Blog : Pure Michigan

Along The Way

Along The Way

I love my kids. I really do. Of the few things in this life of which I’m certain, that condition is firmly assured. But I can’t stand driving anywhere with them. Short trips, long trips, it’s all the same, and it’s all awful. Social Media, this week and the last, has been full of road tripping families, heading to some awful place in Northern Florida, the kids crammed into the backseat with pillows and blankets and iPads and earbuds. The images are supposed to evoke feelings of good old fashioned family fun, but to me, they are the stuff of nightmares. Loving my kids is one thing, loving spending time in cars with them is an entirely other thing.

During the summers of my youth, in between bouts of rag tag, lawn mowing and, well, rag tag and lawn mowing, my family would take to the interstates and spend two weeks in another place. We did this for many reasons, but mostly so my dad could rent out his house to raise money to help pay his property taxes.  We packed our station wagon, whichever one it was at the time, hitched up the trailered Boston Whaler, and proceeded to pack the Whaler full of everything we thought we might need for two weeks in the north woods of Minnesota. The preparation for the trip was remarkably stressful, and to this day, I cannot pack for a trip anywhere without falling into my father’s pattern of yelling and stressing over every detail of the chaos.

Most years, we’d cram into the back of that station wagon, first a blue one and then a red one, three brothers in the back, parents in the front, and we’d drive through the night without much excitement. The drive was long, perhaps eight hours worth, and exceedingly boring. There were no iPads to distract. No iPhones to amuse. Just the road and the night and three sweaty boys, packed like sardines in a can lined with red upholstery.

One year, a wheel bearing gave out in Minneapolis sometime around midnight. I don’t remember the details of that night, but it was similar to when Clark fell asleep and took that exit to the wrong part of Saint Louis.  In spite of the hiccup, we arrived the next morning in those northwoods, the washboard rumble of the camp driveway serving as our only notice.  Once we arrived, we’d spend our time swimming and following girls and attending more church services in two weeks than most fit into a year.  After two weeks we’d pack up and drive through the summer night. We’d be home by morning, because there were lawns to mow.

The summer trips we took were never about the journey. They were only about the destination. We didn’t stop to see the World’s Largest Ball Of Twine. We didn’t stop to take pictures at overpasses. We just drove because we knew the destination was worth the effort.  The journey, well that was just the price we had to pay.

There’s a new Pure Michigan commercial disrupting my television commercials of late, and it’s a commercial that praises the journey.  Along the way, Tim Allen insists, is where we have the most fun.  Along the way, he says, is the place we’ve been longing for. I’ve always been trained to endure the journey to embrace the destination. Suffer through the trip, because it’ll be worthwhile when you get to where you’re going. This is why I fly Frontier to Denver.  Tim Allen says otherwise. He’s told us that the journey is where it’s at. But, like always, he’s wrong. This is what people say when the destination isn’t very good. This is what people say when the journey is long and the travelers are weary.  Drive to Michigan if you must, just remember the commercial asks you to enjoy the trip because the destination isn’t all that great.

Image by Matt Mason Photography
Boat Lake Michigan?

Boat Lake Michigan?

I often wonder what the connection is between the Chicago Tribune and the state of Michigan. Is it simply that the Tribune is a newspaper in Chicago and Michigan is nearby? If so, that’s nice, because it’s good to be neighborly. But what if it’s deeper than that? What if the state of Michigan is in cahoots with the Chicago Tribune, and they conspire to inflate the status of Michigan because the two states are wildly, overwhelmingly, insanely jealous of the greater state that lies to the north of Illinois? What if this whole thing is a ploy to somehow derail the popularity of Wisconsin? What if this whole orchestrated ruse goes to the highest office? What if Rahm meets quarterly with officials in Michigan and they sit around conspiring? This is likely what happens, because there’s no other way to explain the Tribune’s high level of affection for some place as terrible as Michigan.

Today let’s not worry about the conspiracy, let’s just deal with the latest advertisement disguised as a general interest article and consider what falsehoods we must rebut. The glowing piece by Andrea Guthmann graced the Travel section of the last Sunday Tribune. The article included phrases like, “In the heart of what savvy tourism strategists branded “Harbor Country”, New Buffalo lures city dwellers with its casual beach vibe and proximity. Roughly 40 nautical miles from Chicago, it’s reachable by motorboat in an hour or two”.    What I know is what you don’t, unless you’ve visited this obscure place.  All fawning aside, New Buffalo is so boring it’s almost unbearable. And those short 40 nautical miles are meaningless unless you’re the sort that jumps on a boat in Chicago and motors across the lake. Some people do that, but it’s far from a great idea.

