First of two parts
Why do it?
It is a good question that I can’t completely answer as I pull on my backpack and step off on a 44-mile hike along Outer Drive, preparing to traverse its entire span from the East Side of Detroit to Ecorse.
Part of it, I’m sure, is the singular Detroitness of the road itself. Roam almost anywhere in the city or its inner burbs to the west, and you’ll encounter Outer Drive. It’s ubiquitous. It’s a curiosity. It’s indecisive, vectorless. Outer Drive, a colossal, jangled inverted horseshoe, doesn’t seem to lead anywhere in particular. Yet is seems to lead everywhere.
I wonder what its bizarre and beautiful existence means to Detroit, if anything. I wonder what seeing it all by foot will mean to me.
Another motivation is undoubtedly the contrarian in me. I’m tired of the prevailing image that Detroit is some sort of hellhole, populated by homicidal maniacs.
Not that we don’t have more than our share of homicidal maniacs. But Detroit is so much more than that. I see it all the time, even in the poorest neighborhoods. As a white man working in this blackest of big cities for the past eight years, I’ve rarely encountered anything but friendliness, respect and hospitality. There is a genuine goodness to Detroit, born of struggle and faith, that too rarely finds its way through the media filter.
So this walk is a test I’m confident Detroit will pass.
And yet there’s more to it than that, something far more personal than professional.
Twenty-five years ago, pulling on a backpack and stepping into some new adventure was a way of life. Inspired by the tales of Twain and London and Kerouac, I’d take off for months at a time, motivated by the desire for vagabond thrills.
Those were my road years, and they provided innumerable lessons, one of which repeated itself so often it came to form the core of what to this day constitutes the closest thing I know to a religion. It is an abiding trust in the vagaries of chance.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not so naive as to hold some Panglossian view that ours is the best of all possible worlds. Horrors happen daily. Detroiters know this as well as anyone. In a tangential way, the violent reality of life here touches even this story. But I’ve been around enough to know with absolute certainty that people are much more likely to help than cause harm.
Especially in a city like Detroit. Beneath the headlines about violence is a vast reservoir of goodwill. I’ve seen it, not just here, but in every part of the world I’ve traveled through.
Like Blanche DuBois, I’ve depended on the kindness of strangers. And I’ve never been let down.
Looking back on my road years, what I miss most is the way the lack of a plan can, to borrow the words of mythologist Joseph Campbell, open doors you didn’t even know existed.
Our days are largely predetermined. We rise in the morning able to predict with a high degree of certainty exactly what will occur. Out on the road, life opens up. A journey can begin in the south of France with the intent of seeing the Alps and end instead skinny-dipping at midnight in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain because that’s where the rides lead. Be willing to throw the dice in a crapshoot with fate, and anything can happen.
I loved that not-knowing, the sense of absolute freedom it manifested, and the adventures it brought.
There came a time, though, as my 30s bore down, that a gnawing concern started to chew its way into my thoughts. I knew I was reaching the point where, the more I stayed on the road, the less likely I’d be to ever get off it. No matter what your education, prospective white-collar employers tend to shy from applications from 30-year-olds listing banana picker and deckhand and roustabout as previous work experience.
So I put my backpack away, took a job at a newspaper, and became part of the great American middle class, with a wife and kids, a dog and a mortgage, all of which carried responsibilities and obligations. My road days faded in the rearview mirror of a minivan.
Not that I’m complaining. My career has been more fulfilling than I ever could have imagined, and fatherhood has enriched my life beyond measure. From time to time, though, late at night when the rest of the house slept, I’d scroll through the memories, entertaining myself with what now seemed to be dreams of a time when my only true concern would be where I’d find a place to sleep as the sun dipped toward the horizon.
All these thoughts and many more occupy me as I put one foot in front of another, mile after mile. I’d almost forgotten what it is like to be so alone, with nothing but this voice inside my head to keep me company.
It started a few months back, when my editor suggested that a story about walking the entirety of Outer Drive could be interesting, if for no other reason than the road is so damn strange, making a zigzag arc along the city’s outer edge, disappearing for long stretches only to crop up again, causing wicked confusion. It is a crazy-ass road, that’s for sure.
