We left to the south and returned from the north. In doing so, we fulfilled the grandest dream of Magellan, the dream of circumnavigation. Our compass was GPS and our logic was simple. If we kept the lake always on our left and traveled continuously, we would eventually reach the place from which we started — Chicago, with its seismic chart of skyscrapers, protracted sunsets and canyon-like streets, closing the circle by visiting every beach and port on the greatest lake of all, Michigan.
I grew up in Glencoe, Ill., about a mile from the shore. To me, the lake was as mysterious as a biblical abyss. Had you asked, when I was 10, what was on the other side, I would have said Paris, or possibly China. When I was 12, my dream was to lace up my Bauer Supremes some winter day and skate clear to the distant shore.
Only later, when I learned that such an expedition would almost surely end in an excruciating death, was that dream supplanted by the more sensible notion of going all the way around and seeing from every side the great body of water that dominates the life of those who live within rock-skipping distance.
For a long time, I forgot such fantasies, moved East and sought relief from the brutal summers and succession of days on the Atlantic, as guilt-ridden by the solace of sea spray and breaking waves as a cheating husband. When I told the woman who was to become my wife that I, too, grew up on the beach, she laughed: “Lake Michigan? That’s not the beach!” I burned with fury but said nothing.
Only in the last few years, as I’ve come to realize my children are growing up as Easterners, woefully unaware of the geography and vastness of our inland seas, has the old dream returned. Thus, nearing 47, with my children, three boys spread across the early and middle grades — I’d give their ages, but, like the odometer in my car, they keep changing — I knew I had to return to the place where I started. When friends asked where I was going, I said simply, “I’m going all the way around.”
Chicago is the capital of Lake Michigan. As Naples sits above stony Mediterranean beaches, Chicago commands the southwestern shores of the big water. It began as a point of transit, a passage from the lake to the big river farther west, the Mississippi, which French explorers believed emptied into the Sea of Japan. In this way, Chicago, which was a wigwam village and became a fort and then a boomtown, was once seen as a kind of Pacific port, our first California.
We stayed at the Drake, an old hotel set in the S-curve of Lake Shore Drive that commands the best views of the shore. Every window in our corner room was like a highball glass filled to the brim. The lake is bluer than the ocean. That surprises visitors — that particular shade, like the blue of airmail envelopes, as well as the sea gulls, ships and churning tides. A trip around the lake should begin here, in its great city, which uses the lake as a buffer and a frame.
Like any great port, it faces the sea. To understand it, you therefore have to go to the beach, and Chicago has Oak Street Beach, the best urban beach in the world. It sits at the edge of the cityscape, jutting like a flash of tongue, a soft place amid all that concrete and steel. The sand itself is as crowded as the sand in a Gidget movie. There’s a changing house where a lifeguard dozes, probably sleeping off a spree, and, out on the lake, rafts and buoys and a pumping station that delivers drinking water to the area.
To really know the lake, though, you’ve got to get in it over your head. You enter across a bed of sharp rocks — an imperfection that illuminates the perfection of the whole. The water is very clear and very cold. As you go under, the air leaves your body. Unless it’s August or September, when the water temperature climbs into the low 80s, your skin takes on a bluish tint. You swim out, not as buoyant as in a salt sea, but energized.
In America, we call it fresh water. Elsewhere, it’s sweet-water, which seems more accurate. Fifty yards out, you turn and look back. The city looms like a thunderhead. The Hancock building stands above the rest, a massive obelisk crossed by huge supports. It was the world’s sixth tallest when I was a child, but now, mostly because of Abu Dhabi’s busy hands, is out of the top 20.
The Hancock’s observation deck is where you go for the wide angle. The western windows show why Chicago was the birth place of the skyscraper. The grassland prairie is so punishingly flat, with roads going on forever, it makes sense that the people in town would build their own heights, mountains, overlooks. From the northern windows, you see the shore and the village where I grew up, as well as Wrigley Field and the Baha’i Temple in Wilmette. In the south, you see factories, smoke stacks, haze. But the big picture is east. It’s water. And water and water and water. You strain to see the other side but never will. It’s 75 miles across from Chicago to Michigan, and close to a thousand miles around.
