Why Ann Arbor:
My youngest cousin Melissa is senior at the University of Michigan, making this the last year I can visit her in school. For big sports schools, the best time to visit is typically on a football game day and Michigan´s stadium is the 3rd largest on earth (trailing only North Korea´s national stadium and a cricket stadium in Gujarat). Football crowds regularly hit 110,000. I found an amenable weekend in mid-September and booked the flight. The trip was a steal: the roundtrip from LAX to Detroit was only $130 on Sprit.
September 15, 2023: Downtown Ann Arbor
Once in at DTW, I picked up my rental car and drove west along Interstate 94. My first stop was at my Airbnb in Ypsilanti to check in and drop off my things. I then headed into downtown Ann Arbor.
Ann Arbor is the 5th largest city in Michigan with a population of 128,000. It is world famous for being the location of the University of Michigan, which has 50,000 students and employs 1/4 of the town. While the University dominates the ethos of the town, there is more than just the school.
Downtown Ann Arbor, located a few blocks west of the school, and is a mix of student and non-student-oriented businesses. There are many upscale restaurants generally out of the price range for students, mid-range clothing stores and a weird number of carpet shops (perhaps to cater to Michigan´s large Muslim population?). The action was centered around Main Street, which was pedestrian-only for the night.
Every restaurant was packed with the crowd heavily skewed towards parents coming in for the game and treating their child/their child´s friends. After failing to get into a couple restaurants, I settled on a burger shop called Krazy Jim´s Blimpy Burger. The place has been open since the 60´s and has been featured on many TV shows. It is best known for its mean staff.
While waiting in line, I was confronted by a hand-drawn board detailing the specific questions I would be asked as well as warnings to only answer the questions asked. At the bottom, it says “thank you for being here and participating in the process”.
At the front of the line, the line-order cook asked me in rapid fire: “how many patties, what kind of bun, any grilled items”. I answered all the questions correctly, but if you don´t answer them in the exact way they want, you will get yelled at (this happened to 75% of people). The burger ended up being pretty good!
After dinner, I met up with my college friend Ashley, who is a PHD student here. She was with her brother, his girlfriend and a PHD colleague. We got ice cream and then headed to a bar. Despite being a college town, the crowd in this bar did not look like college students, but rather people in their mid-20´s and up (maybe other grad students?). This is because the bars in downtown generally are strict on fake IDs.
Ashley and crew headed home, but I stopped for a nightcap at Billy´s Beer Garden, a seasonal outdoors bar that Ashley called “perfection”. I then drove back to my Airbnb to rest up for the big day tomorrow.
September 16, 2023: Go Blue
Today is the day for the Michigan Wolverines to play the Bowling Green Falcons. While most games in Ann Arbor start at noon, this one started at 19:30, giving me the entire day to explore Ann Arbor before starting the pregame festivities.
I started my day driving into Ann Arbor and parking in a residential neighborhood a 25-minute walk east of the stadium. Not only did I not have to pay for parking, but I would be able to dodge most of the post-game traffic.
My first stop for the day was the Arboretum, a large nature reserve full of rare trees the University wants to preserve. While nothing special, this appears to be the only wild space within walking distance of the university, so I am sure this place is heavily frequented by the community. The Arboretum includes frontage on the Huron River.
Walking past the hospital and many co-ops, I reached Ann Arbor´s most iconic restaurant: Zingerman´s Deli. This was the most recommended place on my Instagram poll. Founded in 1982, the Jewish deli has since expanded into 9 restaurants in Ann Arbor and employs more than 500 people. While the original deli remains the flagship of the brand, they also have their own bakeshop, a creamery, coffee shop, a sit-down restaurant and more. Without a doubt, Zingerman´s rules Ann Arbor.
I arrived at the deli at 11:10, just 10 minutes after they opened and already there was a 30-40-minute wait for a sandwich. After waiting in line to order at the electronic kiosk, I perused their shop which had an incredible selection of meats, cheeses, vinegars and more! They even had the rare torta de casar cheese from Extremadura, Spain!
Eventually, I was able to pick up my Reuben sandwich and it was fantastic! I understand the hype surrounding this place.
By this time, my cousin Melissa had woken up and we met up so she could show me around the school. Like most big state schools, the school blends into the town – it is hard to tell where one ends and one begins. We met up on State Street, which like Main Street is full of businesses, but everything here caters to the students: cheaper restaurants, school merchandise, drug stores, etc.
