Watching Donnie parade through the tropical paradise of Colombia’s Caribbean coast last month left me with a nagging bout of jealously and wanderlust, with the only silver lining being that it would soon be quelled by our upcoming video together. I knew he’d be pressured to follow up his hedonistic jaunts through Cartagena with an epic destination for the first installment of our newly-minted Rediscovering America series.
With the Won Ton's carte blanche and an official sponsor on board this time around, our trio had free rein to travel anywhere in the nation on the company's dime to ensure that it would be an adequate, crowd-pleasing debut. And after Nick and Donnie just finished spending a week of Surviving Barstool sleeping on the floor of our office amongst black tailed rats and white sox daves, I figured they'd be down to go all out when it came to luxury. Montages of Hawaiian sand and California coasts set to a loop of redundant Kygo tunes filled my head as I mentally picked out my outfits, or lack thereof, for our lush getaway.
So when I found out the Belgian-owned brewery headquartered in Toronto, Canada, which was conveniently sponsoring our "Rediscovering America" trip, insisted we go somewhere as close as possible to their target market — the statistically coldest part of the contiguous U.S. in the statistically coldest month of the year — I thought to myself, "that actually makes a ton of sense."
Even despite the dangerous elements, desolate icelands, and unbearable frigidity of our route, prior to February my perception of Michigan was as unsavory as it was skewed.
To me, it was a state synonymous with corruption, crisis, failure, frustration, delusion and defeat. Even when it came to Michigan's most successful stars, I thought of an ornery Marshall Mathers angrily rapping “I don’t wrestle, but I'll knock you fuckin’ faggots the fuck out," Floyd Mayweather botching his girlfriend's face like it was a Charlotte’s Web sentence, and Draymond Green throwing violent temper tantrums on the court. Expecting to feel any semblance of "welcomed" in the Wolverine State was the last thing I expected yet shockingly, the predominant thing I experienced. As much as I wish I could've doubled down with one of my beaten-into-the-ground "geographic roast" blogs, I left Michigan adoring the people and culture too much to even ironically hate on it. But like the Barstool work trips I've been on in the past, it didn't come without a price.
In Vegas I was known for doing cocaine in a bathroom, and on this trip to the Great Lakes, I was also the “Jon Snow guy” of our group. While I may have struggled to don a 30 pound, eight-piece Game of Thrones costume, what I lacked in Kit Harrington’s physical attractiveness and his character’s on-screen appeal, I made up for in being able to snugly fit in a makeshift outhouse that enabled me to be completely out of sight of all cameras and onlookers for the climax of our video. But I’m not necessarily admitting I was the "Eric the Midget" of our squad or anything like that. Make no mistake about it, on this excursion there was no Howard or Robin or Artie (well) — all three of us were Wack Packers.
Nick looked like a post-op Danielle Boone who got a last minute invite to the Met Gala and Donnie wore the same type of Grizzly bear jacket that a hyperactive second grader with a Cherry-stained mouth would be bribed with at a zoo gift shop. Three men approaching presidency age, prancing around public places in such ridiculous costumes would surely be met with side eyes and scoffs in any other region of the country. Hell, even the kind Midwestern folks of Southern Illinois treated our slightly less absurd Colonial garb as a malicious attempt to stage a left-wing coup d’etat at their local bar.
But in Northern Michigan, every single person greeted us with big smiles and high praise of our respective ensembles. When we checked into our hotel in Mackinaw City, all the staff and guests expressed some variation of “You boys look fantastic!” as if we were about to nervously take the stage for the Ronald McDonald House’s spring production of Lewis and Clark. They didn’t question our motives or respond to our abnormal antics with any type of skepticism. They were just thrilled by our presence and always made sure to point us in the direction of the regionally-renowned pasty shops (north, south, east, and west) in the area.
Molded by years of blue collar labor in subzero winters, and hardened—viscerally—by diets of gravy-soaked, beef-filled turnovers, people from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula were as tough as they were tough to look at. The type of folks you want in your corner for predicaments and celebrations, and with zero hyperbole, the nicest people I’ve ever encountered in my entire life. With “Southern hospitality,” you get the genre of kindness that makes you feel like there’s an ulterior motive to their offerings of sweet tea and confections. With Northern Michiganders, it was just pure, unconditional affection. They were genuinely happy to see us, and we looked back at them with the same joy and admiration.
