From Saginaw to Duluth and back: 1,200 plus miles for college football

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When I told my friends and family that I would be traveling eleven hours across three states to cover a Division II football game for a student newspaper this weekend, I got my share of raised-eyebrow responses.

My favorite was from a co-worker of mine who, after hearing my plans to drive to the game, simply looked at me incredulously and said, “Oh, wow. Do you have to do that?”

Well … not exactly.

But after I just wrote an article two weeks ago gushing about how much I’ve enjoyed my time covering the team this year, I found it hard to pass up on the opportunity.

And it IS an opportunity. The last time SVSU made the playoffs was in 2009, when my Vanguard mentor was covering the team. The location? Nebraska. Not exactly within driving distance.

The playoff run before that featured games against relatively local teams (Northwood and Grand Valley), but that was six years ago. Covering a NCAA playoff game might be a once-in-every-six-years opportunity for the Vanguard, but it could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me.

So with this in mind, I reserved a place in the UMD press box, created a live blog and set off with my fellow Vanguardian on a 600-mile road trip to Duluth, Minn.

The fastest way to Duluth (according to my iPhone, which has yet to lead me astray) was north to the Mackinaw Bridge and west across the Upper Peninsula and the tip of Wisconsin.

The trip from Saginaw to Mackinaw City is one that I’ve made often, and featured nothing that I haven’t seen before. The Upper Peninsula, however, was another story.

I was warned to be wary of deer, and we had our first encounter just outside of Newberry when a massive white tail decided to test its luck by leaping in front of our car. But oddly (and fortunately) enough, that was only one of two close encounters we had on the trip (the second one came when one nearly ran into us from the side of the road outside of Marquette).

A few other notable observations about this stretch of the trip:

– The Upper Peninsula has some awesome restaurant names. Among our favorites were “Hoppy’s,” “Poorboy,” “Stump’s Tavern,” the “Beef-a-Roo” chain and the aptly named, “EAT.” We also got our first exposure to the versatile “bar/gas station” combination – an interesting connection, to be sure.

– This place is kind of a dead zone. I was without cell service from Newberry to Wisconsin, and the radio stations were so bad that we had to stop at a Wal-Mart to pick up a couple of CDs for the rest of the drive.

– Rumble strips, bonfire smell, and hunters. Lots and lots of hunters.

After leaving Saginaw around noon, we arrived in Minnesota at 10 p.m. – not bad time, and the one-hour time change along the way didn’t hurt.

I was blown away by Duluth. The city was beautiful, the food was great, and our hostess, a close friend of my traveling companion and a graduate student at Minnesota-Duluth, was friendly and hospitable.

And as a huge Bob Dylan fan, the historical aspect of the city was definitely not lost on me.

What can I say about the game itself? Despite the loss, it was a fantastic experience for me. I got to sit in a playoff press box (a really, really nice press box), watch a thrilling game, run my first live blog (10 followers? It’s a start) and participate in big-time college football press conference. As a result, I was the first member of the area press to break the news live and the only one to provide a comprehensive account of the game, which is always a goal of mine.

After dinner in Duluth, we were on the road again. The drive back was a lot less pleasant, and for a lot of reasons. For starters, driving all night is no fun. We left Duluth around 7 p.m. and pulled up to my house around 8 a.m. Secondly, we timed our trip perfectly to coincide with a traveling snowstorm – one that followed us from the Wisconsin/Minnesota border all the way to the Mackinaw Bridge.

But with a lot of coffee and the kindness of strangers (I’m thinking of you, gas station attendant who let us use the employee restroom instead of the outdoor outhouse in a freezing snowstorm), we made it back safely.

And though I’m sad that the season’s over and more than a little bit sleep-deprived, I chose to forgo a couple of much-needed recovery hours to write this column for my sparse, but hopefully existent, followers.

Because I had to? Well … not exactly.