I keep seeing peak America. A father and his son pond fishing off a small dock, jeans rolled up, feet dangling in the water - that kind of thing. It’s everywhere around here, and it’s beautiful and suffocating at the same time. Mostly though I’m loving it. Chasing it. Trying to get in on the action.
I descend upon Main Streets, one after another, like a heat-seeking missile. They’re actually impossible to avoid given that Sputnik can’t handle the interstates, so we take the country roads at a casual forty-five and drop it down to twenty, or even lower, when we pass through the heart of a town. It never ceases to amaze me that Main Street isn’t a metaphor. That’s just what it’s called. Always. When they start looking the same, I know I’m not paying close enough attention. That’s when it’s time to slow down even more.
It’s almost noon and I’m in Fowlerville, Michigan, sitting at a picnic table under the gazebo in the park off Main Street. Some children with blue mouths are sitting here with me, occasionally hitting each other with sticks, asking me what I’m doing and why I’m here. Not easy questions to answer. The youngest, cutest one is named Jonah. I know because he’s told me fifteen times. I asked him how old he was and he said three and held up four fingers.
There’s always a park off Main Street, but they don’t always have the same features. I like to imagine that back in the thirties or fifties or seventies or whatever the mayors of these tiny towns – fat guys probably, drunks with weird facial hair – were given a list of features to include in the park and told to check a few boxes: gazebo; barbeque area; extremely large, centrally located tree with a plaque in front of it; playground; bocce; benches; a boulder with the seal of the Rotary Club International painted on it; a war memorial or two or three.
This particular park in Fowlerville has it all, and it also has the best feature that any park can have, at least as far as I’m concerned. Bathrooms. And not only bathrooms, but individual bathrooms with locking doors and sinks. Shangri-La style. That’s why I’m relaxed and writing right now and why I probably won’t leave this wonderful little haven until after dark. I go buck-wild when I see a porta-potty in the parking lot, so this feels downright luxurious.
To walk you through all of the “America!” I’ve been experiencing, I need to go back a bit, to Independence Dam State Park, just outside of Defiance, where the camp host had had enough of me by the time I hit the road. He wasn’t interested in the fact that I positioned Sputnik’s stoop immediately across the river from the nest of a bald eagle. And that I watched it all night (with tea) and all morning (with coffee). The host was annoyed that I wasn’t in a designated spot for RVs (my line, “This isn’t an RV; it’s a truck,” didn’t work) and that I hinted at not self-registering because I “just noticed I don’t think I have any cash on me.” He warmed up a bit when he saw my atlas and realized that I was travelling without GPS. He encouraged me to travel further north, to the Upper Peninsula, and said, “There’s really nothing up there,” which was exactly what I wanted to hear.
Geographically-speaking, that moment marked the second biggest turning point of the trip so far. The first was at Niagra Falls, when I decided to take the low route around the lake instead of venturing into Canada. It’s funny how even when you have no idea where you want to go, the forks keep coming. Now, for the first time, instead of driving headlong into sunsets, I drive north and the sun sets on my left. With the radio tuned to country and the window rolled down, I know I made the right decision. The golden hour looks better when you’re not squinting into it.
After Independence Dam State Park, I hit another four state parks over the course of three days. One in Ohio and three in Michigan. I wasn’t at all hurried because they were so close together, little tent icons on my atlas, a string of pearls.
Harrison Lake State Park was more like a resort or a golf course than a campground. Huge expanses of carefully mowed grass. Egrets. Families of geese. I’ve been watching the young geese grow up all over the Midwest. A few weeks ago, the little guys were the size of tennis balls, the cutest, puffiest, most helpless things you’ve ever seen. Now, all across the region, they’re going through an uglier, adolescent phase. They’re the size of nerf footballs and a little more confident on their feet and in the water. There was a 3-mile trail around the lake which I did twice, once at night and once in the morning, and I took twenty-minute piping hot showers after both, my first time bathing in over a week. Soul-nourishing.
Further north, in a town called Fayette, I felt extremely bad for having the thought that everyone looked utterly imbred, but they really did, and they all knew each other. I sat alone at a very bizarre pizza joint with a ring of unoccupied tables around me, in a state of extreme disarray. I ate a “pizza boat” with no meat, which wasn’t easy to order, that cost me $2.50 and then promptly drove to the next, slightly-less bizarre town and had another pizza and topped it off with an ice cream cone. This binge was my first experience with restaurants in over ten days, and although it cost me less than ten bucks, it still left me a little scarred. Now I’m back on home-cooked oats, eggs, beans and ramen with fresh veggies and feeling very good about it.
That night, I snuck into the Lake Hudson Recreation Area after hours where the frogs and crickets were louder than I’ve ever heard before. I felt like I could walk outside and scream bloody murder without even being able to hear myself.
To avoid the fees, I got out of there at the crack of dawn and made my way to WJ Hayes State Park, where I experienced one of the best beach days of my life. I grew up on the Jersey Shore where the beach is downright punishing: huge, hot, and unforgiving. You need to show up with all kinds of protection or you’ll die from exposure and exhaustion. The sand will scorch your feet and the ocean and sun can be seriously dangerous.
The scene on Wamplers Lake, in the heart of the Irish Hills, was just the opposite. On Memorial Day Saturday, it looked like a scene from a cartoon or a children’s book. I got there at 8AM and reversed Sputnik into a spot that opened up onto a huge grassy field about a hundred feet from the shoreline. There were tall shade trees and picnic tables everywhere and a slight breeze put me in a near catatonic state. I spent the whole day reading, writing, and relaxing, going back and forth, barefoot, between Sputnik and the water, and when a huge out-of-nowhere monsoon sent everyone to their cars for cover, I just pulled my blanket and Dos Equis camping chair in and made myself some tea. That happened twice and both times the sun came back as abruptly as it disappeared.
Pinckney State Park was a hillbilly heaven. Extremely overcrowded, small spots, mostly just dirt, but it was fun to take in the rowdy Memorial Day weekend scene, the beers and music and American flags. If I was more of a Kerouac I would have done the rounds, introduced myself and whatnot, but on that night I just felt like curling up with a book.
En route to Fowlerville, I slammed on the brakes when I saw a hand-painted sign that said, “Duck eggs, $3.00 for a dozen,” and Sputnik nailed his K-turn. I knew the vibes were good and, sure enough, I ended up hanging with the family (seven kids!) for the better part of an hour, chatting about my trip, and exploring the amusement park that was their backyard. I promised them a postcard from somewhere special (I have a lot of postcards to write!) and the way they waved me goodbye, so innocently, all lined up, was one of the most solemnly beautiful things I’d ever seen.
But all of these visions of America pale in comparison to the most American thing I’ve ever seen in my life: The Fowlerville Memorial Day Parade. It went for three blocks and lasted about six minutes with no more than thirty people on both sides of the road. The entire parade consisted of exactly four things: The Fowlerville High School marching band, a fire truck, a police car, and two old guys driving a golf-cart with American flags on it and a platic sign that advertised a gravestone cleaning service.
God bless America.