Sunday, October 5, 2014

Midland and More in da Moonlight

Midland in da Moonlight: view of the Tridge at the confluence of the Chippewa and Tittabawassee Rivers
A week with Kimberly in her home state of Michigan — from Midland to Clare to Mt. Pleasant to Munising to Marquette to Whitefish Point — and what an enthralling trip it was for me. This entry is pretty much my own personal chronicle, but if you feel inclined to read on, then by all means, please do. I'm loading this sucker up with some photos (click on them to enlarge); be advised there may be scary folks among them. Proceed at your own risk.

Prior to leaving last week, Ms. B. prefaced our trip by showing me the 2001 Jeff Daniels movie, Escanaba in da Moonlight, which is about as authentic a filmic excursion one might experience into Michigan's upper peninsula (a.k.a. da UP, which is populated by Yoopers). On Friday, 9/26, we flew out of Raleigh/Durham bound for Flint, MI, and ultimately to Kimberly's hometown of Midland, which is located just about the middle of the mitten — known to Yoopers as the Land of the Trolls, since they live "under the (Mackinac) bridge." I've been to many places in the United States, especially during the 80s, when I had to travel all over the country for business, but I had never made it into Michigan before. For me, this trip was a first.

Midland is a beautiful, relatively small town, quite prosperous, the Dow chemical corporation being its primary employer. On their numerous visits to NC, Kimberly's folks, Del and Fern, had welcomed me into their family with open arms, and they were better than perfect hosts during our few days' stay with them. I'm pretty sure Fern would as soon die as see anyone in her home with an even slightly empty stomach, so there was good food aplenty, available most any time of day. That first evening, Kimberly drove me around Midland to visit some of her old stomping grounds, such as the local Center for the Arts, where she had performed in numerous shows, including The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Pirates of Penzance. Much to my satisfaction, there was a geocache on the premises, so my moniker soon adorned its logsheet. In fact, Midland is a veritable goldmine for cachers, and over the course of our trip, between the upper and lower peninsulas, I managed to claim over 50; not too shabby for a trip for which geocaching wasn't really its primary purpose.

The next morning, we set out on Kimberly's parents' bicycles for a riding tour around the neighborhood, including the nearby Plymouth Park (caches). The fall foliage was just reaching its peak, and since Midland has largely and wisely decided to eschew the horrid clear-cutting of forests and planting of generic subdivisions that so dominate our area in NC, the settings for our ride were nothing short of stunning. Michigan is loaded with birches, ironwoods, and maples, interspersed with more blue spruce and hemlock than I've ever seen anywhere (hemlocks in the south have gone virtually extinct because of the Asian Woody Adelgid parasite). If you're not looking for too strenuous a workout, the terrain in Midland is perfect for bicycling — though that one grade near Chateau Brugger that reached an incline of about 0.005 degrees damn near did me in. One of the most entertaining things I discovered was that many of the squirrels that call Midland home are black. Solid, shiny black. I'd only once before ever seen a black squirrel, and I quite enjoyed watching them play in the Bruggers' backyard.
That evening, we visited Midland's attractive downtown area; had drinks at Cafe Zinc, a classy little establishment at the Hotel H; and took a nighttime stroll down to the Tridge, a three-span footbridge at the confluence of the Chippewa and Tittabawassee rivers (see the photo at the top of the page).
Ms. B. beneath a massive weeping willow at Dow Gardens
A spot of caching followed. Next day, we returned to the Tridge; hiked along the Chippewa; and visited Dow Gardens, an extensive and quite beautiful nature center with numerous trails, streams, and colorful trees. We then went up north of town a ways to visit Midland's city forest, another sizable preserve that's home to quite a number of caches. I claimed a handful of them. Afterward, we discovered a charming little bistro called Whine, whose selection of wine, cocktails, and tapas is varied and very appealing. We tried their tray of goat cheese, baked pita wedges, and olive tapenade, which sent both of us just about over the moon. One of their best drink features is a series of wine flights, each from a different country. They also make a pretty mean vodka martini. In fact, I discovered that most of the restaurants and bars in this good north state make fine non-frou-frou martinis, both gin and vodka, something I've found sorely lacking at too many places here in the south land. We paid Whine a couple of visits, and I do so look forward to returning on some future trip to the mitten.
Old dude marring the view at Dow Gardens
Hanging with The Family, near the Tridge
Monday, Kimberly and I hit the road and visited Clare, about a half-hour west of Midland, where she was born. A very small, rather quaint community with a few caches and a renowned bakery called Cops and Doughnuts, where — I shit you not — one can find some of the best doughnuts and baked goods anywhere in the free world. The shop has been in constant operation since 1896, though in more recent years, it was on the verge of going out of business. Rather than let that happen, members of the local police department bought the place, and it exploded in popularity. The place is not only big with the locals; I think a fair portion of the state's population was there at the same time we were. Indeed, you can find billboards advertising the shop just about anywhere you go in the Land the Trolls. From there, we hit Farwell, another tiny, quaint town where Kimberly's family has a lot of history. There, we visited her grandparents' graves in the old, historic cemetery (her grandmother died just a few years ago at the age of 100). Then it was back on the road to Mt. Pleasant, the home of Central Michigan University, where young Kimberly spent more years than is customary for the average human at an educational institution. Yes, there were caches, and there was also Samuel Mancino's Italian Eatery, which specializes in grinders, a type of sandwich similar to a sub or hoagie, but freaking huge, with delicious, toasted bread — very crispy on the outside, warm and soft on the inside. They're a northern thing, these sandwiches, very different from any I've ever found here in the south or even in Chicago, where I lived in the 1980s.

