Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Eating and Drinking Our Way Through Michigan

Now that we shared places to go and things to see in Michigan, let us enlighten you on the food and drink that has captivated us while traveling through this large and diverse state.  Because you know we did not spend over three months exploring this state and not dive into the food and beverage scene.  

May in Michigan means fresh asparagus.  We quickly learned asparagus was king in the spring as farmers markets and grocery stores touted their local delicacy.  Much to our happiness, we discovered there was an asparagus farm right down the road from our campground.  Since neither of us had ever visited an asparagus farm we were interested.  Asparagus is planted in rows like corn and when the little spears reach the desired size they are hand-picked.  The most noticeable traits of fresh asparagus is how sweet it is and how tender the stalks are making them perfect to eat raw.  Usually, fat asparagus has woody skin that I prefer to peel off, but that was not the case with these delights.  Pretty soon I was making asparagus soup, asparagus salad, grilled asparagus, and anything asparagus.  The farm sold it by the pound for $2.25 on the honor system.  Love that!


Michigan cherries definitely deserve a mention as the state produces 75% of the country’s tart cherries.  You notice cherry trees everywhere which can only mean cherry everything.  Cherry pies, cherry wine, cherry barbecue sauce, cherry dog treats, cherry salsa . . . basically cherry everything.  It’s Betsy’s favorite fruit.  Cherry Republic is one such store/restaurant where you can explore and taste the wonderful world of cherries.  They have a large online following so you can get cherry everything shipped anywhere you like.  But, we think you will agree that the pinnacle of the cherry world is the good ole’ cherry pie.  Lots of places advertise “the best” cherry pie but the one we heard the most about was The Cherry Hut and had to try it.  A la mode, please.

What do you get when you blend sugar, butter, and milk in a copper kettle over low heat then cool on a marble table?  If your guess is Fudge, you are correct.  We never saw so many fudge shops anywhere in the U.S. as we did in Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island. In fact, it was a little ridiculous but the good news is that all the shops offer free samples so you can fill up before you know it.  This creamy confection dates back to the late 1880’s when a woman in Baltimore claims to have whipped up the first batch.  But fudge came to Michigan shortly there after and Mackinaw Island is recognized as America’s Fudge Capital where 14 fudge shops make over 10,000 pounds per day during the peak travel season.  When tourists flocked to this area at the turn of the 19th century, they sought out candy as a special treat.  The smell of the candy cooking is luring enough pull you from the sidewalk into a confectionery.  Today's fudge is flavored in countless ways from traditional like nuts and fruit to the more creative filling of peanut butter, rum, and marshmallows.  Here’s a tip: all the stores offer free samples so you literally could eat a half pound without paying a cent. 


When you venture up into the Upper Peninsula is when you will become familiar with pasties (pronounced PAS-TEE).  Think pot pie filling in a hand pie.   Dough is filled with meat, potatoes, onions, and rutabaga and baked to golden brown and served with ketchup or gravy. To understand pasties you have to know that the UP was, and still is, mining country.  Pasties were introduced to the UP in the mid-1800’s by European and Scandinavian immigrants who came to work in the copper and iron ore mines.  The miners would open their metal lunch pail and use their candle to heat the pastie thus providing a hearty lunch while working long hours in cold damp mines.  Pasties variations come from the different ethnicity preferences and culinary traditions.  For example, the Finnish people added carrots to their pasties.  Today, pasties remain pretty much the same as were around in the mid-1800’s.  We only found one pasty shop (Roy's Pasties and Bakery) that had creative variations like chicken and broccoli or turkey with cranberries and stuffing.  Nevertheless, we found them very hearty and filling.  It is evident pasties are not just a tourist food with pasties shops in every town and in the frozen food section of the grocery store.  How cute is the pastie below with a cutout of the Upper Peninsula on it?


