Thursday, May 29, 2008

Obscure But Not Remote

To reach this point --

-- from greater Chicago, you first have to leave greater Chicago. The quickest way to do that (barring bad congestion, which is not a safe bet) is east via I-80, then I-94, then north on I-196 to Holland, Mich. That stretch of I-80 is crowded and unpleasant, except for items such as the Krazy Kaplans [sic] fireworks warehouse billboards.

North beyond Holland, US 31 is the road to take, a limited-access, four-land highway until the town of Ludington, where becomes a two lanes. Roughly between Ludington and Manistee, both of which are sizable towns on Lake Michigan, there's an intersection of US 31 with a road so minor that it doesn't have a federal, state or even county number, but a name: Free Soil Road.

East a few miles from that intersection, past small orchards and Christmas tree plantings and a couple of horse farms, is the small town of Free Soil, Mich. According to the USGS Geographic Names Information System, it's the only populated place of that name in the all the states and territories. Someone at the Mason County Historical Society knows the story of of its naming, but since I'm merely blogging, I'm free to speculate that the town was founded in the 1850s by men who had strong feelings against the expansion of slavery into the western territories. This seems like a reasonable guess, at least for those of us who remember the Free Soil Party.

These days, Free Soil has a gas station/convenience store, a handful of good-looking churches, a post office, a few other businesses, a small park with a small (presumably) war monument, and a scattering of houses on a few side streets. It is a two-stop sign town, and one of those stops marks the railroad tracks that cut through the place.

Beyond Free Soil is more of Free Soil Road, into Manistee National Forest, crossing the Big Sable River and then into Lake County which, oddly enough, doesn't border Lake Michigan at any point, or even have many more small lakes than you'd expect for that part of the state. The first time we drove this stretch of road, we spotted two men hitchhiking east of Free Soil. "I've seen signs near prisons not to pick up hitchhikers," I said idly. A few minutes later we unexpectedly passed Camp Sauble, a unit of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Could those guys have been escapees? Probably not. Not with those fishing poles. Later, I looked up Camp Sauble, and I can say definitely not, since the minimum-security boot camp-prison has actually been closed for about three years, according to the MDC web site. It still looks active, though, with its barbwire and barracks there among the pines and deciduous trees.

Manistee National Forest, like all national forests, is a mix of public and private land, and driving westward on Free Soil Road, the private land is very evident, noted by many signs, both printed and hand-lettered, warning against trespassing -- more than I seem to remember in any national forest. The land isn't flat, with some pleasant low hills to cross, nor is it all ordinary woods -- one place east of Free Soil is a swamp.

Just into Lake County, the route to our campground -- Bear Track -- turned onto Bass Lake Road, then another road whose name I never caught, which devolved along the way from a macadamized route the size of a city street to a winding dirt road barely large enough for vehicles to pass each other. We drove along, kicking up dust and some gravel, passing one campsite -- Driftwood Valley -- and pressing on to Bear Track, some miles further. The route wasn't particularly remote, however. Besides no trespassing signs, there were houses here and there, plus other sites occupied more-or-less permanently by trailers. The woods did feel close, though, bright green but also curiously green-yellow, almost like a fall color, in places. I'm not sure which species contribute that color, but I noticed elsewhere as well, including near Lake Michigan.

We arrived at Bear Track fairly late in the day on Friday -- we almost always arrive late in the day when camping -- and I had it in my head that the campground might be full, this being Memorial Day weekend. The Upper Peninsula campgrounds never have been, but that's the UP. But it turned out that only about six of the 16 sites at Bear Track were taken. Maybe not remote, but certainly obscure.


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