The Road Trip That Made Me
Sometimes I sit and wonder when I became addicted to road trips and all of the memories they create. Growing up, we frequently vacationed in northern Minnesota and drove some 800 miles each way from Indianapolis to our destination, which was a cabin at a resort on one of 10,000 lakes.
But I think I can point to a trip 30 years ago in July of 1985 that really opened my eyes to what a road trip vacation is all about. It was July 4th weekend of 1985 when my mom, dad, and I loaded up in my folks’ 1977 Chevrolet Impala. I was getting ready to head into my senior year in high school and my five older brothers were all out of high school and working jobs, so we had moved beyond the full family vacation. I was the last one in school, wasn’t working a part time job, so it was natural for just the three of us to hit the road.
Granted, my memory on the events of that week 30 years ago isn’t complete, but that trip made an impact on me to where I remember more about it than most people would. Our destination was an area mom wanted to go to, the northern most part of the upper peninsula of Michigan, specifically Copper Harbor, Michigan. We left on Saturday, July 6, 1985. We cruised north out of Indianapolis and went through Chicago via US 41.
We didn’t stop in Chicago, but we took the two lanes out of Chicago and into Wisconsin. We continued on through Milwaukee and finally that first night we started to look for a place to stay for the night. Unfortunately we were running out of luck the darker it got. We got into Green Bay, Wisconsin in the 11pm hour that night, and we couldn’t find a motel with rooms to save our lives. We found out we were passing through that part of Wisconsin where everyone stayed who were in for the annual Oshkosh air show, which brought hundreds of thousands in from all parts of the world.
So there we sat at midnight in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn in downtown Green Bay. No Vacancy. At this point, mom was pretty hot, in every sense of the word. We were all tired and cranky, and at that point mom told my dad, “Oh, let’s just go home!” to which my normally mild mannered dad quickly shot back with “I’m not driving back tonight!”. Mind you, Indianapolis was some 400 miles back south. Once cooler heads prevailed, it was decided the farther we get away from the Oshkosh airshow, the better luck we’d have finding a room. So we decided to make the best of it and head north out of Green Bay. We motored up US 141, a 2-lane US highway that cut through the woods and pastures of northeastern Wisconsin. Back in 1985, there were very few 24 hour gas stations, and at one point we had to pull off so mom could visit a field so she could relieve her bladder. We still hadn’t found a place to stay, but before we got to the border of Michigan, we found a 24 hour roadside cafe where we pulled in around 1am to grab a bite to eat.
I don’t recall the name of the place, but we were all tired, hungry, and half asleep. The one thing I remember about the place is that it was the first time I had a burger that had BBQ sauce and bacon on it. Other than that, I was ready for bed. Fortunately just a few miles up the road, we crossed into Michigan and into the town of Iron Mountain. FINALLY! It was 2am and there was vacancy at the Holiday Motel.
After doing some homework, I’ve found that is no longer called the Holiday Motel, but it is still currently in business operating as an Econolodge.
After our short night’s stay, we forged north into the upper peninsula at Houghton. Cool little town with a neat little draw bridge that still functions today.
On Day 2 we forged ahead and headed towards Copper Harbor, which is at the very tip of the peninsula. We stayed that night at Eagle Harbor at the Shoreline Motel. Loved this place! Situated right at the harbor, it’s a little mom & pop motel resort with an onsite restaurant. And much to my surprise, it’s still open with the onsite restaurant. There’s a lighthouse on the other side of the harbor, and I vividly remember laying in bed with the window open listening to the waters of Lake Superior splashing against the beach while the bell on the buoy in the harbor occasionally rang. And a little pesky mosquito buzzed around my ear while I tried to get to sleep. How’s that for a memory? It looks like we stayed in Room 4, as I took a picture with my mom waving at me from inside.
The Brockway Mountain Drive offers some incredible views of not only Copper Harbor, but also Lake Superior for as far as the eye can see. One thing that was different for me was how late the sun set up there. The picture above was taken somewhere in the 9pm hour, and the sunset close to 10pm. That night we stayed at a motel in Copper Harbor, but I can’t for the life of me remember the name. It was situated back into some trees not far from the end (or beginning) point of US 41. The last time I was up there, the motel was closed, but the building was still standing.
That night we ate at a restaurant that still is there today called the Harbor Haus. Great seafood they had with a great view of the harbor. One of the locals told us if we really wanted to experience Copper Harbor, we needed to head to the city dump at sunset. Apparently black bears made there appearance at the dump and it was quite the tourist attraction. The dump is now closed and the bears find their food by other means, but it was one of the highlights of the entire trip.
For the remainder of our trip, we headed west and went into our old vacation spot of Park Rapids for a couple of nights before working our way back home. Not to say that leg of the trip wasn’t fun, it wasn’t new and adventurous as the first 3 days were.
So as the 30th anniversary of that trip approaches in a few weeks, I look back on it with great memories, especially knowing it was the last trip I’d take with both of my parents, as my mom passed away a little over a year later. Her passing made the trip that much more special. And as a 17 year old, it made an impression on me that shaped me as a traveler.
I hope to get back up there and retrace as much of that trip as I can. Perhaps even stay at one or more of the rooms we stayed in. There’s a lot of my soul as a road warrior up there. My passion for hitting the road is deeply rooted in the memories of that trip, and those roots are alive and well in the Keweenaw Peninsula of northern Michigan.
**All photos above were from the trip.