A beach next to Lake Superior on a sunny day. In the distance, a person is wading in the water.

Rural America Isn’t Your Quaint Escape

By Mica Magalska

The Coronavirus has forced many of us to grapple with new feelings of stress, grief, and anguish that we might not have been prepared for. Many of us have adapted to changes in our everyday lives in order to keep each other safe from this virus that has killed thousands of Americans over the last nine months. We’re also battling virus denialism and quarantine fatigue.

I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Northern Michigan. Most people don’t know where I grew up, or where my family lives. And they always have questions. Do we have running water, why are there so many Republicans up there? I hear jokes about people from rural areas being backward, uneducated, like people with missing teeth, poor people. Sometimes people are surprised I am smart and educated. I come from a small city. We have art, music, a university, and liberalism. In fact, the county I grew up in has voted blue since Reagan. We do have racism, just like everywhere else in the US. But it is a place where people live. 

I could be biased, but I find it to be one of the most beautiful places I have seen. You can travel a few minutes outside of town and be alone for miles, with only the sound of your voice and the echo of the trees surrounding you. It is dense with trees.  The beauty of the region calls people from near and far to see the changing of the leaves in the fall, and to swim in the cold but pristine Lake Superior during the summer. Some people have property that has been in their family since the late 1800s. We locals always found tourism a kind of a necessary evil, because most industry, mining, and logging, was not feeding families anymore. When I was growing up, many families lost their main source of income and were plunged into poverty when the iron ore and copper mines were depleted and closed. My family has generally been lucky, working in different industries to put food on our tables. But like most young people, I left because the opportunities were sparse. 

The people of the UP, Yoopers as we like to call ourselves, are proud of where we come from. A lot of my family and friends still remain in the Upper Peninsula. They remain for a number of reasons, to care for aging family members, for the beauty of the land. Some left and moved to big cities, and later returned to their childhood homes, a place where they found themselves happy.  Many of my friends are the descendants of Finnish and Italian settlers who came over in the late 1800s to work in the British-owned mines. Many people are proud of their heritage. Finns found the UP similar to their homeland in Europe and were able to survive, despite exploitation by many of the rich mine owners. In some ways, there is a kinship with those who live in Appalachia and were exploited by the wealthy coal mine owners. For over 50 years, my hometown hosted the only Finnish language and culturally specific television show. I grew up knowing people who spoke Finnish in their homes. 

Residents still need to work. They work in restaurants, gas stations, hotels, and grocery stores because there aren’t other options. They can’t easily change jobs, they can’t work from home, and they know that financial relief stopped at the $1,200 stimulus check earlier this year.

I understand the draw to the UP. The history and culture are unique in the United States. It is rural and gives people a place to “unplug”. The draw hasn’t stopped during a pandemic. For some reason, people seem to think that because of the rural and vast wilderness of the UP, that is also a place where they can spend their time as they normally do elsewhere: eating in restaurants, going to bars, hiking in the woods without a mask. It is an escape, but for only the people who do not live there. Residents still need to work. They work in restaurants, gas stations, hotels, and grocery stores because there aren’t other options. They can’t easily change jobs, they can’t work from home, and they know that financial relief stopped at the $1,200 stimulus check earlier this year. Much like other times, the UP is forgotten and remembered all at once. Used for pleasure and wealth, but thrown away when not needed anymore. 

Everyone I talk to from my home sighs and says, “I wish these tourists would stay home.” COVID-19 still is spreading there and it isn’t going well. This secluded area also has limited medical care, an aging population, underinsured people, and limited testing. As I write this, the main hospital for the region is full. The area’s Indigenous communities, like Indigenous communities elsewhere in the US, have been hit hard by the pandemic, without funding to pay for healthcare. 

My pleas for people to stay home and out of the UP are selfish. I want to see my family again. I want to hug my parents and my sisters, and to see my nephew grow up. I want to hang out with my friends and share childhood memories with them while sitting in front of a bonfire on Gitchi-Gami (Lake Superior). I’ve made the choice to stay in Madison. There is too much at risk if I take a trip up to where I grew up, despite any precautions I could take.

It isn’t any different in Northern Wisconsin. Borders are invisible lines that were created by people, and diseases don’t care about them. The State of Michigan could close the Mackinac Bridge to people from Lower Michigan, but the UP is still connected to Wisconsin, where cases have skyrocketed due to the inept state legislature and the politicization of the pandemic. This makes traveling to these beautiful regions worse than ever. The interactions tourists have with workers in the small towns they pass through on their way to their destination creates a potential chain of infection that spans the state.

Northern rural areas are not a playground, especially during a pandemic. They do not exist solely as a backdrop or a photo, or an escape from realities back home. It is not an accident that rural areas are the way they are, without access to a robust healthcare system, high-speed internet, or even an affordable and vast selection of groceries. When we talk about safe activities during COVID in the US, it is always about the safety of the consumer and never about the worker. It is a lottery system and the odds are never in the favor of the worker.

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