Sunday June 21th, Millinocket to Utica, 569.3 miles

I won’t say it was an uneventful day today, but it was certainly not worth
writing about–or taking photos of! We woke up to pouring rain, so there
was no question about whether we’d leave as planned, but we did debate about whether to go via American or Canadian roads. We opted for US interstates, although that’s more miles, because we were not sure about the Canadian roads and their speed limits and because we’d be without Internet connection for mapping and hotel booking purposes in Canada. Mark heroically drove 200 miles on I-95 in the pouring rain in the morning in increasingly heavy traffic. Then we had lunch between Portland and Portsmouth, after which more heroic driving ensued–now with less rain, but many traffic slowdowns, as we were competing with Bostonians who were fleeing the soggy beaches early–not much f a Father’s Day weekend! It was only when we got to the 90 going east that the traffic lightened up, and then it even got sunny, and the remainder of the drive for the day went fine. We stopped at a Days Inn in Utica, had an unspectacular meal at a Denny’s, and called it quits for the night. It’lol be the longest day of the year, but probably not for us!

 

Monday, June 22, 2015 , Utica to Bay City, MI (523.6 miles)

This was another day spent primarily driving, but this time with better
weather and with an interesting interruption. We drove from Utica to the
Canadian side of Niagara Falls to test the “it looks way more impressive
from Canada” claim, and it is definitely true that all three falls are
better seen from this side. We also had great light, with the sun shining
brightly but some pretty clouds overhead. The crowds were impressive, but
again not completely crazy, and we avoided the worst because we had bagels as a picnic lunch so we didn’t have to wait in a food line. We even managed to get ice cream cones at a place without a line! The tourists on this side were just as international as on the New York side, but more diverse–we heard easily 30 different languages. We stayed for about an hour and even got a glimpse into the old, but still operating, power plant that diverts part of the weather to run the giant early 20th-century turbines.

We then took off for our drive through Canada, from Niagara Falls via
Hamilton and London to Sarnia, and back into the U.S. The landscape is
pretty boring along the freeways in this region (flat, green) and nothing
spectacular happened. We got gas, a Cadbury bar and a Mars bar about midway thigh, and just as we were waiting in the customs line on the way out a big rain storm moved through. But unlike our east coast rains, this front did the Midwestern thing and was on its way out in 20 minutes. We then drove partly up the eastern coast of Michigan, already in the sunshine again, but that was a bit disappointing, because we really could only see the lake less than 5 percent of the time. The rest of the time, it was trees sheltering beachfront property. So we turned inland and drove a very straight road (80 miles with one stop sign and one stoplight ) from Lake Huron to the interstate, and then on to Bay City, where we got very lucky with an Econolodge again–it had everything we needed, even a washer and dryer and a pizza delivery. We’ve been craving deep dish pizza, and everything to be had in the east was thin crust! We wrapped up our day around 11, and hope to drive a little less tomorrow.

 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015 , Bay City, MI to the Upper Peninsula (434 miles)

Today was another he of those half-driving, half-discovery days. We left the Bay City motel early in the morning, before 8, but with a fairly decent
breakfast in our tummies, and drove to Sault Ste. Marie, all the way up at
the tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (or UP). There is a system of locks
(Schleusen, for Imke and Uschi) that allows huge freighters to maneuver the St. Mary river that connects Lake Huron and Lake Superior, avoiding the
21-foot drop between the two that causes the rapids (“Sault” in
old-fashioned French) in the St. Mary River. There are four locks side by
side, and the biggest can hold a ship that is 1000 foot long and 105 feet
across (330 m long, 35 m across). I had read a to this place in a short
story and really wanted to see it, and it was interesting, but not a very
busy day at the locks, so we had to wait quite a while in rather cold and
chilly weather until the next big ship arrived at the locks. We got there
at 11:30 and the freighter was supposed to get there at 2:15! But we went to
have lunch in a cute Greek restaurant, wandered around the town a little
bit, looked at all the exhibits about the locks, each had an enormous ice
cream cone (the portions were double the size they had been in Bar Harbor!)
and then we could finally watch the huge ship go thigh the lock, with only a
few feet on each side. It was a bit too cold and windy for us to really
enjoy it, but it was fascinating. The ship, the Burns Harbor, was actually
one of the biggest used in the lake system, and has the distinction of
having carried the largest load ever to come through this lock system–over
70,000 tons of iron ore. We learned this from an announcer and also on
line, where one can track ship movements all over the Great Lakes and find
info and photos (at boatnerd.com).

