As we pull into the driveway of Lucky Lake campground (just outside of Rothbury, Michigan), my stomach drops and I get that really uneasy feeling that tells me that I don’t want to look over at the face Loops will be making right now.
The gravel driveway looks to be about ¾ mile long and disappears into woodland. We now have two issues – Loops hates driving on loose gravel and trees next to roads are the enemy of the RV.
The loose gravel is an issue for the following reasons – the fear of sinking our 50,000lb bus tyres into it and not being able to get out, and because if you drive too fast it rips up Belle’s exterior paint (and just for the record do you know how much it would be to repaint our whole bus? About $25-45,000).
The trees are a whole different ballgame – low hanging branches threaten to rip off anything on the roof of the bus; so that’s the possibility of losing any of the following – three air conditioning units, two bathroom fans, one refrigerator vent, a TV antenna, a satellite dish, two air horns, a flood light and about 3 radio antennas. Additionally the branches also do incredible damage to the paint by scratching the sides of the bus and literally gouging out the paint, until you’re left with bare metal underneath. Finally, there is the problem of manoeuvrability – trees don’t move and our bus is 43ft of non-slinky like material, it does not twist and bend (unless you’ve wrapped it around a tree in an unfortunate accident).
The reason I’m feeling really particularly bad about this (and Loops’ grumpy face), is that I’m the smart ass who guaranteed that I’d done all of the appropriate research for tonight’s camp; just another one of Button’s great ideas.
And I’ll tell you it didn’t get any better when 20 minutes later, after we’d made it through the hairy gravel and trees, to discover the whole campground was made of grass and sand – perfect for sinking into on a normal day, even more likely with the predicted flooding that the weather service had kindly informed us of. Well, that’s Strike Three and we are outta there!
I’d picked Rothbury for our stay simply for the reason it had a trailhead to the Hart-Montague Rail Trail, a bike path that we could try out. I will hold my hands up and admit that maybe I had focused a little bit more on that fact, than checking out the satellite maps of the campground. Well, as we are learning very quickly in our travels, adaptability is the key to any good RV road trip, so we popped over to the bike trail and spent 7.5 miles debating what to do next…and so begins our Casino Camping tour of Michigan.
Now I’ve mentioned before about our discovery of casinos and their affection for RV campers, so we trundled up to Little River Casio Resort in Manistee, situated on the reservation land of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians (and we’ll get to this in another blog post later). This was not a small, pull into the car park and hope for the best situation; they had a large RV park on site and full hook ups – pretty, quiet and clean. They were after the long term gamblers here for sure.
So we set up shop and I spent the afternoon and the next morning washing clothes while Loops fixed our broken bathroom sink – yes, it’s a rock and roll life style out here on the road!
The next morning we departed and found ourselves taking the M22, part of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour, a series of scenic roads which connect all of the Great Lakes together. And how scenic it is indeed.
Michigan, I have learned, is a state known for its farming, specifically its fruit and vegetable farming. Arable crops are limited here, but you will find yourself passing mile after mile of trees, heavily laden with fruit, rows and rows of grape vines for wine and too many blueberry farms to count. You will spy on almost every road a small homestead with a fruit and veg stand and, this is the bit I love with all of my heart, it is run on the honour system – you take what you want and leave your money in the jar on the table. Doesn’t that just make you smile? Of course with all of this fruit around we also pass more than a couple fields with bee hives in them, highly recognisable tall wooden boxes, usually in clusters of 4 or 5, standing proud in the fields as their workers go on their merry way collecting nectar and pollen from the surrounding area.
We pass through small towns located on other smaller bodies of water, spotting an old wooden school building, small one stories houses and the first ‘mercantile’ I have ever seen (isn’t that something from the 1900’s?). I also spy another honour system operation along the way, but this time it’s a tiny booth in the centre of a town with a sign proclaiming it the ‘Free Library’, where you come and take a book and put another in its place.
Along the M22 Loops pulls in at an overlook named Inspiration Point and we hop out to have a peek at the view. However, it’s not just Loops and I on this excursion but also my best buddy AJ who is on Skype with me, so I do my best to give her a 360 degree shot before my internet connection gives out. From this location, because of the height, you can see all the way south along the coast of Lake Michigan and a good way north too. You can also appreciate the colouration changes in the water from crystal clear at the beach edge below (I can easily make out the sand and stone beneath the lapping waves), to the light aquamarine blue of the shallow warmer water and then the dramatic gloomy and ominous dark blue of the cold plunging depths of the lake.
