Big Mac

To reach Paradise, we needed to cross the Mackinac Bridge. We had been eyeing its graceful spans for the past day and were anxious to see it up close.

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But first, a little sustenance was in order and we had just the place. After all, when you see something called Wienerlicious, how can you resist?

And, I must say Wienerlicious was delicious. Jim opted for a foot-long Coney Dog replete with chili and I went with the eponymous dog of my birthplace, a Chicago Dog. With great virtue, I can say I skipped the waffle fries. Can’t imagine why we aren’t losing weight on this trip.

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On to the bridge…Big Mac was completed in 1957 after years of discussion and planning. The bridge connects the towns of Mackinaw City and St. Ignace and the lower to the upper peninsula. The suspension bridge is one of the longest in the world clocking in at 4.995 miles. It soars high above the Mackinac Straits and is 200 feet above the water at mid-span. It was years in the making.

Back in the late 1800’s the conversation began. As industry and commerce grew in the region, the only way to move goods from the Mitten to the Up or back, was to ferry. Railroad service was a big part of the process and ferries carried freight cars across the Mackinac Straits at great cost of time and efficiency. But fate continually intervened, the Great Depression and WWII both put any real planning on hold. Finally, after WWII earnest planning began and construction of the bridge began in 1954.

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What surprised us most about the bridge today is the incredibly inefficient tolling system. Considering the constant traffic over the span, tolls are still mostly coin-based, not electronic. They introduced credit card processing in 2017 and seem really proud of that, but look at the rest of the country! Why not have the electronic tolls? The first half of our crossing proceeded quickly and then all traffic came to a halt. We crossed mid-day on a Thursday and it took almost 30 minutes to get through the toll.

 

 

 

Well, it did give us ample time to savor the scenery. Off to the right was Mackinac Island and the shining white Grand Hotel. To the left, the open waters of Lake Michigan.

We finally crossed and we were in the UP! The beginning of two weeks of exploration that would take us from Sault Ste. Marie in the east to the wilds of the Porcupine Mountains. Bring it on!

 

Top of the Mitten

We only had one full day in Mackinaw City and we had a very full roster of things which needed doing and sights which needed seeing. With some strategic planning and tactical implementation, we felt we could get it all done.

We were fortunate to have been able to book a much-coveted lakeside campsite at Mackinaw Mill Creek Camping. Lake Huron was just across the campground road and a span of grass. This may have been a large commercial campground, but it sure had curb appeal.

First and most important on our list was a vet appointment in Cheboygan for Dakota. Over a month post-surgery, Dakota seemed to be feeling well and doing fine. But his vets back home wanted a reading on his liver levels, so I had found the Animal Medical Clinic in Cheboygan.

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Cheboygan is a really sweet little town. The Cheboygan River runs through the town and the downtown is unusual in that it hasn’t been gutted by the local WalMart. It had a nice proliferation of shops, restaurants and some pretty parkland along the water. It is not a wealthy town. Median family income is $38,000 annually. The population dropped about 7% from 2000 to 2010 down to 4,800. But all that said, it seems to be holding its own.

We have been fortunate to encounter many good veterinary practices on our travels. The Animal Medical Clinic is yet another. Dr. Jason Ward gave Dakota a thorough exam and we had a good conversation about his health and care. Unfortunately, his liver levels are still high, but not off the charts.

Before going to the vet, I had dropped Jim at the laundromat in town. It was quite a good laundromat and we really needed it. This was part of our careful strategization. We would get our chores done quickly and early so the fun could begin.

The fun part starts. We dropped our laundry at the trailer and headed to Mackinaw City for some pasties. This is a food, not something worn by exotic dancers. Pasties were invented in England as a portable lunch for miners. Their wives would make a meat pie wrapped in flaky pastry and wrap it up for their menfolk to enjoy midday. Pasties made their way across the Atlantic and became popular with miners in the Upper Peninsula and Northern Michigan.

