Derek Johnson Muses

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Ferrying Across Lake Michigan on the SS Badger

On a July day in 2010, I had just finished checking fields at the Mantey’s before noon and had driven into Bay City to check online communication and decide on my next move. From my table at Brewtopia (one of the best coffeehouses ever), I examined the schedule for the SS Badger, a car ferry that I could take across Lake Michigan to the next fields I had to see in Wisconsin. It was expensive, but it would save time, city driving, and some gas (key when you drive an F-150). I booked the passage that was scheduled to leave Luddington at 8 and arrive in Manitowoc five hours later.

Rural Road on the Way

Rural Road on the Way

A delightful drive across central Michigan yielded some nice free photos and a stop in great bookstore, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find an open post office I needed. I had been to Luddington the previous year when my sister and I had taken a joyriding trip up the western Michigan coast. I got dinner at Subway and, since my truck was so close to empty, I filed it up after looping through gas stations, a decision I would come to regret.

So I rolled into a shipyard where the cars were lining up to be loaded into the Badger. I parked my car, and checked in, a remarkably easy process. We weren’t allowed to drive our vehicles on the boat nor would we be allowed access to our vehicles once they were loaded up. Upon hearing that, I jammed as much unnecessary stuff as I could into my bag before I got in line with my ticket to board, making sure I got in front of the seven Amish families who I knew would take forever.

Lighthouse with Well-Wishers

Lighthouse with Well-Wishers

Boarding a boat was universally the same as boarding a plane, only it took longer to get a ship out of port. After we passed the harbor gates, I wandered from one end of the boat to the other, photographing the sunset and taking in the beauty of dimming light on the water. Being on the boat was just like one would imagine it would have been around the turn of the previous century, the black trim, the crew, the stillness of the water. The Badger itself has been in service since the 1950’s, when it ferried railway cars across Lake Michigan before rails were built through Chicago and Gary, Indiana. Even the tracks that were used to load the cars into the ferry remain on the ship.

The five hours grew long, but there was plenty to do on board. I took my photos, watched the news down below decks (a Bernie Madoff special happened to be on), watched part of a movie, and went through the ship’s museum. In the dining room, there was a satellite map of Lake Michigan, with the Badger’s position on it. The ship was traveling at a speed of 18 MPH, or slower than a speed limit on a typical city street. It is eighty miles across Lake Michigan from Michigan to Wisconsin, and even though I was saving a lot of time (and city driving), I was still just chugging along.

Sunset against the boat

Sunset against the boat

We arrived in Manitowoc at what felt like 1 A.M. A smaller boat guided us into the landing, and huge boat awkwardly backed up to a dock that was so small, I could not see how we were going to dock on it. The water seemed to buoy us in, and they hooked us in short order. Surprisingly, there was a huge crowd waiting to make the 2:30 passage back to Michigan. I made my way down as the cars were being driven out by the employees, and thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long until my truck was pulled into one of the five diagonal stalls. When I started to back up, an employee came yelling frantically at me to pull forward instead. It was a mistake of my instincts-besides, the space to go forward was small and it was dark. Blindly, I drove up, and the turn was shorter than I expected.

The first gas station I came to had gas priced twenty cents lower than what it was when I filled up in Michigan. I could have saved at least ten bucks on a tank.

I did have the sense to pick my hotel back when I was in Bay City. Per the recommendation of the Badgers’ website, I selected the Super 8, and called ahead. I thought I would get a late-night, 20% discount, of course not realizing that they get late night passengers all the time. Two bikers guys from the ferry were checking in right after I did, and I watched Sports Center for half an hour before falling asleep.

After six hours of sleep and an hour of breakfast, I returned the road, driving past extra green woodland farms I’d passed in college that frequent the Wisconsin coast. I joined the rush hour traffic to Appleton, and curved back down on to Highway 10, toward Coloma, the site of my first field of the day. (This was my first drive through Omro a town I would come to frequent two years later.) From there, it was on to a new field west of Eau Claire, although I had to stop in Tomah to take a nap. I was exhausted at the end of that day, but it was completely worth it for the time I saved.

