One nice thing about the late summer and early fall is that summer vacation has ended and the kids are back in school so the parks are virtually empty and it’s easier to find a campsite. Traffic is thinning out at the popular attractions and the pace is relaxed.
The second blessing is that the lakes are still warm enough for a refreshing dip. The water of the Great Lakes cools down more slowly than the air temperature in the fall, so though the days are cool and comfortable and nights are getting chilly, the water is still enjoyable.
Here are some quiet spots where you will likely find the crowds thinning out after Labor Day.
There is a world-class Shipwreck Museum that’s part of the complex at Whitefish Point Lighthouse north of Paradise. The state forest campgrounds are still open into October, and there are abundant vacation rentals and cabins in the area.
Crisp Point Lighthouse
It’s best not to attempt the road to Crisp Point with a low-slung sedan. You’ll be bottoming out several times on the one-lane 19-mile logging road that is rough and sandy and takes an hour to drive one way.
Your reward for the tedious drive is a remote lighthouse on a mostly deserted stony beach. The site is tended by volunteers who stay in their campers next to the beach.
Au Sable Point Lighthouse
The trailhead to the isolated lighthouse is at the Hurricane River Campground that is part of the large Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The 1.5-mile hiking trail hugs the shore just above the rock ledges and stony beach. The road through the national lakeshore is nicely paved but winding, so your average speed will be about 35 mph getting there. Don’t rush.
AuTrain Bay, AuTrain
This tranquil shoreline is super easy to reach as highway 28 runs right along the lake here just a few miles west of the little village of Christmas. Pull off at one of the beautiful roadside parks where there are restrooms and running water.
The sandy beach is walkable for nearly a mile and the water is shallow enough for wading and swimming. Rocky outcroppings bookend the beach at both ends.
Scott Falls is visible from the highway, but pull into the roadside park at the east end of the bay for an easy walk across the road to this personable little falls where you can walk right up to it… or behind it. On a warm day it may seem to invite a shower, but you are in for a bit of a shock, as the water is not as warm as the lake.
This is a great time of year to explore the wilderness of northern Michigan, but the window of opportunity is short. By October 1st the lake will likely cool beyond the tolerable range and a tranquil dip in Lake Superior will be out of the question. Snow isn’t unheard of in this part of the world during the month of October, and the warm pasties will warm body and soul at the local restaurants in Munising.
Not everybody likes to be alone. Extroverts and socialites have a hard time understanding why anyone would go out of their way to be by themselves. But introverts and loners get it. Sometimes it requires solitude to refuel the emotional tank, and there is nothing lonely about it.
I have lived in urban locations where the only place I could be alone was sitting on the toilet. But that’s doesn’t satisfy if you are anxious in small spaces.
These are some locations where I have been able to find solitude outside of the bathroom. Some of these take a lot of effort to get to, while others just take some strategic planning and/or timing.
The Alaska Highway
Okay, this is a big challenge. You will have to block out a couple of weeks to make this drive… and that’s just one way. Double that if you are driving it both out and back.
The aloneness that I sensed in the middle of the Yukon was so intense that it made me nervous. Hundreds of miles to the nearest mechanic. But if you want to be alone, you will have your way out here. Sometimes, when I would pull back onto the highway after a fuel stop or overnight camp, I would look both directions for traffic and not see another vehicle. Not one, as far as the eye could see.
I think your solitude quota will be satisfied easily while you travel the Alaska Highway.
For more on the Alaska Highway, read my related post here.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
This is a popular northwest lower Michigan destination for families with kids. Try hiking, beach combing, dunes climbing, and a 27-mile-long bike path that runs through deep forests and dunes.
You will be with crowds at the popular Dune Climb and the Scenic Drive which lands you at the top of the dunes 400 feet overlooking Lake Michigan. What a view!