The Mackinaw Pastie & Cookie Company got top ratings for their pasties. Deservedly so. My pastie was Beef Stroganoff and, despite its size, I ate the whole thing! Jim seemed pretty happy with his #1 classic beef pastie (with peanut butter cookie!) as well. One can take frozen pasties with them at this establishment, but we’re hoping to sample more pasties when we cross Big Mac to the UP.

Next up:  the ferry to Mackinac Island. We hustled over to the Star Line pier and caught the 1:30 ferry to the island. This has been a dream destination of mine for years. Yes, of course, I saw the movie Somewhere in Time, but it has always held romance.

Happily, the ferry is dog-friendly and Dakota enjoyed his ride across the Straits of Mackinac.

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While both Jim and I knew there were no cars on the island, we had forgotten Dakota’s insistence on barking at every horse he sees. There were a lot of horses on the island. Horses were pulling taxis and touring carriages. Horses were available to rent for riding and with carriages. In fact, even the UPS guy delivers packages with two draft horses hooked to a wagon loaded with Amazon Prime boxes. Between the horses and the dogs, Dakota was the barkiest dog ever. I wasn’t sure if Jim or Dakota were going to lose their minds first.

The island is, of course, beautiful. The streets and shops near the piers were packed with tourists. We left that area quickly and began the pilgrimage to the Grand Hotel.

It is very grand. It is expansive and gracious. The grounds are lush with flowers and feature tennis courts, a glass house, a pool, croquet court and café. The hotel is beautifully maintained outside and in the lobby. My desire to see the place may have been sated, but my desire to actually stay there as a guest has only grown.

We walked around and viewed the other lovely homes and inns on the island. The views of Lake Huron are breathtaking. Everywhere the gardens were indescribably lush. Perhaps it is all that horse manure? We threaded our way back through the crowds to the pier and caught the ferry back to the mainland.

But the fun wasn’t over…we set up at a fire pit across from our site and enjoyed the late afternoon on the shore. The wind was fresh, the sky and clouds picturesque. Jim built one of his signature fires and we relaxed into the evening.  To our left was Mackinaw City and the graceful spans of the Mackinac Bridge. Across the water in front of us we could see the green slopes of Mackinac Island and the great white shape of the Grand Hotel. Now we felt we knew it a bit. It was a long, but satisfying day. One could say we felt like we had died and gone to heaven, but, no, that was our next stop…Paradise, Michigan, and the Tahquamenon Falls State Park.

 

 

The Tunnel of Trees

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Photo by Connor Gray + Rachel Haggerty

From Indian River to Mackinaw City is a pretty straight shot across the top of the mitten. But adventure beckoned and, at Jim’s urging, we decided to detour and experience what some have called “the most beautiful drive in Michigan.”

Beginning at Harbor Springs and running 20 miles to the Wilderness State Park, M-119 is known as “the tunnel of trees.” Hugging the Lake Michigan coast and riding the top of the bluffs, this is a very narrow and twisty-turny highway with jaw-dropping vistas on one side, our left as we were heading north, and wooded domiciles on the right. These spanned various styles with a smattering of log cabins, cottages, a few impressive homes and some that were definitely less impressive. All along the woods to the right were signs marking forest areas belonging to families. They were taking care of their wooded lands.

There are no pictures with this post because both my hands were busy gripping various parts of the truck. Jim drove with great confidence and easily negotiated the hairpin turns, dips and swoops of the road. One particularly tight hairpin turn is known as the Devil’s Elbow. We had to wonder how many of the oncoming cars wondered what possessed those people in the blue truck towing an Airstream to take the drive.

We probably added a good hour and a half to the trip, but it was definitely not something to miss. And, despite bouts of terror, I am so glad we did it.

The Thunder Rolls and So Do We

The next day thunderstorms were predicted. Their time of arrival seemed to shift each time we checked the weather. Noon, then late afternoon and then back to noon. We hitched as the skies suddenly darkened and were happy to be road-ready by the time the thunder began.

