Saturday, we over-nighted in Bear Lake – a tiny town 22 miles south of Frankfort, Michigan—the place my son randomly picked on the map that, surprisingly, did not have any hotel rooms available the night before a three-day holiday weekend.* Some people might thrive on the uncertainty of housing and the joi de vivre of impromptu journeys–it gives me hives. Fortunately, we found succor at the Bella Vista Inn. As it turns out, the relief of making the 2 ½ hour journey was to be compounded by Fate wagging a playful finger in our direction.**
Bear Lake is a blip of a town, but that is part of its appeal; it isn’t intended as a huge tourism destination. The lake is placid and shallow fairly far out. Kiddos can splash in the water by sandy beaches. Gnarled trees of indeterminate species grow along the lake’s edge. The trunks dip and bend toward the water as the earth crumbles away in gradual increments.
We’d navigated our way to the tiny motel and decided to walk across US 31 to admire the lake. Our access beach was a sliver of sand in a small crescent carved out from the neighboring trees. But it was sufficient for a quick dip. I opted to stand and watch while my son dabbled in the water. Now that he is older and can swim a bit, I’m less afraid of imaginary undertow currents taking him to Davy Jones’s locker.*** I snap a few quick pics with my phone and upload a selfie-free greeting to all my peeps on Facebook. My son scampers around in the water, barely bothered by his mom’s admonition to “Pull up your shorts, your butt is showing!” (Time for a new swimsuit, I guess the elastic is blown in this one.) We stop at the gas station/store/pizza joint on the way back to our hotel to grab some dinner. I’m standing in line waiting for a sub sandwich when I get a phone call:
Vacation Reenactment Players present:
Peculiar Coincidence or Celestial Serendipity?
*BrrrrrrrRing* (Honestly I don’t know what noise my phone made, my son changes the ringtone daily.)
Caller: “K…where are you?” (Names abbreviated to protect the clueless who think this will keep serial killers away.)
Me: “M? We’re at Bear Lake.”
Caller: “I know. I saw your picture on Facebook. We’re at Bear Lake. Where are you exactly?”
Me: “Uh…” (I stop to look around for the name of the gas station.) “We’re at a BP across from the Belle Vista Inn. The kid is getting some pizza and I’m waiting in line to get some dinner.”
Caller: “We’re down the road at a campground. We’re grilling hot dogs. C’mon over.”
Turns out it was walking distance from us. This is the kind of adventure you can’t plan. (Okay, maybe you could plan it, but it would then lack romance—or whatever the parenting equivalent is!)
Pizza and sugary drinks in hand, we followed her directions to what had to be the smallest campground I have ever seen. It was a slice of beach carved out behind the town, lined with camper trailers and crawling with dogs and children. Friend M was corralling her herd—she has three, which is enough for a herd in my opinion—with equal parts humor and no-nonsense parenting. She could write a book about it if she wasn’t so busy. We exchanged chit chat and delighted in the coincidence that brought us together.
“I grew up here. My grandfather planted trees along this lake.” She stops, looks around and points to a nearby tree. “He planted that one.”
There is pride in her voice. You can tell she is happy to be from a small town and has pleasant memories. I’ve often wondered what that felt like.
She offers us canvas chairs at her parent’s trailer. It is a cozy niche just down the road a ways from her childhood home. There, the grandparents are doting on a precious little girl who has decided to wear a batman mask, it slips off repeatedly as she toddles around. It is a bit incongruous with the pigtails poking out on either side of her head. Everyone is laughing or joking about Bat Girl. I have a feeling I’ve accidentally wandered into a Norman Rockwell life tableau, except that M’s husband is on the road and she isn’t sure when his hectic schedule will bring him back into the family orbit. I comment on the peacefulness of location and she nods. “This is my oasis—I can relax here.” She hands me a cream-flavored, alcoholic ginger ale. “I could stay here all the time.” Taking a sip of mellow intoxicant, I’m finding myself in agreement.
During the visit, her children are in constant motion—her son is off at the little playground beside the beach. Her daughters are crawling in and out underfoot. M is the serene center of a frenetic buzz of activity. We stay as long as my son will tolerate and M hands me a plate of potato salad for the road. We hug before parting and I thank her for a wonderful time. She smiles and says, “We’ll be coming up for a long week around the 4th of July, if you want, you could rent a tent space and join us.”
