It’s Sunday night following a week of vacation, so naturally I’m feeling sentimental and sad knowing that it’s back to work for me tomorrow, but it’s also a good time for me to reflect on the past week. Since we spent thirteen years living in New York, nearly all of our vacation time has been spent visiting family. Many of those weeks were also spent in glorious vacation-like ways, but they almost always involved staying with family. This was the first vacation that we’ve planned as a family of five that had nothing to do with visiting anyone, and we had a lot of fun plotting it out in advance.
Although I grew up in Michigan, we didn’t do a great deal of Michigan road-tripping when I was a kid. It may be because my dad’s family only took long road trips to visit family, so he was determined to give us a different sort of vacation experience (which I totally appreciate). We spent many summer weeks on Lake Michigan in South Haven, and I love having that tradition as a part of my childhood, but there are lots of quintessential Michigan vacation spots that I’ve never seen. We decided to do a Northern Michigan trip and hit a few places on my list, and it was wonderful.
We started out at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park. A few years back, ABC News voted it the most beautiful place in America, and I’d been wanting to see it ever since. Kristin’s sister had taken her kids not long ago, and warned us that we may as well skip the dune climbing portion since the kids would surely whine and refuse the walk, but advised us to check out a particular lookout point on the drive. We didn’t budget very much time there, but really wished that we had. As soon as we got out of the car and the kids saw the sand, Jude said, “I forgot my diggers.” We had a picnic lunch at the bottom and then all tackled the climb. The kids were absolute champs! Jonah practically ran up, with Vivi close behind. Jude was slow but determined, holding Kristin’s hand along the way. Everyone made it to the first plateau, and I think that the kids would have kept going but Jude’s pace and our schedule led us to call it quits and head back down.
We packed everyone back into the car and drove out to the lookout point, which was incredible. Sure, it was only about 450 feet above the lake, but it felt like we were looking at the earth from space. The kids wanted to climb and explore and dig; I think that we could have spent all afternoon there if we hadn’t planned to be elsewhere.
From there we headed to Great Wolf Lodge in Traverse City. Our first experience with Great Wolf (which is a chain) was in the Poconos. We were driving back to New York from Michigan a few summers ago, and desperately needed coffee late at night. The only Starbucks we could find happened to be in the lobby of a Great Wolf Lodge. Kristin came back to the car with two coffees and a dazed look on her face, and told me, “You have to go in there. It’s like Chuck E. Cheese on crack.” This is probably my brother-in-law’s idea of a nightmare vacation (they take totally amazing vacations, so I have nothing but respect), but for some reason I really wanted to do this for the kids. Great Wolf is a waterpark hotel, but it goes way beyond that. The indoor water park is incredible, but it also has things like a kids’ spa, a bowling alley, character appearances, story time, dance parties, a cute camp-themed restaurant, and this complicated magic game that runs throughout the entire hotel. Jonah got a wand and played the game, and Jude and Vivi both got stuffed animals that connect to a simpler game for little ones, all thanks to Kristin’s parents who paid for those activities in advance.
The week before we went on the trip, I was in New York for work and met up with good friends. As I was telling a wise friend about our plans, and how we’d chosen Great Wolf entirely for the kids, she gave me some sage advice. “Try not to make it just for the kids,” she said, “or you may end up disappointed if they don’t react the way you’re hoping. Instead, tell yourselves that you’re doing this because you want to do something new.” Oh the wisdom of mom friends, and how right she was. I knew this going in, and still made some terrible mistakes that I can’t quite let go of many days later.
