Welcome back to the Connected States, the project that involves me living in a van for a year, driving around and telling stories. After going live I was absolutely overwhelmed by the positive response. I received so many tips, well-wishes, and offers of help that I haven’t been able to respond to them all yet. It was truly moving.
When we last left off I was in Iowa City, Iowa, which is not a very creative name for a city, so I moved on. By that point, though I’d left myself very little time. I needed to be in Detroit by 9:30am the next day so I could finally do my TSA Precheck interview, and Detroit was 490 miles away. I drove until I got very tired, whereupon I pulled into yet another Walmart parking lot and slept for 2.5 hours, and then kept going. My dad had recommended The Burning Room, a book by Michael Connelly, so I downloaded it on Audible and that did a good job of keeping me alert.
The real reason I was heading to Michigan was to see one of my oldest and best friends get married. Dylan and I go back to 7th grade, but many of the guests would be people we had gone to high school with. It’s still a pretty tight-knit crew, as, for various reasons, many of us had left our small California town for Brooklyn during the last decade, and so we’d formed a sort of “I miss real burritos” support group. Anyway, the wedding would be a couple hours north but first we decided to explore Detroit proper a little. We met up with Dylan’s old roommate Blair who grew up in the area and had since returned, prodigal son style.
If I had to pick one word to describe Detroit it would be “powder keg”, which is two words, so I would have lost that game. But that’s what it is. There is so much potential energy in that city, and it’s just waiting for something to set it off. It’s also volatile as hell. I’ve never seen a place that had been so obviously fucked by a single industry. Big auto burned these people, and these people are pissed.
Much of what you see on the news is true. There are rows upon rows of abandoned houses. Some houses — and not just a couple — have been burned to the ground. Everywhere you go you see desperate people. But Detroit is on the cusp of major changes. Real estate is so cheap that a lot of rich, white tech-industry type folks are buying up massive amounts of property, just because it’s cheap and they can. The artists have already moved in, and just like in any other city, once the artists move in they yuppies aren’t far behind.
And so you see the original Detroiters in a hard spot. They want Detroit to keep its identity and so change is fearsome, but they also realize that what the city needs more than anything is jobs. And so there’s a precarious acceptance of the new wave pushing in. Tech is being welcomed in, as long as it doesn’t overstep its bounds. But it will. It always does. And I don’t know what the aftermath to that will be.
What I found to be most inspiring, though, is the creative response Detroit has had to all of this change. Take, for example, Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project on the East Side, which has been around for 29 years now. It takes found objects, rubble, and abandoned houses and transforms them into something beautiful and inspiring.
[More from the Heidelberg Project]
[Gabby in front of the MBAD African Bead Museum]
The same could be said of MBAD African Bead Museum. Not only does this shop, inside of a highly decorated but otherwise unassuming house, have the most amazing collection of beads I’ve ever seen, but it serves as a conduit for the community. There I spoke with a woman named Gabby, of the Detroit Poetry Society, whose greeting for everyone was “Peace,” a sort of mantra she hoped would come true. She talked of the changes she’s seen, and of the importance of finding common ground among all people, which isn’t so unlike the goal of Connected States.
The area around the MBAD Museum hosts an incredible array of open-air art, similar to the Heidelberg Project, but this is mostly made by the artist Olayami Dabls, who owns the museum as well. It’s at once breathtaking and heartbreaking.
But Michigan isn’t just Detroit. We left the city for Saginaw, a couple hours north, where my friend Sheila, the bride, grew up. I kept my van (Ashley, “The Beast”) parked either at her parents beautiful home, where the wedding took place, or in the hotel parking lot where some other weddings guests were staying. The wedding was a three-day Bangladeshi affair, but I stayed for five. I think I needed the peace and quiet, and I’ll forever be grateful for the hospitality Sheila’s family showed me.
[Late night hangs in the van with some of my favorite people in the world.]
I have to say, taking the van to a wedding is kind of the best. This is the third one I’ve brought it to, and aside from the fact that you don’t have to pay for a potentially expensive hotel room, you can park it pretty much wherever you want and set up camp. It ended up being a sweet spot for after-partying, but it served an even more useful purpose.
Just before the wedding was set to begin, the sky opened up and the rain came pouring down in buckets. This was just before the groom’s family and friends were supposed to parade to the house and strike a deal to gain entry (a really fun tradition). There were dozens of us standing in a field and getting absolutely soaked. So we piled into the van. Not everyone, of course, but we managed to get 14 people in there, including the groom, who stayed dry for the 15 or so minutes before the storm passed. It was clutch. I even broadcast my first Periscope video from the middle of the chaos.