But there is a solitary spot at the top of Sleeping Bear Point, although at sunset there will be a few folks who will trek out to see the million dollar sunset over Lake Michigan. From Glen Haven, take the blacktop road west to the end and then drive down the gravel lane to the trailhead parking lot where there are restrooms. You might want flip flops for about a hundred yards until you reach the foot of the dunes, then go barefoot.
The national lakeshore also includes two large islands, South Manitou Island (seen in the distance in the photo above) and North Manitou Island that have many miles of deserted beaches and unspoiled forests. Take the boat from Leland, Michigan; advance reservations are necessary.
The Channel Islands, California
Call ahead or go online for reservations on the passenger ferry from Ventura Harbor, Ventura. You may be accompanied by dolphins on the cruise over. Cool.
Once you disembark there will be a short orientation talk from the ranger, then you are free to wander about the island without distraction from crowds of hikers. The trails on the high cliffs are impressive and the drop-offs intimidating, so mind the edge.
Valley of the Gods, Utah
During the day, an occasional SUV will pass by as you settle in at your free campsite in the desert just about 30 miles from the famous Monument Valley Tribal Park where there are bus loads of visitors swarming the overlooks. At Valley of the Gods, you will be alone most of the time and at night the quiet and solitude can be almost unnerving.
Once the sun sets over the cliffs nearby, the wind will completely stop – along with that awful moaning sound in the top of the butte that towers over the campsite – and you’ll be in the dark. If you ever wanted to film the Milky Way above, this will be the spot without any interfering light from the nearest city over a hundred miles away.
Bryce Canyon National Park
This one calls for some strategy. Bryce is second only to Zion National Park for the number of visitors in the desert southwest. That means you’ll have to find the more remote hiking trails to find solitude.
Or go at night. This was my strategy when I was looking for those trails with the tunnels cut through the rock; I was looking for a certain photo setting, sort of an Indiana Jones theme.
The Queen’s Garden Trail was busy with hikers as I headed down off the rim into the canyon in the late afternoon, but as dusk fell they disappeared. I was totally alone for my evening photo shoot… and for the entire climb back to the rim after dark.
The White Rim Road, Utah
Again, Canyonlands National Park is heavily visited, though not quite as much as Arches National Park nearby. But there are hiking trails off the rim that are only sparsely traveled.
And if you drive below the rim, you will find even more isolation. The park service puts a quota on the number of visitors on the White Rim Trail, so you will have to plan ahead. You can make campsite reservations as much as 4 months in advance on their website.
Be advised, this drive is not for the faint of heart. The drop-offs are hundreds of feet. A Jeep or SUV with four-wheel-drive will work the best and they can be rented by the day from the outfitters in Moab nearby.
If you really want to be alone, take the Potash Road from Moab and, once you leave the pavement onto the gravel, you will be able to get to the White Rim without meeting another vehicle. Stop anywhere along the way for a solitary view of the Colorado River a thousand feet below or the massive cliffs and dry creek beds through which you will be driving. (See my 11-minute scary video of the White Rim Road here.)
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
Again, this is a hikers’ mecca and the trails that skirt the cliffs 200 feet above Lake Superior will be busy with adventurers.
But, if you drive east from the town of Munising along the shoreline, you will find the less traveled county road H-58 that wanders through the forests above the lake connecting scenic overlooks with rustic campgrounds. Hike to Au Sable Point Lighthouse and see a scant few other wanderers, and linger at Sable Falls on your way to a campsite at the little village of Grand Marais or one of several national forest campgrounds that are carved out of the deep woods.
So, there are lots of locations where one can be alone, but sometimes they are difficult to find. These are just a few of the sites I have found… and now you know about them too.
Milepost: 5-11-16 — Just moved into a small apartment
For many years it seemed like this day would never come — the day that we would be free to wander around the country in an RV and a pickup truck and choose our next destination with a random finger stab at the map lying in our laps. But the day did come, not by accident but by sheer determination and hard work. There were hard choices.
