The email arrived this morning. The message went: “Dear Sean, nobody gives a flying [cussword] about your random, unorganized thoughts on spiritualish matters. You’re not as wise as you think you are. Go to hell.”
Well, whoever you are, thanks for the upbeat letter. You sound like someone I could be friends with. Unfortunately, as it happens, I’ve already been to Hell.
Seriously. This happened last year when I traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to make a speech at a Lutheran potluck. I had never attended a Lutheran church before, and I was a little nervous about it. But everyone told me that people in the Mitten State were so unwaveringly friendly they were often referred to as being “Michigan nice.”
When I arrived in the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, I was met by a Lutheran named—really—Prince.
Prince was a large, elderly man from Italian descent. He was built like a Whirlpool refrigerator. He spoke animatedly with his hands, and he wore more wrist-intensive jewelry than most televangelists. His mother nicknamed him “Prince” because—in his own words—he was an incurable mama’s boy.
“Hey, Sean!” Prince cried in the airport, using a booming voice. “Get the [cussword] over here!”
Prince was not your soft-spoken, shrinking-violet Lutheran. He was the kind of Italian guy who, whenever he opened his mouth, chunks of ceiling plaster fell like flurries.
He gave me a hug, slapping my back so manfully that I coughed up particles of my own bronchial matter. Before releasing me, Prince looked me in the eyes and said, “You ever been to Hell?”
This is not a question I am often asked while being embraced in an airport by a Lutheran. I was wishing I had brought pepper spray.
But then he explained that there was actually a town named “Hell,” located a few minutes from Ann Arbor. And it was Prince’s deep belief that everyone should visit this town once.
So there we were, riding in a Cadillac Seville, listening to Prince’s car radio play Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” which feels very close to being stuck in a literal hell.
It was mid-November, it had recently snowed outside.
“This is good,” said Prince, noticing the snowfall, “Hell should be freezing over about now.”
Then he looked at me, probably expecting me to burst into a fit of laughter. Instead I smiled weakly and made sure my door was unlocked.
Our first stop in Hell was a saloon, where the band was playing music loud enough to alter the weather. We ordered a few beers. I ordered three miniature hamburgers which the menu had called “backsliders.” Prince got deviled eggs.
Prince told me there were a few theories on how the town got its name.
The first theory states that one sunny, summer day, two German travelers arrived in town, stepped out of a stagecoach, and exclaimed, “So schön hell!” (which is translated as, “So beautifully bright!”) A few passersby supposedly heard these foreign words, and the name stuck.
Another theory is that when the first explorers traversed Michigan, the search party was so beset by mosquitoes, disease, impenetrable forests, and extensive wetlands, that some of the explorers were losing hope. It was such existential misery that one of the pioneers cried out in agony, “This must be Detroit!”
But after everyone realized Detroit hadn’t been discovered yet, someone said, “Never mind, we must be in Hell!”
“We like our town name,” said one of the locals in the saloon. “It brings in tourist dollars. We get tons of visitors who come to hang out here. They pose for pictures, buy T-shirts, some folks even come to Hell to get married.”
“Married?” I said.
“Oh, yeah. We got a wedding chapel.”
I asked why anyone would choose to get married in Hell. The local man told me it’s an ancient Michigan belief that if you begin your marriage in Hell there’s nowhere left to go but up.
Later, my chaperone gave me the dime tour of Perdition. And trust me, there isn’t much to see. There really isn’t anything to do in Hell, aside from tourist gimmicks.
Such as, for a fee of $100 you can become mayor of Hell for a day. Or you can mail a postcard home. (“Things are great here in Hell, Mom!”)
Another major feature in town is the plot of land locals refer to as the “Scattering Yard,” where you can leave the remains of a loved one. Or more specifically, a not-so-loved one.
Other than that, there’s nothing to see. The little hamlet consists of a few businesses, a bar, and karaoke night every Tuesday. The place is so small that you could lob a rock from one side of town to the other and injure half the population. So why visit?
“Easy,” said Prince. “You visit a place like this so that whenever someone tells you to go to hell, you can say, ‘No, thanks, already been there.’”