Wednesday, August 8

Hellfires and then, Paradise

(Disclaimer: No time to make sure these are flawless entries. These dispatches are rough but designed to let you know I'm doing well. So forgive the errors that might make the reading difficult)

I really am in Paradise. Paradise, MI. Yesterday was replete with “misses.” I missed breakfast and I would feel it later. The goal was to reach Canada and I tried, I really tried. But I realized as I was motoring down M123, trying to make up time for having spent time going to off-the beaten path sights, only to learn that nature would change my plans. Fifty miles here and 50 miles there a few times, adds up. I missed sight after getting near only to find that the road was blocked because of a forest fire. Lots of confusing information about which parts of M123 were open, when, and where.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore hugs the lakeshore (hence the name) and I wanted to get as close to it as possible. I think it’s about a 40 miles stretch but less than half of that is paved. So, is it worth it, I thought? The park is northwest of Munising, so it seemed doable. Before leaving the Visitor’s Center (VC) in Munising, I headed across the street to The Dogpatch, which the desk clerk in Marquette said is a nice, casual restaurant. Having missed breakfast again, I decided to try it. Except for feeling like I was the major tourist attraction for children and adults alike, the meal, a whitefish sandwich was excellent (whitefish is big in this area, served with Tartar sauce only—not all the fixings I like to put on it). If folks who look like me can get over the bug-eyed diners and waitstaff, they will enjoy the food at Dogpatch.

The route I had planned, meant I’d just have to turn around, which I knew—I am on vacation, right? But this VC and the next one I stopped at were adamant in their warnings about the forest fire in Luce County, which was spreading and sounded just awful and had some roads closed. People were also being evacuated, at least one area had no electricity, and M 123 was closed in certain parts and open in others. Smoke was blowing west as I was heading east. Understandably, information was contradictory and changing hourly.

For the most part, I continued East on M28 from Munising through Seney, where I had planned to stop at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge, then head north on M77 to Grand Marais. Didn’t happen—at least the Grand Marais trek. It would have been an hour drive just to go to the tip. Not much in terms of paved road east or west of Grand Marais. Fine, more time to spend in Seney. Great decision too. Seney is peaceful, beautiful, and full of natural history. Very helpful visitor’s center, served by a couple who enjoyed telling me their Chicago connections and bragging about their escape from the big city. I wished I had planned to spend an entire day there. If I had a dualsport, the road, a 7 mile wlkderness path would have been great!! One also can walk the many trails (wear long sleeves, the bugs here know this is their territory and they BITE big time!) Based on how much time you have, you can decide on how you want to explore the area. This is a nature lover’s heaven and the birds and insect sounds create an amazing symphony.

While in the parking lot thinking about where to go next, an elderly gent pulled up in an elderly truck. He parked next to me. His name, I learned later is Dr. Richard E. McNeil. He’s a Forrester and UMich graduate. He liked Queenie and was amazed at how she was “outfitted.” We talked about the Refuge, travel and mostly about school. When I told him I’d done some time at UM, he became animated and gave me the history of the place when he attended. He approved of Univ.of Chicago as my alma mater. He described himself as a late bloomer, receiving his BA in 1951 and not receiving his Ph.D. until the 70s. He introduced me to his “associate” a young college student from FL working for the Refuge. He was modest, but he pretty much runs the place. I appreciated his warmth and the memory of him would later prevent me from allowing the next bunch of folks I met to ruin my day.

By the time I left Seney, it was after 4pm. I headed to Newberry. Stopped in a Comfort Inn to make reservations for a Comfort Inn in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario. A very nice woman was telling a man about the road closings. The fire had already devastated a large area, smoke was preventing travel along nearby roads, people were being evacuated and there was no way to take M123 north from Newberry to Tahquamenon Falls State Park, in Paradise MI. However, I could continue east on M28 and go up M123 pass Hulbert. She estimated I needed a couple of hours to do so. From there I called the Ontario Comfort Inn to make reservations. A curt woman told me that she had a line of people all wanting for a room and that I should reserve now or never. Not very customer-friendly...Let me say it was well after 4pm when I made the reservation, which becomes a point of major contention later.

The ride from Newberry to Paradise felt long because there were so few cars on the road once I turned north on the most easterly leg of M123. This is what I thought about: I’m in moose country (they even show them on the map). I scan left and right constantly and at the end of a every long, sweeping curve, particularly those blind curves, I imagine two huge, lumbering moose in the road. I see myself hurling in the air, I go one way, Queenie goes the other and the moose are totally unharmed by it all. Back to reality: I shake off that vision and start singing old Motown hits in my helmet.

By the time I reached Paradise, about an hour’s ride, the sky had turned dark and I smelled rain. The clerk at the Newberry Comfort Inn was skeptical that I could go to the Upper and Lower falls, Whitefish Point, visit the Shipwreck Museum, Bay Mills Indian Reservation AND get to Sault Ste Marie, Ontario by nightfall. But I was on a mission.

