Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Around Lake Michigan, Counterclockwise

“Have you ever been to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore?” I asked about a half-dozen Chicago-area friends and acquaintances in the early weeks of July. Take a map of Lower Michigan, with its contour of peninsulas and bays and islands, and the national lakeshore hugs some of the curves of the upper left-hand side of Michigan’s mitten-shape, plus two large islands in Lake Michigan in the bargain. It’s beyond direct access by any Interstate, and the nearest town of any size is Traverse City, which is actually no small burg, with its swollen summertime population of I don’t know how many. But people are moving there. The Census Bureau says 84,952 permanent residents in Grand Traverse County, Michigan, as of 2006, a 9.4% increase since 2000, compared with the state’s meager increase of 1.6% over the same six years.

The national lakeshore isn’t really that far from metro Chicago, either. Three hundred fifty miles or less, depending on where you start, arcing around the bottom of Lake Michigan and then up, either along the roads on the coast that take you through such towns as St. Joseph, Grand Haven, Muskegon and Ludington, or by a slightly longer route that cuts through Grand Rapids, Big Rapids and Cadillac.

The answers I got to my question usually amounted to, “No, where’s that?” Only one person said he’d been there – well, he thought his parents had taken him there as a kid. Or was it somewhere else? We were going to go anyway, but the idea that the national lakeshore was outside the orbit of usual local destinations added fuel to my determination to go. (Later we discovered that the national lakeshore is well known to many; just not so much by Chicagoans and Chicago suburbanites or, for that matter, the Germans, French or British.)

The national lakeshore wasn’t enough for an entire nine-day trip, however. At some point we decided to also go around the top of Lake Michigan through the Upper Peninsula, and then back down into Wisconsin, where our target was the Driftless Area of that state, near Madison – better known to the world (very well known to the world) as greater Wisconsin Dells. I forgot to note the odometer as we left, but I’d guess that we covered no more than about 1,200 miles on this two-destination trip beginning July 30 and ending today.

It was the first time any of us had circled Lake Michigan counterclockwise. Along the way in Michigan, we saw the grave of Gerald Ford from behind a locked gate; the view from some enormous piles of sand next to Lake Michigan; the place where the Platte River of Michigan debouches into that vast lake, where we made sand castles; the unexpected tourist town of Glen Arbor, Michigan; the purple carpet of flowers along Michigan 22; and the viniculture of the Old Mission Peninsula. We ate surprisingly good Chinese food in a Traverse City suburb, drank the samples of wine offered by the Chateau Grand Traverse, and went to the first pasty shop we saw in the UP and bought three pasties, two beef, one turkey, and ate them as we rolled westward on US 2. The days were hot, the nights only warm. The camping was good. We talked a lot, quarreled a little, and laughed some, the usual sorts of things of any family vacation.

And that was just the Michigan side of the trip. In Wisconsin was Green Bay, Blue Mound State Park, Taliesin, Cave of the Mounds, the Trollway of Mount Horeb, Baraboo and its permanent circus, and the tawdry astonishments of Wisconsin Dells – part Las Vegas, part Orlando, part Branson, part Rock City, part its own glowing self.


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