HOLLAND, MI

We stayed 8 days Michigan, and when we weren’t exploring the UP, we had the pleasure of camping out at our friend Allison’s house on the edge of town. Our stay with Allison and her family was a great time that felt like a vacation from our vacation. It was a lot more than just a place to park; they really took care of us and made us feel at home. It was great to catch up with a good friend, and her parents, Keith and Pat, went out of their way to make our stay comfortable. Our time in Holland and the surrounding area also involved much fine food and drink, as you might expect!

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But first, a little bit about the town of Holland. Holland is in the southwest region of the state, and sits along Lake Michigan. As the name suggests, it’s a Dutch town and proud of it. Windmills are prevalent, as are tulips when the season is right. Unfortunately we missed Tulip Time, which is a celebration of Dutch culture that takes place every May. If you are looking for skyscrapers, you’ll have to drive 20 minutes east to Grand Rapids. But there is a nice view from the 6th floor of the Seminary Library, where Allison works, as it’s the highest point in town. The dunes on the lakeshore can be seen out to the west. The surrounding area is mostly farmland and small towns.

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We visited two breweries with Allison downtown, the most popular being New Holland Brewing, which is very big and has a full restaurant. The other, Our Brewery, is still new but seems to do well for itself. A third brewing company, Big Lake Brewing, is in a different part of town that isn’t as quaint but their beer holds its own. Our Brewery caught my attention with their unusual selection. Our flight consisted of a Burnt Caramel Quad, Ginger Beard (perfect for Steven!), Careless Whisper IPA, Chocolate Vienna Lager, Vanilla Milk Stout, and a Curry(!) Cider. While slightly skeptical (there were a lot of creative options to choose from), we were very pleasantly surprised. Especially by the Chocolate Lager, which had the depth of a stout.

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Our taster was followed up with dinner down the street at New Holland Brewing. They make excellent beer and food and have something for everyone. They have a selection of beers called the Hatter Series, which includes many beer styles, all with a different mad hatter on the bottle. Steven is partial to the White Hatter, the white Belgian style wit bier. Besides the hatters are many other fine options, as well as their own distilled spirits, but it’s hard to leave room for that when there are such nice beers to be had. We made good use of the patio seating while we were there.

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One day while Allison and Keith were at work, Pat took Steven and I on a little field trip. She took us in her car to see the Saugatuck Dunes on Lake Michigan. You have to walk a little ways through the forest to get to the beach, so we had a nice mini hike out there. Afterwards we got a driving tour of a couple little tourist towns and a stop for lunch at Saugatuck Brewing. What makes Saugatuck really unique is that they offer brewing workshops where you can come and learn to make your own batch of beer, leave it there for a week or so to ferment, and come back when it’s time to be bottled and taken home.

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We drove through some scenic country until we came to Virtue Cider in Fennville. They are a relatively new company brewing many kinds of craft cider with almost all local apples. The owner is the former owner of Goose Island Beer Company in Chicago, so he brings quite a bit of brewing experience to the cidery. We got a chance to taste everything they have bottled currently, and our favorite was The Mitten, a bourbon barrel aged cider. It has sparked some inspiration in us for future homebrew ambitions. One of the guys there saw Steven taking photos of the place and offered to show us the “cellar” where they hold all the fermenting tanks. It was pretty cool to see! The building is mostly underground to keep everything at an optimal temperature.

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We washed that all down with some good old-fashioned fresh pressed apple juice at Crane’s Pie Pantry on the way home. Pat took us the back way on the return trip so we got to do some more sightseeing. I loved seeing all the old farmhouses and little cottages, to the point of Steven’s chagrin I think. It sure felt special to be chauffeured around for a day.

Tuesday found us relaxing at the house and working on the blog until evening came around and we all went out to Big Lake Brewing. We sampled some beers there and ordered a pizza from next door. They had a lot of darker beers, which was a change of pace from all the summer beers we’ve been drinking. After dinner, we headed down to the Holland State Park on Lake Michigan to catch the sunset. There’s a beach there, with a lighthouse and a pier. We had a funny experience as we walked out onto the concrete pier and found ourselves in the midst of a surprise proposal. The term “surprise” is relative I guess because it was pretty obvious what was going on. It was a very young couple and it was pretty cheesy, but it was fun to see her family trying to hide out of sight while she walked past us and of course said yes with a million eyes burning into the back of her head. Awkward! Even though it was a cloudy sky, the sunset cast a beautiful pastel light on everything and once again, Michigan proved to us how wonderful it’s summers are.