Our next stop was Burt Lake State Park. This park shared much with our previous Michigan state park stops. Once again, this is an older park. The campground is studded with mature growth oak and maple trees making it both shady and attractive. Unlike Interlochen, the sites at Burt Lake were large and well-spaced. Overall this park was a bit smaller with about 300 sites, still pretty big.

Burt Lake is one of Michigan’s largest inland lakes. Formed over 25,000 years ago as glaciers carved a series of lakes across the north, it is a vast and lovely lake. The campground has extensive beach and this makes it another great place for families to frolic. I was tempted to swim myself.

Our intent while here was to visit Charlevoix and Petoskey. And that we did. Charlevoix was the most distant and we headed there first. Unlike Frankfort and the Crystal Lake area, both Charlevoix and Petoskey were quite developed. Too developed really for our taste.

We sauntered through Charlevoix’s downtown lined with shops and down to the marina. The marina waterfront was nicely built out as a park with an amphitheater, benches, picnic tables and a lovely promenade. We walked its length and then turned back to the main street. It was lunchtime and a little gourmet deli shop was just what we needed. Dakota and I waited outside the shop and were treated to the drawbridge opening.

The waterway to Lake Michigan beckoned and we strolled out towards a red lighthouse. Next to the lighthouse was a very nice beach and park. We enjoyed our sandwiches watching children splash in the waves.

Heading back to our truck, we passed some lovely old houses in excellent condition.

We headed back north towards Petoskey and stopped off at a beautifully maintained rest stop. People were combing the beach for Petoskey stones and there was a memorial to seven Air Force personnel based out of Westfield AFB in Massachusetts who lost their lives during a training exercise in 1971.

Charlevoix had fulfilled our desire for traffic and downtown shopping so we headed back to our campground. Dakota and I reconnoitered the beach area while Jim took a nap.

Been There, Dune That

We did get to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Jim did some careful research and pinpointed a nice trail to a dunes overlook which was very dog friendly. This checked all of our needs.

The Empire Bluff Trail IMG_2322 (002)is a 1 ½ mile loop up and down hills and through the woods. It proved very popular with people and their dogs. We got there later in the afternoon which was a good thing as many people were leaving the crowded parking area.

The weather was again perfect and we hiked briskly along the trail to the dunes overlook. It was a very pretty sight.

An alarming number of people on the trail were sporting flip flops. While this was not a hugely demanding or long trail, I can’t quite imagine negotiating it in flip flops. The trail map at the trail head warned of mosquitoes and poison ivy. While we did not encounter many of the former, Jim brought a bit of the latter home with him. Happily, it does not seem to itch.

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Revisiting Childhood Memories

We were sad to leave Brighton and our family, but excited to begin our northward journey through Michigan. Next stop would be Interlochen State Park. This was the closest we could get to the Crystal Lake and Leelanau Peninsula.

Interlochen is actually Michigan’s first and oldest state park. It is located adjacent to the Interlochen Arts Camp. Because it is an older campground, the sites are fairly small and close. Large trees shade the campground providing an extra challenge when backing into a campsite. The park was our launching pad for discovery and, as such, it worked just fine.

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Our first day, we headed west to see Crystal Lake. Some of my oldest and fondest memories are of family vacations at the Blue Anchor in Crystal Lake. We stayed in cabins and swam in the lake. We had sailing lessons and, for a big treat headed in to Frankfort for olive burgers and root beer floats at the local A&W.

In fifty years or more, much has changed at Crystal Lake, but it remains a beautiful lake. The Blue Anchor must be long gone replaced by vacation homes, but the A&W is still there and they don’t seem to have changed a thing! Sitting outside at a picnic table, we had a delicious lunch of Lake Michigan-caught white fish at the Port City Smokehouse.

Afterwards we intended to take a walk in a dog-friendly part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore but ended up on a long drive around the area including a stop at Point Betsie Light House. We would have to leave Sleeping Bear for another day, but took a walk on a rail to trail in Sutton’s Bay.

