There aren’t too many perfect days in Sault Ste. Marie.
The second-biggest city in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, it’s almost always too cold or too gray. In winter, which seems to last an average of eight or nine months, there is too much ice on Lake Superior, too much snow on the ground. Even in summer, which seems to last an average of eight or nine days, chilly winds blow in from the water. If the wind miraculously abates, the black flies and mosquitoes will have their way with your flesh. More often than not, it’s better to be indoors.
This is why there are so many bars in “the Soo” as everyone there calls Sault Ste. Marie (population 14,000 and shrinking), 13 of them within three blocks of one another in a downtown cluster known as the BARmuda Triangle: shot-and-a-beer joints, college bars, places where the Jägermeister and cinnamon whiskey flow and snowmobile trails lead right up to the door. It’s hard to get a suntan in the Soo, but it’s easy to get a drink.
Which is what I was doing when I first encountered Randy Kluck on one of those rare perfect days a couple of years ago. The lingering late-summer sun was silhouetting giant ore freighters as they moved slowly through the Soo Locks, heading from one Great Lake to another. But Randy Kluck was inside, holding court from a corner bar stool at Moloney’s Alley Irish Pub, avoiding the evening sunlight that was poking through the windows on Portage Street. He was bearded, burly and talking to anyone who’d listen about this book he had written with his son Kevin, a 30-year-old graduate of Lake Superior State, the local institution of higher learning from which most of those Jägermeister drinkers come. Randy was doing all the talking. Kevin, slightly embarrassed, was trying not to laugh.
“Take a look at this,” Randy Kluck said, using a line he had obviously used before. “This is the most important travel guide you’ll ever read.”
He wasn’t entirely wrong. What Randy and Kevin had written — and it became clear later that Kevin had done most of the work — was “Yooper Bars,” a self-published guide to the drinking establishments of the Upper Peninsula, where everyone thinks of themselves as a Yooper (U.P.ers, get it?) and everyone who lives beneath the Mackinac Bridge, in that mitten part of Michigan, is referred to, affectionately, as a Troll.
There are, for reasons previously mentioned, a lot of bars in the Upper Peninsula, hundreds of them, some of them little more than fishing shacks with whiskey and whitefish for sale, many of them making almost as much money from Friday fish fries as they do from pouring shots. Randy and Kevin, somewhat ambitiously, decided to visit them all.
They didn’t quite make it, but they came awfully close.
It took them the better part of a year to go from the easternmost bar in the U.P. (Chuck’s Place on Drummond Island) to the westernmost (the Midway Bar in Ironwood), 364 miles away. Not that they drove a straight line. They crisscrossed the U.P., up and down, back and forth, sometimes driving 400 miles in a day, hitting seven or eight bars and having at least one drink in each and every one. (“I probably put on 30 pounds,” Randy said.) They went from Grand Marais to Escanaba, Copper City to Iron Mountain, Houghton to Ishpeming, Marquette to Menominee.
“Conservatively,” Kevin Kluck would tell me later, when Randy wasn’t around, “I’d say we drove about 47,000 miles that year. There were days we’d leave the Soo at noon and not get back home until dawn.”
Randy, who had been a salesman all his life, told me that day how, secretly, he had always dreamed of being a writer.
“I wanted to be Ernest Hemingway,” he told me. “This might be as close as I get.”
Randy and Kevin, father and son, the salesman and the college graduate with no visible job prospects, persuaded the owners of 109 bars to pay a small fee (“Don’t think of it as a bribe,” Randy told me, “think of it as an ad.”) to appear in the book, which is sold on Amazon. Every bar got two glossy pages, photos of their patrons laughing and drinking in front of walls adorned with hockey sticks, fishing lures, nautical paraphernalia and assorted antlers.
The book lists the house drink for every bar. These include the Methadone (blue raspberry vodka, triple sec and white grape juice) at Zim’s Bar in the Soo; the Bergland Blaster (Crown Royal, energy drink and “just a drop” of peach schnapps) at the Bergland Bay Bar in Bergland; and Busch Light at Tovey’s Jolly Inn in Germfask.
Each bar got to list celebrities who had visited (Tim Allen and Sparky Anderson were mentioned a lot), their customers’ best jokes (from the Merchant’s Bar in the Soo: “Q: What’s the difference between a Canadian and a canoe? A: Canadians don’t tip.”), and assorted fun facts, many of which Randy made up. This is why the Hard Rock Bar in Negaunee is listed as having “the largest documented urinal in the U.P.” and happy hour at the Downtowner Tavern in Sault Ste. Marie is listed as “every day from 3 p.m. to 2 p.m.” These are lies.
But most of what’s in the book is true. Jack’s Tee Pee Bar in Ishpeming really is where the opening scene of “Anatomy of a Murder” was filmed. And if you are looking for where Jeff Daniels filmed “Escanaba in Da Moonlight,” that would be the Swallow Inn in Rapid River.
