The Number 1 & 2 Vacation

The prompt for the writing group today was to write about the worst thing, the saddest thing, or the happiest thing that we experienced while on travel or away from home. My story follows. My thanks to my wife, Barb, for her help in capturing the “essence” of this trip.

Downtown Mackinac Island. Note the long trail of horse road apples on the street in the middle distance between the dog walkers and bicyclists. You will get the point of my story.

The Number 1 & 2 Vacation

Our family has been very fortunate to have visited many places, to have seen extraordinary sites and to have met many interesting people on our trips. I remember how patient and kind the two women in a Paris bakery were to our youngest son when he practiced his French language skills to order pastries. How I got to see the gentler side of a Sumo wrestler-turned-restauratuer while in Japan. The 2 1/2 years my wife and I lived in Alabama was a learning experience for us as well. The people we met traveling the Civil Rights Trail related their personal stories of living through that era revealed to us a history we didn’t know or never learned, so many stories that my wife would frequently say, “we don’t know what we don’t know.” The opportunity to see and experience new things made every trip we took worthwhile, whether we enjoyed it or not. However, this principle of ours would undergo a severe test when we visited Mackinac Island.

After moving to Michigan in 1997, a number of our mid-Western friends encouraged us to visit Mackinac Island. Located on Lake Huron between the upper and lower Michigan peninsulas, the four square mile island was a summer hot spot retreat for many mid-westerners. The island was admired for its quaint, Victorian era trimmings and was a throwback in time because no motorized vehicles, save for island police and emergency services, are allowed. All non-emergency transportation consisted of horse drawn carriages and wagons, bicycles and shanks’ mare (walking). The year round population of 490 swelled substantially in the summer months. Mackinac Island is accessible only by ferry and in most winters, via an ice bridge. We did a little more research of the island using printed sources, Google wasn’t invented yet, and decided to make a weekend visit.

Being the peak of the tourist season, the ferry to the island crammed with people. Docked and secured at the island, the passengers spilled out onto the pier and flowed into town. There were horse drawn carriages waiting to take people to hotels and beaches, or to the golf course. We collected our luggage and bikes and began to make our way to our hotel. We hadn’t gone very far when our noses began to crinkle. The four of us looked at each other with furrowed brows and seemed to all ask in unison, “What’s that smell?” The downside of horse drawn transportation manifested itself in the aroma of horse urine. The breeze that gently buffeted the island would , at times, diminish the aroma, but this ammonia based odor would be the ambient atmospheric bouquet for our entire stay. A new bullet point was added to our definition of quaint.

After checking in at the hotel, we climbed on our bikes to ride the road that traveled the 8 mile circumference of Mackinac Island. The views of the Lake Huron were breathtaking, and being away from the horse piss smells of the town, we had more breath to be taken away. Arriving at the outskirts of the opposite end of the downtown we had departed only a half hour earlier, we were now faced with the, “well, what do we do now?”, scenario. We hopped back on our bikes and began to take the trails that diagonally crossed the island. I had a map that indicated locations of places of a historical nature or of particular topographic and botanical interest, but they were almost impossible to find due to lack of signage. We were able to figure out when we reached the highest point of the island, that was obvious. We rode back to town to check out the shops and get something to eat.

There are about 200 shops in downtown Mackinac. 190 of them seem to sell fudge, the others sell a variety of junky items and fudge. The place we had hamburgers at sold fudge. After dinner, we settled into rocking chairs on the front porch of our hotel to plan our activities for the next day. As darkness began to settle, we were surprised to see birds still flying about. A hotel clerk who had strolled out onto the porch to take a break told us to be careful, sometimes those bats flying around get aggressive. We beat a hasty retreat to or room. Air conditioned rooms are not so common on The island. We read that the cool breezes from the lake compensate for that. But by the time we went to our room, the cool breezes disappeared. Now heat, humidity and horse piss smells gently drifted through the open windows into our room. We discovered our room to be over the delivery bay to the hotel kitchens and stock rooms. We were gazing out the window at an evening delivery and observed Mr. Ed relieving himself while his cargo was being unloaded by the driver.

Our plan was to go to the beach in the morning and visit Fort Mackinac in the afternoon. The beach visit was enthusiasm deflating. Expecting a sandy underfooting like our beach back home, we were disappointed to find the beach to be really rocky and painful to walk on. Oh, and covered in Canadian Goose droppings. We crossed the beach to the water as though we were traversing a minefield. Taking a few steps we would evaluate whether the obstacle before us was goose droppings or long forgotten fudge before moving on to the next rock. The water was very clear and refreshing, but not easy to stand in. We decided to go to the fort earlier than planned.

The fort was an interesting visit. The living history volunteers working there were all dressed in outfits similar to what was worn in 1812 and stayed in the character of someone from that time frame. It was the most interesting part of our trip with music demonstrations, soldiers playing cards and other games with children and adults, and talks of what it was like to live in the fort during the war of 1812. The gift shop sold fudge.

After another balmy, aromatic night at the hotel, we arose the next morning to catch the ferry back to the mainland. Getting seated on the ferry, the four of us sat quiet for a moment, then we began to express our disappointment with the trip. It was not at all what we expected. Was Mackinac the Ojibwa phrase for horse urine and goose droppings? Getting in the car after securing our bikes to the roof rack, I was just about to grab the wheel and turn the ignition key when I noticed a strong, foul smell. It was my hands! Our bike tires were coated with horse piss, and now it was on my hands from handling the bikes! I ran to the parking lot rest room, my arms as far away from my body as possible, like my hands were on fire. The amount of time I spent in that bathroom washing my hands would put a surgeon to shame.

Going back to our principle about places we visited, I believe our takeaway from the Mackinac Island trip was that we got to experience what life must have been like in those frontier towns in the old west, with the smells of all types of livestock permeating the air. Life in Dodge City was not at all as glamorous as Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland made it appear in the movies. It was probably quaint.

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Writers Group


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