Pockets of Possibilities


Megan Swoyer

Small towns such as Port Austin, Empire, or Tawas can miraculously slow the passing of time.

The more time I spend in suburbia, the more I pine for our northern Michigan cottage. Suburbia has its advantages, to be sure, but time flies there. There are good schools, great neighborhoods, easy commutes, excellent doctors and convenient access to top-notch health care organizations, gourmet restaurants, theatrical productions, and sporting options.

But I’m finding that I crave small — those pocket communities Up North where, for example, Sandy calls us by name the minute we enter her restaurant/brewery and is sure to sit at our table for a while as we sample her latest innovative dishes. This happened the first time we met her, and it hasn’t stopped since.

The last time my husband and I were there, Sandy, of course, stopped at our table — as did her husband, a man we’d never met before, who was eating alone at the bar. We invited him to dine with us and now we know his life story and he knows about us.

Another evening Up North, we sauntered into a small eatery in a community just south of Sandy’s place. Our mission was to check out its charming pub side. About six stools lined the bar. On that evening, one was occupied by a 10-year-old who was happily chatting with his mom, the bartender. We enjoyed talking with both before she poured my husband and me a glass.

Enter a man in his 40s or 50s. We said hi and, the next thing you know, he asked us to sample the wine from the bottle he had ordered. From stage right came a pianist (he started playing the piano at age 50; we know this because there’s a community newspaper article about him on the wall above the piano). He began to tickle the ivories. How could we resist dining there, too?

So we ordered dinner, continued to chat with our new friend, and then owner Bill arrived to see how we liked the food. A half-hour later, we were still talking with Bill and the regular about boating, barbecue sauce, you name it.  Then the regular said his goodbyes and, unbeknownst to us, picked up our tab!

Other couples entered the eatery and the evening played on. As we were about to leave, in walked four women, headed to the bar. They, too, said hello as if they knew us. After some conversation, one of the women said she’d like to join us on our next bicycle outing. Small town, big welcome.

In a local convenience store, we purchase things that might be a little more expensive, but the owner, Scott, is almost always there to greet us and talk about weather and traffic (not much).

I’m reminded of an off-the-beaten-path tree farm where, on the spur of the moment, we stopped to pick raspberries and look at trees for purchase. Owner Chet shared information about his gorgeous evergreens, but then said, “How much time do you have? Jump in my truck and I’ll take you to some additional property.” After a five-minute ride we were bouncing through swaying boughs of beauty that seemed to usher us through the farmer’s rows of green. He gave us cultivation tips and told us a bit about his farm’s history. Another remarkable character on the stage of small-town friendly.

My 2023 New Year’s resolution was to set a better pace. If you, too, wish to slow down, then seek out Michigan’s little pockets of possibilities. Pull up a stool at that tiny pub you’ve always wondered about, heed the arrow on that crooked raspberry U-pick sign that points you down a country road, try out a quaint mom-and-pop grocery store or diner. Promise yourself to take the time to enjoy our small towns.

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