"I love this state. When I was in the Marines, I couldn't wait to come back here," says the state trooper as he hands back my license. Thankfully, that's all he's handing back - no reprimands, no strings and no tickets attached. Pulling over quickly must have helped. My cold, tired face probably helped too. But maybe, just maybe, he held off because I told him this was my first visit to the state, and the lake that bears its name, and that I've been blown away by the sheer scale and beauty of it all.
A sense of the lake's enormity hit me even before I set foot upon its eastern shore. Plan A was to ferry from Muskegon to Milwaukee, but high seas cancelled the trip - not too many lakes have three-hour ferry crossings or five-foot waves. Plan B is quickly formed: I'd stay in Muskegon overnight and head north in the morning.
Muskegon isn't a bad place to be stuck in. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 fueled a post-inferno building boom that saw sawmills at full capacity and lumber barons roaming the streets. And though the logjam is gone, remnants of the boom remain in the tidy and decorous downtown (currently being rebuilt after the demolition of a 1970's-era mall) and the row of splendid, old turn-of-the-century mansions.
North of Muskegon, the sandy soil is etched with a network of farm roads and small towns. Apart from Muskegon, very little of the area appears to be oriented towards the lake, and in many ways it resembles farm country in the Upper Midwest. The wind continues to blow off the unseen lake, and the late-autumn sun provides fleeting warmth every time the wind stops to catch its breath. The relief is short-lived; throw in an errant cloud or strong gust and winter seems right around the corner.
At the White River Light Station, you can catch a brief glimpse of the lake. Peering west from the tower, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were looking out upon a vast sea. Water extends beyond the horizon's curve. The wind is whipping whitecaps upon the lake, but the scenery is still tame, and Lake Michigan seems like any other one, albeit much larger.
As you head north, layers of civilization peel away and a more primitive Michigan emerges. At Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive burrows into thick woods, wandering like a drunken worm. From one observation area, the view across sand dunes is juxtaposed against a green forest. At another, a short walk leads to a mind-altering scene: towering cliffs of sugary sand plunging over 400 feet into the tempestuous windswept lake. The late afternoon sun casts a wan glow, and the observation deck juts out towards the lake on spindly wooden stilts. It's mildly surreal. Is this really Michigan? Is that really a lake?
Back on the bike and the sun is nearly gone. It's going down into the 30s tonight, and the thermometer is quickly heading there. A warm room and a hot meal are due east on a beeline in Traverse City.