Michigan and The Long Road to Fairgrove

It is an eight-hour roundtrip drive from my sister’s apartment in La Porte, Indiana to the Mantey’s Family Farm in Fairgrove, Michigan. My dad made this drive many times over the years, which is a nine-hour round trip from my aunt’s in Tinley Park, Illinois. I’ve split the trip into two days sometimes to see more along the way. Michigan in the summer is the lushest shade of green, and their interstates are peaceful compared to the rest of the country. Trucks are kept to a speed limit below other vehicles, tranquilizing them, and the traffic is mostly local and generally less than other parts of the counrty. I think about living here, but then again, I never see winter here. Other than the first two hours of the drive, I’m never more than an hour away from a major city.

Warren Dunes on a Sunny Day

Warren Dunes on a Sunny Day

I stopped at Warren Dunes State Park one morning to read, and we’ve spend Labor Day Weekends near there too. It’s spacious and adventuresome, and the bluffs are majestic.

There’s a nice urban stretch on I-94 between Kalmazoo and Battle Creek home to the only coffeehouse that is (as far as I know) within a short driving distance from my route. It feels odd rolling through all those suburbs along the interstate because I’m not by a major city but I’m passing a major stretch of strip malls.

Michigan State Capitol in Lansing

Michigan State Capitol in Lansing

The halfway points comes a little after the break off of I-94, where I turn north to go to Lansing/East Lansing on I-69. I’ve taken the detour by the Michigan State Capitol and Spartan Stadium. Downtown Lansing is a blend of east coast corporate built into Midwestern stones; it’s Madison without the extreme hippies. MSU is a beautiful campus, laden with bushy green trees when I go, and alive with the young people who stay on campus during the summer. The campus seems close together, but not cramped. The loop around Lansing takes twenty minutes, and then I’m headed towards Flint.

Open Road West of Flint

Open Road West of Flint

My first time driving by Flint, I turned off I-69 a few miles before I got to I-75 and took Michigan Highway 13 north, dodging the interstate land of Flint. By coincidence, I found a fruit stand at an apple orchard, and acquired some of the best apples I’ve ever tasted.

That little highway without a shoulder turns me on to I-75 a few miles south of Frankenmuth, AKA Michigan’s Little Bavaria. Our family spent a long weekend there in 2008, and it’s a great place to stop and buy gifts, and a couple of the unique food items I like. For sure, it’s corny, and it doesn’t get a lot of business from outside of Michigan, but I credit to the locals who worked to make their community what it is.

From Frankenmuth, it’s all up on county highways. Sometimes, I have had to make way stops in Bay City to use the Internet, and I’ve found this great coffee shop downtown called Brewopia. It’s one of the best coffee environments I’ve ever been to, with high ceilings, brick walls, and great music, and a great old store front. Other times when I’ve there I go wander by the river downtown.

Brewtopia in Bay City

Brewtopia in Bay City

Store in Bay City

Store in Bay City

The Mantey’s farm is live straight west of Fairgrove. The entire family went to Michigan State, and their barns are painting Green and White, with the Spartan log. In addition to the corn we get from them, there are a lot of wheat and grain fields in the area, many with the signs of cereal companies. It usually takes me several hours to get through all their fields, but the time spent there is worth it. The is land off the grid, with no major interstates cutting through it. I enjoy that, even when I’m pressed for time. Given how short the growing season is in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, time is indeed precious when frost comes earlier.


Wheat Field, or possibly a bowl of cereal.

There are always lots of empty buildings that I pass along the way. Some are large factories in Saginaw, some are store fronts in little towns like Unionville or Caro, some are barns that are falling apart. It always makes me sad to see them, but I keep going past the four neglected walls through my mythical land of green. I’m only supposed to be there during the growing season, but I treasure my Michigan memories all year.


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