We don’t do it nearly often enough, but occasionally it’s nice to hit the road with no definitive destination in mind. Pack some snacks, get some tunes playing, and let the road take you where it may. Yesterday was one of those days and it felt good. The wife and I and our 13 and 15-year old hopped in the family wagon and took to pavement for the day. It wasn’t a complete mystery as to where we were going. We’d made plans to go to Grand Rapids, MI to the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts to see RKSS’ Summer Of ’84. The boy and I were big fans of their Turbo Kid, as well as Le Matos’ soundtrack for the movie. Le Matos returned for their follow-up, and this time they were paying homage to the 80s teen thrillers. Sort of like Spielberg-meets-Craven with a touch of Goonies thrown in. Turned out, Summer Of ’84 was available to rent for pennies on the dollar online, so Friday night we rented it and watched it while eating chicken burritos. As much as I wanted to see it in the theater, this seemed to be a golden decision for our Friday night(the movie is great btw so you should definitely see it.) So this left our Saturday open for open road adventures.
Michigan shores, here we come.
We decided we’d head to South Haven, Michigan. South Haven is a tourist-y spot, with a downtown that has a very “classic” small town feel. Buildings that look like they were frozen in some 1950s time capsule. Lots of crafty stores mixed with trendy restaurants that once you get two blocks out you realize this was a place with industry years ago but lost that income. Empty factories and simple little houses dot the outskirts, barely taking your eyes from the massive and glorious homes that line the bluff overlooking the great lake.
My history with South Haven goes back to when I was a kid. My parents would go there over the summers, sometimes by themselves and sometimes with another couple. They’d rent a condo on the lake and drink and swim and just take it all in, all the while I was back home being watched by either the neighbors or I’d hang out at my grandma’s on the much smaller Manitou Lake. Being an adult with kids now I totally understand what I didn’t get back then, and that’s sometimes mom and dad need to get the hell away for a bit.
When I got older my wife and I ventured up to South Haven when we were just out of high school(not married, just dating.) My parents had told me about the place enough that my interest had peaked. My dad wrote out directions, so my gal and I made our way north. The place seemed magical to me, both the destination and the journey. There’s just something about the route you take up there that feels very rich and timeless. The roads and routes haven’t seemed to have changed in 50 or 60 years.
The relationship between southern Michigan and northern Indiana is a tight one where we’re located. We live just 45 minutes from an area called Michiana. It’s this tight group of Northern Indiana and southern Michigan towns that are bunched together where the states rub up against each other. The towns of Elkhart, Mishawaka, and South Bend all sit along the border of Michigan, while Benton Harbor, Niles, and Berrien Springs lie along the Michigan line. You can throw a rock from one and hit the other(maybe not, but they’re close.)
My parents are both from a small town called Nappanee, IN which is just south of Elkhart on state road 19. We have ties to Michiana that go back many years. Grandparents, great uncles and great aunts were all connected to South Bend and Mishawaka. All Notre Dame fans and all big drinkers. All fun but kinda scary after one too many longnecks in a heated game of euchre. I can remember visiting at least three grandparents at South Bend Memorial and Elkhart General after their open heart surgeries, seeing Sesame Street Live! at the Morris Performing Arts Center as a 6-year old in downtown South Bend; then as a 22-year old seeing Tori Amos with my wife at the same venue(we’d go full circle when I’d take my kids to see Sesame Street Live! there back in 2008.)
When I got older I can remember going to South Bend quite often once I could drive and spending money at Woodwind and Brasswind. That was the first music store that felt like MY music store. Bought many guitar strings, drum heads, my Marshall JCM-800, my Rickenbacker 330, and at least three of my four-track recorders there. It was a magical place for me, really.
My uncle Mark was a youth pastor at Winding Waters Brethren Church in the northern most part of Elkhart(he was minutes from Michigan.) He lived in a tri-level house right next to the church for free. He was sort of the groundskeeper for God I suppose? Anyways, he moved there and I’d just gotten my license. Driving up to his place was like this amazing adventure. It felt like absolute freedom. Cruising up north in my 1977 Chevy Nova, stereo cranked and maybe stopping at McDonalds along the way. That feeling was untouchable. Plus, there was an amazing pizza place just 5 minutes from his house called Vesuvio’s that had incredible New York-style pizza. That was the icing on the cake. In the winter my cousin and I would drive up there in his old 1981 Omni Miser(Chrysler junk at its finest.) We’d take the car over to the church parking lot and do donuts in the heavy snowfall in the middle of the night. Just really amazing times, man.
So these northern routes hold a special place in my heart.
Yesterday was no different. I wanted my kids to feel that feeling. My wife asked if I wanted her to put the route in Google Maps and I said no. I don’t need no stinkin’ Google Maps. This trip is embedded in my brain and will never leave my head. And it hadn’t. The day was pretty gloomy to start, with ample amounts of rain coming down before we left. The drive was pretty much rain-free, but still pretty overcast. Once we hit the Michigan line on the US 20 bypass things just felt right. Things slow down a bit. The roads are a little rougher but clearer. There’s more hills and trees and less concrete and houses. It’s like traveling back in time.
We hit South Haven by 2pm and parked along the bluff. It had been years since the wife and I had been there, and things hadn’t seemed to have changed much at all. We all took off our shoes and made our way down the steps that led down the beach. The lake, even on an overcast day is overwhelming. There’s a sense of things never ending as you look out into that gray, foggy horizon. Despite the day’s gloom, there were still plenty of sailboats, jet skis, and folks hanging out along the shoreline. The moment I stepped out onto the thin strip of shore I felt my breath leave my lungs. It’s just an overwhelming feeling when you’re that close to such a monumental thing. They’re called the Great Lakes for a reason, folks. To the left there was a dad and his son well out into the water laughing and playing. I couldn’t imagine how cold that water was(actually I could since it was hitting my bare feet.) But it still looked like they were having a blast. To the right the shore was lined with kids and people walking their dogs along the shore. Further down was the larger part of the beach and the pier which led to the lighthouse at the end of it. It was pretty cool scene.
My kids loved it. Neither had ever been to Michigan(my 15-year old had been, but she was only 1-year old at the time.) They were amazed that this sort of view is only a couple hours from our front door. The sailboats, swimmers, and the view from the bluff will be in their heads for years.
We made our way downtown and took in the tourist-y aspect of South Haven. I bought my daughter a South Haven windbreaker and we grabbed lunch at Clementine’s downtown. It’s a staple of South Haven and a restaurant the wife and I have eaten at nearly every time we’ve visited. It was not disappointing. Sandwiches and fries were just what we needed.
After lunch we walked downtown some more in order to work off the heavy carbs. We hit a couple shops and then found an antique mall hidden away a block from the main strip. Not a fan of antique malls, really. Feels like shopping for dead people’s stuff, but I digress. Anyways, it was the typical antique joint. Lots of moldy smelling wares and mildewed memories hanging in the air. Found a cool goat head, though.
We made one last drive down the bluff road and said our goodbyes to South Haven. We showed the kids the Lake Bluff Motel where we’d stay on our past trips. It’s located right on the bluff, as the name would suggest. There was a lookout built on the hill where you could step down and get an up close view of the lake, and the nuclear power plant located further down the shore line(not as romantic as it sounds.) Anyways, that was pretty underwhelming, especially after the great day we’d had.
Goodbye Michigan. See you soon.