Jonah wasn’t as interested in the water park as we’d hoped, and if I’m being honest with myself I should have expected that. He did go into the water a couple of times, and liked the lazy river and the toddler area, but he wasn’t interested in much else. On day two I told him that I really wanted to do one of the big waterslides with him. He’s tall enough to do them with an adult, and after giving it some thought he said that he would. We walked up the stairs, and I made sure to show him all of the details as he went so that he’d feel comfortable. We chatted with other families in line, many with kids his size who were also lining up to ride with their parents. They told us about the ride, how fun it was, but when it came time for Jonah and I to climb into a tube he wouldn’t budge. I tried to convince him for a number of minutes before we finally walked back down. This is where I should have told him that it was fine and asked what he wanted to do instead, but I didn’t. I told him that I was disappointed because I’d really wanted to ride with him. I told him that I felt like he was missing out on an opportunity, and we went back to the room. It didn’t take long for the guilt to set in. He took a nap, and by the time Kristin came back to the room with the twins I was in tears and feeling incredibly remorseful.
You see, I can be a control freak about lots of things, but vacations tend to dial things up for me in a really unhealthy way. I’m so determined to make the most of every minute, so aware of how quickly time passes and of the power of regret and disappointment, that I’m always on high alert trying to determine whether I’m using the time wisely, or if there’s some better way to set up conditions for success and happiness and quality time. When I read this piece years ago it really struck a nerve. My approach is totally bonkers and almost counterproductive, and yet I’m not very good at reining it in.
I apologized to Jonah more than once, telling him that he always has permission to change his mind and choose not to do something if it doesn’t feel right or safe or good, and told him that my reaction was based on nothing more than my own selfishness. I promised to try harder, and he forgave me, but I’m still stewing in regret. The next morning I asked him what he wanted to do most before check-out. He said that he wanted to play the “wand game” and Jude and Vivi chose the waterpark, so we split up again and I reminded myself that it’s OK for kids to have different ideas of fun. As we packed up for our next destination the kids watched TV, and on our way out of the hotel we asked them about their favorite moments over the past couple of days. Jonah immediately said that his was watching cartoons in the room, and despite my friend’s wise advice and my decision to honor his perspective, I was fuming again. This time I really only vented to Kristin, but I was disappointed. Why spend all of this money on a vacation when he could stay home and watch TV? A friend pointed out today that despite the value of asking questions like this, and helping kids to reflect on experiences and focus on gratitude and highs and lows, a four-year-old may not be fully capable of answering the way I expect. There’s often a recency bias at play and cartoons were the very last thing he’d done that was enjoyable.
We hit the road and headed to Mackinaw City, where we stayed in a cabin at Mackinaw Mill Creek. The kids have been looking forward to “camping” ever since we told them we had this all planned. And no, staying in a cabin with a bathroom isn’t truly camping, but it’s the first campground experience they’ve ever had and it was unlike anything they’ve ever done. This place was wonderful. Such a lovely contrast with the chaos of a waterpark hotel. We got in towards evening, but still had a good bit of daylight due to the long Michigan summer nights. We biked to the camp store where we bought firewood and matches, and spent some time at one of the playgrounds (there are three or four).
It was an old playground with equipment I’ve never seen before, but there was something so charming about that. Like what is this spinning thing in the photo below? Does anyone know what that’s called? It was awesome.
The kids were totally into the loft bed in the cabin, and while none of us slept there they were up there quite a bit. My parents had given my sister and I some lovely old quilts in a house clean out a year or so ago, and we decided that this was the perfect opportunity to pull them out. My parents seemed thrilled that we were actually going to use them, and my dad encouraged us to, “use them up.”
That night we built a fire and Kristin and Jonah went to pick up a pizza, which we ate at the picnic table outside. When they came back, Kristin told me that in the car totally unprompted Jonah said to her that he loves vacations that I plan, and that he’ll go on any vacation that I plan. When she told me, after all of my mistakes over the past day or two, it made me cry with relief.
We made s’mores by the fire, which the kids had been waiting for for days, and then we drove out to the dark sky park. All five of us love the night sky; the kids love looking for the moon and Jonah loves telling us what phase it’s in and pointing out constellations in the sky. I was so eager to spend time gazing at the stars with them, but unfortunately it was cloudy and you couldn’t see a thing. Kristin was so sweet about it, packing everyone up and going anyway just in case, but we didn’t stay for more than a few minutes before we headed back out.