After we had gotten thoroughly chilled through by the wind at the locks, we
warmed back up in the car, as we drove another hour and a half to a set of
waterfalls called the Tahquehemon Falls. It was nice to get out and walk
around a bit, first at the Lower and then at the Upper Falls, especially
since it had gotten sunny by the time we reached the falls, But we are a bit
spoiled as far as waterfalls go, and so weren’t super impressed. And it’s a
bit hard to accept the water color–it is brownish from the natural tannin
from the many coniferous trees in the area, so not as pretty and blue as I
would expect. But the area was very nicely maintained, with boardwalks and
steps up down to the water. After looking at both fall areas, we drove back
on what was billed as a scenic route but which, teasingly, went along about
one lot length from the coast through thick, wooded area, so that for the
most part we could only catch glimpses of Lake Superior. We stopped at a
couple of little beach coves, which were beautiful, and came out at a
lighthouse (Iroquois Point) where the view of Whitefish Bay was awesome. We even got to climb up into the teeny lighthouse and look at the bay from up there.

The remaining one-hour drive to St Ignace, right at the southern tip of the
Upper Peninsula was uneventful, although a little detour showed us that the
land away from the coast starts to roll gently and really consists of sand
dunes covered with just enough top soil for this lush vegetation. So
similar and yet so different from what I think of as sand dunes. So many
trees! In St. Ignace, we checked into our hotel (the Aurora Borealis
Motel, even though the silly people didn’t alert us to the fact that there
was actually an aurora borealis visible last night in many parts of the
northern US, so we missed our chance!) and then, since it was already late,
walked to the shore to find dinner on the harbor side. After we’d had a
nice, fairly plain meal in a seaside restaurant/bar with enclosed outdoor
seating, we walked and around a little as the sun was setting. The harbor
is really cute and very spiffed up–there is a board walk and a little
lighthouse replica on the site of the former railroad terminus, where a
cargo ferry would take the train cars across the Straits of Mackinac to and
from the Upper Peninsula. And there was also a little marina with private
boats as well as the docks for the tourist boats that go across to Mackinac
Island. The light was just beautiful, and we thoroughly enjoyed the evening
walk back to our hotel before crashing for the night.

 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015 , Mackinac Island and Traverse City, MI (125 miles)

We got up bright and early (in fact, I got up too early, about 5 am, with a
stomachache, but I felt better within the hour) and headed for the earliest
boat to get to Mackinac Island. It was still rather chilly so we sat inside
on the 20-minute trip across. The island is small, with an 8-mile (13 km)
circumference, and it had historic significance during the time of the
French fur trade in the 17th century, but then also in the war of 1812.
Then the tourists came, in the 1850s, and never stopped coming: in the early 19th century, there were multiple hotels and many Victorian board in houses already, and then the island became a national park for a while and it was decided that there shouldn’t be any cars allowed on the island. There still aren’t any, but tourists come in droves (15,000 a day during the high
season), even as the year-round population is only 900 and some. And
because that is so much more unusual than in Germany, where several island are without cars, lots of people check it out–only to either rent a bike at horrendous rates, or take a tour in a horse-drawn carriage, also for lots of money. We opted for the cheap and obvious option–we walked all over he island instead, starting out with the 8-mile loop around the island. With detours, even!

We had to make our way out of the super touristy harbor/city area with its
kitschy fake Victorian saloons etc. first, but then the walk was peaceful
and wonderful. We climbed up a bunch of stairs to a lookout point and arch
formation, but otherwise, the road just circled the island at beach level,
and the views were stunning, with clear water, lots of seagulls, lush
vegetation on the coast side, and many cairns that everyone builds with the
rocks here. It took us about 3 1/2 hours to go around, starting at about 8
am, and we had a wonderful time. We had a small handful of runners and many bicycles pass us, but very few others were walking beyond a mile from
aforementioned trusty city center. So it was very quiet, and all around
fabulous. Toward the last two miles, there were more Victorian buildings
again, and a couple if cool rock formations, plus we finally began to see
the carriages, which tend to stay in the built-up part of the island to talk
about its history and culture.

We then found ourselves some reasonably priced quesadillas for lunch, and
explored the center of the island a little bit more–another lookout, the
cemetery, a shortcut hiking trail, and eventually the historic homes just
behind Tourist Alley, including the absolutely enormous Grand Hotel, which apparently boasts the longest porch ever built–not to mention “guards” that make sure hapless tourists don’t enter the grounds without paying $10 for the privilege of looking at bombastic Victorian resort architecture! Silly.  We had walked nearly 12 miles total by the time we were back by the docks, and we dutifully bought a piece of fudge to eat–somehow, the island became famous for its fudge, and several candy stores had people making it on marble-topped counters. It was fun to watch them and the fudge we did buy at JoAnn’s fudge shop was excellent. We then waited for our boat departure at 3 pm, and since it was now gorgeous, we were able to sit on the upper deck of the boat and soak in the views of he straits, the island, the mainland, and the Mackinac bridge, a famous suspension bridge built in 1957 across the straits.