I mulled the idea over for a long while. These weren’t the old days any more; trepidation now crept into the equation. Could this body, grown slack from years at a desk, still hack it? Even in my younger days, four knee operations could make long treks difficult. Would the oft-repaired joint hold up? And what about my back, which has given out just from playing horseshoes?
Hell, even in the old days I used my thumb to get around far more than my feet. I don’t think I’ve ever undertaken a march of this magnitude.
There were other concerns, too. After all, this is a city consistently in the running for the dubious title, “Murder Capital of America.”
It’s funny how age makes you think twice about things that wouldn’t cross your mind when younger. From New York to New Orleans, I’ve been dropped off in some tough towns in the middle of the night without breaking a sweat. But beliefs, I’ve come to see, can be like machinery, rusting with time and eventually freezing up if not put to occasional use. Staring at these fears, it became obvious that I was long overdue for the lubricant of adventure to get all my gears running smoothly.
So I took the assignment, and found myself being put to a test I didn’t fully expect, and reminded yet again of the surprises life on the road can bring.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Off and walking
The journey begins just past noon on the Fourth of July.
I park my van at a friend’s house near Warren Avenue on the city’s East Side and start walking toward Mack, where Outer Drive officially begins (or ends, depending upon your perspective). In my pocket is a map, with the route highlighted. I’ve taken a ruler and calculated the distance to be somewhere between 40 and 45 miles, and figure to take my time, making the journey in four to five days. The route will take me around the perimeter of Detroit, and over on the West Side will pass through six other towns, ending at West Jefferson Avenue in Ecorse.
I’ve packed enough clean clothes to last five days. It helps not to stink too much when trying to interview people. If nothing else, I am prepared for a typical Michigan summer day, with shorts for the heat, and a quilted wool shirt should the nights turn cold. There’s also rain gear. And a tent and sleeping bag.
I bet this pack weighs 40 pounds.
As for sleeping arrangements, I figure that, if worse comes to worse, knocking on a few doors will get me a camping spot. (Planning ahead, I figure to only accept a campsite at a home with a fenced yard. Perhaps I’m falling prey to an urban myth, but thoughts of dogs roaming in packs scare me more than any other potential threat.)
Less than a mile into the trek, the backpack’s straps are already starting to burrow into my shoulders. I know immediately that I have too much gear, and that I will pay a price for it.
The journey is supposed to begin at the intersection of Mack and Outer Drive, on the border of Grosse Pointe Park, but it doesn’t seem quite right. Between here and Lake St. Clair, Outer Drive changes into Whittier. But there is a certain literary quality about starting at the water’s edge, and so I decide to walk the extra mile or so to the lake.
At the base of Whittier is a mansion enclosed by brick walls with an iron gate. Next door, improbably, is a vacant lot that must be worth a small fortune. A wooden fence blocks access to the water. So here is where I start, retracing the path I’ve just taken, past $400,000 brick Tudors. The extra distance doesn’t seem like that big a deal right now, but in no time at all I will be ruing all these added steps taken in the name of literary aspiration.
All morning the sky has been covered by clouds gray and heavy with the threat of rain. The day is hot and humid. Sweat drips from the tip of my nose. Rain starts to fall. Hard. I take shelter under a tree, pulling a raincoat and umbrella from my pack. But I have to dig for the gear, and am half-soaked by the time I pull it out.
The pavement, which minutes earlier had been littered with the dried carcasses of fish flies, is now brown and slick with the putrefied, stinking mush of the insects that emerge from the lake’s depths to mate and die.
This is, I think, not an auspicious beginning.
It is almost 2 o’clock by the time I return to the Detroit city limits. All this walking just to get me back to the beginning. I’m wet from rain and sweat, and my shoulders are already sore. I realize just how daunting a trek this will be.
A few blocks into the city, the first person I see is a man out doing yard work. Asked if he wants to be interviewed for this story, he says it’s his sister’s house, and it would be better if I talk to her. He takes me into the back yard, where I see what just might be the world’s biggest home barbecue. It is a massive heating oil storage tank — 200 gallons, I’m told later. It is fired up, with meat inside grilling.