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On Wednesday, Steven, Keith, Pat and I took a trip to the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners. It was a huge place with several large barns full of classic cars, motorcycles, and even some campers! We also found a double decker bus, and immediately saw the possibilities for a conversion. That would be a fun project for a little house. There were so many cars and things to see, it was an impressive collection. I think Steven and Keith each took hundreds of pictures. Allison had to work, but she didn’t mind missing the museum so much. She was more interested in our next stop, Bell’s Brewing in Kalamazoo.

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Steven and I were introduced to Bell’s when we moved to Florida, as we learned about all kinds of craft beer west of the Mississippi that doesn’t make it out to the Northwest. We were looking forward to trying some more of their beer with lunch, and were really blown away. We had a flight of six samples, and loved each of them. They have a really wide range of offerings, everything from their flagship summer wheat beer to a couple Belgian styles, a sour, darker high gravity beers, and IPA’s, to name just a few. When we finished lunch we stopped in at their store for some goodies. It’s pretty neat that they sell home brewing equipment there too.

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But the fun didn’t stop in Kalamazoo! Keith had something planned for us that evening, a little thing he likes to call a Bike and Brew. We went back to the house to pick up Allison and load up our bikes, and we set off for Grand Rapids. Our destinations were Founders Brewing and Hopcat. There was a nice paved bike path from a park into the city, so the 8 miles in didn’t feel bad. Founders is becoming an expansive brewery, I’ll be curious to see if we find it back home. They are known for their extremely drinkable All Day IPA and the Breakfast Stout. After a quick taste there we continued on a couple blocks to Hopcat. Hopcat is a cool hangout with lots of taps and a couple of their own brews. We all had burgers and the aptly named and very addictive “crack fries”. As we finished up, we couldn’t help but notice the sun dipping lower and lower, and we still had another 8 miles to get back to the car. So with no excuses to lag behind, we kept up the pace on the way back. I may have taken the liberty of exercising my vocal cords as well as my legs, just to keep myself going. Sorry, guys… We had a great time, and Steven and I have decided to try to make biking to breweries a habit. It feels good to work for your beer a little bit.

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We enjoyed one more day at the house on Thursday getting the bus cleaned and reorganized, ready to get back on the road. Allison took us downtown one more time that evening, and then we had a delicious meal of homemade pizza. Michigan was such a great time, and we are so grateful for everything the Van Liere’s provided. It feels like I gained an extra set of parents over the week. I’d love to go back and experience another summer camping trip on those incredible lakes. We were sad to leave it behind us, but it was time to trade out sand dunes for mountains out West. Michigan, we’ll miss you! Until next time.

UPPER PENINSULA, MI

Ever since we heard about Michigan’s Upper Peninsula some years ago, we’ve been eager to see it. It was first described to us as “basically Canada”. The Upper Peninsula (the UP) is the northern section of the state that in the past has frequently been forgotten on maps and verbal discussions of the more widely recognized lower half (the Mitten). We had planned a long weekend camping trip with Allison to see what it was all about.

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After arriving in Holland and spending some much needed time tidying up the bus and getting batteries all charged back up, it was time to leave on our big camping trip. This is the trip we have been planning for a while, and the reason we didn’t spend as much time in some of the other states. Allison had taken Friday off, so we were all set to depart Thursday evening when she got home from work. The bus was loaded with food and gear for our UP adventure! And we couldn’t forget to bring along some Bell’s Oberon, the official summer beer of Michigan. Setting off from Holland around 5 PM, we headed north toward Mackinaw City, our stopping point for the night. As we were driving, Allison and I had been looking up places to park overnight, and hadn’t turned up much of anything. We figured it would be another Wal-Mart night for us, until we decided to try a place called French Farm Lake, which supposedly had free camping. It didn’t look like much on the map, but we had to go check it out. Arriving in Mackinaw City we got a great view of the Mackinac (still pronounced “Mackinaw”) bridge as the sun went down, we turned off the highway and found the road leading to French Farm Lake. This road was a decent gravel road, although a little narrow for the bus, so we pushed on farther into the woods. Soon the road turned to sandy dirt and got even narrower. We threaded the bus through the trees looking for a spot big enough to pull off and set up camp. It was quickly getting dark and hard to see in the forest along the lake. We found a spot that looked like it would work, but we needed to turn around to get a better approach angle, so we continued down the road in search of a wide enough area to turn around. A little farther down the road ended at a small turn around where several grizzled locals were pulling small fishing boats out of the water for the night, they all stared with amusement as they watched us come cruising up in the giant bus, and turn around in the small sandy area. At last we were pointing the other direction down the narrow dirt lane, and drove back up to the spot we had seen. Fortunately Allison and I were able to use flashlights and help watch all the corners as Steven made a strange 3 point turn and squeezed up into the trees, we had made it to our camping spot for the night! So much better than another parking lot stop. We set about making a small campfire and putting together some hot sandwiches and soup for dinner. Relaxing around a fire with a cold can of beer was a great way to end the night and start our camping adventure. While we sat quietly and enjoyed the evening sounds we heard a loon singing his mournful call out on the lake. It was then that I realized we had arrived. This was the place to be.