I’m touched. It is a generous offer to be included in a family trip. (With a special needs child, it is especially nice to be invited anywhere.) I may question my sanity when I take trips with my son so far from home, but it is moments like these that make it worth the effort.
The rest of our weekend is a blur of touristy moments:
Frankfort has a beautiful grassy park and nearby playground for kids to run around on. My son looked especially appropriate in his yellow slicker standing on the mock prow of the playground ship.
In town, many shops devoted to the American spirit for shopping and dining abound. The Crescent Bakery & Cafe served about the best pesto/giant mushroom panini I’ve ever eaten. If I hadn’t forgotten my purse and had to schlep all the way back to our car, we might have avoided a major meltdown moment! One caveat if you dine here—it’s a popular place and the service can be slow, which is a bad combination if your son is starving to death before your very eyes. (Cell phones pay the price for such inconsideration.)
The death of his favorite entertainment hits my son hard…even though he was the one to throw it in a fit of hunger-induced rage. After lunch, we mourn with ice cream served up at the ever-so-festive The Scoop—a local joint that serves up Moomers Ice Cream.
We are surrounded by candy and sugar on all sides—it is very cathartic. It is also just about the best ice cream I’ve ever had.
Above the door as you walk in, the sign says “Family Restaurant Since 1926.” They must be doing something right because the place was doing pretty good business despite the later hour. The décor suggested its roots might be as a Greek diner—the dusty murals and ancient faux wood roof tiles suggested a warmer climate. Old Formica tables and naugahyde padded seats welcomed weary travelers; the furnishings’ sturdy qualities matched its customers perfectly. The food was the standard eclectic American Diner fare—good and plentiful. And as a local had suggested, the homemade bread made it worth the trip.
Stuffed to the gills, my son and I walked to visit the beautiful nearby Lake Michigan shoreline and enjoy Stearns Park where my son dragged his paper and crayons to every single piece of playground equipment to write numbers in a new, exciting location while his mother climbed sand dunes to get a picture of the lighthouse against the backdrop of the sparkling waves. It was reassuring to learn I wasn’t too old to enjoy a good sunset. (Although I wisely refrained from investigating the skater’s park nearby—one hip replacement is enough for now.)
We walked a bit and discovered another sandy pleasure—beachside cuisine. At The Sunset Side Concessions, I was momentarily tempted to order Deep Fried Oreos, when my better senses prevailed.
Despite having eaten enough pancakes and bacon to sink a battleship, my son happily gorged on yet another scoop of ice cream (What is a holiday without overindulgence and stomach aches?) before returning to the Best Western, splashing in the pool, and then conking out for the night. (If you are tired out reading this, imagine how exhausting it was to cram all this into a weekend!)
Sunday heralded the end of our vacation. After barely making it under the wire for breakfast, we packed and visited the lake shore one last time before heading home.
I managed to lure my child to visit the light-not-a-house via a long walk down the concrete breakwall to the Ludington North Breakwater Light. It was tricky going as he desperately wanted to fling himself down the slanting embankment to investigate the giant, no-doubt-slippery rocks framing the walkway. At the lighthouse–sorry, I can’t break the habit–I was dismayed to discover that, this far north, The Square™ is a tricky device that doesn’t always work if the wireless connection is iffy. I’d spent the last of my cash leaving a tip for the hotel staff—and on the electric massage chair in the lobby. (The only way to travel.) The volunteers graciously let my son pell-mell his way up the stairs to take in the view. Since they couldn’t get the credit card taker to work, they handed me an envelope trusting in the honor system to see payment received by check later that week. What a gift that was to a weary mom and an overly excited child.
We snapped a few pictures—my son insisted on photographing the graffiti—enjoying the sun and the boat wakes creating liquid contrails and a mock surf at the water’s edge. All in all, it has been a postcard-picture perfect visit. As the tourism ads voiced by Tim Allen would say, “It’s Pure Michigan.”
Don’t you wonder if Missy & Bob are still together? I like to think they are!
So that was our Memorial Day Extravaganza. Mostly unplanned and as spontaneous as I can ever get with my oh-so-special life. I hope you enjoyed tagging along; you’re welcome anytime.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Did you catch the sarcasm in that one?
**Not THAT finger, thank you very much.
***One flavor of paranoia—imagined parental fears.
Yay, you actually read this far BONUS:
The ill-fitted swimsuit of the above story met its demise later that week in a tragic crayon-related incident. Totally not on purpose. Who checks the pockets of a swimsuit?