Head for the … 

"What's the antidote for au jus?" Joel asks quietly, desperately, at about 11 p.m. We're trying to fall asleep several hours after eating at what was seemingly the fanciest restaurant in the Irish Hills. Unfortunately, there's no simple solution for making a regrettable decision when you're miles from home on a road trip.

That morning, we had abandoned 40 pages of printed info in the back seat of our car. Who cares what the Web says about old-fashioned charm, clear blue lakes and early evening entertainment options for family fun. We phoned our friend Tina, who's visited the Irish Hills before, located about 35 miles west of Ann Arbor.

Tina can lift twice her weight in scaffolding with her spindly 90-pound frame. She prefers go-carting, batting cages and putt-putting, but she knows what we like. Tina tells us, "Go to Whopper's. It's so gay; you'll love it." It sounds cryptic enough to excite us. We decide to ask around when we get there.

The history of the Irish Hills dates back two centuries, when the town was a rest stop along the historic US-12, a weeklong stagecoach route between Detroit and Chicago. Because of its parks and dozens of spring-fed lakes, Irish Hills became a tourist trap in the early 1900s. The quirky attractions came later. But unfortunately, in the past decade, Michigan's weak economy has hit the Hills hard and many sites and stores are now closed. There could be another reason the hills seem sleepy. Our friend Richard used to visit the town as a child, paddle-boating on the lake, scouting for garage sales and playing at the tourist attractions. He remembers that "all the owners were old. Maybe they died, so the cool places died with them."

Suburbia stretches its strong arms far these days. Leaving Detroit, we have to drive at least 40 miles on Michigan Avenue (aka US-12) before we see our first sign of tried-and-true country living — a McDonald's marquee advertising apple pie rather than lattes and mochas. Past the small town of Saline, red barns and rusted pickups replace strip malls and glittering Chevrolet dealerships. A log cabin advertises hypnotherapy and a ramshackle roadside stand sells health insurance. Hawks caw in the wind.

Entering the Irish Hills, we pass a few closed-down spots. Prehistoric Forest was an amusement-park-style site packed with fake dinosaurs who spit water and such archaic creatures as cavemen and wooly mammoths. It's no longer open for business. From the street the huge mammals look lonely, frozen in time. Nearby, the restaurant and theater spot Stagecoach USA looks just as empty. Irish Hills' Twin Towers aren't open either. Built in the 1920s, the towers gave visitors a great view of the rolling green and glistening water. Now they stand as barren monuments of old-time pride. The Brick Walker Tavern, built in 1853, once served as a hotel. In recent years it had become an antique store. Peeking through the window, our hearts break that the shop is closed for business, when we spot a 78 record player, old albums and large-scale paintings gathering dust under a dark stairwell.

Brooklyn is also home to one of the largest sheets of asphalt soaking up 1,400 would-be-scenic acres: Michigan International Speedway. Appropriately, we gun it and fly right by on our way downtown. The main street displays the vestiges of a tourist trap — colorfully printed shirts hang on mannequins in a storefront and an antique store displays quaint ceramic pots and dolls in petticoats. Without many options for window-shopping, we hop back in the car and cruise down the road, passing billboards advertising God's country, reminding us that Jesus will save us from our hangovers and Christ died for our sins performed last night at a dance party. Just a few miles away we feel less toxic at Michigan State University's majestic Hidden Lake Gardens, one of the area's highlights.

For a measly $3, you can roam 750 acres of serenity at Hidden Lake Gardens; an arboretum with flowering crabapples, lilacs and magnolias, a hosta hillside and five miles of hiking trails. But the Harper Collection of Rare & Dwarf Conifers, which contains 500 specimens of conifers — pines, firs, spruces, larches, hemlocks, false cypress, arborvitae and junipers, the list goes on — are displayed in a manicured five-acre setting like a larger-than-life Bonsai garden.

Confoundedly, I have brought only one shoe on the trip. We wander through the soft grass in our bare feet, strolling past an evergreen native to Alaska that grows tall and thin like a Dr. Seuss tree and past a sticky-needled version of a Weeping Willow, with long, swaying branches that dangle like graceful snakes. After touring the grounds for a while, we take off for a CVS, where I buy a pair of fake rock-climbing shoes, and we spot a young girl with bright eyes and long thick lashes who must be the local beauty queen. Instead of heading back to the gardens for a hike, we decide to grab grub first. Here's when things begin to go wrong.