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Waking up the next morning to a view of the sun on the little lake was great, it’s nice to have a bedroom with so many windows! After cooking some delicious eggs in the cast iron skillet we set about cleaning up camp, preparing to continue our trek into the UP. After taking photos and climbing the small dune next to our campsite we fired up the bus and began the process of extracting ourselves from the trees. Again it was very nice to have 2 extra sets of eyes to help maneuver through the trees and back out onto the road. From there it was a piece of cake to find our way back out to Mackinaw City and head for the bridge to the UP.

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Ask anyone familiar with Michigan about the UP and they will tell you it’s one of the greatest summer destinations in the country. Ask someone in the UP about it, and they will tell you it is the best place on Earth, period. Residents of the UP, or Yoopers, are very enthusiastic about their stomping grounds. And they have many reasons to be proud! Entering the UP is like entering another country, and it all starts with the Mackinac Bridge. It’s a long suspension bridge that provides a beautiful view of the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet. When you get to the other side, you’ve made it to the Upper Peninsula. We stopped at a bridge overlook to snap some photos.

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Our next stop was Tahquamenon Falls State Park (rhymes with phenomenon). It didn’t take long to get there, maybe an hour and a half. So we had plenty of time to get settled at our campsite and go exploring. We loved all the hilarious looks we got from our fellow campers with their tents or fancy RVs. Our neighbors next to us had a nice rig, complete with two scooters and two folding bicycles, and they made sure not to engage with us. Their loss! But other campers around the park were more interested, and told us they thought the bus was awesome. We beamed with pride.

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The Upper Falls viewing area was four miles away from the campsite, and it was a bit late in the day to start an 8 mile trek, so Steven took turns giving Allison and I rides on the motorcycle like a true ladies man. There was a large shopping area and brew pub at the Upper Falls parking area, all very commercialized and busy. We avoided it and continued down the path see the water fall, and understood why it is sometimes called the root beer falls. There are tannins that leach out of the trees into the river, giving the falls a reddish brown hue that tumbles 50 feet into the foamy water below.

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When we returned to camp, we took a walk around to see the smaller Lower Falls, got slightly lost in the woods, then got back just in time to purchase some firewood from a local vendor that drives around the camp in the evenings. Michigan has had a problem with the Emerald Ash Bore, which if you listen to Science Friday on NPR, you might have heard of it! It’s an invasive bug that destroys trees and is easily transported via firewood. Therefore, you are not allowed to bring your own firewood to camp and must purchase it on site. (That was something we were asked about at each border crossing, too).

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Finally it was time for pizza! After successfully baking a cobbler some days ago in the tiny camp oven, I was fairly positive we could make some tiny pizzas too. They turned out beautifully; talk about luxurious camping. It rained a little bit while we made dinner, but luckily it dissipated and did not ruin our s’more ambitions. However, there was a wild critter that was determined to take advantage of the situation. There we were, full of pizza and wiping the melty chocolate from our chins, when there was a faint rustling sound behind us. No matter, we were parked up against the woods and there were leaves all over the ground, and lots of chipmunks. Pretty soon there were more rustling sounds. This still did not alarm us. After a few moments the rustling came once more, this time louder than before. I stood out of my chair, “OKAY GUYS. What is going on?!”

The sounds got more frantic as I walked the short couple of feet back to the picnic table where our bag of sweets was sitting. I couldn’t see anything in the darkness, but Steven came running with a flashlight and we followed the scrambling sounds. Peering down the slope into the trees, we saw a pair of eyes twinkling in the beam of the flashlight, and a pair of tiny black hands gripping an ENTIRE BAG of marshmallows! We all came to one conclusion: there’s going to be a very sick raccoon in the woods tomorrow morning. Sure enough, we recovered the empty bag the next day, and laughed again at the creature’s boldness.

