Notes from Hell

Hell is not fiery.  It is not divided into nine levels of concentric circles. Its inhabitants don’t appear especially sinister.  Hell is not a place for punishment, and it is neither desolate nor sprawling. Its weather, most often, is temperate.  As far as popular culture is concerned, it has gotten a bad rap.

Hell, in reality, lies roughly four miles southwest of Pinckney, Michigan.  Coincidentally, Hell also exists in California, Western Norway, and on an island in the Grand Caymans.  But my own version of Hell is positioned at the intersection of Washtenaw and Jackson Counties, the strip of Southeast Michigan that never sleeps.  It has three businesses — the Hell Hole Bar, the Hell Saloon, and Go to Hell, a mecca of Hell memorabilia — and makes its home on a 100 meter, leftward descending curve of scenic highway.  Hell is surrounded by a channel of small inland lakes, around which, in the summer, one can kayak, hike, and catch a tan in the Michigan sun. There is a miniature golf course. Behind the three establishments that make up Hell is a small field, and, in the glaring sunlight, one can barely make out The Gates of Hell, a 7-foot-tall piece of metalworking that serves as the unincorporated town’s de facto symbol.

I came to Hell on a sunny Friday in mid-March, seeking some respite from the doldrums of academia and a taxing winter semester.  The night before, I had been locked in a too-bright, white-brick-walled room at the University of Michigan’s engineering school, agonizing over an art history essay.  My attendance in the course had been, to put it charitably, sparse. Having exhausted my capacity for cogence or nuance, I eventually just hit submit and went to bed. I now needed a place wholly free of pretension, a place with no wifi or phone service, and a place where I could get a basket of bottomless fried perch and a pint of light beer for seven dollars and fifty cents.  In short, I needed Hell.

The next day, I made a cup of coffee for the road and hopped in my 1999 Volkswagen Jetta to begin what I anticipated would be an easy drive, free of the traffic and pedestrian anxieties too-often present in my own college town. I briefly wondered how people would dress and if I should try not to stand out, but ultimately decided that there are probably worse places to be judged than in Hell; nevertheless, I left my NPR tote at home.  Google Maps billed it as a 31 minute drive from downtown Ann Arbor, but the road to Hell, it turns out, is not always so easy to follow. Fifteen minutes in, I hit an inexplicable roundabout off the highway, at which point I took a wrong exit and ended up on an ominous dirt road for ten minutes. Pensively looking around as my car squeaked along the bumpy trail, my initial excitement turned to fright and finally to boredom as I realized that Hell might just be another relatively nondescript town in mid-Michigan with a funny name. Were my romantic ideas of Hell merely delusions of grandeur?

Michigan itself is no stranger to peculiar nomenclature for its cities, metropolises, towns, villages, hamlets, and so on.  There’s Bad Axe, the oft-referenced Kalamazoo; then we move to Alone, followed by Friend; next, a personal favorite, Ponshewaing; and, finally, Gay.  The Wikipedia entry for ‘Unusual place names’ features 18 Michigan locales. But Hell, it seems, has truly separated itself from the crowd. The aforementioned Hells — that is, in Norway, in Southern California, and on Grand Cayman — do not appear to embrace, monetize, or carry an online presence that plays on the name quite like their counterpart in the mitten state.  

The closer I got to Hell, the more it dawned on me that I was, after all, still in rural Michigan.  Homes and buildings became fewer and farther between, and the only semblances of humanity routinely came in the forms of gas stations and beef jerky stores.  I tried to find beauty in the unremarkable, but kept returning to the reality of how I would actually fill a day in Hell — I, for whatever reason, envisioned Hell as a small-but-bustling town, thriving off an economy based upon kitsch, memes, and flash photography.  Finally, the voice on my phone told me to stay left at a fork and then my destination would be on the right. After winding down a two lane road into a miniature valley populated on only one side, a still river on the other, I appeared to have arrived. Hell: population 225.

