What to do when you receive an invitation to visit Ann Arbor, Michigan, in December?
Go, of course, but don’t ask the visitors bureau why it invites travel writers to their town in the dead of winter. Likely they will just respond, “And your point is … ?”
Winter is just another season for Michiganders, so here I am in Kerrytown, a neighborhood in downtown Ann Arbor, attending the annual (outdoor) KindleFest. It’s dark, there’s a breeze (read wind chill) and my phone says it’s 28 degrees. My nose is running and my shoelace is loose, but they’ll have to wait. I’d have to take off my gloves to remedy the problems and I’m not about to do that.
As a wimpy Southern Californian, it’s a challenge to stay warm, but my mostly unused, long, puffy white coat that makes me look like the Pillsbury Dough Boy is up to the task. And really, this is not a fashion show. The sidewalks are bustling; these hardy Michiganders are unfazed by the cold. This is fun.
People are here to enjoy the neighborhood’s energy — the sights, sounds and smells of KindleFest, which marks the opening of the holiday season in this college town of 121,000. Held at the Kerrytown Farmer’s Market, this winter event replaces local produce with handmade Christmas ornaments, clothing, jewelry, fancy foods, woodcarver wares, cigar-box guitars and the much-appreciated hot chocolate.
Some shoppers gather around a makeshift fire pit that emits more smoke than heat, live music floats in from somewhere, and totes begin to fill.
A few blocks away, the bare trees that line State and Main streets are aglow with pinpoints of light, making downtown look like a fairyland. Tonight also is Midnight Madness, another annual event when shops and restaurants offer deals and remain open until after midnight.
Ann Arbor, a 45-minute drive west of Detroit, enjoys a high sense of community in all seasons, and there is no ignoring the overwhelming presence of the University of Michigan. Like the sprawling campus and it’s nearly 45,000 students, the big yellow M is everywhere.
Earlier today, much to the chagrin of my husband’s family (rabid Ohio State University fans), I stood on the 50-yard line of the Big House, the apt nickname of the U of M’s 100,000-seat football stadium. I couldn’t resist texting a photo to my brother-in-law.
Sports fan or not, this place is impressive. It is notably free of advertising, which gives the Big House a clean, sweeping, regal look, and it is, well, just so darn big.
“This is the biggest stadium in the world,” said Don Svenson, a retired businessman and clearly a deacon in the Church of the Wolverine. This diehard fan has been giving tours and supervising usher crews for eight years. He loves telling the steam shovel story.
In the mid-1920s, workers began excavating the area, an early step in building the stadium. They soon discovered a lot of sand and a high water table.
“The workers went home for a weekend and came back on Monday to find a steam shovel caught in a pocket of quicksand.” Svenson said. “It took a few days to try and free it with no luck.” In the end, “it was more cost-effective for them to bury it, save time, and bring in another piece of equipment. The steam shovel is (still buried) under the stands in the southwest section of the stadium.”
We also visited the home-team locker room, a strict, no-cell phone zone.
“If the players’ girlfriends text them before the game, they’ll just have to wait four hours to get it,” Svenson said.
This room, with its hallowed, bright yellow M emblazoned on the carpet, is the players’ launch pad for the run through the tunnel and onto the field. Like just about everything on this campus, the tunnel has its own tradition. Come the end of football season, current senior cheerleaders and band members write messages on the shiny, white walls. Among this year’s entries: “My lower back is glad I’m done” (written by a tuba player?), and “Four years was enough. So was three.”
The commemorative graffiti remains until end of next season, when the walls are painted over to provide a fresh canvas for words of wisdom from the next graduating class.