I hope I deserve a quilt. My awesome tour guide in Kalamazoo definitely does.
Sunday, July 30
My hosts, Dan and Kelly, were going to a Baptist church which was not their regular church. Dan’s nephew’s son was getting dedicated at the service. I attended as well, making it the 6th church of the trip (I think). I got to meet a few more members of Dan’s family, though briefly.
After church, I was eager to have Dan show give me a tour of their farming operation. It requires many different members of the family in many different capacities, as they farm around 800 acres. Their most lucrative crops are cabbage and peppers. I know nothing about these crops so I had a lot of questions.
I really enjoyed getting to see the whole operation. I also learned that you can just buy a box of bees and they will ship them to you via UPS. How did I not know about this in my prank pulling days?
This was mostly a “work day” for me, digitally speaking. Out on the road, it takes a tremendous effort just to stay (relatively) up to date on the blog. Having a stop like this allows me to do some planning for the road ahead as well as order things I need for my next pass through Nebraska.
I was eager to get to know my hosts better, so I felt a little bad having my nose buried into my laptop screen. Kelly reiterated multiple times that I should just do my own thing, that they just wanted to help any way they could. We did have some wonderful chats over tasty food, which I cherish.
Monday, July 31
Annie got a little attention in the form of an oil change. I was probably a couple of thousand miles late, but the oil still looked good coming out. My friend, Kyle, had brought me a new filter from my garage when we met up in Minnesota. I wheeled Annie down to Dan and Kelly’s “pole barn” and got to work. (Is this a common term? In Nebraska we would probably say “machine shed”.)
This was a great place to do an oil change. Not only did I have access to a real-life filter wrench (no need to use a C-clamp!) but my used oil would not go to waste. Their shop/office/distribution center has a waste oil heater. My well traveled oil would get its proper Viking funeral.
It went pretty smoothly. I only got scalding hot oil on me for a little bit. 🙂
That evening was the Coast Guard Festival in Grand Haven, a town right on Lake Michigan. The beaches at Grand Haven are some of the most incredible non-ocean beaches I have ever seen. I had been there a few years earlier and was almost stunned. Soft, light sand that stretches for miles. This trip has yet to enter its tropical chapter, so I was eager to get some sand between my toes.
We went down to where the Coast Guard boats were docked and took a tour of the USCGC Mackinaw. I enjoyed seeing the vessel. I can’t begin to imagine all of the logistics associated with its design and daily operation.
When we returned home, I was given a present. Dan’s mother is a master quilter and she had decided to give me one, choosing one that was brown on the bottom so that it would not show blemishes as much.
Now let me say this: I’ve had a pretty strict policy of not acquiring things as I go. My storage constraints have very little margin for expansion. I believe that the most massive thing I have added to my collection is a t-shirt commemorating the Trout Lake (Washington) Fair. Dan and Kelly, knowing my dilemma, offered to ship the quilt back to Nebraska for me.
Now let me say this too: I may be a road worn wanderer, who is gradually having his humanity stripped away by the rigors of his expeditions. The bright-eyed optimist who began this trip is now a hateful, spiteful shell of a man; slithering through each day with hardly a shred of decency (seriously, skinny-dipping?). My formerly fair-skinned countenance now has all the youthful glow of an old catcher’s mitt.
But I am still a human. I still have a set of rules I live by.
Rule #16: When someone gives you a quilt, you take the quilt!
I found a way to roll it within my sleeping pad so it doesn’t take much space. Besides, I think it could be an effective security device. Would you mess with a guy on a motorcycle? Maybe. Would you mess with a guy on a motorcycle who has a quilt? Heck no! Just look how intimidating I am:
These people were such amazing hosts. They had no duty to treat me so well. Our family connection is quite distant. I felt as welcomed as if I were their own son.
Tuesday, August 1
A couple of goals for the day: Check off Kalamazoo (Verse 4 Line 5) and get set up to take on Chicago (Verse 1 Line 1).
It was tough to say goodbye to Dan and Kelly. They had been so unreasonably gracious during my time with them. Before I left, I realized I had neglected to cross off Cadillac, MI. Dan and Kelly accepted the honor:
I actually had a specific destination in mind as I headed towards Kalamazoo. This city is home to Heritage Guitar Company. The company was founded in 1984 after Gibson Guitars decided to move their plant out of Kalamazoo. Many (now former) employees of Gibson decided that they would not be shut down so easily and formed their own company. Upon reading their story, I was immediately intrigued.