We then got back in our car and drove back into “regular Michigan,” to
Traverse City in the Northwestern corner of the peninsula, where the “little
finger” of the mitten-shaped state is. We saw lots of orchards, for which
the area is famous (tart cherries in particular), and a good bit more lake
shore as well as many smaller lakes. It took about two hours to get to our
hotel in Traverse City, where we’ll be for two nights, and thankfully, there
was a Bob Evans restaurant close by. We try to avoid chain restaurants, but
I have fond memories of my very first meal when coming to BGSU in 1989, with the nice couple that helped me out when I was stranded at the Toledo
airport. We had a nice home-style meal–I still like Bob Evans better than
the comparable Perkins–and walked the half-block back to the motel to call it a day.

 

Thursday, June 25, 2015 , Leelenau Peninsula / Traverse City, MI (136 miles)

We had another completely fabulous day! We set out after a decent hotel
breakfast (oatmeal, cereal) and stopped at a grocery store for a small
picnic meal for later. Then we headed west out of Traverse City to the
Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. What a wonderful place! We started with
a scenic drive that had two absolutely breathtaking overlooks–one at the
top of one of the HUGE sand dunes that this park is famous for. They go
down 300-400 feet in a very steep incline to this absurdly clear, tropically
light blue water, and no photos will do them full justice. It was so
beautiful, standing there high up with the Manitou islands and otherwise
just endless lake in front of us. We also saw a lake in the making–all
these little lakes directly inland dot the Leelanau peninsula that we are
on, and they get created when a sandbar gradually closes off a bay or a part
of a bay. This is why we drove across so many little land bridges
yesterday, with Lake Michigan on one side and a little lake on the other.
After the scenic drive, we did the “must-do” thing, the “Old Faithful” of
the park–we hiked up the big dune in the center of the park (not near the
shore”), which was really the only busy art of the park–almost everywhere
else, we ran into at most 20 people. The Dune Climb again defies photos in
terms of scale–it’s a HUGE dune and a hard climb up, but it’s fun to get to
the benches on top and then run back down the enormous sloping hill of fine white sand–and watch the five-year olds that manage it effortlessly!

The dune climb was exhausting, but we then took one more small hike before lunch–from the Maritime Museum, which explains the early coastguard rescues on this coast–to Sleeping Bear Point, a 1.4 round-trip trail across dunes to a very quiet beach with a bottom-up view of those enormous sand slopes at this coast. We ran into a park volunteer who was monitoring the rare bird species that is currently having their young here–the Great Lakes piping plover, an endangered species of which there are only abut 70 breeding pairs left–and 24 of them in this park (as of last year’s nesting statistics).  She showed us images of what they look like and pointed out their nesting area, and a few minutes later we saw two different moms and chicks zipping around on the beach ! The chicks are no bigger than a wren and even the mom is teeny, and their camouflage is amazing, so there were very hard to spot.  But Mark caught a couple on camera, so we were excited!

After a quick visit to the maritime museum, complete with old rescue boats
and cork-based life vests, we had out picnic lunch, and then headed for
another point on this bay, Pyramid Point, with another little hike through
forest and then sand dunes. This was another high-up, don’t walk down or
you’ll never get back up dune, and we also saw a beautiful yellow monarch in these wild lilies at look like fire lilies to me. Then we left the park
after a brief visit to a long, narrow beach, where there were in face tiny
shells, so I was wrong about the ocean-lake difference in that respect. We
continued along the coast up the Leelenau Peninsula, up to a lighthouse in a
state park at the very tip, called Grand Traverse lighthouse. But there
wasn’t much park around it, and it was a bit too touristy for my taste–we
didn’t tour the lighthouse because they wanted to charge us, and I think the
whole “lighthouse collecting” business, where many road trippers try to
visit as many lighthouses as possible is s bit silly.

We continued down the coast, catching many glimpses of the lake between
building or through the trees, and stopped at a public access spot to see
the very clear division between a light and a dark blue layer in the lake
more clearly. A guy who was just getting his boat out of the lake confirmed
out hunch that the lake drops off very sharply, from 15 feet to about 50
feet, and that causes the very different color “lines” in this super clear
water. We returned to Traverse City, at the end of the peninsula, around 5
pm, and found the downtown area, around Front street. It was very nice, not
just tourist-oriented, although that’s clearly part of its clientele–but it
was more Pearl Street in Boulder or the Haymarket in Lincoln than Estes Park or Bar Harbor–lots of restaurants and brew pubs, art galleries and fancy clothes stores, but also food trucks at the end of downtown, a great old movie theater, and an old canal between Front Street and actual Traverse Bay. We found a pub with outdoor seating and had a fabulous , really fresh pizza and an ice cream sandwich made by the locally famous ice cream company, Moomers. It was yummy (cinnamon ice cream between oatmeal-raisin cookies). We shared the dessert as well as the meal, so we felt very moderate! We took a quick walk to the waterfront, but after a gorgeous, mostly sunny day with almost no wind, it had gotten a bit chilly by then, and we just headed home to our motel, with plans to shut up shop extra early.

