Connecticut: small towns, New Haven, and on south

Last time (just around a year earlier- yikes! time flies!) I was in Connecticut was at the very start of my van journey, and while I buzzed through after one night, intending to stop again on my way south from New England but it never happened due to traffic and other plans. So this time I was sure to take a day to drive through the more rural, small town areas of the state. I admit, a large part of this was motivated by my Gilmore Girls watching binges over the years. The winding roads took me to the little town of Washington, CT, one of the towns upon which the fictional Stars Hollow was based. I spotted the local hardware store (still filled with tools, no diner stools), a knitting shop, a book store, the main square and church steeple, and Taylor-free market. A few miles down the road I made a quick stop at the legendary Mayflower Inn, basis for the Independence. I peeked inside before dinner time, and did a little lap around the serene grounds then hightailed it out before anyone realized I was neither a guest nor diner.

That night brought me to New Haven for amazing pizza and a morning stroll around the Yale campus to channel my inner Rory. My mother grew up in small semi-rural town outside the city, but I hadn’t been in the area much now that my grandparents aren’t around. Walking through New Haven, though, brought on some vague memories of visiting the Peabody Museum as a child with my grandma and a few other somewhat familiar sights.

Leaving New Haven I passed by Philip Johnson’s glass house in New Canaan, contemplated but declined to stop in the “hat city” of Danbury to see if John Oliver’s mocking was deserved, but instead aimed for the Delaware Water Gap recreation area for a pretty short hike in the fall color glory.

The trail took me into the woods and to a small waterfall, and while the walk was refreshing and it felt good to stretch my legs before a long driving day, just driving along the narrow winding roads in the countryside was like something out of a movie. That night I crashed with a friend so we could yell at the tv during the first presidential debate and eat very good Indian takeout. Much like last time I visited this NJ spot with a Manhattan view, the next day it was back home. Off to Delaware- the van was go.

New York: the Finger Lakes

From Buffalo the van and I traveled east toward the Finger Lakes, but along the way made a stop along the way to visit the cemetery where Susan B. Anthony and Frederic Douglass are buried and some related sights in Rochester, then continued on to spend an afternoon in the beautiful (and super crowded on a gorgeous fall weekend) Letchworth State Park.

I hiked a few paths alongside the gorge rim, onto a few small outcroppings and islands, and through the woods. The turning leaves were beautiful and the perfect backdrop to the rushing Genesee River and cascading falls. I didn’t do full justice to this massive park because, between Covid number restrictions and the popularity of the park, parking areas were filled to capacity at many locations and several trails were closed to any new traffic by the time I arrived. I felt like I got a good variety, though, and recommend highly for weekday adventures or early risers.

Further west I arrived on the southern edge of the Finger Lakes, passing the skillet used to make the world’s largest pancake and remnant of the buckwheat festival apparently. At the base of Seneca Lake I camped overnight in the Finger Lakes National Forest, then was one of the first into Watkins Glen State Park. Watkins Glen’s narrow stone paths follow an impressive gorge and stream with a series of waterfalls. Walking the one-way path felt like I was exploring a hidden fairy land or something, and despite it having been fairly dry the rushing water was amazing and inspiring. I’m told this is even more special after a big rain in springtime, but I was happy with to be surrounded by the ledges, glowing autumn colors, and relatively few people on a Sunday morning.

After a yummy egg taco brunch in the leafy picnic area, it was off to the next stop of Ithaca south of Cayuga Lake. I started off by following the Carl Sagan Planet Walk through downtown and winding along a canal, through quaint neighborhoods, and ending at the science center. Each stop was distanced to scale from it’s neighbor, so while my first few planets were on the same block, they became further spaced as it continued, and gave a nice little tour while listening to the Bill Nye narrated audio guide about the solar system.

Up a hill I walked to see Ithaca Falls, across a footbridge, wander through the Cornell Campus, and then back into town via the Cascadilla Gorge trail. As others have said (and I was disappointed not to find on a sticker for my cooler), Ithaca is Gorges. Ha. Ha.

Leaving the Finger Lakes after an early dinner, it was off to Albany for the night where I spotted the Schuyler Mansion alluded to in Hamilton, and the tiny schoolhouse once led by the teacher upon whom Ichabod Crane was based. A busy, waterfall and gorge-filled few days! Next stop: the Constitution State.