We pop out the binoculars and spend time scanning the coastline and watching the boats out on the waves – including a colossal barge far out in the distance. I don’t know why this shocks me, but for some reason I don’t expect to see massive ocean going vessels chugging up and down the lake. When I hear the term ‘lake’ I still imagine a small pool of water, thin enough that I can see both shores and would maybe be something you might go out and fish on, or take a small sailboat out for the day. I certainly don’t associate the word with huge bulk freighters up to 1000 feet in length and carrying 70,000 tons of iron ore, coal, grain or stone, which is what happens every day on Lake Michigan (and pretty much all of the other Great Lakes too).
As we make our approach to the town of Empire, we cruise around the shore of Crystal Lake (a proper sized one), where the road is loosely wooded and with houses interspersed throughout; every now and then you glance over and can see the water flashing sparkles in the sunshine through the gaps. Occasionally the road veers closer to the lake and you have a full clear view out across the water and I begin to imagine how peaceful it must be to live right here, a house next to the pebbled beach and your own little boat dock to sit out on in the evening watching the sunset with a piña colada in hand. A quick search of the real estate prices puts paid to that dream, unless someone out there would like to donate $750,000 for a lovely two bedroom house which of course I shall invite you to enjoy in the holidays?
One of the reasons we have chosen this specific driving route is to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, one of the National Park Service locations, which I am excited to see and also of course collect my stamp in my 2016 Centennial Passport! Empire is the gateway town to the lakeshore and so we pop in to visit the NPS information centre based here and to check out the little town. We pull in at 1pm and have a quick bite to eat for lunch in the bus, being very pleased with the parking at the back of the centre were we can throw open the windows and have a pleasant breeze blowing through on this rather hot day.
We head inside to check out the information, I learn about how Sleeping Bear Dunes got its name, I spoke to the ranger and asked about parking for the RV so we could reach the bike trails in the park and I even bought some additional stickers to put in my passport (it all goes to supports the NPS you know, I’m not just feeding some geeky habit!).
Loops and I then have a debate about the program for the day and evening. It appears he also talked to a staff member about overnight parking and it was explained that we can’t park per se in the town itself due to town rules or the NPS land, but apparently the information centre is a bit of a no-man’s land *wink wink* Well, we’ve been very lucky previously with our past car park excursions when visiting NPS sites, so we decide to give it a go and see how it works out.
We decide to wait a while until the heat of the day passes and then at about 6pm once the centre has closed and with the sun still bright but nicely warm, we pop the bikes off the bus and go for a cycle through the small town and down to Village Park. This is a wonderful little town beach tucked away on a back road where you can access Lake Michigan. We have plenty of company at the park, not overcrowded at all, but pleasantly companionable.
There are some people just relaxing on the beach probably waiting for sundown, I see kids swimming with their parents in the lake and down a little ways a larger group of adults all in the water; wading around and every now and then stopping to pick up stones out of the water, glancing at them and turning them over before ditching them back into the drink. I watch them for a short time because I know exactly what they are doing, and it’s the same reason I’ve dragged Loops down here this evening. They are on the hunt for Petoskey stones.
If you’ve never heard of a Petoskey Stone (and I only had by chance after watching a film earlier this year about a kid hunting for a treasure and the stone was a piece of the puzzle, and if I’m honest I thought it was a made up CGI graphic kind of thing), here’s the low down…
The Petoskey Stone is the state stone of Michigan (and if you’re wondering why a state would have a particular stone representative, I’ve beat you to it already and also spent countless hours wondering why they would require a state bird, reptile, fish, fossil, soil, song and motto). The stone isn’t just a stone though; it’s actually the combination of rock and fossil, and in particular the fossilized coral Hexagonaria percarinata. As its scientific name suggests, this coral forms in a distinctive hexagonal pattern, but it’s not something that you can easily spot, at least when it’s dry. And this is where the Petoskey Stone becomes a little bewitching – because when it’s dry, it looks like a normal stone; dunk it in water and instantly the pattern appears and spreads out across it, as if by magic!
I think it is also worth noting and giving credit to the Petoskey stone’s name, because it is named after for an Ottawa Indian Chief, Chief Pet-O-Sega. He was the Chief over the lands when the city of Petoskey was formed and the stones are most commonly found there (though technically can be found all along the coast of Lake Michigan).