There is a designated route called the Circle Tour. Now and then, you see a sign that says you are on it. But, in the way of the early French explorers Marquette and Joliet, we preferred to cut our own path and headed out early one morning, windows open, Little Walter on the radio, “Boom, Boom, Out Go the Lights.” We drove in and out of buildings, over the river, emerging onto Lake Shore Drive, which we followed south. I-55 to I-90 East.
Beyond the last tall building, the country turns gray, oily. Tough little neighborhoods, the streets lined with bungalows and two-family houses, front porches, steel awnings. The Chicago vocational school, where Dick Butkus and Juwan Howard played high school ball.
As you reach the southern side of the lake — the deep end of the teardrop — and turn east, you enter a land of ash and coal, grain elevators, chimneys that burp up showers of sparks or just spew. At the end of every sad street, a playground and a factory, the engine of the city, nether regions and pump room. Factories line the lake shore, sucking up and polluting its water. The freighters come and go, the machines, trucks. This landscape scared me when I was a child.
The south shore has been tidied up, but before the Clean Air Act it was almost unbearable, an apocalyptic landscape dwelled on by chroniclers of the city, Bellow and Roth, because here you had the flip side of the dream. North Side and South Side. Skyscraper and grain elevator. Lake shore and slaughterhouse. Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park. Chicago is multifaceted, made up of innumerable stories and populations, but it really has just two sides — front and back.
The land opens up beyond Michigan City, Ind.; the sky turns blue. There is still evidence of the machine — flatbeds hauling cable, billboards posing a persistent question, “Been in a wreck?” — but there is a softness in the air, a suggestion of beach.
We reached Benton Harbor in the afternoon, the road making a somewhat depressing entry into what had been a smart town. The Victorian houses that line the avenues have been allowed to dilapidate. Ivy crawls over the columns, broken windows glitter. The town seems half artists’ colony, half ruin, the stores along main street boarded, empty. We stopped at a restaurant called the Mason Jar Cafe, a homey place with stuffed French toast and the best lemonade, then continued across the St. Joseph River to Benton Harbor’s “twin city,” St. Joseph.
If St. Joe and Benton Harbor are twins, it’s of the fraternal variety. Just like that, you go from blight into a perfect beach town of cobblestone streets, candy stores and what my mother would recognize as tchotchke shops. This divide (the only thing separating the municipalities is a small river and a police force) mirrors the divide in the region as a whole, the line that runs across the industrial Midwest. According to recent data from the United States Census Bureau, the median household income in Benton Harbor, which is close to 90 percent black, was just over $18,000. The median household income in St. Joseph, which is nearly 90 percent white, was over $50,000.
St. Joseph was founded in the 19th century as a port on the way to Chicago and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as a vacation land for fat cats from across the lake. Early last century, it boasted a Coney Island-like fantasyland that figured in millions of summer dreams. (“I stuck around the amusement park at Silver Beach, where the cars of the Ferris wheel were covered, getting blackened, and I got soaked through my rain coat,” Saul Bellow writes in “The Adventures of Augie March.”)
The park closed nearly 50 years ago, but the beach is still there, the concession stands, fountains and waterfront, which presented my first opportunity to stare across the water to where I knew Chicago had to be.
The beaches on this side are broader, without the band of rocks that punish Illinois bathers. We have stony prairie; they have westerly breezes and towering dunes, huge undulations that begin in Indiana and continue all the way north. They’re a relic of an age when the lakes were bigger. In the dunes, you’re walking on what had been sea floor, and the world here feels beautiful and new.
The shores of the lakes were charted by French missionaries in the 17th century. These were the first Europeans to see the region and most were priests, traveling by canoe. In school they told us how these men entered the wilderness with little more than the Bible, how they built missions and towns. We did not memorize their names, but could recognize them if the exam was multiple choice: LaSalle, Nicolet, Joliet.
Jacques Marquette was my favorite. Born in Laon, France, in 1637, he was a Jesuit by 20 and was explaining the Trinity in the New World by 30. He mapped the frontier in a series of expeditions that stand as the greatest road trip in American history — before Jim and Huck on the raft, before Dean and Sal in the Hudson, before my family and me in the rented Ford Explorer, Marquette and Joliet were setting out from St. Ignace (now part of Michigan) in canoes.
Following the coast of the lake, they reached Green Bay, then continued, via a network of small rivers, to the Mississippi, which they traveled not quite to the Gulf of Mexico. In the end, they covered close to a thousand miles. Marquette got dysentery on this trip, and never really recovered. His ensuing days were filled with sojourns in which he held up, waiting out a bad spell. One of these was spent near the site of modern Chicago and another on the eastern shore of the lake, a mile from a beach in what is now Ludington, Mich., where he died at age 37.
