Dichotomous Detroit and What Love Can Do

The dichotomy was obvious, the contrast in opinions stark like the white letters on the black POW MIA flag that partitions our beds from the front of the van at night.  When we arrived to the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak where Mike O’Sullivan threw open his door and his refrigerator and wallet at dinner that night we were met with an attitude not uncommon in the area.

“Detroit?”  We were meeting Mike for the first time; even Devin was, his second cousin.  “What do you want to go there for?”

We sort of thought we were in Detroit, like Lake View East and Hyde Park are still Chicago.  But we were informed otherwise.

“Let me show you around.”  Mike thinks faster than any person I’ve ever met and when he talks, sometimes it’s like his sentences can’t keep up.  Daily he dons a green sleeveless shirt with his moving company logo.  His hair is gray and long at the back of his head and he has a tattoo covering his left bicep, though it’s close to illegible.

Mike drives us around downtown Royal Oak.  Bars, coffee shops, Mexican, Italian, a Five Guys and an Ed Hardy shop.  “We don’t have to leave Royal Oak, you know.  We can shop, go out, eat, really do it all here.”  Royal Oak is nice, feels safe.  But it’s Crystal City to D.C. and when he asks what we plan to do with our time we have to be honest.

We tell him we want to see Detroit.

“Man,” Mike says, “I don’t know what you could do down there.  It’s empty, dirty, dangerous.  Murder Capital, USA.  You know that, right?”  So though he opened his small home to the three of us, gave us beds and showers, paid for our beers and dinners that first night, stocked his refrigerator with sodas and dips and lunch meat, left his door unlocked and told us to come and go as we needed to and for however long we wanted, showing us Detroit was out of the question.  There was never an offer and we knew what the answer would be if we asked.


We were waiting for Alex outside of his school, a two story building in Mexicantown across from a soccer field.  Through the windows we could see mostly young teachers and the brightly colored orange and purple and green walls of the hallways.  “Doesn’t it make you want to learn?” Alex said as he walked us to his classroom.

It did.  Even on a day cloudy and dark in the city, the halls were bright and warm and inviting.  And so our first impression of the city of Detroit wasn’t that it was dirty or empty or unsafe but that there was money from somewhere being dumped into a mostly Hispanic middle school, creating new classrooms and gyms and laptop initiatives for the children of Detroit.  (Detroit is, in fact, millions of dollars in debt.)

As he drove us around in the rain (a perfect tour guide for having been there less than two years as a teacher from the Teach for America program), what we’d heard became reality: entire rows of abandoned homes, ghettoes of four and five thousand square foot homes (signs of what Detroit was only decades ago), crack houses, etc.  It’s also true that when a house goes up for auction you might buy it for $500 if you’re the only one to bid, though there’s no guarantee that someone’s not squatting in it when you get there, claiming it as their own turf.

Despite what other accounts, reported numbers and even Mike’s testimony about Detroit told us, seeing the city with Alex I felt what I hadn’t expected—life.  Amongst abandoned million dollar train stations and water treatment facilities and industrial buildings there’s a spirit of survivalism and hope.  Like Chicago Cubs fans, hell, Detroit Lions fans for that matter, those left in Detroit still claim it as their own with a raised chin.  “Yeah, we might be struggling,” says a man who calls Detroit home.  “But it’s still my city.”

Alex’s church is built upon the principal of moving from the suburbs to the hood, something people have been doing the opposite of in Detroit since the white flight following the 1967 12th St. riot.  One of two of the church’s pastors named Eric, the white one to be specific, moved with his wife to the middle of crack alley.  “Four or five dinners a week at his house are open to the public,” Alex tells us.  “That’s how they get to know the people in the community.”  One church member has an entire fenced lot beside his house where kids from the neighborhood come to play safely.  (If you buy a foreclosed house in Detroit, any adjacent lot can be bought for $500).

“Oh, I love it,” Alex says, referring to Detroit and why both of his prospective jobs at the end of this school year will keep him where he is.

It’ll take more than love to rebuild a city once as economically and industrially thriving as Detroit.  But when it comes to restoration, I can’t think of a better place to start.


No big deal

Our Mobile Workspace

Bruce Trail disappoints, Canadians do not

In southern Ontario there’s a stretch of peninsula that’s known more for its limestone cliffs and rocky white beaches and clear Lake Huron waters than its illegal Native American made cigarettes.  But you can find them all on the Bruce Peninsula.

The Bruce Trail is the Appalachian Trail of Ontario.  I say this for my east coast friends.  Though not as well known and only about a quarter of the size as its American neighbor, the Bruce Trail is an attraction for Ontarians near and far.

