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.


The pathway of vice and misery out of Indiana is lively and full of interest, and M-60 can be, by comparison, a letdown.

Most of the M-60 towns look wrecked, at least from the road, but Union City is an exception. My own sense of it is heavily layered because of my father, who never left it mentally and is full of astonishingly exact details about every inch of it. On top of that, I spent a lot of time there as a child when my grandparents were still alive. Now I relate to it as a tourist. In that guise, I sometimes pull off M-60 onto Division Street, the town’s main drag as well as the street on which my grandparents’ house still stands. M-60 runs past a green Victorian house where my father took his first piano lessons from a Mrs. Hamilton. I have the method book they used, among whose pages is a drawing titled “The Road to the Classics.” In that drawing two children stand at the foot of a winding path that leads past various obstacles to a literally shining temple emblazoned with the names of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and other masters. The obstacles that lurk by their path, all capitalized, are The Valley of Laziness, The Forest of Poor Music, and The Swamp of Jazz. Parts of M-60 are just as boring as I-94, yet unlike the latter it belongs to the world of that book, whose author felt comfortable comparing piano lessons to an arduous spiritual pilgrimage.

The house where my father undertook this pilgrimage at the family piano has a large front yard into which its current owner has sunk a swimming pool. Like M-60, it has undergone some modifications but is still recognizably the place where the nineteenth century laid cruel hands on me and my two brothers in the form of ritualistic Sunday dinners. I have tried and failed to make others understand what these were like. If they occurred in any season but summer I don’t remember, because summer pushed them to the limit. At regular intervals during July and August, a baked ham would appear in the dining room, whose thick windows (no longer there) focused the sun’s rays on the already blazing ham, bringing the small room’s temperature to what felt like 145 degrees. It was the era not only of Sunday dinners but of mandatory church attendance, and we wore thick wool suits. This took place in a house filled with thick carpeting, heavy Teutonic furniture, and the slow, brutal ticking of a large clock.

Union City had a hushed, rural atmosphere. According to my father, churches in small towns still pulled moral weight when he was growing up. Whether this is true or not, I always experienced it as a solemn, almost religious place in comparison to Coldwater, where my mother (who died two years ago) was born. Coldwater was also spiritually annexed to the nineteenth century, but the grandparents there had a cottage on a lake, which made all the difference. Compared with Union City, it was a place of neopagan revelry. My mother’s father loved circuses and collected circus memorabilia, including hideous daguerreotypes of “prodigies of nature” and other sideshow attractions. He knew clowns and acrobats from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and drove to the airport in South Bend to meet their planes. The retired owner of a steam laundry, he chain-smoked in his bathrobe in front of the TV, drawing (he was a talented artist) or doing crossword puzzles. The sixties were hard on him, and like all my grandparents, he worshipped the Lawrence Welk Show because it supplied the only remaining images in the culture of well-groomed young people.

The cultural divide between what I would call the worlds of I-94 and M-60 widened during my adolescence. Okemos, where I grew up, is only about seventy miles from the parental small towns, but they started to feel like the dark side of the moon. With the full blessing of his parents, my father ran away from Union City when he was sixteen to enroll in what he justly thought was a better high school in Ann Arbor. His hometown gave him something concrete to rebel against. I had nothing like that, only images from Life magazine and a nearby university, which led me to somewhat precociously embrace the Weathermen and Black Panthers, unaware at the time that those two groups did not think highly of each other. I checked other boxes as well, waving around a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book and eventually getting kicked out of school. With their aura of having dropped from nowhere, suburbs promote “rebellion” of this kind, which, like I-94, is largely abstract.


Though often drab, the towns along M-60 are far from featureless, and manage to hang together on the road without all looking the same. Each has a discernible if minimal center, sometimes no more than a gas station or tiny retail strip. Their economies close to the road look downbeat, but there are pockets of prosperity, as in Three Rivers, which harbors a small Jungian community. In their reduced circumstances they still contrive to mean something. Okemos itself was once a farming village and had, until recently, a ghostly “four corners” where there was a barbershop, a diner, an ice-cream parlor, and other backward-looking establishments. Only the barbershop remains, and the four corners are being erased by the encroaching sprawl. When the first mall came to Okemos around 1970 I found it thrilling and cosmopolitan. It’s still there, but now even its contours are blurred, making it just another large building.

The cultural divide between what I would call the worlds of I-94 and M-60 widened during my adolescence.

I was in Union City with my family for its centennial in 1966. Broadway Avenue runs through its small downtown before dropping abruptly to a riverside park where a stone bench bears an inscription honoring my grandmother. The local terrain is uneven, full of hills and ravines that make it feel more like Wisconsin than Michigan. We must have brought my bicycle from Okemos for the centennial, as I recall racing down a hill that day on an elevated sidewalk, hitting a rock and plunging like Evel Knievel into somebody’s garden. I was unharmed by the fall, just as I was unaware of any real difference between Union City and the rest of the world.

