It was the summer of 1993. We were standing at the lookout on U.S. 41 in Hancock taking in the amazing view of the Portage Canal and the Michigan Tech campus. It was my first visit to the western end of the Upper Peninsula, and it was beautiful.
"Wouldn't it be great to live here and look at this every day?" my husband said.
"Sure. But we'd never be lucky enough to both find jobs here," I said.
Fast forward to the fall of 1994, Thanksgiving weekend. We had just moved into our house in West Houghton to begin work at Michigan Tech on Monday. It was a very blustery night, and I had latched the screen door on the porch to keep it from banging.
Early in the evening, there was a loud rap on the door.
"I think someone's trying to get in," I said, my hackles raised from years of living in metro Detroit.
The Hubs, mustering all of his testosterone, went to the door to see who it was, finding an older gentleman walking away from the house in disgust.
"Can I help you?" my husband said, not a little aggressively.
The man stood there for a minute, then slowly turned to face him.
"You know, I was walking by your house and saw that you had left your car lights on," he said calmly. "I tried to turn them off, but your car was locked. I tried to knock on your door, but your porch was locked." He paused for effect.
"You folks aren't from around here, are you? You know, you're only locking your friends out."
Lesson Number One: People in the Copper Country don't lock their doors.
Lesson Number Two: If someone's car lights are on, turn them off for them. No one will report you to the police.
A few weeks after we'd both started work at Michigan Tech, we were invited to join a group at a local restaurant for fish fry. The following week, I was getting a picture framed at a downtown Houghton business. The saleswoman asked me how I was settling in.
"Fine," I said, explaining we had been invited to dinner out, but had found one of the women in the group a little negative and overbearing. The saleswoman asked me who I was with, and I gave the offending dinner companion's first name.
"Oh sure, I know Betty," the saleswoman said. "She's my cousin."
Lesson Number Three: Everyone in the Copper Country knows someone who knows you or someone you know.
The following winter, we were coming home from downstate in a snowstorm and encountered a man whose car had ended up in a ditch near Chassell. We stopped and asked if he needed a ride.
"Thanks, but there's a tow truck coming," he said. "But you're the tenth car that's stopped for me."
Lesson Number Four: Offering to help someone isn't a bad thing.
Some years back, I had just pumped a full tank of gas into my car and went into the station for some milk only to discover at the register I had no checkbook, having changed purses that morning and not transferred the essentials.
"It's okay, the attendant said. "Come back with the money when you can."
"Seriously?" I said, asking if he wanted to take my wedding ring or driver's license for collateral.
"Really, it's okay," he said. "I know you'll come back. And if you don't, I know you live in the big red house in Calumet."
Lesson Number Five: It's a close-knit world up here, as long as you don't take advantage.
I knew I was starting to fit in, at least a little, when I could shake my head in disbelief in the company of another transient who hasn't really "gotten" it.
"You know, what this place needs is a good Ethiopian restaurant/movie multiplex/theme park," etc., they say.
And I think, "No, you just need to go back to Washington, D.C./Toronto/Chicago."
The Copper Country ain't those. Which isn't to say the big cities don't have their merits. I like Ethiopian food and first-run movies. But I've been around the world some, and there is no place like the Copper Country.
Specifically, there are no people like Copper Country people.
I was fortunate enough, for a short while, to live among you, and hope someday to do so again.
But know this: There is nothing wrong with the Copper Country. It's a unique, amazing place filled with the best souls on Earth. Keep taking care of each other, as you took care of me. I learned a lot here, and I'll remember to teach your lessons wherever I go.