The Road to Mackinac

mackinac bridgeNo gas-driven cars, trucks or buses other than emergency vehicles. That’s how they advertise the charm of Mackinac Island, located just off the northern tip of lower Michigan. mackinac islandThe best way to get there from the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan – cross the five mile long and elegant Mackinac Bridge that joins the Upper Michigan Peninsula to the Lower Peninsula and then take a forty minute ferry boat ride from the regular mainland.

About a week or so ago, my brother and his family came to visit his hometown of Chicago and stayed at Ma’s house. They decided to make a quick two and a half day travel outing by going north up Wisconsin to Traverse City in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and stay there for a couple of nights. On one of the days, they took the ferry to the island, rode bikes and returned to the mainland for the evening.

My brother and his wife just loved the clean, pure air in Traverse City and the throw-back atmosphere of the small city. They would love to buy a summer cottage and use it often. Talk is cheap, right? I mean, they didn’t ask their kids to vote on it and none seemed to be as inspired as their parents were.

Our dad worked as an insurance salesman for New York Life. In the early 1960’s, he was still somewhat wet behind the ears at the company but still it led to a thirty-five year relationship with them. Apparently they were as pleased as he was with the arrangement. When he passed away, Ma unexpectedly received a very nice payment from a special policy the company kept on him that nobody knew about.

Dad worked hard to make sales and earn his commission. He did well enough to warrant being invited to his company’s annual convention twice held at Mackinac Island in those years. By the early 1970’s, he made the Million Dollar Round Table Club and was invited to an upscale convention at Grossinger’s, the famous Catskills resort. By that decade, my kid brother earned the right to go with Dad and Ma to that high falutin’ joint and in doing so experienced a first I had not yet achieved- an airplane flight.

Back to the early 1960’s- Dad announced in mid summer that we were all taking a car trip the last week of August up to Mackinac Island, about 350 miles away. In those pre-Internet days, it meant calling up AAA or Chicago Motor Club and asking for a personalized map with the route highlighted with a green magic marker. Being the one boy among three sisters, it was my designated job to hold onto the map and every once in a while be available to tell my father where we were. Obviously, he didn’t need to know, but to a 10 or 11 year old, it gave me a feeling of importance. Besides, he couldn’t rely on Ma for help as she never did learn to drive and had no sense of direction. Til this day, when I take her shopping, she will sometimes ask where we are and not because it is the onset of troublesome issues.

On a Saturday night, we quietly loaded everything we needed into our car, ready to move out around midnight. This included the ever-present Scotch cooler filled with a couple of dozen ice cubes and a variety of sandwiches wrapped in wax bags. Dad felt that it was better to drive at night without the sun in his eyes as well as competing traffic. He also hoped that some of the kids would fall fast asleep and not nag him while he concentrated on steering the manual shift black 1959 Chevrolet Biscasyne with the pointed tail fin rear fender.

Living on Chicago’s West Side, we drove the short distance to the then-named Congress Expressway (now Eisenhower) at the Central Avenue entrance and rode easterly to the Dan Ryan Expressway connection downtown. We took the Dan Ryan until the Calumet Skyway. This shuttle highway required paying tolls but saved time in avoiding going the longer distance until the Dan Ryan met up with the Indiana Toll Road. At some point I think we switched to a non-paying highway safely ensconced in Michigan but with a long way to go.

Going on the Skyway also meant that at some point, we would be traveling up hill to the highest bridge in the Chicago area. As we approached it, it looked like a steel mountain in the sky. Even today, the few times I have had to go in that direction, I’ve been scared silly as I’d drive up to, on, and past the bridge.

At the start of the Skyway, there was a tollbooth and Dad rolled down the window and paid whatever. In those days, maybe it was 35 cents. As a kid, I was fascinated by the toll fee concept and truly thought that it must be a privilege for city people to go out to the country and not a right. Ironically, the Skyway was supposed to have been funded with bonds that would pay off the construction debt after a while. That never happened. Not too long ago, the City of Chicago sold the rights to collect the tolls to a foreign investor for millions of dollars up front. Unfortunately, the city has used much of that money which was earmarked for rainy days. And the investor has dramatically as well as legally increased the toll fees.

We drove through the night. As dawn emerged, and the sun began to shine its rays upon us, Dad started to get tired. He pulled over to the shoulder on the highway and took a nap. No one seemed to mind.
After a couple of hours, and our designated driver was refreshed, we continued on our way as far north as we could go up Michigan until we saw nothing but water- the joining of two Great Lakes- Michigan and Huron.

At this point, Dad drove his car onto a ferry boat. We were told to get out and sit or stand on the promenade. The forty minute or so trip to the island was another first in my short life and just started the wondrous things that would happen the few short days we stayed at the magnificent Grand Hotel.

The hotel was ‘the’ place to be. It had one of the longest, and most famous verandas of hotels in the U.S. It also was the safest place to be on the Island. There were no motor vehicles permitted except for emergency usage. Horses and bicycles were the means of transportation. It also meant doing the cha cha as you walked anywhere to avoid horses’ contributions to the environment.

Would I ever want to go back. Not for myself- been there, done it. But, if I had to show someone else a good time, why not?

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