Posted on | February 26, 2012 | 45 Comments
The Dam Site Inn in Hell, Michigan
Don’t need reason. Don’t need rhyme.
Ain’t nothing I would rather do.
Going down, party time,
My friends are gonna be there too . . .
— AC/DC, “Highway to Hell,” 1979
We were nearly in Hell when it occurred to me that we weren’t actually on a highway. Rather, we were on a narrow two-lane country road — Patterson Lake Road, to be exact. Having driven more than 60 miles to get there, however, it was obviously too late to turn back now.
Hell, Michigan, has sort of a tourist industry based entirely on the tiny town’s name, with souvenirs available at a local shop that was, unfortunately, closed by the time we got there.
By “we,” I mean me, investigative journalist Matthew Vadum of the Capital Research Center, Vinnie Vernuccio of Workplace Choice, and Ray Patnaude, a graphic design specialist whose wife Annie was in charge of Saturday’s AFP Michigan forum. Between the four guys riding through western Michigan in my rented Toyota, really, we had the makings of our own think tank. Or at least a decent blog.
Our trip was planned by Vinnie, who has moved to Michigan to pursue his campaign for right-to-work legislation in Big Labor’s backyard, but I first learned about the expedition from Vadum. As the AFP forum wound down Saturday afternoon in Troy, Vadum was signing copies of his ACORN-busting book, Subversion, Inc. When I asked Matthew about his post-conference plans, he said, “We’re going to Hell. Want to go with us?”
Who could turn down an invitation like that?
So I took my laptop back to my hotel, then drove over to the Marriott where the AFP conference guests were staying and, after some discussion as to whether we should take one car or two, everybody loaded into my rented Toyota.
Unlimited mileage. Tax-deductible business expense.
Thank you, Wonderful Car Rental Agency! Thank you, IRS!
One of the wonders of American tax law is that a freelance journalist can deduct damned near anything as a business expense, as long as he writes about it. (I’ve thought about whether writing about my cigarette habit would make my Marlboros a business expense, but that might be pushing it too far.) At any rate, this trip to Hell was a perfectly legitimate journalistic endeavor, because as anyone can see — hello, Mr. Tax Man — I am indeed writing about it.
Also, there are Republican voters in Hell.
For some reason, Hell didn’t register on the Garmin GPS system, so Vinnie gave me another address in nearby Pinckney, and off we went, down I-75 then west via I-296 to I-96 about 35 miles before we exited the freeway at US-23, and then finally began the fun part of the trip: Two-lane backroads through the snowy night.
Freeway driving is boring, but at least Michiganders drive fast. The freeway speed limit is 70 and you don’t dare get in the left lane doing less than 80. Rush-hour on the interstates around Detroit is genuinely rush hour. Folks in the Motor City drive like they’re qualifying for a NASCAR race, and if you don’t want to drive fast, you’d better stay off the freeway. (Rick Santorum sponsored a Ford in the Daytona 500 — smart move.)
A Diner on the Road to Hell
Meanwhile, we continued on our way to Hell. Once we’d left the highway and began navigating the backroads, Vinnie expressed an appetite for small-town diner cuisine. In particular, he was craving country fried steak and gravy. I’d eaten two McDonald’s cheeseburgers before leaving my hotel, but Vinnie’s description of small-town diner food in western Michigan was tempting, and everyone else in the car was hungry. So we re-programmed the GPS with the address of the Pinckney Diner, and arrived there in a few minutes, turning left off East Main Street onto South Howell Street, where a sign pointed the direction to Hell, three miles away.
The Pinckney Diner is an excellent specimen of its type. We were welcomed and seated at a booth. Our waitress was also an excellent specimen of her type — a young green-eyed brunette who exhibited a remarkable degree of steatopygia (look it up). I ordered coffee, while my tablemates had hot chocolate topped with whipped cream. We examined the menu and were disappointed to discover that chicken fried steak was not among the offerings. I asked the waitress if they served breakfast all day, and she said yes, so we all began looking at the breakfast selections. When the waitress returned to take our orders, I had my usual breakfast: Corned beef hash, two eggs over medium and wheat toast.
The menu said that egg orders came with a choice of hashbrowns or fresh fruit, and I asked our steatopygious waitress if I could substitute orange juice for that. It took an unusually long time to get this point clarified and, while the waitress and I haggled over the menu substitution, Ray said, “This is why people hate the media.”
