alcona county Michigan
Adventures,  Michigan,  Midwest

Up North Autumn

Every time my mom comes to visit, she convinces me we need to take a Michigan road trip.  Despite the fact one visit put us right in the middle of a full on snowstorm. And I’ll skip the details on the trip that left us with two weeks of the stomach flu and started less than five minutes after we started our six hour drive home.

We all pile in the car and drive for double the hours it should take us to get there. We pull over for every gas station, McDonald’s drive thru, and rest stop between here in there and always make at least one side of the road emergency pee. My mom, the optimist or more likely, a woman who thinks she can bend the weather to match her will, was sure it would be crisp and sunny and not at all dreadful. The weather was, of course, terrible. It started sprinkling two hours out from our destination halfway up the coast of Lake Huron and by the time we pulled in it was pitch black and pouring down rain. Damp and nasty. We hunkered down. Luckily the furnace was working so it was warm and dry inside.

Up north Michigan

No cable. No internet. Not a lot to keep us busy but a bum DVD player and some movies I’ve never even heard of, undoubtedly sourced from the Dollar General in town. Snuggled up on the couch, we watched Scooby Doo reruns. When they got old we rolled around on the floor and played 52 pick up with a stack of Uno cards. Sat perched on the back of the couch and watched the angry lake waves swallow the shore, sat mesmerized as drops grew into puddles into ponds; went out in the rain only to waltz back in, stripping out of our soaking wet clothes because as Indy said, it was “really freezing out there”. Giggled so hard us moms had to cross our legs so we didn’t pee our pants and Harper kept saying “Don’t make me laugh. It hurts!”

If I’m honest, which I usually am, and often times to a fault, Alcona County is not really the height of well anything. It’s where we go to get away from everything else. From traffic, from noise, from work, from pretense, from the news, and the buzz of social media. There’s barely any phone signal and about a snowball’s chance in at getting your Instragram feed loaded.

There’s a couple gas stations, a little grocery store, a handful of bars, and in the summer about fifteen ice cream shops all serving up huge double scoops on tiny sugar cones too small to hold their generosity, leaving drips of ice cream that dive down forearms faster than they can be licked up. But in the fall, most of it’s shuttered up,  there’s not much to do except lean in and listen for the train to come by to smash the pennies we put out on the tracks.

fall in Michigan

The second day we were there we decided to venture out. It was still wet and gross but we ran the kids out to the car, one by one, and headed up the coast on US 23, watching the leaves brighten and the temperature fall the further up the state we traveled. Ultimately we settled in Alpena which is, at least for this bit of Michigan, a city of notable size. They’ve got every fast food chain you can think of and a Walmart where we stopped to pick up the 600 things I had stocked at home but forgot to toss in my suitcase. After the boys took a quick car seat nap, we bounced over to the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center. It was way cooler than it sounds and also free which is my favorite kind of activity now that I have more kids than hands. Most of the artifacts are related to the many ships the Great Lakes have wrecked. Unlike most museums this place is really kid friendly. They make a point of putting all the stuff little hands shouldn’t handle out of reach and/or behind sturdy glass. Both of the boys got away from me long enough to give a good knock without any noticeable damage to the cases or their contents.

thunder bay alpena

Highlight is a life-size sailboat that you can go in, turn the steering wheel, pretend to pump water out of the lowermost deck, and explore at length. The boat is both handicap and stroller accessible via a ramp that leads down to the rest of the exhibits. My kids loved the boat but they really, really loved the tunnels suspended over some of the exhibits which connected to a slide. Harp and Indy spent at least half their time going through the maze, down the slide, and back through again.

The next day, was of course beautiful, because we were leaving. The kids and I took a slow walk down to Harrisville State Park to hide some rocks we’d painted while my mom finished packing up. Hank nodded off. Indy turned over every leaf and tried out every walking stick. Harper stopped to ask a neighbor if he needed help moving some firewood across the road but he declined her offer. The older two cried over a dead bird they found where the road met the woods.  Hank slept through it all.

midwest road trip

We said a melancholy, fond goodbye for now to our red cottage and picked up our Michigan road trip where we’d left it. Heading south we stopped in at a park in Tawas where my mom and I both used to play at as kids, albeit 25 years apart. I let the kids get so cold from the wind off the lake that they forgot to pick up whining about being stuck in the warm car.

One hundred and thirty-five miles later we landed at my cousin’s farm long after the bus had dropped off her boys at the end of the drive. The barn was full of new baby goats tucked in next to their mamas, too young to travel far from their warmth and the promise of their next meal. Inside the house, our own dinner was waiting for us.

Camp Cousin, Autumn Edition was an abbreviated version of our summer get together. Lots of goofing off, riding around in the golf cart and chasing after wandering goats and goofy labs still wet from the lake, rough housing in the basement and running across the tops of hay bales. My California babies bundled up in real coats to keep out the fall wind that kept sweeping through the trees, turning them red and yellow.

michigan road trip

While my cousin is always willing to let us invade her home, I’ve got more than one cousin, a lot more. My mom is one of eight and the result of that is a lot of relatives. Before we headed back to our suburban reality a good portion of our motley crew descended unceremoniously upon their local pumpkin patch. If Midwesterners known nothing else, they know how to run a pumpkin farm.

I’m talking acres of pumpkins still on the vine, fresh cider, pony rides, fresh from the fryer cinnamon sugar donuts, corn mazes, albino peacocks, kettle corn, chicken coops, beady eyed emus, doe eyed alpacas, a pumpkin canon, tractors, and wagons which we misused for our very own fun. And our own prolific brood of joyous kids hopped up on ten kinds of sugar and the prospect of a beautiful fall day with the first friends this life was kind enough to supply.

johnsons pumpkin farm caro

The next morning we shipped off for home with lots of sad goodbyes and an obnoxious amount of honking as we made our exit. While I think Harper would have been pleased to extend her stay for a few more days, the boys were missing their daddy. And after a couple of long nights trying to fall asleep without his familiar lullabies to calm their busy bodies and even busier minds I was ready for the changing of the guard. We were happy to go, even happier to return to overzealous dogs waiting at the screen door and the promise of our very own beds.


  • Aunt kitty

    Ray ray this was amazing reading what went through your mind during a traditional trip to Michigan. A couple of times as I read I closed my eyes and I felt like I was there at that moment! Thank you! Love you so very much!

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