October 30, 2011

As I told you, the post Northward bound was originally intended to be about a family vacation taken with Grandpa Frank, Kimberly, Heather, Joe-your-dad and Jenny, but it took a direction of its own and became something else entirely. This post will tell you about that trip, during which we were dubbed The Griswalds by some fun-loving young people at a rest stop lake in Canada.

The trip was planned to follow part of the route that Grandpa Frank and I took on our honeymoon in 1981. Beginning with that trip we set for ourselves a style of vacationing that we used for all subsequent vacations. We decided that for our honeymoon weekend we would follow a course north on the Lake-Michigan-hugging U.S. 31 up to Petoskey, then head south on U.S. 131 for the return trip home. We enjoyed wandering through chilly Michigan in May, and took in whatever we found. It was a wonderful trip, the joys of which we wanted to share with the children.

The slated route for the trip with the children was to head north on U.S. 31, but expanded to include a journey further north to connect with Interstate 75 at Mackinaw City. The kids could then experience crossing Mighty Mac, the five mile long suspension bridge spanning the Straits of Mackinac between Lakes Michigan and Huron. After hanging around the Upper Peninsula and taking in the history of St. Ignace, the forest area of Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan and Ontario, Canada, marveling over the Soo Locks and St. Mary’s Rapids, we would then ambitiously head east through Ontario to become better acquainted with our northern neighbor. Continuing east and south, then west, then east, we would visit Niagara Falls. Afterward, we would drive west until we came to the partially submerged Detroit-Windsor Tunnel to have all of us experience for the first time what it is like to drive nearly a mile of underground roadway—and under the Detroit River.

By that time in our lives we were opting for the comfort of motels rather than dragging around camping equipment. We had no idea that in some areas of Ontario, motels are few and very far between.

I love the view from most any point on U.S. 31 heading north along Lake Michigan, part of the Great Lakes Circle Tour whose signs we observe when shopping across the Michigan line near Niles. I have never taken the entire tour circumnavigating Lake Michigan, not to mention the complete tour that connects all five of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway via scenic roadways. I wish I had; at the very least I wish I had completed the tours of Lakes Michigan, Superior and Huron. The St. Lawrence Seaway has always fascinated me and I have studied that in books and on the web, but I like to touch everything that touches the lakes and be engulfed in the scents coming from their shores.

In 1992 Grandpa Frank and I were to share some of the sights we had seen a decade earlier, and all of us were to have new experiences to share for the rest of our lives. Kimberly was 16, Heather 14, Joe 9, Jenny 8. We knew that because Kimberly and Heather were becoming young adults, the Michigan/Canada trip was likely to be our last as a whole family. It became a quest to store up as many good memories as we could, so maybe the guys who teased us about being like the Griswalds were not completely off base. We did have something to prove; we did have something we were trying to hold on to.

We had been told that we didn’t need passports to visit Canada, but because we were traveling with children we needed to provide proof that they belonged with us. Apparently Canada didn’t want people absconding with their next generation. I set about rummaging through my file of birth, baptismal, Social Security and a variety of other certificates for all of us, including Grandpa Frank and myself, just in case. I thought I had them all, but Heather’s was missing. It was really upsetting to her that I didn’t have her certificate (I have no idea why it was missing), and we tried to tease her out of it by saying we would never leave her in Canada—intentionally—but she didn’t rest easy until Grandpa Frank visited the County-City Building and had her birth certificate (and extra originals!) in hand.

We climbed into our rented turquoise and gray Lumina minivan very early in the morning when the neighborhood was sleepy and the grass was still dewy. The sun was rising, illuminating the road to the highway and we were ready. We put the sun at our backs and followed the shadow of the car to the highway, then turned right. North.

At first we ticked Niles, Buchanan and Benton Harbor off of our map. They were all familiar. Northward, South Haven is a tiny town that offers beautiful turn of the 19th to 20th century architecture and a striking red and black lighthouse. I didn’t know until after our trip that South Haven is also home to the Michigan Maritime Museum. I still have never visited that museum. I should.

Holland was next with its own red lighthouse. Though we were not there during the annual Tulip Time Festival that is considered one of the best small town festivals in America, we still enjoyed the beauty of Holland’s landscaping as we drove through.

All the way up the eastern coast of Lake Michigan there are lighthouses of as many different designs as there are different communities hosting them. I can imagine living in a lighthouse one day, alone with my thoughts and the sound of calling birds and tongues of water lapping the shoreline.

