Exploring the Fourth Coast

Exploring the Fourth Coast

In my last blog post, I talked about leaving a WWOOF host early. I packed up, left a note, and then got in the car and started driving to… well, I had no idea where I was going. I wasn’t due to start at my next farm for another five days, and since I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to WWOOF again, I definitely didn’t want to start there early.

The sun was just beginning to rise as I drove off the farm. I desperately needed coffee and a plan so I drove north until I found an open restaurant near the interstate. As I ate my biscuits and gravy and downed a few cups of coffee, I perused my Rand McNally, wondering where to go next, and kept finding myself staring at the large blue expanse of Lake Superior. I asked another diner if I should take the local highway or the interstate, and after paying my bill, headed north.

The beach at a rest stop on the southern shore of Lake Superior

The beach at a rest stop on the southern shore of Lake Superior

After several hours of scrolling through the radio and judging other drivers, I caught my first glimpse of the lake near Marquette, Michigan, and was certain I’d somehow made a wrong turn and hit the Atlantic. I’d known that the Great Lakes were impressive, but I never would have expected to be so enchanted by the rocky shoreline and endless horizon – I hadn’t seen anything like it since leaving California.

The state of Michigan has quite charmingly established numerous rest stops along the shorelines – prime real estate that would never be public parking lots in California – and after realizing I’d ceased paying attention to oncoming traffic, I pulled into one and happily settled onto a rocky outcrop to stare and splash around in the clear, ice-cold water.

When I’d (at least partially) gotten over my excitement and was tired of being bitten by flies, I got back in the car and drove to Munising, a pretty resort town where I was (wrongly) sure I’d be able to get a campsite so I could gawk at the lake some more. As it turns out, it’s a popular destination and all sites were full, so I got back on the road, telling myself that accommodations would jump out at me before long.

Two hours later, the sun set as I was driving along the northern shore of Lake Michigan, and I still optimistically stupidly believed that a perfect campground was just around the next corner.

It wasn’t.

Sunset from the northern shore of Lake Michigan

Sunset from the northern shore of Lake Michigan

As I approached the bridge at the Straits of Mackinac, fireworks lit up the eastern sky. I sleepily wondered if the Canadian border was still open; maybe they had a campground that wasn’t full. In a sudden and past-due moment of sensibility, I realized that I’d essentially been driving around for fifteen hours and sleeping – rather than bothering Canadian border patrol – should probably be my priority. Anyway, I didn’t want to miss any more of the lake vistas in darkness.

Resigned, I Googled the closest Walmart, drove over the Straits, parked in a lonely corner of the lot, and rearranged my car to make space for my sleeping bag. It was awkward, uncomfortable, and felt just slightly pathetic, but it was better than being at the farm, and I fell asleep happy.

~~~

An unanticipated perk of sleeping in a parking lot is that it makes for a rather early morning and aside from gracelessly wriggling out of my sleeping bag, I didn’t have to do much to get back on the road. As such, I beat the morning rush to a lovely cafe in Cheboygan and sat on a quiet Lake Huron beach with a maple latte and apple fritter while I planned my next move. North to Canada? Southeast to Detroit? I (maturely) decided to head in Iowa’s general direction so I’d at least be on the way to my next scheduled farm.

I spent the morning driving through fierce rainstorms (I’m now convinced that the ridiculous, never-before-used highest speed setting on my windshield wipers was designed with Michigan summers in mind), finally stopping in Holland, where my parents took pity on me and got me a room at the Day’s Inn. I dropped my bags in my room and rushed to the beach.

The rain had stopped but the winds were still high, and although red surf advisory flags dotted the shore, people were in the water. I watched, mesmerized, as a surfer rode the three-foot waves in – how is this not an ocean? – then waded in.

Swimming at Holland State Beach.

Swimming at Holland State Beach.

It was bliss. I closed my eyes and floated, pretending I was home in the Pacific, and felt the stress of the last week wash away. It wasn’t quite the ocean, but it was close enough.

~~~

The next morning, I drove to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on the southern shore of Lake Michigan and pitched my tent in a lovely campground full of trees. It was lush and humid and beautiful and nothing like I’d imagined Indiana to be.

At the beach, a wide sprawl of fine golden sand where small waves gently lapped the shoreline, I spread a blanket and read. It was like being at any Southern Californian beach; families picnicked, teenagers snuck gulps of alcohol, and children splashed around in the water. The water was lovely, just a touch cooler than the air and brilliantly clear.

My campsite at Indiana Dunes' Dunewood Campground.

My campsite at Indiana Dunes’ Dunewood Campground.

I spent hours at the beach, swimming and reading and people watching. When I got hungry, I made the short drive back to the campground and enjoyed the shade, applying generous layers of bug spray to ward off the mosquitos that were devouring my bare feet.

At sunset, I went back to the beach, excited to see the day end over the water for the first time in months. The beach was full of people; I settled down onto the beach next to a young girl and her grandmother who were visiting the beach on their way to a horse show. The girl splashed around in her shirt and shorts; clearly she hadn’t been planning on getting in the water, but seemed happy to be there.

A little girl swimming in Lake Michigan as the sun sets over Chicago.

A little girl swimming in Lake Michigan as the sun sets over Chicago.

I still think it’s the most beautiful sunset I’ve seen. There was enough haze in the sky to stain it brilliant oranges and reds, and the color rippled on the lake’s surface like paint. Far away, Chicago’s skyline was impressive, with towers of navy blue and gray rising out of the calm water.

~~~

I spent my last day in Indiana at the park’s Central Beach, which had just re-opened after being closed for nearly two years for beach erosion. A ranger had suggested it to me when I paid for my second night’s stay, saying that it shouldn’t be as crowded as the other beaches since not many folks knew it was open again.

It was perfect. I parked in a nearly-empty lot, then walked down a stretch of sand-dusted road until it met a hill down to the beach. Lush undergrowth thrived in the trees’ shade, and birds sang from the branches. The beach itself was narrow and sloped in most places, but a few groups of people had laid out towels and coolers on the flats. The sand ran west for maybe a half mile before meeting a rocky peninsula covered in trees, and the water was clearer and calmer than any other beach I’ve seen. It felt like I was in Hawaii.

I sprawled out at the far western end of the beach and sat on a large piece of driftwood to dangle my feet in the water. Over and over, I’d sit back in amazement. This can’t be Indiana.

Central Beach at Indian Dunes National Lakeshore

There couldn’t have been a better way to spend my last day at the lake. A lovely local woman walked by and chatted with me for a while, leaving a small crinoid fossil in my hand. The sand stuck to my skin and the water restored me, leaving me with a sense of peace and wanderlust I’d lost in the hurriedness of the last several months. I suppose I needed a vacation from my road trip.

~~~

I’ve had a relatively set itinerary since I began my adventure, and although I haven’t always known exactly where I’d be sleeping each night, I’d never had five days completely unscheduled. It was a little unsettling, sometimes frustrating, and it presented several challenges, but as it turns out, it’s exactly what I needed.

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