Six years ago we were living on a retired 30-acre Christmas tree farm with too much mowing to do… and a mortgage we could no longer afford. Our kids had all grown up and left our spacious rural estate and our large house, and our nearest grandchild now lived 80 miles away.
We had become weary of the upkeep on so much property and wanted to see the world — and our grandkids. But we couldn’t afford it. I had been running a full crew with my log home construction company when the housing bust arrived in Michigan — two years before the recession. It was 2006 and nobody else wanted a log home. Even the log home dealers were closing one by one — the people who had been referring their buyers to us to build their homes. I had to lay off the crew.
Our financial plan for retirement crashed and burned.
We had arrived at retirement age still owing a mortgage. Reality was brutal: We could afford to own and maintain this property OR we could afford to travel. But not both. We had to choose one or the other.
It looked as though our businesses had run their courses and we wouldn’t be needing so much space and so many resources — tools, machinery, etc. and the kids weren’t coming home to visit but once or twice a year. We were ready to downsize.
And so we did.
We spent the next few years cleaning out sheds and closets and selling stuff or giving it away. We put the property up for sale. But we were in the middle of the recession and nothing happened. Finally, a neighbor showed up at our door asking if we would sell him 10 acres. We did, and then used the money to buy a used RV. We put the rest of our stuff in storage, put renters in the big house, and we hit the road.
And the next year, while we were wandering around Alaska with our rig, the rest of our property sold. Our once impossible dream was becoming our new reality.
Over the last couple of years, we have explored three corners of our country, from Florida to California to Alaska and a thousand points in between, and have moved offshore for a couple of winters living in the tropics in vacation rentals.
New England (the fourth corner of our country) will have to wait for us, because we have decided to take a vacation from traveling (that sounds odd, maybe?) and move into a small apartment for a while.
And we can finally afford to do BOTH. We can have a Michigan home base again AND continue to travel. Our new apartment is only 13 miles from our kids and grandkids, and the rent is less than half of what our old mortgage was!
Somebody else mows the lawns, shovels the walks, and repairs the leaks… while I head down the rail trail with my bike or visit the local farm market or ice cream shop (One of the bike paths here ends at the local Dairy Queen).
If I have one regret, it is that we didn’t start downsizing sooner. Fortunately, Kaye and I are still physically fit and able to pursue our travel goals, and we really do appreciate and take advantage of our good fortune. Lots of folks run out of good health before they ever get to realize their dreams.
Anyway, I was doing a bit of reminiscing today and thinking about how far we have come in the face of a lot of challenges, and decided to write about it here. I am so happy that our present circumstance is so far different than where we were just a few years ago.
If you, my reader, find yourself in a similar almost impossible scenario, take heart; there is much that can happen to improve your outlook and bring your dreams within reach.
I suspect that your journey will begin with some difficult decisions and will be followed by a lot of hard work. That’s okay, isn’t it?
The struggle makes the reward all the more satisfying.
On the other hand, if you are in upsizing mode right now, it might be smart for you to stop and think about what you really want in 10 years or 20 years from now. Maybe you should quit bringing more stuff into your garage and basement and attic. It might turn into a ball and chain later and keep you planted at a time when you want to be free.
“I can’t move my legs,” my friend whispered in the pitch black darkness as he slipped into unconsciousness. We were teetering on the face of a steep mountain in the Sierra Madres of Mexico where Marc had just tumbled head over heels 90 feet down a rough slope, his balance thrown off by the overloaded backpack. It didn’t help that there were only three flashlights for 15 hikers; because of delays, we had been caught on the mountain after dark, something that our guide hadn’t prepared us for. Our efforts for the next hour proved to make the difference between life and death; not to worry, Marc lived. And he recovered quickly over the next few days, having no broken bones and no lasting injuries.
That was a bit more adventure than I had counted on when I organized this trek for a group of young summer missionaries. Marc’s fall caused him no small amount of trauma and an equal amount of stress for me and the rest of the trekkers.
