You Meet the Nicest People
Jenni and I just completed a 4,377-mile journey to most of the Great Lakes. The people we met made the trip as special as the scenery we saw. I have been guilty in the past of failing to interact with fellow travelers so I made a conscious decision to do better on this trip. Jenni doesn’t have to make that decision—it just comes naturally for her.
Five days and 1,000 miles into the trip we found ourselves parked on a high bluff near Arcadia, Michigan overlooking Lake Michigan. It was a sunny afternoon and we were tired of driving for the day. We set out our solar panels (which always seems to draw comments from other travelers), opened the back doors to give us a view of the lake, and enjoyed a beautiful afternoon at what some people call Inspiration Point. One of the many people who stopped to chat was Motorcycle Man. He claimed to be a van enthusiast but was traveling alone by motorcycle. We shared where we were headed over the next couple days (because we didn’t plan much farther ahead than that) and he had plenty of recommendations of roads to take and things to see including the Tunnel of Trees on M119 near Petoskey. The next day we drove his ‘tunnel’ and realized the road was a little too narrow to feel comfortable meeting oncoming traffic while traveling in a van. We passed on his recommendation for a great Polish restaurant since we couldn’t remember the name and it wasn’t mealtime.
The next day (I think) we were looking for a boondocking spot on the shore of Lake Superior. We had a lead on a great looking spot but what we were actually seeing didn't match the pictures. We gave in and backed into a spot 15 yards from the shore, a few spaces from The Toyhaulers. They were a couple with a detachable camper and two motorcycles. He was grilling thick steaks over a campfire on the beach. I wasn’t sure if they would appreciate us camping near them but once we spoke they were super friendly, as was their young Doberman pup much to Annie’s irritation. Once they knew which direction we were headed, they were full of suggestions as they had traveled this area many times. They left on motorcycles for a sunset ride and returned after we had gone to bed. I felt bad the next morning when our smoke alarm was activated, TWICE, while cooking bacon and then an errant elbow blew the van’s horn just before we pulled out.
In Munising we met The Boat People. Annie and Jim were seated in front of us on a boat cruise along Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We had a great time visiting with them while we ooohed and ahhed over the beauty of the shoreline. After telling them some about our trip, one asked “Do you carry?” in reference to our safety in the van. I hesitated and then answered “only a Chihuahua and bear spray”! The time spent with them was pleasant and helped me forget that I tend to get sick on boats. One of their recommendations that panned out a few days later was The Jam Pot, a bakery/jelly store run by a group of monks on the Keweenaw Peninsula.
The Laundry People in Munising were very helpful. They told us which machines didn’t work and which ones had just finished a load so they were safe to use. It helps to have fellow travelers looking out for you.
Camped on the shore of Lake Michigamme, we had gone to bed as the only campers in the state forest campground. In the morning, there were two others—one who let four large dogs roam freely and then the one I talked to. While Jenni enjoyed some alone time in the van that morning, Annie and I stepped out for a little walk. The man in the Ford Transit van came out and we struck up a conversation. I was as mesmerized by his Minnesota accent as he may have been by my southern drawl. (Asking ‘where y’all headed?’ tends to indicate I ain’t from around there). We mainly talked about our vans and waterfalls. I will confess I did not understand everything he said but I had fun listening! We had each been to Tahquamenon Falls in the past couple days and he was headed to Bond Falls next to meet up with some friends. I made note of that one and several days later when we reached it I was so glad I had!
A day in the Porcupine Mountain Wilderness Area of western Michigan produced a plethora of friendly folks. From the Wisconsin retirees we chatted with while watching a man set up a manual typewriter and begin tapping away on his next novel using Lake of the Clouds as his inspiration, to the young lady who promised “I know what I’m doing” as she took our photo, to Tom and Annie. We first met the latter on a steep trail to Summit Peak and an observation tower. We were finding the air hard to breath on our way up when a couple, with close to twenty years on us, stopped to offer us encouragement on their descent. I thought that was pretty easy for them to do on the way down! After a couple minutes rest, we each went our different directions. After Jenni and I reached the summit and returned to the parking lot, we saw that this same couple was just finishing their lunch at a picnic table right beside Wanda. They said they were wondering what the inside of the van was like, so we opened it up and gave them a tour. When we introduced our Chihuahua Annie to them, the woman was thrilled to have finally met a dog with her name! She was a quilter, so you can imagine hers and Jenni’s conversation. Tom was a retired science teacher who said he was getting close to as many years retired as he had taught and he felt kind of guilty about that. I told him it sounded like something to be proud of! We both agreed we did not miss our work life one bit. Throughout the next week I found myself drawing upon my conversation with Tom several times, but the greatest advice from him was to visit Kakabeka Falls in Canada while we were in Grand Portage, MN. One thing the four of us discussed was maneuvering the roads. Neither of them owned a cell phone so lack of cell signal wasn’t a concern. Annie (the Lady) said that someone had been talking to her about their GPS system and asked what she used. Annie replied, “I don’t use G-P-S, I use M-A-P-S.” She was a character and we surely would have been great friends if they were on Facebook. Or had a cell phone for that matter.
And then there were fellow van dwellers Matt and Katie, or the @TrailVagabonds and @VagabondMutts on Instagram. We first became aware of them when we were building Wanda at the start of the pandemic. Matt was a tremendous help in answering our questions about construction and electrical work. He is a self-taught wiz at campervan build-outs and home remodeling. (I think he likes to begin remodeling jobs a month before they sell each house. 😉) We met Matt in person when we drove through Salt Lake City two years ago where we camped at his curb and ate pizza together. Katie, who is a veterinarian, has a true heart for sled dogs and underdogs. She was off helping with Iditarod training when we were in Utah so this was our first chance to meet her face to face. Through Instagram messaging we knew we were all converging on Ely, MN at about the same time so we made plans to meet in town for dinner and great conversation. Every time I meet Matt, I tend to find a local beer I enjoy so this time I bought a 12-pack before we left town the next morning! Even though Jenni and I are old enough to be their parents, the commonality of vanlife and love of dogs just made us feel like good friends. We look forward to our paths crossing again.
This trip was a great reminder to me to open up and talk with fellow travelers more. There are some really interesting folks out there if you just give them a chance.
You meet the nicest people on the road. Hopefully, I’m one of them!