The home belongs to Cheryl Hurt, an insurance company attorney. She planned to kick back and relax, celebrating the Fourth by doing nothing, but then her mom showed up, followed by her sister. It makes sense that this is where they’d come for a holiday cookout. Cheryl is, after all, is the one with a barbecue the size of a small car.
This neighborhood, says Hurt, “is pretty stable.” Private security helps keep crime in check.
She is a Detroiter born and raised, and can’t see herself leaving the city. When I ask her what message she’d like to send the city’s leaders, Hurt stifles a laugh. Turns out she doesn’t need any newspaper article to get her message across. Hurt says she went to law school with newly appointed Chief of Police Ella Bully-Cummings. They were study partners, and became good friends. She trusts Bully-Cummings’ opinion, and the chief has only good things to say about our mayor.
“He’s very passionate about Detroit,” is what Hurt is told. “I hope he keeps the vision,” she says before inviting me to come back for some barbecue.
But after the whole Whittier excursion, I’ve decided to avoid covering the same ground twice.
I am enthralled by this neighborhood. The houses — mostly two-story brick Tudors built in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s — are distinguished by marvelous stonework around the front doorways and windows. The craftsmanship and attention to detail, with each house featuring different designs and flourishes, create a distinct personality in each.
Architect Tom Sherry, of the firm Hamilton Anderson Associates, offers some insights when we meet following my walk. Unlike the tract housing of today, these homes, he explains, were individually designed by architects and built by craftsmen.
“They offered the opportunity for the common man to buy into a more luxurious home,” explains Sherry, an East Side resident who doesn’t live far off Outer Drive. The stonework, he observes, “adds a level of emotion to the houses of that era,” allowing the owner to proudly declare, “Look, this is my entrance.”
The consistency in style provides much of Outer Drive with what Sherry calls a “legibility.”
“There is enough of Outer Drive,” he says “that has a look, a style, a scale. The vast majority of the road was planned in the same way, with the same dimensions.”
Adding spice to the mix are what Sherry describes as “funky moments all over the place.” By this he means homes built in the “mid-century modern” style largely influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is a streamlined look often featuring rounded corners and stucco.
There are, of course, other kinds of homes. Square, solid, two-story brick colonials and wooden bungalows. Long stretches on the west side of Outer Drive offer sprawling ranch homes, and in impoverished pockets there are places that amount to little more than shacks alongside burnt and abandoned shells.
Turn, turn, turn
After heading north for just more than a mile, Outer Drive makes the first of its many turns — a 90-degree bend to the left — when it intersects with Chandler Park Drive. It is a prime example of Outer Drive’s piecemeal construction (see accompanying story). Keep traveling north across Chandler Park, and Whittier, the street this walk began on, starts up again.
Walking west a few blocks, I find Eric Arendt, 27, sitting on his front stoop with his girlfriend, yard sale items spread out on the lawn in front of them.
There’s not much business, and plenty of time to talk. So I slip off my pack, take a seat in the shade, and start to shoot the breeze with Arendt. His girl stays to the side, quietly listening, not interested in being interviewed.
“I love this city,” says Arendt, who sells rustproofing products. “I grew up here. It is always busy. I love the smells, even the exhaust fumes. The buses and the heat. It all brings back memories of my childhood.”
But life here has taken its toll. He got into the drug life in high school, and became a dealer, selling coke. The money rolled in, and he lived the high life on all fronts.
“Things were good,” he says, “until I got caught.”
Sentenced to do seven to 25 years, he got a break when mandatory-minimum sentences were struck down, and ended up getting out after three years.
Three hard years.
“Sitting in a cell all that time does something to you that you never get rid of,” he says.
For a “skinny little white boy” to make it through, he explains, it was necessary to become another person.
“I’m a real nice guy,” he says, “but for three years I had to not smile in order to survive.”
As hard as it was, in some ways the experience changed him for the better.
“I look at life differently now,” he explains. “I don’t want to involve myself in criminal acts any more. I learned that money wasn’t part of all my happiness. Family, friends, my girlfriend — that’s happiness.”