On we went through Grand Haven, Muskegon and Ludington, stopping for a break in tiny Manistee because Grandpa Frank and I had stopped there to walk its rocky shore a decade before. We drove through beautiful small towns and marveled over Grand Traverse Bay, one of Grandpa John’s favorite places. Grandpa Frank and I had stayed there—right on the beach—at the Indian Trail Lodge in Traverse City in 1981, and watched swans (MEAN little buggers) as they walked on the concrete outside the sliding glass door of the motel room and beat a rhythm on the glass with their beaks. The more angry they were, the more rhythmic their tattoo.

But that wasn’t where I wanted to stop this time. I wanted the kids to see Petoskey. I wanted them to experience Petoskey, one of my favorite places. The name is said to mean “rays of the living sun,” in the language of indigenous Ottawa people, but the prehistory of the place is written in its stones.

When I was young I had been rock collecting in the gravel that the neighbor had dumped every few years to serve as a parking area next to the street. There were always fossils to be found in those pebbles. They usually looked like the Indian bead fossils that we have all collected (which are actually fossilized parts of a small marine animal) and once in a while a find looked like a Native American arrowhead fossil. Those could have also been broken parts from the edge of a slate stone, but no one could have told me that when I was 8 years old.

One day I found a smooth, oval, gray stone that looked like it had been etched with something. Maybe it had been scratched up while moving around in trucks filled with gravel. One thing I knew: if something on a rock looks vague, spit on it. Spit brings out colors and designs. I suppose water would do, too, but I didn’t travel with water in those days. So I spat. When I did, a beautiful pattern of hexagons emerged all over the stone. It was like no fossil I had ever seen.

Excited, I took it to my father and said,

“Daddy! Look at this rock! It’s amazing!”

He said, “It’s a Petoskey rock.”

He didn’t seem overly excited about it. He also didn’t seem to have much information about it, other than he had seen thousands of them in Petoskey, Michigan during his travels. He thought they were neat, but had never looked into what they were or why they looked like they do.

It was a mystery, and my sole Petoskey rock took a prominent place in my collection. At least a year passed before I learned that Petoskey stones are fossilized coral, and they are smooth and mostly small in size because the corals have been crushed and dragged by glaciers. Though they can be found scattered over the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in the Lower Peninsula they are found primarily on the northwestern portion where the Ottowan Chief Pet-O-Sega, after whom the stones and city are named, and his tribe resided.

In today’s Internet age, I would have known the same day. In the 1960s I had to wait to go to either the Bookmobile that visited the bank parking lot or the school library when school was in session, which it was not. It was summertime, which is why the Bookmobile was visiting the bank parking lot. Of course, either of them would have had to have a book on their shelves that could tell me about Petoskey stones. And of course, I would have had to remember that I wanted to look into the history of Petoskey stones in the midst of the very exciting life of a curious 8 year old, and go to the library.

No wonder I love the Internet.

Something that strikes me about Petoskey stones is the imperfection of their hexagonal patterns. We see near-perfect geometric patterns in many natural structures that, unless disturbed by outside elements such as injury, disease, or in the case of geology, stones being broken or changed by wind, water or weight of other nearby stone, retain perfection throughout their structure. Such is not the case with the Petoskey stone. It is clear that outside elements affected the structure of the animals when they were still alive, and all these millenia later we can read their petrified imperfections as they existed during their lives.

Maybe they are not imperfections at all, but adaptations to the environment in which the they lived. Perhaps differences in the hexagonal pattern represents the moving and shifting of the animals as they reached ever upward through shafts of sunlight penetrating dark waters, as they moved against each other, and their outer skins adjusted to the pressures of the group and surrounding water. Could the apparent weakness of the misshapen hexagons actually be strength in resilience that allowed the coral to thrive? It’s worth pondering, and considering whether our own seeming imperfections can become strengths that allow us to adapt and thrive, too.

In 1981 Grandpa Frank and I stayed at the originally named Petoskey Motel during our honeymoon weekend. It was a serviceable place with a pool we didn’t use. In 1992, the pool looked awfully nice after our 300 mile, all-day trip in a minivan with four children. The kids couldn’t wait to be out of the car and away from my constant pointing out of things on the landscape and endless chatter about my love of Lake Michigan. They GOT it, they said. While they looked forward to a Petoskey stone hunt, they were ready for a break that didn’t include anything educational. Grandpa Frank and I weren’t reliving history with four kids in tow, but being at the motel did bring back some nice memories that we were happy to share with the kids.

