I have no idea which roads I traveled as I drove west from Adrian, Michigan, but it wasn’t the first time I traversed the width of Michigan with only my internal compass guiding me. The last time I was in my venerable 1974 Triumph TR6, driving on two-lane roads, purposely avoiding the Tri-State Tollway that would have carried me more swiftly to Chicago. On that trip, as on this one, I passed though small towns that hadn’t changed much in fifty years, perhaps more. Too small for a Super Walmart or ten-screen cineplex, yet too big and too far removed from the next city to relinquish their locally-owned grocery store or downtown movie theater, small towns survive at a slower pace than the world beyond their border, a world which is accelerating in a way that obsoletes ideas and products almost at their conception.
When I close my eyes and picture these towns they all have a short main street (almost always named Main Street) composed of two- and three-story buildings—intricate in their brickwork, ornate in their wood molding, inviting with their large glass windows—standing shoulder to shoulder, protected from the street by a wide sidewalk.
The store entrances are heavy wood doors with cracked paint and varnish, large panes of thick glass, and aged brass hardware. The doors swing easily on worn hinges. Inside, the wood floor gently rolls and dips from age and alternates in hue: dark from water and snow carried in on shoppers’ feet, beige, rough and lifeless from heavy traffic at the entrance and register, and glossy golden brown at the edges where feet seldom step.
If this scene isn’t repeated across the street, then there lies a green space with a large white gazebo decorated in patriotic bunting, protected by a battery of civil war canons or a World War II howitzer. Nearby is a bronze or granite bust of the town’s founder or most notable citizen, and a marble wall commemorating by name, branch of service and war fought, the town’s children who served but never returned. The playground equipment, tattooed with the initials of young kids professing their love for each other or simply recording that they had been there, is a memorial of its own, though less formal and unsanctioned by the town’s counsel.
And I wonder: How many souls have their name recorded on the teeter-totter and the marble wall?