It was January 2020, two months before the shutdown of the global economy, and every hotel and restaurant in it. My partner and I were planning a Summer getaway. We wanted it to be less than a thousand dollars, within driving distance, and involve outdoor activities. Who knew that our criteria would fit so perfectly in a post-COVID world?
Thus the decision was made to book a campsite on the shores of Lake Michigan at Lake Leelanau State Park in late August.
As the pandemic unfolded, we were grateful we chose such a socially distant and feasible vacation. Not to mention the fact our salaries were both cut for the first few months of the crisis, meaning the lower price tag of our trip let us breathe easy.
We gathered dry firewood in several boxes, packed our tent and sleeping bags in the back of our little SUV, and headed North in the middle of a late August downpour.
The morning drive was largely uneventful, but full of anticipation for the long weekend and a little bewilderment at the 90mph average speed of every other car around us heading up state. People were ready to get away.
The rain met up with us again as we arrived in Traverse City for lunch. After a quick visit to Horizon Books where I picked up a weekend read (Jack London’s To Build a Fire and Other Stories) at a bargain of just six dollars, we were off heading north up M-22, a very scenic drive known to many Michiganders.
When we pulled into the State Park just before evening, the Ranger at the front office asked in a Northern Michigan accent if we knew about the storm rolling in that night. We groaned a bit and said we saw something on the radar. He laughed sympathetically and handed us a park map. Our spirits were still high.
While backing into our little campsite the rain started up again once more. Not wanting to sit inside the car any longer, we hopped out and began assembling our one-room home for the next three days under a tall jack pine. Within 20 minutes we had the tent set up and our rain jackets drying in a corner of it. The sound of the waves lapping against the nearby shore was a lot louder than I expected.
The rain dried up within an hour and we ventured out into the park. We walked past other campsites, quietly laughing at the few gaudy RVs with their “glampers” inside watching TV. But hey, it’s a pandemic, who are we to judge as long as they’re keeping their sneezes to themselves?
We checked out the lighthouse and the rest of the small park before returning to our site to start a fire and cook our hot dogs.
We bandied about, read our books, sat around the fire, and stood on the shoreline enjoying the sounds of nature and fellow campers until around 10pm, when we retired to our nylon teepee. The wind and rain was intermittent all night and caused a bit difficulty sleeping, but the fresh air and novelty of it all was completely worth the few awakenings.
We forgot to put away our small trash bag in a sealed container and therefore had a visit from furry little creature in the middle of the night. It dug and scratched at the tent opening until we unzipped it and it hissed as it scurried away (Kevin – 1, Grizzly Bear – 0).
Morning dawned cool and grey. Our only notable purchase for the entire trip was this nifty little pocket stove to boil water for oatmeal and dehydrated food pouches. It was easy to use and boiled the water in about 5 minutes. Highly recommend this as a great way to cook your own food on the road.
In fact, this entire trip cost less than 100 dollars per person and was just as memorable as any Caribbean resort I’ve been to. It checked off a few of my “values” boxes for how I want to spend my money as well.
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Our only planned hike for the trip was at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, about an hour and a half away from our campsite. We drove through a few kitschy up-north towns on the way. The types of towns that are bustling for three months a year and make you wonder who lives there the other nine.
As we pulled into the Dune Climb park, it became evident that in a world where the only thing to do is be outside, everyone else had the same idea as us. Thankfully the dunes are massive and seem to go forever. We were able to hike and see the sights largely alone except for in the parking lot.
The weather was 75 and sunny. Perfect for hiking around on golden sand mountains all day. Even after hiking for several hours, we wanted to stay longer and explore more, but we made the trek back to the car and headed back to base. On our return drive, we stopped in Glen Arbor and got coffee while we walked around the few streets and shops it offered.
Whenever I’m up north, or visiting any small, touristy town, I always get a depressing feeling for no one and no thing in particular. It’s not quite pity, nor disdain, but some combination of melancholy and morbid curiosity.
The summer comes, and so do cars full of families and sightseers just like us. We eat up the scenery like a swarm of locusts. We drive too fast, in a hurry to get nowhere in particular. We flock to the beaches and coffee shops, eager to collect another trophy for social media. And because summer disappears just as fast as it arrives in Michigan, we’re gone in the blink of an eye.
Second homes left vacant for months. Porches boarded up. Streets and shops closed down. Hibernating. Just waiting for next year. Except for the few locals that remain, or the visitors passing through on their way to a ski trip, there’s no one left. As if the impending sub-zero temperatures and biting winds weren’t enough, these little towns just seem haunted after Labor Day.
Well that got dark. Anyways, back to camping and merriment!
We started another rip-roaring fire in the middle of a windstorm that evening. The flames were sideways the entire night. Any possible chance of hearing nearby campers was carried away the moment their voices left their lips.
Thanks to the feverish weather, we experienced one of the most epic sunsets. It lasted all of 5 minutes before it was swallowed up by the lake.
We felt oddly at peace underneath the deafening wind crashing through the branches and leaves above as we zipped up our sleeping bags and turned out our lantern. The temperature dropped to about 55 Fahrenheit and the whitecaps were never-ending. We slept like babies.
The next morning, the embers of our fire were still hot enough to restart it without any matches. After breakfast, we packed up our belongings, sure that the sand would still be falling out of our sleeping bags for years to come, and headed home.
If the photos haven’t convinced you. And me waxing poetic about the sand and how sad the lake towns seem to us “southerners” hasn’t either, I hope this article by Ed Murray highlights the challenges and showcases the high stakes of losing our very own natural Michigan wonders, the five Great Lakes. I’d like to be able to bring my future kiddos back there one day. Heck, I might even figure out what’s so appealing about moving up there. Until I do, and even if I don’t, I see no reason to trade that much pristine shoreline just to save a few bucks on a corporate balance sheet.
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