Michigan: Reflections on a journey

By Chris Leadbeater

A road trip along the shore of Lake Michigan reveals a world of beauty, says Chris Leadbeater.

The Detroit skyline at sunrise. Photo / Supplied
The Detroit skyline at sunrise. Photo / Supplied

The water separating Belle Isle from the mainland seems to dance. It shimmers and shakes, flares up and falls, shudders and shivers, a constantly moving corridor of blue. Its restlessness is a tribute to the currents that compete within it. Immediately to the east, Lake St Clair is visible, a wide expanse of apparently endless resources.

The river takes what it needs and scurries 45km south-west, to the point where it pours into Lake Erie. As it goes, it casts a glance at the leafy island park with its clustered picnic tables and wooded paths idling in mid-stream. It gazes, too, at the Canadian town of Windsor, on its far shore. And it stares briefly at the skyscrapers on its near bank, as the reflection of downtown Detroit flickers on its surface.

Detroit, the most famous name on the map of Michigan, is many things: a city tarred with a reputation for decline and decay; a fascinating metropolis in which many of the triumphs and woes of America's turbulent 20th century played out in microcosm; a pocket of culture where opera and art wait to surprise visitors; a musical giant whose streets have cradled everything from the soft soul of Motown and John Lee Hooker's smoky blues to Eminem's enraged rap.

But, perhaps most intriguingly, Detroit is a city framed by water which makes it a fine starting grid for a tour of the Great Lakes region. True, Chicago is a more obvious launchpad for such a journey, but Detroit offers closer access to the elements of this liquid-laced realm: Lakes St Clair and Erie on its doorstep, connected by the Detroit river; the gargantuan Lake Huron, which broods majestically 97km to the north-east.

Beyond, Michigan spreads north for 644km, increasingly quiet and rural as it goes. Appropriately, the state's name is based on the indigenous Ojibwe word mishigama which translates as "large water''.

My plan is to sample as much scenery as possible. So, after two days amid the ghostly Art Deco buildings that sing of Detroit's rich past, I flit into the genteel eastern suburbs, where Lake St Clair gnaws at Grosse Pointe, before filtering south-west Interstate 75 never straying too far from the river to Pointe Mouillee, where Lake Erie throws its weight against this wetland enclave and geese dart into the heavens.

From here, I have two choices, the easiest being to spin north in search of Lake Huron. But I am drawn to the idea of following the traditional direction of US exploration and heading west, not least because this will bring me into contact with an American icon.

Lake Michigan makes a claim none of its colleagues can match. This huge, swollen finger prodding into the flesh of Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana is the only member of the Great Lakes that sits entirely within the USA. It's a road-trip paradise. And its east and north shores are devoted to its state namesake, which decorates the waterline with small towns and calm.

Nor is it difficult to find this pastoral prospect. Detroit does not protest as I leave, fading in the mirror as I pass through its attractive neighbour Dearborn (where the Henry Ford museum details the city's enduring relationship with the car), and vanishing completely as I cut across the state on Interstate 94, farms at the roadside, horses grazing. Near the splendidly christened university city of Kalamazoo, the river of the same name coils around Highway 89, a ribbon of asphalt that delivers me back to the water.

Pitched almost on the sand, Grand Haven tempers the vastness of Lake Michigan with a classic display of small-town America. The Harbor House Inn, where I flop gratefully to sleep, has rocking chairs on its veranda and cinnamon-heavy muffins for breakfast. The main drag of Washington Avenue is alive with cafs and quaint stores. And on North Harbor Drive, the Wet Mitten Surf Shop caters to those who want to ride the lake's waves.

It is a misty, reluctant day as I amble into Grand Haven State Park and spy three hardy souls, boards poised, assessing the situation. I discover a less-chilly alternative. Rosy Mound National Area throws out a 1.6km-long trail that drifts down to the lake through thickly forested dunes.

Angry gusts punch at the land, to the shaken discomfort of every outraged branch but to no obvious concern from the hikers I meet on the way. "Good morning,'' rings the greeting with each encounter. In weather terms it isn't, but the vibe is cheerful.

From Grand Haven, Highway 31 flirts with the lake as it slides north, doling out parcels of the pristine and pretty. At Ludington, a lone lighthouse is assaulted by spray.

At the state park, further dunes are piled next to the beach, granting me another chance for a blustery stroll. Highway 22 shadows the water so closely that signs warn to "watch for drifted sand''. And the road seems to heed the message, climbing steeply north of Arcadia, then providing drivers with a viewpoint that showcases what might be the entire shoreline in all its tree-swarmed magnificence. The lake, though, is unmoved featureless to the horizon.

This sharp ascent begins a trend. Outside the hamlet of Empire, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore daubs the canvas with drama, its knolls of sand convinced they are hillsides, some topping 122m in height. In places, this pale realm of slopes and slants feels thrillingly remote a mood the lake does nothing to dispel. Though this is one of its narrowest portions, it is still 97km west to the Door Peninsula, on Wisconsin's opposite bank. I feel lost on the lip of an inland ocean.

Civilisation reasserts itself in Traverse City, a warm glow emanating from the shops on Front Street as the town nestles at the bottom of Grand Traverse Bay. Here, the 31 picks me up, and carries me 97km along the edge of the inlet to Petoskey a place whose rough-hewn charm and bayside setting enchanted that eternal fisherman Ernest Hemingway, who spent childhood holidays here and later celebrated it in writing.

My target, though, lies 56km further north. Mackinaw City is a gateway, perched on the Straits of Mackinac, where lakes Michigan and Huron mingle, their coming together akin to two superpowers holding a summit, a cold front clashing beneath the Mackinaw Bridge.

This green-grey behemoth, a lesser-known cousin of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge will later ferry me onward into the wilderness of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. But first there is a ferry of a different sort, a 16-minute boat jaunt of bumps and bounces that drops me at Mackinac Island a nugget of land that lurks on the Lake Huron side of the Straits.

Here, the past intrudes on the present. The 18th-century Fort Mackinac eyes the channel as does the wooden bulk of the Grand Hotel, a 19th-century dame that clings to its ended era. And yet, although cars are prohibited here, the island has something in common with Detroit.

The water that surrounds it seems to dance. Perhaps it is doing its duty, tipping its hat to the magnitude of its location, where two Great Lakes butt heads. Or perhaps, like much of the rest of Michigan, it is simply aware of its own beauty, and happy with it.

- INDEPENDENT

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