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Saturday found us on the road again, driving towards Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We decided to brave an unpaved back road that went along Lake Superior. It turned out to be a good decision, as the road was wide and had an excellent spot to pull over and check out the rocky beach. The water was cold and the rocks were beautiful, we put a few in our pockets to take home with us.

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We bumped along until we came back out to paved roads and into Pictured Rocks. The National Lakeshore runs for 42 miles along Lake Superior and is home to waterfalls, sand dunes, and beautiful cliff formations. We packed some sandwiches into our backpacks and hiked to the Au Sable dunes, first down to the beach, then up into the sand for a picnic lunch. We really enjoyed sitting up there in the extra fine sand, looking out over the water. We watched fog roll in, slow at first then seemed to speed up as it reached the shore, obscuring the water completely and washing through the tree tops over us. The temperature instantly dropped as the cloud enveloped us. It was a really cool feeling.

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After lunch, we kept on moving, stopping to see the log slide overlook down the road. The log slide is on the side of an extremely steep dune where loggers used to slide trees down to the lake. The fog created a ghostly feel as we stood on the edge an saw nothing but white before us, water droplets forming in our hair. We moved on from there to the western edge of the park at Miners Castle. Miners Castle is the name for the cliff formations that have been eroded over the years by the lake, leaving behind strange indents and caves. Of course we couldn’t see a thing with the fog, but we were able to hike the half mile to Miners Falls, which was neat. I hadn’t expected to see so many spectacular water falls on this trip!

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Our stop for the night was at a boondocker’s house, right on the edge of Lake Superior. I think it’s hard to find a place in the UP that doesn’t have amazing scenery. Jean and Wes were happy to let us park in their driveway for the night, and we were grateful. We had a relaxing evening in the bus full of tacos, beer, and Allison’s beautiful banjo playing. The next morning we were delighted to see that the fog had burned off, and we stood at the edge of the yard, taking in the view.

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Seeing that the fog was gone, we planned on going back to Miners Castle before heading home. But there was one other thing we had to do first: get pasties for breakfast. Pasties are a UP tradition, and are popular in England as well. It’s a round pastry stuffed with meat and root vegetables and seasonings. We went to a shop down the road called Muldoon’s, where they made the pasties fresh (and had vegetarian ones!). We each scarfed one down on the way to Miners Castle, and put some extras in the fridge for later. When we got to the lookout, it was clear as ever and we were blown away by the stunning beauty of it all.

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UPSTATE NEW YORK

From Vermont our next destination was Holland, Michigan; where we would meet our friend Allison and spend several days exploring the area with her. To get from Burlington to Holland we had to decide which route to take, the long way around through Ohio, or straight across through Ontario? After our recent border issues we were skeptical about doing another one, but decided we wanted to give it a try. We wanted to see if we would have trouble again, or breeze right through like many other travelers we have talked to.

After we spent the first part of the day exploring Burlington, we loaded up and headed across the bridge into New York. Our goal for the evening was Saranac Lake, where we planned to meet another couple with a bus project and park at their place for the night. Driving through the Adirondack Mountains was an amazing experience, even though it can be a chore to weave the bus through some of the small towns and winding mountain roads. There were so many beautiful rivers and overlooks, it would have been fun to spend an entire week camping and exploring the area. On the way to our destination, we passed through Lake Placid and got some views of the old winter Olympics structures. The Olympic training center is still used today, and tourists are welcome at some of the points of interest, such as the towering ski jumps. As scary as those things look on TV, they are even more intimidating in real life! The Lake Placid high school even makes use of the speed skating rink, which serves as their track. Arriving in Saranac Lake we found Shelby and Dave’s apartment and got the bus situated for the night. We met them through Instagram after they started commenting on our pictures, and when they learned of our route they offered up a place to park and a tour of their own bus project. We couldn’t say no! It was a lot of fun to compare buses, theirs is still in the middle of the construction phase but it is coming along nicely. It is going to be a more complete home than ours is, which will be a lot of fun for them. Next on the agenda for the evening was a drive over to Lake Placid, where we were going to have dinner and beers at Lake Placid Craft Brewing, home of the famous “Ubu Ale”, a strong, dark English style ale. We really enjoyed the food and beers, as well as having some fun people to hang out with. We stayed out late into the night telling travel stories and playing the beanbag toss game in the brewery yard.