Pennsylvania and New York: Lake Erie Coastline

So it’s been a long time since I took the time to actually recap these adventures (now three months ago) but finally catching up and reliving the warmth, beauty, and fun. I miss it so much now that it’s full on winter. Exiting Ohio brought me into the teeny chunk of Pennsylvania bordering the Great Lakes. Despite having spent my college years in PA, western PA was pretty much uncharted territory for me aside from a day trip to Fallingwater years ago further south. I had no idea this was a winemaking area (mainly very sweet- not my faves but tried one because local goods deserve a try) and driving past little fields of grapevines with Lake Erie in the background was lovely. My main stop heading through was exploring Presque Isle State Park which is on a little peninsula in the lake and is filled with marshlands, beaches, and a spot at the tip with a memorial to Admiral Perry. Now you may recall that I had also just visited a strikingly similar memorial to the same dude in Ohio, and also that I visited a different park of the same name in Michigan’s UP. Weird. It was a beautiful spot, free to enter, with a loop road and lots of quiet trails, bike paths, and places in a normal year that one could go boating. The fall colors were starting to emerge and it was a serene morning before continuing into New York.

I staked out a spot which ended up being one of my favorite spots to wake up to at a fishing pier outside Westfield. The little town had a tiny lighthouse and I spent the evening inhaling Chipotle while watching the sunset at Barcelona beach, then did had a lazy morning by the pier after catching the sunrise with the seagulls. I did a drive through of the Chautauqua Institution, which is the community and artist retreat center on which my little town of Glen Echo in Maryland was based, and the similar vibe was crazy. Made me feel like home for a few minutes, then did a swing through Jamestown on the other end of Chautauqua Lake, most notable for being the hometown of Lucille Ball. Not only is it filled with I Love Lucy themed murals, but also has a Desilu museum (closed while I was there), Lucy’s gravesite, and my personal fave, two dueling Lucy statues, known as Scary Lucy and Lovely Lucy. Hilarious. What a tribute.

Next stop was Buffalo. Some highlights included a bunch of old factories and silos, some of which have been repurposed into other things like one painted like a giant LaBatt six-pack (a rival to the one in Wisconsin?) with shops and a brewery below and funky art and attractions, but also lots of pretty parks, waterfront sights, and waterfalls- one of which has natural gas seeping out from a fissure that someone keeps lit as an ‘eternal flame’ which was stinky but cool at the end of a short hike. I saw some fun statues like one of a Buffalo nickel and a monument to a hospital service dog (so sweet), and attempted to see a famous statue of a girl with a shark head but didn’t do my research and it was off display for the moment. Bummer. The city also has lots of beautiful architecture downtown, and while driving through I went by a stadium with signs for the Blue Jays. Now, here’s how little I know about whatever I should know: I may have said aloud, “huh, I didn’t realize we were so close to Toronto… it must be a hassle to go back and forth across the border for games. Weird.” Later I got to visit and inhale s’mores while visiting some ex-DC friends, Matt and Jackie and their kiddos, which was so nice, and Matt, who works with the local sports franchises, told me that this was just a temporary solution for Covid and a rare moment a Canadian team would be stationed in the US so… there that is. Oops.

My visit ended with a trip to Niagara Falls! I’d been here with my family on a trip when I was around 10 but am so glad I went again. Certain wonders and places are just amazing no matter how often you see them, and I could have stayed and stared at those falls all day. I did the Cave of the Winds walk along the bottom side of the falls which was a very cool experience and offered a different viewpoint and the chance to feel a little taste of the power of the falls. The ticket info mentioned that the steps can be slippery so I opted for sneakers, but this may have been the worst choice because I ended up getting totally soaked from the calves down below the free poncho from the Hurricane Deck landing. Worth the squishy shoes for the rest of the day though. And the giant spiders all along the trail.

From the top I walked all around and was treaded to some double rainbow action watching the boats pass through the spray. Side note: comparing the Canadian boat and the American boat was like night and day of Covid measures at a glance. The Canadians had literally 10 people max per boat, while the American ones were at half capacity which was still many dozens of people. Did I still go on the Maid of the Mist tour? Yup. After judging away I donned my poncho and hung back from the people smushed against the rails and stood in awe of the falls. From afar I spotted the new all electric version that my godmother’s nephew helped design, but hasn’t been approved to take passengers yet. Down the road a bit I went through the Whirlpool State Park and watched the swirling, stunningly blue water along the trail. Then on my way out of town I spotted a bizarre house decorated with all sorts of colorful religious symbolism. The internet tells me that this is the home of a man who was certain the apocalypse was coming in 2012, and very vocal about it. 2013 must have been a bummer for him. There was also a giant cross next to the garage but I missed it in the photo. Anyway, weird wrap up to the a beautiful day!