You only need to be in Michigan a short time to known that the craft beer scene has exploded.  Every town we stopped in had at least one, and usually two or three breweries.  To make all that beer, you need hops.  Michiganders realized their climate was ideal for growing hops and got to work.  Hops are a fast-growing vine (growing 18 feet in six weeks) upwards along rope until they are harvested in the fall.  Michigan is a distant fourth in overall production in the United States with Washington state claiming 77% of the total production but is important with so many breweries wanting to source locally.  The hop plant is dioecious meaning they have separate male and female plants. While only the female plant produces that distinctive cone used in the brewing process, it is the male plant that produces lupulin - the oils and resins that give hops their aroma.  After harvesting, hops are dried and incorporated in the brewing process as a flavoring and a stability agent in beer adding the bitter, zesty, or citric flavors.


Some of you may be saying, “wait, what about Michigan wine?”  You’re right, we did skip over it in this post but that’s only because we covered that in previous posts (click here and here) and not because we shunned the grape goodness.  We apologize profusely if this post makes you hungry.  Look at it this way, at least you didn’t put on the pounds we did researching these subjects for your benefit!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan's Upper Peninsula

The area known as “Pictured Rocks” along Lake Superior’s south shore in Michigan was bestowed the title of America’s first National Lakeshore (NL) in 1966.  The beauty of this park is its towering colorful sandstone cliffs climbing some 200 feet above the emerald waters of Lake Superior.  Pictured Rocks NL was set aside by Congress “to preserve the shoreline, cliffs, beaches, and dunes, and to provide an extraordinary place for recreation and discovery” and lures hundreds of thousands of people to witness first-hand its beauty. 


The name Pictured Rocks come from the streaks of mineral stains that color the sculptured cliffs.  A quick glance of the cliffs is all it takes to realize this place was appropriately named.  The long narrow park hugs Lake Superiors' shoreline for some 40 miles making the best way to see this park being from the water.  We had intentions of putting our kayaks in the lake to view the decorated cliffs but quickly abandoned that idea the more we learned about how treacherous that could be if you were not adequately skilled and prepared.   Our kayaks are recreational boats perfectly suitable for calm waters unlike sea kayaks which would be more appropriate.  We learned that storms and seas can kick up at any time turning the water into a dangerous place to be especially with tall cliffs preventing you from exiting the water.  Then we started reading horror stories of water rescues and drownings.  We kept the boats on the car and opted to pay for an evening cruise on a tour boat.  Clearly the better choice.

Unfortunately, the evening of our cruise was completely overcast and the spectrum of colors that decorate the rocks were not as striking as pictures show.  Still the narrated cruise was a great way to see the park and an enjoyable evening. 


The disappointment of this park for us was that it is not very dog-friendly.  We were expecting to hike some of the trails but quickly learned that dogs are not allowed on most sections of the park.  In fact, except for a few very short trails they are only allowed in campgrounds and parking lots.  Learning that, we shifted our focus to the nearby Hiawatha National Forest which proved to be a great outdoor playground perfect for hiking and kayaking.  The forest encompasses nearly 900,000 acres and has numerous campgrounds, boat launches, hiking trails, and picnic areas … all of which are dog-friendly.

Why not end the post talking about the best pizza we have eaten in a long time.  So good that we were there twice within our five-night stay.  Pictured Rocks Pizza makes a thin crust wood-fired pie with an amazing array of toppings.  They make the pizza at a counter in front of you as you point out the deliciousness that you want as your creation.  The inside seating area is small and since one afternoon was so nice we elected to eat outside on a shaded picnic table.

One day we drove about five miles outside of town to Muldoons Pasties and Gifts to try their award-winning pasties. That is pronounced "Pass-tee" and not what first came to your mind!  This is an iconic food dish of the Upper Peninsula.  Texas has its barbecue, Philly has their cheese steaks, Maine has their lobster, and the UP has their pasties.  Immigrants from Cornwall, England came to the UP to find work in the copper mines and brought with them this dish.  