Leelanau Cheese Shop was recommended to us by Renee and we followed that with a stop at the Sutton’s Bay Ciderie for a tasting.

It was a long, but thoroughly enjoyable day with more adventures sure to come.

Frost Family Fun

Brighton Recreation Area was an unanticipated treasure. Originally chosen as the closest decent campground to Ann Arbor, Northville and Livonia—all key concentrations of Michigan Frosts, it ended up being a super place to camp.

We spent three days catching up with Jim’s brother, Phil, his wife, Renee, Jim’s sister, Linda, and her spouse, Lisa. We also were fortunate enough to catch Chris and Sarah, Jim’s nephew and his partner. And, of course, the main event was seeing the matriarch of the extended Frost family, Jim’s mother, Betty.

Many delightful hours were spent chatting. Phil and Renee were tremendous hosts offering us tasty treats and libations. Dakota was happy relaxing on their deck listening to the conversation. Betty seemed as tickled to see Jim as he was to see her.

On our last full day, Linda and Lisa joined us at Brighton to continue enjoying the perfect summer weather and each other’s company.

We sat and enjoyed our fire long into the summer’s evening.

Motoring Through PA

After three days of driving, we’ve almost hit Ohio. Goodness there is a lot of Pennsylvania. We have regained our travel legs and everyone is enjoying the journey.

Our first night we stayed at Promised Land State Park. We had a lovely site in the Pickerel Point Campground. It was a perfect afternoon/evening and we were so happy to be back in the trailer. About 5:30 the skies darkened and a big thunderstorm hit. This is when we pity the tent campers. The blue skies returned and we enjoyed the rest of the evening.

We made it to Woodland, PA for the second night and stayed at a nice commercial campground. Biggest catastrophe to date were the bumps that made our over-filled freezer open and dump everything on the floor. Nothing a little duct tape can’t address.

The third night we stayed at the nicest commercial campground we have ever seen. Rocky Springs Campground had a lot of seasonals, but everything was immaculate.  The rolling western PA hills were gorgeous. The campground was enormous with kids running everywhere having a magnificent time. They had a heated inground pool, playground and the sites were widely spaced. We don’t prefer commercial campgrounds, but this one broke the rules. We had a delightful evening by the fire.

Nomads Head West

After months of stated intent followed by months of planning, the time is finally here…tomorrow we head out for a long meander through our country to see sights oft heard of and, as yet, unseen by us.

It didn’t always look like this would happen. Delayed from an anticipated late Spring departure, we were at the starting line when our most beloved room mate, Dakota of course, had to have emergency gall bladder surgery. We can only be thankful this did not happen once we were on the road. We delayed our departure by a week to allow for convalescence and reconfigured the beginning of our trip. And now all systems are go.

We hope you will join us on our adventure. Our plan is to head west and, when the weather turns, south. Assuming all goes well and we are having fun, we will return home before Christmas.

Jenny, Jim and Dakota

The Return Is the Next Beginning

Our last stop on our five month walkabout was the same as our first had been. We were back at Colonial Airstream in Lakewood, New Jersey. We had a laundry list of repairs and fine tuning to take care of. One downside of never having a practice trip to break in the Airstream, but simply heading out, was we had no shakedown trip. We discovered issues as we traveled and slowly assembled a prodigious list of things to address. We would spend two nights and the intervening day waiting to become ship-shape.

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This is in no way a negative about Airstreams, Colonial or the Airstream manufacturer. Even in a travel trailer with no engine to worry about, things are bound to break or go wrong and need attention. The issues we faced were far fewer than those potentially faced by Fifth Wheels with lots of pull outs and moving parts or even the giant Class A’s with their amazing amenities. Our trailer is a simpler creature. It has fewer bells and whistles and, therefore, fewer things to need repair. But there is inevitable wear and tear.

Our home base was a pet-friendly Comfort Inn. We had stayed there before. It was clean and the staff was very nice. Located about 20 minutes from Colonial Airstream, it is the only pet-friendly motel in the area.