Great Lake Escape. Visiting Michigan’s Harbor Towns? Don’t Miss The Boat.

This is the title of the article.  The concept  here is that if you’re a city bound Chicagoan and you’d like to find your way to some water, you should go to Michigan. It’s a state full of water, surrounded by water, lots and lots of water. But beyond that, the pitch here is that this is about boats. If you like boating, you’re going to love Michigan. If you like boating, come to Michigan. If you’re an author who was awarded a journalism fellowship from the University of Michigan, write about Michigan!  To read this as a boating novice, you’d think Michigan is the place to go. After all, this is a great lake, and who wouldn’t want to boat on a great lake?

But don’t you see? This is the scam. This article tells us to go to Lake Michigan to boat but then it tells us how we might go about actually boating. There are ferries, you can ride one of those.  There’s even one that’s hand cranked, which sounds like the worst possible boat ride ever.  Then there are the harbors. Lots of harbors! Some harbors have rental boats, and if you’re 21 and love danger you can rent a boat. There are also fishing charters, which are terrific fun if you like sitting in a boat texting your friends while you wait for the rod to bend. Once it bends you should stand up and reel the fish in. Congratulations you’re a fisherman! Or you can rent a pontoon boat and float down the Kalamazoo River.  It’s easy to float down the river, because the river is super slick.

Do you see what’s happening here, boating friends from Chicago? What’s really happening is that you’re being told to go somewhere to boat and then when you get there the boats are all rentals. The boats are charters. The boats are there, but they aren’t yours. Lake Michigan might be a great lake for boating your personal Edmund Fitzgerald, but why go to a place where you have to work so terribly hard to boat? Lake Geneva has boats, plenty of boats. We have big boats and small boats. Wood boats and and sailboats. We have all of the boats. And when you come to Lake Geneva we don’t make you drive some remarkable distance and then present your driver’s license and insurance information to go for a drive. We just let you have your boat down at your pier, and we put your pier down at the end of your lawn, and your lawn is the grass that stretches from your home to the water. This is how we boat.

Harbor Country is just that- it’s for harbors. If you want to go to boating country, you want to be at Lake Geneva. Lake Michigan is nice to look at, like when you’re driving north to Lake Geneva on Lakeshore Drive, but it’s a lake best left to the lookers. It’s a lake for the passive people who wish to watch the water and not engage it.  Lake Geneva is the lake for watersports, for fishing and sailing and swimming and skiing. It’s a lake that’s terrific to look at, and in that there are similarities to Lake Michigan. But beyond that it’s a lake that wants to be used. It’s a lake for a family that wants to wake up in the morning and walk down their dewy lawn and step onto their private pier where there boat rests in its cradle. It’s a lake for the active user, not for the passive viewer. And best of all, when you go for a boat ride in Lake Geneva it always ends back at your pier.

Pure Harbor Country?

Perhaps I too fell victim to the pretty prose and powerful imagery of those Tool Man joints that promise us all so much if only we’d pluck ourselves from a listless life and plant ourselves in the supposed fertile soil of Michigan. I have spent more than a little time deriding those commercials and rebutting the points made and mocking the idea that anyone, anywhere, makes mermaid tails by the shore. The concept of those Coke versus Pepsi commercials is that the Coke guy really, genuinely likes the Pepsi. His life is set up in opposition of it, but deep down, if given the opportunity, he’d choose the Pepsi and throw his Coke based life away. In much the same manner I knew that I too, sooner or later, would have to taste from this great Michigan cup that Tim and friends continually push my way.

And this is what brings me to the current. I am now embedded, as a reporter in war, secretly, quietly, making my way through and around the town of New Buffalo, Michigan. I have driven to the dark side. I left Lake Geneva, and my friends and family, and my clear lake and my buoy tethered boat that bobs so pleasantly, at roughly 10:30 am yesterday morning. It was drizzling in Lake Geneva at the time, a display that mirrored my mood for the egregious error that I was about to undertake. I was conflicted about helping the Michigan economy with my alpha consumerism, but I knew I had to see what rested behind door number two. My kids started crying and generally behaving badly immediately upon the slamming of the door, as if they knew what awaited them and were as uncertain about it as I was.

