Honestly, I don’t know of a better time to travel. Most of the kids are back at school, ticket prices begin to drop, the air cools and the best parts of summer team up for one last hurrah: a lingering outdoor barbecue, a chance to go hiking in shorts, and a final dip in the lake that will last us ’til next spring. Sometimes I feel like Labor Day is meant for filling up on summer memories, an almost-pagan rite of preparation for the coming schedule of winter.
Labor day is also a time to go back to the places we love-to return to those most magical places we knew and loved as children. For me, that place is northwestern Michigan.
If Michigan is a left-handed mitten, the Leelanau peninsula sits right at the tip of the ring finger. It’s not really close to anything-five hours from Detroit and even farther from Chicago or Toronto. I remember it took a long time to get there–the best places do.
When you see them for the first time, the Sleeping Bear Dunes are unexpected, mammoth and impressive. A scientist might explain how during the last ice age, retreating glaciers dumped a few million tons of fine-grain sand in a long ridge. A little kid will tell you that it’s just this huge mountain of sand and that you can run and jump and fall down and not ever get hurt. These massive dunes form the steep-sloped shoreline of the Leelanau peninsula-the highest of which is covered with a wind-shaped mound of soft black sand.
Back when I was a kid, the black sand offered a boggling mystery and a bedtime story. Unlike the phony campfire Indian legends that get dropped on the heads of young innocents, the legend of the sleeping bear is legit. Chippewa tradition recounts the story of a mother bear swimming across Lake Michigan to escape a forest fire. Her two cubs follow behind but drown. The mourning mamma bear became the black-tinted dune and the cubs were transformed into the two sandy islets offshore: North and South Manitou.
When I was a boy, there were still heaps of black sand sitting at the top of the mountain-time has eroded much of the sleeping bear’s color away, though the dunes themselves remain. The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore protects and preserves a 35-mile stretch of pristine beach from the kind of “development” that has ruined so much of our American coastlines. There are no radios on the beach here, no gas-guzzling dune buggies or gaudy sno-cone stands. All you have are the clear waves gently slapping the sand, the backdrop grassy dunes and blanket of green forest. Honestly, it’s probably the quietest place in Michigan.Climbing to the top of the dunes is tough work but well worth the unforgettable 360° view. Who knew that Michigan cool feel so exotic?–Like the Sahara pushed up against the Caribbean but dressed up in British Colombia’s vegetation.
. . . and you don’t hike back down from the sleeping bear dunes. Much better to tumble–running, leaping, cartwheeling-doing suicidal jumps only to crash your body into a cushion of several tons of the softest sand. Perhaps that’s the reason our parents took us there. The Great Bear Dunes offer over 30-miles of expendable energy.
Afterwards, the bravest and sweatiest go swimming in Lake Michigan, which is never warm in summer and pretty much solid ice in the winter. Still, nothing ever kept me from diving right in. Around labor day, the water might get up to the mid-60’s, which is refreshing enough to pull your chest into such a tight ball that you become aware that you do in fact have two lungs and a heart right in between. It’s cold, clear, clean water and it’s perfect.
The beachhead is soft and sandy but the bottom of the lake is covered with smooth, rounded stones that tumble with the water. Decades later, I still have several colored rocks collected from those Michigan beaches, including several petoskey stones-round fossils polished smooth by the waves and covered with a distinctly warbled hexagonal pattern.
Quiet nature is still master in this secluded shoreline of Lake Michigan. My only memory of anything manmade is the prominent Point Betsie Lighthouse, built back in 1858 when shipping was constant, as were shipwrecks. Still working, the lighthouse tower is exactly how you want your lighthouses-white and cylindrical with a black top hat, attached to a sturdy station house with a bright red gambrel roof. Interesting fact: Point Betsie is so the second-most photographed lighthouse in America (the first is Portland Head, Maine). That’s how picture-perfect it is.
You can still climb to the top of Point Betsie in summer, and like the dunes, the experience tattoos itself into one’s memory. Growing up, we used to rent the house next to the lighthouse, but nowadays there are plenty of affordable vacation homes and condos scattered in nearby towns further up the coast. Alas, Frankfort, Michigan is the closest civilization around—a town of a whopping 1,500 inhabitants who are all quite proud of their official title as Tree City, USA. (If you ever wonder what people should do on Arbor Day, visit Frankfort.)
Still, it’s the getting away from towns and cars that drives so many up to northern Michigan. Hikers can grab the daily ferry to North and South Manitou Islands and disappear off on their own piece of beach and forest. The camping, hiking, swimming and fishing on these islands has yet to be mass-produced-there are no crowds here.
For culture, take a day or an evening to visit the nearby Interlochen Center for the Arts–a kind of woodsy boarding school/summer camp that’s like Julliard, Tisch and Oberlin College all rolled into one (except with black bears in the woods). The evening shows in summer are spectacular, be it theater or an outdoor symphony. Even nowadays, if I am sitting in some grand theater before a performance–anywhere in the world–and I read in my program that some artist spent time at Interlochen, I feel a true affinity to that person They have shared this same corner of Michigan that I love and I feel a connection from this common destination.
I hope to make it back to Leelanau someday soon. Perhaps not this Labor Day, or the next, but someday. During the rest of the year, you’ll find me traveling all over the world, but on that one weekend when the government informs us it is time to rest from our labors–Well, I’ll choose Michigan.