To junior Michael Whitman and sophomore Hannah Hayes, Hillsdale isn’t that small. In the tiny towns of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, everyone knows everyone’s business. People don’t know it any other way.
Whitman says he recalls visiting Milwaukee, his first time in a big city.
“And it was just the wildest thing; It was the craziest thing,” he said. “For me the world was just a small town.”
Whitman’s family history is rooted in the UP, with his ancestors first arriving in Michigan in the early 1800s. From just looking at his face, people from his mother’s town know he’s related to her. He said he might meet a family relation in any town he visits. He remembers that on a visit to Munising, a town on the coast of Lake Superior, he went for a boat ride to see shipwrecks. When his grandmother heard of the plan, she called up the owners — who she happened to be related to — and got Whitman free tickets.
“And I looked at the girl behind the counter who was giving us the tickets and I’m like, ‘You’re totally a Swede, and we’re totally related,’” he said.
Whitman noted the sense of community in his town. He said many of his friends share a long history and many relatives throughout the UP, not just a nuclear family.
“It feels like an older world,” he said.
For Whitman, an Escanaba native, and his neighbors, Lake Michigan is the center of summer life. Escanaba sits at the north western tip of the lake, 111 miles from Green Bay, Wisconsin. Whitman said that the lake is the focal point of any activity. Living 10 blocks from the water, Whitman sails, scuba dives, and goes swimming sometimes three times a day. At any given time in high school, a different group of friends will always be at the park, he said.
Forty-four miles east of Escanaba, Hayes has lived in Norway, a town of 3,000, her entire life. Her childhood home is nestled into the bottom of a hill on Main Street. In her small, tight-knit community, everyone is a friend to everyone else, Hayes said. She said that while it’s rural, they definitely have electricity.
“It is kind of like a sheltered place where you feel safe,” she said.
The closest “big city” is Green Bay, Wisconsin, a 90-minute drive. Hayes, her brother, and their friends didn’t have a mall or a bustling downtown, they played in the woods. A game she made up with her friends was “Magic Treehouse,” after the children’s book. In high school, they starting hanging out at the Walmart parking lot.
A popular spot for UP teens, Walmart was never a social spot for Hayes’ friend, sophomore Emily Skwarek. She and her friends would go to the Somerset Mall in Troy, with more than 180 stores. Growing up in Metro Detroit, Skwarek said that she didn’t know all of her neighbors.
“We had friends from our school but they lived further away,” she said. “So it wasn’t like you’d just go out on the street and hang out with your friends. So I kinda wish that was the case for me.”
Hayes agreed that she’s glad she grew up separated from the world.
“I would go hiking with my friends, she said. “In the winter sometimes, I would go on winter picnics. So we would go to frozen waterfalls with blankets and hot chocolate.”
True Michiganders, Whitman and Hayes don’t head indoors for the winter.
“I actually think I prefer waterfalls when they’re frozen,” Hayes said.
Hayes competed in skiing throughout high school, spending every weekend on the slopes. In a nearby town on Iron Mountain is the biggest wooden ski jump in the U.S., a tourist attraction during the winter months.
“The racers come from Europe to do the jump there,” she said.
Here in Hillsdale, Whitman misses pasties, the delicious meat and potato hash enveloped in a flakey crust.
“I eat like three or four pasties a week,” he said, adding that he may ask his mom to send a box of the superfood to school. That and the lake.
“There’s no lake, and I want my lake,” he said.
Hayes said she plans to always have a place in the U.P., loving the family-focused traditions, like the Fourth of July, when she and her friends sit on the railroad tracks to watch fireworks.
“It’s just a slower way of life,” she said. “It’s nice to go out and look at the stars.”