As we plodded south, a most unnatural feeling that lies in square opposition to my belief that summer trips are intended to begin with a northerly bent, my mind raced. What if I found my way to Michigan and actually liked it? What if, throughout years of setting up Lake Geneva as the superior vacation home option, I felt a pull to Michigan that I could not escape? What if I arrived, and found no fault, only the fulfillment of my water-loving dreams? Such a discovery would certainly ruin my life, uproot my family, and lead me down a slippery path of chasing my personal utopia wherever it was found, even if that land of Canaan turned out to be Michigan. These were thoughts, bothersome ones, and I tried to swat them out of view like so many flies at a summer picnic. Flies, that’s what I was sure Michigan was full of. Flies.

I decided, about 3 miles east on I-80, that the fireworks billboards alone would be enough to keep me from sojourning to Michigan for my weekend retreats. The signs are dizzying, distracting, and the existence of strip club signs, casino signs, and fireworks signs, made me question the caliber of that Michigan bound audience. Is everyone on this road a 19 year old male? I wondered this silently while my kids fought in the back seat. I crunched the numbers in my head, desperate to find a way that the firework king could turn a profit after all those billboard checks. My son finally decided that he must have to sell one million dollars worth of fireworks per day in order to do so. I concurred.

My nervous energy increased when I saw the sign for New Buffalo. We were 9 miles away. Nine short miles until I would meet my adversary. I would meet it like a man, head on, and we would battle in a way that we hadn’t battled before. Previously, I would sling arrows from the comfort of my own watery utopia. I would line these arrows up and I would release them east, hoping to make contact but oblivious as to the proper trajectory and the exact latitude. I was close to ending the confusion, and my heart beat a little faster than normal, even outpacing my perpetually high blood pressure. I took Exit 1 and drove west, towards the water. I was afraid. I was trembling. What would I see here? Would I see the most perfect example of vacation home bliss ever assembled? Would the streets be paved not with asphalt or concrete but with gold and silver? Would I be greeted by a town greeter who would wipe the sweat from my travel-weary brow and offer me an ice cold glass of refreshing unicorn tears that might replenish both my soul and my tired body? The air was heavy with anticipation.

It is early morning now. I am sitting in the lobby of my hotel, writing. A freshly stacked stack of Summer Home For City People rests on the shelves that line one end of this modernist hall. What hotel am I staying at? I cannot tell you. I might be an embedded reporter, but Geraldo I am not. Through the glass I can see the front end of my car, currently covered in a camouflage mesh that I draped over it shortly after my Monday arrival. The mesh is flapping in the wind, as it seems most things do in Michigan. It is windy here. Probably always windy. The fear that I might find something so fine the course of my life would be changed forever has subsided. My homesickness grows. And my belief that Lake Geneva is the finest vacation home destination ever discovered remains more intact than it ever has been before. New Buffalo, as seen through these eyes, is a huge embarrassing disappointment and should be ashamed to have ever thought it could stand toe to toe with Lake Geneva.


I came here open to the idea that I might love this place. I travel to Door County every once in a while, and I find Door County to be overflowing with Lingonberries, yes, but also to be steeped with natural beauty and charm. It is a pretty place, it just happens to be way too far away to compete with Lake Geneva for the minds and wallets of vacation home loving Chicagoans. New Buffalo, I feared, would be as Door County, beautiful and serene and charming. After an afternoon here, I must admit that it is not the worthy adversary that I made it out to be. It is a town, sure, on the water, okay, but it is not a town with polish and prestige that Lake Geneva and Fontana easily are. It is a town that reminds me more of Elkhorn, or Walworth, and while those are fine towns, they are not on par with Lake Geneva. New Buffalo looks and smells to me like a town in some sort of transition, with more than a few empty or unfinished or unopened storefronts dotting the limited strip that I assume to be their “main drag”. It is a town lacking shops, at least to the level of Lake Geneva, and my wife was quick to point out the boutiques carry little in terms of clothing that might be found in the closets of most discerning vacation home owners. There are popcorn shops, plenty of ice cream shops, but there seems to be little else. The restaurant we ate at last night looks to be the New Buffalo equivalent of our Gordy’s, and if this is the battle by comparison, Gordy’s has the bout won before even stepping into the ring.

Today, I will spend my time and very little of my money in New Buffalo. I will wander the oddly wide Main Street, and I will wonder how this place pulls my prized demographic. I will attempt to understand this phenomenon where lakefront homes lack piers, and where evening boat rides are only accomplished with the assistance of a car, followed by a long walk, and ending with the untying of a boat resting in harbor that appears to be filled with the thickest of Chocolate milk. I will explore, and I will report back tomorrow with more of my findings. For now, I must go and evangelize the masses, my only tract being a trunk full of Summer Homes For City People. I think the wind just ripped the camouflage cover off my car.