If my child remembers me for anything, let him remember me for this…
Friday is a dream day-come-true for my ‘little’ man. A half-day of school as a start to the mini-fall break weekend. Road trip, here we come!
We discovered “The Ledges” by joyous accident on a past excursion when we wandered east of our standard Exit 59 pitstop.
This time, we travel to Grand Ledge on purpose, hauling my Canon EOS Rebel XS with the intention of cataloging the experience.*
You can find a description of Fitzgerald Park at the park’s website. But understand, no words can convey the simple pleasure in tramping leaf-strewn, mud tracks that wend along a slow-moving river. This will not stop me from trying, however.
- Posting this humble shot to Facebook, a friend introduced me to the true art of nature to be found in the ephemeral sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy.
The sluggish current is dotted with geese and ducks, fattening on late blooming bugs confused by the unseasonable warmth. Ignoring the catastrophic implications of global climate change, my son and I tramp the trail fantastic in search of adventure. Who knew it would end in the best darned French fries this side of Mackinac Island’s truffle fry extravaganza?
- Between a rock…and a hard place…you will find a reluctantly posed teenager.
Walking leaf-scattered paths on a sundrenched day doesn’t present many dangers. One thing you can count on when charting a wooded trail is that generally nice people abound.
Everyone we meet is friendly, and after a moment, recognize my son’s quirky tendency to plop down in the middle of the trail to jot numbers as just another sight along the way.
- Tree Swallows Rock – looking like the strangling coils of a wooden snake
Leaves crunch underfoot. My cane helps me balance across the footpaths where humus formed of decomposing plants and steep inclines make traversing the narrow passage challenging.
- The slope gets gradually steeper until you begin to have sympathy with yaks in the Himalayas.
I am calm in my repose, whistling to my son periodically when his goat-like surefootedness keeps him yards ahead. He disappears around a bend and I hail him to halt. He waits impatiently for me to catch up. Aside from being short winded, I have nothing to fear. Or so I think!
There is no warning. No scary music. Though I sing a half-choked ululation when I am startled by the sudden appearance of a garter snake—or is it a ribbon snake?—dashing frantically away from clumsy feet stomping through its territory. I squawk like a demented chicken, hopping to avoid the tiny red, yellow, and green striped reptilian flag whipping past. Its curving body signals a fervent desire to have nothing to do with me.
- I swear it looked like this–Northern Ribbon Snake by Nick Scobel. thank you for the loan. I was too busy shrieking to snap a pic.
A later search on the internet at The Michigan DNR website assures me that I was in no danger—but they fail to take into consideration the effect a small snake has on an unsuspecting woman, on a hill, with slippery, squishy, rotten leaves and rocks and roots to upset an already precarious balance. I’m lucky I didn’t fall into the river, is all I’m saying.
It was a truly idyllic while. We passed the trestle bridge (pictured above, on separate days) where we’d experienced the sound and fury of locomotion just weeks before. It is a quiet sentinel as we pass.
The famed ledges are rocky outcroppings where lichen and verdigris—the coppery extrusion that rusts to a gorgeous blue-green powder adorning many a Catholic cathedral—turn the mundane slabs of sedimentary strata into a magical realm.
Fairies and sprites no doubt whisper from moss-coated crevasses. And red and gold leaves mark a journey through streams of light, chariots with invisible riders steering the autumnal march.**
The trail ends for us at the juncture of West River and Harrison Streets in Grand Ledge and we face the choice of turning left, crossing the walking bridge to Island Park, or going right heading into town. I lure my son away from a moored pleasure boat with the promise of lemonade and a snack toward the option that would let me sit down for a while.
This is how we stumble onto the best d*mned French fries for a hundred miles, if not more.
The Crossroads Barbeque is a most serendipitous discovery. The unassuming block-front, dark glass exterior doesn’t inform the prospective customer what delights are in store. You have to be on the lookout for such a dining experience—it is not to be missed.
I am more thirsty than hungry, but travelling with a teenager means we stop for food on an almost hourly basis. I am so glad we did. And not just because we get to meet the nicest guys behind the glory: Lee Burmeister, co-owner, and Cam, “You can call me Hershel Frobisher,”*** who describes his managerial style as “Giving everyone a hard time.”