Not knowing exactly where to park and still partially baffled that the town was comprised of just three buildings, I pulled into the lot behind the Hell Saloon and continued to sit in the driver’s seat as two men behind the restaurant chatted over a cigarette.   I stepped outside into the light of Hell and didn’t know what, exactly, to do. I meandered out of the loose gravel parking lot and carefully waddled across a strip of highway bridge to a field behind the gift shop. This was the Hell I’d seen pictures of: gates, head cutouts for photo-ops as the devil, and sheds painted in bright red.  Hell has geofilters on both Instagram and Snapchat, and, as people drive by in shining compact cars, they slow down and admire the signs welcoming visitors. Yet, on this fine Friday, I was the only one there.

After a few minutes in the sun, having fully taken in the outdoor attractions of Hell, putt-putt golf course and all, I was feeling a little lost.  I needed some context and, thankfully, in a moment of disillusionment, a kind, muffled voice called to me from the inside of Go To Hell, Hell’s top rated gift shop, wedding chapel, and ice cream parlor.  

I opened the flimsy door and was greeted by a bright-eyed woman in her mid-fifties named Tristan.  She wore devil ears, a green T-shirt, pink highlights in her shoulder length, blonde hair, and an expression of permanent excitement. Tristan manned the shop alongside a girl stationed behind the ice cream counter, Ally, who also happens to be Go To Hell’s longest serving employee (10 months).  The store itself, situated equidistant between the Hell Saloon and the Hell Hole Bar, is triumphant in both scope and consistency. At this point, I trust readers have tried their hand at making Hell puns; I assure you that Go To Hell has left no stone unturned in this endeavor. The memorabilia ranges from the benign and playful (I made it to Hell, Michigan and back) to the impolite (The beer in Hell is safer than the water in Flint).  Somewhat overwhelmed by the souvenir options, I finally decided to buy a 12 by 15 inch poster depicting a whimsically drawn skull that appeared to have been influenced by both pop art and various biker gangs, the words “Hell”, “Love”, “Peace”, and “Happy Land” strewn across.  Now a full-fledged participant in the Hell economy, I felt comfortable getting the real lowdown on Hell from Tristan.

“Well, there are a few stories on the name. But I’ll give you the real one.”

I had done my preliminary research and preëmpted the first two tellings of the tale of how Hell came to be.  The first goes as such: two German travelers stopped to rest and, upon peering out of their buggy, declared the place “schön hell!”, translating to “beautifully bright!”.  The second, a more pessimistic (albeit more likely) understanding, posits that the town’s first visitors encountered “hell-like conditions” — mosquitoes, wetlands, etc.  Tristan, however, offers a third, most-believable alternative.

“Back in the 1920’s, the men would come down here [by the river] to gamble, drink, and waste away.  It got to the point where, when wives would ask one another where their husbands had gone, they took to saying ‘he’s down in Hell’”.  

With this history lesson under my belt, I was keen to learn more.  While I can’t speak for the greater Hell population, Tristan was happy to crack wise on the name of her home.  When asked about the summer weather: “Hot as Hell”; a Friday night at either of the bars is “Fun as Hell”, and so on.  And Hell is, for her at least, “a little slice of heaven on Earth”.

“I came to Hell to just get away from it all”, she tells me while filing away some Hell shot glasses.  The neighbors are friendly — no one locks their doors in Hell —, the summers lovely, and she gets to meet people from all over the country and world.  “Last week we had a couple from Australia. I’ve met people from Korea, too. You’d be surprised, people really seek Hell out!”, I am assured.

And why not? It turns out that it would be easy to content oneself here.  For $100 you can be the Mayor of Hell for a day, complete with a certificate, some of Hell’s finest dirt, and the opportunity to work on controversial local legislation (just last year, a mayor-for-the-day outlawed heterosexuality in Hell).  Maybe I was being sweet-talked, but Hell was starting to seem pretty great.

Next comes the matter of Hell’s patron saint.  Indeed, Hell was not always a sight to be seen.  Prior to the 1980’s, it was just another strip of highway in Michigan.  This all changed when an enterprising Vietnam veteran and car dealership owner, John Colone, bought up the land in Hell and opened the gift shop.  He also owns the buildings on either side of Go To Hell. Colone himself has a story that fits the bill for Hell’s unofficial mayor and overseer: in 1968, his platoon was ambushed outside Phan Thiet. Mr, Colone, severely wounded, was eventually declared dead, only to come back to life.  That is correct, Colone has been to Hell and back.  More on that later.   So, naturally, when the opportunity presented itself to develop Hell, Michigan into a bonafide tourist destination, John Colone, having prospered as a car salesman, made it happen.  And Hell, under his watchful eye, has also prospered.