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The next morning we relaxed in the bus while we tried to figure out which direction to head and where to stop for the night. After studying maps for a couple hours and looking up various camping options we just couldn’t find anything that fit our plans, so we waved goodbye to Dave and decided to head towards Niagara Falls, to see how far we could get before we called it a night. Our camping spot ended up being a Wal-Mart parking lot in Albion, NY. This was the first time we had parked at a Wal-Mart (wallydocking) and we weren’t too thrilled, but it was a free place to stay for the night and we could get a few groceries inside. It turned out to be better than expected, we had a quiet corner of the lot and no one bothered us. We even met another traveler parked there in his converted van, it was interesting to share stories with him and learn about his recent trips around New England. Lindsey made us an amazing dinner, homemade potato chowder and even a strawberry rhubarb cobbler, baked in the tiny oven. This was the first real use of the oven, and we weren’t sure how well it would work, but it did great! We sat at the table looking out the window at the beautiful sunset, happy to be out exploring the world even if we were in a parking lot.

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After cooking some breakfast the next morning we got everything put away and ready to get back out on the road, this was the big day! The Canadian border was only an hour away and we were ready for it. As we waited in line to go through the checkpoint we relaxed and prepared ourselves for another invasive search. Finally our turn came at the window where the officer checked over our passports, asked a few questions, and waved us on our way. This was impossible. How could it be so easy? We rejoiced as we paid our toll and headed toward Niagara Falls. Circling the area for half an hour we finally found a place to park the bus so we could visit the falls. It was a rainy cloudy day, so the view wasn’t as clear as it could have been but it was a powerful experience to stand out on the point only a few feet from where the river plunged down over the edge. It was more impressive than I ever imagined it would be, I am very thankful we decided to stop there along the way. Lindsey and I watched the waterfall for a while before we walked back to our bus just in time to miss the heavy downpour that started.

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Heading back out onto the highway we slogged west though the rainstorm hoping to reach Holland before midnight. Somewhere along the way I noticed a strange squeaking sound coming from the front of the engine, I just chalked it up to a belt making noise from being wet and didn’t think much of it. The rest of the drive through Ontario was uneventful; we were noticing how much the terrain was changing, long gone were the mountains of New York. We finally reached the Michigan border, where we got our first glimpse of the great lakes. The highway leading to the US border went up over a beautiful bridge where we could see Lake Huron off to the right side, never before had we seen such a vast expanse of water that wasn’t an ocean. We were so excited to be here. The real fun started when we pulled up to the US Customs window, where the officer asked me to shut down the bus so we could talk without yelling. I of course said sure thing and reached for the key, as I was about to turn it a little voice in the back of the mind said “don’t do it” but I shrugged it off thinking it was silly, the bus hasn’t had any issues so far, why should it start now. After completing the passport check and declaration paperwork he motioned us over to a side area to wait for our “random” inspection (yea right) but as I turned the key and hit the start button all I got in return was a loud click. I tried again with no luck. Great, now we are stuck in the lane at the US Customs with a dead battery. That’s when I realized that the strange squealing I had heard earlier in the day was the alternator in its death throes, possibly killed by the heavy rainstorm. I had been driving along all day with all the headlights and running lights on, as well as the fan so the starting batteries were too weak to crank the giant diesel engine. There we were in our crazy old bus, broken down in the middle of the border crossing with a line of people behind us. This is one of those moments where you just laugh and can’t believe it is happening. I explain to the border officer what the problem is and he radios for the Michigan DOT to send a truck over, so a few minutes later a pickup pulls up to the bus, we hook up some jump leads, let it sit for a couple minutes and then she fired right up. Fortunately these old diesel’s don’t require any electricity to run, so as long as we could leave it running and not shut it off we would be ok to make it to our stop for the night. After going through some of the typical US bureaucratic nonsense we were finally free to continue into Michigan. We still had a few hours to go until we reached Holland, and we weren’t sure if we were going to make it.

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As we rumbled along watching the sun go down I was a little nervous, as our headlights would barely turn on without our batteries charged up. By the time nine o’clock rolled around we were running down the highway without any lights, and still had a couple hours to go. The setting sun was still lighting up the horizon so we pushed on, but kept an eye out for a place to park. After another 45 minutes on the road it was too dark to be on the roads with our dim candles for headlights, so we pulled off into a rest stop to wait until daylight so we could see. I parked the bus in a spot and shut it off, praying that I would be able to get it going again in the morning. Luckily I was able to hook up our little generator to my battery charger and jump-start it again in the morning. Driving along in the bright morning sun we were just happy to be so close to a friends house, where we would be parking for the next several days. I could figure out what to do with the alternator while we relaxed with Allison and her family. We pulled into their house and got the bus situated on the driveway before shutting it down one last time. After saying hello to Allison’s parents we set off into Holland on the motorcycle, ready to see all that Michigan has to offer.

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