The Middle Coast
Sunday, July 28, 2002
once, for reasons beyond my control, found myself living in Detroit, where several native-born colleagues extolled their fair city as the Paris of the Midwest.
Is it any wonder, then, that I didn't believe their proclamations about the almost-sacred beauty of the shores of Lake Michigan? For seven years, every time I needed a beach fix, I'd spend the bulk of my disposable income flying to Washington or New York, renting a car for a traffic-clogged drive and booking a high-rise along the eastern shore of my mid-Atlantic homeland.
What an idiot. No wonder much of the country considers Easterners parochial snobs.
Unfortunately, I discovered Lake Michigan years after moving away. Now, for several years running, I've made my beach-week trek in the opposite direction, from Washington to the heartland, where the sand really is the texture of sugar, where towering dunes look like something out of "Lawrence of Arabia," and where broad beaches are bordered by forest on one side, and on the other by Caribbean-colored water that stretches to the horizon.
The sand, like the lake, is the byproduct of massive glaciers that gouged out continental bedrock, reducing quartz rock to tiny white and yellow grains. The sand that covers the beaches and creates dunes as high 300 feet is 90 percent quartz.
As always, I base myself in Berrien County, in the southwest corner of Michigan near the Indiana border, about 75 miles from Chicago. The area stretches from the Indiana border up through Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, ending at Paw Paw Lake. The county includes 40 miles of largely uncrowded beaches, several rivers and smaller lakes, and winding country roads bordered by farms and vineyards. My family and friends settle into a cottage in the town of Harbert, which adjoins Lakeside and Union Pier.
The area is what I imagine Ocean City, Md., may have been like just prior to World War I.
There is not a single high-rise. Not one fast-food chain.
One minute you are on I-94, with its monster trucks, billboards, factory towers and dismal high-rise apartment blocs. Then you exit onto the Red Arrow Highway, a two-lane country road along railroad tracks, and are transported back 100 years.
Those who have sampled the Great Lakes might protest that the water is unbearably cold. Not so in Berrien County, in an area locals call Harbor Country, where this ocean lover has found a ocean-like beach haven on the lake.
Thanks to prevailing winds from the southwest, the water here is warmer than other areas of Lake Michigan, and warmer than the other Great Lakes.
Of course, winds do shift. While warm water in summer is the rule, a wind out of the north can change the water temperature and the character of the water overnight, making each new day there an adventure.