Sault Ste Marie was a perfect disappointment. And I mean that as a compliment. It was absolute perfection.
From Sault St Marie all the way to Coeur d’Alene
Angels on the freeway speak to me
Crosses on the road
With names that I don’t know
A million whispers telling me where to go
It was over a decade ago that I was sitting in the grass at the Sweet Pea Festival in Bozeman, Montana. The band was Mick Sterling and Kevin Bowe with the Okemah Prophets. They played a good set, and I liked them enough to walk up to the stage and buy a copy of their live album “Doin’ It For the People.”
But I still believe in the glory of Saint Marie
To shed her grace on me
It’s a good album with some great tracks. They do a cover of the “Cocaine Blues” that I prefer to Johnny Cash’s version. It was the album where I first heard “There Stands the Glass,” a terrific country song if ever there was one. But one song stood out more than any other. It’s an original. It has to be, because there is zero record of it anywhere except on this particular album. It’s called “Sault Ste. Marie,” and it’s the only reason I know how to correctly pronounce the name of that town (Soo Saint Marie).
From Galveston Bay all the way to Grand Marais
Highway signs whispering the way
Don’t matter where you’re bound,
They won’t let you turn around
Getting up and falling down right where you lay
The song is also to blame for why I went up to the upper peninsula of Michigan in the first place. It’s true, I had heard that the beaches were lovely. It’s true, I figured I could always go to Chicago another time. But honestly, I had to see Sault Ste. Marie. The song was a regular road trip anthem. And not the sunshine and good times sort of anthem. “Sault Ste. Marie” is the kind of song you play at night. You play it in the rain. You play it when the journey is long and the path is rough. “Sault Ste. Marie” is the song that convinces you to keep going when you’d rather just give up. I had to see the town that would inspire such a song.
And I still believe in the glory of Saint Marie
To shed her grace on me
I arrived in Sault Set. Marie in the late afternoon. It was gray and cold and windy. The town is small, but not quaint. It’s a border town, but not the kind that attracts tourists. It’s the kind you imagine to be full of people looking to get out.
I asked the manager at the hotel what there was to see, and he recommended the locks. I spent some time in the locks museum, mostly to get out of the freezing weather. Near the river the wind was strong and bitterly cold – worse than anything I’d felt in months. I waited on the platform with the other tourists for the next big boat to come in. The locks at Sault Ste. Marie allow large ships to move between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, along St. Mary’s River. The boats are big and the locks are small, which means the ships move slow. It was easily an hour between the time we first saw the big ship come around the bend and when it began to lower into the locks. People took pictures. A few girls old enough to know better were giggling over their own photos and the phallic nature of the ship. I watched the flags flapping furiously in the wind. It was mildly interesting. It was terribly dreary.
I’m the last of the true believers
In the past and the fallen leaders
Can’t let go even though I know
I been long since left behind,
Left for dead, and left for blind
Maybe I’ve lost my mind but I do not think so
And that’s why it was perfect. The song “Sault Ste. Marie” reminds me of the underlying sadness of the open road. The road is not a home. The road is not where you intend to be. Even when it’s about the journey and not the destination, the destination is always there in the distance. Sometimes the highway gets long and lonely and endless. Sometimes it’s dark, sometimes it rains. Sometimes it feels like your whole life has become a never-ending parade of the world’s most dismal gas stations. But that’s when you put on a song like “Sault Ste. Marie,” fling your arms out to the side, and tell yourself, “Yes I am here. Yes I am aching. Yes there are miles to go. Yes, yes, yes. And I will keep going, because at this moment, this sad, sorry town is exactly where I ought to be.”
And I still believe in the sorrow of Saint Marie
To shed her grace on me
She’s gonna shed her grace on me
NOTE: An additional fact you should know is that Mick Sterling and Kevin Bowe are absolute dolls. Because the song isn’t well known, there was nowhere online for me to confirm that I had correctly transcribed the lyrics for this post. I emailed them and they responded the next day with the lyrics AND a couple bonus MP3s of the song, both in studio recordings and a sweet version by Three Dog Night with the London Philharmonic.