Emmet County has more than its share of the dazzling and the deranged

Emmet County has more than its share of the dazzling and the deranged
Courtesy photo

Most metro Detroiters heading up to Mackinaw City would take that last leg of Interstate 75 from Indian River to Big Mac at high speed, shooting up those final 28 miles in 20 minutes or less, law and common sense be damned. People have always wanted "the blessing of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces" — but were probably never in such a damned, roadkill-mashing hurry to get there until Henry Ford came along.

And yet if you find you have a few hours to putter the long way around, especially on a weekday, veer westward toward Emmet County. The county juts out into Lake Michigan from Mackinaw to Little Traverse Bay, and has more than its fair share of history as counties go, including savage and weird episodes at odds with such happy names as Pleasant View, Good Hart, and Bliss.

Get off I-75 at Indian River and you'll be treated to one of Michigan's religious curiosities: The National Shrine of the Cross in the Woods. It's a massive statue of Jesus hanging on the world's largest crucifix. Not only can you snag a selfie with the Big J, and peruse the museum of nun dolls, Mass is celebrated daily. As Catholic shrines go, this one seems built to appeal to adherents of the church who take to the road, an unholy alliance of Christianity and car culture. For instance, you can drop in on Our Lady of the Highway, patroness of the estimated 300,000 pilgrims the Cross in the Woods attracts annually.

Many motorists would then choose to proceed in a westerly direction to take in lovely Harbor Springs, a natural harbor facing Petoskey across Little Traverse Bay. It is worth a look-see, but due to more than a century's worth of summer resort money — much of it from Chicago — the once-quaint harbor village has been distorted into something approaching Traverse City writ small. Visitors pay a pretty penny to stay in elegant hotels in Wequetonsing, near Roaring Brook's nature preserves, the 18-hole Wequetonsing Golf Club, founded in 1896, and the year-round activities at Boyne Highlands — and still close enough to sneak into town for a meal at Stafford's Pier Restaurant, where $37 will get you the 6-ounce filet in Bordelaise.

For our money, though (which, admittedly, isn't a lot), we'd skip it by heading up U.S. 31 past Alanson and Brutus to downtown Pellston, which could use your business. Lacking lakeside scenery, these outposts of civilization at rural crossroads have to work for their money, and get the job done with a little extra grace. You'll find a restaurant called Small Town Grill, holder of the fabled five-star Yelp rating. Or you can fortify yourself with a visit to the Pellston General Store, the kind of overstocked gas station familiar to Michigan road dogs, and a good place to pick up some sandwich fixings, even some basic finger food, such as fried mushrooms. Head out of town west, and out on Robinson Road you'll hit Jurek's Meat Market, where you can get house-made jerky from an actual family business.

About 10 miles to the west, you'll hit Lake Michigan and the burgs of Good Hart and Middle Village, where you'll gain access to the striking Tunnel of Trees Scenic Heritage Route. The lake will be a quarter-mile away, but seen only through the trees. Pro tip: The St. Ignatius Church, at 101 N. Lamkin Rd. in Middle Village, has a trail from its cemetery that leads to the beach. But most of the lakefront, prime real estate in the "Land of the Million-Dollar Sunset," is studded with the abodes of the wealthy and mostly private property. (By some estimates, one-third of the residential units in Emmet County aren't primary residences.)

It was in one of those lakefront "cottages" 50 years ago that the still-unsolved Good Hart murders took place. A well-to-do suburban Detroit family was mass murdered while staying at their Lake Michigan vacation home on June 25, 1968. The victims were Richard Robison, his wife Shirley, and their four children. So secluded was their retreat that the bodies were not discovered until almost four weeks later that summer. True crime buffs may want to bring along a copy of Mardi Jo Link's 2008 book When Evil Came to Good Hart, guaranteed to add a chill even in summer's sunshine.

