A recent drive from Florida to Northern Michigan and back was not just a trip through some of this country's most beautiful places; it was an odyssey of rediscovering my roots. We attended a family reunion with more than 100 relatives, then we traveled the back roads of Antrim County where my family, on both sides, goes back nearly 200 years.
There's no way to describe the grandeur of America's heartland in summer. I never tire of looking at the forested mountains of Tennessee, the craggy Appalachian cliffs of Kentucky, and the vast green farmlands of Ohio. But nothing compares to the natural glory of Northern Michigan.
I grew up there, but I'd forgotten how truly awesome it is. The rolling hills seem greener there, the sky bluer, the lakes more sparkling and the fruit sweeter. Water for drinking comes from the tap icy cold, even in July. In fact, the very air seems cleaner and fresher there than anywhere on earth.
Historic places and beautiful sites are everywhere in Michigan, like 100-plus lighthouses, more than any other state. But the paradise of Northern Michigan, from the city of Cadillac to the Straits of Mackinaw and through the Upper Peninsula, is the best kept secret in America. The Mackinaw Bridge, joining the two peninsulas, is the longest suspension bridge in America. It makes the Golden Gate look like a toy. Beautiful Mackinaw Island, with its rich history and Grand Hotel (sporting the longest covered porch in the world) will knock your socks off.
We drove State Highway 72 from Grayling to Grand Traverse Bay, then Highway 31 along the shore all the way to Levering. We wound up in the tiny burg of Bliss, where my cousin is pastor of a country church. He took us to Leg's Inn, where we sat on a stone terrace overlooking the bay and ate white borscht and crackers with whitefish pate. The inn itself is a curiosity worth the trip, with whole sections of the building carved from single huge tree trunks.
We visited the picturesque town of Elk Rapids where the streets are pristine and bordered with flowers. A few blocks from the house where we lived when I was born (yes, it's still there), we stopped in a park that overlooks Grand Traverse Bay. You can't imagine how huge Lake Michigan is till you stand there digging your toes into the white sand beach and realize that it's more than 100 miles of open water to Wisconsin.
In the nearby town of Bellaire, where my grandparents lived when I was little, we stayed the night at the lovely Stone Waters Inn, a building more than 100 years old. It sits atop a cliff overlooking a swirling bend in the Intermediate river. From the back terrace a winding wood-plank stairway leads down to a boardwalk and wildflower garden along the water's edge. When my mother was growing up, the inn was an auto repair shop with the owner living upstairs. It was purchased in the 1980s by my cousin Bob Batterbee and converted to an antique shop. He was renovating the upstairs into rental units when he sold it to the current owners, who finished it as an inn.
From Bellaire it's a short hop to Torch Lake, listed as one of the 10 most beautiful lakes in the world, and probably the coldest too. My great Aunt Helen owned a cherry farm on the shores of Torch Lake when I was a kid. I can remember going there to help pick cherries. Actually we did more eating and horsing around than picking. It was "one in the mouth and one in the lug, one in the mouth and one flipped at my brother, etc." At the end of the day, when we were tired and hot and full of cherries, we'd race each other down the road straight into the lake. Last one in was a rotten egg.
I strolled along the shore of Torch Lake remembering and wading in the icy water. That night we stopped at a roadside produce stand for a quart of tree-ripened black cherries and a fresh red cherry pie, still warm from the oven. I had forgotten how delicious they can be. Like kids again, we skipped dinner and ate nothing but cherries.