Last summer, I traveled with my son Tevan to Interlochen, Michigan, where he attended the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, an amazing conglomeration of over 2000 kids from all over the world, studying music, theater, dance, creative writing, film and visual arts. We were supposed to take the Amtrak train from Seattle to Chicago, but it was cancelled at the last second due to flooding on the tracks in North Dakota. Instead, we flew to Chicago, enjoyed a day touring its downtown, then took the train to Grand Rapids, MI, passing through Gary, Indiana, where the smokestacks and towers of industry still stand. The next day we picked up a rental car and drove straight to Interlochen, 3 hours away. Tevan was very anxious to ditch his dad and enjoy six weeks of camp life 2000 miles from home.
left to right, top to bottom – hats at Traverse City Market reminded me of Sweaterheads hats here in Astoria; lots of lake in the Traverse City area; Tevan in Interlochen Arts Academy rotunda; Tevan in front of fountain in Grant Park in Chicago; Tevan attempting to pick up huge violin in Symphony Hall in Chicago; lake on Leelanau Peninsula
Unburdened by an anxious teenager whose one goal was to “get there”, I stayed overnight in a hotel 6 miles northeast of Traverse City, the Astoria of the Interlochen area, and set out the next day to get a look at the area before having to head back that night to Grand Rapids, where I would retrace my outgoing trip in reverse, and fly home the next day from Chicago. Little did I know that I would be returning to Interlochen, Traverse City and the surrounds the following year, this time dropping Tevan off at the private high school that occupies the same space as the camp the rest of the year. Yes, my wife Nancy and I are officially empty nesters, as Tevan has started his junior year of high school at the Interlochen Arts Academy, studying music composition, in addition to all the regular requirements. He’s now one of 475 kids that are privileged to spend part or all of their high school years at what amounts to a college campus, where most of them will room and board, as well as socialize and do all the other things that high school kids do, under the (hopefully) watchful eyes of the Interlochen staff.
My whirlwind tour of the area last year included a stop at the local ski resort, called Crystal Mountain, which is nothing like its namesake in Washington state. Crystal Hill would be more accurate, but it reminded me that this area of the country gets enough snow at sea (or lake in this case) level to have a thriving cross-country and downhill ski industry. After checking out the downtown the night before, where I dined and imbibed at two of the microbreweries in Traverse City (ah, whitefish and beer!), my tour took me on to the Leelanau Peninsula, which forms the western arm of the Grand Traverse Bay, named by French settlers a long time ago. This area reminded me of Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, where I attended fiddle camp this year without Tevan (another story). Wineries, farms, small touristy towns and amazing views. The weather was perfect, and I lingered most of the day. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was the big feature of the trip. I definitely wanted to come back.
I got my wish.
This year, we traveled a different route. Nancy suggested going to Milwaukee, taking the fast ferry across Lake Michigan to Muskegon, and driving from there. Always up for adventure and something new, I agreed, and we flew to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home of bad beer and decent cheese, and recently the site of a horrible massacre of Sikhs. I was wary, but when I researched hotels, I found one called the Astor Hotel, and couldn’t help but book it, just because. It turned out to be in a great neighborhood, right next to downtown, upscale and walking distance to the lake and a fantastic linear park along it. Walking to eat dinner in what the maps said was a fashionable district, we saw amazing mansions and more runners than we had ever seen. The weather was perfect. Maybe Milwaukee wasn’t so bad after all.
left to right, top to bottom – Tevan in front of the Astor Hotel in Milwaukee; a church down the road from the hotel; Tevan in Veterans Park; the first building of note in downtown Milwaukee on my tour; another amazing building downtown; the Public Services building, home of the public utility; a church across the street from the library; Milwaukee Public Library; Milwaukee Theatre Company
The next morning I woke up early and did a photo tour of downtown. Amazing! The previous year I had done the same in Chicago, and was amazed by the architecture. I wasn’t expecting anything like that in Milwaukee. But some of the buildings were in the same league as Chicago, and you could tell that old money was here, and many of these buildings were being renovated and kept up, which says a lot about a town.
