A few years ago, The New York Times Lake Michigan published what it called a circle tour. The writer, who grew up on the North Shore, however, never crossed the Mackinac Bridge. They thought UP was full of gun-wielding wildlife, they could shoot journalists traveling, or at least make them self-conscious about being a troll, as anyone who lives under a bridge would call Uppers. So they returned to Ludington and crossed the lake at SS Badger, losing Door County.
We can do better. We can take you around the only Great Lake that does not require a passport to get around. Let’s get out of here first. Rule one: We are not taking the highways on this trip. So drive south on Dusable Lake Shore Drive, follow the signs for US 41 into Ewing Avenue (crossing the river at 93rd Street) and turn left onto 106th Street, which crosses the state line into Indianapolis Boulevard.
As much as we love Midwestern kitsch, the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting is our first stop – a surreal scene both in and out. The hall sparks flames from its chimneys to the north of the oil refinery and occupies some of the railroad tracks south. With boxcars that block the view of the lake. Hall’s own mascot, Reggie, Fuchsia Muppetoid, with French fries originating from his head, is incorporated into the building’s exterior design. Inside the front doors, the swollen heads of Hall of Fame inductees hang from the ceiling like beheaded Thanksgiving floats. No Kansas City Royals Lion Sluggerrr with Sea Monkey’s Head; Brutus Bucke of Ohio State, Hall’s only dish, a non-sensible member; And Benny the Bull. (Last weekend, Hall hosted its Class of 2022 admission ceremony, which included Montreal’s Yuppie.)
US 12 passes Gary’s steel mills, then spins through Indiana Dunes. To the left is Mount Baldy, a 126-foot-high mound that, sadly, is closed to hikers to prevent erosion. The highway crosses into Michigan, behind which fireworks stand on the right. We leave New Buffalo because we have published a guide to southwestern Michigan (and they call us all FIPS) and head north to Holland, where the Midwestern kitsch meets Dutch kitsch: there is a windmill surrounded by tulips; A breakfast joint named Wooden Shoe Restaurant; And the Dutch Village of Nelis, an amusement park that copied Hans Brinker’s version of Amsterdam, the natives’ ancestors fled, not unlike the modern, Libertine Amsterdam, which later developed and probably all religious people moved to western Michigan. The next northern town is Grand Haven, which calls itself the Coast Guard City, USA, and hosts the annual Coast Guard Festival. Every evening, the music fountain of Grand Haven emerges in the water, light and song; The village red lighthouse appears on every Great Lakes lighthouse calendar.
Have you seen those M-22 stickers parked on the north side of SUVs? M-22 is a state highway that crosses the Lilanou Peninsula, Michigan. Follow it from Traverse City to Suttons Bay, to the red-roofed Grand Traverse Lighthouse in Northport, south through Fishland in Leland, and to Sleeping Bear Dunes. The Dunes got their name from a local legend, which took two cubs of a mother bear across the lake, flying through a forest fire. The chicks drowned, but Gichi Manitou lifted their bodies, turning them into North and South Manitou Islands. A hike to the beach goes for miles, backed by a thin crop of grass and wildflowers through the sandy desert. You can see the crescent of the lake on the peaks of the dunes, but in the end, when you step through the grassy gap of the mound, Lake Michigan, like Jade, still surprises hikers.
Now let’s cross the bridge (which goes by the same name as the island), and visit Michigan’s most popular tourist trap, St. Ignace’s Mystery Spot, a collection of oblique, wrecked buildings that use optical illusions to make the water flow. Uphill. Uppers are famous for complaining about tourists crossing the bridge with a five dollar bill and a pair of underwear. This is their first attempt to separate Mystery Spot trolls from their money.
Go west on US 2, a shore-strapping stretch of highway from Maine to Washington, then turn that road into the ghost town of the Garden Peninsula and Fayette. The tall limestone cliff blocking the lake’s air made the Fayette a quiet haven for schooners and a perfect spot to melt pig iron. Mines have been tapped, forests are logged off, leaving tourism as one of UP’s most profitable ventures. Fayette is now a “historic village” with a restored blacksmith shop, a niche, a boarding house and a livery stable.
Escanaba is still a working port, loading UP Taconite to ships going to Indiana’s steel mills. You can catch sailors drinking at the brewpub Hereford & Hops on Ludington Street in Eski’s main drag. Like most parts of UP, Ludington Street is not ruined by modernity: it is a train-set diorama of downtown shopping before malls and interstates. Gust Asp Tobaconists (the neon sign flashing “Just Ask” intermittently) sells cigarettes, fishing licenses and Detroit papers.
Cross over to Wisconsin on US 41 and bypass Green Bay, because we hate packers and go to Door County, to fish at the Pelletier in Fish Creek or at the Old Post Office in Ephraim. It’s not just a comforting meal – whitefish, potatoes, bread – it’s a trick. Master Boiler “Boil!” And sprinkles oil on the flame beneath his kettle. In a roaring moment, they blossom into an orange bonfire with a bad exhaust of black smoke. (Fireball is not just for show; it burns water-oily lacquer.) Then take a ferry to Washington Island by Porte des Morets, where a Stavkirke– A replica of the Scandinavian Church – Mustard stands in a meadow, looking like a pagoda built by demons.
Why Visit Milwaukee? It is a metropolis of Lake Michigan, and we already live in one of them. To bowl! At the Holler House. Matriarch / barmaid Marci Skoronsky died a few years ago at the age of 93, but Haller House still has the oldest bowling alley in America – two sloping lanes of planks were laid in 1908, with real live pin boys. The planks were a real tree, and even Earl Anthony couldn’t bowl his average here.
Lake Michigan is not the largest lake, but it is the largest. I am in all five. Michigan has some of the most sandy beaches, melodious sunsets, warm water and the most colorful attractions. This is the only Great Lake to be surrounded by Americans without turning dollars into loonies. Like the Chicagoans, Lake Michigan is our home lake, but we can’t really say we’ve seen it until we see the whole thing.