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Three Generations Going Up North

This summer, we went on a classic Michigan vacation! We packed multiple generations of family into a couple of cars, hit up two cheesy tourist traps along the road as well as several rest stops, and stayed at a rustic family cabin "Up North."

We made the most of it, because this is the first time my dear husband and I have been out of town in over a year! Of course, our vacations now are a lot different than before we became parents. For one thing, there is absolutely no privacy or intimacy. We're sharing a bed with a kid and a cabin with my parents. And of course, we all drive each other up the wall on occasion. But we also have a lot of fun together, with more players for games, more conversation, and more opportunities to relive childhood memories of family vacations past.

Some highlights of our classic Michigan road trip included:

  • The distinctive surf and sand of Lake Michigan. The shores of the Great Lakes offer a full sensory experience like no other. You can sense the sea of freshwater before you see it, by some indescribable quality of the clouds. Then comes the sparkle and the majestic horizon of sea and sky which somehow lend each other impossible visual depths. The wind blows cool and steady, fresh and clean with a hint of well water's metallic flavor, over warm, natural beaches studded with surf-polished Petoskey stones, other primordial ocean fossils, and weathered scraps of driftwood. The sand feels plush and just a little gritty underfoot, the delicately rugged texture of the dunes that rise in marvelous swells to their pine forested crowns. Seagulls call above the crash of curling waves, and the sun glows with the lulling, lazy smolder of long, northern summer days. The water is shallow a long way out, but the waves hit hard enough to smack a city kid upside the head and suck your feet out from under you. The spray tastes like iron and earth. 

At Petoskey State Park, the beach is draped with bodies reveling in the feels. There's no pressure to look sexy or perfect Up North, and it's a great place for a kid to learn the joys of living in a body--any body. It doesn't matter how fat or skinny, old or young, leathery or pasty-pale, bald or sasquatch-hairy. Folks of all kinds go there to feel and smell and see and find tiny treasures nesting like eggs in the dune grass. Everyone floats in a state of awe for the natural beauty of the place, all the more interesting for its odds and ends.
  • Tourist traps with the best junk food in all of 'Murica. Speaking of odds 'n ends, Michigan has the world's best rest stops along the freeway and the best Midwestern tourist traps! There are the elaborate attractions along the way like Frankenmuth (where it's a German Christmas all year long), and then there are the dinky pit stops fueled by nothing but kitsch and hype, like Cops & Doughnuts in Clare (a sweaty, geriatric diner with doughnuts that taste just like the finest of Quality Dairy's, except there are a thousand kinds of them--including inside-out jelly rolls with sandwiches fried inside of them) and the infamous Mystery Spot over the Mighty Mac in the Upper Peninsula, which is... well, you'll have to go see for yourself. I'm not telling. In between, there's Murdick's made-from-scratch fudge, supersaturated with local maple sugar and childhood memories.

  • Indigo buntings instead of alarm clocks. Indigo buntings live at the edges of forests, right outside the windows of many Up North cabins. They are bluer than blue, little neon-bright spots that hover and dart after insects and sing melodic songs through the woods every morning. Ah, Michigan!
  • Hardcore kinship bonds. Up North, it's beautiful and unique enough that whole families fall in love with it for multiple lifetimes, and it's hard enough that folks stick together. We visited my husband's family cemetery and found the graves festooned with personalized, cheeky ornaments that the deceased would have appreciated, such as zombie gnomes, sexy angels, and ethnic solar lights. My husband has two cousins in this part of the family who both had their first children on Nux Gallica's birthday--the little guy below on the very same day, and another exactly one year later. Nux's "twin cousin" is showing her the fabulous play structure his dad built, on the 10-acre compound that his extended family shares, with several houses and generations dotted through the picturesque, hilly woods.

Up North is where family memories and bonds grow! Below, Nux frolics with her grandparents. Next weekend, we'll be heading right back up the same freeway to gather at a family reunion on Houghton Lake (another area where clans cluster on connected parcels of land), this time for my branch of Nux's family tree.

  • Pristine air, water, earth, and fire. Even the dirt Up North seems clean. We city slickers don't even realize what filth we live in daily until we get out of it for a week. This is my kind of cleanse.

  • Adventure golf in the shade. There's nothing like putting 'neath the fragrant shade of a mature pine forest. Only Up North.

  • Endless trails used primarily by coyotes, deer, and giant birds. We biked and hiked through forests rich with the scents of sun-soaked meadows and pure, lush greenery, with not a sign of another human, just deer and coyote prints, lovely melodies by birds and insects, tree whispers, and the occasional heart-stopping terror of a startled grouse. If you've never startled a grouse in the woods, the beating of its wings sounds just like either a chainsaw or a charging bear. It's a thrill. We hauled Nux along for a ride from the town of Indian River through a forest.

  • A 20th Anniversary Listen to 25 for the Earth: Nature Inspired Music. When I was 12 years old and my brother was 9, our family took a road trip to the UP and bought this album at a nature center. We thought it was the greatest. I'm not gonna lie, it is New Age cheese with a variety of Michigan nature sounds mixed in. But it's absolutely the all-time best album of that description. It sounds like loons and rain and horses running through the fields, and it's the perfect drug to make a kid fall asleep blissfully in the back seat.

Michigan's North is one of the most beautiful places on this Earth, and it feels so good to share all this classic family fun and rustic adventure with our little girl.


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