As I headed back to the Astor Hotel (he got around, I guess), my cell phone rang and it was the ferry people telling me that the ferry was cancelled due to high winds. Very big bummer! We ended up renting a car and driving from Milwaukee to Manistee, MI, where we had a hotel room reserved that night. We did make it, but at 11:15 pm, with an exhausted Bob and disgusted Tevan, as he had to navigate me through the Chicago Labor Day weekend afternoon traffic, and through several states, and listen to my lamentations of the ridiculous toll roads that would charge you 70¢ to cross a bridge, and then stop you again a mile later to pay for the next section of road.
The rerouted trip was not without interesting points, though. I really wish we had time to see more, but we traveled through Paul Ryan’s home district; by Racine and Kenosha, two towns I would have liked to see; around Chicago; and we even stopped in Gary, which was actually scary. All the buildings except city hall were boarded up on the main drag, and we found a grocery store, where I bought some snacks while Tevan waited in the (locked) car to guard our belongings. (We hadn’t eaten since a measly continental breakfast at the hotel that morning and it was now about 5 pm.) I was really disappointed, because as a chemical engineer, I have a special affinity for Gary, where there is actually some chemical industry. After seeing the marvelous job the bigger cities of the area had done in remaking their downtowns, it was depressing seeing Gary. Maybe it will have a renaissance too someday.
Next stop was a rest area in Michigan. Now you may think this is a little too detailed, but for these weary travelers, a nicer rest stop has never been. But not only was this the first rest stop on our spontaneous trip, but it was near the first rest stop in the country, in New Buffalo, MI. And it was quite the rest stop, where Tevan was able to charge up his life-saving navigation tool – his iPhone – and we could relieve ourselves and freshen up slightly for the still long trip ahead.
We were now in wine country. Turns out southwest Michigan is an up and coming wine region, and actually, Michigan has a thriving wine industry, with plenty of rural acreage to grow those grapes. The trip was entering its more relaxed phase, before it got dark and I started to worry about finding our final destination.
We stopped in a little town on the Lake Michigan coast called St. Joseph, and the relaxation phase reached its climax. As sunset approached on a cloudless, perfect day, we dined at a Mediterranean restaurant, and while the food was being prepared, I set out on a short tour of the town and its beach. They had plenty of touristy shops, but also a 5 and dime store and other useful stores for the local population. The beach and marina were beautiful, with plenty of things for kids and adults to do in addition to just sunbathing and enjoying the lake. I wanted to just stay there for the night, but Tevan urged me on, and we left St. Joseph just as the sun was setting.
Uh-oh. The sun was setting. That meant darkness. Well, out came the map we picked up at that wonderful rest stop, and Tevan had his navigation device ready. Even with detours and lots of construction, we made it safe to Manistee, where the key to get into the small hotel and our room was waiting for us under a flowerpot. Yes, I asked Tevan to call the hotel while we were on the road somewhere north of Muskegon, to let them know we’d be late. I found the idea of a hotel leaving a key under a flowerpot really reassuring in this age of mega everything.
Well, so much for my plans of leisurely driving up the coast from Muskegon to Manistee after a refreshing ferry ride from Milwaukee. But we made it, slept well, had breakfast at a cool coffeehouse in town, and took off towards Interlochen and Tevan’s (and our) new life.
With a fully recharged navigation device, Tevan guided me to his new school and home. The registration process was hectic, but was completed a little before noon. Next, we found his dorm and the boxes of stuff we had shipped the week before, and got everything to his new incredibly small room. No roommate yet, but Tevan was safely delivered, along with his stuff, to a place that he hopefully will thrive even more than in Astoria. Mission accomplished! Whew! So what do you think Tevan said to dad? “OK. You can go now.” As Jewish parents the world over have said for generations, “That’s the thanks I get?! Oy!”
I did see Tevan a few more times that weekend, as he needed me for some computer and financial stuff, but for the most part, he hung with new and old friends, when not auditioning or doing other things to get ready for the school year. The kids at Interlochen seemed to me like your typical high school student, but after the first day of frolicking, they were really busy jockeying for position in plays, orchestras, dance troupes and more, and you could hear practicing going on from the practicing rooms in the dorms and elsewhere on campus the rest of the weekend.
