Following a two-month visit to Western Illinois this fall – helping my active mother recuperate from hip surgery – my wife Lana and I were free to drive back to Tennessee any way we chose.
Pumped up on Jim Harrison’s “Brown Dog” novellas set in Upper Peninsula Michigan, we needed to lay eyes on this special place, and as always, interesting characters popped up along the way. Even Brown Dog uncloaked in Paradise, Michigan.
Furthermore, Lana’s college friend Donna and her husband Phil enjoy a condo jutting out off a basalt platform overlooking Lake Superior at Two Harbors, Minnesota, and they had previously invited us for a weekend, so we wandered home across America’s stunningly beautiful heartland lake country.
31 August 17
The drive from Sheffield, Illinois to Galena – the boyhood home of U.S. Grant – is usually delightful: endless cornfields rolling north in static undulations of unglaciated hills snaking beside the Mississippi River.
But this time drifting Canadian wildfire smoke hung trapped above the ground in the ghostly-still air, reminding us that California simultaneously roiled in flames, and that Grant loved big cigars.
Ironically, Ron Chernow (author of Hamilton) recently released a biography of the 18th president, which appears to lift him out of the scandal and booze for a bit and focuses on the advancement of racial equity.
Normally we take time to wander the streets of the Galena – lowercase galena in science textbooks – with its wonderful shops and picturesque hillside quaintness, but we decided to turn in early. The next morning we rolled into Wisconsin, emboldened with sunshine and covered with breweries.
1 September 17
Meandering north through corn-beans-corn, we arrived at the Potosi Brewery, home of Snake Hollow IPA, a wonderful beer if you like yours hoppy. Then the Great River Road north sent us toward Pepin as we enjoying seeing the well-decorated laid-back small towns along the way.
Our 1950’s era Pepin hotel lacked everything except two sleep-able beds and a bathroom, but a walk down to the dockside found us at the Harbor View Café where the motto is best from scratch. While dining we overheard customers say they drove down from Minneapolis twice a month to enjoy the always-changing but consistently-good fare. The spicy lamb cassoulet was tasty, indeed, washed down with the mandatory local craft beer.
Lake Pepin, a man-made reservoir on the Mississippi River west off Wisconsin’s Route 35, provided a lovely backdrop as we after-dinner strolled the top of the levee surrounding a harbor filled with people cooking and drinking on sailboats while the hardier rolled out into the sunset with fishing poles lashed to down-riggers.
3 September 17
We stopped at Duluth on our way north to Two Harbors, and the old downtown manufacturing center was covered with tourists strolling the promenade, enjoying the Portland-ish rose gardens, dozens of thriving restaurants and shops sporting sunny views of the lake. One gentlemen mentioned that locals were soaking it up because they knew what lay ahead. Short-sleeved walkers all around us belied the coming white season, the majesty of Lake Superior’s shining blue soon turning to the leaden-grey gales of November.
A couple of hours up the Bob Dylan Way (Highway Sixty One) we arrived in Two Harbors, Minnesota, a quaint village on the western shores of Lake Superior where our friends Phil, Donna, and Moses – a charming three-year-old cocker spaniel – accepted us graciously into their spacious condo filled with glass facing the ever-changing “Gitche Gumee” (the great sea in Ojibwa).
Clouds, sun, radical shifts in color and mood, moon, clouds, lake, the ever-changing kaleidoscope of God’s artistic capacity happily traipsing past each day … our friends have delighted in this gift – both physical and spiritual – for over twenty years and are still mesmerized.
4 September 17
After rising early and dining on Phil’s hearty eggs and sausage, we toured Highway 61 north with Phil behind the wheel of the family van, Moses sitting on my lap peering out the windshield, and the women happily reminiscing in the passenger seats as we tooled up to Grand Marais, Minnesota with an extended side-trip on the Gunflint Trail to snatch a peek at the Boundary Waters, a treasure both Phil and I have fished on separate occasions, an astounding 1,090,000-acres of fresh water lakes covering both shores of the US and Canada.
As we looked northwest into the horizon, loons spontaneously serenaded, a bald eagle passed at eye level yards in front of our rock overlook, wheeled, and fell into the abyss.
Earlier in the day we’d visited Gooseberry Falls State Park, Split Rock Lighthouse, and Tettegouche State Park, known for its rock climbing. All of these worthwhile stops appear along Highway 61 on western shores of Lake Superior between Twin Harbors and the Gunflint Trail.
5 September 17
The next morning we drove down to the docks to see iron ore loaded onto a massive lake hauler, but we arrived a few minutes late only to witness it steaming away toward Sault Saint Marie where we’d soon visit and watch similar ships pass through the locks.
Parting with good friends and carrying wonderful memories, we thanked Phil and Donna for their grace and hospitality, talked of future visits, then headed south to the Wisconsin state border – then east – with a glimpse of Apostle Islands passing by the driver’s side window as we cruised down Highway 13.
6 September 17
Between Bayfield and Marquette we passed iron ore mining towns – Ironwood, Bessemer – then lunched on remarkable onion soup at the Portside Inn at downtown Marquette on a bright fall day filled with tourists and shoppers.
Following Route 28, we stopped in Munising, Michigan to see Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with its spectacular cliff and rock formations, but it was socked-into-the-fog so we headed to Whitefish Point where we thoroughly enjoyed the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.
