RUMBLING along the blacktop between heat mirages and fields of towering corn somewhere around Nappanee, Indiana, I found what I was looking for at a crossroads – a weathered sign that said simply: ‘Son, Jesus still loves you’.
I saw it again in the face of a tired waitress at Ma’s Coffee Pot on Michigan Highway 140 as she cleared away plates from a breakfast of blueberry pancakes, sausage patties and eggs over easy, when with a half-smile straight out of a Lucinda Williams song she asked, ‘More coffee, hon’?’
And it raised hairs on my arms as I put my hand on the very car in which JFK was assassinated and when I sat in Rosa Parks’ ‘whites only’ seat on an otherwise unassuming southern city bus at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, near Detroit.
…America. The real America.
I’m pretty sure my wife got a sense of it on the bow of a schooner named Wind Dancer, sunset on her face and rum cocktail in her hand as we slipped out of the serene, 50s Deco town of Grand Haven and whispered full sail into the vast, crystal-clear waters of Lake Michigan.
To paraphrase one of Simon and Garfunkel’s all time greatest and most evocative songs, one about chasing dreams along highways, about junk food and strangers, Greyhound buses, strange new cities and homesick nostalgia for small towns in big states, we had all come to look for America.
It was our dream road trip, one that would take our family of six on a 1600 mile car journey from shining Chicago to tattered Detroit, through the shrieking thrill parks of Sandusky, Cleveland, to the Amish farmlands of Indiana – a thorough circumnavigation of the very heart of the Great Lakes.
We flew from Dublin to Toronto and on to Chicago on the cheapest tickets we could find and packed light, carry-on only, knowing it would be hot and humid and that we could easily buy anything we’d forgotten for virtually nothing at a Target or Walmart store once we were there.
And it was on the final leg of that flight we first experienced a real appreciation for the scale of the landscape we’d shortly be undertaking. Vast, flat farmland unfolding between lakes so huge that even at 18,000 feet above Lake Michigan it was impossible for a time to see either shore.
Then suddenly, quite literally out of the blue, Chicago, all glass towers glinting like the Oz’s Emerald City; then leafy neighbourhoods with blue swimming pools in every back yard, and we touched down, quickly disembarked and inhaled our first hot, moist breath of Midwest American summer air.
We nabbed the free coach from O’Hare to the Thrifty Car Rental and were on our way within an hour, bleary-eyed but excited, in an all-American, honkin’ great Dodge Caravan car with room for seven and enough trunk space (trunk is the boot and the hood is the bonnet) for all our luggage.
Driving is easy here, highways are wide, onramps well-numbered and there are few sudden turns. Rentals are automatic so just point the car in the right direction and press the pedal. Gas (American for petrol) is dirt cheap too. It cost about $45 (€35) to fill a tank.
South Haven was just three hours’ drive around the south shore of Lake Michigan, a quietly bustling community of restaurants, antique shops and cookie stores, and we arrived just in time for the July 4th parade, all vintage fire engines and homecoming queens showering candy on the kids.
Surrounded by ‘pick-your-own’ blueberry fields, a state park and busy marina, South Haven was also our first taste of one of the seemingly endless and totally salt-free, sea-size Great Lakes. Swimming and sunbathing was a dream, with long, white sandy beaches onto which waves of warm, drinkable water crashed perpetually, but watch out for a powerful undertow (or Under Toad as we called it).
We watched late-night fireworks from cliff-top blankets reserved all day with a thousand other little unmanned mats and chairs while we’d gone off and explored the town, eating huge American cookies filled with crumbly chocolate chips.
Nearby town-size, lakeshore ‘cities’ include beautiful St Joseph to the south and, to the north, Grand Haven, all brown-brick period buildings and ‘50s clapboard houses (one made with a kit from a department store catalogue, we were told on our trolley tour); vast sandy shores with great restaurants (the Bilmar On The Deck serves classic American fare right on the beach), river walks, enormous sand dunes and, of course, the sailboat schooner Wind Dancer, which we took on a sunset cruise one evening and enjoyed the views while Captain Jake taught the kids to steer and haul sails.
“I love America,” said our young son Sammy. “Why don’t you marry it then,” said our eldest, Zachary.
