Kids posing on a July day at Traverse City’s Open Space Park
These days, I’m the media relations guy for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau, but before that I spent 25 years as a reporter and columnist at the local newspaper, the Traverse City Record-Eagle,a job that frequently took me out into the most remote backroads, forests, beaches and islands of the beautiful Grand Traverse Region. My strategy was pretty simple — just drive, paddle, ski or walk until you’re certain you’re lost, and then find somebody to talk to. It was a great job!
I never intended to live in Traverse City. I grew up in Grand Rapids, spent four years in the Coast Guard in places like Miami Beach, Monterey and San Francisco, and when I finally graduated from college I took a summer job at the Miami Herald. To my surprise, I discovered I didn’t like the tropics nearly as much as I thought I would — and when the Record-Eagle offered me a job I took it, figuring I’d put in a year or two and head off to someplace like Seattle or Portland.
What I discovered very quickly is that this place gets to you in a variety of unexpected ways. The beaches here are as lovely as anyplace else I’ve ever been, the weather is mild all year round — warm enough for swimming in September and cold enough for skiing in December — and just about the time you’re getting tired of one season you get another one every bit as pleasant. The people are laid-back and friendly, the music and arts scene is awesome, and the place still hasn’t gotten so sophisticated that a guy like me feels out of place.
Just yesterday, for instance, I took my lunch break over at the Grand Traverse Commons, the sprawling 300-acre campus of what was once a state mental asylum. Today those lovely castle-like hospital buildings are being redeveloped into a dazzling village of shops, apartments, galleries, restaurants and offices — but the hills and forests where the distracted patients once found healing and refreshment are now a sort of “Central Park” for Traverse City. In summer, folks come here to hike, run and walk their dogs, and in winter it’s a favorite spot for snowshoers and cross-country skiers. There’s a whole network of marked trails that correspond to the paths walked by those 19th century patients. Pretty nice view, isn’t it? On Wednesday evenings in winter, whole groups of snowshoers come up here after dark and watch the lights come up over the town.
I’m still blown away by the fact that I meet people who’ve been coming here on vacation for years and have no idea that places like the Commons even exist. One of the wonderful things about my job is that I get to tell them!
It’s a common problem. When we hosted the National Governors Conference here in 2007, some of the staff people from other states got off the plane looking like Dorothy and Toto emerging from their house after it landed in Oz. The most frequent comment: ”I had no idea there was anything like this in Michigan!”
Evening at Sleeping Bear
It’s kind of fun, really. You take somebody over to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and stand them on that big overlook platform, 400 feet above the surface of the lake, and they’re literally stunned by the vastness of the place. You sit down with a snooty wine snob at a little vineyard on the Old Mission Peninsula and serve them a cool glass of the intensely-flavored Riesling they make out there, and watch their eyes get big. It’s one of the challenges (and one of the thrills, I admit) of living in a place that is passionately loved by some folks and absolutely mysterious to others.
So, to answer the question: Traverse City is on the northwest coast of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. If you hold your right hand out with the palm facing you (our traditional portable map), we’re the little notch between the pinkie and ring finger. That notch is Grand Traverse Bay, a long narrow freshwater fiord scooped out by the last glacier about 10,000 years ago. Thanks to its many bays, coves and islands, the Traverse City area has 234 miles of continuous lake Michigan shoreline and at least 95 inland lakes that are at least 50 acres in size. Obviously, water is a big part of who we are.
In fact, it was water that brought the first tourists to this neck of the woods. Hunters and traders of the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes arrived here by canoe in the 18th century, followed by the French voyageurs who were their partners in the lucrative North American fur trade. (It was they who named it La Grande Traverse, “The Long Crossing.” It was — and it still is.) Afterward, schooners and steamboats passed through on their way to the West, and helped harvest the timber that rebuilt Chicago after the Great Fire. Boats were the main way in and out of Traverse City right up to the 1870s, when the first railroad was finally built. That’s why we have so many lighthouses around here. (Remind me to tell you about them sometime.)
OK, enough history. (Sorry, it was my college major.) My point is that for years this was not exactly an easy place to get to. When you live on the edge of a peninsula, people don’t accidentally find you on their way to someplace else. Unless they’re terribly, dreadfully lost, they have to find you on purpose.
Sometimes that isolation presents problems, but it can also have advantages. It’s one reason why this region’s magnificent scenery and abundant natural resources have remained relatively unspoiled. And it’s why you can come here almost anytime of year (except, arguably, for a week or two during the height of the midsummer tourist season) without feeling any of the crowding and jostling you get in so many other resort areas.
But gradually the word is getting out, and this little town of 15,000 people — which began in 1839 as an isolated lumber camp at the water’s edge — has become a regional hub for outdoor recreation and relaxation. So a guy in my position inevitably ends up being a little ambivalent. On the one hand, I want to sort of keep the whole place to myself — or maybe just reserve it for a few of my closest friends. On the other, it’s just such a kick to show all this neat stuff to people who’ve never seen any of it before. It’s my home, and I’m proud of it.