 

Friday, June 26, 2015 , Traverse City, MI to Kalamazoo, MI (294 miles)

Today was another half and half mix of exploring and driving. We slept a little longer than we have been (until after 7!) and then drove up and back down the Old Mission Peninsula, which is a long, narrow land strip that juts out over 17 miles directly from the center of Traverse City–very picturesque orchards and vi yards on rolling hills, with the bay on both sides and a lighthouse at the end—a very pleasant drive, parts of which were directly along the waterfront. It was all very picture book and perfect for driving along. Then we left Traverse City behind and went back to the western coast to Empire, where the national park starts. This time, we went south, and took one more short hike to another dune, Empire Bluffs, from which we could see the dunes we stood on yesterday really clearly. These dunes had more vegetation, but they were again several hundred feet up from the water. Our last stop in the park was the mouth of the River Platte (no relation to our Platte), where we walked along the beach that formed the banks of the very shallow river and then the lake. The water was very clear and we realized that we could see fossils in the rocks really distinctly. We waded around and found a couple of stones that looked really interesting, and that we later found out are called Petoskey stones–they have the fossils of corals embedded in them and look very distinctive, and it turns out they are actually the state rock for Michigan. Fun times.

We then left the National Park area and, with one more stop at a lighthouse with a last view of the bay to the north, went on to a small port town called Frankfort and had a great lunch–a lamb burger and a steak sandwich on nice fresh bread with coleslaw at the side–and then drove inland for our 2.5 hour drive to Kalamazoo, where friends of ours, Eric and Ryan, live. Ryan teaches at Kalamazoo College, where the daughter of another friend from Hastings just graduated (she was still in town as we drove in, but we missed her–we will catch up with her in Hastings, where she was headed!). Eric and Ryan fed us a marvelous Thai chicken curry, and drove us around town to show us Kalamazoo and the college (Ryan’s office is in an awesome older building; the campus is beautiful as you might expect–the college has 1,400 students, and is the oldest liberal-arts school in the area, founded in 1833 and–thank you, Wikipedia–among the 100 oldest colleges in the U.S.). It’s also right across from the huge Western Michigan campus with its 24,000 students. Kalamazoo as a town is surprisingly big, for only 75,000 people–the metropolitan area adds enough (another 200,000 or so) that it’s downtown area has sort of Lincoln size and feel. After our little driving tour, which also included the beautiful neighborhood right by the college where Ryan and Eric live, we just sat and talked for a while about jobs and road trips and Michigan… We had brought champagne to celebrate the Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality (a decision that means that Ryan and Eric, who got married in 2006 in California, but whose marriage has not been legal in Michigan, where they moved in 2012 for Ryan’s job, until today!). But we just left it for them because we got too tired to toast the great news (how’s that for middle-aged?), and went to bed around 10 instead.

 

Saturday, June 27, 2015 , Kalamazoo, MI to Lincoln, NE (665 miles)

I guess this day also needs to be duly recorded, but this was the long driving day of getting ourselves home. We left Ryan and Eric’s house early (and quietly), just around 7, stopped at a Starbucks for coffee, juice, and a scone, and drove, first in the rain, then in sunshine, all the way back to Lincoln. We stopped for Subway in Iowa City (first subway on this trip, yay!) and kept going. We used the Google traffic app to avoid an accident slowdown in Omaha (it’s amazing how all that works–they use cell phone data to show you real-time traffics density, and you can see the lines of red for slow traffic grow as you watch the map–crazy). To entertain ourselves on boring stretches, we tried to look up all kinds of random things on Wikipedia–we’ve done that all along. So by now, we know all kinds of things about national parks (including the one in American Samoa), on the flow of the Chicago River being reversed by engineers in the early 20th century, locks and canals and rivers and highways, not to mention the geology of the last ice age and the tides (including a little side trail on everything that the mathematician / engineer Kelvin had his hands in, which comprised tidal patterns, ship compasses on iron vessels, the first transatlantic telegraph cable, not to mention the second law of thermodynamics and the absolute temperature scale). We got home between 4 and 5, rested up a bit, and had dinner at noodles, where we got to watch the annual horde of Thespians try to demonstrate their individuality and artsiness. 🙂 We watched our first movie since before the road trip (we used screens for computers and iPads a lot on the road, but we didn’t watch any TV, Netflix, or other movies, and never had a hotel room TV on). The amazing thing was that we made it all the way through without falling asleep–a tribute to the quirky movie (“Chappie”), which offered some unexpected turns and intriguing sets. We went to bed after 11, glad to be on our own turf but happy with a wonderful trip–5432 miles total!