Ohio: hot dog buns, a sparkly cave, waterfalls, and an amazing alley

My first stop in Ohio was lunch in Toledo at a hot dog restaurant where they’re known for having celebrity signed hot dog buns. Yep. That’s their thing… and yep, it was actually pretty cool for a gimmick. Legend (or you know, their own wall plaque) tells that Burt F’n Reynolds started the tradition by grabbing the closest bun when asked for an autograph, and thus is responsible for this tradition of famous people signing buns since hot dogs are the specialty along with Hungarian fare at Tony Packo’s Cafe. The place also got a publicity boost from local fan Jamie Farr of MASH fame. The wall of buns includes singers, actors, local politicians, presidents, sports stars, the works. Only one tiny case holds actual buns since they started decomposing and have since wisely swapped to foam buns. In any case, my pierogis were good but not anywhere near as good as the ones made by my friend Inna and I enjoyed giving some good vibes to the Obama/Biden buns.

Elsewhere in Toledo I spent a beautiful afternoon in the city botanical gardens walking through the beautiful plants, the pond, and checking out the statues on a nice sunny day. Then it was off to Sandusky Bay for the night so I’d be ready to catch a morning ferry to South Bass Island. Unexpectedly my evening ran a little late as I cried like a crazy person for a few minutes upon hearing of the passing of RBG.

My mood the next morning did not improve much and I was a super grumpy grump between that, a messed up breakfast order, a deceptive parking fee, and too close standing ferry goers who didn’t seem to grasp the whole nose covering part of mask wearing. Then I was literally the only person from the ferry who opted not to rent a golf cart or bike and walk the half hour to the attractions- zero sidewalks, crazy drivers, what a weird place. My first stop was the largest-known geode, Crystal Cave under a local winery. Pretty lackluster sweet wine, but a cool cave that sparkled all over from Celestine crystals.

This island is known mainly for the town of Put-In-Bay, known for the monument to Admiral Perry’s victory on Lake Erie in the War of 1812, along with a lot of party places… including the world’s longest bar! At over 400′ of zig zagging bar, the Beer Barrel Saloon was a sight to see, and I was very glad to have arrived to check it out from the patio before the afternoon rush started to trickle in. I was so ready to escape that place (and the whole island to be honest) once the sea of bachelorette parties, biker folks, groups from an old Jeep ‘invasion’ parade, and others who seemed not to think twice about crowding together and singing and mixing. Cue to vamoose to walk around the monument and back along the bay to the ferry.

I camped for the night at a nearby state park and checked out the Marblehead Lighthouse on a windy afternoon with a distant view of a closed Cedar Point, then continued onward to Cleveland with the Drew Carey theme playing in my head. I walked through the Lake View cemetery with notable graves including President Garfield, some Rockefellers, and Elliot Ness along with a cool weeping angel statue, and later went by the best attraction of the city- obviously the Christmas Story house with its ‘fra-gee-lay’ leg lamp prominent in the window. While I didn’t spend a lot of time in Cleveland I did do a cursory nighttime drive through town by some other cool things like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the largest chandelier, the largest rubber stamp, and some other cool areas of town.

My main reason for coming through Cleveland was to explore the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which consumed the following day. Did a quick walk around Brandywine Falls, and another to Blue Hen Falls before a little longer walk through the Ledges. I wish I’d had longer to explore this area of beauty that showcases the power of what we can do when improving environmental quality is made a priority.

Heading east through Ohio I made a few quick pit stops in the town of Warren, birthplace of both Neil Armstrong and Dave Grohl. One got a little park with a replica moon lander next to a McDonalds. The other got an entire alley of cool graffiti. I tend to lean toward one being cooler… can you tell? If anything was going to leave me with a positive memory of this state, it was some waterfalls and some Foovana vibes. Thanks, Ohio!

Michigan: Detroit area

After my brief visit to Lansing (home of that very tall lug nut), it was off to Ann Arbor via the tiny town of Hell, where I did a quick drive through past a couple of restaurants and bars having fun with the name. Now I can say I’ve been to Paradise and Hell all in the great Wolverine state! Gotta love the chance to live the dream advertised on local post cards.