And that’s the risk one takes when he signs on for an adventure.
Most Americans never have such a scary experience, because most do not sign on for much adventure at all. For many, their most risky experience is the morning commute to the job in the city. Mind you, it can be stressful too, but is hardly ever an adventure.
The American dream is a comfortable one and not very adventurous. Most of us spend our summer weekends on the backyard patio with a steak on the grill and a cold drink in hand. We don’t paddle any whitewater or jump off any cliffs. And that’s how we like it. No adventure, no risk, and no worries. Mind you, for some, that is the best thing.
But there are others who become restless if they haven’t had the crap scared out of them a time or two within the last six months. They get cabin fever when the winter is too long, and they start dreaming of tents, sleeping bags and the latest climbing gear.
I’m not sure if it is personality that makes the difference, or if family history is a more profound ingredient in the adventure quotient. My dad was a camper and loved to take the family on an adventure every summer. Some of his kids are the same way, but not all of us.
On the other hand, my three kids are all adventurers and world travelers. I give partial credit to an extended adventure that I took the family on in the middle of my small-town teaching career. Taking a one-year leave-of-absence, we moved to an underdeveloped country in the Caribbean where Kaye and I taught in an international school. We lived in an indigenous neighborhood where we were isolated from other Americans. This experience changed our family forever. The adventure factor has run strong in all of us ever since.
Are you a restless adventurer? Do you get frustrated when you spend more time punching a time clock than kicking through the gears on a motorcycle? Do you live for the weekends? Have you applied the risk-reward ratio to your financial portfolio but never to the balance of comfort and adventure in your life?
Maybe it’s time for a change – If you feel that you need more excitement in your life. If you are young, you might want to take this into consideration when you are choosing your career. At 17 years old, I chose teaching partly because of the long summer vacations. I knew myself well enough to know that I would not be happy with only the two weeks off every year that my friends who went to the auto assembly plant would get. They made a lot more money – I had a lot more fun.
And it was a wise decision, because I eventually became the adventure trips planner for our local church youth group and found myself in all kinds of exciting locations over the next 35 years.
I had teams of 13-year-olds squeezing through wild caves in southern Indiana, groups of boys lost at night on the sand dunes by Lake Michigan (just because their group leader was an Eagle scout didn’t mean he had earned the badge for orienteering).
I have been skinny-dipping with friends in the middle of the nighttime bioluminescence of the Indian Ocean – green sparks exploding in the water with every movement. I’ve crashed a motorcycle on the most winding two-lane road in Michigan (my only broken bone ever), and rafted the whitewater of the Ocoee River in the mountains of Tennessee – the same river used for the kayak races in the 1996 summer olympics.
And now I’m living on the road in an RV with my life-long companion as we explore the backroads of America. And Kaye and I are gearing up for the ultimate road trip this summer, the Alaska Highway, with a pickup and a fifth-wheel.
When our appetite for risk and adventure is satisfied, we pull into an RV park or a friend’s backyard, and we stay a while. We fuel up our comfort-and-safety quotient for a while until we start to get restless again and long for the open road. A couple of months is just about the perfect duration for us to stay in one place.
The adventure appetite runs pretty strong with us right now. Age and failing health will park us someday, but for now we plan to git while the gittin’s good.
How about you? Do you have your summer planned full of adventures yet? What about the rest of your life? Are you assigning enough risk to satisfy your adventure quotient?
Don’t get me wrong, adventure is not for everybody. It depends on your appetite for risk. If you don’t have it, you are fine to enjoy the security of a comfortable and stress-free life in America.
But, if you are increasingly restless and keep gazing out the window of your office or your kitchen, it’s possible that the adrenaline runs stronger in your veins than you thought. And maybe you should do something about it. Increase the risk factor. Dive into the next adventure.
Okay, so maybe too much adventure can be deadly, but a more common tragedy is the slow death of dreams and bucket lists while we safely watch the grass grow in our comfortable back yards, the regretful long-term product of too much comfort and security.