We dropped the Airstream at Colonial on Tuesday evening. The drive from Jersey Shore had been wet and grey and the parking lot at Colonial was a succession of small lakes. We were feeling sad and bereft at leaving our comfy trailer. Those feelings were somewhat balanced by the thought of a long hot shower in a private bathroom. Ah, that would be nice.

We got ourselves checked in to the Comfort Inn. There was plentiful Wi-Fi signal and Dakota seemed pleased when we brought his bed in from the truck and, of course, his yellow duck and his water and food bowls. All the furnishings that a furry dog could need or want.

With no kitchen at hand, we were forced to go out to dinner. I had been hankering to go to a Longhorn Steakhouse for weeks and there was one nearby. We loaded Dakota and his bed back into the truck and headed over through the rain. Dinner out in a restaurant, how exciting!! A steak, a little red wine and all was fine.

For the next two days we would need to entertain ourselves. The next morning was grey and rainy and we hung out in our room. Then we made a stop at Petco. Dakota was properly satisfied with the 35 lb. bag of kibble we picked up. We have a storage container in the back of the truck. Periodically, we refill the container of kibble in the trailer. We had pretty much run through our inventory so it was good to top that off. We enjoyed a lunch at Ruby Tuesday’s. We hadn’t been to one in years. As Peter put it once so nicely, we don’t eat out often, but we tend to patronize restaurants owned by sole proprietors.

The day stretched before us. We still had a whole afternoon to kill. I was secretly hoping they would call from Colonial and say, “Surprise, we’re all done…” But that call never came. We thought about going to a movie, but didn’t want to leave Dakota in the truck for such a long time. We ended up driving around looking at public libraries. We thought we could go in one and catch some Wi-Fi. Sadly, the local libraries all looked terribly uninviting. We finally went back to the room and hung out. We were so stuffed from lunch, we ended up skipping dinner and eating unhealthy munchies in the room.

It was still grey and rainy the next morning. This was getting ridiculous. Once again we hung in the room until checkout time. We drove over to the shore. Jim’s longest term friend, Bruce, had a family place in Mantoloking so we drove from the south to the north checking out the beach towns along the way. It looked like things had been pretty well cleaned up after Superstorm Sandy.

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Jim had located a state park not too distant from us and we thought a hike might let us stretch our legs. I was still secretly wishing the folks from Colonial would call to say we were all done. This waiting was really getting on our nerves. We were both anxious that we get under way heading home as early as possible. Neither of us wanted to get caught in the traffic around the Garden State Parkway and the city.

 

The Double Trouble State Park was billed as an outstanding example of the pine barrens ecosystem. Despite its frolicsome name, they were clear online that they had a lot of ticks. Nevertheless, it was the only game in town. This park is a restored village. Originally, they harvested and shipped cranberries. They did claim to still have a cranberry bog and I had always wanted to see one. We wandered around the park looking for a map and the bog. If I had only wandered over to the little white house which said ”Restroom”, all would have been clear. Unfortunately, I only did that after we tried unsuccessfully to locate the cranberry bog. And there were the trail maps… And speaking of locating, I picked three ticks off Dakota’s paws. Yuck.

Next we stopped by Colonial just to let them know we were there. They said we might be done about 2. That was excellent news. We were hopeful. A delivery man wandered by with a stack of pizzas. We asked him where the restaurant was and we headed there for some comfort food.

There was a long table set up in the restaurant and shortly after we sat down about 20 older gentlemen trooped in. This was clearly a fairly regular gathering and all were in fine spirits. We entertained ourselves eavesdropping on their lively conversations and jokes. They had known each other for a long time and it seemed like a really good group of fellows. The pizza was excellent.

Still no call. It was after 2:30. We had no motel. We had nowhere to go. It was still raining. We couldn’t eat another bite. We were out of entertainment ideas. About half a mile from Colonial was a bowling alley. We toyed with the idea of going in to bowl a game or two, but we had no heart for it. In a pathetic display of lack of imagination, we parked in their large parking lot and Jim snoozed while I knitted. We weren’t the only ones. There was another truck parked in the lot just whiling away time for some reason as well.