“I just finished Niagara to Tobermory today,” one man told me fresh off the trail.  (The trail runs for 550 miles from Queenston, On. near Niagara Falls to Tobermory at the top of the Bruce Peninsula.)

“Congratulations,” I said.  “How long did it take you?”

“Four years.”

Another woman, pointing to different places on the map, “There’s a good loop in this area.  And then here, a good out and back hike, take you maybe three or four hours.”

And it seemed no one we talked to could grasp that we were backpacking, carrying four days’ worth of food in our packs and planning to do more than 60 miles of the trail that runs along the coast of the crystal blue Lake Huron.

“Yes, since you have a van, drive here today,” said the woman’s husband.  “Then tomorrow, go up to this area, and after that, drive to here, plenty of places to explore.”

Of course, we should have listened to the locals.  The Bruce Trail is no more of an ideal spot for backpacking than Las Vegas is an ideal spot for a family vacation with the six and ten year old.  Until north of the Miller Lake area, the trail utilizes a number of gravel county roads and private farmland.  Though serene groves of Aspen trees line some of the roadsides, we were ready to ditch the trail and knock on a farmer’s door and plead for mercy, claim we’d gotten lost in the wilderness and couldn’t find the trail, and hope he’d take pity and invite us to dinner.  But getting lost on the Bruce Trail would be like losing site of the CN Tower at a Toronto Blue Jays game.

The trail is marked with white blazes more frequently than the AT and blue blazes notify that you are not on the Bruce Trail but in fact a side trail.  Additionally, blazes tell you the direction of an approaching turn by two blazes, the above set to the side of the approaching turn.  In this regard, the Bruce Trail receives my highest praise.  I couldn’t be so lucky as to pretend I’d gotten lost, for some Canadian farmer would take me for the dumbest American he’d ever met.

Continuing north of the Miller Lake area, the trail does become more rigorous.  We anxiously awaited the moment when the trail would reach the coast again and we would look out over the vast blue expanse of Lake Huron.  But as the trail neared the coast and rose towards the Niagara Escarpment (a piece of limestone that runs the length of the trail, forming dramatic cliffs at the water’s edge) it grew more strenuous.  Rigid, eroded pieces of limestone made the walking slow and it was constantly rising and falling.  The payoff, we expected, would be the coast—the opportunity to walk high above Lake Huron while watching the coastline ahead curve along the rocky shore.

Unfortunately, the trail gets close enough to the coast to tease—the dense forest opens up at an overlook and you can catch your breath while looking down at the water—but then the trail cuts back into the bush and you’re straining and sweating under the weight of your pack and cursing the trail for not being twenty yards closer to the water so that you could enjoy the view, feel the breeze from the lake.

In 36 hours we walked about 25 miles.  Admittedly, we wore ourselves out waiting for the trail to improve, to produce what the pictures had promised.  And that was our fault—not just our ignorance to what we were getting ourselves in to—but our expectations of scenic destinations we’d brought with us from the States.

We left the trail earlier than expected by catching a ride from the Halfway Log Dump area with Matilda and Mark and their sheep dog Zeus.  Mark told us of winters on the Peninsula, a place that though it seems colder, is no farther north than Minnesota or Maine.  And he told us of a place where Native Americans rolled their own cigarettes and sold them by the hundreds in bags for very little out of a trailer with a drive thru window.  “Every apartment building in Toronto has some guy dealing ‘em.”  (Cigarettes in Canada are taxed up to eight or ten dollars.)  “But don’t get caught if you buy some,” Mark warns.  “They’ll impound your entire vehicle.”  Matilda drove us to Tobermory, where we expected to recuperate—nurse our blisters and rest our calves—and then start back south to complete our trek.  But we were defeated and as the out-of-shape, unhappy American is wont to do, we rented a hotel room and watched Sunday night football.

We caught a ride to our van the next day and as we left the Bruce Peninsula from the comfort of our stuffy, cozy home on wheels, our sentiment towards the Bruce Trail similar to the taste of talcum powder, we reminisced that we’d met some of the nicest, most helpful and willing to inquire upon your travels people.  And agreed that Canada rocks—not solely—but because of the caliber of people that call Ontario home.

Top 5 Places to Use Your Jeep’s 4WD on the Big Island

Becoming ever popular on the Big Island of Hawaii is the rental of a four-wheel drive Jeep Wrangler.  Though more expensive than a sedan rental, Jeep now makes the Wrangler with four doors and (arguably) easily retractable cloth tops for a family of five to take in the sights and the sun.  And with more couples and families opting for a Jeep upon arrival to the Big Island, why not get your money’s worth and see the Big Island in a way that most rental cars won’t allow?

