Tucked away on an unlikely spit of land in the midst of America's midwestern industrial crescent is a beautiful and placid refuge, little-known east of Cleveland.
One of the few places in America where summer is invigorating instead of suffocating, Traverse City, Mich. -- 250 miles northwest of Detroit, on the shore of Lake Michigan -- remains unsullied by the interstate invasion.
Once, Cape Cod and the Eastern Shore of Maryland must have been like this: miles of lake shore and scrubby dunes without a soda stand; natives breathlessly eager for tourists; a place with an authentically different rhythm.
As refreshing as the mild weather, the lake-dappled countryside and the absence of strip schlock is the sense that the Grand Traverse Bay region (as the area along the lake around Traverse City is called) welcomes visitors without having slavishly remolded its personality to accommodate them.
It's obvious people live in Traverse City, and the people are open, proud, helpful and trusting.
The winding hilly rural roads around the city run through farms and past cherry orchards that produce one-third of the world's cherries; past roadside vegetable stands, barns, silos, cattle and goats; by cherry processing plants and endless stands of white birches. Around nearly every twist in the road there is a shimmer of a lake.
And although the area is the fastest growing in Michigan, and rapidly becoming a haven for fast-track refugees, there are no strip shopping centers, few strips and only a single, unobtrusive mall.
"Town," as Traverse City is known to the lo- cals, is strictly a source of provisions, newspapers, stamps and gossip. Its four-block-wide, five-block-long business district has the ruddy-cheeked charm that comes from being the center of a booming agricultural and tourist area (there are no fewer than half a dozen ice cream emporiums, but also an enormous Woolworth's with a popular lunch counter).
At Stacey's, the greasy spoon in the heart of downtown where Traverse City's elders and enlightened tourists breakfast, the waitress puts the coffee on the table as she advises, "You want coffee."
She scolds fiercely for leaving any remnants from the enormous portions, and when you're ready to depart and request your check she says with mock gruffness: "You don't need a check! You know what it is! Two dollars and 40 cents! Now go put the money in the register and leave me be!"
If you've been observant, you will have noticed Stacey's patrons making their own change out of the ancient wooden cash register. One will happily call out instructions on how to get the cash register open so you can pay your tab.
"Amazing, huh?" a regular initiating a tourist said recently. "Never find a system like this in Chicago, would you?" Not to mention Washington. Or Wellfleet.
Northeasterners don't usually consider vacationing in the Midwest, let alone in Michigan.
The road north to Traverse City -- through what once was the healthy heart of America's auto industry in Detroit, Pontiac, Flint, Saginaw and Midland -- seems more likely to inspire the glib cynic than to appeal to the first-time visitor. The industrial belt across southern Michigan forms a sort of physical and psychological barrier that serves, as much as anything, to preserve the hills, lakes, cherry groves, dunes, forests and beaches of northern Michigan.
The cities along that route also serve as a source of tourists: The weekend road trip to northern Michigan is almost as much a part of the culture of Detroit as the weekend trip to the beach is a part of the culture of Washington. But there is an important difference of degree and available space.
Traverse City lies in the midst of a five-county area -- strung along Lake Michigan and a large double bay -- that has a year-round population of about 110,000. In the peak summer months, local tourism officials estimate the five-county area (several times the size of Washington) gets 200,000 visitors. There are no traffic jams. Despite the fact that nearby Interlochen hosts a music festival that rivals Tanglewood, tickets are rarely hard to get. There is always space at the beach and usually an open parking space in downtown Traverse City.
The parking meters give 6 minutes for a penny, 60 minutes for a dime.
The city sits at the southern end of a pair of bays that form a pitchfork-shaped area with the surrounding land. The glaciers that carved out the Great Lakes also left Grand Traverse Bay (divided into east and west arms by a slim peninsula, hence the pitchfork) and more than two dozen lakes within a 25-mile radius of Traverse City.
Although the tourism types have discovered the appeal of touting the Grand Traverse Bay area as a four-season resort, it is water that remains at the heart of the area's appeal. So it is during the warmer times of year -- when the bay and the lakes are liquid and so amenable to water skiing, sailing, fishing and swimming -- that the area is at its most appealing.