Finally we headed back to Colonial to see what was happening. It was 4:30 and we thought they would be closing for the night at 5:00. We were completely impatient to be under way and secretly concerned that they wouldn’t finish and we would need to stay another night.

Happily, they were almost done. They had ticked off every item on the to-do list except for one. They had determined that our antenna had failed. That explained why halfway through our sojourn we were no longer able to get television reception. They didn’t have a new antenna on hand so we would need to deal with replacement at another time. Amazingly, we were charged not one thin dime for the two days of labor and parts. It was all covered under the warranty. That was a very happy surprise. Life doesn’t usually work that way.

We hitched up and headed out of the Colonial parking lot for the last push homeward. Very clear in both of our minds was the memory of leaving that same parking lot at the beginning of our trip. So much had happened. So many miles had been traveled and we were now so much more confident and seasoned as Airstreamers. It was a very satisfying moment.

The rain continued off and on as we drove northward on the Garden State Parkway and then picked up 87/287 and crossed into New York. As we passed our former home town of Rye Brook, we mused that we would be home now if we still lived there. But, no, we had another hour and a half of driving ahead of us.

It was well after dark and 10 p.m. when we made the turn on to Grantville Road. We were bone tired and anxious about the final hurdle. While we were on the road, a parking pad had been built for the Airstream next to our house. We would be backing our trailer into an unfamiliar pad in the pitch dark. Ironically, this was perhaps the most difficult maneuver we had faced since way back in January when we needed to extract the frozen Airstream from the snow and ice in our yard. After over 8,700 miles, here we were back wrangling the trailer in the yard.

After two hair-raising attempts at backing in, Jim almost gave up. I was shining a tiny flashlight to help illuminate the target. The pad wasn’t quite wide enough where we needed some extra room and the ground beside it was very soft. We were falling down tired and had begun to try to think where we could hang up the trailer for the night when Jim gave it one last try. He gunned the engine and forced the trailer back on to the pad. Thank heavens. We locked the truck, left the trailer hitched and headed directly to bed. We were home. Our trip was now officially done.

In the time since we arrived back home, I have thought about an appropriate coda. What insights would I share as a conclusion to our voyage? How would I sum up what this trip meant to us?

We had a dream about venturing around our country with an Airstream. We were so incredibly fortunate, and determined, that we were able to live out this dream. We learned so much. We got to know a pretty good swathe of the south and west of our country. We feel a connection to this land we could never otherwise have felt. Florence, Tupelo, Lost Maples, Pedernales Falls, Ochlockonee; these places and memories will live in us as long as we breathe.

We met so many people who were living their lives in other places, under other circumstances. These people may well have held different beliefs than we and, yet, we could share the experience of travel and discovery. On a macro level we may have felt very differently about our respective worlds, but on a micro level, we could and did share much. We are, after all, humans with hearts and souls and dreams and disappointments. Ultimately, we all want the same things in life.

Being on the road together brought us closer than ever. We were a team. We were a team of three in many ways, but certainly Jim and I were more reliant upon each other than we had ever been before. We needed each other for companionship and for the daily tasks at hand. I think we learned to be kinder and more accepting of each other. We were traveling through a great land in a very small space. There was so much to share and everything meant more to us because it was shared.

Being home was an effortless transition. We were happy to be back in our familiar setting. We were also very happy to have our Airstream just outside the door. Being home coexists with the promise of future travel and adventure.

Sometimes we just go out and spend time in the trailer. It is so familiar and comfortable. Dakota grabs his yellow duck and curls up on his bed. He often smiles and it is easy to see he is relaxed and happy to be in the trailer. So are we, we are happy to be in the trailer.

There will be future adventures. We will head out again. We saw much, but we left even more to be discovered. We have a short trip already planned for the near future and the glimmer of a grander undertaking farther into the future.

Returning home was not a conclusion, it was simply the next beginning.

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