Admittedly, there were times on this trip where I felt “above” some of the activities we were partaking in. But I had to stop and remind myself that Nick and I were nothing more than two West Virginia boys trekking to Michigan for an opportunity to advance our careers and get a pay raise. We were like the Rich Rodriguez and John Beilein of coaching Donnie on how to penetrate heifers.
I think it was somewhere between "do cows have a clitoris?" and Nick's arm being rectally rejected by a seemingly endless stream of cattle feces when I realized I may have made a mistake by taking on this job.
But nevertheless, we persisted. We had an outhouse race to prepare for after all. And luckily a handsome Mackinaw man named Kash and his charming crew of friends and family went out of their way to construct a state-of-the-art, customized outhouse for us, only for it to be "raced" with for two minutes and treated like a literal can we found in the trash.
I’m still in awe by the way Kash so nonchalantly crafted this gift for us with his bare hands and still so immediately volunteered to fix it after we intentionally destructed it right in front of his face. But Michigan didn’t just restore my faith in man, it gave me a newfound appreciation for animal.
Nature’s Kennel Dog Sledding & Adventures
I'm not a "dog guy" by modern standards or interpretations, but this leg of our journey made me retroactively swipe right on every fringe 4-5 who gravitates toward the pupper at parties. Trekking through the remote winter wonderland of McMillan, Michigan’s forested dog tracks made me feel like I was Eustace Scrubb mischievously navigating Narnia on his high horse. Straight out of an Iñárritu flick, our camera crew captured us being pulled through glowing powder by a pack of majestic Alaskan huskies in perfect synchronization. It was a once-in-a-blue-moon cinematic experience for me, in the sense that it was my first time unintentionally impersonating Cuba Gooding Jr. since immediately after Radio game out. The rare serenity of it all was something I’ll forever cherish, especially when juxtaposed with the mode of transportation we decided to take directly after that.
I don’t know why we felt the need or desire to “test” our outhouse by squeezing inside of it to be pulled at high speeds through snow-covered backroads that were already barely navigable via four wheel drive. Our Michigan friends didn’t either, but quite frankly, they were too polite to deny our request.
"Oh boy, you fellas could get real hurt doin' that. But yeah sure thing, not a problem."
So when it snapped, crashed, and popped, and our three pathetically neglected adult bodies were left virtually incapacitated, I thought to myself, “that actually makes a ton of sense.” I hadn’t seen Nick look so painfully defeated since whenever I saw him prior to that moment. But I can’t stress this enough: all three of us were in extreme agony.
I remember questioning if we should see a doctor after our skulls and spines collectively played the rock hard ground like a tribal bongo, and the locals looked at us like we were USA gymnasts making that same suggestion. Apparently, receiving medical attention is frowned upon in Michigan and the only attainable remedy was sipping the nectar of Canadian pilsner and soaking our aching bones in the extra warm, amber waters of a hotel hot tub that could’ve revived Will Smith in Seven Pounds.
One things for certain, though: I’ll never take warmth for granted again. There’s cold, then there’s ice cold, then there's lethally cold, then there’s Surfer Dan.
I remember watching his Vice video when it came out and thinking, “how is it possible for me to be so far removed from another human being who’s living in the same time frame as me?” Then, less than a year later, Donnie told us we were going to meet up with him for a swim date in Lake Superior and I thought to myself, “that actually makes a ton of sense.”
Exceeding my expectations of his insanity, he disembarked from his vehicle with a chainsaw and greeted us with an itinerary that would make the most energetic polar bear say “nah I’m good.” Surfer Dan reminded me of the friend in college who pitched the shitty parties he was hosting with extravagant “guarantees” of endless alcohol and all-you-can-fuck pussy. But Dan was somehow more action than talk. He said he was going to “rope swing into the lake” and he shirtlessly gainered into negative 30 degree water. He said he “might get a little reckless” and then he repetitively broke boulder sized chunks of ice over his bare head and body before jumping off a bridge while chuckling maniacally.