There is a marker and a cross on what had been his grave (the bones were later dug up and reburied in St. Ignace). But the real evidence of the early explorers lies in the names of the rivers and towns, French names that give everything a creepy depth, reminding you that our world was built on top of another world, which was built on top of still others.
Ludington was founded in 1845 as a center for trappers and fishermen. It boomed in the 1880s on the lake trade and remains a home of the only regular cross-lake ferry. Like so many waterfront towns, it was devastated by the rise of the railroads and devastated again by the waning of the lumber industry. What remains is the architecture of what had been a bigger town, elegant storefronts filled with dead-end concerns — dollar store, consignment shop, tattoo parlor — and rundown mansions where, once upon a time, the debutantes drank gin on back porches watching the ships.
We rolled into town in the early evening. In June and July, the Michigan days are nearly arctic in length. At 10 p.m., it was still light enough to read a newspaper outside. We ate at the Old Hamlin House. It was like a meal in a mother’s dream of the past, turkey dinners with a thousand sides, every food group represented, the regulars talking high school football. My son was wearing a Bears jersey, Brian Urlacher’s number 54, and two octogenarians approached, giggling: “Don’t ya think the fellah’s a little small to play linebacker?” In these sunstruck ports, it’s still the old America, the place of my childhood, peopled by old folks, as friendly as can be as their generation fades away.
We checked into Snyder’s Shoreline Inn, a two-story motel across the road from the lake. Everything I left in the 1970s was there waiting for me: the tiny bars of soap, the clunky room keys, the sand in the bed and the smell of candles and mildew.
Before bed, we went to the beach. It’s broad here, with dramatic dunes. There is a harbor and a jetty with a beautiful lighthouse at the end, as there are lighthouses up and down the coast. You can walk the jetty and look back at the yellow lights of Ludington as night comes on. A ship sails away from the harbor, the water red in the evening sun. For me, it was unaccountably strange — watching the sun go down on Lake Michigan. This was my personal Atlantic, and it had always been a place of sunrises and dawns — never sunsets. It was as if I had finally reached Saint-Exupéry’sFrance, land of the setting sun, birthplace of the world.
We stopped at Traverse City the next afternoon, cherry capital of the world. The road was lined with orchards, the branches so heavy with ripe fruit they bent to the ground. The pavement skirted Grand Traverse Bay, coves and islands appearing and disappearing between houses and trees.
This has to be among the most beautiful drives in the country, each turn affording a new view of the lake, which stands for all those lakes prized by Midwesterners but unknown to so many others who rush off to foreign oceans that pale in comparison to our strange inland seas.
An hour or so up the road, we rolled into the outskirts of Petoskey, Hemingway Country. The writer loved resorts. If he wrote about a place, you know it was one of the “in” places of the moment. In the 1920s, it was Paris. In the 1930s, it was Key West. In his early years, it was this lakefront vacation town. His family had a house nearby, in Horton Bay. Hemlock forests and streams, lumber mills, swamps — boyhood adventure condensed to a perfume.
I can’t help but see it through the eyes of Nick Adams, the alter-ego who wandered those dazzling early stories: “Up in Michigan,” “The Three Day Blow,” “Big Two-Hearted River.” When Hemingway first published nearly 90 years ago, the town was scandalized. He’d written real gossip about real people. He was persona non grata. Now, of course, all is forgiven.
The Enchanted Isle
I am tormented by detached memories. These are like photos that have fallen from an album and lie at the bottom of a drawer. In one, I am staring at rows of fudge in some sort of diner and it’s raining outside. In another, I am on a hill looking down at a bay filled with red sails. These memories have long puzzled me: Are they from another life? After a few hours on Mackinac Island, which sits in a strait that leads from Lake Huron to Lake Michigan, topping Michigan proper like the dot on the Spanish exclamation point, I realized that all those unmoored memories were in fact collected on some ancient family trip to Mackinac, when my parents were young.
Mackinaw City, where you hop a ferry across, is a child’s idea of a honky-tonk town, its big commercial street filled with banners, crowds and every variety of candy and novelty shop, each a kind of hook meant to catch and haul in the suckers, pulling their money-soaked parents after them. At times, in such a town, you feel like a capo on the corner of Mulberry Street, snapping singles off a thick roll.
