Thomas Wolfe said it most famously: "You can't go home again." But you can sure as hell try. I'd highly recommend it, even if the joke behind going anywhere this summer for $200 or less is that, with the cost of gas, what could have been a round-trip ticket from Detroit to, say, Las Vegas during the Clinton years amounts to perhaps a trip to the Motown Records Museum in 2008. I kid ... but it's worth noting that both times I've taken out-of-town guests there during the last year on Saturday afternoons, the damn place has been closed for special events, although said guests have still been thrilled getting their photo taken in front of the legendary Hitsville U.S.A. building.
But, um, anyway ... oh, yeah, gas and the economy. Say what you will about both political parties being the same pile of pile of shit — as I saw expressed on an eloquent bumper sticker the other day — I've now lived long enough and experienced enough to say with the utmost certainty that when the Republicans are in, my friends with an artistic bent all suffer financially. When the Democrats are in, however, they've done just fine. For that reason alone (among a million others), no, it ain't the same pile ...
But, anyway, where were we? Oh, yeah, the Motown building. Aside from that and a meal in Greektown and maybe a few other local spots of interest like the Renaissance Center or Belle Isle, there aren't a lot of stunning attractions of great beauty to show those aforementioned out-of-town guests when they come to visit the D (I do love making them close their eyes for a second, though, when we hit that dramatic "border" on Jefferson that divides the burnt-out, boarded-up buildings that look like they remain from the infamous '60s riots and Grosse Pointe).
So a drive from Detroit to Bad Axe, where I spent the first 18 years of my life, is still an extremely pleasant one and — especially in the summer — proves that Michigan truly remains a beautiful state. After you take M-59 to M-53 and get past Romeo, it's all non-freeway driving to the Thumb. There's hardly ever a great deal of traffic, and you drive through a lot of farm country (which is one of the few things in America that hasn't changed much, appearance-wise, over the years ... though the dilapidated remnants from the advent of the corporate farm during the Reagan years are still there) and a lot of pretty cool small towns (a few of them not much more than a bar, a church and a post office). There are even some old country diners with an "EAT" sign out front (I've often wondered why motels haven't followed this great American country tradition by posting '"SLEEP" and "FUCK" signs out front). As for recommendations on that pleasant drive, though, I'll simply say that Moore Ice Cream ("Eat Moore Ice Cream") in Marlette is excellent. (There used to also be a Moore Ice Cream stand between Port Austin and Caseville — more on those towns later — but it's been gone for many years now.)
Truth is, this story was originally conceived as a trip to the Bad Axe Fair — once known as the Huron County Fair, though now it's known as the Huron Community Fair ... even if nobody in the community seems quite certain as to why. It is a lot smaller these days, that's for sure ... and the midway attractions are a lot less impressive than they were for me between the ages of, say, 3 and 18. In fact, I saw my first live naked woman at the Bad Axe Fair when I was like 14. That's the kind of thing you never forget.
They actually used to have a traveling girlie show on the premises once upon a time. Don't have that anymore, though! It cost $5 to get in, I think. They obviously didn't check IDs very closely, and I vividly remember the woman — not wearing a stitch — gently stroking my friend Scott's head with a feather, inquiring: "Are you an Indian?" (Scott nodded affirmatively, a big dumbfounded smile on his face, even though he just looked Native American, especially during the hippie era), as a really drunk older dude who staggered in from the beer tent (don't have that anymore either) stood beside us, both arms thrust in the air, screaming "Pussy!" over and over again at the top of his lungs.
Actually, the fair kinda sucks these days — no fake babies in formaldehyde bottles, snake pits, house of freaks, Sonics Rendezvous Band playing the grandstand, or loud barkers trying to lure you off the midway and into their "spectacular" attraction. Nevertheless, it still has that archetypal small-town vibe — not to mention at least a merry-go-round, Ferris wheel and Tilt-A-Whirl — and the one great thing that's still there and has been there from the very first Bad Axe Fair I ever attended is Gibby's Foot Longs and Fries. It's two separate cars, one for the dogs; the other for the fried potatoes, located right next to each other — and, seriously, even though it seems that Coney Island dogs have become Detroit's unofficial official food over the years, it's worth a trip to Bad Axe, even if just for the day, to buy those fries (drench 'em in vinegar) and, especially those dogs (no chili offered at Gibby's, though, so Coney Islands aren't even an issue). Can't describe why they're so good — maybe it's those steamed buns they have wrapped in immaculate white towels — but they're delicious. Can't find anything online via Google about Gibby's, aside from other Midwest fair appearances and that they've been around since the 1950s. But I've been fortunate now to have those dogs two years in a row after a 20-year absence — and they're one of the few things from my youth that remain every bit as good in reality as they are in my memory (although naked women still rate right up there ...).
