• Image about the-pilgrimage---americanway
Illustration by Ryan Snook

At a rental-car desk in the tiny Traverse City airport, I brusquely decline the offer of a GPS.

If the pilgrims found America without the help of a satellite, I sure as heck don’t need one to find the Pilgrims.

I’ve flown to a ragged corner of the baseball mitt of Michigan — a region far closer to Canada than to Detroit — on a holiday-themed assignment from my editor. My mission: Make my way to the most Thanksgiving-y town in America — Pilgrim, Mich. — and kick it with the locals. Y’know, real-life Pilgrims.

This job is tougher than it sounds. That’s because I’m not sure that Pilgrim exists. I’ve dug up a 2010 census showing that 11 people — seven men and four women, six of them age 65 and up — live in a community of that name in rural Benzie County. But the town doesn’t show up on my map. And I can’t find mention of Pilgrim, Mich., in any old newspaper articles.

As American Way’s general-weirdness correspondent, I’ve played croquet with bowling balls in the sticks of Minnesota and tailed Mexico City mariachis-for-hire at 3 a.m. But I’ve never before been dispatched to a town that might not be real.

So I head in Pilgrim’s purported general direction. I check into a Days Inn in Traverse City. Located on the lazy, pristine coast of massive Lake Michigan, it is the Riviera of the Rust Belt, where leather motorcycle vests replace berets. The region is the country’s leading producer of tart, delicious cherries and has an obsessive relationship with its export. Its residents fly in tothe Cherry Capital Airport, commute to work on the Cherriot — that’s the name for the buses in the municipal bus system — and pay their power bills to the Cherryland Electric Cooperative.

(Since ’tis the season for gratitude: Thanks, American Way accountants, for not finding fault with an expense report including an entire cherry pie methodically eaten by me in my hotel room while watching a Hoarders marathon.)

The next morning, I pilot my own midsize economy Mayflower southwest to a town called Benzonia. It’s home to an old church that has been converted into the Benzie Area Historical Museum. The day I visit, the exhibition is dedicated to an 1873 map of Benzie County’s planned canal system. Weirdly, the place is not bustling with teenagers — or ’agers of any kind. The place is barren. So I burst into a back office, where a stocky man sits among piles of weathered literature.

He is museum director Louis Yock. He studies me from behind big eyeglasses, Zen as a monk on a mountaintop, as I blurt out my mission.

“Yes, Pilgrim does exist,” he states calmly, as if he had expected my intrusion for years. He attempts to give me directions, which is difficult because most of the landmarks in the area appear to have gone extinct. “I think somewhere back in history,” he says, studying the ceiling like a seer, “there was a gas station … .”

I head west, armed with such notes scratched onto a Days Inn notepad and a stack of graying pamphlets about local trees. In New York City’s outer boroughs, where I live, getting lost usually means ending up in some industrial territory controlled by a pack of feral dogs. But in this part of Michigan, my wrong turns instead take me to incredible bluffs overlooking the lake’s cresting, sealike expanse.

After an hour or so of such meandering, I pass a tiny green road sign reading “Pilgrim” and screech into the nearest driveway. An older woman sits on a porch, enjoying a book. But she is not a Pilgrim, she explains. Like most everybody currently in town, she belongs to a church group. She will leave the area in a matter of months.

So I loiter around the only business in town, a snack shack. I peer over my egg-salad sandwich at other customers and harass them all for any leads on full-time Pilgrims. No luck.

I’m headed to my car, thinking how my hotel-room cherry pie will taste like failure tonight, when a voice beckons me from behind: “I live here.”

I turn around to see a lanky man in a ZZ Top–caliber graying beard and a floppy sun hat. How long has he been observing me at the snack shack?

I ask him his name. “Doug.”

He flinches when I write that down. “This for the newspaper?”

I tell him it’s for a magazine. “Can’t have that,” he laments simply. “I enjoy my privacy.”

I watch him saunter away, toward the shimmering lake. There he goes, I think. A real-life Pilgrim.