Once in Ann Arbor I explored town, ate a lot in the lovely sunshine, and went to a few more great breweries- a so so place in town, a place near the University area with great Korean food (HOMES, my fave of this town’s bunch), and one with a lovely patio space in Ypsilanti. I loved the vibe near HOMES in the pretty residential neighborhood, perhaps just the hallmark of any cool college town. I found a spot for the night on the street in a residential area by a condo complex (urban van tip, condos and apartments are the best for no one noticing random out of state visitors) then continued on towards Detroit.

I got a bunch of recs from my friend Andrea who grew up in the area. One small upside to living in Detroit! Just kidding, it was actually a great city to visit. I mean, even driving into town I was welcomed by the fantastic roadside attraction of the largest tire, so that’s an auspicious beginning, and went past the Motown record label museum (didn’t think to reserve a visit beforehand so all couldn’t tour). I walked around downtown past lots of cool street art, parks, and statues before hitting up the Detroit Institute of Arts for the afternoon. This was a great museum and they had labeled the routes through the exhibits really well to make one way distancing easy. Can I just say that I really hope a lot of these limits and timed passes stay after the pandemic calms down? No crowd induced panic attacks here, my friends.

The DIA has a diverse array of art and may be best known for a central hall decorated with a wrap around Rivera mural inspired by the city’s industries. Pretty amazing museum over all. I stopped by the Founder’s Brewery and later got some Detroit style pizza despite warnings that it was not real pizza. It was decent but not my personal favorite, though it was kind of fun to walk past the empty baseball stadium and hear a game being played with zero crowd but the lights blazing and announcer giving the play by play into the quiet night. All that plus views of Canada!

Not far down the road in Dundee (great name, btw) I was treated to waking up so conveniently adjacent to the “World’s Largest Bronze Wildlife Sculpture” outside a Cabela’s. I often wonder who comes up with these bizarre categories and figures out that there’s a window for a record… like, are there other bronze sculptures that are jealous of this record? Is there another record holding sculpture in another metal? Did they set out to break a record, or just decide after it was made that it happened to stand out? So many questions. Further south I passed by what is listed online as the tallest Uncle Sam standing watch over a closed fireworks stand (though I’ve since also been past a rival for the record in Danbury, CT… controversy of the ages!).

Just before entering Ohio I made an impulse decision to take advantage of the beautiful early fall weather and stopped at an orchard and pumpkin patch and had the great pleasure of being the only childless adult in the place. Such a beautiful day! I escaped a corn maze, had some photo fun in the sunflower field, picked a bag full of apples (side note, I love how we pay more for the pleasure of doing extra work at places like this compared to just stopping by the grocery store… bit I’ll take it), and got a yummy cider donut for the road. Well done, Michigan, it was a wonderful few weeks.

Michigan: Traverse City to Grand Rapids

From Mackinac I cut over to the Traverse City area where I began what would be a week of local brewery visits and to experience all things cherry related. It was kind of overcast for most of my visit and it was supposed to rain off and on over the next few days, so it was nice to take advantage of the pre-rain sunshine on my way and visit some roadside attractions. Lucky for me there were many things to see in a small area! I stopped by a quiet church grounds where the biggest wooden crucifix stands overlooking the outdoor pews and glass wall of the church itself. Carving this out of one giant redwood much have been a task for sure. The church is also home to the largest collection of dolls dressed in religious outfits…. but that sounded super creepy so I passed.

Next stop was the Historic Barns Park botanic gardens and paths. The visitor center was closed (maybe for covid or maybe I was just after hours, not sure) and the barns themselves, which have been converted for event space, were being updated so off limits, but the grounds were open and free and provided some lovely sunny walking time. There’s a serene labyrinth, a section of woods filled with fairy villages, a pollinator garden, a vegetable garden, and lots of trails and nice views. The garden is on the former grounds of what was once a big state asylum, and by the entrance is a monument to a beloved cow the patients and staff loved who once grazed here. Weird but true.

A little further down the road behind a school there was also a trail to the hippie tree- a massive tree with branches spreading horizontally over a vast area which you can climb on and over. It’s been painted by generations of locals and has been said to be a spiritual gateway, some channeling mystical energy and others saying it’s haunted by the mad spiritis from the asylum or a gateway to hell, so you know, something in that very specific range. I didn’t get any weird vibes buy maybe the recent spray paint fumes got to me first.