He offers to let me sleep in his yard, cracking a smile as he points out it wouldn’t be a bad thing having someone there to keep an eye on his yard-sale goods overnight. But there’s plenty of daylight left, and I got a late start, so I say thanks but no thanks as I pull on my pack and move on.
Several blocks down the road, just east of Alter Road, the neighborhood drops off. The houses get much smaller; and the cars in front of them are older. But Darrell Meadows, 45, likes it here just fine.
“It’s real neighborly,” he says, sitting on his front porch, surrounded by other people’s kids. Firecrackers pop as we talk.
He likes what he sees going on in Detroit. “The city’s on the rise,” says the hairdresser. And the Pistons winning the NBA championship gave everyone a boost.
I ask him about crime.
“I feel safe here,” he says. “And you should feel safe too.”
He likes the fact that his neighborhood is a melting pot.
“There’s whites, blacks, Hispanics, Chinese. It’s a real mixed neighborhood.”
Asked what he thinks about the state of the nation, the smile fades from his face.
“I think it’s a mess. I’m sure everybody around here does. The economy. All the soldiers being killed. It’s a mess.”
Resuming my hike, I notice a house with a flag hung out front, and it strikes me that it is the first time all day I’ve seen the Stars and Stripes flying.
It’s getting on toward dinnertime and the acrid smell of briquettes fills the air. I haven’t eaten, but, despite all the calories I’m burning, I’m not at all hungry. Just thirsty. I’ve already gone through the two bottles of water I’ve packed, and have started swilling AriZona Iced Tea. All the gas stations have it in tall, cold cans. At 99 cents for 24 ounces, they offer much-needed hydration at a bargain price.
The drive makes another 90 degree turn, this time to the right at Alter Road. Keep going west and Chandler Park Drive picks up again. It’s easy to see why the thoroughfare drives motorists nuts. Outer Drive heads north for a mile or so, crossing over I-94 then arcing around to the left.
At the intersection of Hayes, I find Dave selling rugs from a corner lot. He’s 60 years old, from Jordan originally, and doesn’t want to give his last name. He’s been in this country for 14 years, and used to work at Metro Airport but got laid off from there three years ago. A friend turned him on to the carpet business.
“I make enough to take care of the bills, and to take care of myself,” he says.
Dave would like to go back home and visit his family, but, like he says, “I have to have the money to go, because without money you can’t go nowhere.”
Things were better several years ago, he observes.
“When Mr. Clinton was in office, that was a good time. I don’t like war, man.”
He doesn’t like answering so many questions, either. He offers me a piece of advice before returning to the shade to wait for the next customer to come along.
“The best thing you can do, man, is respect yourself and live a good life.”
I’m beginning to see that the nature of neighborhoods along Outer Drive sort of undulates along, sometimes varying from subdivision to subdivision — from affluent and upper-middle class to middle class and working poor to the occasional pocket of flat-out poverty.
In one of the solidly middle-class neighborhoods, near Dickerson east of Gratiot, there is a house that demands I meet the owner.
It’s not the house, really, but a statue of Poseidon out front. The Greek god of the sea is painted a sparkly gold that’s faded with the weather. A fish at his foot wraps its body around the naked immortal, using its tail fin to cover Poseidon’s privates.
What’s the deal?
“The purpose of that statue is really twofold,” explains its owner, Ramadas Brown, a 48-year-old restaurant manager.
A member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity during his college days at Michigan, he sees the statue as a sort of tribute to the Greek system.
There’s also a more practical reason. Brown says there’s a lot of accidents at this intersection, and he worried that a car would come crashing into his living room. Poseidon weighs about a ton, and has a base that extends 4 feet beneath the ground.
“That will stop any car,” Brown says with a smile.
He says this neighborhood, which he estimates to be about 90 percent African-American, is safe and friendly. But if you go a few blocks in either direction away from Outer Drive, the same can’t be said.
“There’s neighborhoods around here I won’t walk in,” he says.
He and his wife both grew up in Detroit. They opted out of moving to the suburbs because they “hoped the city would turn around and change for the better.”
Asked if that has happened, he hesitates before saying, “Everything goes in cycles.”
