"I hate the sea, and everything in it." - Captain McAllister
There is no maritime romance to this vessel. After all, it is a ferry: an ugly, utilitarian thing, all blocky lines and ill fitting angles. It is also a coal belching holdover from an era when the atmosphere we breathe was assumed to be a limitless dump site. Each crossing of Lake Michigan, which it does between two and four times a day for six months of the year, makes the lake and the planet upon which it sits just a little less pleasant and habitable.
Nevertheless, there is an immediate humanity to this ship that was noticeably lacking on the only comparable vessel with which I have any experience. Eleven years ago I took a big car ferry, easily twice the size of our humble Badger, across the Puget Sound in Washington state. I'm sure it had a name, though what it is has long since faded from my memory. It had many of the same amenities: a nice little cafeteria, a lounge with televisions where people could pass their journey, and a friendly (if bored) staff.
But while the Badger was originally constructed to carry rail freight and a few passengers, that vessel in Washington had no purpose other than people's commutes, and commuting is a far uglier thing than even the most spartan naval architecture. A commute - which virtually no one enjoys - is an off the clock, uncompensated daily time suck. It is minutes and hours (that quickly add up to days and weeks) of people wishing they were doing almost anything else.
Worse, it's routine. Most days, the wasteful absurdity of sitting somewhere - behind the wheel of a car, on a train or bus, in a giant car ferry plodding across the natural miracle of the Puget Sound - doesn't even enter people's thoughts. One doesn't need to be brimming with a seize-the-day/life-is-precious kind of attitude to understand that commuting is an atrocity, but we so easily become inured to it that even noticing how bad it is takes conscious effort.
Put another way, if a stranger grabbed you and strapped you to a chair for a half an hour, the first time it happened you'd be yelling and struggling and very pissed off. But if they do it twice a day for long enough, eventually you forget that yelling and struggling and being very pissed off is the natural and correct human response.
The Badger, for all its faults, has none of that. The passengers here aren't commuters. They are travelers, going from one side of Lake Michigan to the other because that's what they actively want to do. There are families on vacation, dudes on their motorcycles, and cars and trucks of all kinds, some pulling boats or trailers.
Even the ship herself seems to understand this. Once a proud working vessel that sailed heavy cargo year round, here in her sunset years she only works part time and with considerably lighter loads. The impressively thick hull that once batted away icebergs now has merely to contend with the occasional choppy wave. The cavernous cargo hold that could be filled end to end with rail freight has the easier task of securing sedans and those hatchback mini-SUVs that are so popular these days. It may not be high adventure, but it isn't shlepping to and from another immemorable day, either.
Of the thousand plus people aboard that car ferry all those years ago, what tiny few still remember that crossing? The staff probably doesn't, and even among most of the passengers it was just another day. Here on the Badger, I saw a father telling his very young son that the last time he went on this ship, it still had rail cars in the hold. That was decades ago, but that man remembered it. And in all likelihood, decades from now, his son will remember this as well.