Interlochen Arts Academy is pretty much like college. The campus is set adjacent to Green Lake, a beautiful lake in a land of lakes, and in the Interlochen State Park. Trees are everywhere, and not just the typical deciduous trees of the Midwest. Lots of pines and other evergreens keep the place green all year. Almost everything the kids need is there, but they get to go to town and the mall at least once a week to keep them connected to reality, and there are some places to eat within walking distance. I’ll admit, it reminded me of going off to the State University of New York at Buffalo back in 1975. My dad took me there, and as he finished helping me to move into my new dorm room and life, I pretty much said the same thing that Tevan did to me.
So after many parent meetings with Interlochen teachers and staff, and after seeing their opening convocation, where students and teachers performed in between speeches, and after making sure that things were done and even taking a tour of the campus, I said goodbye to Tevan on Labor Day evening with a handshake, and bid him good luck. I’ll probably see him again on Thanksgiving, and Nancy will see him on Parents’ Weekend in October, but really, he’s made the mental break, and good on him.
But my adventures certainly weren’t over. Whereas I spent most of Friday and Saturday at the school, on Sunday and Monday I explored Traverse City and the surrounds, and liked a lot of what I saw. Looking at a map of the area, I found a spot called the Grand Traverse Commons, which turned out to be the former grounds of the state mental institution. In addition to hiking trails and amazing views, the old buildings and outbuildings are in the active process of being restored and converted into shops and housing. I took a random hike in the hills and only scratched the surface of the trail system, and then did some wine tasting in a beautiful little tasting room in a former laundry building. I capped off the morning with some wonderful bread from a bakery on the site, in a converted Victorian house. I can still taste that seeded whole wheat loaf!
Every city and town should have an adjacent, or surrounding, commons area, in my view. A place you can go to escape the pavement, hustle-bustle and stink of modern life. Protected from development and safe. I think the English have these areas, and we should certainly have them here too. I lived in Adelaide, Australia for a couple years way back when (I finished my Masters degree there), and it has parkland that rings the inner city. Very nice. But parks are not enough. They are typically manicured areas, and too small to feel separate from the city.
Anyway, the Commons was great. I also stopped in Traverse City to try to see the Gordie Howe Ice Arena and the pool, but it was closed for Labor Day. But they have an hockey rink! (The new Center Ice Arena is nearby the old rink I visited.) This is also something every town and city should have. It turns out that Tevan’s math teacher is president of the school hockey club, and she invited me to bring my gear and skate with them anytime! Now that’s an offer I might take up. The nearest rink to Astoria is in Sherwood, and it’s pretty treacherous to get there in the winter. I really miss playing ice hockey, which I started in Buffalo in college (I just looked up the ice hockey club at Cal, and found that the dream of some of us has come true – Cal has a real NCAA hockey team!; and the club I started back in 1975 is now in the American College Hockey Association, another dream come true), after a career in street hockey in New York. Check that off as a plus for moving to Traverse City.
left to right, top to bottom – inside Oryana food co-op in Traverse City; a house on State St. in Traverse City; the Grand Traverse County Library, Traverse City branch; Boardman River; white egret in Boardman River; Interlochen Hotel
I also found another requirement of any city, a food co-op. And a great one at that. It’s called Oryana, and it’s located in an old industrial area on the fringe of town. It used to be an auto shop. Gardens and an outdoor seating area grace the outside, along with ample parking. Inside, it was heaven. I am addicted to kombucha and Kevita, and was having withdrawal symptoms after going without for 4 days! Oryana has all the typical co-op food, drink and supplies, and I picked up some quinoa salad in addition to my liquid sustenance on the first visit there. They have a café with indoor and the aforementioned outdoor seating, plenty of bulk items and even a wellness area with personal care products and an expert giving advice. And the store is next to a bicycle and hiking trail that is part of a system of trails called TART (Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trails), which I spent a fair amount of time on on Labor Day, when the weather finally started getting uncomfortable. So, another check-off for livability. Co-op, check.
At this point in the story, I should mention that many of my discoveries were made thanks to tips from people I just happened to meet on the road, the trail or the institution. I met a guy walking his dogs on a trail in the Commons area that pointed out the other amenities in the area, and how to get there. In the wine tasting place in the Commons, I talked with a woman who had recently moved to Traverse City from Port Townsend, WA, and she gave me her impressions of the area and urged me to visit the Old Mission Peninsula (which I did), the eastern arm of the Grand Traverse Bay area. On the Boardman River trails I visited, I met two women who were birdwatching, and they filled me in on the recent history of dam removal and restoration of the Boardman River watershed. At least in my experience, the reputation of Midwesterners as really nice people has held up. While attending undergraduate school in Buffalo, I had the same experience. Nice people, if nothing else.