Though they must be subject to zoning, cemeteries seem to appear unannounced throughout this region, cropping up on hills, running in small patches along M-60, or fenced in beside cornfields. Churches may have lost the moral authority my father remembers, but they still cast a stronger spell here than elsewhere. Curiously, the fundamentalist and Bible churches along M-60 do not look as integrated with their surroundings as the probably under-attended Methodist, Congregationalist, and Presbyterian churches. The latter are part of a vanished world that still resonates, but the others are traceable, even architecturally, to a world no older than Billy Graham. The Methodist and other older mainstays of small-town life belonged to this world, and the rough-looking Gospel tabernacles, like the shiny megachurch visible from I-94 near the town of St. Joseph, belong only to eternity.

A strange drama took place a long time ago on some country roads near Union City and Coldwater. It involved four churches that somehow found themselves on each corner of an intersection. They got along for a short time before doctrinal conflicts arose and developed to the point of acrimony. Old churches around Branch County are classically beautiful, often solid white and fragile-looking with a solitary stained-glass window sitting like a jewel near the roof of one side. The ruins of one of the original four are still there, facing a newish church that stands on the ruins of another. The other two corners are now empty. When the original four churches were on the verge of killing each other, an itinerant evangelist came to town and read them all the riot act. “I hear this is known as God’s Corner,” he is said to have cried from the back of a wagon, “but I tell you it’s No God’s Corner!”—which became its name, though one unlikely to go on a historical marker.

The aura of the nineteenth century becomes more than an aura when you stray or deliberately venture into Amish territory, a self-regulating imperium along miles of dirt roads. Toward the “English” (their name for outsiders) they are always—though never effusively—friendly, waving at cars from horse carriages, roadside stands, or front yards, which might be shared with animals. Old-growth trees and forests accompany their dirt roads, as they do much of M-60. These roads tunnel into deep woods where I once surprised an almost human-sized turkey vulture feasting on something from which it was barely distracted by my car. The woods along I-94 are a peripheral blur, though occasionally a huge dead tree appears alone like the preacher at No God’s Corner, raising its blasted limbs near a travel plaza.


Though I pretend otherwise as a matter of principle, I-94 is not so bad if I’m on it with my family. My wife sleeps peacefully and my daughter reads or watches movies. We have evolved shared rituals, such as stopping at Speedway for junk food. I hardly notice what they get because I am intent on Dunkin’ Stix, a Hostess product whose ingredients include nothing made by God. I wash them down with coffee that is surprisingly good. Otherwise, inedibility is the only point at which the two roads merge. There is no good food on either I-94 or M-60, with the exception of a small burger place in Homer.

Bodies of water such as lakes and rivers do not interact much with I-94, but along M-60 the presence of water starts with the Indiana swamplands and shapes everything including the names of Union City, Three Rivers, and, for that matter, Coldwater and the rest of Branch County. Because the Union City grandparents didn’t own a cottage, I underestimated until recently how much sheer water there is everywhere. Fishing, according to my father, was the real religion when he was a boy, and its cult was incarnated in a local character named Skinny Bullock. This man used almost occult methods to ensnare his prey, such as lowering a severed cow’s head attached to a buoy into a lake and visiting the spot at night when the revolting lure would be swarming with fish. He invited my father to accompany him on one of these night visits, but got so drunk he forgot where he had pitched the buoy and parked the boat in shallow water where he got out, beer can in one hand and sharp stick in the other, and got lost trying to spear frogs. My father conveys stories like this in a style opposite to that of the practiced raconteur, which gives them the eerily naturalistic quality of grainy film footage.

The last time I was in Union City, the Coldwater River, which runs along city limits, was fast and almost at bridge level. Its urgency jarred with the town’s usual quiet. It flows not far from a tavern called “The Bucket,” which is over a century old and was known in the days of Skinny Bullock (who probably spent a lot of time there) as “The Bloody Bucket” in tribute to almost nightly brawls (“bucket of blood” is one of many generic terms for a rough drinking establishment). Bar brawls also marked the nearby town of Hodunk, especially on Saturday nights when farmers and their sons were in town after a day of haggling with local feed-store owners. Not far away the Coldwater forms its “union” with the St. Joseph River, on which my father used to float in a homemade kayak over whose gunwale he laid a plywood desk so he could read if the current wasn’t too swift.

Questions of personal character aside, big cities and very small towns seem to be the only points of origin in America that confer status, or rather seriousness, on a person. It’s good to be from Manhattan and good, if not better, to be from Winesburg, Ohio, or Union City—but not so good, all things considered, to be from where I’m from. Long stretches of M-60 run beside train tracks that remind me of Chicago, where I moved long ago hoping my origins would move with me. Because of their speed, trains are better than cars at measuring cultural as well as psychological distance, a fact of which Theodore Dreiser takes full advantage in the opening pages of Sister Carrie, where he describes his heroine rolling slowly out of small-town Wisconsin toward Chicago. Something of this sense of traversing cultural as well as literal distance adheres to taking M-60 to see my father. I-94 erases everything but the destination, and M-60 slowly recapitulates his past, which by way of a long detour is also mine.

Published in the July/August 2023 issue: View Contents

Peter Schwendener is a writer, jazz pianist, and piano teacher who lives near Chicago. His articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in the American Scholar, TriQuarterly, the Chicago Tribune, the New Criterion, the Chicago Reader, and other publications.

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