Lower Michigan (May 27 – June 15, 2021)

On Thursday, May 27th, we got an early start and drove 190 miles from Elkhart, IN to Ludington, MI where we spent five nights at Poncho’s Pond RV Park.  We set up in a light drizzle but managed to get finished before the heavier rain began.  The campground was very attractive and our site was on the edge of a large pond.  However, our pad was quite narrow and not long enough to accommodate all our vehicles.  Since the campground rules prohibited parking on the grass, we needed to remove the bikes and bike rack so our car wouldn’t be sticking out into the road.

The weather for the entire Memorial Day weekend was quite cool.  The highs for our first three days never got above 60 degrees and Memorial Day itself was only slightly warmer. On Saturday, we drove to Ludington State Park on the edge of Lake Michigan.  We hiked 4.5-miles out-and-back on the Lighthouse Trail.  The trail first took us to the Big Sable Point Lighthouse, which was built in 1867 after 12 ships had wrecked in the area in 1855.  On our return, we climbed the dunes at the site of a shipwreck and the former site of a station of the U.S. Life-Saving Service.  Unfortunately, there were no remains to be seen.

That evening we drove to the edge of Lake Michigan and watched the sunset.

On Sunday, we returned to Ludington State Park and hiked the 2.5-mile Lost Lake and Island Loop Trail.  This loop trail took us around the circumference of Lost Lake, with us hiking along Hamlin Lake on the return.

Monday was Memorial Day.  We returned to Ludington State Park for the third day and hiked the 2.3-mile Skyline Trail.  The middle of this loop hike involved climbing over 200 stairs to the top of a sand dune that provided a view of Lake Michigan.  The trail ended at the Hamlin Dam which feeds the Sable River.

We then drove back into Ludington and hiked along the Ludington North breakwater to a lighthouse, a distance of one-half mile in each direction.  We were glad the waves were not as strong as we had observed in previous days and we managed to walk the breakwater without getting wet,

On Tuesday, June 1st, we moved northerly to Traverse City, MI.  With only an 82-mile drive from Ludington and check-in not allowed until 2 pm, we had a leisurely morning and departed at 12:30.  Although our starting and ending points were both on US-31, the GPS took us on a rather circuitous route.  We arrived at Holiday Park Campground at 2:30 for our weeklong stay and found that our area of the campground was largely devoid of other campers.  We expect that to change on the weekend.

On Wednesday, we drove to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.  Lake Michigan and the giant dunes were formed 14,000 years ago when the glaciers receded.  Over time, forests have developed in much of the area.  After a brief stop at the Visitors Center, we drove the 7-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and got out to explore at several of the stops.  One of the stops provided a 450-foot steep climb down a dune to Lake Michigan.  There was a warning sign stating that a rescue from the slope would cost $3,000 so we just watched from an overlook as some of the younger, and more adventurous, climbers took the challenge.

Our next stop was at the Dune Climb.  We struggled in deep sand to get up the massive dunes and managed to get a view of Lake Michigan in the distance.  We decided not to attempt the entire Dune Climb Trail, which would have entailed walking four miles in the deep sand. 

After a stop in Glen Arbor for some ice cream treats, we hiked the 2.9-mile Good Harbor Bay Trail.  This loop trail took us through thick forests and a swamp.

On Thursday, we drove to Hartwick Pines State Park in Grayling, MI.  This state park is one of the largest in Lower Michigan.  It is named for its 49 acres of old-growth pine forest, some of the last remaining in the state.  After exploring the displays at the Visitor Center, we walked along a path through the old-growth forest.  We stopped at the Chapel in the Pines, built in 1953.

We then toured the Logging Museum, with its depiction of the state’s 19th-century logging era, when Michigan led the nation in sawed lumber production.

We then did a scenic drive on dirt roads that wound through the forest.  After the drive, we hiked the 3.3-mile Ausable River Foot Trail.

On Friday, we started our day at the Blue Vase Book Exchange in Interlochen, MI.  This bookstore operates with a unique business model, selling used books, DVDs, games, and vinyl records.  In addition to selling books online, they allow customers to bring in their gently loved books and exchange them for different ones.  Generally, they give one half the store value in credit that can be used to buy books from their very large inventory.  We took in ten books we had finished and left with ten new-to-us books.