Before venturing up this way, in my research of the top things that you have to do in Michigan, everyone said you have to go and find yourself a Petoskey Stone. Of course, like anything these days, you can go and buy one in the shops anywhere around here, but the real joy of the stone comes from the fact that you have to search for one yourself – and that’s exactly what I aim to do.
The general consensus is that finding stones in really popular areas is akin to finding gold dust. The best time to search is actually just after winter, when the storms have really churned up the lake, so me starting my search on a late summers day at a public beach probably doesn’t bode well for success; but by golly, I mean to try. I start by wandering the beach itself, crouched over examining tiny pebbles that have washed up. A fool’s errand of course and after about 5 minutes or so I give up. I do also have a slight problem in that while I know what I am looking for in terms of the pattern of the stone, I don’t actually know how big they are, nothing I read actually stated anything about size, so every stone I see deserves a glance.
I decide to forage in the water. Now, the last time I went near the lake was back when Ron and Dorinda took Loops and I to the sand dunes and I dipped my toes in and practically froze them off, so needless to say I am very apprehensive about wading into the surf. However I am in for a shock when I dabble my toes and find it’s almost warm, not bath water, but definitely tepid enough for wading. And so my search begins. I wade in up to the hem of my shorts and make a fairly decent foray back and forth, back and forth, dipping my hand in and out of the water every time I spot a stone. I don’t look too far off some type of wading bird searching for worms in the sand. The water is absolutely transparent, the clarity couldn’t be better it if tried, and it’s beautiful to be wading in it.
I’m about 15 minutes into my search when I hear an exclamation and look up to see a little boy swimming about 20 feet into the lake. He’s calling to his dad, also in the water, and is obviously delighted about something. I can hear his voice as it drifts over – “I found one, didn’t I?” he gabbles excitedly to his dad, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out what he’s talking about. Hmm, I was worried this might happen. I had read some advice online that said that the best place to actually find the stones in the water was about 15 feet from shore, but you’d need to snorkel to get to them. Darn it.
I have obviously not come prepared to snorkel, or even to swim in the lake, but obviously I need to get further out into the water. Well, there is just no other option; I’m going to have to go for a swim, clothes and all. I wade over to Loops, who has been patiently waiting on the beach, and tell him my plan and then explain why it is essential to my very life existence to secure one of these stones; even if it means that I will have to ride back to the bus in soaking wet clothing. He gets that look on his face, the resigned one where he knows I’m absolutely crazy and there’s nothing he can do about it, and simply says “OK”.
Now for those of you who’ve read about our previous travels, you will be aware I have some general concerns about swimming in water that is not chlorinated and contained within concrete walls (it’s because of the snakes and alligators and sharks that will eat me. And the seaweed, don’t forget the deadly seaweed). However, Lake Michigan is rather wonderful in several respects I am finding. First, I can see in the water. I can clearly and visibly note there is no plant life ready to drown me, nor creepy crawlies to surprise me. Also, this is fresh water, so apart from the fish which are scared of people and probably quite far out in the lake, nothing is going to eat me, it is devoid of any large deadly animals. So it only takes a couple seconds of my wacky water dance (crouch, dip, freak out, stand up and repeat) before I launch myself into the lake.
And here’s where something strange happens. I actually pause for a moment and realise where I am and what I am doing. It’s 7pm on a Monday evening and I am sitting fully clothed in the warm waters of Lake Michigan on a hunt for magical stones.
This is my life right now.
And with that, something important inside me changes. All of the general guilt I have been carrying with me this whole trip so far, for being a mid-thirty person without a job who is living free of any responsibility while the rest of the world toughs it out, suddenly seems rather annoying. One day I’m going to die, just like everyone else, so why on earth wouldn’t I try and spend every moment I can having experiences like this? And why do I need to feel bad about that? It’s not like I’m cheating at life, hitching some free ride, I’ve saved and sacrificed for this lifestyle. I don’t have what other people do, I’ve chosen something different and I pay a different price for that.
And so with a new sense of absolute lightness and delight, of wonder and thankfulness, I continue my hunt for the elusive Petoskey stones. Squeezing my toes into the sad to pick up rocks, bending my knees up and reaching my hands down to transfer them to the surface for inspection before releasing them to be free again. So tonight I might not find the stones I desperately want, but I have found something else. The true sense of adventure and awe that I feel I have been missing out on until now, and the incredible inner strength and peacefulness that goes with it.
It seems Lake Michigan has worked its very own magical powers on me.