“I think when I die, I want some of my ashes spread here,” I tell my cousin as I take a picture through the ferry window on our way over to the island. “I mean, not on this boat, but–you know–maybe Mission Point. Or behind the library. Or, wait–I know–the playground.” Yes, that little playground on the back of the island that overlooks Lake Huron is most definitely a place I will forever associate with happiness and peace and watching my children play during a magical sliver of life called summer.
“But, for the record,” I add in a superstitious attempt to smooth out what I just threw into the universe, “that won’t be for a long, long time.”
The ferry speeds ahead while Dash snaps blurry pictures of the water spray against the window, and as we approach the island, what were dots in the distance now take shape into the setting of one of our favorite summer adventures.
There’s the massive Grand Hotel taking up an entire corner of the island’s edge, its sheer size and stately white columns making it the first distinguishable building from the lake. And then Hotel Iroquois. And Fort Mackinac. And the harbor and the dock with all the boats where we finally stop and get off. I take a deep breath of that lake/horse/fudge-scented air that I’m certain is also laced with some highly illegal happiness-inducing chemical.
“Ahhh. Kids–this is it. The adventure begins,” I announce as we seek out our porter to ensure our bags make it to our hotel–by horse.
No direction is given this year–no “This way” or “Turn right” or “Where to first?” because they know. It’s “turn right.” Walk slowly through town. Take it in. Turn around to make sure Dash is following us and not stopped a block back, staring and taking pictures of a horse (he is).
Find the Pink Pony. Order a round of pink lemonades…and two Michigan beers. Ask for the window booth.
It’s Deja Vu. Five years of the same places, same food orders, same smells, same sounds, same summer highs, all blurred together because it is hard to keep the years straight.
Even the horses are the same. “Blackberry and Jay,” a carriage driver answers Dash when he shouts–aggressively, might I add–across the street, “WHAT’S YOUR HORSES NAMES?”–the first of the 789 times that will follow in the next two days.
“We had them last year!” we excitedly explain. “What about Josie and Daisy?” we ask. “Are they still around?”
“Josie’s here,” the carriage driver informs, “but Daisy’s retired now. Livin’ the good life.”
Dash asks about Daisy several times after this, confused about this retired thing. We tell him she lives by the lake now, in a cottage like Poppa’s where she does crossword puzzles and tends to her tomato garden and is perfecting her blueberry crumble recipe. I bet post-Mackinac horses are the happiest retired horses of all.
We close out our tab at the Pink Pony but might as well leave it open because we’ll be back later tonight. And again tomorrow. I fold up the paper placemat where we started a list of the island’s horse names and tuck it in my purse.
We turn right and continue walking. Past the harbor, the houses, the church, up the hill with the flowers. We stop for every horse carriage which is often. “WHAT’S THEIR NAMES?!?!” Dash demands. Duke & Billy. Pat & Jack. Slim & Pete. Clarence & Cindy.
I pull out the placemat list and hand it to Lainey, our official recorder. The list will grow by the hour until we have over 100 horse names before we leave the next day.
We turn the corner, and Mission Point appears in all its glory–the lawn with grass that feels like velvet, the water, the chairs that beg you to come and sit and think about what it would be like to stay here forever–you could make it work, you’d figure it out.
Our visit to the lawn has unwritten rules. Like Thou Shalt Play Airplane. And Thou Shalt Cartwheel. And Thou Shalt Attempt to Throw Children in the Air for a Picture but Notice It’s Not That Easy Anymore.
And then we walk some more.
We walk through town, popping in to Horn’s for another beer, the Seabiscuit for fries, Murdick’s for fudge. We stand and watch the hypnotizing show of fudge makers scraping spatulas through pools of liquid fudge that looks like brown glass and smells like heaven.
We smell soaps, buy a dish towel and peruse handmade jewelry at our favorite shops like Poppin’s and Little Luxuries Artist Market and Caddywumpus. I buy a keychain and four postcards at a new store–Canvas & Paddle–and am reminded how much I love that whole cabin-in-the-woods decor. Everywhere we walk feels like a scene from a storybook, and there doesn’t seem to be a single tourist who takes it for granted. The secret of this island is well-appreciated–it’s why we’re all here. With the absence of cars and a $25 ferry ticket to get here, people don’t stumble on the island accidentally.
Evening takes us on a different walk–along the lake toward the Grand Hotel. We walk slowly again to drink up all the details of the homes–the red front doors, the perfect window shutters, the flowers hanging on the front porch.
We reach the playground and stay until the perfect moment that leaves us just enough time to walk up the rest of the hill so that the Grand Hotel appears as the sun is setting.
On the lawn next to the golf greens is the old red phone booth where I’ve taken pictures of the kids every year. They play there for an hour, pleading to stay longer when we suggest maybe we should leave. There’s nothing really to play with but an old pay phone, but they’ve found a way to turn making pretend calls and opening and shutting a heavy booth door into a full hour of play.
We return to the Grand Hotel the next day, this time to tour the inside and settle into big rocking chairs on the largest front porch in the world. We stay for hours.
When the kids need more breaks from walking, we revisit the kid’s art studio in Mackinac Art Museum where they make sailboats out of paper towel rolls, painted newspaper and egg cartons.
Even in the quiet of the studio, you can still hear the distant clip-clip-clip-clop of Duke & Billy. Or Slim & Pete. Or maybe Blackberry & Jay.
The Michigan coloring pages they’ve offered every year are stacked on the same table with a basket of crayons. There’s something comforting about coloring the same robin every year–red-orange for the belly, and for the feathers, the broken classic brown crayon with the peeled-off paper.
And finally, our favorite, the Mackinac Island Public Library with the mint green paint job and the reading deck that overlooks the lake. The little children’s section has so many of the same toys and games and books that we have at home, but here, my kids actually want to play with them for hours. So we whisper so as not to disturb adults on the other side of the fireplace (yes a little library fireplace, by golly) while we play Candy Land on the floor and initiate a silly puppet show we eventually take outside because the kids are giggling so loudly.
On a shelf in the children’s section, I find a display of picture books about Northern Michigan and the island. I thumb through illustrations of lighthouses, pebbled shores, tall pines, sun-drenched dunes and facts about the history of the island, the depths of the Great Lakes, the battles fought near Fort Mackinac years ago. I put the books back and gather the kids to head to our next stop…more fudge, maybe. The harbor, perhaps. On to another page in the picture book.
(a reaction to the smell of horse poop):
The hourglass sand trickles as we know we’ll board the last ferry of the day, and this little island will join our own picture memories until it comes to life again next year.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Some summer in your life–any summer–find a way to visit Mackinac Island. There’s magic everywhere.