The area was once the site of a sprawling Ottawa settlement. On a high bluff stood a towering but crooked pine. Visible for miles, it was a marker for native peoples canoeing around the bend. Even centuries ago, the ancient fir was regarded as a sacred being, called Wargunukkezee, or "the bent tree." It was even part of ancient mythology: According to Anishinaabe stories, the tree acquired its shape when trickster deity Nanabozho struck it in a fit of pique. French fur traders and missionaries called it L'Arbe Croche. About 200 years ago, it disappeared. If poet and local historian John C. Wright's account is to be believed, another grew in its place only to be "cut down by a bad man" 50 years later. "The offender," Wright wrote, "had a miserable existence after that and died suddenly. He was punished by the Great Spirit because the Crooked Tree was sacred to the Indians."

Given the area's deep Native American history, it should come as no surprise that the Tunnel of Trees follows a trail — many of Michigan's highways were built upon such trails. But this section of M-119 is a "Scenic Heritage Route" — which is to say it's also a sort of throwback in time. The route twists and turns through heavy woods, lacking a center line when it narrows to less than two lanes. The road has no shoulders, and the majestic hardwood trees often stand right where the pavement ends. The only way to make a two-point turn is often to pull into the driveway of one of the route's many Robisonian dream homes. It's the only state highway of its kind, and the views attract pleasure cyclists and motorbike rallies.

Which brings us to another point: As beautiful as it is to see from a bicycle or as the passenger in a car, it can be frustrating to any motorist in a hurry. The tortuous squiggles, curves, and turns often leave you blind to oncoming traffic, especially when you'd most like to pass a group of cyclists asserting their right to the road. Our advice is: Take it easy. Every other state road in Michigan is designed to make the motorist the king of the road, free to jam down on the accelerator and never have to wait longer than 10 minutes for the next designated passing zone. Driving north out of Good Hart, there are only seven miles of this one-of-a-kind roadway. There could be worse places to be slowed down a bit. Share what little road there is, and don't make any risky passes that you'll regret.

But even if your nerves are a little jangled, you'll start to feel better when you reach Cross Village. The forest opens up to reveal a small town, and right away you'll notice that one building is more fanciful than all the others: Legs Inn. Faced with fieldstone and timbers, its first-floor roofline is graced with little stovepipe legs, the source of its unusual name. When it comes to dining, Legs is the best, and almost the only, game in town. The eatery's menu of Polish food rivals Hamtramck's in quality. The outdoor dining area is not only beautiful, but sits up on a high bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, a perch where cool breezes strengthen the appetite.

But the real story is the outsider art inside, created in the 20th century by Stanley Smolak, a Polish immigrant who spent 40 years collecting driftwood, antlers, wood that looked like antlers, and giant pieces of tree trunks. He assembled it all into his one-of-a-kind inn, which has now been a family business for 90 years. The hand-carved furniture and artworks are testament to Smolak's love of northern Michigan, and yet they retain a bit of Old World whimsy. Typical of Smolak's work is a piece called "Struggle" that greets visitors to the lobby: a huge hunk of wood painted to resemble something like a ferocious bear.

Unfortunately, the restaurant's noteriety can mean that those legions of cyclists or motorbikers can and do rally their way through the Tunnel of Trees, only to end up at Legs Inn. You might find the whole place parked up with two-wheeled vehicles and the hostess quoting wait times that seem unreasonable. (Remember how we recommended a weekday visit?) Well, if you have to wait, there's a good place to do it nearby. Heck, even if you do get to eat right away, afterward you might drive down where Waterfront Drive turns off onto Park Lane, where, 100 feet below Legs Inn, you can enjoy relaxing at Cross Village Beach. Lake Michigan is never warm, but on a gentle day in late summer, you might find the shoals extending out into the lake warmer than most spots. Beaches such as this one seldom have problems with contamination or bacteria, but you can always check ahead to find if there are any closures by looking at www.deq.state.mi.us/beach.

Even if it were closed, though, it's still a beautiful place to sunbathe. And on a clear day, you should just be able to make out the outline of Beaver Island, where King James Strang, leader of the Kingdom of God on Earth, ruled over his Mormon followers as "America's only king" — at least until he was assassinated in 1856.

See? It just gets weirder.

From our 2018 Made in Michigan issue.

About The Author

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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