Everybody else placed their orders and when Vinnie ordered the Meat Lover’s Skillet, the waitress said, “The Meat Lover’s is my favorite, too.” After she went back to the kitchen, I told Vinnie, “Did you see the look in her eye when she said that? She wants what’s on your menu, if you know what I mean and I think you do.”
This was merely a joke. Vinnie recently became engaged to his longtime girlfriend Katy, so the waitress’s interest (real or imagined) in my young labor-lawyer friend was moot. Besides, our four-man crew was conspicuous for its traditional family values. Vinnie’s engaged, I’m married with six kids and Ray’s wife is pregnant with their second child. That left Vadum as the lone eligible bachelor among us. Ladies should follow Matthew on Twitter.
We finished our dinners and headed out to the car to resume our journey to Hell, but not before I grabbed a copy of the local newspaper, the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus, which carried this front-page headline:
Picking up the local newspaper is a habit of mine when traveling on the campaign trail. Anybody can log onto the Internet, check the Drudge Report and see what kind of Big Story the national media is pushing. Only when you’re on the scene, however, can you pick up the local paper and see how the campaign is being reported to the many thousands of voters who still rely on their hometown newspaper. And it’s the same thing with local TV news and local talk radio.
Local media institutions have a greater influence than most pundits are willing to admit. But smart politicians understand the importance of local media, a phenomenon of which I’d seen a recent example: Saturday afternoon, Byron York of the Washington Examiner, Toby Harnden of the London Daily Mail and I spent about 15 minutes standing in the cold wind outside the San Marino Club in Troy, site of the AFP forum.
We were on “stake-out” duty, waiting for Rick Santorum to emerge from the event, hoping to ask a few questions. A black SUV was waiting for the candidate, who was on a tight schedule, and when Santorum finally came outside, he approached and said he could only answer one question because he was supposed to be on a local radio interview in just a minute. York started to ask a question, but then an aide handed Santorum a cell phone — it was the local radio station calling — and the candidate said “hello” into the phone and, with a smile and a wave, walked away, got in his SUV and rode off.
That radio interview with a local Michigan station, you see, took precedence over whatever questions we in the national political press corps might want to ask the presidential candidate. Tough luck for Byron, Toby and me — we were skunked, having stood in that cold wind for nothing — but it was an apt demonstration of how important local media is to a campaign.
None of which is really relevant to our road trip to Hell, except to explain why I made a point of grabbing a copy of the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus before I left the Pinckney Diner, three miles from Hell.
Hell’s (Honky Tonk) Angels
We soon reached our infernal destination, and I was directed to the Dam Site Inn, an establishment that derives its name from its proximity to the former site of a mill dam on Hell Creek. (The history of Hell is online, if you are interested.) You might describe the Dam Site Inn as a tavern or saloon. Vinnie called it a “dive joint,” but I immediately recognized it as a splendid example of what folks down home call a honky tonk, complete with numerous ladies of the type whom Hank Thompson memorialized in song as “honky tonk angels.”
Such are the only angels one is likely to find in Hell.
In contrast to the wholesome steatopygia of our brunette Pinckney Diner waitress — did you ever look up that word? — the waitress at the Dam Site Inn was a slender blonde with no hips whatsoever. However, this skinny lass was friendly and efficient, despite her tragically hipless condition, and refreshments were soon provided.
Here it is necessary to note that I hadn’t realized our excursion to Hell would involve a visit to a honky tonk. I had amassed all manner of notes, interviews, video and photos during the AFP forum in Troy, and was anxious to return to the hotel and get this stuff online. It was actual news, the whole point of my trip to Michigan, but I hadn’t blogged any of it Saturday, figuring I’d do a long post after the event ended. And there was lots of other news, such as this Saturday story in the Detroit Free Press:
President Barack Obama’s campaign
joins in the fight to stop Mitt Romney
As two new polls showed Mitt Romney taking a slim lead over Rick Santorum in his crucial fight to win his native Michigan on Tuesday, President Barack Obama’s forces joined the fight to stop Romney.
Romney was talking about the economy at the 30-yard line of the Detroit Lions’ home turf at Ford Field on Friday, while the Obama campaign and its surrogates unleashed a barrage of ads and protests outside the stadium.
The ads targeted Romney’s opposition to the federal rescue loans for the auto industry and his 2008 column in the New York Times, which was headlined, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
At Ford Field, Romney was introduced to a crowd of about 1,200 people attending the Detroit Economic Club meeting as a homegrown “car guy.” No mention was made of the auto rescue. . . .
