After I graduated from college, my Dad offered an opportunity to take a road trip with him. He wanted to drive down to Pensacola, FL. He was in the navy and he wanted to share a bit of his memory lane with me. It was an opportunity that I cherish, we had a great time playing in the surf along the gulf barrier island, learning about NASA in Huntsville, AL, ending with a morning sky view at the top of the Arch in St. Louis. It was a fun and relaxing time with my Dad.
Fast forwarding to the present and a travel opportunity with my son. Since my school year begins at the same time his college year begins, it is not feasible for me to have the traditional weeping mother, drop kid off at college moment. So, my son and I decided to take a road trip after his college “New Scot” orientation day.
We opted for a trip to the UP, or the Upper Peninsula for non-Michiganders. The state of Michigan is a mitten and the top of the mitten is northern Michigan or “up north”. The UP is different, it is the upper peninsula of the mitten and it is truly a unique place. As a kid, I grew up sailing around the Great Lakes. Since we were road tripping it, there were a few places I wanted to revisit, places I wanted to see by land this time. And so off we trekked.
Small towns and Alma College
The starting point of our journey was Alma College, which is in the small town of Alma in the central part of the mitten and is my and my husband’s alma mater. It is flat farm country. Upon our arrival, it was hot, humid, and wonderfully feeling of college home. Since we live in the Pacific Northwest, or PNW, we don’t have a lot of bugs or humidity. It’s something we don’t advertise much. On the other hand, Michigan has a lot of both – bugs and humidity. The day before his college orientation, we shopped for dorm stuff. We organized everything, wrote it down on a list to remember later, and finally stored all his new stuff. Predictably the humidity was high, it was a “welcome to Michigan” day!
Later that night, we drank a bottle of Vernors (local pop from Detroit), sprayed ourselves with “Off” bug repellant, and sat down to watch a full orchestral performance of lightning bugs. The cicadas had quieted from their daily opera, but in their place the crickets chirped an evening serenade.
The next day was his official college orientation. I did the parent tour stuff, he did the student pre-college stuff, it was a good day. We were walked around campus, toured various buildings and dorms, talked tuition and student life, and met the coaches. Of course, we also bought out the bookstore with a variety of required collegiate clothing options.
Up to the Bridge and Sault Ste. Marie
The next morning, we ventured north and crossed the Mackinac Bridge and headed up the “Soo.” As a kid I sailed under the Bridge a few times, but I always wondered what it would be like to drive on the Bridge. The view was spectacular, it was certainly a bird’s eye view of the water! Sault Ste. Marie has shipping locks, an engineering feat that allows the big Freighters to move from Lake Huron to Lake Superior or vice versa. We watched a few “boats” go through, walked through the visitor’s center, and were amazed at the complex structures that utilize the simplicity of gravity to move water.
Paradise, Whitefish Point & Lake Superior
Whitefish point on Lake Superior is known as the “Graveyard of Ships” as more ships have been lost here than in any other part of the lake. There is a long fetch of water to the point of land which narrows the waterway towards the Soo. Most Michiganders know of a famous wreck off this point, the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It vanished to the freezing depths in a November storm years ago. The museum at Whitefish Point also told the heroic stories of the rugged individuals who manned the Lifesaving Stations. I always knew about the lighthouse keepers, but I didn’t know there were “life savers” too. These men were the ones who would rescue those who shipwrecked along the shores. They truly risked life and limb to save the survivors of the wrecks. We were stunned to learn about their grit, determination, and strength of soul.
The northern waters of the Great Lakes have an almost “tropical” color ranging from deep blue depths to turquoise in the shallows. The shore is composed of fine amber grains that make the sand hot in the sun and flow easily through the toes. While we stood on the beach, the sun was shining and the wind was blowing whitecaps, making for cool wind and hot sand. We found ourselves scouring the beach to find colorful and interesting patterns on rocks made of granite, basalt, gabbro, and gneiss.