After settling into the motel we headed to the pool and, almost as a unit, jumped in the sparkling water. Grandpa Frank and I were hanging off of the sides on our elbows, lazily kicking in the water, and the kids were noisily splashing each other when a man approached the pool wearing a three-piece suit and tie. He seemed serious and both Grandpa Frank and I jumped into the water from our perches and moved closer to the kids. They were also moving closer to us and we all stood in the water, watching the man and wondering if we had somehow offended him with our exuberant play.

We had not.

The man was apparently as overheated (or something) as we had been and seemingly wished to join our little party. We watched as he walked slowly down the steps of the pool and into the water without removing a single item of clothing, without removing his shoes. We moved closer together. We watched as he met the bottom of the steps and stood on the floor of the shallow end of the pool, then continued walking slowly toward the other end, further into the deepening water. We were backing up as the same unit that had leaped into the pool. And he kept coming.

The man was watching us but said not a word; we didn’t either. Our mouths were hanging open. When the pool water reached his neck he turned around and, just as slowly, exited the pool the same way he had entered. He sloshed away and entered a room at the far end of the motel. We stood with our mouths open, now staring at each other. It’s strange how time seems suspended when something bizarre is occurring. Time elapsed from when we first noticed the man to when we watched him enter his motel room could not have been more than ten minutes, which admittedly is a rather large chunk of time, but it did seem more akin to hours.

The man and his behavior were the topic of our conversation all evening, but we never figured out what could have been his purpose for doing such a thing. Had we been unwitting subjects of a social experiment? Was Candid Camera around? The next morning we saw the man outside of his motel room, neatly laying out his three-piece suit over some luggage in the trunk of his car. He never looked at us or acknowledged our presence.

We went looking for Petoskey stones.

The kids loved the stones as much as I do. We had so many Petoskey stones of so many sizes that it brought to mind the hilarious 1954 film The Long, Long Trailer starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, in which the newlywed wife (Lucille Ball) collects souvenir boulders in their trailer while on their honeymoon in the mountains, leading to disastrous results and a near-end to the marriage. I was happy that we were not pulling a trailer and that we were not going through any mountainous terrain.

Ever northward, we headed next to Mackinaw City and Mighty Mac, the bridge spanning the Straits of Mackinac, the narrowing of the waters between Lakes Michigan and Huron.

We were all bridge lovers and never crossed the I-65 John F. Kennedy Bridge between Jeffersonville, Indiana and Louisville, Kentucky with any sleeping children. It had been the same when I was a child. When traveling to Louisville to visit your Great, Great Grandmother, Dodie, we would have been crushed if we had been allowed to sleep through the crossing of the bridge. When crossing the Ohio River on the seven-lane bridge, one can see two other bridges and, often, a fireboat shooting water high into the sky.

On each return trip from Louisville, the kids and I would wait until we were directly under the Welcome to Indiana sign on the bridge, and belt out the song, Back Home Again, In Indiana as we traversed the bridge and landed safely again on Hoosier soil.

But Mighty Mac was in a class by itself. At five miles shoreline to shoreline, it is the mightiest bridge in all of Michilimackinac, the third longest suspension bridge in the world, and longest suspension bridge between anchorages in the Western hemisphere. It was worthy of our respect, as was the area surrounding the bridge. A one hundred forty eight square mile area of the Straits of Mackinac and beyond, east and west of the Mackinac Bridge, has been marked as a water reserve by the state of Michigan as the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Preserve to honor those lost on ships that sank in the strait’s dangerous shipping lanes.

We thought about visiting historic Mackinac Island in the eastern Straits of Mackinac on Lake Huron, but decided to save that for another trip. I still have never visited that island. Do things you want to do when you want to do them, sweet girl. Don’t put them off until they become one of those things you never get done.

After crossing the Mackinac Bridge we drove north on I-75 past Castle Rock jutting into the sky, and followed the gentle curve of I-75 through a good portion of the Sault Ste. Marie State Forest. By that time the kids could see what I had seen as a girl. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a magical place that is quite different from any places we had visited before. Everything feels cleaner and brighter. The air seems easier to breathe. The forest is more dense and the floor of the forest is more springy, and thicker due to ages and ages of natural plant and leaf litter. The hand print of man is less discernible than in any other place I have ever visited.

We headed east to the tip of the Upper Peninsula so I could show the kids DeTour Village and Caribou Lake, where I had spent time during the summers of 1974 and 1975. It was as if time stood still since I had been there. Even the cottages where we stayed when I was a girl looked the same, with the same owners as in the 1970s.