Donald, on the other hand, had three separate instances on this trip that looked like they were pulled straight from a Siberian liveleak compilation. My respect (and pre-written eulogy) for him grew tenfold after this venture. All jokes aside, he is probably one of, if not the best content creator on the internet; he encompasses everything you’d look for in a video: entertainment, education, comedy, originality, shock factor...but make no mistake about it: Donnie will die young. I just hope that I'll at least be on the party-planning committee when it does inevitably happen.
When you're in the presence of a larger-than-life superhero-esque local legend like Surfer Dan, there's an innate pressure to try to at least somewhat follow suit. I failed to even put my suit on frontwards, but I think Donnie took emulating Superman a little too literally on that rope swing, because he ended up one millisecond and one inch away from physically becoming Christopher Reeve. After those escapades, we were in dire need of something that was just leisurely and ordinarily “fun” with no physical stipulations, and the UP seemed to only advertise one entertainment venue and one entertainment venue only.
The flashiness of the its massive billboards and the curiosity of its titular “mystery” led us right to the Mystery Spot, even if it took begging the owner for an exclusive, out-of-season invitation.
We assumed it was the only “mystery spot" in the country until Nick informed us about the vast prevalence of Melanoma in America. But even still, the enigma of this tourist attraction was enough to drive us away from absolutely nothing to something that could best be described as a "sideways fort." We were greeted by the exceptionally kind owner of the establishment, Mark, who showered us with free merch, souvenirs, and a case of Labatt Blue Ice before promising us that our minds were about to be effectively blown. And when the man behind the giant question mark insists that he’s gonna show you some cool stuff, what are you gonna do? Question Mark?
We had a blast. And for a roadside oddity in the middle of nowhere, it was actually really interesting. I would’ve stayed there for hours if it wasn’t for our big outhouse race in two days.
Mackinaw City, Michigan has a population of about 800, and at least all of them were there to watch this event. People arrived at 6am to set up their RVs and tailgate like it was an SEC noon game. Our competitors emerged from charter buses with matching uniforms and Kid Rock riffs blaring from their Beats headphones. With local enrollments too small to field high school football teams, this was their annual state championship. What I’m trying to get at is that our opponents were all teen boys and we still came in dead last.
I wish this part of the story was less anticlimactic, but yeah, we got fifth out of five and barely missed the four-team playoffs. The only silver lining was that it helped us go 2 for 2 on local newspaper appearances on Rediscovering America trips.
And that it helped us score a sympathy invite to the after party at Kash's family's hunting lodge. After a long night of enjoying their beaver rangoons and gawking at gas explosions, I remember waking up in a hungover haze surrounded by exotic taxidermy and, in a bizarre way, feeling less empathy toward the animals and more empathy toward the killers, considering how polite and well-meaning they are. The type of people to say “ope, sorry now” after instantaneously voiding the internal organs of a 3-year-old moose with a Winchester Magnum 300.
Thanks to our hosts' relentless hospitality, our eight days in Michigan only felt like a week. And thanks to the skill and professionalism of our very own Corey Rutledge and Colin Cooper, we ended up with a final video that looks as good as it felt bad.
And shoutout to Owen for taking on the production assistant role without an inkling of a complaint. As fearless as he is deficient of other basic human emotions, that young lad carried out the bulk of our group’s “bitch work” on a trip that consisted of other people becoming smothered in cow shit and riddled with internal hemorrhages.
But as I sit here and ponder all the circumstances we willingly put ourselves through for little to no payoff, I can't help but rationalize it all. Sure, we could’ve just comfortably hightailed it across U.S. Route 2 in our rental SUV and made a few quick stops along the way to get footage. But life’s too long to not put it on the line every once in a while in the name of content. And that’s what separates videos that are “good” from videos that are “fucking stupid.” We could've stayed warm and filmed Surfer Dan from afar or trusted the durability of our outhouse, but then we would've been robbed of the frost bite and bone contusions that made our journey so uniquely poetic. Two roads diverged in a wood, and we— we took the one less traveled by.
And that has made all the difference.