We stop by the Sand Lakes Inn, the kind of place where you think the waitress could be the owner. She's a wrinkly woman wearing lipstick and a tuxedo shirt and her gravelly voice has likely told many stories. The most expensive meal at the Sand Lakes Inn is $5.95. The problem is there are only two people seated at the restaurant and golf is on the television. We were hoping for a little more life. Mulling over the menu of grape leaves, meat strudel, perch, clams, walleye, smelt fry or smoked riblet and kraut, the waitress gets impatient with our indecision and cranks at us: "Well, is yer tummy gonna tell ya or is someun' else?"

The chubby yet friendly couple seated at the table can tell we're not from these parts, and they offer information that Michigan is the antiques capital of the world and that we better not go to the Golden Nugget Saloon across the street because it's overpriced. Since their first factoid seemed absurd, we don't follow the advice. Instead of chatting with the could-be owner or the couple, we let the screen door hit us on the way out. As we're leaving, I think to myself, "This is a bad decision."

I don't realize the not-so-subtle subliminal advertising, the big red sign shouting "RIBS!" outside the Golden Nugget saloon. After we're seated, I order ribs that come bathed in canned sauce, a wilted salad and a six-day-stale roll. Joel orders a roast beef sandwich, au jus. We eat what we can stand while a band of old guys plays crappy '60s rock, although noticing a guitarist had the same rare Fender as Sonic Youth offered a moment of intrigue.

His ache sets in within minutes and mine's on its way. We rest at Walter J. Hayes State Park, one of the oldest state parks, built in 1920. He lays on a hill overlooking Wampler's Lake. (Tina must have meant Wampler's, not Whoppers. While it is beautiful, there's nothing "gay" about it.) I swing on a swingset for some fresh air. Darkness heads toward town and things are feeling too quiet. Back in the car b-lining for Brooklyn, we stop at an ice cream parlor in hopes of coffee or tea. A couple of tanned types in polos pierce us with their cold, blue-eyed stares and I suddenly feel hyperaware of my olive skin and second-generation authenticity as an American.

We leave moments after entering the parlor, conspicuous and paranoid — and panicked about our lack of evening plans. We could have camped but, like improvising idiots, we didn't plan ahead. Without a bar in sight, I pick up a local paper in search of activities, desperate for the family fun I had earlier shunned and read three newsworthy items. Point of fact: These folks bet good money on where a cow poops, a transgendered professor was recently fired from a nearby university, and local residents have donated more money to Republican candidates than to Democrats for president. As Muzak's version of "Amazing Grace" fills the empty room, at dusk, it dawns on us that we are vacationing in a dry, elderly, white religious community.

Bed and breakfast with Rosemary's Baby be dammed — little more than an hour later, we're home in Detroit with its coneys and gray skies, not letting it bug us that for one day, the odds seem stacked against us and Detroit feels like the only city in Michigan that matters.

On Sunday, we rise well-rested and the guilt sets in. We didn't hike the trails, we forgot to stop at the St. Joseph's Shrine to enjoy a stone folk art monument called "Way of the Cross," depicting the journey of Jesus to Golgotha, and sailed right by Mystery Hill. So we kidnap our friend Brad and — way over our spending budget for gas — drive dutifully back to the Irish Hills (me with two shoes on) to spend a gorgeous afternoon walking through Hidden Lake Gardens' undeveloped forest, open fields and wetlands. Wildflowers are in full boom, whether or not the Irish Hills, more than 80 years ago, already spent its moment in the sun.

Mystery Hill is thankfully one attraction that's still open after 50 years. Locals say it could be because of an earthquake long ago or because of mineral springs below ground, but, in a gravity-defying cabin set in a steep incline, you can sit in a chair with its legs off the ground and walk easier up, rather than down, a steep slope. Also, water flows uphill. After an unbalanced, bewildering 10 minutes, the three of us walk crooked to the car. Guilt assuaged, feeling sufficiently disoriented, we head back home ... again.


Hidden Lake Gardens, 6214 W. Monroe Rd.; 517-431-2060. Walter J. Hayes State Park, 1220 Wamplers Lake Rd., Onsted; 517-467-7401. Mystery Hill, US-12 Road, across from Hayes State Park, Onsted; 517-467-2517. Irish Hills Twin Towers, 8424 US 12 Rd., Onsted, 517-467-2606. Michigan International Speedway, 12626 US-12 Rd., Brooklyn; 517-592-6666. Walker Tavern Historical Center and Brick Walker Tavern, 13220 M-50, Brooklyn; 517-373-3559.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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