Pasties proved to be the perfect hearty meal for men working 10-hour days in cold damp environments as they are filled with meat, potatoes, onions, and rutabagas in a pastry crust.  They were heated with their miners lamps in their metal lunch pails.  Since the miners hands were dirty, pasties were the perfect "one-handed meal" that you could hold and eat leaving just a small piece of dirty crust to discard.  To this day, they remain a staple and now have different variations adding chicken, carrots and other vegetables. They are usually served with gravy or ketchup and are quite delicious.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Lake Muskallonge State Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Here is one of those places that I picked for us to visit and things didn’t work out as planned.  The plan was that we would stay at this state park on a beautiful lake while we were exploring the eastern side of the 40 - mile long Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (NL), Tahquamenon Falls and the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point.  The plan made sense – stay at a nice place and explore a beautiful area in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  But, things did not work out as planned.

As we were driving the RV to the campground Betsy pointed out a sign that said “Pavement Ends in 45 Miles.”  If my calculations were correct we would get there just before the gravel and dust but I kept my fingers crossed anyway.  Luckily, we got to the campground at Lake Muskallonge State Park just before the pavement ended but that meant the road we were going to take after the state park to our next campground was gravel and later we learned, full of pot holes, so plans were going to have to change.  We wiggled into our spot in the state park and had a nice view of the lake and were happy. 

The next day we loaded up the car and headed west to Grand Marais to see Pictured Rocks NL.  The washboard pot-holed gravel road was certainly not the 24-mile path we were going to take the RV down and it was good we drove it first in the car to discover this.  We arrived at the park and were eager to see some of the waterfalls and hike the trails.  A nice ranger greeted us and dropped the bomb that dogs were not allowed on practically 98% of the trails in the park.  Ugh!  I had even looked in the park brochure online which just gave generic information regarding dogs but no mention of the park being so dog-unfriendly.  We did manage to park the car in the shade, roll down the windows and make the quick trip to the falls without Spirit.  So much for visiting Pictured Rocks from this location so we headed back to Grand Marais where we walked around town and found a place on Lake Superior for Spirit to swim and forget about the long bumpy car ride.


We really enjoyed the state park and found it very relaxing but it was not as close to attractions as we originally thought.  Many of the roads to those attractions are gravel and take twice as long to get there so we scrapped them.  Sometimes all the hours spent planning just don’t work out but that’s o.k. too.  In fact, we spent more time relaxing about the campground and finishing long-overdue chores. 

One of the best aspects of our visit was getting to know the super nice family that parked next to us.  We freely admit to having anxiety when a truck with kids pulls into a site next to us.  Usually that scenario reeks of kids screaming, training wheels grinding on the asphalt, and parents eager to ignore their obnoxious rug rats.  This time was different.  The kids hoped out of the truck and started helping mom and dad ready the camper for their stay instead of fighting or starting to chop down a perfectly healthy tree.  Over the course of our stay we got to know this lovely family from Wisconsin who shared information about where to go and what to see in the area and their home state. 

Thanks for being such great neighbors and dispelling some of our myths.  We even ended up spending a great evening on a cruise boat with them exploring Pictured Rocks NL from the other end of the lakeshore.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

We Were Featured on MightyGoods!

When we were contacted by someone who expressed interest in highlighting our story in a segment called “car living,” we were skeptical that we fit their criteria.  Our response to them was “sure” if you consider a 45’ motorhome car living.   After all, we are always interested in sharing our story and encouraging those interested in full-time RVing to take the plunge. 

Turns out they did want to publish our story.  They picked our brains with questions that we gave lots of thought to and came up with this MightyGoods Car Living article that tells our story. 

Nomads Nancy and Betsy
We are so glad MightyGoods contacted us because they introduced us to so many inspiring people who do amazing things in their lives.  They feature people who climb, bike, run, surf, and lead nomadic lives (not like on a camel nomadic life but like us).  Travel is such an education that opens your eyes, mind, and soul to the beautiful places, cultures, and people that share our world.  Hope you enjoy their stories as much as we have.  Happy camping.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

RV Park Review - Mackinaw Mill Creek Campground (Mackinaw City, Michigan)

Mackinaw Mill Creek Campground is a really large campground comprised of 600 sites (200+ are full hook-up) and a mile of accessible shoreline along Lake Huron with awesome views of the Mackinaw Bridge and Mackinac Island.  The campground has all types of sites to fit any campers' desire from rustic tent, cabins, and those that fit any size RV's complete with full hook-ups.  The most desirable sites are the waterfront ones where you are greeted with great views of the Mackinaw Bridge, stunning sunrises, and pretty lake scenery.  The location of this park is only about five miles to downtown Mackinaw City and the ferry boat taking you to Mackinac Island.  

