Thursday, July 31, 2008


The whisper of the forest tree,
The thunder of the inland sea;
Unite in one grand symphony
Of Michigan, my Michigan.

Sometimes the only sensible thing to do is pack up quickly and bug out into the woods for a few days. So that's what I did. I had to find a place that was:
  • Less than a 5 hour drive
  • Near water
  • Not brutally hot
  • Dog-friendly
  • Not overly developed, so I'd have the opportunity to walk around and feel like I was in the middle of nowhere.
At first the plan was just for me and Duffy to go, but then our eldest heard me discussing it and asked if she could come with! I would be able to talk with someone who could actually talk back (no slight intended to my dog.) I went from deciding I was going to go away on Friday night, to picking a spot and leaving by Monday morning. This was not typical behavior for me.

I usually plan camping trips the same way I'd plan a tactical operation. Lots of checklists and satellite images and mapping and
contingencies for worst-case scenarios. I have a little voice in my head that drives me and tells me that being unprepared is the worst sign of weakness. I make rules for myself that I'd never expect anyone else to follow, and set rigid timetables. I have thought, at times, that there's no need to be so hard on myself. Then the little voice usually pipes up and says that's pussy talk, and that a big problem with the way the world is today is that too many people aren't nearly as hard on themselves as they should be. I can get pretty tightly wound.

The end result of all this is that my family came to dread having to be around me on the morning we leave for a trip. I had become an anxiety-ridden travel asshole, sucking the joy out of what should be a fun and exciting moment--setting out on a journey. Taking the joy out of traveling--now that's sinful. I was mortified when I realized this had happened.

No more. I resolved to to change my ways, and setting out on a 290 mile trip to a place I'd never visited, with a minimum of planning, did the trick. We ended up going to the Lake Michigan Recreation Area in the Huron-Manistee National Forest. The area is directly adjacent to the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area, so it's possible to walk along mile after mile of undeveloped beach, which is what we ended up doing.

How good can a trip be? Can the drive be perfect and relaxing, free of traffic jams and bad weather? Can the campsite be clean, spacious, beautiful and quiet, and can everyone you meet there be friendly and kind? Could I get all the gear together and pack the car without swearing and muttering under my breath like Popeye? The answer to all those questions is a wonderful "yes." We talked about everything and nothing, sat around, did a little sightseeing, and I worked on my red neck and farmer's tan.

Here's what else we did:

We made a nice camp

We ate well. This is Tuesday morning's breakfast--coffee and potatoes fried in leftover fat from Monday night's sausage, onion and potato stew.

We hiked through the woods

Learned that wild turkey is not just a delicious bourbon

Spent hours walking along the beach, wading and swimming

We threw a tennis ball into the surf over and over until Duffy collapsed on the sand, happily exhausted. You can see my eldest down there by the shoreline, frolicking in the lake.

We saw only 4 or 5 people in three hours hiking along the beach.

Someone put a lot of effort into this

I'm sure I'll head back there for some backpacking and canoing in the future, but I'll do some more car camping first. Planning all the perfect wilderness trips, full of long hikes and solitude, mean nothing if you never get it together to go.

On the drive back we talked about doing a brief travel piece called "Michigan: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?"

Leading off, a big thumbs-up for Little River Casino! Their ad on the back of the Manistee County visitor's guide features this swanky tableau:

This happy couple is clearly having a good time at the blackjack table, even though they are apparently down to their last few chips. The woman has that beautiful northwoods "I've gotten horribly sunburned drinking Busch beer on a rented pontoon boat but I'll slather on flesh-toned moisturizer and frosty blue eye shadow to deal with it" look about her. Check out the tan line on her forearms. You'll also note that the casino, sparing no expense, has a "full service" RV park.

Not long after we saw this ad, we drove around and did some sightseeing. Next thing you know, we were right in front of the casino, and we discovered another reason to love this place: Polka Dance Party Mondays! We saw this blinking on the giant animated sign in front, and before we could even formulate a plan to sneak in my underage daughter, the sign changed. As if this place could even become more awesome, the sign now read "Night Ranger August 22". I can't tell you anything, really, about what this casino, its hotel, restaurants or entertainment is like since I didn't go in. But I still give it a big thumbs-up!

Another thumbs-up for the civic pride of Manistee. They've lined the main street through town with flowers:

A really, really big thumbs-up for the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Chicago really is at the ass end of Lake Michigan. The sand was nearly white and squeaky when you walked on it, and the water was clear. The smell of garbage, B.O., diapers and dead fish was notably absent, unlike Chicago's beaches.

Friendly people get another thumbs-up.

Thumbs down for the lack of any recognizable regional cuisine. Likewise, another thumbs-down for lack of a recognizable charming regional accent. I mean, come on, once I drive north for a few hours and I'm surrounded by pine trees, I want a few "you betcha's" or "yer darn tootin's" thrown around by the locals.

A vigorous thumbs down for the Michigan left turn. I had forgotten what a tremendously random pain-in-the-ass these were. For those of you unfamiliar with Michigan's gift to traffic engineering, the Michigan left goes as follows:

  • You approach the intersection at which you intend to turn left
  • You drive through the intersection
  • A few hundred yards down the road, well past the place you wanted to turn left, you get into a left turn lane
  • You swing your car out in front of oncoming traffic, executing a U-turn
  • You frantically swerve across as many lanes as necessary to get into the right turn lane
  • You turn right onto the street you originally wanted to turn left on.
I was going to give Michigan a thumbs-down for its bad classic rock stations, but really every state in the nation gets a thumbs-down for that.

Not sure if it's a thumbs-up or thumbs-down:

The town of Holland, Michigan, has a street called Felch Street.

View Larger Map

The upper peninsula also has a Felch Mountain and a Felch Township. One wonders if the residents are known as felchers.


Grant Miller said...

I understand there's a geyser located on Felch Street that blows hot air occassionally.

Looks like a fun trip. And those wood posts looks like the work of druids.

Druids kick ass.

SkylersDad said...

At first glance I thought the brochure said "Home of Michigan's hottest slut", and I was all "Oh no she isn't"!

My mistake.

Cormac Brown said...

"The town of Holland, Michigan, has a street called Felch Street."

And Nightranger?

Wow, you can still felch sheep, get horribly sunburned on a pontoon and rock in America! Best country, ever!

Mnmom said...

I am the travel-packing-Nazi too. I have to take deep breaths and remember that nation-wide, most stores carry band aids and Tylenol if needed. And I have this THING about leaving ON TIME. As in "those van tires had better be rolling backwards out of the driveway by 5am or the whole trip is ruined". Yeah, I'm a real princess about trips.

If you want a "you betcha" you'd better haul ass over to Minnesota, dontcha know?

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Your Michigan beach pictures take me back to the days of my youth. Thanks for sharing them.

Dr. Zaius said...

This must be the great drifwood migration. (Why do you think they call it "drift" wood, eh?)

Erik Donald France said...

Sounds like a wild ride in Michigan's wilds and semi-wilds.

You describe the Michigan Left perfectly.

Engineering genius! (Or, how I got my first ticket in Michigan . . .)

Some Guy said...

Next time you'll have to venture a little further north!

Anonymous said...

Oh Bubs, you are a man after my own heart. And how cool is it that your grown children ask to accompany you on trips instead of running in the other direction? You have much to teach us.