We visited Battle Creek for the first time in 16 months on Sunday, spent some time with my lifelong friend Chad, and said goodbye to my mother for awhile.
The drive back to metro Detroit was spent mostly in silence, accidentally giving me a chance to reflect on the drive between Detroit and Battle Creek — one I’ve made possibly a thousand times and filled with memories at almost every exit along the way.
Exit 110 (Marshall) — Cruising downtown Marshall on Friday and Saturday nights during my teenage years, like almost everyone I went to high school with. Mostly PG-13 hijinks and getting into the kind of harmless trouble that teenagers everywhere have been since World War II or earlier.
Exit 121 (Albion) — We never spent much time in Albion, but I remember it for two things. One of the most racist guys I went to high school with ended up becoming a cop there, probably terrorizing its innocent Black residents for as long as he was employed there. Amongst mostly lily-white western Michigan small towns, Albion is one of the few towns with a sizable Black population, a fact that might have appealed to him when looking for a job.
The other memory is of our senior year and Chad was on the basketball team playing Albion, which had one of the best teams in the state. Two of the closest games Albion played that regular season were against our high school for some reason, though their record that year was undistinguished. Sadly, two members of our team have died in the last two months, Albion was incredible to watch that season and took a 26-0 record into the state championship game where it had the misfortune to run into Detroit Country Day, whose best player was a young man by the name of Chris Webber, one of the most high profile high school basketball players in history and soon to the cornerstone of the Fab Five. Chad and I and some other friends made the trek to Crisler Arena to watch the state title game and Albion gave Country Day as big of a test as they had all year before losing.
Exit 138 (Jackson) — A rite of passage of Michigan teenagers is making the trip to Canada, where the drinking age in Ontario across the Detroit River is only 19. Despite living two hours away, we would regularly pile five guys into a car and steer it to the border, one of us vowing to be the “designated driver” though that usually meant only drinking until a couple of hours until last call as opposed to all night. Determination of designated driver status was often settled by epic games of John Madden football, the loser saddled with that undesirable job.
Throughout bars along Ouellette Avenue and all over downtown Windsor, “underage” Michiganders from southwest Michigan drunkenly mingled and do what idiot kids do when they’re drunk. One trip I met a girl named Lisa, who had the misfortune (for me) of living in Trenton – a two hour, 30 minute drive from Battle Creek on a good day.
We tried to date long-distance, at one point agreeing to meet for a date in Jackson, roughly halfway between our two towns. I don’t remember much about it except it was the date where it probably became obvious for us both that it wasn’t going to work. We went to dinner, got ice cream from a semi-famous Jackson ice cream shop that I don’t remember the name of and made out in one of our cars for awhile — about as chaste a date as you can have when you’re 19. I liked Lisa a lot, but that was the first lesson in the role that geography plays in your love life, but I would soon get a lot more luck in that department.
All along the drive, the many of the familiar landmarks and signs still stand, as do the truck stops and gas stations, almost all of which I’ve probably stopped at one time or another — the White Castle at Exit 145, Grass Lake, Chelsea and on to…
Exit 172 (Ann Arbor) — This was the final exit of my work commute while living at various points east (Madison Heights, Northville, Ypsilanti, Westland) for more than 10 years, our company’s office sitting just off of Jackson Road on the west side of Ann Arbor. I started that job at age 23 and on the first day of work at that job I met my future wife, whom I just now realized I’ve spent literally half of my life knowing. On that day we were both dating other people and wouldn’t end up dating each other for another two and a half years, but I definitely do remember her that first time I saw her and liking her instantly. In this instance, she was single when I moved back to the Detroit area after an ill-fated six months living in Las Vegas and the rest, as they say, is history.
Exits 175, 177 (Ann Arbor) — As I’ve said, I worked in Ann Arbor for quite awhile and barely out of college myself spent a lot of time amongst the college age students of that era. Scorekeepers, Rick’s American Cafe, the Brown Jug — it was not unusual to see minor celebrities like Michigan’s football players partying. Brian Griese, Tom Brady, Drew Henson — all were free to be “normal” college students in those days. Especially for Brady, maybe the last time in his life he was able to regularly go out in public without being the center of attention.
Exit 185 (Michigan Avenue) — Almost back to Wayne County now, but first driving by the enormous Willow Run factory, one of the edifices that earned Detroit the honor of being called the “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War II. The Willow Run plant alone turning out one B-29 bomber every hour throughout most of the war.
A lifetime spent driving the same route and now I do it only once every 18 months or so, but a lifetime of memories all the same. I’m glad I’ve had this chance to spend so much time in Michigan and say goodbye as best as possible despite the pandemic.