The Highlights Of An Annual Vacation Ritual

wingsofsilver By wingsofsilver, 25th Aug 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Travel>North America>United States>Michigan

It's that last pilgrimage of the summer... Here's a trip back to the early 1950's, as seen through a little kid's eyes.

Going Up North!

We always called it “going up north”. Just that simple. It happened every summer, usually in August, right before school started again, for as far back as I can remember. It wasn’t just any old last minute day trip done on a whim. Oh, no. This was the annual event of the year, planned for well in advance, and paid for with cash set aside in that special cookie jar in the kitchen. Packing was done the day before, and Dad loaded it all into the trunk of the old Plymouth just before going to bed.

This pilgrimage included my immediate and extended family - my mom and dad, two brothers, my aunt, uncle and two cousins on my mother’s side, sometimes “strays” from other parts of the family, an occasional friend from school, and maybe even the family dog, although it was usually just our immediate little tribe.

Rain or shine, off we would go at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning. Leaving our home in Fairplain, just outside Benton Harbor, Michigan, we stopped in Saint Joseph to pick up the other half of the family, then headed out caravan style, traveling old Route 31 north along the east coast of Lake Michigan. There was no multi-lane Interstate 96 in those days. So our journey took us along the old roads right through the downtown areas of South Haven, Holland, Grand Haven, Muskegon, Pentwater... and other quaint bergs and backwaters.

A major highlight was the stop in Holland at the Wooden Shoe Factory and Restaurant for a mid-morning breakfast, not to mention an excursion into the adjacent shop, where they really did make wooden shoes, for trinkets or toys. I can still smell the tantalizing aromas of fresh coffee, bacon and eggs, and pancakes dripping with maple syrup, which had to be the real deal in those days! Best of all is the memory of sitting back in my chair or booth, and taking in a gentle yet strong familial energy. It was accentuated with gurgles of giggling on the part of the women, and seasoned with small talk on the part of the men about how the fish might be biting up at Hamlin Lake.

When we pulled out of the Wooden Shoe, somehow it always started to feel like we were really “up north”. Something in the air simply changed, and it was registering in awareness that we were really on our way. It was almost as if someone had put up a big sign that announced, “You are now officially up north.” Now those were the days!

The trip never seemed tiresome or boring, although in the earlier days I might have been at the age where a kid would ask, “Are we there yet?” I suppose, without realizing it, my mind was occupied with not only my “plans” for what I’d like to do that was special for this trip, but I was subconsciously learning the route that led “up north”, which would stick with me all the days of my life, imbedding itself on my psyche by repetition, like the rows and furrows traversed by a stalwart plow horse, but clearly more pleasant.

Within three hours we pulled up to the two cottages on the Middle Bayou of Hamlin Lake near Ludington, Michigan. We always rented the same ones year after year. It was our forever home away from home.

This was, back in the early 1950’s, state of the art roughing it. The cottages were always cozy, comfortable and quaint. They also had a great deal of, shall we say, character. There was a hand pump for water over the kitchen sink and an icebox requiring huge blocks of ice. Yes, a real icebox! Best of all was the outdoor johnny. It would take a few years before the landlord installed indoor plumbing, bathrooms, and a refrigerator. But no one ever complained. It was fun. We were family, and we were together. That’s all that mattered. We didn’t consider it primitive in the least. But when indoor plumbing was finally installed, we considered ourselves to be vacationing in the very lap of luxury!

My favorite haunt was the boathouse by the cottage. I spent hours gazing into the shallow water where little minnows swam in schools, along with slightly larger perch, sunfish, rock bass, and even the occasional curious turtle gliding by. Rain or shine, it was always fun to hang out in the boathouse. No need for a lot of fancy toys running on battery power up north. Nature was a fascinating playground with everything necessary for entertaining a young child. It was a time of feeling very close to nature. I can still smell the grass on the cottage lawn, the green foliage nearby when it rained, and especially the fragrance of the bayou itself. The song of the winds through the pines was both haunting and intoxicating.

There were days when I went fishing with my brothers, cousins, dad, or uncle, or any combination thereof - the only little girl in the batch. How tolerant and patient they were with me! Although I don’t fish anymore, whenever I watch people fishing off the pier, or along the channel, or nearby St. Joseph River, I can still tell why they are catching fish or not - there’s more to it than luck and a worm dangling on a hook! How fortunate I was to be raised in a family of sportsmen and fishermen.

However, when it was guys only day out on the “Big Lake”, my aunt, my mother and I headed for town to go shopping. Not that we girls never went fishing by ourselves, but our delight was always the shopping trip.

This excursion inevitably led to my favorite souvenir shop, Fort Dahl. There were toy horses, cowboys, Indians, soldiers, small dolls, polished rocks, Indian jewelry, curios, and moccasins. On the outside wall of the building was a huge mural depicting a settlement with Indians and a man in a fringed leather jacket riding a beautiful horse. How I loved that mural - it transported me back into the frontier days as much as my favorite television cowboy heros!

Fort Dahl in that earlier familiar form has been replaced now by an Italian restaurant, but it lives on in the warmth of my heart as it was then. It has, however, downsized to a small, and rather inconspicuous shop across the street, but I’m glad it’s still around. It still has some of the same kinds of toys, curios, and wonders I enjoyed in those times.