We left our car in long-term parking, checked bags and climbed aboard a boat, where we had the upper deck to ourselves. We picked up speed in the straits. A storm was moving across the water. Through the rain we could see Mackinac glistening in the distance. It’s always been considered sacred, especially to the Ojibwa, its early inhabitants who believed it the resting place of the great spirit and the first land to appear after the great flood. To Europeans, it registered as a dream. A New World, a virgin continent. And, in that new world, a great sweet-water sea. And, at a focal point in that sea, a lush island.
There is a town, stores and restaurants and inns, but most famous is the Grand Hotel, the sort of mansard-roof affair where, eons ago, a president spent an eventless August. There are no cars on Mackinac, and the first thing you notice is the smell of manure. It’s all-encompassing. Everywhere. All the time. Sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker, but never gone. You move through zones: fudge then manure, fudge then manure.
We stayed at the Chippewa Inn. From the balcony, you could look across to the mainland, or through the straits to open water. In the morning, we rented bikes and set off on the eight-mile path that follows the shore. In other words, we were circumnavigating within our greater circumnavigation. Outside town, fresh air comes from the east and rock ledges and cliffs loom. In the middle of the ride, you can park your bike and stand on a beach and look at the place where Lake Huron bumps into and mingles with Lake Michigan. But what’s clear on a map is just a subtle change in mood under the open sky.
In the morning, instead of continuing through the Upper Peninsula, as planned, we went south. This meant giving up the dream of complete circumnavigation, but it suddenly seemed more important to see the water from the water, to get inside the frame. And so we returned to Ludington to board the S.S. Badger, last of the steam ferries. We would close the circle by sea, which seemed appropriate.
I have an old book about Lake Michigan. I bought it on Mackinac. It was published in 1944, a moment of crisis, the sort of moment when citizens crave an accounting of national wonders. The frontispiece shows a map — decorated by sketches of Indians, settlers, teepees, cabins, headdresses, canoes — of ferry routes that once crossed the lake. Chicago to Benton Harbor. Milwaukee to Muskegon, Mich. Kewaunee, Wis., to Frankfort, Mich.
The Ludington service is all that remains of this once-robust web of commercial and pedestrian steamers. An adult ticket costs $66, not including the price of a car, carried in the belly of the ship. For an additional $49, we got a state room, where you can sit at the little desk and work on a novel about the sea, or crash on the crib-like mattress, lulled by the hypnotic slosh of sweet water. There’s a movie theater, a gift shop, an arcade, a cafeteria and a social hall where a carnival barker type ran bingo and trivia contests, but I spent most of my time on the rail, staring at the water.
There is a comforting sameness at the center of the lake, a blue vastness, swells and mirage. Its floor and the surrounding land were formed 1.2 billion years ago by a rift in tectonic plates, a rent in the fabric of the world. It’s terrifyingly deep as a result, dropping to almost a thousand feet at Green Bay. At its biggest, it’s 118 miles across and 307 miles from top to bottom. No one’s ever swum its broadest portion, though now and then a nut canoes it.
The lake can be a special challenge to navigators. There are sudden shallows and terrific storms that cannot be outrun because, unlike the ocean, the lake is not infinite. There are tight places where the wind and the rain can drive even the most experienced captain to ruin. The lake floor is littered with famous wrecks like the Lady Elgin, which sank on the morning of Sept. 8, 1860, taking nearly 300 people down with it. Some of the remains were discovered off Highwood, Ill., in 1989, under 60 feet of water.
The S.S. Badger completes a crossing in just over four hours. It lands at Manitowoc, an industrial Wisconsin port of factories and breweries. You see smokestacks before you see land, the harbor, piers and bays. The town was visited by world historical events on Sept. 5, 1962, when a chunk of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 4 landed on North Eighth Street. The occasion is marked each year by Sputnik Fest.
I knew I was home as soon as I was on the highway. The lake was back where it belonged, in the east, those pancake-flat Wisconsin farms were in the windows, red silos punctuating seas of corn. (Without Chicago, Illinois would be Iowa — that’s what they said when I was a child.) We stopped in Milwaukee, stayed at the Pfister Hotel, an ornate landmark of the Gilded Age where the bellhops crack wise, visited the art museum, the beautiful lakefront one designed by Calatrava, walked along the shore and ate frozen custard at the stand on North Point beach.