Another experience is worth recounting. On Sunday night, I went downtown to revisit my previous summer’s experience of microbrews and whitefish. The first place was packed, so I walked down the street, and decided to stop in an ice cream place (it was pretty hot). It was one of those places where you could put any topping you want on your frozen yogurt, and I tried bobas. Like the things that come in bubble tea. They were really good. Oh, and by the way, I did get my whitefish and beer, at the second place I had visited last year. And I found another microbrewery in town the next day, at a former railroad station, called The Filling Station. After having a dark brew, I took my own tour of the local library (on the outside; it was closed to install self-serve checkouts), which is huge, and has great surrounding gardens, and also watched the sunset over Boardman Lake, which was made bigger by damming the Boardman River in Traverse City. The experience left me wondering why our library in Astoria is so small, and why we don’t have such excellent trails. The microbreweries we have, though I think one at the railroad station that is currently being turned into a boat center would be great!
Labor Day I was going to repeat my Leelanau experience from last year, but decided instead to hit the Boardman River trails, and it was the right decision. I enjoyed a day of hiking in hot and humid conditions. People were kayaking the river, picnicking and generally enjoying the unofficial last day of summer. I was glad that Oryana didn’t honor their employees and close on Labor Day. I got lots of kombucha and Kevita and a great salad, and picnicked at the closed nature center by the river.
Speaking of Oryana again, I noticed only when I got home that Oryana accepts Bay Bucks, the Traverse City area local currency. They have local currency! It’s been going for 7 years. I didn’t really come across any store or establishment that advertised that they took Bay Bucks, but evidently they have many members. Another check for livability! There is a fledgling attempt at a time bank in the Astoria area that I was involved with in getting their web site going, but you don’t hear a lot about it. These local currencies and time banks are a really important aspect of a local economy that makes an area more sustainable.
Wanting to stay more, but missing Nancy and home, I took off from my little funky hotel in Interlochen the next morning, and headed towards the Lake Michigan coast, to a rendezvous with the ferry at Muskegon (yes, it went this time, thank goodness). As I traveled along the highway out of “town”, I noticed again (something I had noticed before on the trip, but not big time) that it seemed that every property on either side of the road that wasn’t developed had a For Sale sign on it. This was eery and pretty depressing. Many of the signs told perspective new owners that they could “Build to Suit” or build on “Commercial Property” or some such invitation to pave over the woods. I pictured this area 10 years from now, transformed, as the southeastern fringes of Traverse City were already, into retail and commercial hell. Evidently, zoning in the area is non-existent. They’re working on it, people there told me, but maybe not quick enough. Remind you of anyplace near here?
Another observation having to do with property ownership I made while going up the Old Mission Peninsula was that much of the lakefront in this area was privately owned. There weren’t a lot of public access areas to Lake Michigan or many of the other lakes in the area. Even if you followed a public access sign, it would often turn out to be a view, but no real access, and surrounded by housing projects. My guess is that many of the houses built in this area are second or third homes of rich people, sort of like many houses around here. The most weird situation was when the houses were on one side of the road, and the beach was on the other, but you couldn’t walk on that beach. You could only see the lake from your car. No parking either. Weird. Not right.
left to right, top to bottom – L’Chayim Jewish deli in Beulah; Lake Michigan bay and Frankfort; River Street in Manistee; view from stairs by the coastal highway just north of Arcadia, MI; Board of Education building in Muskegon; Muskegon Library
Anyway, I braved the For Sale signs and made it to my first stop, the bustling town of Beulah. Pretty quiet, actually, but a beautiful beach on a lake, and, as I found out towards the end of my quick tour of main street, a Jewish deli!! That’s right, a Jewish deli. Now, I grew up in New York, and there were delis everywhere, but not many on the west coast. Portland has some, since it has a pretty big Jewish population, and there’s Mixed Marriage in Astoria, but I guess I didn’t expect a Jewish deli in a small town in the heartland. I bought a pastrami sandwich on pumpernickel bread and some lox, and was in heaven.