For your own well-being, maybe you should get some adrenaline going on this summer. Have fun. And be safe.
I am two months into my first work-camp experience and thought it time for a report. Kaye and I have been camping at Kenney Grove Park, a historical site established in 1888 and coinciding with the founding of the town of Fillmore, California. The park is owned by the County of Ventura, but is under private lease. It is used mostly for events by groups who lease the campground.
The work-camp arrangement is growing in popularity and there is an abundance of listings online at sites like Workers on Wheels, The Sowers, and Work-Kamping and others. The assortment of possible jobs ranges from camp hosting to maintenance to trail guiding and a lot more. Most workers put in 20 or so hours per week in exchange for a campsite with hookups for their recreational vehicle.
Our site includes a canopy over the RV and a storage shed and small patio surrounded by oak woods. It sits on a small hill in the middle of the park at the foothills of the mountains and at the edge of Los Padres National Forest. We are 30 miles from the Pacific beach.
My responsibilities include a wide range of tasks such as painting, repairing old equipment, felling trees and chipping them for mulch, washing picnic tables, and so on.
I am not sure if I will pursue the same sort of plan for next winter, but it is really working well for me now. The work pace is relaxed, the tasks are not back-breaking, and the manager is pleasant and flexible. And it helps that the location is in a quiet valley in southern California where the winter temperatures are mild and the sunshine abundant. Well, honestly, the location is what attracted me to this spot in the first place. Back home in Michigan, I would have been dealing with the harshest snowiest winter in recent history.
Yep, this is working very well.
I have three more months to go here before we hitch up again to pursue our epic trip to Alaska for the summer. Stay tuned!
Milepost 12-10-13 The newer RV arrived yesterday, and Kaye and I are on a mission to have it ready by our departure day, December 28th, when we hope to head for California for the winter and spring. Today we emptied the cupboards and drawers of the old RV and carried everything across the yard (through the snow) to the new rig for sorting and re-assigning places – for the stuff we want to take with us for the next phase of life. It feels like we are in a race against time.
It’s a small slice of the larger race against time: Life. And it is informed by bucket lists and lifelong dreams and a watchful eye on the clock of human life expectancy and physical well being. Can we get everything done before we are too decrepit to climb the proverbial mountain (because it’s there)? Or will we die trying? Or will we die NOT trying?
It’s been 10 years since Kaye was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, and we have been keenly aware of our mortality since that day, two days before Christmas, 2003. There’s nothing like cancer to remind a person of the shortness of human life and to cause one to formulate some quick plans about how to spend what’s left of it.
We decided to travel more, to see more of the world, but our financial situation wouldn’t accommodate us. All of our capital was in real estate, and none of it was liquid. We had to make radical changes. For us, it meant downsizing, and we are still in the process.
Finally, later this month, it looks like we will get to hit the road and wander around the country for a few years… perhaps until we can’t climb the steps of the RV anymore – let alone the proverbial mountain.
To my younger friends who haven’t yet given a thought to the future and how to make the most of it, I have some words of wisdom:
Enjoy the moment. Stop and smell the roses. Don’t wait until retirement to have adventure or to take risks (and don’t seek adventure if you don’t like to take risks; they go hand in hand).
Upsize when you need to. You need a bigger house and vehicle during the family years. And a bigger garage — for the Harley.
Downsize when you need to. For us it was after the kids had moved out and we realized our house and 30-acres were too big for two people.
Prioritize from the outset. If money is important to you, get an education. With a college degree, on the average, you’ll make 30% more over the span of your career (if you can get a job in your field). At 17 years old, a major factor in my decision to become a teacher was having summers off. No way would a 2-week vacation every year satisfy my need for extended adventure trips.
Love people more than stuff. Your friends and family will determine your quality of life more than the job you have or the stuff you own. Respect them even when they don’t seem all that respectable, hold them tight for the most part, but give them space when they need it.