Next, we drove to downtown Traverse City and spent time exploring the East Front Street shopping district.  We stopped for lunch at a collection of food trucks.  After checking our a few stores, we wandered down to the marina on West Grand Traverse Bay.  Before leaving downtown, we stopped at the Grand Traverse Pie Company and bought a peach pie.  Our final stop of the day was at Walgreens, where Phil got his second dose of the Shingrix vaccine.

On Saturday, we visited The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, on the grounds of the former Traverse City State Hospital (previously known as the Northern Michigan Asylum).  After visiting several of the shops, we took a two-hour guided tour of the hospital.  Our tour guide, Vanessa, had grown up at the facility as the son (then named Ben) of the hospital’s Superintendent and as a part-time employee in the Maintenance department.  She shared a lot of amusing and sad stories about life at the hospital and her interactions with the patients and staff.  We learned a lot about the history of the hospital and its approach to dealing with mental health issues.  Our tour included visits into the former chapel (now a reception hall), one of the unrenovated buildings and a walk through the brick steam tunnel built in 1883.

Construction of the Northern Michigan Asylum began in 1882. In spite of a time of hand tools and mule power, the immense task of constructing the huge hospital took less than three years to complete. By November of 1885, it received its first patients. The main structure (Building 50) was almost one quarter mile long, with over 300,000 square feet, and employed central heat and electric lights. With a rudimentary understanding of germ theory, a state-of-the-art ventilation system was designed that would use large fans to force air through underground tunnels, into the basement and up flues in the building. Almost immediately after completion of the original building, there was demand for additional patient rooms. Standalone cottages were constructed to serve the increasing patient population. 

The Northern Michigan Asylum was built more than six decades before the use of the first psychiatric drugs. Founding Superintendent Dr. Munson believed in the Quakers’ moral treatment movement. Central to this belief was Dr. Munson’s philosophy that “Beauty is Therapy.” If patients were surrounded by a beautiful environment, from the architecture to the campus grounds, their emotional and mental state would be uplifted. Dr. Munson made an effort to ensure that patients felt at home, rather than trapped in an unfamiliar place. Each patient room had a window and view to the outside. This let in an abundance of natural light and allowed every patient the opportunity to enjoy a view of the campus.  Use of physical restraints was forbidden, except for the most extreme patient situations. Meals at the hospital were served in dining rooms on fine china, atop white linen tablecloths. Fresh flowers and plants decorated dining tables and resting areas. Artwork and inspirational sayings adorned the walls of the wide hallways.

By 1966, the hospital population hit its peak with 3,600 patients and 800 employees.  However, as the patient population dropped in the 1970s-1990s, some of the buildings were shuttered or demolished.  The state and community debated the preservation or demolition of the facility.  In 2002, the Minervini Group LLC acquired a 36-acre parcel and renovation began.  Today, The Village at Grand Traverse Commons contains offices, residential lofts, a senior living facility, and numerous shopping and dining establishments.  Numerous events are held on the grounds throughout the year.  Renovation of the outbuildings is still a work in progress.

Following our tour, we had a late lunch at the Red Spire Brunch House in the lower level of the former hospital.

On Sunday, we headed to the farmers’ market in Interlochen.  Although there were a lot of vendors, it must have been too early in the year for vegetables and we left empty-handed.  However, we did stop at the Blue Vase Book Exchange again and left with another ten books.  We should now have enough reading material to last us quite a while.

On Tuesday, June 8th, we drove 120 miles to Mackinaw City, MI where we will spend a week at Mackinaw Mill Creek Camping.  We had expected to take I-75 most of the way but the GPS had a different idea.  We drove almost the entire trip on US-31, which took us along Lake Michigan and by a number of beautiful lakes.  It was a longer trip, timewise, but definitely more picturesque.  Our campsite was a large pull-through with plenty of privacy.  Although not on the water, we could see Lake Huron a short distance from our site.  A beach with a clear view of the Mackinac Bridge was only a short walk away from us. 

