Outer Drive much of its “signature” look — offer a feeling of stability and security.

Less than two miles have been covered so far today, and every step has me wondering whether I’m going to be able to keep on. I sit, pull off my right boot and add a third sock, hoping that still more padding will help. It doesn’t. After a few more blocks I decide to take the boots off completely and try walking in my stocking feet. I can stay on the grass of the median. It sounds goofy, I know, but it is worth a try.

I get only a few blocks when an older African-American woman, in her 60s maybe, pulls up in a new PT Cruiser and lowers the passenger side window.

“Are you OK?” she asks

“Yeah, just fine,” I lie.

She is unconvinced.

“Do you have far to go?”

Only about 25 fucking miles, I think.

“No,” I smile, “Not all that far.”

“How about if I give you a ride?” she offers. “It won’t be a problem.”

I decline, and she presses the offer on me again. Her kindness and concern move me deeply. I want to give her a hug.

“Really, I don’t have far to go at all,” I assure her, trying to ease the lines of worry etched into her ebony face. “I’ll be fine.”

Truth be told, though, I am anything but sure of that. After the woman rolls out of sight, I sit there on the grass a long while, massaging my foot and contemplating my situation.

Sitting there on the median, I could quit right now and no one would blame me. In fact, most would think me an idiot for continuing on. Wrecking my foot for the sake of a story is senseless. It is even more senseless to keep going because of some misguided kind of pride. But I can’t imagine going back into the office and telling everyone I couldn’t hack it, that I’d called it quits after just one day. Neither can I keep walking with my boots off. If it makes me look so pitiful that old ladies are moved to stop and offer me a ride — well, that just won’t cut it.

So I slip my boots back on and lace them up, determined to make it through. I vary my walk, looking for some way to step that won’t shoot pain through my foot — long stride, short stride, heel down first, toe down first — nothing works. The only thing to do is suck it up and walk. One foot in front of the other, despite the voice in my head that keeps saying, “Quit, man. Just quit. It’s not worth it. Nothing is worth this.”

I don’t try to argue with that voice, because I have nothing rational to say in response. I just try to ignore it, and distract it with song.

“Oh lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz,” Janis Joplin chimes up, offering plaintive diversion, “My friends all drive Porsches, you must make amends.”

Freedom’s just a word

Tony Slaymaker, 67, is trimming bushes at his house several blocks east of Schaefer Highway. He tells me he’s retired three different times and is still working. His most recent job is with the city’s Department of Water & Sewerage, where he works with computers.

His neighborhood, says Slaymaker, is “fine.”

“It’s upper-middle class and friendly,” he says when pressed for more detail.

“There’s not too many whites,” he adds.

Does that make a difference?

“To some it does, but not to me. If it did, I wouldn’t live here.”

He looks at the city and has mixed feelings.

“The downtown seems to be headed in the right direction,” although the fact that permanent casinos aren’t yet going up is a concern, so is the slow pace of demolitions. Violent crime is another worry.

“Not in this neighborhood, necessarily, but in Detroit in general.

“There’s some rough neighborhoods over on the East Side, aren’t there,” he adds, more pointing out than asking.

I laugh and tell him that’s what East Siders told me about some neighborhoods west of Woodward.

When the talk turns to the state of the nation and the direction it is going, Slaymaker observes, “It doesn’t seem to be going in any direction. What’s most important to the everyday guy is the economy, and that just doesn’t seem to be improving.”

That fact has hit particularly hard in his home. His wife, a social worker, had to go out-of-state to find a job.

The undulations continue, with the quality of housing rising or falling as one old subdivision stops and another begins. The nature of the road is beginning to change. It has less of that “signature” feel architect Sherry describes. There are more ranch houses in the residential areas, and more of a mix in general.

At Hubbell, across from Sinai-Grace Hospital, I stretch out on the grass of the Westminster Presbyterian Church and marvel at the wondrous artistry of a depiction of Jesus, with the followers kneeling at his feet and reaching out in need. The scene, replete with swirling tree branches, is made from thin sheets of brass corroded with a patina of green.

I also think about the church’s message of the week, posted outside: “Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take a stand.”