Weekend nights at either of the bars are always happening, and, in the summer, bikers descend upon Hell from far and wide (Tristan says they get a real kick out of the whole Hell schtick).  Each September Hell plays host to Hearse Fest, the biggest parade of hearses in the continental United States. I’m told that on Hearse Fest day you have to park a mile away just to get into town.  The festival, too, does not shy away from word play (its official website proudly and prominently displays the phrase ‘Just Hearse’n Around’). Go To Hell serves as the town’s locus of activity and can accommodate all the wide-ranging interests that bring people to Hell   A beige statue of Mr. Colone, from the shoulders up, rests above a rack of T-shirts in the back of the store.

Hell clearly does not joke around when it comes to making its visitors feel at home.  This was apparent after spending an hour with Tristan and Ally at Go To Hell. But now I needed to experience a late lunch in Hell.  Would they favor small plates or traditional American bar fare in Hell? I consulted my local guides for their recommendation. The two watering holes, the Hell Hole and the Hell Saloon, both featured no-frills tavern food, but I was informed that they “make their own burger buns at the Hell Hole”, which is always a good sign.  Google reviews agreed (John M: When your [sic] in Hell and need a bite this is the place).  I bid adieu to Tristan and walked 50 yards east to the Hell Hole.  

The Hell Hole is a classic, man’s man type of joint, serve-yourself fridge of beer on the back wall and all. Happy hour in Hell begins at 3 PM, and it’s a Friday, which can only mean one thing: all you can eat fried fish. I had come to Hell on the right day.  The place nearly empty, I walked around and checked out the giant refrigerator in the back, over which hangs the adage, “Come to Heaven for the climate and Hell for the company” in light blue chalk. They’ve got 40’s, tallboys, Corona by the bottle, and a lot of other beers in Hell.  I sit at the bar, though, and order a draft Bud Light, which is then dutifully poured by my pleasant, patient waitress. After a few minutes at the bar, a steady stream of folks, from an old couple to groups of workers fresh from landscaping sites, begin to stroll in. The menu is both extensive and cheap, but I end up being convinced to get the fish.

Sat three stools down from me is a man with a bluetooth attachment on his left ear named Bill.   He’s in for a couple of dark beers to celebrate the end of the week. Bill lives near Pinckney and stops in at the Hell Hole often.

“Nice choice”, he tells me with a laugh.

Bill and I get to talking, and he asks what I’m doing in Hell.  After simply saying that I always wanted to check it out and hailed from nearby Ann Arbor, he gives me another quick history lesson on Hell.  It used to be nothing but a curve where the local boys would race their cars and sit by the river on summer nights, drinking and listening to rock music. Years later, Colone built the place into what it is today.  Bill goes a step further in recounting John Colone’s saga.

“Oh, he was dead.  I heard he was in a body bag until a nurse did the glasses test — took a pair of specs and put them over his mouth to check for condensation. Sure enough, he was alive. Crazy stuff. There was a CBS special about him last year”.

As we continue to talk, Bill asks what I study and how I like Ann Arbor.  The place isn’t for him. I try to find common ground (it’s crowded, it’s expensive, too stylish), but he cuts me off.

“It’s liberal.”

As far as I’m concerned, politics have no place in Hell, so we got back to nonpartisan Hell-speak. Rural resentment or not, I understand the residents of greater Hell to be kind to outsiders, regardless of who they voted for.

I squared up at a shockingly low price and took one more lap around the restaurant, shaking Bill’s hand on my way out.  Back outside, the sun still shone as I sat on a picnic table by the river.

Walking back to my car, I felt surprisingly happy.  It’s a strange thing; I had just spent a solitary day in an unincorporated village in the middle of Southern Michigan, talking to strangers. Shouldn’t this reality be accompanied by a sense of depression, unimportance, or general unease? Not today.

Hell is self aware.  It has a remarkable way of dealing with darkness and monotony.  Most importantly, Hell knows not to take itself too seriously. I think I’ll return when Hell freezes over, which should take place right around late November.