Unfortunately, halfway through the trip, Phil’s truck started giving him a message of “DEF System Service – See Dealer.”  DEF is the acronym for Diesel Exhaust Fluid and can create a serious problem for a diesel truck.  If unresolved, the truck will be limited to driving at 5 mph.  In fact, as Phil continued to drive, the truck messages began to display more ominous messages, beginning with “5 mph in 150 miles” and counting down from there.  Upon arriving at our campsite, Phil found that the closest RAM dealer was in Cheboygan, 14 miles away.  We drove the truck to the dealer and hope the issue can be resolved within a few days.  We were fortunate that the issue arose when we were still close to a large town.

After leaving Cheboygan, we explored downtown Mackinaw City.  We selected Noona Lisa’s Italian Ristorante for dinner.

On Wednesday, we drove to Wilderness State Park and hiked the North Country Trail Sturgeon Bay South Loop.  When we arrived in the parking lot at the trail’s geo-coordinates, we only found one trailhead and began down that trail.  After a mile, Phil checked our progress against the Alltrails app and discovered we had headed north when we were supposed to go south.  We backtracked and discovered the correct trailhead was across the road from the parking area.  The first half of the hike wasn’t really a trail at all.  Instead, it was a pleasant stroll alone the shore of Sturgeon Bay.  The return portion of the loop involved many fairly steep ascents and descents.  It was rated as moderate difficulty and reminded us of the moderate trails we had hiked in Maine. We ended the hike with a total of 7.6 miles.

On Thursday, we took the Star Link Ferry to Mackinac Island.  Our ferry was one of the few that included a route under the Mackinac Bridge.  The trip to Mackinac Island took about 40 minutes. 

Mackinac Island was first settled by Europeans in 1670.  The island was owned by the French, British and Americans over the next 150 years.  In the 1820s, the island was the center of a large fur trade.  By the late 1830s, commercial fishing was the primary industry.  Following the Civil War, the island became a popular tourist destination. Mackinac National Park was created in 1875 as America’s second national park, just three years after Yellowstone.  In 1895, the Federal government transferred the national park to the state of Michigan.  Three years later, the first automobile appeared on Mackinac Island, frightening horses and threatening the island’s carriage trade economy.  After receiving a petition from the tour operators, the village council quickly banned “horseless carriages.”  To this day, no motor vehicles are allowed on the island.  Tourists and residents alike must rely entirely on horse-drawn carriages and bicycles to get around on the island. 

Upon arrival, we strolled down Main Street and purchased some fudge at Murdick Fudge.  We continued our stroll along the bay, before stopping at the Grand Hotel.  This beautiful hotel was built in 1887 and still demands huge room rates.  In fact, we were charged $10 a piece simply to tour the hotel and grounds. 

After leaving the hotel, we strolled along Market Street.  Lilac bushes were everywhere and were in full bloom.  Their aroma helped to offset the ever-present scent of horse droppings.  We then returned to Main Street for lunch and, after checking the menus at numerous restaurants, we dined at Horn’s Gaslight Bar.  Following lunch, we visited a lot of shops on Main Street.  By mid-afternoon, the weather had gotten quite cool, with strong winds and a temperature of 62 degrees.  Phil gave into the chill and purchased a sweatshirt.  We also picked up another chunk of fudge at Murdick’s.  After some additional sightseeing and a brief stop in the Sainte Anne Church, we boarded the 5 pm ferry for our return to Mackinaw City.  There was still a lot we hadn’t see on the island but we decided to make a return trip later in our stay.

Friday was a rainy and dreary day so we stayed indoors most of the day.  At 5 pm, Phil finally heard from the service manager at the Dodge dealer that the truck was ready to be picked up.  Since the service department was closing and we were only 15 miles away, Phil asked the service manager to just put the key in the truck’s console and leave the truck unlocked.  However, when we arrived in Cheboygan, the truck was locked.  After dinner, Phil located the spare key and we returned to the dealership to retrieve the truck.

On Saturday, we explored downtown Mackinaw City.  As we arrived, we discovered a large event happening in the local park.  We later learned that the 1st annual Mackinaw City Motorcycle Rally was being held this weekend.  There were well over 1,000 motorcycles in town and bikers were everywhere we went.  Our first stop was at Michilimackanac (Mackinaw’s original name) State Park.  This was Michigan’s second state park and is home to two historic sites, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and Colonial Michilimackinac.  The park provides a great view of Mackinac Bridge, where the motorcycle rally had scheduled a parade over and back.  Unfortunately, due to a fatal motorcycle accident, traffic across the bridge was backed up for hours.  Due to the gridlock of bridge traffic, we were unable to get across town to see the McGulpin Point Lighthouse.