We were back on the road soon, anxious to make our acquaintance with Canada as it was new territory for all of us. We had a lot to learn.

When we reviewed the atlas at home and plotted our course, it seemed to make sense that we would spend the early part of the day after leaving Petoskey traveling to the Upper Peninsula, enjoy the amazing sights along the bay north of St. Ignace, zip by DeTour Village and Caribou Lake, visit Sault Ste. Marie and the Soo Locks, and take in local culture and flavor as we went. We would then begin our journey through Canada some time in the late afternoon, driving through the international checkpoint at Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and heading east and south to find dinner and lodging.

We did just that. We did not take into account, however, that Canada is very different from Indiana and one doesn’t find restaurants and motels every few miles. In some areas, it’s more like every couple of hundred miles. In our ignorance, we passed up the first opportunities that presented themselves, opting to see more of the countryside before we lost the light, and also in search of a motel with a pool. I don’t know how many miles we drove before we finally found a place that could take us. I remember that it was very late at night and Grandpa Frank and I had four very unhappy, hungry, tired, crabby kids on our hands. The place had no pool, but the kids didn’t care any longer. The place had no restaurant. The place had no vending machines. The food I always packed in the car had been gone for hours. There was no other place in the vicinity to purchase snacks. Even the gas tank was less full than we would have liked it to be.

It was an all-time vacation low for us. Reminding the kids that we were now closer to Niagara Falls due to our long drive did nothing to alleviate their disappointment. But we were closer to Niagara Falls.

The next morning we hit the road and before we knew it we were seeing places to stop for food and gasoline. Our spirits rose until we really began to become acquainted with Canada.

I had heard of black flies but had never seen one, nor felt the bite of one of the tiny flies that looked innocuous compared to the irritating house flies of home. We felt many big bites from the tiny beasts when we began our excursions into the forests of Ontario. The kids were unhappy again. So, I took them shopping. We had found an abandoned school building on the side of the road, and Grandpa Frank wanted to take some time—alone—with his metal detector. The kids and I took off to a nearby town to wander around and left him to his detecting.

Much happier after eating lunch and ice cream, the kids and I went back to pick up Grandpa Frank. He was unhappy. We were aghast at what we saw. He had removed his shirt because it was very hot, and sweat was streaming down his neck, chest, his back, his shoulders. In almost as many rivulets as the sweat, he was also streaming blood from black fly bites. Even on his legs. He had not been able to escape a swarm of black flies because we had the car. We got him wiped down and into the cool car and fed him some food we had picked up in town.

Back on the road we decided to forgo any more outdoor exploration and would have stuck to it, but we saw a small rest area off of the highway that had a quiet lake. Grandpa Frank was tired from driving and we agreed to let the kids have some time in the water before continuing on. It was a good plan. Grandpa Frank also took a quick dip in the water to wash his harrowing afternoon from his body. The kids splashed around in the water until I called them out, and they headed back toward us. Then they stopped. I couldn’t tell what the holdup was, but then I saw the girls pointing at Joe’s body and the multitude of leeches attached to it. Then they looked at their own bodies. They all had black, curling leeches attached to their skin. Frantically pulling them off, they were squealing and jumping around, each checking the backs of the others. Finally the last leech had been removed and we were ready to head south. As far as possible.

In the car, Joe had recovered from his heebie-jeebies in relation to the leeches, and was playing with one in a Styrofoam cup. He told the girls he had something cool to show them. They, however, had not overcome their leech related heebie-jeebies. When Joe showed them the leech-in-a-cup, Kimberly retched in the back seat. I had been videotaping Joe’s leech-in-a-cup and immortalized Kimberly’s retch in the audio. Poor Kim.

It was during our last rest stop in Canada and before arriving at Niagara Falls that we earned the nickname The Griswalds. The last rest stop was on Lake Ontario, so we figured we wouldn’t see a bunch of leeches in that larger body of water. After emerging disheveled and tired from the car, two friendly young men approached us and asked us about our trip and where we were from. We told them about our strange trip, and that is when they decided that we were like the Griswalds, still trying, through all adversity, to get to our destination. We didn’t have an Auntie strapped to the roof of the car, but who knew what would be next?

Canada is beautiful, but we were ready to be home-bound.

I didn’t bring a bungee cord to Niagara Falls to tether Joe to my belt loops. A couple of times I wished that I had, but most of the time spent at Niagara Falls was as close to perfect as family time can be. We found a nice motel and laughed heartily when checking in and the desk clerk asked if we would like a honeymoon suite. I can’t imagine what he was thinking—four kids were standing right behind us.

