“Where are you going?” people ask us before we leave home on one of our extended summer trips. Our answer is usually pretty vague. “We’re going north,” we’ll say, or, “Out west.” We usually have a few major stops lined up, with lots of question marks in between.
One of the stops that was set in stone this summer was a quick visit to Cleveland, Ohio, where I’m under the medical supervision of some great surgeons, cardiologists and vascular specialists. They like to see me every 6 to 12 months. This was the first time we’d be arriving by land. There aren’t a lot of campgrounds around Cleveland, so I booked us at a KOA almost an hour outside the city. Over the past few years we haven’t had much luck with KOAs, always opting to leave before we checked in. But the Cleveland KOA made me change my tune a bit. I’ll give KOAs another chance.
KOAs are not parks where you’ll find nature trails and wildlife. They’re chunks of land turned into suitable parking for RVs. They have what they think of as “resort” amenities like pools and game rooms and other diversions for grandparents and grandkids. For the past two summers we avoided them because they usually aren’t a great setting for tents. With a camper they are useful when you want to hook up near a city or other point of interest without options that are closer to nature. This one was clean, spacious, and looked over a nice lake. They also had a laundry facility, which a lot of parks don’t have.
I made my pilgrimage to the Cleveland Clinic. They asked a series of COVID related questions before letting anyone in the door – and although Monica was back at the RV teaching the kids – they did allow family to accompany patients after a temperature check. In the event you’re not in the elevator alone, stickers on the floor encouraged visitors to put themselves in extreme corners. For all of its state-of-the-art medical technology, the Clinic still has to secure their model hearts to the desk like a pen at the bank. Before my long Uber ride back to the campground, I stopped at a nearby market for groceries only to discover that it was an Indian and Middle Eastern shop. (This wasn’t the Trader Joe’s version – this place didn’t sell anything that wasn’t blow-your-top-off spicy.)
After a clean check-up, Monica built a nice fire to welcome some fall weather. As we drove around the suburb of Streetsboro we came upon an actual “video store.” Remember those? This store, named Family Video, also – rather oddly – offered doctors appointments in conjunction with a wide array of CBD products and a bonus nook in the back corner with dirty movies. There’s an understated business savvy to realizing that adult videos always lead to family videos. I admire the pluckiness of the last video store standing attempting to survive though offering drugs and sex. Unfortunately, the “Pot dispensary/Family/Adult Video Store” concept was ahead of its time and Family Video was going out of business. With all DVDs for sale, we cleaned up on about 30 gently used movies for the family RV library. We passed on the CBD microwave popcorn.
Cleveland was just a prelude to one of the best places we’ve visited in all of our travels. Unsure of where we should go next, Monica was looking north and remembered her parents raving about Mackinac Island. (It’s spelled with a C, but pronounced “Mackinaw” because the French and British couldn’t agree on anything back then, including how to say Native words.) The island itself doesn’t have any cars – save for a few official vehicles – so the RV wasn’t welcome. So we booked a spot in beautiful Straits State Park in the town of St. Ignace, just a quick ferry ride from Mackinac Island.
We drove right up the middle of Michigan’s “mitten” and crossed the Mackinac Bridge to the “U.P.” – local slang for the Upper Peninsula. The kids loved using their hands as a map of Michigan since we come from another state with anatomical qualities – but we can’t really describe places in Florida as handily (pun intended). The U.P. is the part of Michigan that should be Canada, but Canada decided was too weird. The park ranger commented on my Tampa Bay Rays facemask, mocked our fanbase and informed me that we wouldn’t be finding any kale in these parts. At first I thought this was some sort of insult, but as he talked I realized he was seriously missing kale. At least he didn’t want to murder me like the guy in the Smokies.
Straights State Park is named for the straight that it sits upon, separating Lake Huron from Lake Michigan. It’s a short walk to the fishing village of St. Ignace, but first Monica spied a cemetery, reachable by crawling under a fence.
And just in case you thought the town of St. Ignace had a pretty name, they pronounce it IG-niss, removing all pretense of romance. It’s a working tourist town, meaning they only briefly interrupt their hard coastal living to cater to summer tourists passing through to Mackinac Island. We came upon an interesting toy/hobby store whose owner appeared to have a questionable preoccupation with Nazi toys – OR all the American WWII toys were purchased leaving unwanted Nazi stuff (I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt). The town was full of characters. I’m poking fun, but I really liked St. Ignace.
There is nothing artificial about St. Ignace. It spreads along the coastline in a practical manner where the waterfront is a mix of industry and pleasure. We found a dockside restaurant and tried some local fish and a pasty, which is a local specialty (not pastry, pasty). Kind of like a pot pie meets a hot pocket. I love a good pasty – but this one didn’t deliver. The best food we found were the apple laden trees everywhere. So many apples, they were just falling on the ground, so we loaded up. Honestly, every town should plant fruit trees to feed pedestrians as they walk.
On our second day we boarded the ferry for Mackinac Island (Mackinaw City – spelled with a W- is on the mainland, but that’s where my weather report was coming from.) This may be one of the last towns in America where the horse is still king. Horses moved luggage from docks to hotels, shuttled passengers to their accommodations, and offered sightseeing rides. But we brought our bikes and made the leisurely loop around the island’s scenic perimeter road. The streets are lined with bakeries, fudge shops and cafes. It’s heaven.
We were giddy over the weather and the northern island charm.
As I said, horses rule this island. We came upon the stable and carriage museum for the island’s famous luxury hotel.
Dating to 1887 the Grand Hotel is a piece of late 19th century glory. Sitting atop the hill overlooking the town, guests still arrive by carriage. We took about a hundred photos.
We only got a small glimpse of Mackinac Island in our day there, but it was one of the most charming, unusual, and memorable places we’ve been in three summers and roughly 38 states. Being there at the tail end of the busy season was a perk during the pandemic. In the winter, parts of the lake freeze enough that people make the trip to the mainland on snow mobiles, and the hotels empty of tourists and fill with construction workers getting ready for the next thaw. In spite of being so far out-of-the-way, we’ll be sure to return for a longer stay. Mackinac Island wasn’t the end of our trip, but it was the turnaround point of our journey.
Next time: Turning south, and going underground in the Bluegrass State.
“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Jon’s 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on Amazon.com and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Monica is a non-profit consultant, grant writer, marathoner, baker, tour guide, and prolific bath taker. Also, don’t forget to follow our Instagram feed for stuff that doesn’t make the blog.