June 6-12, 2013
If we’d known how much we’d like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, we might have skipped over the southern part. But we didn’t know. Also, it took us several days and three state parks to learn another lesson: we don’t like staying at state parks in Michigan. In hindsight, I would have gone to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore near Traverse City instead of the state parks. Much of life, and consequently travel, is learning what would have been a better choice and hoping that the knowledge gained through one’s mistakes will be useful one day . . . often it is not . . . at least not yet.
I was pretty sure I’d been in Michigan before, but aside from layovers at the Detroit airport, I couldn’t remember when. Could this be a new state for both Chris and I? The map of Michigan intrigued us. So much coastline! Almost the entire state is surrounded by the waters of lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior.
When we entered Michigan from Toledo, Ohio it was late and I picked a nearby state park off the road atlas, Pinckney State Recreation Area, west of Detroit. It had a lake, swimming, boating, hiking and mountain biking. We didn’t plan to stay long; it was a stop on our way to the lakeshore. We did get one good piece of advice: travel the west, not the east, coast of the Michigan mitten.
GRAND HAVEN STATE PARK
After a couple pleasant, unremarkable days of recouping and catching up on email and other tasks at Pinckney, we went to Grand Haven State Park on the shores of Lake Michigan. It had been recommended to us. We arrived late on a Saturday and there were only two campsites left. To call this a campground would be misleading. It was really a parking lot of asphalt and shifting sand for enormous RVs. They sat right next to each other with barely enough room for a picnic table between them. A few intrepid tenters and small campers like us were there but not many. We would have had much more space spending the night at Walmart.
The recommendation had come from a 20-something state park worker; once there, I understood that this park might be a fun place for her but it was far from our ideal. It was basically a big communal beach party scene. Looking around us, Chris coined the term “extroverted camping”, that is, camping where people are in close proximity to each other and have endless opportunities for interaction and like it that way. Not surprisingly, it was also a big family scene, which means camping with lots of stuff, lots of activity and, consequently, lots of noise. We like “introverted camping” which prizes privacy, quiet, solitude and introspection, where there is space to reflect, write and meditate. Introverts and the “highly sensitive” seem to find comfort in nature and value its serenity and beauty. Extroverts may as well, but their first priority and source of greatest enjoyment seems to come from being in close contact with other humans.
Our truck was backed up against the sewage treatment building and we only got a few whiffs of foul fumes during our less than 24-hour stay. Our front faced the beach which was attractive in a city beach sort of way, not unlike the boardwalk area of Santa Cruz. Volleyball nets, tables, snack bar, etc. We were in walking distance to the town of Grand Haven and its restaurants and shopping. It’s interesting how similar beach towns are whether on the Great Lakes, Pacific or Atlantic. For the right people, this could be a perfect vacation spot, we just weren’t the right people.
I tried hard to shift my expectations and enjoy what we got instead of what we wanted. The initial view of the vast basin of fresh water was impressive and the sunset lovely. There was a a long pier with a lighthouse where groups of people walked, ran and lingered. Few people swam in the lake since the water was very cold.
In the early morning, I strolled the beach barefoot with only a few other early risers. It was delightful, with small waves lapping the shore, a soft fresh wind and pleasant temperature. It had the illusion of a great ocean but with no sharks or jellyfish, no tides or salt, no marine mammals and few shells. It was barren compared to the waters of the Monterey Bay which teem with seaweed, anemones, shellfish, sea lions and fish.
LUDINGTON STATE PARK
Lundington State Park – our next stop – is considered one of Michiganders favorite parks. We were encouraged by its more natural setting but discouraged by the busyness of the campground. We had thought that kids were still in school but soon discovered they were all out for the summer. Although the campground had shade trees and was not as closely packed as Grand Haven, it was still densely populated. Many people were camping with everything, including the kitchen sink. Outdoor rugs and lights, flags, signs, numerous large toys and games, screen houses, potted plants, beach equipment, boats, chairs, tables, and outdoor cooking systems of all kinds.
Everyone – adult and child – had a bicycle and they road around in packs. Every campsite nursed a campfire from early morning until late. It seemed as if the natural beauty of the place was secondary to its entertainment value. We felt as if we were camping in the middle of a noisy crowded playground.
Our site was against a large dune; a trail behind it led to the other side where Lake Michigan spread out in front and a beautiful wide beach stretched in either direction. Few people were actually on the beach and almost no one was in the water. An impressive lakeside lodge built by the CCC in 1935 was being renovated and will be a grand addition to the park when completed. There were paved bicycle trails throughout the park, a small lake and a river running from it to Lake Michigan. I was able to kayak both the lake and stream and sighted some wildlife there (see photos). A foot trail along the dunes led to an isolated lighthouse. (We found out that you can apply to be a volunteer lighthouse keeper at several lighthouses in Michigan.) Again, I can understand how all of this would be perfect for the right people, but we were ready to move on after a couple days.
GOING TO HELL . . . AND THEN NIRVANA
Hell turned out to be tackier than the tacky I envisioned for it. Hell is a little town in Michigan, originally named Hell Creek, but sometime in the 19th century the “creek” got dropped. It is tiny, a few buildings, and its only industry is taking advantage of its name. Its style and decor is like a year-round Halloween party. The parking lots of the restaurant and gift shop were filled with motorcyclists who, I guess, have a special affinity for Hell. A film crew was busy shooting a video about Hell guided around town by the owner of the commercial establishments and a fellow with horns (you know who). When a woman came up to me and brightly asked, “How the HELL are you?!” I smiled and backed away, giving the vibe that I didn’t want to be part of their media excitement. But I did pose for Chris as “A Lil Devil”.
As you might imagine, there are a lot of jokes and puns about Hell. For example, the Michigan state tourism slogan is “Pure Michigan” so this town suggested you also experience “Pure Hell”. In the winter there, Hell freezes over. And if someone ever tells you to go to Hell, you can say you’ve already been.
There is a town in the Upper Peninsula called Paradise and, believe it or not, Nirvana is also on the map of Michigan. Just by chance, we were able to drive down the small road where Nirvana supposedly existed; I doubted it would be the mini-tourist trap that Hell was. As a matter of fact, we couldn’t find it. There were no signs, no indication that you had reached Nirvana even though it was clearly marked on all the maps we looked at. Nirvana remained mysteriously elusive, unattainable. That’s about right, don’t you think?