When I pulled into Paradise, it was misting. My plans were not going to work out and then it hit me…DUH! This is my vacation! I don’t have to do anything and chasing after sights, trying to meet a self-imposed, artificial deadline—what’s the point?!. A mile or so after getting into Paradise, I saw a Best Western. I pulled in. Inside, a desk clerk was talking to a man whose community had been evacuated. He said he knew his town was next and he wanted to get a jump on the evacuation and needed a room for his family. This was the second hotel I had heard about that was booking up quickly, not only with evacuees but with the many fire fighters who had been called in to assist with the fire.

They had a few rooms left by the time my turn came. I was upgraded from the standard room (two beds) to a lakeside room (one bed) “at no extra charge,” still the price was $150 I asked if there was a particular place to park my bike. The clerk said, “Under the canopy, right out in front. That way your bike won’t get too wet when it rains. In the morning, we have a bucket of towels (she is pointing to the spot) and you can wipe down your bike if it does.” What? Now that’s service that puts love in your heart! The room is spacious and lovely, with a tiny balcony. The beach is less than a stone’s throw and I relaxed by watching a family frolic in the water.

I called the hotel in Sault Ste Marie where I had made reservations. The clerk was furious that I was canceling. By now it was raining in Paradise and I explained that I just couldn’t make it to Ontario before nightfall. Their policy, she told me, is to charge the credit card if the room is canceled after 4pm. I said, “The reservation was made after 4pm so how can I change it before 4pm.” She didn’t care. I reminded her that she told me that the rooms were going quickly and they would have a full house. She didn’t care. Just reiterated their cancellation policy. I suggested she book the room and not charge my credit card. We ended the conversation with her saying, “You’ll have to wait and see.” I will wait. You will read about it in the newspaper, if I’m charged for that room!

I dined in a restaurant near the hotel. It was perhaps one of the most uncomfortable experiences I’ve had. Generally, I don’t care much that people stare. My rule is just don’t touch me or say anything stupid to me. I’m good at ignoring ignorance. But maybe I just wasn’t in the mood. The restaurant was crowded. I asked if I could get a carry out. The cashier said—way too loud for my taste—“No it’s too late and it would just be too much trouble and would take just as much time if you waited to be seated.” Okay…I waited but not before flashing him a look, which I don’t think he understood. About ten minutes later, a woman comes in and sits right next to me at the counter. She asks for a take out and the very same person says, “Well, it’s late, let me go see.” He comes back and takes her carry out order. Now I’m ticked and I wonder where I’ve packed the mace! I want to ask why the kitchen is now able to fulfill a carry out order. Inside I tell myself to let it go. But this guy knew I was ticked because I watched this carry out order transaction with great concern, giving him and the woman an occasional glance when I looked up from my book. When that was over, he said to me, “Can I say you have the most beautiful dreadlocks I’ve ever seen.” I was unmoved. I tried to look friendly but it wasn’t working well. I didn’t wanted to get into the whole debate about my hair, how it is not dread locked (there’s nothing dreadful about them) but decided to let it go—remember I’m on vacation. But he was relentless and clearly wanted to distract me from macing him. He told me that wore “dreads” for many years but eventually had to cut them off. He said his locks were huge, fat, Rasta-style. He then said something that shocked me. He said, “After a few years my hair was molding and it really stank when it was wet because it could never dry and mold was growing all through it.” Ok, now I’ve lost my appetite. I had heard that when white people get “dread locks” they go through some process that helps it to lock, some use glue at the early stage to help it adhere. I heard that some don’t wash it for long periods to facilitate the locking process. I told him and I’m saying it here. No glue or mold is associated with my hair! It is washed regularly. At the end of summer, “when this job is over, I’m getting my locks back” he told me. Only this time, he’s going to have them “more like” mine. I wanted to say, “Good Luck with that,” but just smiled instead.

Dinner was another whitefish sandwich. It was excellent, which I would enjoy later alone in my room. The restaurant eating area was bright. I was, as usual, the only fly in the buttermilk—if you know what I mean. Not an uncommon experience when I travel solo. But tonight I was bothered. Tahhquamenon Falls couldn’t possibly get as much eyeing as I was receiving last evening. In between mouthfuls entire family tables turned to watch me. Because they would all shift at the same time, I knew I was being pointed out. Some people were sly and looked away quickly when I met their eyes. Others just stared, one missed his mouth when he was trying to eat and look at the same time. Staring back didn’t seem to faze some. Others got the message. I’ve written in navel gazing detail about this in my journal so I’ll spare you all the details. However, things got so uncomfortable that I ate a few of the fries and had my server wrap up the meal to go—exactly how I wanted it in the first place! Ordinarily, I would have stayed on general principle but this was one of those days where it was best to pack it in for the night. These are old battles waged on my terms. I will say this, it is sad that parents don’t teach their children better manners…but then again, how can children be expected to learn if their own parents behave like idiots?!

This morning, from the small balcony of my room, I watched the sun rise.
Oh, what beauty.