The Gay Bar in Gay, Mich., is a typical small-town watering hole in every way except that the name of the town is Gay, and it really has become a tongue-in-cheek tourist destination for gay, bisexual and transgender couples, who buy souvenirs and stand in front of the hand-painted sign. The Pine Stump Cook Shack and Drinkery outside Newberry really is the site of an old pine stump from the 1840s, where lumberjacks used to pick up their mail. And the Hoop n’ Holler Tavern in Merriweather really does have a sign proclaiming itself as home of the “Farthest West Barstool In The U.S. Eastern Time Zone.”
You can tell, just thumbing through the book, what a blast they had, Randy and Kevin, the father telling tales and drinking whiskey, the son taking pictures and writing down names, trying to get things right. They went together to the Trout Lake Tavern and Red’z Wolf Inn, Cattails Cove and the Wooden Nickel, Shute’s Saloon and the Thirsty Whale. They drank too much and ate too much and drove too far through the forests late at night. They’d never spent so much time together. They’d never had so much fun.
I decided last year that I’d ask them whether they might want to recreate the trip, part of it anyway, for a story; this story. Not the whole trip, of course, not 109 bars. Maybe just a long weekend’s worth, a few hundred miles, a sampling of bars they had liked the most. I’d meet them in the Soo, at Moloney’s, and we’d take off from there.
“That’s a great idea,” Kevin told me when I finally got him on the phone. “But — this is hard for me to say — Randy passed away. Last summer.”
Randy Kluck died in Saginaw in June 2013, a year after I’d met him, two years after he and Kevin had finished “Yooper Bars.” By then he was divorced, his children grown, his great novel left unwritten. He was 59 years old.
Kevin, now 33, had moved downstate to Muskegon. He’d gotten married and was still looking for a steady job. He had not been back to the U.P. since his father died. His voice was still shaky when he talked about Randy’s death (and Randy is what he called him), the loss still real and raw. Which is why his next proposal caught me by surprise.
“We should do it,“ Kevin said. “We should take a couple of days and hit as many of those bars as we can. You and me. Randy would love the idea.”
So that’s what we did, early last fall. Kevin and I met up at Moloney’s, where it turns out he used to be a cook, and we hit the BARmuda Triangle: the Merchant’s, the Alpha, the Satisfied Frog. We would have hit the Wicked Sister (with its special burger, the Drunken Cow) but it was closed for remodeling.
We took the ferry to Drummond Island, sat on the barstool, as far east as we could sit. There was a copy of “Yooper Bars” by the cash register and, taped above, a dollar bill on which someone had written “86 of 109.” Someone trying to drink at every bar in the book had left it, a marker of his progress.
We stopped into the DeTour Village Inn, just down the block from the Drummond Island Ferry dock, where the owner, Tim Grisdale, is followed everywhere by Betty, his overweight Labrador. He greeted Kevin like a long-lost son. Mr. Grisdale used to pitch in the minor leagues, where his catcher was Jim Leyland, a future manager of the Detroit Tigers.
“He’s been in here a few times,” Mr. Grisdale told us, clearly happy for the company. “He used to tell me, ‘You couldn’t throw a party!” and I’d say, “Well, you couldn’t catch a cold.”
We drove from town to town, bar to bar, alternating who would drink and who would drive. Bartenders hugged Kevin as soon as he walked in. None of them knew that Randy had died. All of them went silent when they heard.
“Randy would come into those bars and everyone would light up,” Kevin would say later, on a long late-night drive back to the Soo. “I didn’t want to tell them he was dead. I was too sad to tell anyone.”
The ugly truth was that Randy Kluck, who drank too much in too many places for too many years, died from cancer but also from liver disease. The doctors told Kevin and the rest of the family that Randy had been sick for a very long time. Maybe he knew. Maybe he didn’t.
It’s hard not to wonder if Randy, who had spent too many years away from home, an unreliable husband and father for most of his family’s life, knew he was dying before he took off with his son for that yearlong final ride. The book, initially, was Kevin’s idea. But Randy was the one who kept it going, who wouldn’t let him stop.
I think Randy knew. I think all those tall-tale nights in those middle-of-nowhere bars, those fish fries and bad jokes and small-town bacchanals were his final gift to his son.
“I think it had meaning for both of us beyond the book,” Kevin said, back at Moloney’s, just us at the bar, after everyone else had gone. “It was always about having the experience with him as much as it was about the book.”
Kevin teared up. Not a lot. But enough.
“I remember one night, after the work was done, we just sat there,” he said. “He poured a glass of wine and he said he was proud of me. I was proud of us both. And I felt good about what we did. All those people that own those bars, that’s their passion, that’s their life’s work. And we told their story. There was a lot of pride in that.”
It was after midnight in Sault Ste. Marie, the sun due back in just a few hours, the wind still blowing outside. Maybe it wasn’t a perfect day. But it had come awfully close.
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