I-94 is the highway that runs almost straight from Chicago to my hometown of Okemos, Michigan. When we go there to visit my ninety-four-year-old father, my wife and daughter insist on it because it’s the quickest way. I always argue for M-60, which takes longer and which they mockingly call the scenic route. They always win, and celebrate their victory by making me eat at a Cracker Barrel.
Occasionally, however, I drive to Okemos alone and desert the smooth textures of I-94 for the abandoned buildings, broken glass, and gentlemen’s clubs that line US 12, the arterial highway that runs east through Gary, Indiana, and abruptly converts (in summer, at least) to a lyrically beautiful pathway through the Indiana Dunes National Park. Around the town of Niles, Michigan, US 12 almost imperceptibly melts into M-60, a trunkline highway built in 1919. The lanes dwindle to a single strip, and for the next hundred miles it’s all trees and fields punctuated by rivers and small towns.
I-94 reduces things to a featureless blur or sets them at an invisible distance. It’s like driving in a video game or some other virtual space. M-60 presses everything against the windshield. The difference between the two roads is more than efficiency versus local color. They represent two kinds of driving experience, the abstract and the concrete. M-60 is littered with things, and I-94 has been mostly swept clean.
The roadside clutter of M-60 is previewed before you get there by the slow crawl out of Indiana through steel mills, casinos, and firecracker stores, the latter mostly owned by someone named Krazy Kaplan. The other billboards are for pot dispensaries and personal-injury lawyers. There is a brick-and-mortar adult bookstore oddly named The Lion’s Den, surely among the last of its kind. This is still US 12, much of which runs through swampland whose deep haze in summer makes everything feel underwater. The strip clubs, casinos, and derelict buildings rise from the mist like some Lost Kingdom of Vice. It is in many ways more fascinating than M-60, which is overwhelmingly rural and often bucolic.
Exactly where in Michigan M-60 starts is a little confusing because, according to my father, parts of it have moved or been abolished over the decades. It used to run straight through his hometown of Union City, for example, but now runs along the town’s northern edge. Long stretches of it run beside train tracks. I went looking for its western starting point and found myself in a nondescript wooded area on something called “Old M-60,” which was only a few yards long and didn’t make sense. It becomes unmistakably itself around the town of Cassopolis, where there is a small lake. From that point it moves in and out of cornfields to become the main street of many towns including Jones, Three Rivers, Mendon, Tekonsha, and Homer.
The pathway of vice and misery out of Indiana is lively and full of interest, and M-60 can be, by comparison, a letdown. It’s quiet, unadorned, conventionally beautiful, and not a little sad. Its houses, stores, and other buildings are not picturesque and resist idealization. Occasionally there is a boarded-up house with “Keep Out” signs, but the decay is mostly understated. These all are, or were, farming towns, and though giant sprinklers and other machines are still in the fields, the energy that brought them into existence seems to have gone elsewhere.
This is Branch County, the part of Michigan where both of my parents grew up. Union City, my father’s town, once had a cement factory that mined nearby lakes for marl, but like everything else here, its roots are in farming. The word “union” in its name refers to the local confluence of two rivers of vastly unequal lengths, the Coldwater (14 miles) and the St. Joseph (206 miles). My mother is from the nearby county seat of Coldwater, whose distance from Union City is roughly that of its river.
Both places contrast strongly with the commuter suburb of Okemos, Michigan, where my father moved over sixty years ago when he started to practice law in Lansing. Okemos belongs to the shallow world of the recent past and my own upbringing. The towns along M-60 are relics of a world that started to fall apart around 1957, when I was born. Unlike the suburbs, they didn’t have the nineteenth century decisively knocked out of them until the 1960s, and probably not even then.