I met a woman in Beulah who asked me about my iPad, since I was taking photos with it after the card in my camera filled from prodigious picture-taking on the trip, and we got to talking about Beulah and life. She filled me in on the deli, the town and some of its inhabitants, which evidently are mostly hippies. Gotta love it!
After a couple stops at other lakeside towns (Frankfort, Arcadia and Manistee again) and one nature preserve, I headed down the highway (at 70 mph!) to Muskegon. It was getting towards the afternoon, and I wasn’t going to miss the ferry! I stopped in the most beautiful building I could find, which turned out to house the Board of Education (and a former school), and asked how to get to a place to make my Southwest Airlines boarding pass reservation, and got directed to the library across the street. What a beautiful library! It was built by a timber baron, with no expense spared. This was another old money town, this time timber, and there were some amazing buildings amidst the general sprawl. I found out that Muskegon, like many towns in the 80s, kind of died. It is currently kind of in limbo, as the recession has stymied remodeling and in-fill. But the older buildings, including the churches, are magnificent.
Churches. Mega-churches. These were both very prominent in every city I visited on the trip. Milwaukee has some amazing examples of church architecture, and some of these are the tallest buildings in the area. In the Traverse City area, there are lots of mega-churches. I even used the huge empty parking lot of one of these to take sunset and moonrise photos one evening. I guess I was somewhere near the heartland. Nancy explained that in rural areas, the mega-churches are really sort of community centers. I’d rather a public community center, where people of all faiths and interests could mingle, but I guess in America, the private sector is king. I didn’t see one synagogue on the trip, but did walk by the Jewish Museum in Milwaukee, and find out there are a pretty significant amount of Jews there. Yes, we’re everywhere!
Back to Muskegon. I made it to the ferry, which is actually a fair distance from downtown, in a shopping district along Lake Michigan, with a few minutes to spare. Dropped the car off, after driving it what seemed like a thousand miles, and enjoyed a pleasant ride across the Great Lake, part of the time braving the strong winds on deck, and part of the time watching a silly movie about Snow White down below. Great view of Milwaukee from the water as we approached. Made my connection to the hotel out at the airport, got to taste some locally distilled gin and locally brewed beer (it seems that the beer isn’t all bad in Milwaukee these days) at dinner, and then, as I was closing the blinds in my hotel room to go to sleep, I noticed lightning, and for the next hour was transfixed as I saw a good old-fashioned thunderstorm! More lightning, and really close, than I remember ever seeing, and blowing, pouring rain, and occasional thunder. Wow! I was glad this wasn’t happening when predicted, the next day, during when I was supposed to take off for home. But this was a bonus, since I’m a big fan of thunderstorms, and the last big one I remember out here was the day we moved here – the same day as Katrina hit New Orleans, 7 years ago.
The next day, I walked (yes, walked!) to the airport from my hotel, and the flight took off on time, and I got to Seattle early! The next challenge was finding the light rail station at the airport. Nancy didn’t want to come and pick me up, so I agreed to take the Amtrak train from Seattle. I hadn’t yet experienced the light rail system, called Link, but after walking what seemed like forever to the airport station, the ride was awesome to downtown Seattle, through neighborhoods that I had never been to in south Seattle. Definitely the best way to get to and from the airport!
I still had about an hour before I had to catch the train, so I lingered in the International District. I actually had cake at a Chinese bakery called A Piece of Cake, the place that made our wedding cake 21 years ago! It was great to see it was still in business, and still good. I also had some dinner at the food court in the Uwajimaya Asian supermarket. Great place!
The Amtrak ride to Kelso was interrupted by an unscheduled stop somewhere between Tacoma and Olympia, as a freight train had hit a bridge earlier, and we had to wait until the all-clear was given. Alcohol was flowing, and a Ukrainian woman had some party music on her Mac, so we enjoyed the wait. I met a woman who had a similar spinal fusion operation to the one I had, and we commiserated about sitting for long periods.
Nancy was there at the Kelso Amtrak station, which is run after hours by an organization that was established to take care of small railroad stations like the one in Kelso. Cool! Got home late, but it was good to be home. It’s getting harder to do these wild adventures! And so started our empty nest phase of marriage, another wild adventure I hope I can handle!