Come Tuesday, it was time to depart Midland and head for the UP. It's about a three-hour but very easy drive up I-75, and the foliage in the mostly rural part of the mitten was beyond brilliant. Caches, yes. Then we came to the Mackinac Bridge — at five miles long, the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere. Lengthy, very high bridges occasionally bring on a mild case of acrophobia, usually if they're very narrow, but the Mackinac didn't faze me at all, and it hardly seemed like a five-mile trip across the strait where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron come together. Once actually in the UP, on Highway 2 heading west, we stopped for a picnic lunch at a little overlook from which we had a gorgeous view of the bridge. A couple of hours later, we took a side trip up Lake Manistique Road, to an area that used to be a resort where Kimberly and her family vacationed regularly back in her checkered youth. It's now private property, the resort long-since closed. From there, though, we did get a nice view of one of the three scenic Manistique lakes.

Our final destination for the day was Munising, a little community on the UP's northern coast along Lake Superior. Munising, I swear to god, is Michigan's answer to Twin Peaks — a picturesque, forested area into which the little town is carved out, with a tiny business district; a paper mill; a handful of shops, restaurants, and motels; and some possibly eccentric if personable locals who were a joy to meet. Our lodgings were at the rustic little Terrace Motel, whose proprietor — a friendly, slightly garrulous fellow named Larry — gave us a most helpful introduction to Munising's landmarks and amenities. The nearby Falling Rock Cafe and Bookstore proved to be our go-to place for breakfast and coffee each morning. I can tell you their toasted English muffins and cinnamon rolls can't be beat. That first night, we went to Muldoon's for pasties (pronounced with a short a), a regular UP staple. They're baked pastries filled with beef or chicken, diced potatoes, rutabagas, carrots, and onions — kind of like pot pies to folks in other areas. Surprisingly, I preferred the chicken to the beef, as it had a more intense savory flavor. Over the next few days, we tried a couple of the other restaurants in town, which were decent enough: Sydney's, a seafood place with, of all things, an Australian theme, where I enjoyed the golden fried Lake Superior whitefish, another of the area's most notable specialties; and Dogpatch, whose Lil Abner theme was almost too overwhelming to take. Their burgers pretty well rocked, though. We ended our first evening by taking a late-night walk along Lake Superior near Sand Point, a few miles northeast of Munising. Well, we had to, didn't we? There was a cache out there.
"Yes!" to the Terrace Motel in Munising
Still life with wine at the Terrace Motel. Yes, it's art.
Glow-in-the-dark Damned Rodan and some driftwood along the Lake Superior shoreline near Sand Point
Waterfalls. That's what you'll find in the UP. Many, many waterfalls, some small, some gigantic, all spectacular in their way. Our most physically active day was Wednesday, when we undertook a six-plus-mile hike into the forest in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Here, we made our way out to Chapel Falls and Chapel Rock, the latter being a natural formation right along the Lake Superior shoreline, where a solitary pine tree grows on a tall pillar of rock, its roots stretching thirty feet to connect with the mainland. On the beach near the formation, we had another nice picnic lunch, then hiked back to the parking area. Straight away, we headed back toward Munising and a couple of nearby falls — MNA Memorial and Tannery Falls, which are tucked in the woods behind a residential area. Memorial Falls, in particular, was striking, in that the terrain forms a huge, circular gorge, into which the water streams from above. You're hiking down a gradual decline, only to suddenly reach a sheer drop of at least a hundred feet (I'm thinking that roaming around back here at night would be a bad idea). From there, a trail winds down the cliff face so you can actually go into the gorge beneath the falls. Directly adjacent to this is another, almost identical gorge, this one absent any flowing water. Nearby but up a very steep, rugged incline — at least on the route we took — you'll come upon Tannery Falls, similar in size and formation to its nearby neighbor. By the time we returned to the Terrace Motel, we were pretty well exhausted, and so we hit the sack relatively early.
Chapel Falls, seen from the trail in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore forest
Hemlock roots on the cliffside along the trail to Chapel Rock
Ms. B. at Chapel Rock with Lake Superior in the background
From our picnic area: Chapel Rock in the distance, the mouth of Chapel Creek in the foreground
A very small person in the gorge beneath MNA Memorial Falls