We’d planned to take the ferry to Mackinac Island the next day, but the forecast called for rain on and off all day, so we chatted about an alternative. Kristin proposed that we move the island visit to Friday, the day we planned to drive home. We could drive late, she said, if it meant better weather for the island. I was incredibly thankful since Mackinac Island was also high on my wish list and the dark sky park hadn’t worked out. What to do on a rainy Thursday in a totally blah city, though?
We drove across the Mackinac Bridge to the Upper Peninsula for breakfast, just because it was fun to say that we’d been there and tell the kids about it. Breakfast was frustratingly long, the kids were restless and hungry waiting 40 minutes for their food, and when it arrived Jude suddenly didn’t seem like himself and wouldn’t eat. We noticed that he seemed warm, and before we finished breakfast he clearly wanted nothing but sleep. We headed back to the cabin where it became clear that he was under the weather. We tried to get all of the kids to nap, but failed and ended up arguing about the day and yelling at Vivi and Jonah for disturbing Jude’s sleep. Fortunately we’d bought a puzzle in Traverse City so Jonah and I did that for a bit, and when there was a brief break in the rain we all went to a playground, but the day still felt like a bit of a bust. We worried that Jude might not feel better by morning and that our plans might have to change.
At some point Kristin suggested that I could get Jonah and Vivi out of the cabin and away from Jude by walking with them to find the water’s edge. We hadn’t even looked for it, and I was curious. It turned out to be no more than a block away (if that’s a thing when you’re at a campground), and it was gorgeous. A row of pines and a beautiful shoreline and the bridge in the distance. Watching Vivi and Jonah wade into the water and be so present and joyful in the experience was one of my favorite moments of the whole vacation. I told them that this was my favorite moment of the day, and Jonah said something funny like, “That’s good, Mama D. You should be proud of yourself!”
He waded out to get that rock from a pile, and didn’t even cry or get upset when he fell into the water unexpectedly. Even his hair was wet, it was quite a wipeout.
The next morning, we woke up early to pack everything up and check out of the cabin before heading for the ferry. By some miracle Jude was himself again, and the weather was cloudy but dry. We managed to get on a ferry that went under the Mackinac Bridge (which is unnecessary to get to the island, but certain ferry times take you under just for the experience). We found seats on top to maximize the view, and while it was chilly I think that the kids loved it. As the island came into view we pointed out lighthouses and beautiful old buildings, and I think that we were all excited.
A neighbor and friend had warned me that the island was just a lot of touristy crap, so I tried to temper my expectations. But my favorite blogger takes her kids annually and seems to be completely in love with the place, so I knew that there was beauty there somewhere. The kids loved seeing all of the horses, and the lack of cars was such a novelty.
We started with breakfast at a cute little pancake place, before deciding to get off of the main strip (which, while architecturally pretty, really is just tacky t-shirt shops, fudge, and ice cream) and bike all the way around the island. I’m SO glad that we did, especially since I had a moment of hesitation before we left town in which I wondered if bringing our bikes all that way was really worth the hassle. I imagined us carting them around all week long just for one short ride at our final destination. As it turned out we used them a lot over the last three days of the trip and even if we’d only biked the island it still would have been worth it. The back of the island was stunningly beautiful; almost no buildings, just a bike path and eight miles of rocky coastline and crystal clear waters. We stopped at least twice for the kids to play at the water’s edge, which they absolutely loved. As we biked, Jonah said again and again how much he loved Mackinac Island.
One of our last stops was at the playground of the public school, which couldn’t have a more breathtaking location as playgrounds go.
After a brief stop at the cute little public library, and the requisite stops for ice cream and fudge, we headed for the ferry back to the mainland. Kristin said that she would splurge to stay on the island on a future visit. On the ferry back I felt somewhat triumphant about the week, having experienced so many moments of beauty despite some frustrations and mistakes. The kids were happy; we made it possible for them to see and do some new things they truly enjoyed, and so much of my joy came from watching them engaged in those experiences. Hopefully I’ve learned some lessons for next time, but this felt good and I truly wish that it could have gone on much longer.