Go climb a mountain. Start on your bucket list while you are still young. Believe me, it’s a big world, and there is too much to see in one lifetime, so you better get started now.
My kids set the pace.
My daughter, Wendi, has visited all 50 states and has backpacked with her husband from Mexico south through South America to Argentina. She and Scott own an adventure tour business in Alaska where they spend their summers.* My middle daughter, Angie, has lived on four continents and resided with her husband in India for two years. She planned their 10th anniversary trip to Florence, Venice and Rome without the help of the tour companies. My oldest daughter, Stacy, has visited 46 states and will get the other four in 2014 before her 40th birthday. She could write the book on lone wolf adventures for women (and she might do it), as her husband often works weekends.
They’ve been great adventuring role models for me! Maybe this post isn’t really about the race against time that is life, but more about the race to keep up with my daughters on their adventures!
Anyway, Kaye and I are taking off to assume the gypsy life for a while – and the risks and adventures that go along with it. Maybe we will meet other vagabonds along the way. Perhaps we will bump into YOU somewhere between the oceans in the next couple of years. I hope you will give us directions if we seem to be lost.
Just remember, “Not all those who wander are lost.” –J.R.R. Tolkien
What adventures are on your bucket list? In what phase of life will you make them happen? Click “Leave a Comment” at the top to tell me about it. Also, if you’re interested in life on the road, please “Follow” (in the left sidebar) to see where we end up next time.
We are in downsizing mode. Again. This time we are packing for the trip to California where we are scheduled for a 5-month work/camp stay at Kenney Grove Park in Fillmore, through the winter and spring. We get a free camp site with full hookups in exchange for some part-time handyman work and camp hosting, an opportunity that Kaye found on the Workers On Wheels website.
Then around June 1st, we head north up the coast highway on our epic journey to Alaska. We probably won’t get back to Michigan until August.
We have been down this road before, but not quite this far. It’s the weight of everything that’s the biggest consideration this time, and I do mean weight — as in pounds and ounces. We are moving into a 29-foot fifth wheel RV that will be our home for the next few years. We have to cross the continental divide several times in the next year, hauling this rig and every bit of cargo we put into it.
So, the importance of each item has to be weighed in terms of its actual usefulness. Too many heavy things will result in higher fuel consumption and engine work load.
This is where we part with our decorative knick knacks and pottery collection. The 12-piece cookware set will be left in storage and a single skillet selected. The glass cookie jars are out, the light weight plastic containers are in. The toolbox will be culled until only the most essential tools are included. My piano and organ are going into storage. I’ve already moved to on-line banking so I don’t need to carry much of an office, so even the office supplies will be reduced to a bare minimum.
This is a deeper level of downsizing than we have experienced up until now. Three years ago we started sorting and pitching so we could move out of our 10-room house and into a one-room log cabin. A lot of our stuff just went into storage sheds, even after we had yard sales and umpteen Craigslist listings to reduce our inventory.
But this is where the rubber meets the road. Actually. Because there is only so much space in the RV and only the essential necessities will pass muster.
This can be really difficult. Kaye is a book lover who had a library in the big house with hundreds of volumes. Now she will carry a dozen titles at most. Fortunately, she owns a Kindle and has it loaded with hundreds of digitized books — which are weightless.
And I am leaving my workshop locked up at home with all of my prized power tools and sawhorses; I’m only taking one toolbox, and there’s no room in it for a table saw or a chainsaw. I’m hoping we don’t have a repeat of our earlier Smokey Mountain encounter where we came around a bend in a narrow mountain road and found a tree down across the road. I had to use my small campfire axe to cut it in two so we could get through.
Well, it looks as though we will leave the Michigan log cabin around December 28th for our westward winter wanderings — which will turn into our spring and summer sojourns.
With careful packing, our load will be light enough to climb every mountain with ease. And our adventurous spirits will reach new heights as well!