The way he sees it, things haven’t been so good since Bush moved into the White House, and he’s not so sure how much it helps the city in its fight against crime to have a self-proclaimed “hip-hop mayor” at the helm.
At Gratiot I see an inviting motel and think about calling it a day. For one thing, it is beginning to dawn on me that I’ve made one of the worst mistakes a road man can commit: bad footgear. I’m wearing a sturdy pair of work boots that have served me fine doing yard work, but I’ve never worn them on a real hike. After five hours of walking, though, they’re beginning to be a problem. The fit is just a little off. It’s something about the instep that causes my feet, especially the right one, to roll slightly, putting pressure along the outside. It’s starting to hurt. Not a terrible pain, but enough to get my attention.
So there is motivation to stop. I figure I’ve gone about eight or nine miles, which would put me on a pace to make this walk in five days. But there is still plenty of daylight left, and I hate to see it go to waste.
Just past Gratiot, Outer Drive vanishes completely when it intersects with Conner south of City Airport, which feels almost abandoned on this long holiday weekend.
I’m again walking north. On the right are a shuttered car wash and Mr. Ted’s, a restaurant that appears to have served its last meal long ago. Past them is a dreary-looking residential neighborhood.
The wooden houses are a far cry from the “signature” homes that the architect talked about when describing Outer Drive.
When I’d told a friend from the suburbs about my plan to hike Outer, he’d related that he grew up around here, had a paper route, in fact, when he was just a kid.
“It’s not like it used to be,” he’d said, the furrows on his face indicating the changes haven’t been for the better. “I don’t think it’s so safe around there anymore.”
A white convertible rolls by with a man and woman shouting at each other, their voices louder than the stereo that’s booming rap. At the traffic light the woman jumps out and slams the door as she walks quickly away. The guy pulls a quick U-turn, parks in the lot of the car wash, then runs across the street screaming. The woman keeps walking as he chases after her. I watch, hoping the scene doesn’t get really ugly. I’m not sure I’ll have the nerve to intervene if he grabs hold and starts pulling her back to his car.
Fortunately for her and me, the woman just keeps walking fast, the man hurrying behind her, shouting until they fade from view.
Across McNichols, for no apparent reason, Conner ceases and Outer Drive reappears. The air seems to grow cooler as I pass the tree-shaded, pike-fence-protected, immaculately manicured lawns of Mount Olivet Cemetery, which straddles the street.
Two thoughts occur. The first is that, considering the sorry shape of the neighborhood immediately south of here, it seems that there’s something wrong when the dead are planted in surroundings so much more lush and inviting than those afforded to people still drawing breath.
The other thought is that the cemetery wouldn’t be such a bad place to spend the night. But the same tall spikes that would certainly keep me safe from dogs are far too formidable to scale.
After another five miles I’m telling myself that I’m an idiot for not calling it a day back at Gratiot. I’m sucking down water and ice tea like a camel at an oasis. Forget about the roving canines; the only dogs giving me a problem are the ones just below my ankles as I pass Club .007, where patrons, if the sign is true, can “Feel The Thunder” of topless entertainment. I wonder how the congregation of the church located next door feels about that.
Outer Drive makes a dogleg to the left and then runs straight west toward Woodward. I slip off my pack and sit with my back against the wall of the Bara Miracle Church International, which looks like a suite of doctors offices. A black guy across the street waves me over.
I hoist my pack to go meet Mike and his girlfriend, Coco. They think I’m homeless, and offer some of their barbecue for dinner. It’s thanks but no thanks to the offer of food, but I say I will take a little conversation if they don’t mind.
“Go ahead,” says Mike. “We ain’t doin’ nothin’ special.”
Forty-six years old, he’s lived around here for 13 or 14 years. He works the assembly line at a plant that makes axles for one of the Big Three.
The cutoffs he’s wearing reveal an electronic tether strapped to his right ankle. I ask him about it and he tells me its no big thing. Reluctant to provide any specifics, he tells me he earned it as part of a felony rap. But really, it’s no big thing, he assures me. Just a matter of being with the wrong person at the wrong time.
