That, way back there in the distance, is the Mackinac Bridge. First, let’s get the measurements out of the way before we get a little closer to it. The bridge spans nearly five miles, with its suspended bits stretching around 3800 feet, good for 16th in the world. It has the longest span between anchorages in the Western Hemisphere (suck on that, Golden Gate Bridge) and it also takes 7 years to paint the thing, with the process starting all over again once it’s finished. I wonder if that gets demoralizing. The towers, at 552 feet above water, are the tallest non-radio-tower structures in Michigan outside of Detroit, and if you add the 210 feet below water, they’re almost 50 feet taller than the Renaissance Center.
Michigan has two peninsulas, the Upper Peninsula and the Lower Peninsula. I imagine that geography-savvy World Citizens will understand us when we talk about Upper Michigan and Lower Michigan, but Upper Michigan is also called the UP by Michigan natives. I recently discovered that outside of Michigan (and probably the immediate surrounding states) no one has heard of the UP. It’s a local term, and now all of you know it, too. Two more local terms are Yooper and troll. Yoopers are people from the UP, and trolls are people from Lower Michigan. Why trolls? Well, because they live under The Bridge. Yes, we are very clever here in Michigan.
The Bridge is a point of pride in Michigan. Wikipedia will tell you that it’s locally known as Mighty Mac or Big Mac. It’s so not. I’ve never heard anyone refer to it in those words. If you say The Bridge in Michigan, chances are good that people will understand exactly what you’re talking about. When you’ve got a striking, 5-mile-long, green and white monument to engineering like this, there can really be only one thing you’re talking about. It shows up on some of our license plates and is an excellent landmark by which to identify ourselves with.
There are several places one can stop at to take in views of The Bridge. I did not have a chance to stop when we were heading north this time, but there is a beautiful park around the southern base of The Bridge and Fort Michilimackinac, including the reconstructed Fort itself. Where we stopped was the Bridge View Park on the north shore. It has a building playing what I assumed to be a video loop of indeterminate length about the Bridge’s history and engineering, while the building itself has a series of pictures and articles chronicling the area’s history with crossing the Straits of Mackinac.
The floor is pretty neat, too. It’s your basic commercial-grade tiling, but done in the design of a map of the Great Lakes. My son thought this was particularly cool and spent almost five minutes asking questions about our home and our travels and what those places over there are (the Niagara Falls). You’ll have to excuse the potato-level photograph. I’m only 5’11” and there was no way to get any higher for a clearer picture.
The landscaping is nice with flowers all around and several people besides me tried their hand at capturing an image of the Bridge with vibrant blooms in the foreground. Lake Michigan (or the Straits of Mackinac, I’m not really sure how to differentiate between the two, and besides, this is a car website, not a geography one) came up to the rocky shores on our sunny, windy afternoon in waves and splashed all over my kids. The water itself was surprisingly warm. My experience with the Great Lakes did not prepare me for such a welcoming feeling. I kind of wish we had stopped earlier along the lakeshore to go swimming.
The Bridge had always been the toughest and most welcome part of my drive between college and my hometown. Constant, gusting crosswinds make relaxed driving impossible, and they actually have a service where Bridge workers will drive your car across for you if you don’t feel up to it at no cost. The metal grating that serves as the middle lanes (one in each direction) also make cars track funny, always shifting about. You’re never quite able to go in a perfectly straight line, and between that and the crosswinds you need to be on top of correcting your path. It’s not the most difficult thing I’ve faced when driving, but I suspect that without doing it every day you never really get used to it (I still haven’t).
Crossing the Mackinac Bridge has always felt like coming home to me. When I travel north, I know that once I’m across it I have about 3 hours left until I get back to Marquette. The scenery changes, becoming simultaneously sandier and rockier, with tiny dots of civilization separated by many dozens of miles. I had the good fortune of working for some great people at a local grocer in the south end of town for almost a year and a half. Even ten years later, I’m greeted with warm smiles when I stop by. It really makes a place feel like home when you have connections with people there. Our last 7 years in Japan are proof of that, too, but that’s a whole other story.
Of course, heading south it’s something of a homecoming as well. My parents still live in the same house just inside Michigan next to Toledo, making me a troll as well as a Yooper. After 3 hours traveling from Marquette to the Bridge, I am faced with 5 more to the last exit before leaving Michigan for Ohio. The magic of the Bridge is that despite being longer it feels shorter. No, it’s not a perfect halfway point, but it is a welcome sight nonetheless. It shimmers in the sunshine during the day, and glows under the darkness of night.
Sometimes I think that it’s really too bad that the Mackinac Bridge isn’t more famous, or more popular. The Golden Gate Bridge or the Brooklyn Bridge get a lot of national love, being proudly featured in movies and comic books and the like. But at the same time, those are densely populated urban areas, and the Straits of Mackinac aren’t, like, at all. Then it occurs to me that we’re pretty lucky to have it all to ourselves. Michigan couldn’t do better for a symbol than this magnificent bridge.
NOTE: Final image borrowed from Wikipedia Commons.