Driving in Michigan and Montana

I have lived in Montana since 1998.  15 years.  Seems like a long time.  Of course, to a native Montanan, it is nothing.  In Montana, the first question you are asked when meeting a new person is, “How long have you lived here?”  At first I thought it was just because so many of my friends are transplants–but I’ve since decided that the question is really asking, “Are you a real Montanan?”  There is a lot of distrust here of “foreigners”.  I’m just grateful that I’m not from California–being from the Midwest is a pitied and seemingly forgivable offense.  Not so, if you are from California.

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The Mackinac Bridge

I consider myself a Montanan, even if my neighbors do not.  I have lived here most of my adult life, and I reached that point where I couldn’t really imagine living anywhere else.  I will never lose the Michigander part of me, however–though we definitely got lost in Michigan when we returned two summers ago for our 20th high school reunion.

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Driving in Michigan rain

Granted, my husband hadn’t been there in 11 years, and I hadn’t been there in 10.  Still, you would think we would remember our way around Holland, considering the amount of time we spent there in high school and college.  Holy mackerel, that place has grown!  We drove in circles trying to remember how to get back to Grand Rapids…and then there is this enormous new highway.  It didn’t help that it was raining in sheets.  We just don’t get that kind of rain in Montana.  You forget what it is like (especially to drive in). You’d also think, at our advanced age, we could figure out how to navigate one way streets to get to the Amway Grand Plaza.  That took another few times around the block.  Since we had spent the night before with high school friends at the Lake, acting like we were still in high school and college, we were not in any condition to be amused by our foibles.

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The vast eastern Montana landscape

Understand, driving in Montana really is very different from driving in Michigan.  For one thing, there is only one interstate in the entire state, and it is 2 hours or so south of here.  It is not considered a major trip to drive 5 hours to Spokane–you should see how far my students have to drive for sporting events!  Speech and Debate had to drive 9 hours to Billings for the State tournament.

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Driving to Helena, MT in the winter

Two years ago I drove to Billings for the Montana Judicial Institute by myself, and realized it is actually the farthest I have ever driven by myself.  I used to think it was a trek from Grand Rapids to Ann Arbor.  Around here, for some, that’s going to the grocery store!  On thing that was the same though–when I left for Billings it was 80 degrees.  When I drove hime 3 days later, it was snowing.  That’s a very Michigan-like weather change.

I don’t have any tolerance for traffic any more.  If I have to wait through two lights to turn onto the main drag off which I live, I’m annoyed (then silently apologize to the tourists I am mad at and thank them for spending money in our valley).   The funny thing is, when I was 15 1/2, I learned to drive on the crazy busy 28th Street SE in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Then we had to get on the I-96 and drive to downtown Grand Rapids and navigate the one ways roads.  My husband had the exact same Driver’s Training.  I drove 28th Street, as my eleven year old says (ad nauseum) “like a boss”.  I don’t even like to drive in Kalispell, these days.  I am totally out of practice.  When my family travels, we like to take the scenic backroads as much as possible anyway, so it is not helping us maintain our skills.  

Another thing I had to get used to in Montana was the gravel they put on the roads in the winter.  Very recently, the county began to spray a salt solution on the roads with the gravel, but before that it was just gravel.  Whatever you do, don’t get attached to your windshield if you live/drive in Montana.  You are bound to get a rock chip…I don’t know many people who don’t have one or a dozen.

(For those wondering, the state of Montana does have a speed limit now.  When I moved here, there were certain areas posted “reasonable and prudent”. Those have all been done away with, thanks to the federal government’s power of the purse.)

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Middle Fork of the Flathead River, MT

We get to use studded tires here…and Michigan drivers should get to as well.  It isn’t like the roads could get any worse either place.  I don’t think that has likely changed–just the terminology:  potholes in the Mitten and chuckholes in the West.   People plug in their cars, although I bet there are some Yoopers who do that, too.  In fact, the UP is very similar to Montana in many ways–the back roads (perhaps more paved in Michigan), the water falls (the color of Montana water wins), the number of trees (more deciduous and orderly in MI, and more coniferous in MT).

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Tahquamenon Falls, Upper Peninsula, Michigan

The fact is, I love both places.  My home is in Montana, now, but a piece of my soul is still in Michigan.

This is the first of likely many articles comparing my experiences in Michigan and Montana.  What should the next topic be?

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