The neighborhood, he says, can go
“There’s certain parts,” he says, “that are real good and quiet. Other parts is
A nearby gas station is a particularly good place to avoid, unless, that is, my interests run in certain directions.
“You can buy you some gas, you can buy you some drugs. You can buy you a woman if you want. You can even go up there and buy you a car.”
Mike also warns me to be on my guard when I cross over to the West Side. “There’s some real bad neighborhoods over there,” he cautions.
Coco doesn’t say much at all. There’s a fresh, crescent-shaped scar below her lower lip. And her neck, upper chest and shoulders glisten with ointment slathered on to soothe burns sustained a few weeks back when she crashed into another car and her airbag went off.
“She come around the turn up here at night and the street lights was out and there was this car parked stickin’ way out in the street and BAM!” relates Mike.
As we talk, a cop stops a car filled with kids driven by a middle-aged woman. Within a few minutes a tow truck shows up, yellow lights flashing, and the family stands there watching as the vehicle is hauled off to the impound yard.
“That’s so cold,” says Mike. He offers the use of his phone, but she says it’s not needed. They live just a few blocks away.
“Thanks, though,” she says.
“That’s how we do it around here,” Mike tells me as he watches the family walk off. “We see somebody in need, we be there.”
As I strap on my pack and turn to leave, Mike again warns me to be careful on the West Side.
“It can get real bad in some of them neighborhoods over there,” he cautions.
It feels good to be back on the road.
About a mile or so north of Seven Mile Road, Outer Drive turns west again and rolls out in a long stretch straight toward Woodward. Darkness falls and the night sky starts to light up. Fireworks sizzle and hiss and pop as they spider out overheard, flaming reds and luminous yellows and blinding whites against the black backdrop, leaving wisps of smoke as the colors fizzle out.
Why, I wonder, do they even bother declaring these things illegal. Half the city must be shooting them off.
There are no fancy Tudors or big brick colonials on this stretch of Outer Drive. If Outer Drive were truly intended to be a necklace, as one writer described it when the road was being built 75 years ago, this section would be the clasp. Parts of the road here are basic industrial. There’s a home-products warehouse, a steel fabricating plant, and a DaimlerChrysler tool and die facility.
There are, however, plenty of small apartment complexes. There’s also some funky little commercial districts with barber shops and nail salons, coney shops and garages offering used tires “starting at $10.” That gives you a pretty good idea of the microeconomics.
I pass the Conant Gardens Community Flea Market and a vacant ice cream stand with a hand-printed sign that says, “Restaurant Business Opportunity Minimum Investment.”
There are also churches large and small. Lots of them. In a five-block span just west of Dequindre I count four churches, including the Undenominational Church of God.
Across I-75, Outer Drive becomes State Fair, which, after about a mile, runs along the southern edge of the fairgrounds. On my left are houses, small, with sagging roofs and porches. Wooden structures with peeling paint or plastic siding falling off. It is not the kind of neighborhood I want to be in this late at night. I set my sights on Woodward, knowing there is at least one motel there. The streetlights are mostly out and, despite the fireworks, the dark closes in. I take a breath and clench my fists, preparing for an encounter as I walk beneath an overpass, but the moment passes without incident.
I breathe easy again once I hit the lights of Woodward and turn south. I get to La Renaissance Motel just south of Seven Mile Road around 11 p.m. It’s $31 for the night or $23 for three hours. I take it for the whole night.
The room is pretty much what you’d expect from a place that rents rooms by the hour. The rubberized lining of the squash-colored curtains has deteriorated, giving the cloth a dappled quality. The maroon carpet is stained with cream-colored splotches — the nature of which I can’t quite figure out. I open the drawer of the nightstand, but instead of a Gideon Bible there is a puddle of something so putrid I don’t even want to know what it is.
I’ve never been happier to have a room.
I lie down on the bed with all my clothes on. I figure I’ve walked 17 or 18 miles in about 11 hours. I am beat. Within minutes, I fall into a deep, dreamless slumber.
In the morning, as I step out of bed, I’m not sure if I will be able to go on.
History of the Mystery
The inside scoop on Outer Drive.