In no particular order…

Just 2.6 miles north of the Kona International Airport at Keahole is the turn for Kekaha Kai State Park.  Test out the suspension (and your tolerance for the rough ride) by crossing over an ancient lava field.  Though the driving is slow and rugged, there’s an easily traceable path over the jagged metamorphic rocks.  At the end, you’ll find miles of the sandy Kona coast to explore.  Bring your towel and bathing suit.  Depending on the time of year, you may have one of the beaches to yourself.

 The drive to Kekaha Kai State Park

On the northeastern side of the Big Island is the tourist frequented Waipi’o Valley.  An iconic valley with green cliffs and a black sand beach, most only drive to the top, stand on the edge, snap a picture and leave.  But locals with trucks, those with Jeeps and the occasional ambitious hiker can brave the more than 25% slope of the winding road to the valley floor.  It’s only in a vehicle with a first gear and 4 wheel low setting that you could drive to the bottom, but this trip alone might be worth the cost of the Jeep rental.  A black sand beach met by a rocky river from the middle of the valley and the crystalline blue surf of the Pacific waits.  Camping is not permitted, but upon arrival, you’ll instantly begin dreading the departure from this Hawaiian paradise.

View from the top of Waipi’o Valley

 Drive for more than an hour south of Kona and you’ll only have reached the turn for South Point, Hi—the straight, flat drive to the southernmost tip of the island and therefore the most southern point in the United States.  Turn right at the end and stand on the cliffs at the official southernmost point.  Turn left and reach the beginning of a three-mile drive to one of the world’s four green sand beaches.  Just to be able to clear the pointed rocks and pass the washed ruts of former visitors you’ll need something with as much ground clearance as a Jeep.  Stay to the left, following an old cattle fence, until you reach the questionably green, though noticeably yellow tinted sands.

The many roads to the Green Sands

The most scenic drive on the Big Island runs for 22 miles from Waimea to Hawi and doesn’t technically require four wheel drive.  But along Kohala Mountain Rd you’ll appreciate being able to toss back the top and take in the views of Hawaii’s farm country.  Honk as you pass your local beef grazing in green fields and a Pacific background.

Kohala Mountain Rd at sunset

Running southeast from Waimea, the opposite direction of Kohala Mountain Rd is Saddle Road.  Take Saddle Road winding to the Weather Observatory at the top of Mauna Loa.  To continue to the summit of the 11,141 foot mountain, get out of your car and hike.  Or, just continue driving.  Four-wheel drive vehicles can get most of the way to the summit, depending on conditions.  After all, you’re high enough for a snowball fight and need to zip your jacket along with the sides of your Jeep’s retractable top.


Niagara by Day, Frosh Parade and Battle of the Birds by Night

We were standing at the edge of Niagara Falls.  It was before 9 am and from the Ontario side you can stand beside the river before it dumps over the edge, the spray misting up and covering you like rain.  It was pleasant, iconic, forgettable.  By lunch time we reached the city of Toronto–bright, lively, man-made billboards and signs for bookstores and banks and boutiques.  But sometimes those anthropogenic edifices do more for the spirit than the natural.  Or maybe I hadn’t had my coffee yet.

The sound of police whistles.  Car horns honking.  Loud stereos blaring fast tempo-ed American pop and the energetic screams of young people.  And as we round the corner on foot we realize this isn’t the normal sound of the city, but instead the marching, parading, partying stream of thousands of college freshmen from the University of Toronto, donning their individual campus’ colors and chanting and waving flags and following floats (pickup trucks carrying upperclassmen leading chants).

“The Frosh parade,” one participant says.  And then, noticing we don’t know what he means, “Freshmen, from all the colleges, big party.” And the parade moves on.  Traffic was blocked as the students, estimated over 6,000, made a square around the U of T St. George Campus.  Motorcycle officers kept the students off the sidewalk and in two lanes.  As traffic attempted to move the opposite direction, city workers, bus drivers, taxis honked for their favorite campus.

The march concluded at the St. George Campus, but the Friday afternoon festivties of Frosh week were only beginning.  The Toronto Film Festival was in town.  As we passed the red carpet in our van we saw Brad Pitt on the projector screen.  But we were on our way to see the Blue Jays play the Orioles. Only ten bucks for a ticket to your personal nose bleed section.  We moved to another section to be closer to people.  Up top its mostly groups of college students all from the same Nursing or Speech department.  We moved again, this time from the top to the bottom level, behind the home dugout to be exact and it was as easy as stumbling upon a mob of undergrads.

Unfortunately, the Jays don’t seem to bring Toronto the revenue a city might expect from a professional sports team.  Just to keep the lights on at the field they charge more for a 12 ounce beer than they do for a ticket to the game.  But that didn’t stop us from having a great time.  And when it was over we walked the city streets looking for Natalie Portman.