Friday, December 19, 2008

Ah, Vacation!

I keep thinking about the summer vacation we took in late July. I know I didn’t write much about it at the time; I was too relaxed. I remember sitting by the “backwaters” in Mesick in a comfortable camping chair, with a fire going strong, crickets chirping, and a Tigers game on my weather radio. Sera was already asleep in the tent and the sun was going down. Magi was sitting beside me reading a book in the fading light and I thought to myself, it just doesn’t get any better than this. They say you can’t go home again, and to an extent that’s certainly true. There are no jobs in northern Michigan for us. There are hardly jobs for the people who already live there. But what a spot it made for a weeklong camping trip.

It was really difficult to convince Magi to go camping. As she has said herself, her family’s idea of camping was staying at a Day’s Inn. When my buddies and I went camping several years ago for Gen Con, I told Magi about the experience. She said even then that she was too much of a “princess” for the rustic campground we used. Well, a little store called Cabela’s took care of that! On our trip out to visit my father in Utah, I had brought what I thought we needed to camp. I had purchased a clearance-priced tent made by the Swiss Army company that looked pretty good and I set it up for the first time at my father’s house. We didn’t sleep in it, but I was reasonably sure we’d be comfortable. Well, it turns out that the air mattresses that lie on the ground are a little unstable, which we found out after one night in my sister’s tent, and our own tent collapsed in high winds the first time we tried to sleep in it two days later! All the way to Utah, I had seen signs for Cabela’s, and when we drove past one in Omaha, it looked to be the biggest store I had ever seen. So we stopped at every single one on our way home as I looked to make camping an enjoyable experience for her. A week and four Cabela’s stores later, we had a new 20’ x 15’ tent, and two queen sized collapsible air mattress frames. The windstorm in Omaha convinced me to not only replace the tent, but to get a weather radio as well.

As we set out on our first post-windstorm camping experience in my hometown, we stopped in Cadillac for lunch at Elias Bros. Big Boy. Big Boy might seem a little lowbrow for some people, but for me it’s a piece of home. The Big Boy we visited is the one at the end of Pearl Street, where my grandmother and my father lived during my senior year in high school and first few years of college. When I was with them, we ate there virtually every night. I bought Sera a Big Boy beachball for the campsite, and she really enjoyed that.

We also stopped at G&R Party Store in Cadillac, which sells fantastic deli sandwiches. Well, they seem fantastic to me anyway. If hunger is the best seasoning, nostalgia probably comes in a close second. I used to get their sandwiches when I worked at Four Winns boats right out of high school, saving money for college. I took a bite of my sandwich and packed the rest of it to go in our cooler along with a couple of 20-oz. bottles of Faygo (gotta love Michigan products), Redpop for me, and grape for Magi, and we only had one more stop to make at Wal-Mart, because I had forgotten to pack our pillows.

When we arrived at the campground, I found the tent to be just as easy to set up the second time as the first, which I had done at home in the back yard just a few days before. Sera and I had slept out there one night to make sure she was okay with tents that are not being blown down around us. While I was putting up the tent, Sera got busy getting to know the earth of my hometown through her new beach ball. Too bad she didn’t enjoy herself.

We were completely settled in within an hour, with the air mattresses inflated and the beds made. I looked at the sky and decided not to put the fly on the tent, so we could see the stars, which sparkle far brighter in northern Michigan without all the light pollution of the cities nearby. Magi asked me what we would do if it rained. I didn’t think it would rain, but of course we found out that it would the hard way. We awoke to raindrops in our faces and I threw the fly over the tent in about five minutes and just laughed as I pounded the stakes into the ground. I said, “We’ll do what everyone does at a campground when it rains; we’ll go to town!” So, the next morning we made a short trip to Traverse City, where we enjoyed a fantastic lunch at a bistro called
Amical on Front Street. My wife wrote a glowing review of it here. Sera napped in the car afterward while I went into a local bookstore to find something to read. We sat in our van in the rain while Sera slept in her car seat, listening to the raindrops, reading, and contemplating our amazing lunch. By the time we were headed back to Mesick, the rain was clearing, and the weather was mild again, as it was the rest of the week.