In the morning, we continued on, making our way to Chicago from the north. We took lake roads and made frequent stops. About 20 miles from the city, as the Sears and Hancock were just coming into view, we stopped at Glencoe, my hometown. It’s changed. The people are richer, even the upper middle class is gone. Like parts of Manhattan, it can seem like just billionaires and billionaire-helpers. The stores were empty at midday. There was a summer deadness.
I looked for my old friends, but they were gone too, priced-out failures like me, every one of them. I looked for my favorite haunts. Ray’s Sport Shop. Wally King’s Record Store. Ricky’s Delicatessen. Gone. Gone. Gone. Object impermanence, the flow of time. Everything you see will be replaced. I felt like a ghost, a stranger visiting my old life.
But then I went down to the beach. Over the barricade, along the ravine road, past the house where Big Al used to sell hot dogs. And there it was, the lake. Thank God, it was still the same.
If You Go
WHERE TO STAY
The Drake Hotel, 140 East Walton Place. thedrakehotel.com.
WHERE TO EAT
The Signature Room at the 95th. High-end cuisine on a very high floor in the John Hancock Center. 875 North Michigan Avenue. signatureroom.com
The Billy Goat Inn, for cheeseburgers. 1535 West Madison Street. billygoattavern.com
Lou Malnati’s Pizza, for deep-dish pies. 1120 North State Street. loumalnatis.com
WHAT TO SEE
Oak Street Beach, 1001 North Lake Shore Drive. chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks/oak-steet-beach
WHAT TO SEE
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, 1215 North State Road 49, Porter. nps.gov/indu
WHERE TO EAT
In Benton Harbor, the Mason Jar Cafe, 210 Water Street.
In St. Joseph, Kilwins, for candy and ice cream. 217 State Street. kilwins.com/stjoseph
WHAT TO SEE
Silver Beach County Park, 101 Broad Street, St. Joseph. berriencounty.org/parks
WHERE TO EAT
The Old Hamlin Restaurant, 122 West Ludington Avenue. oldhamlin.com
WHAT TO DO
Ludington State Park, 800 M-116. visitludington.com/statepark
TRAVERSE CITY, MICH.
WHERE TO EAT
Mackinaw Brewing Company, 161 East Front Street. mackinawbrewing.com
Scalawags Whitefish & Chips, 303 East State Street. scalawagstc.com
BOYNE CITY, Mich.
WHERE TO EAT
Horton Bay General Store; breakfast, lunch and a soda fountain in a Hemingway hangout. 05115 Boyne City-Charlevoix Road. hortonbaygeneralstore.com
Red Fox Inn, a Hemingway-focused bookstore next door. 05156 Boyne City-Charlevoix Road.
WHAT TO EAT
Murdick’s Fudge, 311 Howard Street. petoskeymurdicks.com
MACKINAC ISLAND, MICH.
WHAT TO DO
Fort Mackinac, 7127 Huron Road. mackinacparks.com/parks-and-attractions/fort-mackinac
WHERE TO EAT
Lucky Bean Coffeehouse, 7383 Market Street. facebook.com/luckybeancoffee
WHERE TO STAY
The Pfister Hotel, 424 East Wisconsin Avenue. thepfisterhotel.com
WHERE TO EAT
Northpoint Custard, 2272 North Lincoln Memorial Drive. northpointcustard.com
WHAT TO SEE
Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 North Art Museum Drive. mam.org
WHERE TO EAT
In Glencoe, Ill., Guildhall has excellent food. 694 Vernon Avenue. guildhallrestaurant.com
In Wilmette, Walker Bros. Original Pancake House is known for its apple cinnamon and German pancakes. 153 Green Bay Road. walkerbros.net
An earlier version of this article misstated the time period when Lake Michigan’s floor and was formed. It is estimated to have been formed 1.2 billion years ago by a rift in tectonic plates, not 20 billion years ago.
An earlier version of this article misidentified the name of the route around the Great Lakes. It is the Circle Tour; it is not the Circle Line, which is a sightseeing tour on the waterways around New York.
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article gave an incorrect impression of the location of Mackinac Island. It is in Lake Huron, just east of a strait that bridges that lake and Lake Michigan. It is not in Lake Michigan.