Inside Crossroads BBQ, a giant rectangle of space is marked along one side with tables and seating and an open, wood floor that almost has room for a small band and dancing. After meeting Lee Burmeister, co-owner, or as he referred to himself, “Pit Master” of the joint, I could imagine an after-hours crowd breaking out into impromptu two-stepping, or perhaps heavy metal thrash jams, filling the space with sound.
The walls are covered in my kind of kitsch, fire engine red walls interspersed with giant chalk boards scribbled with bright, handwritten menus make the space warm—no doubt an interior design nod to the spicy cuisine offered up.
A cast iron pig ‘oinks’ the daily special—which is what leads me to add an order of fried chicken to my son’s enormous French fry basket. I am not sorry.
My son graciously lets me try a wing as he inhales the rest of the golden-crispy half of chicken that comes out. We’d already been bestowed a platter from heaven—a wholly satisfying mound of fries that suggests the magic of the Ledges walk leads to this particular pot of gold.
I did not come to Grand Ledge to write a blog post, travelling with autism has its limits. But sometimes, the discovery of delicious splendor demands a little improvisational review. I beg a scrap of paper—and am given a hunk of butcher block from a roll—to make my notes. I pepper the crew with questions, while my son explores and attempts to move a piano to find the secret behind a blockaded door. The proprietor is an understanding guy—letting me know he has a nephew on the spectrum. He is un-phased by my questions or questionable parenting.
The secret to the fries is easy—a beer batter coating and a bath in scalding soy oil—they are presented towering high in a thick pile. If you don’t think too hard about it, you can tell yourself these are a healthy treat. The chicken is about as moist as a bird can get without feathers. The secret, I’m told, is “high humidity.” I immediately picture the chickens sitting in a sauna before heading to the fryer.
The fries edge out the chicken by a crispy, salty bite. Then again, I tasted them first. I think I’ll have to go back again and try them in the reverse order. It may take a few taste tests to narrow down a winner.
Lee is affable and proud to show off the winning trophies from regional and statewide chili championships—the latest being a sharp, neon glass sculpture—depicting a 2nd place victory at the BWL Chili Cook-Off in Lansing in September. It’s no surprise that they came a close runner up to “Hottest Chili” considering their claim-to-flame ingredient.
The secret to the hottest chili? The pepper of course. Feast your gaze upon this innocuous looking baby:
The Carolina Reaper no doubt lives up to its name. A customer, curious about our conversation about the heat index of a chili so hot it comes with a disclaimer warning that the pregnant, nursing, or elderly might want to give it a pass.
The cook serves up a portion of the diluted sauce and the man eagerly accepts the viscous, volcano-red serving—but one taste and he passes on the offer to try the unadulterated chili by itself.
You could not pay me to try one though. No amount of money is worth taste bud annihilation.
Mid-conversation, my teenager loams large dragging me toward the exit, but I managed one last question. “Do you need to wear protective gear—like an industrial painter’s mask—when preparing the pepper?”
Both Lee and Cam, hold up black, rubber-coated digits.
“Rubber gloves are all we need.” Lee eyes his thick latex mitts for a second, and adds, “But a mask wouldn’t hurt.”
One quick group photo and we’re gone. With only a wafting odor of fries to remind us that Shangri La exists.
We scarper past the Masonic Lodge where a sandwich board outside informs us that pasties are the fundraiser of the day. It’s a shame we are too stuffed to take advantage.
For another hour, we cross the bridge we abjured earlier. We interrupt squirrels and Canadian geese, disturb a young lady fishing, and then my son tries–again–to break into the Grand Princess hitched alongside Island Park. It is time to leave.
We start the walk back and I am serenaded by demands for our next outing:
“Boat ride, boat ride, boat ride…”
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*Intentions aside, I sadly neglected to recharge my batteries from the day before— where I photographed my son’s school field trip to Post Family Farm. Who would’ve thunk taking 205 pictures of pumpkins would drain a camera battery dead?
**You’d have to be soul dead not to find poetry in these woods.
***I’m not explaining this joke. I find it much funnier this way.