Saginaw hosted another first for me. The bride’s family had an old Sea-Doo jet ski in the garage, and we busted it out on the small lake there. We tied a rope to the back of it and I pulled my trusty surfboard out of the trunk, a five-foot, eight-inch Rusty DWART made with Varial foam. Making the transition from prone to standing was extremely tricky. You have to get dragged on your belly fast enough so the board starts planing. Then you wedge your back foot against the traction pad, and slide your front knee up underneath you. Then you need to take the rope with your back hand, so you’re reaching across your body, and use your front hand to stabilise the nose of the board as you pop up.
It took about six tries before I got it, but once I did, it was unbelievably satisfying. I’ve never gone anywhere near that fast on a surfboard, and the lake was so glassy it was like carving through a mirror. Also, falling really hurts at that speed. I had a good bellyflop dismount and it felt like the entire lake punched me in the gut.
Leaving Saginaw, I stopped to get an oil change, and then I just sat there for an hour, unsure of which way to go. This was the first time this trip that I could really pick any direction I wanted. I’d originally thought I’d head back through Detroit and spend some time with friends and family in Chicago, but people kept speaking with reverence of the Upper Peninsula (“the UP”) of Michigan. So I put the question to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. It was time to see if the social experiment part of this project had any legs.
Within half an hour I had almost 50 responses, most of them saying to go north, citing reasons like they’ve seen Chicago a million times, and they wanted something less explored. I took this all in. I knew there would be better opportunities for tech stories in Detroit and Chicago, but I’d probably be passing through that way in the early fall anyway... Screw it, I’m going north!
A gentleman named Nick pointed me toward the Traverse City Film Festival, which is Michael Moore’s baby. I got word that the opening night party would be that night, so I quickly reached out to them, said I was with Gizmodo, and could I have press credentials. Five minutes later I was set and driving thataway.
[Top of the Park Place Hotel, with an abomination of a “Manhattan”]
Nick didn’t live in TC, but he had a friend there named Brett who he linked me up with. Brett recommended I check out the Park Place Hotel which would provide a view of the whole town. It was beautiful up there, but I ordered a Manhattan and it was served on the rocks, so the whole place should probably be burnt to the ground. I did meet a lovely woman named Wendy who was there with her whole family. She’d lived in Traverse City most of her life, and made me feel very welcome.
[Jen Mackey and Northern Natural]
From there, Brett advised me to check out the Northern Natural Cider House. I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the best cider I’ve ever had in my life. It was so perfectly balanced and it didn’t have any of that cloying sweetness. The lavender and elderberry were especially good. Really nice and dry. I spoke to Jen Mackey who runs and/or owns the place (forgive me for being unsure, but I was drinking cider), who told me all about their organic process. I highly recommend quaffing it out if you can find it.
[These people randomly came up to me and insisted on taking a photo together.]
From there I found the the Traverse City Film Festival party; an open-air deal that took over two city blocks. It was there that I finally met Brett, who was there with his friends. We gorged on the local foods on offer, which were absolutely amazing. The whole food scene in Traverse City is insane. I’ve never seen a US town so small with so much good grub. Definitely a foodie haven. We spend the rest of the party listening to the lyrical stylings of Rick Chyme, which I really enjoyed.
[Rick Chyme on the mic]
It turned out that Brett’s girlfriend Holly is good friends with Jen of Northern Natural, so we ended up after-partying in the closed-up pub. The after-after party was in the van, where Brett, Rick, and I ended up lounging as I made maple old fashioneds and sazeracs.
In the morning, Brett came through and showed me the project he’s been working on, a book for the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl. The foreword was by Dwight Clark, so I was sold. I flipped through the book and said I’d get one for my dad for Christmas, which is true. You can check it out here. Plug alert over.
[Holly at the Northern Natural Cider House]
Basically, I couldn’t imagine a better beginning to the social experiment element of this trip. The very first try found me good people, good food, good cider, and good times in a place I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Truly incredible.
Today I’ll be continuing north to the Upper Peninsula. Maybe to Pictured Rocks, which I hear is incredible. Giz’s Andrew Liszewski made me promise I’d eat some fudge in Mackinac, and well, a promise is a promise. If you’ve got good people or places or things up north, let me know, would you? I hope to be updating from the road more regularly, so I hope you’ll follow along. You can find more photos from this leg in a gallery at ConnectedStates.com. Thanks for reading.
-Brent Rose 7.30.15 Traverse City, MI
Connected States is a new series from Brent Rose in collaboration with Gizmodo about living a truly mobile life. Brent will be traveling the U.S. in a high-tech van, telling stories from the road. New episodes will appear every Wednesday on Gizmodo, with more content being released in between. He is currently soliciting ideas for places to go, things to see, and people to talk to. Follow him on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and ConnectedStates.com
All photos in this entry were taken with a Sony A7s. The video was shot with a GoPro Hero4 Black, and the Instagram shots came from my LG G4.