Due east from Grand Haven is Grand Rapids – a spotless little city of quaint family attractions including the extraordinary Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park packed with huge bronze spiders, horses and abstract creatures among lush botanic landscape. We said ‘wow’ a lot there.
We stayed at the towering Amway Grand Plaza Hotel where presidents have been and everyone it seems is treated like royalty, even a sticky, sunburned family of six, and we had a birds-eye 360 degree view at breakfast in the VIP room on the 25th floor.
Directly south is the delightfully named Kalamazoo where a weekend outdoor riverside blues fest was in full swing. We’d gone to see the Air Zoo though – a jaw-dropping collection of airplanes from every era where we all took turns in flight simulators, shrieking and driving our planes into the sea.
Stomachs churning and eardrums ringing we spent much of that night and the next day by the pool at a Holiday Inn. You can’t get much more all-American than a Holiday Inn – maybe a mama and papa roadside motel, but the Holiday Inn has adjoining rooms and a bbq restaurant that delivered beer and pizza right to our loungers.
Eating out in the states is cheap as chips but remember, here crisps are chips and chips are fries. Confused? Perhaps the bill will help. Share a huge starter and order a main course each, icewater for the kids and beers for the adults and it’ll rarely be more than €50. And that’s for a family of six.
We hit Detroit within hours next day, stopping only once to replenish our cooler (get one, they’re €10 – and ice is free at hotels and motels) with cold cans of soda pops – Pepsis and suchlike are under a fiver for a box of 24) and it can get hot in the car even with the A/C on full blast.
Poor battered Detroit is slowly rising again from the dust and we enjoyed its beautiful riverside walks, barbecue restaurants (Slow’s in historic Corktown) and the incredible Henry Ford Museum – a collection of Americana unrivalled, from the chair Lincoln was assassinated in to the very neon sign from the first McDonalds ever.
An hour or so south we whizzed past Toledo and arrived with great excitement at the oldest rollercoaster park in America – Cedar Point. From miles away you can see the many huge towering thrill rides but it’s only on the final approach you begin to hear the screams.
Cedar Point is the size of a city, covering an entire peninsula – and every square inch is devoted to fun. There are 75 rides – including the Maverick, which pinned our grinning faces to the backs of our heads better than plastic surgery – and an 18-acre water fun park called Soak City.
Not to be outdone, the Kalahari Resort Hotel where we stayed had a 170,000 sq foot indoor waterpark. The wave pool alone was 12,000 sq feet and on one water ride you could stand-up surf or boogie board on the spot – well, the kids managed it. Everything was African themed and, outdoors among the further 70,000 sq feet of pools, waterfalls and spas, were a zoo and high-wire adventure complex. Take it that we got very, very wet.
Our longest drive was back west to Amish country in Indiana where we chilled among farms and home cooking in Nappanee, with its 11,000 Amish and Mennonite inhabitants going about their peaceful business in horse-drawn carriages as if it was still 100 years ago.
Returning to Chicago, we spent our last few days on the lakeshore, basing ourselves at a great little hotel called the Essex Inn near the city’s best museums and attractions. We wandered the Field Museum, where the most complete skeleton of a T-Rex resides, a place I’m sure Ben Stiller’s Night At The Museum is based on. And we swam in the crystal, saltless waters of Lake Michigan once more, this time at a beach across the street from some of the tallest buildings in the world.
On our last night we meandered Chicago’s lakefront parks, happening upon live music and happy dancing people in the gathering dark, the smell of bratwurst hotdogs and roasting corn in the air. We got soaked by fountains and stumbled to our beds giggling, exhausted.
Leaving our car rental was like saying goodbye to a seventh family member. We had all found the real America together, in the nation’s most beautiful vacation land, the Great Lakes. It will stay with us forever, although, as Simon and Garfunkel sang, ‘Michigan seems like a dream to me now’.
Shop around for tickets online. We got there and back via Toronto on Air Canada for about €3,000 for six.
Where to stay
Rates vary depending on dates and number of people
Amway Grand Plaza Hotel – www.amwaygrand.com
Holiday Inn Zalamazoo West – www.holidayinnkz.com
Best Western Greenfield Inn – www.bestwesterngreenfield.com
Kalahari Resort, Ohio – www.kalahariresorts.com
Amish Acres Farm and Historical Resort – www.amishacres.com
Essex Inn, Chicago – www.essexinn.com