Sometimes, when the fishing was over for the day, the entire tribe would head into town to an ice cream parlor known as the Park Dairy. Boasting homemade ice cream, their specialty was a five scoop banana split served in a miniature pig’s trough - in the days when a scoop was a scoop! If you could eat the whole thing, they gave you a big round button that said, “I was a pig at the Park Dairy.” It was like watching a contest as the guys gobbled down their “Pig’s Dinner” to see who could consume this challenge the fastest. It usually ended in a tie between my oldest brother and my dad. It was just the manly thing to do if you had ice cream there, an already well-established tradition known around the area.

Suppertime, often consisting of the catch of the day, was occasionally followed by evenings where the adults played pinocle. I usually fell asleep on the couch - being the odd one out and youngest - as the evening wore on, yet I never felt left out. Imagine that - a kid not bored, not left out, with no television.

There were also days when we gals piled into the boat and headed out across the “Big Lake” to the beautiful, sparkling sand dunes stretching along the State Park, to spend the afternoon swimming or lounging in the sun. The water was so clear in those days, and remains so to this day. One thing is consistent about Ludington’s beaches: they are pristine, well cared for, and have no parking fees attached in order to enjoy them.

Ludington also boasts two lighthouses - one just west of town on Lake Michigan, and another, Big Sable Light, which can only be accessed on foot by trekking either along the beach northward, or by entering the State Park, where there are magnificent hiking trails leading to Big Sable Light or other destinations.

Yet my fondest memories take place inside and around those two cottages on the Middle Bayou. I can recall listening to the rain pelting the roof, and thunder out over Lake Michigan to the west of Hamlin Lake, as the wind sang me to sleep with its lullaby. Tenderly recalled is the chatter of my mother and aunt as they talked, laughed and shared their warm, loving smiles. It seems almost as if somehow, some day, I will once again enter that precious, irreplaceable time to enjoy and savor those moments, exactly as I recall them from over half a century ago. To me that would be Heaven, spending eternity on Hamlin Lake.

I still make it a point to repeat this pilgrimage at least once each year, if only for a day or two. I call it my solitary retreat, although the cottages are no longer available. I consider myself very fortunate to reconnect with this strong, happy, positive family tradition which still soothes my soul whenever I have the chance to go up north.


Beaches, Big Sable Lighthouse, Cottages, Family Fun, Family Story, Family Traditions, Family Vacations, Great Lakes, Great Lakeslighthouses, Hamlin Lake, Highways, Ludington, Michigan, Michigan State Parks, Sand Dunes, Souvenirs, Tourism, Travel, Travel Destination, Travel Memories

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author avatar wingsofsilver
Artist, Singer-songwriter, ordained metaphysical minister, writer. My writing interests are people, things, and places that inspire me, spirituality, and the processes of creativity.

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author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
26th Aug 2011 (#)

I grew up in Michigan and lived there most of my life, loved this trip though your memory.

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author avatar wingsofsilver
26th Aug 2011 (#)

Thank you, Mark. I lived in the Southwest for several years and go there from time to time, but I wouldn't trade living here in Michigan for anything.

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author avatar Rathnashikamani
26th Aug 2011 (#)

Great recall of the memorable journey!

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author avatar wingsofsilver
26th Aug 2011 (#)

Thank you, Rathnashikamani. Glad you enjoyed it.

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author avatar wingsofsilver
26th Aug 2011 (#)

The boathouse pictured with this article is not the one I wrote about, but it is very near the same place on Hamlin Lake. The photo was taken June 2011 on one of my annual pilgrimages to Ludington. Thank you for your comments!

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author avatar Songbird B
2nd Sep 2011 (#)

Wingsofsilver, you really are a beautiful writer..You have amazing descriptive ability, that reads almost poetically. Your work is a constant joy for me to read..This was pure magic..

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author avatar wingsofsilver
2nd Sep 2011 (#)

I really appreciate your saying so. Thank you.

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author avatar Floris56
26th May 2012 (#)

Sounds a little familiar. From my uncle's farm near Six Lakes, MI we took the same route every year for vacation. In our case we went up north all the way to the UP (Upper Peninsula) of MI. We drove all the way to Copper Harbor, MI on a narrow peninsula jutting into southern Lake Superior. Then we drove all the way back, staying, each night, in these pre hotel or motel days, in "cabins"; usually the same ones every year. There was no bridge a the Straits of Mackinaw, so we crossed on car ferries. We visited Castle Rock, the Lake in the Clouds in the Porcupine Mountains, Tahquamenon Falls, the Pictured Rocks, and the Soo Locks at Sault St. Marie. I left the farm in 1958 and went to live with my brother in Muskegon, which was a dingy industrial town then, but all the foundries are gone now and it is a beautiful tourist spot in itself now.

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author avatar wingsofsilver
26th May 2012 (#)

Thanks, "Amos the Cat", for sharing your journey as well. I cringe every time I drive the highway outside of Muskegon, as the traffic is usually so intense. But perhaps sometime I will check it our and see what it's like closer to town. I have also been to those other areas you mentioned. Michigan is the best!

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