Monday, June 08, 2009

Two "Thumb's Up!"

Despite cold and damp more reminiscent of late April than early June, we had a splendid time in Michigan's Thumb region. (Note to non-Michiganians: Hold your left hand up, knuckles up, with your fingers together so that you form a mitten; the Thumb corresponds to your thumb. I don't know what those of you without anatomically shaped states or countries do to give directions.)

We set out in the early morning with intentions of eating breakfast at the Mussel Beach Drive-In just north of Bay City, on the strength of enthusiastic diner recommendations on TripAdvisor. When we got there, we found that the place's reputation was accurate -- so much so that a line of increasingly frustrated potential customers snaked out the door. We wound up down the street at McDonald's for just enough carbs and protein to get us going. So much for patronizing scratch-cooking restaurants, we thought glumly. But, temporarily refreshed, we set off again, and after getting temporarily semi-lost on the marshy backroads east of Bay City (worth it for seeing white egrets, up close and personal, in the ditches right next to the Jeep) we found our way to M-25, the highway that follows the Thumb coast.

While we had no real itinerary other than a free vacation guide we picked up at the gas station next to Mickey D's, we had wanted to check out local fisheries. The bad news is that hardly any exist anymore, thanks in part to an ongoing cattle-rancher/sheepherder feud between Michigan's commericial fisherpeople and sport anglers that has decimated Michigan's fishing industry. But -- while on a potty stop at the local park with Gertie, who came along with us -- we did find the Bay Port Fish Company, in the tiny village of the same name, a fantastic place to buy fresh fish right off the boat -- boneless filets of salmon, whitefish, perch and walleye, plus an amazing variety of uncleaned fish. Had we been coming home instead of heading out, we would certainly have come home with pounds of fish, and I may have even been persuaded to school myself in the use of my dad's old filet knife in order to tackle some of the whole fish. We found ourselves brunching on the most delicious home-smoked salmon, unceremoniously stuck in a brown paper bag...buttery, smoky and rich. Bay Port is the home of a fish sandwich festival in mid-summer, and we would love to return there.

Having tasted travel success with a new discovery, we were ready to head up the coast. We drove through Caseville, home of the Caseville Cheeseburger Festival -- a weekend paen to Jimmy Buffet and al things Parrothead -- a community where old-school Michigan weekend cottages and amusements seem to be battling with mondo condos and McMansions for supremacy. And they have a very interesting, historical cemetery. (Because of Gertie's need for speed and love of cemeteries as steeplechase paradises -- we actually have to spell the C-word now -- we are becoming acquainted with dozens of graveyards all over the state.)

We made it to Port Austin, at the tip of the Thumb, around lunchtime. The Garfield Inn, a lovely old home that once housed ill-fated President James Garfield's best friends -- also reportedly home to Garfield's ongoing affair with the missus of this couple -- was closed until evening, which was too bad because I'd wanted to see the restored 1850's-era interior and Garfield memorabilia. There's another historic-building-turned-restaurant in town, The Bank, but we weren't feeling quite fancy enough to eat there (which is pretty illogical in a flip-flop-intensive resort community; but it was Sunday); so we instead went to Joe's, a rather anonymous looking, dinerly pizzaria/Italian food joint down the street and had great cooked-not-thawed meals -- a scratch Italian wedding soup followed by eggplant parmesan for me, spaghetti with white clam sauce for FT. We also did a little window shopping of tourist tschotshkes, and wound up purchasing a Michigan/Michigan State "House Divided" flag for our front yard for football season -- something we'd been looking for for over a year.

Our window of opportunity for going back to Bay Port for fish was slipping by quickly, so we decided to keep going up the highway. My Thumb vacation guide had mentioned a winery near Bad Axe, so we thought that might be a good end-of-the-rainbow destination for our day. After almost missing our turn -- I happened to notice a hand-lettered sign on the side of the road, which tells you something about the newness of this agri-tourism endeavor -- we finally found our way to the Dizzy Daisy Winery and Vineyard, whose claim to fame is a wine list of 20 varieties, from conventional varietal wines like Rieslings and Pinot Noirs to fruit wines reminiscent of Grandpa's cellar creations -- cherry, raspberry, strawberry, and even novelties like rhubarb and white currant wines. We found a very un-snobby establishment on a working farm, in what appeared to be a former milkhouse, and a helpful young employee giving out free tastings. I will go on record as happening to enjoy the rhubarb wine, which made FT's face go into spasms; both of us found the currant wine undrinkable (green pepper is not a flavor I find attractive in any wine, and especially not a dessert wine); we did purchase a pleasant cabernet/merlot and a muscat, so this final sidetrack excursion was not in vain.

En route back to the highway we stopped at a deli/charter boat company and found they sold some of their own home-smoked salmon. This wasn't as prettily trimmed as the Bay Port Fish salmon, but it was delicious, so we bought several filets to take home. We asked the proprietor if there were any places in the immediate area to purchase fresh fish, since Bay Port was closed for the day; he shook his head and explained that there was no local market for fresh fish, and that the licensing regulations for selling it retail were just too onerous for "little guy" businesses like his. When we left, we bemoaned, again, the lack of respect that Michiganians have and have always had for their own natural resources -- whether the now-extinct grayling that were once so numeorus in our rivers that people caught them by the basketfuls and then couldn't eat them fast enough, or today's local produce and meats and artisan foods that most people pass by. "Don't it always seem as though you don't know what you got 'til it's gone" indeed.

We backtracked home, through these resort towns and small farming communities like Unionville and Sebewaing, where cars on the main drag are likely to be sharing the highway with tractors. (Enjoying Native American place names like Sebewaing and Quanicassee are another reason to travel in this area.) Passing miles of farmland made me sentimental for my own childhood on the farm, and for the farming lifestyle that has largely disappeared from my own hometown to be replaced by a kind of meaningless pre-fab "country" subculture that has nothing to do with the people who actually settled and farmed the area. It got me waxing philosophical about both people's relationship, or lack thereof, to the land upon which they live, and to the desireability of creating meaningful work based in communities, work that gives residents pride in place and genuine roots.

I'm still waiting to be convinced that Michigan's northeast coast is worth spending a day exploring -- we never seem to come away from those trips thinking, "Wow! We'll be back there again!" -- but we were definitely charmed by the places and people of the Thumb. Next time, we want to visit on a warm, sunny day, do more outdoors tramping and historical sightseeing and perhaps drive farther into the interior. But there will be a next time, guaranteed.


Auntie Knickers said...

Sounds like a great time, you are inspiring me to do something similar here in Maine.

Rev Scott said...

Green pepper in the wine? Blech!

Glad the rest of the trip wasn't so distasteful. Sounds like fun.

Beth said...

The4 only worse thing than a non- anotomical shaped region is one shaped like inappropriate anatomy.