Our next stop was the Mackinac Bridge Museum, which is on the second floor of Mama Mia’s Pizzeria.  In addition to lots of artifacts from the bridge construction in 1954-1957, we watched videotaped interviews with ironworkers who had worked on the project.  The Mackinac Bridge is part of Interstate-75 and connects the Upper and Lower peninsulas of Michigan.  The bridge is five miles long and the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere.  The bridge, known as “Big Mac” or “Mighty Mac,” is designed to withstand crushing ice and winds up to 150 mph.

After visiting a few downtown shops, we stopped at Dixie Saloon for a not-so-healthy mid-afternoon snack of fried cheese curds.

Monday, June 14th, was Phil’s birthday and our last full day in Mackinaw City.  We had decided to return to Mackinac Island and to ride bicycles this time.  Since bike rentals on the island cost $12 per hour and only $12 round-trip to take a bike on the ferry, we decided to take our own bikes.  We rode the three-mile trail to the ferry and arrived just in time to catch the 9:15 departure.  When we arrived on the island, we headed eastward on M-185 (the only state highway where cars are banned).  Our first stop was at Arch Rock, which is 146 feet above the water and spans fifty feet at its widest point.  Geologists explain that the arch was formed over thousands of years by wind and water eroding the soft rock below.  We climbed the 207 steps up the Spring Trail to the arch.  We met a cute 3-year-old girl who was also celebrating a June 14 birthday.

We had intended to ride the 8.2-mile circumference of the island.  However, the road was closed a short distance past the Arch Rock, due to road construction.  We decided to backtrack, then take the bike path through the middle of the island, and return down the west side of the island.  Unfortunately, the route through the middle of the island was rather steep.  We walked our bikes up the hill to the Governor’s mansion, where the Michigan governors often vacation.  Shortly after we started riding again, Phil downshifted and the plastic piece connecting the gear derailer on his bike snapped.  The bike was only 2.5 years old but, after years of being exposed to the elements, it was badly rusted and not worth getting repaired.  The broken part made it impossible to pedal the bike but, since the brakes still worked, Phil was able to coast back down the hill, where we discarded the bike.

After doing some shopping on Main and Market streets, we toured Fort Mackinac.  From 1779-1781, during the American Revolution, the British dismantled Fort Michilimackinanc on the mainland and moved the garrison and the fur trade community to Mackinac Island.  The fort and island became U.S. territory as a result of the American victory in the Revolution.  However, in the first battle of the War of 1812, the British surprised the American soldiers, who quickly surrendered without a fight.  With Fort Mackinac under British control, they were able to control the entire Great Lakes region.  Two years later, American soldiers tried to recapture Fort Mackinac but were badly defeated in the only battle ever fought on the island.  The Americans finally regained the island when the war ended.

After checking out the menus from numerous restaurants, we decided to dine at the Pink Pony.  There was a wait to get a seat on the patio so we used the time to head to Murdick’s for some more fudge.  The sales clerk told Jan we could freeze the fudge for up to six months, but having the fudge last that long is highly unlikely.

After dinner, we visited the American Fur Company Store and Dr. Beaumont Museum.  In the 1820s, the fur trade had prospered on Mackinac Island.  John Astor established the northern departmental headquarters of the American Fur Company on the island.  Astor became America’s first millionaire and the richest man in the country.  In one very odd historical event inside the store, French Canadian voyageur Alexis St. Martin was accidently shot in the stomach.  Surgeon Dr. William Beaumont managed to keep St. Martin alive, but the hole in his stomach never completely healed.  Through this hole, Dr. Beaumont conducted 250 experiments, observed the workings of the human stomach and discovered much about the digestive process.  Eight years later, he published a groundbreaking book on his discovery of the digestive process.

After taking the ferry back to the mainland, Phil rode Jan’s bike, and Jan rode the campground shuttle, back to the campground.  We celebrated Phil’s birthday one more time with a slice of homemade blueberry pie.

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