What does it mean to be free? An appropriate enough question on the Independence Day weekend. There is that line from Kris Kristofferson: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” But, as catchy as it is, I don’t think that’s quite right. There is always something left to lose. Lying there on the cool lawn, watching white clouds pile up against an azure backdrop, it strikes me that freedom can indeed be a leap of faith, of letting go and dropping into the unknown, no matter what might be lost, all the while believing that things will work out. In that certainty, the padlock that is fear can be broken.

Freedom takes other forms as well. This journey, in its own way, is an expression of that. As much as I bitch about this country, I can still throw on a backpack and set off, going where I want. Even on a weekend like this, with the terror alert jacked up because of the holiday, there is no hassle from cops. That actually surprises me. I half expect to be stopped by authorities curious to find out exactly what it is I’m carrying in this big blue pack. But police scout cars have been a rare sight on this walk, and those that have cruised past pay me no attention.

At this moment, on my back, soaking in the sun and the smell of grass, I feel freer than I have in a long time.

But all this contemplation is getting me no closer to the finish of my journey. I pull myself up and resume walking. I don’t go far when, as expected from the outset, I have a canine encounter. It is not, however, the terrifying experience I’d been fretting over. There are no snarling packs of wild dogs.

I’m walking along when I hear a thud behind me. A pit bull, near the curb, struggles to its feet, looking dazed. My first thought is that it’s just been hit by a car. An SUV slows as a woman inside opens the passenger side door, whistles, and calls out, “Come here, boy. Come here.”

The dog stands there, wobbly and confused, like a drunk at the end of an all-night bender.

“What happened? Did he jump out?” I ask.

“No, he just fell when we came around the corner,” says the woman, nonplussed, as if it weren’t the first time this happened. The dog finally regains his senses and trots to the vehicle.

Ball in the hood

Near Patton Street just west of Evergreen, two guys in their late 20s are hard at work. One uses the claw end of a hammer to rip weeds from cracks in the street. The other holds a can of spray paint as he kneels over a 2-by-4 he’s using to make sure the line he’s about to put down is straight.

These are the finishing touches to a basketball court, complete with wooden standard and backboard, the two men built over the weekend.

Charles Cook and Isaac Sanders are both longtime residents of this neighborhood, which, by appearances, is the poorest yet encountered on this long walk.

As rough as it seems, they tell me, the area today is better than it was just a few years ago.

“All these crack houses, they ain’t up like they used to be,” says Cook, who works for a moving company.

“It’s starting to improve,” agrees Sanders, also a mover. “They’re bringing it back up.”

They say a heavier police presence, and a concerted effort to clear out drug dealers, is having an effect.

“Things are moving slowly, but they are moving,” says Cook.

I ask about the hoop they’ve put up, inquiring whether it is for them or the kids milling around, obviously ready for some ball.

“Both,” say Sanders.

“This is good for the kids,” adds Cook. “It will help keep them out of trouble.”

But this is for Sanders and Cook as well. Both say they love to play ball, and plan on getting some three-on-three games going once their project is complete.

“We’ll be able to see who in the neighborhood has bragging rights,” says Cook.

Before leaving, I pull out my map, now limp from soaking up sweat in my back pocket and beginning to tear at the seams.

“Is there any place fairly close that I can find a motel?”

They study the map a moment.

“Yeah,” says Cook. “Down here on Plymouth Road there are a couple. It’s not far at all.”

I follow his finger, and calculate the distance from here to there to be about three miles. I hitch my thumbs under the straps of my pack, thank the guys for their time and limp on down the road as they return to clearing the street, getting ready for some homemade hoops.

It takes me nearly two hours to cover the distance. Every time I sit to rest, standing back up gets more difficult. I keep telling myself, “You’re never going to get there sitting here.” I say it so often, it gets to be a sort of joke, a punch line repeated again and again. It gets to be kind of a joke I play on myself.

Finally, a motel comes into view at the corner of Plymouth. One floor, a couple of dozen rooms. The glass window separating me from the clerk is filled with stickers from various police agencies. The message is clear: This motel is a good, law-abiding place.

I hand over 40 bucks and head toward my room. A young woman, somewhere in her 20s, approaches. Wearing short shorts and an even shorter shirt, she has a body built for action. Her stomach is decorated with a tattooed mouth, tongue sticking out and dripping lasciviously.

