Wow, there are a lot of lakes around here, and therefore rivers feeding them. But to my mind it’s the waterfalls funneling into the Great Lakes that add the charm to these summer wonderlands. We kind of lost count of how many we found while hiking/walking/biking Michigan’s upper peninsula. Continuing our zigzagging northern US summer traverse, we crossed the Mackinac (they say it “mack-in-aw”) Bridge to explore more lakes, both Great and great, in lower Michigan and points east.
July 30 – August 4: Lake Michigan’s Mackinac Island, Sleeping Bear Dunes and Traverse City
Mackinac Island has the air of a classy old summer resort where the wealthy and the wannabes go to kick back. You can ferry over and bike the perimeter in less than an hour (no motor vehicles are allowed), and it’s 99% fun to gawk at the grand old Victorian mansions and the Grand Hotel. The latter was built in 1877 by a railroad and a shipping company to attract rich tourists. Seems to have worked.
Dropping down to Michigan’s western lakeshore, it too is all about making the most of the sunshine: sailing, paddling, hiking and biking. We took to the rivers and trails for days: canoeing the Platte River, biking through beach towns and climbing dunes. And we caught a bit of the Traverse City (no doubt named for this blog) Film Festival, including the outdoor movie on the yacht harbor, watching Star Wars after dark on a huge inflatable screen. Doesn’t get more summer than that.
August 5 – 8: The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan
If you’ve been following our trip on this journal, you already know I love museums—big or small; old or new; gritty or polished; art, history, or almost anything else. But I finally came across one that made me cranky. The Henry Ford Museum, with its adjacent Greenfield Village, has a ton of highly polished artifacts of the industrial revolution and slices of ‘olden days’ American life. OK, it also has a LOT of really cool cars (Ford’s and not-Ford’s), like the first Mustang to roll off the assembly line, and a Model T exploded in 3D so you can see all of the parts. But some of it is such a bald tribute to Mr. Ford’s creative and commercial ‘genius’ and random stuff that’s there just because he liked it—I came away feeling a little sour grapes. (I did get one inspired story out of it—read it here.) Bruce also toured the gigantic Ford Rouge factory to see a real assembly line in action, and thought it was fantastic. Guess I missed the best part!
August 9 – 11: Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Flood City, steel ghost town, and Flight 93 Memorial
A while back I read the story of the 1889 Johnstown flood, and ever since I’ve had a jones to see the place. It was a stretch to get there, an extra day of driving (and they charge you to drive on their freeways here—jeez).
But spend a few days and you can get a palpable sense for the town’s hard working, determined spirit. In 1889 it was a thriving, noisy, sooty steel boom town in an ore-rich region. After a neglected earthen dam upriver broke and unleashed 20 million gallons of water into the Little Conemaugh River canyon, the wall of water took out miles of forests and farms, railroads and factories before crashing them all down onto Johnstown. Thousands died, and the town and much of the mills all but vanished. But within weeks people were rebuilding, Clara Barton was bustling around telling everyone what to do, and the steel mills were cranking back up. (David McCullough’s “The Johnstown Flood” tells the moving story.)
Since the mid-20th century, the town has been slammed again by the changing fortunes of the US steel industry. In the last decade Johnstown was listed by cnn.money as one of the country’s seven fastest shrinking cities, hemorrhaging jobs and dropping population. You can see the efforts they’re making to rebound a second time, but driving the miles of massive, all but deserted steel mills along the rivers, you get a real sense of the rust belt dilemma.
Speaking of rust, one of our best bike rides was the Ghost Town Trail along the ruins of iron furnaces, a railroad graveyard and Blacklick Creek, which can thank all of that iron in the surrounding watershed for its intense rust red water.
The Flight 93 National Memorial is also in the neighborhood, still a work in progress, where you can pay your respects to the 44 courageous passengers and crewmembers who prevented a third attack on September 11, 2001.
August 12 – 16: The Rock Hall, two more Great Lakes and Niagara Falls
Who would have thought of Cleveland—once known as ‘The Mistake on the Lake’—as a success story? A very different post-industrial town, it turned its downtown and harbor, once dominated by heavy industry and its ore-transportation legacy, into an inviting urban scene. What brought us here was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—presumably a brilliant redevelopment idea by some city visionary—sitting right on the harbor in an IM Pei-designed building. What could be more fun for an aging rocker and a groupie (also aging)? Who wouldn’t want to see Janis Joplin’s psychedelic convertible, learn how Willie Dixon mashed up the blues and rock and roll (“The blues is the roots, all the rest is the fruits”), and see Bo Didley’s old square guitar? Howlin’ Wolf’s money case? A lime green satin Sgt. Peppers military band suit? Patrick Carney’s drum and Greg Allman’s guitar? Al Green’s leather pants? Best of all was the concert footage of so many of the greats, the Rock Hall inductees.
Heading east, Lake Erie’s coast is lined with quiet, half-forgotten towns and beaches. Right up until you get to Buffalo and Niagara Falls, which is, inevitably I guess, a traffic-clogged tourist trap. It was apparently always thus. When Frederick Law Olmstead visited in 1869 with a couple of buddies, he was so appalled by the squalid commercialism that they hatched a plan to clean it up. It took 16 years but eventually they got enough political support and money to pay off the landowners, so the falls themselves became what is now the country’s oldest state park. Anyway, close your eyes driving past the surrounding claptrap and Niagara Falls is still unbelievable. Best of all, you can take an elevator 175 feet down to the bottom of American and Bridal Veil Falls, and stand there with 76,000 gallons of water per second crashing down around you. There’s a reason why plastic ponchos and disposable sandals are included in the price of admission. You get soaked!
Having stayed on Lake Ontario near Niagara Falls, we’ve now touched all five Great Lakes. So it’s a natural break in the journal here. Evenings are starting to get a little chilly, but we still have some classic summer retreats to get to: the beautiful Finger Lakes and Adirondack mountains that I’ve always read about in upstate New York. So we’re not quite finished with summer yet.