The old asylum has been transformed into retail, dining, and apartment space. I walked around a little and spent some time on the patio of a brewery there and it seemed like a nice spot, though my favorite parts of Traverse City were along the water where I hung out doing computer stuff by a little town beach with some coffee on a drizzly morning before tracking down the pie tin from what was the world’s largest cherry pie! Fittingly on display just outside the Sara Lee factory.

A little loop north from town took me to the cutest little brewery in the woods by Suttons Bay where I treated myself to some tacos under the fairy lights before continuing on to the cutest fishing town of Leland, where a wedding party was just taking a little ride around the bay in some sort of amphibious vehicle that reminded me of the ridiculous moment the car starts flying at the end of Grease. That night I was staying in a campsite in the Sleeping Bear Dunes national lakeshore, another nice site which left me well positioned to spend a full day exploring the park trails and views.

I did a few nice little hikes through the trees and fields up to some overlooks, and later out to the dune trail. I always forget how strenuous walking over sand is, especially up! Ugh. Easier for sure than the massive dunes out in Colorado under the summer sun, but these were deceptive in that I kept telling myself I’d keep going to just the next ridge to spy the lake, but each one hid another dune until the water finally peeked through. Hooray! Going down was fun, though. The scenic drive loop through another area of the park was lovely and almost deservted, which was nice, then off toward Glen Arbor where I hung out for a bit and explored Cherry Republic, home of all things cherry. My favorite part was the olympic sized (what does that even mean??) cherry pit spitting lane. I was too late for fresh cherry time but came away from the shop having tasted some interesting cherry wine and with some dried cherries and chocolate covered cherries from the shop at the lady’s insistence. Yum!

I found what would end up being the last free woodsy campsite for the next stretch of my trip (womp womp, downside of returning to more populated areas) and headed into Grand Rapids with a detour to see the biggest wind vane along the way. I drove past the Gerald Ford presidential museum/library but was too lazy to park and search for the statue of him made of recycled junk my roadside attraction list said was in there somewhere. Instead I did another leg of the Michigan brewery tour and went to some place known for their Belgian style beers (real draw: good fries with dip), and an early morning swing through downtown sans traffic.

Not far down the road I stopped in Marshall where I went for a tiny walk along a boardwalk by some marsh and a reservoir or water treatment place or something, then hung out for the afternoon at Dark Horse brewery on their fabulous outdoor space where I caught up on recording my journey while having some excellent drinks and snacks. When it started to get crowded and I felt bad taking up a whole table by myself in prime business time, I took off reluctantly but had the world’s biggest lug nut to look forward to. While a lot of things traveling on this solo trip have changed with pandemic, one of the most inconvenient is ot being able to sneak into a single chair at a busy place now that every party needs a whole table many places. Oh well. Sorry restaurants for taking up space by myself! Onward into the hazy distance I go now that the western fire smoke has arrived.

Michigan: Mackinac Island

After crossing the bridge from the UP into Mackinac City, I spent the rest of the afternoon trying some super sweet and… interesting local wine in town, and chatting with folks at a local brewery in the drizzly evening. In a small boost to my self confidence I got hit on by a range of 23-57 year olds, so there’s that at least (or pickings are slim in pandemic- either way I’ll take a compliment and some free drinks and mozzarella sticks). Come morning I hopped in line to take the ferry to Mackinac Island after the wind and rain had calmed a little, which is great because it meant the ferry could take the route under the bridge along the way which I hear they’d been skipping due to high wind gusts. Woohoo!

Pulling up to the island the first identifiable feature is the enormous Grand Hotel, which from afar looks like it could take up a whole city block, and then some small lighthouses and cottages began to emerge as we approached the dock. The island is car-free aside from a firetruck and a few police vehicles, so there was a mad rush to the bicycle rental stands and the horse-drawn carriage ride stalls along the front street as soon as each boat pulls in. Being a rare adult who still lacks the coordination or drive to ride a bike without training wheels (side note- riding a child’s bike with training wheels leads to bruised knees, take my word for it) I decided to just walk. I mean, the island is less than 5 sq. miles and 8 miles around and I had nowhere to be but back by the last ferry, so…

I gathered some info, and started off down the road when two people taking photos asked me to stage a little walk by the water for their island fall marketing because I was apparently in the right colors with my green jacket and orange backpack combo accidentally resembling a hunter or something, so that was something novel and I am 99% sure those photos will never see the light of day given the fact that I hadn’t showered for a few days and had ferry wind hair, but who knows. They did give me a tip to trek up some stairs that looked like part of someone’s sidewalk but led up to a perfect view over the harbor. So pretty!