The towns along Grand Traverse Bay and, to the west and north, along Lake Michigan itself, have marinas and fishing piers, and many draw their economic sustenance directly from the water. Leland, a town to the northwest of Traverse City on Lake Michigan, has a weathered, hundred-year-old pier where the day's commercial fishing catch is cleaned and offered for sale each evening.
One can walk the marinas in the area at sundown and hear the tales of sailors from Chicago and Bay City and Detroit and Toledo, of how they managed to sail across the Great Lakes in boats no roomier than a large car.
To the west of Traverse City about 20 miles is the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which runs for more than 20 miles along Lake Michigan. Five hundred feet high, the main dune offers spectacular views of the lake to the west and the inland country to the east.
At the main park entrance is a dune that one climbs nearly straight up, for the pleasure of that achievement, but more for the thrill of racing back down the dune's face at breakneck speed. The dune at the park's main entrance is also the beginning of a three-mile hike across the desert-like dunes to the lake. The hike, not to be undertaken by the weak, provides immersion in the stark, shifting dune landscape, and completion is rewarded by an invigorating swim in the lake.
From the lake shore in the area of the park are visible the low humps of the Manitou Islands (North and South), accessible by ferry from Leland, just northeast of the park. South Manitou Island has the tallest lighthouse in the Great Lakes region as well as abandoned farms and a white cedar forest.
Within easy reach by car for day trips from Traverse City are Mackinac Island, the touristy island in the straits between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, which remains covered with forest, nearly as it was when first settled by Indians.
In increasing numbers, there are attractions of the more conventional variety as well. The hilly topography, mild climate and long Indian summer of northern Michigan make the region attractive for golfers, and there are more than half a dozen top-flight golf courses in the Grand Traverse Bay area.
The same topography, along with the picture-book farms and cherry orchards, makes the area popular with bikers and, in the winter, with cross-country and downhill skiers as well as snowmobilers.
Although still far less popular as a winter resort than as a summer one, and far less popular than other winter vacation areas, Grand Traverse Bay is actively cultivating the four-season image.
There is, for example, a free map showing the routes groomed as snowmobile trails, and the Vasa, the second largest cross-country ski race in the world, is held each February in the area and is the principal winter draw.
As the ocean is the reason to go to the shore, so the lakes are the reason to go to northern Michigan. So it is in the spring and summer, when the lakes are refreshingly brisk (instead of frozen), that the region is its most inviting. And the best way to take advantage of the lakes is to rent a house or cabin.
Both Lake Michigan and the smaller inland lakes are rimmed with houses, most privately owned and, because of the bitter winters, most designed as summer homes. Many -- along with their attendant beaches, docks, canoes and sunfish -- are offered for rent at least part of each summer.
Living in a lakeside house allows one to savor the particular appeal of the area -- cool but sunny summer days, thick lakeside forests where the light seems almost green but where there is no cloying humidity.
Even if only for a week, such a vacation is a startling reminder of how different it feels to live in the country, how nice to be able to stay in a bathing suit or shorts all day, to go swimming or sailing without hassle or forethought, how insulated city life is from the rhythms of nature.
Traverse City is at roughly the same latitude as Portland, Maine, so while the sun warms it doesn't tan particularly well, and when it drops behind the trees the summer air takes on an autumnal coolness. A fire in the fireplace (all the more gratifying if the wood was chopped sometime during the afternoon) takes the edge off the air and the ache off pleasure-exhausted muscles.
Nights are utterly dark so far from cities, and the stars wheel out in a way that permits breathtaking reacquaintance with the Milky Way and the constellations. Occasionally the aurora borealis, the northern lights, are visible.
The pine-shrouded summer homes rimming the lakes of northern Michigan don't change hands very often, passing instead from generation to generation like cherished heirlooms. Traverse City remembers each generation of the summer families, which is as much its charm as its lakes and forests and dunes.
This summmer, a young waitress in one of the restaurants frequented by locals and long-time summer residents spotted a 90-year-old man she hadn't seen in years. She greeted him enthusiastically, asked after his health, asked if he was going to church as he always did on Sundays and asked where his dog was. Told the dog had died several years before, the waitress fondly recalled some of the dog's human-like antics, bringing a grin to the old man's face.
As she walked away, the waitress whispered to a colleague: "It's been so long since I've seen him, I thought certain he was dead. It's good to see him again."