They do tours of their facility a couple of days a week, but I was arriving on an off day. I figured it was worth emailing them to tell them what I was doing and ask about seeing the place. I received a response almost immediately, inviting me to come in for my own private tour once I arrived in Kalamazoo. How neat!
I parked outside of their industrial-looking facility and walked in. I was greeted warmly and introduced to my tour guide. I thought I would have some entry level employee or intern show me around, but that was not the case. My guide, Ren Wall, was no newbie.
Early in my tour I learned that he was a founding member of Heritage. Throughout the day, I learned more and more about his history and become more and more impressed.
We walked along the shop floor, observing the process of the guitars being made. It was a true symphony of sights and smells. Naturally, I had a multitude of questions. Ren answered them both thoroughly and expertly. We stopped at some of the work stations, meeting the laboring luthiers. I enjoyed seeing the instruments evolve as we walked along, from lifeless planks and spools of wire to finely polished works of art.
I quite like this quote from their website:
He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.
-Francis of Assisi
During the Gibson days, Ren was often the last man on the line. After the instruments had been built, painted, tuned and inspected; they came to Ren for final approval. At the peak of their operation, they were shipping out around 500 instruments a day. Ren had his hands on nearly all of them.
He made the comment that when The Beatles were popular “you could put strings on a 2 by 4 and it would sell.” I mentioned that the first electric guitar, designed by Les Paul, was essentially the same design (though a 4×4 instead of a 2×4). Ren said that he had known Les Paul, which kind of blew me away (I was able to resist shrieking like a teenage girl, but just barely). Les Paul is an idol of mine, mostly for his pioneering work in multi-track recording (recording over oneself multiple times). Do you have two minutes to spare for some awesomeness?
I asked Ren about his musical career and he was pretty modest. He said that he had played on some local TV and radio shows, but didn’t elaborate too much. He definitely didn’t toot his own horn (or maybe you say “pluck his own strings” when talking about a guitarist 🙂 )
Here is a really neat video about Ren. Definitely worth your time:
Near the entrance they had a wall with all of their guitar models, ready to be played. I hadn’t held a six string in my hands in a couple months, but I still played around a bit. I picked a single-pickup, hollow body; a simple, efficient design. (just like Annie)
I still wanted a good picture to commemorate the occasion, so I asked if I could take the instrument outside and get a picture with Annie. I was thankful to have my tripod so I could get Ren in front of the camera rather than behind. (pictured at top of article)
Shortly after this one of the owners of Heritage Guitar, Jim Deurlo happened to walk up. He agreed to take part in our photoshoot, as well as receive the honor of crossing off Kalamazoo from my sign.
I really enjoyed talking to these guys. They have truly seen it all. I cannot imagine the pain and uncertainty that accompanied the transition when Gibson decided to move out of town. The story of Heritage Guitars is one of perseverance and tenacity. Attributes that both of these men possess in spades. There are no quitters here. Heritage recently had a new investor come on board, so their future is looking bright. My next electric guitar will surely be hand made in Kalamazoo.
I didn’t feel quite like I was quite done with Kalamazoo yet, so I decided to swing by their museum (which was free!). The people working the desk were very helpful and suggested some other Kalamazoo stops for me.
As I learned more about the city, a constant theme kept arising: Rebirth. Kalamazoo has gone through so many different eras and industries. It has been known as the windmill city, the celery city, the paper city, the debt-free city, the mall city….the list goes on and on. This diversity of industry and specialty speaks to the no-quit attitude of Kalamazoo’s inhabitants.
They had a music exhibit, which highlighted the city’s instrument making history. There was a nice feature about Ren Wall’s father, Rem. (It’s OK, I’m confused too)
They had a little display about all of the songs and books that had featured Kalamazoo’s distinctive name. Sadly, there was no mention of “I’ve Been Everywhere.” 😦 From Horton Hears a Who:
There was still a picture I was missing: One of the beautiful town sign.
It was at a tough intersection, so a selfie was the only option. I’ve tried to keep those to a minimum thus far.
I made a final stop at Bell’s Brewery and ordered a Kalamazoo Stout. It was the perfect way to end my experience here.
As I reflect on this place, the image that comes to mind is of a forest. A forest is teeming with life, but it is also scattered with things that have passed away. Just driving around this city, one can see new industry and innovation sprouting up as well as old enterprises which have been shuttered for decades. I believe this constant churn of commerce has made the people of Kalamazoo more resolute, creative and flexible. There are no quitters to be found here.
Somebody knit these people a quilt!