One great feature about this park is that there is a dog-sitting/walking service offered by the campground owners daughter.  For $20 she came to the RV twice during the day and spent an hour and a half walking our dog while we were gone all day to Mackinac Island.  It was the best $20 we spent!  We didn’t have to worry about our dog as she was having fun walking and swimming while we were away (we even got a picture texted to us and updates – thanks Amy). 

Some of the roads in the campground are gravel and were quite dusty when we were there in July. All sites are gravel/grass with fire pits and picnic tables.  We stayed in two sites (#697 pictured above) because we made our reservations late and could not get the same site for our entire stay.  Site #697 was a nice pull-thru on a corner but the tall bushes provided plenty of privacy.  The second site (#87) was a back-in and was not quite as private between us and our neighbors.  Both were plenty long and wide enough to accommodate our 45’ RV and tow car at our site and easy to get in and out of.  The roads are big-rig friendly and there are plenty of sites that will accommodate large RVs.


The most sought after sites are those right on the water.  The sites have great water views but you are much closer to your neighbors on each side than the ones right behind you.  Along the waterfront is a big green space where anyone is free to enjoy the view and use one of the many community fire pits. 


Although all sites have fire pits and picnic tables, we decided to have our fire on the water and really enjoyed the views.  There are tons of amenities at this park as you would expect with a park this size…swimming pool, arcade/game room, basketball court, swimming beach in the lake, playgrounds, kayak/canoe launch, free miniature golf, camp store, and much more. 


The park advertises that dog parks are “coming soon” but were not completed when we were there.  There are three bath/shower houses and a scattering of pit toilets around the property.  There are signs along the grassy waterfront area that say dogs are not allowed but if you go to the far western side of the park they can go in the water there.

If you are looking for a quiet place to camp, this is probably not the place for you.  There were lots of busy kids, activities, car traffic, and sites with big families.  Some of the features we liked about this park are that you are close to town and the dog walking/sitting service is super helpful if you have a dog.  The grassy area along the waterfront is a nice place to hang out and gather with other people.  There is a free shuttle to the Mackinac Island ferry terminal so you can avoid the cost and hassle of parking. 

Downtown Mackinaw City has numerous things to do including the old fort and lighthouse, the Mackinaw Bridge Museum, and (our favorite) the U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Mackinaw.  We found the Mackinaw Bridge museum to be very entertaining.  The museum is free and located above Mama Mia’s Pizza because the restaurant's owner is a former iron worker who worked on the bridge and started collecting and displaying items.  The museum has grown into quite the collection as other people started sending him memorabilia and artifacts.  The museum is free and has a few rooms of exhibits as well as three movies and films to keep you entertained.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Ship Viewing in the Soo, Michigan

The town of Sault Ste. Marie (commonly just called “The Soo”) straddles the U.S. Canadian border  and made a name for itself because of the shipping locks which are the spine of the coal, iron ore, and grain industries.  Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario Canada are divided by the St. Marys River which connects Lake Superior and Lake Huron.  The name Sault Ste. Marie in French translates to “Rapids of the St. Mary” and the rapids explain the need for the locks.  Sault Ste. Marie is the oldest city in Michigan settled by Native Americans and was a crossroads of fishing and trading of tribes around the Great Lakes.  In the 18th century, the settlement became an important center of the fur trade but the falls proved to be an obstacle with moving goods.  Boats and supplies would have to be ported around the falls which was a difficult and lengthy process sometimes taking weeks.

In 1796 a canal was dug on the Canadian side to allow ships a safe passage bypassing the rapids of the St. Marys River becoming the first lock.  The lock was destroyed in the War of 1812.  The first American lock, the State Lock, was built in 1853 and instrumental in improving shipping traffic as it was much larger and more efficient.  Over the years, the lock system has expanded and improved and sees more than 11,000 ships and millions of tons of cargo that pass through its gates.  Today there are four locks on the American side (one of which is closed) which has become a popular tourist draw. 