My plan had been to get that news online Saturday night. When Vadum mentioned his trip to Hell, he didn’t say anything about a honky tonk. I was under the impression we might get our photos taken in front of the city limits sign, buy some souvenirs or something, and then I could cruise back to the hotel to update the blog. Now that we were at the Dam Site Inn, however, it seemed my companions were intent on making a night of it. This explained something I’d noticed on our way from Pinckney.
Despite the snowy conditions, the traction on Patterson Lake Road was suprisingly good. Only later, after it dawned on me that I had let myself be inadvertently lured into a long night in a honky tonk, did this anomalous phenomenon make sense.
That road? Yeah — paved with good intentions.
So I was somewhat despondent at my plight. Here I was, evidentily doomed to an entire evening in Hell, leaving undone the valuable work I’d come to Michigan to do. Having offered to drive to Hell, I couldn’t be a spoilsport and insist we leave early. And so while Ray, Vinnie and Matthew were enjoying themselves, it seemed to me that my time there stretched out endlessly.
Like an eternity.
Tormented by guilt, then, I was looking glum enough that Vinnie asked me what was wrong. I explained my situation and also explained something else that was bothering me.
The music being played on the jukebox was crappy. By then, our party had been joined by one of Vinnie’s Michigan friends (a schoolteacher who must remain anonymous for obvious reasons) and she offered me $5 to go play some better music. So I went over to the jukebox and was dismayed to find that they didn’t have any decent Allman Brothers or any of my favorite songs by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
No “Sweet Home Alabama”? No “Freebird”?
What else do you expect from a jukebox in Hell?
Nevertheless, through diligent searching, I managed to find a few good tunes, including some Johnny Cash — The Man in Black is evidently quite popular in Hell — and ZZ Top’s “Tush,” of which our skinny waitress was so woefully deficient.
‘My friends are gonna be there too’ — Vadum, Vernuccio,
Patnaude and the Anonymous School Teacher in Hell
Just about the time my six jukebox selections finished playing, I heard the sound of a guitar tuning up. That’s when I noticed something I’d previously overlooked. There was a drum kit, amplifiers and microphones set up at the far end of the of the room, and now the band was getting ready to play.
Of course, this made perfect sense:
Hey Satan, paid my dues,
Playing in a rocking band . . .
The band was Two Tone Tobacco, a Detroit-based foursome who advertise their sound as “Rockin’ Country Roll,” and I was not particularly impressed when they opened with what Ray informed me was a cover of a Stone Temple Pilots song. (Grunge rock was never my thing.) But as the set continued, the band began to mix in some recent country hits with a few classic rock tunes, including “China Grove” by the Doobie Brothers and “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” by Bad Company, and I actually started enjoying myself.
Two Tone Tobacco rocks the house in Hell
Vinnie was happy to see my more cheerful mood. “Isn’t this perfect?” he asked. No, I replied, “perfect” would require nude dancing and a roulette table — I mean, if you go to Hell, you might as well indulge in some actual sin, right? — but I had to admit I was having a pretty good time, despite my guilty conscience over all the blogging I’d left undone.
Ron Paul Supporters in Hell
After the band finished its first set, I went outside to have a (potentially tax-deductible) cigarette, and found that some of the locals were talking politics. One tall guy with a crewcut, evidently a Romney supporter, was ripping on Ron Paul’s potential as a third-party spoiler, which prompted another guy to shout, “Hey, don’t go badmouthing my man Ron Paul.”
The Ron Paul supporter, I subsequently learned, was the manager of the Dam Site Inn, a muscular young guy named Ryan. He seemed to be giving me the evil eye. I couldn’t understand why I was being viewed so suspiciously.
I hadn’t said anything about Rick Santorum. Was I really so notorious? Was I about to experience a repeat of Thursday’s unfortunate experience, when I got the bum’s rush at Romney HQ?
Troubled by this unexpected hostility, I wandered off around the corner and checked out the vehicles in the parking lot. It was all 4-wheel-drive American-made trucks and SUVs. My rented Toyota with Maryland plates was the only import on the lot. And as I glanced up at the window, I realized another reason I stuck out like a sore thumb: I was still wearing the gray pin-striped suit and gold tie I’d worn to the AFP forum.