Melissa then showed me around the campus. Some of the landmarks included the Law school (known as the Law Quad) and its stunning library. The Law Quad also has a chapel that looks nearly identical to the chapel at my alma mater Wash U in St. Louis.
The business school with its modern Miami Dolphin-colored buildings stands in stark contrast to the rest of the school.
We also went into the Union where Melissa showed me her favorite study spots.
Finally, Melissa showed me her sorority house and the nearby apartment where she lives with 23 other girls from her sorority. At this point, Melissa needed some time to get ready for the game and told me to come back in 2 hours.
With the free time, I explored the university´s archaeology and art museums, both superb and drank a sangria at a much-recommended bar called Dominic´s.
At 15:00, I met up with Melissa and her housemates for the pregame in their frontyard. While we did not partake, I learned about a borg, the Gen-Z drinking trend. borg stands for Blackout Rage Gallon. To create one, you take an empty plastic gallon water jug and fill it half with vodka and half with water with powdered Kool Aid, Pedialyte or another drink mix for flavor. Basically a personal jungle juice. Everybody has their own personal borg and each borg is given a name with a sharpie. The name must include “borg” somewhere in the name and is usually a pun. Since everybody has their own borg, there is less risk of getting your drink spiked and you won´t ever have to share a drink with anybody and spread germs. But at the same time, a personal half-gallon of vodka is insane!
At 16:00, we headed out for the frats. The frat parties didn´t give out drinks, but had music, dancing, and shenanigans on their patios. We visited two. The second one had a moon bounce that collapsed mid-song!
At 18:30, I headed to the stadium. While the cell network was overwhelmed, I was able to find my way by following the masses.
Michigan Stadium, known colloquially as The Big House was buzzing and mostly full when I entered 30 minutes before gametime.
After taking my seats, the 235-person band entered for their pregame performance. Michigan´s iconic fight song is “The Victors”. Unfortunately, they don´t have any other good songs so we ended up hearing the song like 50 times throughout the course of the game.
Then a pregame video narrated by James Earl Jones, Class of 1955, played. The words are ridiculous, but definitely got me fired up:
“This is the University of Michigan where we respect integrity and honor excellence. We are loyal Wolverines. Standing for Midwestern values, hard work, determination, and an enthusiasm unknown to mankind. We are the best university in the world. Students, athletes, and professors achieving to the highest level. This is our legacy and our future. We are proud members of the BIG Ten Conference in pursuit of national championships. We have won more games than anyone in the country. No one has won more. We believe in football… championship football. We shy away from no challenge or opponent. We bow to no man. We bow to no program. We are Michigan.”
With that the team ran out to the center of the field and underneath a blue banner with the words “Go Blue. M Club Supports You”.
With the teams out, it was time to play! The game was not competitive; Michigan was ranked second in the country and Bowling Green was unranked. Still, the atmosphere under the lights in front of the biggest crowd I´ve ever seen in my life was a thrill.
Each time Michigan scored, the lights would flicker as the faithful chanted to The Victors.
As the game was a blowout, many students started to leave at halftime, and the exodus of normal people began at the end of the third quarter. Right before I left midway through the 4th, they announced the total attendance: 109,955.
Parking far from the stadium paid off. I walked past gridlock for 25 minutes before getting into my car and cruising back to Ypsilanti so I could get some rest for my big day tomorrow on Mackinac Island.
The University of Michigan is a classic Big 10 college football experience. The gameday energy in town is amazing.
Compared to other schools, I would rank Michigan´s gameday experience in the top tier with the nighttime lighting effects adding a lot to the atmosphere. The hype video was epic. While I have seen rowdier crowds, this game was non-competitive from the start so it´s hard to criticize the fans.
I also enjoyed going to the frat parties and tailgates. Apart from guys drinking BORGs instead of Four Loko, nothing has changed in the last 10 years.
The town of Ann Arbor is also fantastic, and I would have loved to spend more time trying all the tantalizing restaurants.
That said, the highlight of the trip was seeing my cousin Melissa, meeting her friends, and learning more about her life in Ann Arbor. She seems to be having an amazing time at Michigan. I wish her nothing but success in her final year in college and beyond!