She smiles and asks if I’d like some company. I decline the offer. She gives me her name and room number, just in case I change my mind.

In my room, I drop my pack and fall back on the bed, only to see my reflection greet me. I stare and laugh — at how absolutely beat I look, and at the absurdity that it is under these circumstances that I encounter a ceiling mirror for the first time in my life.

The thought of the hooker in the parking lot flashes momentarily, but I have more pressing things to think about, like surviving tomorrow. With the 13 or so miles covered today, I figure I’ve gone about 30 miles altogether. That means maybe 15 to go.

I’m not going to be able to make it. Not the way I’m going. I call a co-worker and explain the situation. It’s a holiday weekend, and I hate to intrude, but I need help. She agrees to go to my apartment and retrieve another pair of shoes.

As I’m sitting on the curb, waiting, the hooker comes back over, asking if I’m certain I don’t want some company. I tell her what I’m up to, about the hike and the story, and say I’d be interested in interviewing her if she’s willing.

“Will you pay me?” she asks.

I chuckle at the thought of that expense report crossing my editor’s desk.

Before long my co-worker arrives. I take the shoes, and then unload almost everything in my backpack: sleeping bag, tent and extra clothes. One of the keys to life on the road is adaptability; if I’m to have any chance of completing this trek, I have to lighten my load.

Because of the holiday most everything is closed. But I need to eat. My friend drives me to a nearby McDonald’s for a couple of fish sandwiches, which — with the exception of granola bars — provide the only food I’ve had for two days. I’ve been living on those AriZona Iced Teas, sucking one down every couple of miles.

Back in the motel, I stare at my reflection before drifting into a fitful sleep. The people I’ve interviewed the past two days start to parade past, telling me I’ve gotten things all wrong, that my walk is a waste of time, that I am missing the truth of the story. One after another, all the friendly faces I’ve encountered while walking have returned with scowls to tell me that anyone fucking up a story like this is a pitiful excuse for a journalist.

Around midnight there is a knock on my door. There’s only one person it can be, but I just don’t have the energy or heart to get up at this point, even if the knocker does give great interview.

Grim reality check

I greet Tuesday reluctantly.

An inspection of my right foot brings more bad news. The bruise beneath my ankle has darkened and doubled in size. As I head to the tub for a soak, I can barely walk.

A TV weatherman tells me rain is in the forecast. There might be thunderstorms, as well, which means lightning. Great.

In an hour or so I’m back hiking.

Those people in my dream had me pegged. At this point, any pretense that I’m trying to commit journalism has been abandoned along with my sleeping bag and tent. My only goal is to make it through this, no matter what it takes. Which means that I’m going to just put my head down and march.

The rain that’s predicted is nowhere in sight. It is a glorious day begun in a glorious setting. For much of the morning my route takes me past River Rouge Park, a 1,100-acre gem — a true civic treasure adorning the necklace of Outer Drive, just as planners originally intended for the boulevard.

Even if I had a mind to conduct interviews along this last leg of my journey, there isn’t much opportunity. The long holiday weekend is over now. People have returned to their workaday routines. The park, at least the part I can see from the paved footpath along its western edge, is nearly vacant.

The air is so clean and sweet it’s hard to believe that I’m still in Detroit. In fact I barely am. The border of Dearborn Heights, according to my map, is just a few blocks to the west. Before the day is over, I will cross over into it and then pass through five more cities.

Around 11 a.m. I stop for breakfast. Still more thirsty than hungry I drain two large glasses of orange juice and a bowl of French onion soup. On the front page of that morning’s Detroit Free Press is a headline that reaches up and grabs me by the throat: “In Detroit, 5 die in a 6-hour span.”

According to the story, a total of seven people were shot and one stabbed in five different incidents. A small map accompanying the article shows where each crime occurred. Three are in the vicinity of Outer Drive. One, where a gunfight erupted following a dispute over a plate of chicken at a barbecue on Santa Clara, appears to have occurred just a few blocks from where I walked. The news is chilling.

Given the proximity of all this tragedy, it is impossible not to wonder about life and the way it works. I think back to my road days, and a conversation in Houston, where I had a day-labor job installing office furniture with a guy named Bo.