For our last full day in the UP, we went down to Laughing Whitefish Falls, southwest of Munising, which was one of the longest falls I've ever seen. At the top, the stream makes a spectacular plunge into space and then cascades several hundred feet down a long flight of steep, rocky stair steps. You're not allowed to climb out on the rocks, but it was about all I could do to keep Ms. B. from vaulting the fences and venturing up the cascade to provide a sense of scale for a photo op. Impetuous youth, I tell you. In the end, she broke no laws or any bones, but she did have to console herself by sharing a bottle of wine with me. There have been worse endings. But I jump ahead of myself. After the falls, we moved on to the town of Marquette, a relatively small community, though the largest town in the UP. It's one of Lake Superior's major ports, and along the lakefront there are both functioning and retired iron-ore docks, which are massive structures that extend far into the lake with chutes along each side for transfering ore into the holds of freighters. We enjoyed a decent lunch at a cozy little restaurant called The Vierling before making our way out to Presque Isle Park, a peninsula on the town's north end, and the Black Rocks, an expansive formation of volcanic rock, including some high cliffs, that extends far into the lake. Caches? Yes. We finished our day in Marquette with a visit to L'Attitude, a classy bistro with excellent drinks, service, and ambiance.
Laughing Whitefish Falls seen from the bottom. Alas, there's no Brugger in the picture
to provide a sense of scale. It's big. BIG.
Laughing Whitefish Falls seen from the top. It's a loooong way down.
Old iron ore dock in Marquette
Upper Tahquamenon Falls
Friday, unfortunately, was a day of nonstop frigid rain. I had picked up a little cold along the way, and I wasn't feeling top-notch, so we didn't spend much time exposed to the elements. We did, with the utmost sadness, check out of our home away from home in Munising and head toward Whitefish Point, some distance to the east, stopping along the way at the upper Tahquamenon Falls for some photos and a cache. Then we continued on to Whitefish Point and lunch at Brown Fisheries' Fish House, where they catch the Lake Superior whitefish in the morning and serve it to you for lunch. Oh, my lord, this is what fish is all about. While the whitefish at Sydney's in Munising was damned good, Brown's was phenomenal stuff, as flavorful and "non-fishy" as fish gets, with homemade tartar sauce, lemon, and malt vinegar. They don't skimp on the servings, either, so one really can't walk out of there wanting, barring some misguided personal volition.
Bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald, raised
from the wreck in 1995

My most sobering experience came at the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. It has on display myriads of artifacts from the literally hundreds of shipwrecks from the nearby Great Lakes, including the bell from the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down in Lake Superior 15 miles north of Whitefish Point, November 10, 1975. Needless to say, the Gordon Lightfoot song went running nonstop through my head all day, but the museum's in-depth narrative of that event, along with so many others from the area, made a real emotional impact on me. The lighthouse at the point, built in 1861, still functions and remains a crucial beacon for ships in this frigid, storm-racked location. Over 200 ships lie at the bottom of the lake within just a few miles of Whitefish Point, dating back to the early 1800s.

At last, it was time to leave the UP and return to the Land of the Trolls — not that this was much of a source of pain for either Kimberly or I. We got back to Midland early in the evening and spent a last enjoyable night with Del and Fern, who I really hope do not end up catching my cold (it may be too late for Kimberly, alas). Then it was up bright and early on Saturday morning to catch our flight(s) back to the south land — Raleigh/Durham via Atlanta. A long layover and a slight delay leaving Atlanta made for a full, tiring day of travel, but eventually, we got back home to Greensboro. I have to thank my good friend Suzy Albanese for house-sitting and looking after the catses while dad was away — that was a major load off my mind while on the biggest trip away from home I've taken in many, many years. The welcoming committee was ferocious, enthusiastic, and relentless. I haven't had a moment in the last 18 hours without a cat on top of me. And today I even got the predawn good-morning-welcome-back urp to let me know how greatly I had been missed.

I'd hate to do it to the cats, but I do believe I'd return to Michigan for another extended stay at the drop of a hat. I'll be anxiously awaiting the opportunity.

1 comment:

James Robert Smith said...

YOW! Looks like a wonderful place to spend a vacation! I'm impressed!