Aside from the fair, though, I can't think of any reason why a stranger might want to go to Bad Axe these days. Great place to grow up — but there isn't even a downtown Bad Axe anymore, thanks to the evil bastards called Wal-Mart opening a few years back just (but of course!) outside city limits. The only thing that remains from my childhood is Corbishley's Menswear (made world-famous from a photo of Nixon in front of the store when he visited Bad Axe in 1974, just months before resigning; I was there with an impeachment sign; some folks told me I'd ruined my life that day; still others threatened to beat me up; a few actually thanked me and my friends) and the oh-so-wonderful (at least as a kid) Bad Axe Theatre, where I sometimes learned as much about the outside world as I did in school. But when my editor Brian Smith told me we actually had to go to the place we were writing about — and since the fair isn't until the second week of August — that's when this turned into a "you can at least try to go home again" piece. You may not find anything of great value in Bad Axe these days — but you certainly might in your own hometown.
So I drove to Bad Axe, picked up my mom (when I visit my dad these days, it's in the cemetery) at the house I grew up in (though it's much different than it was then; the old garage is now a family room, for instance) and took the drive from Bad Axe to Caseville and then into Port Austin. If you're going to the Thumb these days, those latter two towns (and the road connecting them) should probably be your destination. The beaches remain beautiful, and that drive between the two towns (where Moore Ice Cream used to be) is one of the most beautiful in the state, as gorgeous as Malibu, especially in the early morning, to my eyes ... and without the horrendous traffic, to boot (although that wasn't at all true in the '60s and early '70s when motorcycle gangs and hippies from all over the country would invade the area on summer holiday weekends).
It's very peaceful and relaxing in 2008, however. There are motels and even small cottages for rent all up and down the road — and you could do much worse for a summer excursion. There are several cool places to eat along the way, though I'd probably recommend the Breakers on the Bay restaurant (just outside of Port Austin) if you feel like splurging. Try the perch dinner; $18.99. The view of the beach is stunning there. They also have a motor inn that opens to the beach. I really love this area — but then it is part of my DNA.
That figurative DNA also relates to something that's both frightening and, strangely, exhilarating as you grow older — and that is that when you return home as an adult, after many years away, there are ghosts everywhere you look. Experience things in a slightly altered state of consciousness — and those ghosts can almost be overwhelming. And they're not just at the cemetery — two cemeteries, actually; the Sacred Heart burial site in Bad Axe and the one in nearby Ubly (sadly almost a ghost town in 2008, though still lovely in a small town sorta way), where my dad was born, worked for many years as an old-time country doctor (following in the footsteps of his father) and now lies buried. Nevertheless, the cemeteries hold their fair share of those aforementioned ghosts — and now that I've hit the half-century mark, I probably know as many people buried there as I do people still residing in the towns themselves. Of course, that doesn't have everything to do with age; a few of those ghosts are friends who died right out of high school and even someone who can be described as sort of my first girlfriend who died from leukemia when we were both in fourth grade.
But in Ubly, there are numerous people who were friends of my dad (long the Democratic chairman in a county that wouldn't have voted blue if Jesus were on the ticket), as well as many of his own family members, meaning uncles and aunts — all of them grown-ups when I was a child — so visiting there always reminds me of the third act to Thornton Wilder's bittersweet Our Town — but in a pleasant sort of way. It's a really beautiful cemetery, on a hill, overlooking the main road to Bad Axe on one side and the beautiful countryside on the other. And while it's somewhat breathtaking (especially after 20 years in Los Angeles, where the cemeteries are just downright weird; I could write a whole piece on the celebrity cemeteries alone — I watched the Ramones' Rock 'N' Roll High School once on a mausoleum wall at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, only feet away from where Dee Dee's buried and Johnny's memorial marker stands), it's also extremely peaceful in a Zen sort of way — even more relaxing than that drive from Port Austin to Caseville.
It's important to occasionally visit these ghosts, I firmly believe, just as it's important to never lose track of from where you came and where you're ultimately headed. On that earlier beachfront drive, in fact, I actually ran into a childhood friend, Jon Dean, and his brother Chris ("Christine who?" was the only problem having the latter as a pal) — folks I hadn't seen in more than three decades — although it's amazing how you can pick things up right where you left off with these non-ghosts from your formative years as though you'd just seen each other yesterday.
Mom was happy to see the Dean boys as well, especially when they told her she's "hardly changed" (she looks damn good at 79, I must admit, but then all my friends used to think my mom was a fox once upon a time). As I've mentioned, the old house has changed (for one thing, the vacant field where we used to play baseball is now a two-car garage), but when I drop Mom off and head back to Detroit, I'm happy I still have a house to visit in my old hometown, contemplating that someday I'll have to stay in a motel if I go back ... be it for a high school class reunion, a wedding, a Gibby's foot-long or to visit the graves.Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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