A little uphill walk took me into the state park area where bike, horse and walking trails cover most of the interior territory of the island. I looked out over arch rock and got my first views of how clear and blue the water around the shoreline can be, then continued onwards through the woods and to an old fort model, a few cemeteries, the tiny island airport, and into the section where gorgeous Victorian homes line the streets.

I was snapping some pics of the colorful gardens and inviting porches overlooking the west side of the island and a man gardening came to give me a giant dahlia, so that was a nice surprise and made my little lakeside picnic more festive. There are a few hundred steps leading down to the path circumnavigating the island, and I found a picnic table at Pontiac’s Lookout and dipped my feet into the nice cool and totally clear water of Lake Huron. Then it was back up the many steep stairsand down the block to the Grand Hotel.

Its massive front porch area is filled with picturesque rockers and little tables where guests and visitors were being served drinks and snacks by fancy jacketed waitstaff, and inside the decadent hotel a champagne-filled afternoon tea was in full swing. While I might have enjoyed the treats, dropping my weekly budget on tiny tea sandwiches and macarons wasn’t in the cards for me and I just took some photos and took off. On my way out down the main drive where most people enter, the signage clearly states that guests must be in more formal attire after 6pm and visitors will be charged a little fee to come in, so I guess it’s good I escaped without paying and arrived around 4:30 and not later. I checked online later and that night I could have booked a room for a measly $850. Maybe next time when I win the lotto.

The rest of my visit included getting some famous fudge (super delicious but the smallest amount one could buy lasted me about 5 servings), taking in some of the many turtle statues around the town, and having a drink waiting for the ferry. Then back to the mainland around sunset and onward. Another place that would be very nice to one day return with people to enjoy more fully.

Michigan: UP north to the bridge

The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore has been on my radar for a while after seeing gorgeous photos of the sandstone cliffs, tunnels and caves in amazing blue water. Unfortunately for me, it was far too windy over pretty much the entirety of my time on the UP to explore by water on a boat tour or kayak, which would have been totally special. But hiking through and seeing the sights from the overlooks and beaches was pretty great, too!

Early in the morning the wind was pretty intense as I got my first glimpse of Miners Castle and the dramatic cliff drop offs. Luckily once I went back to the trailhead (which I had gone most of the way towards first thing in the morning, decided this couldn’t be right because it was so poorly marked and in garbage condition, but confirmed this was right at the map at this stop and kicked myself when by the time I got all the way back discovered the parking went at least a half mile up alongside the road from the full lot now. Note to self: always download the map because cell service will never be there when you need it) and started out the wind died down to nothing thanks to tree cover.

The trail to Chapel Falls, Chapel Rock and Chapel Beach (sense a theme?) is pretty easy and straightforward, winding through lovely forest until popping out on the cliffs by the lake. The water at the beach and along the rocks is a vivid blue, and I could spend hours watching the waves crash against the cliffs and boulders, and into the tunnels and caves eroding the rock face. Chapel Rock formation is visually stunning thanks to the colorful layers of rock visible, the view of course, but mainly for me thanks to a lone tree determined to make this rock its home. A tangle of roots reaches across the divide where the rock has crumbled away- it used to be connected with a little natural bridge- and a little window peeking through.

A gorgeous crescent of beach provides views of Chapel Rock to one side and the striated cliffs to the other, with a little campground above. It was hard to leave this spot, but back I went along the much less frequented path along the other side of the lake. I had my own beachside camping to get to! I’d booked a night at the twelve-mile beach campground in the park further along the water. I loved this campground! My site was at the end of the loop near a trail and while wooded was a minute’s walk to the beach. Perfect balance of protection and access. There’s nothing like falling asleep to the sound of waves.

