The Subaru’s dashboard thermometer had to be malfunctioning. It fell over 10° in an hour. Thankfully the cold rain that had been spitting on us since Detroit seemed to have been blown away by the cold front pushing down from the north. For a time, the sky was a clean blue, tinged with the first rose of sunset. Then on the heels of the plummeting temperature came a depressing black blanket of cloud that snuffed out the last of the daylight. A few flakes started to fall, then more. The landscape took on an anemic pallor as winter drained the last of the fall colors before our eyes.
In darkness and an ever thickening layer of snow, we cut across to Traverse City on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. The road down was steep and slippery and had already sent several cars into ditches. Pondering the deepening powder, I stepped lightly on the brakes as we approached a four way stop. The Outback slowed then started to slide. Several cars were coming, so as we slid I accelerated, running the stop sign but regaining control.
Back in control, yes, but for how long? After the slide through the intersection we began nervously reconsidered everything: My snow driving skills, the worthiness of our all-weather tires, the miles of ice covered roads yet to come. Doubts about the wisdom of our adventure drifted like dark smoke rings above our heads.
Traverse City was an icy blanket of white when we slid into town. We checked into our motel and unsteadily made our way to the charming Main Street lined with colorful shops and warm looking restaurants. We stepped into one that had been recommended but were immediately underwhelmed by the decor. ‘Middle America Modern’ I thought snobbishly while we scooted into a booth. But the food put me in my place. It was delicious. How this humble establishment in this humble village had managed to serve these rich, complex flavors confused us. We didn’t dwell on the problem too long and cleaned our plates.
In fact there is a reason, Traverse City is just far enough from Detroit and Chicago to be tranquil, but close enough to have a weekend vacation. Combined with easy access to fresh local produce, and competition for weekend dollars, little Traverse City has fashioned itself into a foodie destination.
In the morning the storm had passed, leaving four inches of pure powder behind. Rough shapes were smooth, all colors white. We spent some time employing the ice scraper we’d bought back in Queens, thankful we’d splurged on the deluxe model. After we’d dug out we explored more of the town then took a side trip to the Old Mission Peninsula, home of Michigan’s finest wineries. Like the cuisine of upstate Michigan, the wine surprised and we drank a good deal of it while watching the sun disappear, enjoying yet another delicious meal. We spent two nights in Traverse City and enjoyed them both, but our dark doubts about the road ahead may have helped convince us to linger.
The morning we prepared to leave we stopped by a tire store in town and told the salesman our plan to drive to Alaska. We asked of he could give us his opinion about wether or not we needed winter tires. I assumed I already knew his answer when he walked outside with us to inspect what we had. He surprised us both by saying he’d love to sell us four winter tires, but the ones we had would get us to Alaska just fine. He even said we had the right car for it, and pointed to his own Subaru Outback parked behind the shop. Same year, same color. He wished us luck and returned to the warmth of his store, leaving us with slightly more confidence about our ability to hold fast to the road ahead.
I have half a mind to come back to Traverse City if I ever need new tires from Marathon Automotive, a case of wine or some of the best dining we’ve had in the U.S. outside of NYC.
From then on the ground was blanketed with a thick downy coat, snuggly wrapping red barns and laid in white quilts across fallow fields. The roads were plowed and bare, the driving smooth. Thoughts of sliding through intersections receded as I refreshed my skills on side roads packed with ice. Magda jumped into the frigid wind to shoot while I practiced accelerating and skidding to a controlled stop. By the time we reached Canada I’d regained my dormant snow driving abilities, or so we hoped.
After crossing the Mackinac bridge, we passed through the tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It was becoming colder and less populated the further we drove. We entered Canada at Sault Ste. Marie, and caught Highway 17 west. Northern Ontario was what I’d been expecting in Michigan: great expanses of forest with a small ribbon of highway stitched across. We instantly began seeing yellow diamond signs warning of moose on the road, but regarded them as promises more than cautions. As night fell on our first day in Canada we half felt we’d already made it to Alaska. The sun lingered on the horizon stretching long tree shadows across snow covered lakes. It felt like true wilderness, which shows you how long I’ve been living on the east coast.
Our first night in a motel along Highway 17 gave us a jolt of unease. This remote outpost run by a Polish couple cost $80 a night. They were not even giving Polish discounts. We knew the motels would be more pricey than in the States, but they couldn’t all be so expensive, we thought incorrectly. Gas too was a third again as expensive. Just for good measure the Province of Ontario tacked on a few hefty road taxes, hence the quality blacktop and the fancy moose warning signs that flashed in the night.
But the drive was beautiful. The excellent road gently rolled through the lakelands, all was still shrouded with the first snow of the season. In each of the hundreds of frozen ponds we passed sat a cozy looking beaver dam, capped with white. The forest was low, thick and scrubby, disappointingly enabling any moose in the area to hide as we flew past.
Crossing the border with Manitoba, the snowcover petered out. The bare earth and the fall colors returned. The calendar seemed to take a step backwards to accommodate our westward journey just as we reached Winnipeg, where more good friends were waiting.