Pictured Rocks to Marquette
The following day, we traveled to see the Pictured Rocks national park lakeshore. The road was a slow, meandering drive through “covered bridges” of green leaves and high rock cliffs of color. The Painted Rocks shoreline appears as if it was painted with a brush of wide strokes of water color paint. Along the park we periodically stopped to walk to discover water falls that lead to rocky shores. We’d pick up flat rocks to practice skipping them. Sometimes it was the simple joys of getting the rock to skip multiple times that heightened the feeling of a successful morning.
We agreed it was obvious the best way to see the colored cliffs would be by boat, but that would have to wait until another trip. We wrapped up the day landing in Marquette, a former Iron Ore town and now a university town. As we walked the downtown streets, after a lovely whitefish dinner, we talked about colleges, sisters, and friends. It is kind of cool when you can have the opportunity to just have a good conversation with your kid.
Fayette to Escanaba
As a kid, my family sailed around the southern side of the UP. One summer we found ourselves weathered in at the old ghost town of Fayette in Little Bay de Noc. Fayette was a company town, built solely due to its proximity to timber to make pig iron. The UP is rich in iron ore but the cost to transport was prohibitive. The Jackson Mining company built a town to smelt iron ore. This “pig iron” was more economical to move across the waterway to access the railways. The town was in operation for a little over 20 years, but closed when it was no longer useful. The cool thing about Fayette is that is essentially hasn’t changed. The state park service has done a nice job of making the old town historically informative but not touristy. After Fayette, we drove back around to Big Bay de Noc to Escanaba. At dinner, we watched the dark storm clouds roll in and, although I expected to see lightning and a downpour, we were treated to a light misty rain. Rain over water has a calming effect, flattening out the white caps. I remember Escanaba fondly, years ago it was finally our next day’s sail after being weathered in at Fayette. We had the opportunity to get groceries, do some laundry, take a shower, and then we walked to the downtown movie theatre. It was a welcomed return to civilization. This trip, we enjoyed listening in on the local camaraderie as we dined, a warm window into a slice of humanity.
Back to the Bridge
The next morning, we packed up to travel back to the lower peninsula, treated with beautiful sunshine and lakeshore views along the way. We decided to pop into Petoskey, near the pinky of the mitten. Again, as a kid, my family used to keep our boat in Petoskey. It is a tourist town for sure, on the bottom of Little Traverse Bay. Petoskey is known for the state stone, a long ago marine coral fossil.
Return to Alma
My son requested that we make one more stop at his future place of residence for the next four years. One thing about a small college is the ease of assistance. We asked if there was availability to stay overnight in the alumni house, and of course, there was. We meandered the campus again, confirming buildings and locations, and pondering what he would need to bring in a few weeks.
After traveling a few days, we realized we had a few routines. I was up and ready by 7am, then I had to raise the Kraken himself by 8:30am to take advantage of the breakfast bar at the hotel. We also realized Cliff Bars were sufficient as a travel lunch break. Dinners, on the other hand, were an excellent opportunity to discover good local food spots. We enjoyed our dinners a great deal. Road trip travel provides opportunities to have conversations about life, family, college, music, and silly stuff in between. We both enjoyed the long stretches of Michigan highway, windows down, accompanied by a myriad of bug splats, no traffic, music playlists playing. Occasionally, we lost connectivity which helped us to remember (or learn for some) map reading skills. I was pleasantly reminded of Michigan chatty talk and friendliness. My kids often tell me I can talk to anyone and it was nice to be back among my peeps who the do the same. It was fun to look at basic geology and geographic changes as we drove. We compared Midwest flora and fauna to PNW flora and fauna, or more succinctly pine trees to evergreens. Lastly, we again skipped rocks on the shore.
Back to PNW
All travels have a story, and our travels presented us a 1,500-mile canvas of landscapes and shorelines. Michigan will always be home for me, and the Great Lakes hold very cherished memories of family summer sailing. The PNW will always be his home and hopefully he will have his own cherished memories of summertime with family. For this trip, I am happy to return “home” and I’m glad my son has had the opportunity to explore the water wonderland of Michigan, his new college home.