Having established, or at least discussed, what the Midwest is, let’s cut to the chase and put the region’s best foot forward - if you’ve never been to a Great Lake and you live less than 1,000 miles from one, you’re doing it wrong, "it" here being your life.
Between the U.S. and Canada, you have almost 11,000 miles of coastline to choose from. You might dip your toe in the water in places as diverse as Duluth, Chicago, and Kingston.
Most of the Midwest’s great cities are parked along the shores of these phenomenal natural wonders, and the region’s settlement and economic development by Americans occurred overnight as compared to the East Coast largely because of the region’s navigable waterways.
From mid-May to beyond Labor Day, every Friday afternoon sees the region’s freeways clogged with people leaving those cities en route to their respective getaways. Chicagoans swarm Michigan’s west coast; Detroiters fan out across northern Michigan; Milwaukeers (Milwaukese? Who knows) and yet more Chicagoans head for the Dells or Door County; presumably every man, woman, and child in Minnesota is given exclusive possession of 3 or 4 lakes upon receipt of their birth certificate.
What many of these people are drawn to, what millions of working stiffs daydream about through Tuesday meetings, is "the lake." Here in Michigan, a day trip is a piece of cake, as you are never more than 2 hours from Huron, Michigan, or Superior. You know you are living well, however, if you have the envied privilege of your own waterfront property. The wealthy can thus go whenever they choose; most of us must wait for a relative, neighbor, or coworker to extend that coveted invitation.
The Midwest’s thousands of inland lakes are swell. But water collects in depressions everywhere. No, the Midwest’s claim to maritime greatness is in its HOMES - Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.
If you want get a laugh in the Midwest, mention that time when a money-grubbing Senator from Vermont scribbled in a clause in a bill designating insignificant Lake Champlain as a Great Lake for purposes of federal research grants. I was 10 years old when that story broke, and I remember my exact words: "MAYBE THAT SENATOR SHOULD GO BACK TO VERMONT AND PLAY IN HIS GREAT PUDDLE." I’m not sure my father ever loved me more than that moment.
If you want to start a fight in the Midwest, advocate for one of the plans we’re all (in our more paranoid moments) sure exist to drain the Great Lakes dry to support water-starved places like Arizona, Colorado, and Texas. Should that come to pass, or even move beyond vague, distant-future planning, the South won’t get a chance to rise again, because the Midwest would take its turn.
The Great Lakes are great. Beyond being vital to the economies and lives of millions of people, they are as central to Midwestern identity as good beer, politeness, and passive aggression.
We know what some of you are thinking, perhaps have even skipped down to the comments to say.
"But the ocean! Salt Life!"
Oh, honey. No.
Don’t get me wrong, I love drilling platforms, sharks, barracudas, jellyfish, riptides, the scent of low tide, islands of tiny pieces of trash the size of Texas, and lots and lots of fucking salt in my eyes as much as anyone. Which is to say not in the slightest because all of those things are terrible, and also woven into the fabric of each and every trip to the ocean.
The ocean is awful, and it wants to kill all of us, probably now more than ever because of the horrible things we’ve done to it. When our ancestors crossed it, they thought it best to continue travelling for another 1,000 miles or so before they were far enough away from it.
If you advocate for the ocean, it is probably only due to your lack of ready access to fresh water you can recreate in. Give that ocean a few more years of glacial ice melt, let it flood your backyard, and we’ll see how much you’re all about #SaltLife. You need church, by which of course we mean you need a lake.