The next day I continued on to Tahquamenon State Park, perfect for an overcast chilly day of muddy hiking along the river between the upper and lower falls. The falls, easily reached from parking lots, were moderately busy but the trail itself between the two was blissfully empty. Plus it’s right by the town of Paradise, so I got to go say I’ve been to Paradise and it’s in Michigan 🙂

My last stop in the UP was Sault Ste. Marie on the northern tip where you can normally cross over into Canada. Womp womp. There’s a canal system between the two nations and connecting Lakes Huron and Superior for water traffic, so I did a boat tour of the Soo Locks and got to ride through a lock on the U.S. side and then back through the Canadian side. There was some repair and construction going on to revamp two older small locks into one larger one, so we got to see a water digger thing scooping up earth from the riverbed, so that was pretty cool, and also saw a ship being unloaded of some steel making stuff.

As with many things, the difference between the two sides was evident. Our side of the river was almost entirely fenced off and controlled by the coast guard, border control and inspection, and a private power company- pretty industrial and uninviting to a civilian. The Canadian side was almost entirely open public park and recreation area with green lawn, walking paths, benches, statues, and a few museums and restaurants. People there were fishing and waving and walking dogs and jogging, while the few people I could see from the Michigan side were peering through a chain link fence. Just a different approach to access and land use. All in all, a very informative little tour and a very cold one- it was extremely windy and the high that day was about 50 degrees. Shock to the system!

And with that, it was back in the van and off toward the mitten. I had my first glimpse of the Mackinac Bridge and crossed over with only minimal cringing from the windiness and the odd feeling of driving over the metal grates built to help with the engineering and rain and whatnot. Good times, UP north!

Michigan: the western Upper Peninsula

Having started out my day with some pretty spectacular roadside attractions leaving Wisconsin, Michigan was not about to be outdone and provided a few roght off the bat. First up: the world’s largest corkscrew! It’s part of a sign for a liquor store/gas station situation, and had it been open I would have bought some wine there just to say I did, but alas it was around 10am so a photo op with my creepy cat and some box wine had to make do. Next up: super tall Hiawatha statue! Okay, so when it was built and the plaque installed this was the “world’s tallest Indian” as they put it in the ’60s, but the internet tells me there is one technically a bit taller in Maine though less impressive looking. Whatever the technicalities, this guy was pretty big, and welcomes visitors to the Upper Peninsula. Hooray!

The rest of the day was spent exploring the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness, where I wish I’d planned and spent more time. It was just before Labor Day weekend so all the campsites here and even most of the backcountry spots were booked up, but if I even come back this area would be some primo backpacking territory. The waves were crazy along Lake Superior that afternoon and there was some rain predicted later on, but for the time being it looked clear and beautiful, so stopped by the Lake of the Clouds, then to another part of the park to check out some waterfalls. There may have been several occasions where I giggled about porcupines which made me think of Family Feud, and the nickname Porkies which made me think of piglets. I am children.

This trail up and down either side of a small river took me to Manido and Manabezho falls before reaching the outlet to the lake, where some rain was coming down in the distance. Instead of paying attention to that sign, I relied on my weather app radar and decided to go out the other direction to see the Nawadaha falls, too, which meant that halfway down the trail it began to rain just enough to get me pretty damp despite my nice umbrella layer of cedars. Pretty, though! And luckily fresh rain smell is the best. Anyway, I got just far enough to see the falls, turned back, and took off for my evening spot at a site down the road a ways.

This was a nice little spot where I stayed an extra day and contemplated staying even longer since I wasn’t sure it was wise to vacate an actual free established site on the holiday weekend. It was right by a stream where people came to fish, and I had taken the last open spot right by the entrance so people were trekking right behind me to access the trail, so leaving felt right after all.

So after dragging myself away from the cozy comfort of my little bed I continued onward and made my way to yet another excellent attraction, the Yoopers Tourist Trap. This place is hilarious and self effacing and made me feel like perhaps I, too, could someday create such a funky celebration of local quirkiness by raiding a Goodwill and doing some upcycling art. Watch out, DC metro area, give me some cheap land and wait for the Yuppie Tourist Trap to emerge as a beacon to busloads of visitors who get lost looking for the Air and Space Museum.

Alongside the many outhouse, fishing, and hunting jokes, there were a few gems like the world’s largest working rifle, world’s largest working chainsaw, a marker for the local snowfall record, and a shine to Vince Lombardi. All this and a rock shop! Way to be, Yoopers (note to my mother: Yooper=U.P.dweller).

That evening I settled in for a beautiful sunset in the Presque Isle Park in Marquette, which means ‘almost an island’, and checked out the Superior Dome (largest wooden dome!) and the university town before aiming toward the southern side of the peninsula.