Endless rounds of Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (warning: if It’s A Small World still rings in your head, you may want to don ear plugs) lead you audibly through an excellent display of nautical science, specialized equipment, geographic explanations, descriptions of shipwrecks and stories of real-life derring-do that will spin your head. The bravery of those masters of the Inland Sea is legendary, while technology has kept more Edmund Fitzeralds from finding the bottom of its inhospitable depths. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point is a must-stop, indeed.
A lovely drive down Highway 28 to Paradise found us at the end of the day inside the Magnuson Grand Lakefront Hotel with a balcony view of the ever-changing face of Lake Superior, and evening of sun, clouds, mist, and shifting light.
If you are a reader, then it’s possible you have met or have at least seen a character step out of the pages and cross your path.
This has happened to me twice.
Two years ago, when I was writing Jellybeaners, Lana and I passed through Tellico Plains, Tennessee on a motorcycle trip. Tellico Plains is actually renamed “Kituwah Falls” as the novel’s fictional setting.
While eating a light lunch at a local restaurant, I witnessed the main character walk in – a six-foot wiry raven-haired half-Cherokee beauty – look at me, pull herself to her full height, smile, then back out and stride off down the street.
Now two years later we stumble across Brown Dog, the part-Ojibwe hero of Jim Harrison’s UP novellas, a character here described by the New York Times’ Anthony Doeer:
Brown Dog has no other name. He’s simply B. D., a scoundrel, a “backwoods nitwit,” a “kindly fool,” a goof as lovable as Sancho Panza and a libertine as promiscuous (if not as discriminating) as Don Juan. Picture a smuttier, older and alcoholic Huckleberry Finn, who happens to be Native American.
The long-haired whiskey-soaked half-Indian Brown Dog – or his doppelganger – stumbled into the Little Falls Inn while we soaked up burgers, but he was much longer-in-the-tooth than the 49-year-old protagonist, which made sense because Harrison published the last Brown Dog novella in the early 90’s. Our BD paid us no mind and remained in character, affixed to a female, a second muscle-bound hand wrapped around a beer mug.
7 September 17
After breakfast we drove to Tahquamenon Falls State Park, amazed at the size of the falls and the water’s brown color, the effect of tannin in the soil that’s swept downstream.
8 September 17
Ambling south, we arrived at Sault Saint Marie (sue saint mah ree) mid-morning and happened to walk up to the locks just an iron ore ship Herbert C. Jackson, a seeming identical twin to the Edmund Fitzgerald, slipped through, then slowly descended to Lake Huron below as the life-sized crewmen we just chatted up minutes ago morphed into miniature Toy Story characters hauling string-ropes.
“The Soo” is an American city past its prime, though its Canadian twin appears to thrive, and there’s new talk of widening the locks to accept heavier commerce, which may bring a new financial spring for both as the Great Lakes eternally serve our distribution of goods with an efficiency outstripping trucks pounding interstates into oblivion and high-sulfur Wyoming coal trains hogging rail lines as commuters sit fuming on overcrowded expressways.
A friend of mine from high school moved to Seattle after college, loved his IT job at Boeing for nearly thirty years, but retired the day after his work buddy suffered a heart attack on a traffic-blocked expressway, expiring in his car, unable to exit, unable to receive help from outside the blocked lanes.
We can do better.
Spending the night in St. Ignace, Michigan – located on the north end of the Mackinac Bridge – we ran across another novel-worthy character who’d literally built his own functional tractor out of an assortment of parts-on-hand: a straight six Ford motor, a massive steel u-bar for the frame, used wheels and tires, a drive train constructed of welded bolts and assorted gear drives from the parts bin. You can tell you’ve encountered a “character” when their spirit shows through … brightly. It’s an experience beyond words, but you know it when you see it.
This wiry retired farmer dressed in oil-soaked overalls and reeking of knowledge gained from life experience, travel, and wide reading told us we’d just missed a parade of 2,200 antique tractors crawling over the Mackinaw, and that there were such annual parades for motorcycles and semi-trucks covered in lights.
We bid adieu after two beers and several enjoyable stories, then drove down to the waterside where antique tractors glowed in the orange-red sunset of a near-perfect fall day, Lake Huron shimmering in the background.
9 September 17
The next morning we paused at Bridge View Park, a memorial to the iron workers who built the Mackinac Bridge and enjoyed outstanding views bathed in warm sunshine, cumulus clouds reflecting on still waters, and then crossed the Mackinac Bridge onto the Lower Peninsula, where we meandered along the western shores of Lake Michigan.
Spending the night in Ludington, we watched the sun set on a ferry stuffed with tourists as it pulled out for Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a system of conveyance allowing travelers to avoid the clogged arteries surrounding Chicago and Gary and enjoy themselves with brews and views instead of fumes of doom.
10 September 17
The next morning we eased out of Michigan on a cloudy day and transitioned into yellow-corn-sandy-soil northern Indiana, something I noticed having grown up in black loam Illinois where thick green stalks stand 6’ by the 4th of July.
11 September 17
During our last day on the road we slipped through Indiana into Kentucky and decided to spend the night at the well-designed Dale Hollow Lake Inn on the Tennessee / Kentucky border, where we enjoyed one last night of changing lake scenes while deer munched grass below our veranda.
Even with the exquisite scenery, renewed friendships, outstanding food, unexpected delights and character revelations, we realized our quick week in the UP was simply a training mission for longer, more laid-back excursions to come, perhaps by motorcycle or camping trailer because …