Image result for sault ste marie ontario
The locks are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and there is an on-site visitor center and viewing area (both of which are free).  The visitor center plays a series of movies and has exhibits talking about operations and history of the locks.  A board displays the times, names, and lengths of ships moving through the locks and their estimated time of arrival so you can make sure you get to see the locks in operation.  Step outside  the visitor center to the viewing platform where you rise above the locks for a great view of the ships moving the 21 feet up and down in the lock.  This is especially impressive when it is a 1,000-foot long freighter in the lock.  For those wanting to experience the locks first-hand there are boat tours that will do just that.  They take you through the large locks on the American side and then back through the historic lock on the Canadian side.  While we were there we saw a Canadian Coast Guard ship and the 858-foot freighter the Roger Blough move though.


Gravity alone moves water in and out of the lock chambers.  Huge culverts run below the lock floors allowing water to flow in or out of the lock depending on which valves are opened.  To raise the level, the emptying valve at the lower end of the lock is closed and the filling valve is opened allowing water to flow into the chamber from the Lake Superior level.  To lower the lock the filling valve is closed and the emptying valve is opened allowing water to flow out to the Lake Huron level.  It takes 22 million gallons of water and an average of 40-60 minutes for boats to pass through the locks.

How the Locks Operate
The lock on the Canadian side is quite smaller and used for pleasure craft and much smaller boats than commercial freighters.  The original lock was constructed in 1895 and later updated in 1998 was and is flanked by historic buildings and is  an interesting contrast between the old smaller locks compared to the large ones on the American side.  The area is a National Park and also hiking trails that take you to the rapids and around the locks.  Two foot bridges span the locks which you are allowed to stand on during operation so as you straddle the locks you watch the water rise and fall.


A while back someone referred us to a restaurant in Sault Ste. Marie that he claimed has the best hamburgers.  When he also mentioned that it was a nothing to look at, eat in your car restaurant under a bridge, we knew we had to go there.  So off to West Pier Drive–In with empty bellies and high expectations.  The cheeseburgers were huge and really good with a bargain price of $5.50.  If you are in the Soo, we highly recommend dropping by for a bite. 


While in Canada, I decided to check out the Bushplane Museum while Spirit and Betsy went for a walk along the waterfront.  The museum is dedicated to preserving the history of bushplanes and incorporates their role in forest fire management in North America.  Inside the 64,000 sq. ft. hangar are 24 vintage aircraft many of which you can venture inside while others are transformed into interesting simulators giving you a birds-eye view.  Interestingly they have exhibits on the original style pontoons that were used in water drops and demonstrated how they were filled by being dunked into a water source and then released over the fire.  The museum has two movie theaters one of which is a really cool 3-D movie on wildfires and wildland firefighting that gives you an incite as to how aerial assault on forest fires is performed with amazing aerial footage.  The other movie takes you along on an adventure with a bush pilot flying over the Canadian wilderness.  The scenery in the movie is stunning and you understand the difficulties of flying in such remote areas.  Admission to the museum is $7 which I found worth it especially because of the emphasis on firefighting and my past experience as a wildland firefighter.


The town of Sault Ste. Marie definitely embraces its shipping history which is seen throughout the town.  There is the Long Ship Motel, the Lock View Restaurant, the Soo Locks Brewery, and many more businesses with names regarding the shipping industry and the locks.  To maximize your ship viewing opportunities, simply logon to the website BoatNerd which has real time data on ships in the Great Lakes.  Click on a ship icon and it will tell you where it is going, what it’s cargo is, how fast it is going, its length and other facts.   I found this website quite interesting and helpful to predict when the lock traffic was picking up.  The great thing about Sault Ste. Marie is that there are a couple of campgrounds (and an Elks Lodge for you members) right on the water so you don’t have to leave the campground or the RV to see the ships pass by.