My destination was the Kitch-iti-kipi spring, which means ‘big cold spring’ in Ojibwe, and is a gorgeous, stunningly blue natural spring in a state park. A crazy amount of water like 10,000 gallons per minute bubbles up here, and there’s a little raft boat takes people out about 20 feet into the center of the spring powered by a hand turned wheel and cable system. The raft has a centeral cutout where you can look down through the crystal clear water to see the water bubbling up and the giant trout (retired breeders from the fish farm) in the chilly water.

The only downside was, thanks holiday weekend, all the humans in a line to the one boat thing, most of whom were all up in each others’ business, and the super douchey couple behind me with a mansplaining verbally abusive to his girlfriend dude who reminded me way too much of a friend’s terrible ex were a joy to be trapped near. Good times.

The town nearby, Manistique, had a pretty beach where I stationed myself to have some virtual Disney tour fun, by which I mean I facetimed with friends who were streaming an Epcot tour on their tv. Chatting and a cheese plate were not quite a substitute for a food and wine fest in Florida, but an excellent connection. Thanks, friends! Social time to get me through my next leg of adventure.

Repairs: More tire fun

Well it was bound to happen having driven over 30,000 miles in a year over a mix of smoothly paved and rutted dirt roads. This time I got another low tire pressure light just as I pulled into a space for the night- I measured the pressure and it was just a few pounds down, and figured I’d fill it up in the morning and be on my way. Nope.

Come morning that sucker was flat as a pancake, enough that I wondered why I felt off balance in bed when I awakened. Oops. Luckily I was parked in a Walmart lot in a small city and conveniently directly across from not one, but two tire shops that were open upon this discovery at 8am. No problem, thought I, I’lljust plop on the spare, drive across the street, see if I can get this one patched, and be off.

Ha. Ha. Ha. As those few of you (aka my parents) may recall from a previous post, the last low tire I had previously I run into the issue of oh so conveniently discovering that my spare was also flat after getting the low tire off while in Idaho. I got the tire patched, the spare refilled, and all was well. Or so I believed. Well, before touching the original tire this time I took the spare down from under the car and lo an behold, flat again. Like I sat on it and it squished under my weight (I’m hopeful this is less than the weight of a van, but one can’t be certain), and it registered no tire pressure on my little gauge thingy.

Fantastic. So, plan B- I grabbed a Walmart shopping cart, tossed the spare in, and wheeled it across the highway to tire shop number 1. They were very kind and refilled it for me, and upon my urging tested it for leaks using the tried and true spray bottle of soapy water method (thanks, Phelps aquaglide crew flor teaching me this) to identify an unpatchable hole, but one we thought would hole at least for as long as it would take to get this tire on the car and it over to see what gives with the super flat one on there now. Now, I live in a busted looking van, and am acclimated to looking mildly homeless as thus, but wheeling a shopping cart with a tire and being all gross and dirty as a result really added to my image.

Anyway, got back, spare temporarily refilled, and started changing out the tire on there. Started out by loosening the lug nuts, got one partially loose, but despite jumping up and down like a whacko on the bar thingy (technical term) most of them wouldn’t budge. After 20 minutes of me bouncing the van around, pulling, jumping some more like a kid avoiding taking the plunge off a diving board on the (I hope you’re taking notes on this technical manual) bar thingy, I broke down and called AAA because I hadn’t used it once this year since my lovely some kind of cousin gifted me a membership.

Which is, inevitably, right when a manager from Walmart’s auto division was heading to his car parked next to mine and asked if I needed help, and managed to get the lug nuts loose in a minute and called in the soon to be open Walmart crew to check out my tire, just as the AAA guy rolled in with his fancy high lift jack and made short work of the whole thing (I mean, I was a minute away from calling him off now that the nice man loosened the thingies but serendipity) so I gave him a stroopwaffle and took my tires to the now open and far less expensive than the place across the highway Walmart auto center, where I was told that I should probably get both tires replaced since the spare was leaking in a spot not able to be patched, and the original tire was patched for now but the puncture was so large and bendy that it could go out again any day. So two new tires it was and I was on my way once again. Phew!

Let’s hope that does me for this year on the tire front, and all I have to deal with when I get home is to fix up my bumper situation and decide whether to adjust the interior at all. Oh dear.