Not realizing I’d be kidnapped and taken to a redneck honky-tonk, I hadn’t changed clothes before leaving the hotel, so I was still wearing my city-slicker outfit. This made me unusually conspicuous in Hell. After a while, I saw a guy with a gray beard walk up dressed in an outlandish buckskin frontier costume, as if he’d just come out of a 19th-century log cabin.
He fit in. I did not.
But I shrugged off my uneasy “outsider” feeling and returned to the entrance, where Two Tone Tobacco’s lead vocalist Brett Lee Williams had joined the crowd having their smokes. I told him I enjoyed their classic-rock covers and said that, since they’d already played a Bad Company tune, maybe they could also play “All Right Now” by Free (which was vocalist Paul Rodgers’s band before he joined Bad Company). Brett said that wasn’t on their set list, and they’d probably only played it once during the year-and-a-half the band had been together, but they might consider adding it to their next set.
Dave Dion, bass guitarist of Two Tone Tobacco, sports his colors
So I went back inside and rejoined my friends. They were clearly intent on adapting to the indigenous culture, which evidently involves a Quaint Local Custom called “shot-and-a-beer.”
When in Hell, do as the hellions do — but not me, of course. I swore off liquor years ago, after an unfortunate incident with my old friend Jack Daniels and, as the designated driver, my relatively abstemious habits were necessary to our safe return. The band returned to begin their second set, and I spotted the fellow in the buckskin outfit out on the dance floor:
A bearded frontiersman dances at the Dam Site Inn
My friends continued engaging in the Quaint Local Custom. The hour neared midnight, and I began wondering if we would ever get out of Hell. But just then, I heard the band say something about playing a request, and they soon kicked into “All Right Now,” which I managed to capture on video:
Excuse the poor audio quality. It was very loud, and the microphone on my camera does not handle loudness very well. If you’ll watch the video, however, you’ll see that the song I’d requested absolutely jammed the dance floor.
By the time they reached the first chorus, at least two dozen rednecks were boogying down, and I felt compelled to join them. Showing off my super-cool dance moves, I attracted the attention of a woman with tattoos, who began dancing with me — or perhaps “dancing at me” would be a better description.
Either way, the tattooed woman was impressed by my dancing. When the song ended, I went outside to cool off in the chilly winter night air and relax with a cigarette. The tattooed woman followed me outside and started talking to me. “Where are you from?” she asked.
“Originally from Atlanta,” I said.
“Oh, I just love your accent,” she said.
My Southern accent was quite unusual to her because, you see, just like Mama always told me, Hell is full of damned Yankees.
Now it was nearly 12:30 a.m., and I went back inside to suggest to my friends that it was about time to get the Hell out of there. Honky tonk people get kind of ornery after four or five hours of drinking. Dressed up like a city slicker, I half-expected some fellow to challenge me to a fight, having made him jealous by dancing with the tattooed woman. The hipless waitress brought the bill for our refreshments and, perhaps inspired by the Quaint Local Custom, Ray made a gesture of generosity, agreeing to pick up the tab.
We all piled into the Toyota, I cranked it up and as we departed — as you might expect — I drove like a bat out of Hell.
On the long drive back to Troy, I pondered what I’d learned from our trip. Not much, really, except that Republican voters in Hell seemed evenly divided in their support between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.
Kind of predictable, I guess.
Also, I wondered what my wife would say when she discovered that I’d spent my Saturday night in a honky-tonk, even dancing with a tattooed woman. My excuse seemed obvious enough.
“But honey,” I’d say. “You’ve been telling me to go there for years . . .”
UPDATE (Smitty): Welcome, Instapundit readers!
- Feb. 25: Nuns for Santorum
- Feb. 24: Michigan: Fish Fry Friday
- Feb. 24: Fear and Loathing in Romneyland
- Feb. 23: New TV Ad Quotes Mitt Romney
- Feb. 23: Erick Erickson, Santorum Consultant?
- Feb. 23: Have the Deciders Decided? Examining the Post-Debate Examinations
- Feb. 22: CNN ARIZONA DEBATE
- Feb. 22: Satan Angered by New Poll Showing Santorum Ahead 34%-18% in Wisconsin
- Feb. 22: Romney’s Money Problems — and Mine
- Feb. 21: Memo From the National Affairs Desk: Meanwhile, Back on the Campaign Trail …
- Feb. 21: Campaign Cash Shows Unsustainable ‘Burn Rate’ for Romney and Gingrich