Driving from one job to the next, we started talking about hitchhiking. Bo said he’d had exactly two experiences along those lines. Once, when his car broke down, he thumbed a ride. The person who picked him up robbed him. After that, he never hitchhiked again. He did, though, pick up a hitchhiker, knowing how rough it could be. The guy he gave a ride pulled out a gun, beat him up, and then took his cash and his truck.

I, on the other hand, have gotten into the vehicles of literally hundreds of strangers, and have given rides to dozens of others, and never once was threatened with harm.

Good karma? Dumb luck? Divine intervention? I have no answer to that mystery.

All fueled up, I resume my hike, unable to shake the morning’s headlines from my thoughts. Flanked by the rustic serenity of River Rouge Park, I contemplate the soul of Detroit, and the damage done by days like yesterday, when lives are so carelessly taken, shredding further an image already torn and stained by far too much senseless violence. This is the image the world has of Detroit, a place where people kill each other over a plate of chicken. I’ve long maintained that Detroit’s problem is not one of perception, but of fact. There is no escaping the reality that this can be a dangerous city. But there is a bigger picture, one I’ve seen along every step of this journey — the picture of a city where kindness and hospitality flow like a vast undercurrent the outside world never gets to see.

Vanishing signature

Following my hobbled stroll through River Rouge Park, the rest of the day’s journey is unremarkable. The signature look architect Sherry told me about is almost completely absent.

For much of this trek, the houses on Outer Drive seemed to pay honor to the original intent of the thoroughfare. But as I pass through Dearborn Heights, Dearborn, Allen Park, Melvindale, Lincoln Park and finally Ecorse, Outer Drive seems to lose its character. Maybe it is just fatigue clouding my perception, but it feels as if the boulevard is losing its cohesiveness. The signature Tudors and colonials give way to ranch homes and bungalows. At one point in Dearborn there is a trailer park on one side of the road and massive gated mansions on the other. Farther along, there are stretches where the homes literally have their backs turned to Outer Drive.

Part of the lack of continuity, I think, can be attributed to the fact that here on the West Side there are few of the long, straight stretches of boulevard that characterized so much of the previous two days’ journey.

There are large clumps of green space interspersed with clusters of commercial development at the intersections of major roads. The residential areas seem to gently slide in affluence the closer I get to Jefferson Avenue, where Outer Drive ends (or begins, depending on your perspective).

In Dearborn a bus rolls past. I consider taking it. Even if it gets me a few miles down the road, that’s several thousand painful steps avoided. No one would condemn me for giving up, I know. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. There is a certain purity of purpose in walking this road from start to finish. A purity that, for whatever unnamable reason, I want to obtain.

To keep myself moving, I break the route down into small chunks, setting major roads and highways as my goal. Joy Road, Michigan Avenue, Southfield, I-94, I-75. And then, finally, mercifully, Jefferson.

In Ecorse, the median on Outer Drive has not been mowed in weeks. Even with the change of shoes and all the jettisoned weight, the going is painfully slow now. At a fairly leisurely pace, a person can typically walk about three miles in an hour. Using that formula, this day’s hike should take me about five hours. I’ve been walking for more than eight hours by the time Jefferson comes into sight.

A church hovers on the horizon, its golden cross marking the promised land of completion. I am too tired to be elated. But looking up at that cross, I can’t help but marvel at the symmetry of this moment, at how a journey begun as a test of faith — in this city, and in my beliefs — concludes with such an obvious totem to exactly that: faith.

It seems almost contrived, the kind of literary affectation that would strain credulity were it part of a novel. But the symbolism is not fiction; it is just fitting.

My faith in Detroit has been affirmed. The city was good to me — generous and kind. And Outer Drive, the road I set out to explore, came through as well, opening inner doors that were starting to rust shut. The lessons learned on the road long ago still hold true: Trust in the kindness of strangers, and trust in the vagaries of chance.

I find a pay phone and call for a ride to come get me. While I’m waiting, I try to make it to the river, but only get as far as the guarded gate of a sprawling aggregate company. I try to talk the security guard into letting me in, but he is unmoved by my story and turns me away.

This is as far as I’m going to go. But it is far enough.

I’ve made it to the end.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or cguyette@metrotimes.com

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