Grandpa Frank, Joe-your-dad and I had been to Niagara Falls when Joe was a baby and Jenny was on her way. We took one of those see-the-[insert location here]-in-two-crazy-days-and-nights trips that Grandpa Frank liked to plan. Exhausting. We camped one night on that trip and spent the other at a motel in Niagara Falls, when the desk clerk asked us the same question, “Do you want a honeymoon suite?”

It must be one of their stock questions. During that trip I had Joe on my hip and Jenny protruding quite far into the world, all over my front. We told the man that we would love to have a honeymoon suite, with a crib, please.

After visiting Niagara Falls the first time, Frank, Joe and I made a mad dash east, then down a stretch of the Atlantic coast. To observers it may have looked as if we had hell-hounds on our tails. We ogled architecture in Boston at forty miles per hour. It was said I was ungrateful for being disappointed that my visit to Boston didn’t match the dream I had of visiting that historic city. After all, what did I expect? Ben Franklin on a park bench? Don’t allow your dreams to be rushed, sweet girl. Savor them.

Following U.S. 1, we sped down the coast of Connecticut and saw some really nice trees. We experienced the ocean—that was holding Joe by his arms and dunking his feet into Long Island Sound as we left New York behind us. Pennsylvania was a blur of hills that evoked Joe’s first words. I had been saying, “Up, up, up,” and “Down, down, down,” playing with him in his car seat as the car moved up and down the hills, giving us those tummy-jump feelings. He dozed off and I turned around to hear a few moments later, “Down, down, down,” in the sweetest little voice I had ever heard.

This time we were doing it right. We took our time in Niagara Falls and were quite the tourists, visiting so many shops we wore ourselves out. We lazed near the falls and just looked at them. We took pictures of the kids in front of them, and hollered at Joe to PLEASE not stand on that fence that separates you from certain death in the falls. We watched beautiful lights shine on the falls at night and embarked on the adventure of the Maid of the Mist.

How I had wanted to do that! I wanted to be down near the base of the falls and hear the roar, feel the power, feel the spray. It was not a disappointment. Excited, we donned blue raincoats given to us a part of the tour. We heard the story of the Maid of the Mist boat that in 1960 saved a seven year old boy who was swept down the falls wearing only a life vest for safety—the first to survive such a treacherous plunge over Horsehoe Falls. Joe made friends with one of the captains and was allowed to hang around in the wheelhouse. The rest of us simply stared and experienced as the boat traversed an arc of turbulent water as close to the falls as we would ever be.

All of the setbacks and disappointments of the trip melted into laughter and new, fond memories. Niagara Falls had fixed The Griswalds. We were ourselves once again and ready to go home. We headed west with our rocks, our moccasins, blankets and trinkets picked up along the way to face the last part of our quest: the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.

For some across the country Hoosiers, at least those like me, may be a bit difficult to understand. Some of us are used to things being flat and like it that way. It keeps things simple. Bridges go across rivers and there are caves in the ground, but we don’t usually have to drive through them. Hills make me queasy. Tunnels make me tense. Mountains scare the hell out of me. I like being able to see the arc of the horizon uninterrupted by nothing more than crops in the fields. I like for my feet to be on a huge expanse of flat earth that is not likely to move and cause vertigo.

So to some of us, driving through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, consisting of almost a mile of underground—and under the Detroit River—roadway, was a challenge. And it’s an old tunnel, built in 1930. And it leaks.

But we soldiered onward, and after checking back into the United States and assuring border security that yes sir, all four of those children belonged with us, we headed below water in an entirely new way. We didn’t like seeing water streaming down the walls of the shiny white tile in the tunnel. We didn’t like that at all. We didn’t like the cracks evident in those shiny white tiles, either. We were happy when that particular ride was over, and weren’t anxious to repeat it.

We headed west. When we hit the Indiana state line we all belted out the song, Back Home Again, In Indiana, as was our way.

Arriving home in the late evening, the kids checked on the fish tank and wished we could pick up Rachel, our little dachshund. That would have to wait until the next day, but even dachshundless, home looked pretty darned good.

The trip north did turn out to be our last vacation as a whole family, but a good one with which to end that chapter of our lives. Maybe Niagara Falls had not fixed The Griswalds within us. Perhaps our inner Griswalds had simply completed their quest.

Our southeastern trip : Daddy and the Duke
Our trip out west : Westward, ho!



  1. Because you deserve something special:


    from me to you !!!!!!!!!!

  2. Just wanted to let you know I gave you an award…

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