When Sera wanted to swim, I took her down to the beach where my grandmother used take me when I was young. We always called this area the “backwaters” but I never understood what it really was, and unfortunately I was too wrapped up in other things to ask. The “backwaters” is actually called Hodenpyl Dam Pond and it’s essentially a flooded valley where the Manistee River used to run through. When the Dam was built by Consumers Power in 1925, the waters backed up, creating the…”backwaters.” Swimming in the backwaters was always a challenge because the beach has about fifty feet of rocky sand until the water is about six feet deep, and then it drops off quickly and steeply. The mud bank that forms the drop off has freshwater clams galore. You can’t eat them, but they sure skip well across calm water.

While we were set up, my buddy Eric came up for a couple of days. I had wanted to go canoeing, but logistically, it wasn’t going to happen with three adults. So, we did the next best thing: we went rafting instead! The four of us rented a raft and set out down the river on the shortest trip they had available, which is two hours. We had a little difficulty at first, as the current pulled us behind a downed tree. Paddling out of that was a bit of work, but after that it was smooth sailing. You really don’t have to paddle much as you float down the Manistee. You just have to steer and enjoy the scenery. There are old railroad bridges, sand banks, and some evidence of logging. By the way, that part of the Manistee River is also home to a bird sanctuary. On any given day you can see Herons with wingspans well over six feet taking off. There are bald eagles too, but we didn’t see one that day.

Two and a half hours later, Sera was pretty miserable. Her life jacket prevented her head from turning so that she couldn’t even rest her head on Magi’s shoulders. She still talks fondly about riding in the boat, though.

That night, we returned to Amical, and had a wonderful dinner. I had a sirloin steak with morel mushrooms, the trademark of my little town. If you’ve never had morel mushrooms, they sell for around $25 per pound and they are worth it. I grew up with them, so I can’t bring myself to spend that kind of money on them, but if I see them on a menu as part of a meal, there’s a good chance that I will order it.

The next day, we said our goodbyes to Eric and left for Mackinac Island, just a hundred or so miles north. We had reservations for the Grand Hotel, and after four days of roughing it, we looked forward to being pampered. We took the ferry over from Mackinaw City, and while Magi and Sera rode in the main cabin, I rode on top in the air and took pictures. When we arrived after 15 minutes, we initially had trouble finding a coach to the hotel. For those who have not been to Mackinac Island, there are no motor vehicles allowed except a few fire engines and ambulances. Everyone else is conducted by horse, carriage, or bicycle. It was actually convenient that we were delayed at the dock, because I had forgotten my sport jacket. You see, at the Grand Hotel, you must dress in jacket and tie after six. I had left mine in the minivan. Fortunately, we had valet parked, so the people at the ferry arranged for it to be brought over on the next boat and delivered to the hotel. What service!

We checked into our room and showered, showered, showered. Our feet were filthy from days in the sandy pines, wearing Crocs. Even after you take a shower at the campground, you have to walk across sand to get back to your campsite. It took some serious scrubbing to get the dirt out of every nook and cranny of our toes. My jacket arrived at about the same time as the luggage, and we got ready for dinner. Meals at the Grand Hotel are sumptuous, and always wonderful. The milk chocolate crème’ brulee was amazing.

Sera loved shopping in the little village. There were all kinds of cheap souvenirs and plastic toys that she could play with, and we got her a t-shirt with a monkey on it that she just adored. There was so much to see that was new to her. There were horses everywhere, and beautiful flower gardens. And she really enjoyed the attention she got from the wait staff and the guests in the dining room as she virtually pranced through the aisle after dinner.

The next day, during Sera’s nap, I rented a bike and rode the 7.5 miles of Lake Shore Road. This is a trip I really want to take again next year with my own bike. The one I rented was comfortable enough, but my bike is built much more for someone my size. I’m hoping Sera will want to go with me in her trailer. She would really enjoy the scenery. I want to find a way to mount our video camera on my handlebars too. It’s a gorgeous ride.

All too soon, we were headed home back down I-75. It rained most of the way back, and it was fitting. We had enjoyed such great weather for most of our trip, we felt it was a fair tradeoff to drive home in the rain. With just a quick stop at Sea Shell City, a great tourist trap that has been there for years, we drove straight through until we were almost home.

As I sit here in the dead of winter with a slushy drive home ahead of me, it’s nice to think back to that week in what I consider paradise. I look forward to going back for more.

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