April 22, 2020
Da Nang, Vietnam
If you’ve spent your life only traveling with family or close friends, like I used to, the thought of striking out on your own can be daunting. Fear of the unknown or of being in a strange place without your usual security blanket of people you are familiar with is a normal feeling at first.
Perhaps, then, you may consider going on an excursion with other like-minded people, even if you don’t know them. Yes, we were raised being cautioned about “stranger danger”, and while it is definitely a good idea to be circumspect, don’t allow an overabundance of apprehension to keep you from an adventure of a lifetime with friends you haven’t met yet.
This is my story of one time I overcame that uneasiness, and it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
I met three very cool people to travel with when two of them, Marija and Felicia, posted on Couchsurfing website looking for people wishing to drive the Lake Michigan Circle tour. I had always wanted to do this, so I signed up.
We were joined by Rahul, a recent transplant to Chicago. I met the two young women the evening before, and Rahul at our meet-up point at a pancake house the day we left.
All three were in their early- to mid-twenties. I was in my mid- to late-forties. I silently wondered about how the millennials would mix with my Gen-X self over the course of four days in close quarters. We left in my car (I was the only one with a vehicle OR a driver’s license!) on the Friday going into Memorial Day weekend.
Attractions, Amusements, and Accommodations
Our first stop was in Gary, Indiana. Not the usual place anyone wants to be, but the women wanted to see Michael Jackson’s boyhood home. Turned out to be a fun stop, but mostly because we were starting to be comfortable around each other.
I had brought my extensive music collection burned onto compact discs- mainly stuff from the 1970s and 80s. To my surprise and great pleasure, the rest of the group really enjoyed the music and complimented me on my taste. Our sing-a-longs in the car became part of our bonding experience.
Driving up the coast of Michigan, we stopped at places that I was familiar with, having lived there myself for several years. We enjoyed hand-scooped ice-cream at Oink’s in New Buffalo, and again at House of Flavors in Ludington.
Our first night’s stay was camping in the backyard of a family in Grand Haven. They had seen our posts planning the trip on the Couchsurfing website, and invited us to stay with them. It was an incredible experience!
They had five young daughters who helped to cook us a lovely pancake breakfast in the morning. They then asked us to go kayaking with them on the river just behind their house. It was amazing.
The second night was spent in Ludington, a town where I had lived for 8 years in the past. I was able to show them some of my favorite places, but especially the beach, where we played shuffleboard and ate crazy things like deep-fried Oreos. We climbed the tall lighthouse at the state park. And sheltered in the large tent we shared as it rained that night.
My earlier trepidation of a generation gap was quickly fading. I found that I had way more in common with these younger people than I had differences. We all liked adventure. We all wanted to see the beautiful outdoors. And we all had enough respect for each other to allow for differences of opinion while expressing our own.
We shared our thoughts, dreams, and experiences along the way. I remember Rahul talking about the most powerful word or sound in the world- “om” or “aum”- the sacred sound in Indian culture and Hindu religion.
Marija (who we called “momma” for a reason I never understood), was working as a nanny, but had dreams of being a successful artist. Felicia was artistic as well, though she had performance art in mind.
We stopped at Great Bear Dunes south of Traverse CIty. Climbed all the way up to the top, then joined hands and ran all the way down, trying not to fall on the steep sand slopes while laughing like children the entire time.
Right before the Mackinac Bridge, separating the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, we ate burgers and fries at a lakefront pub, watching the ferries coming back from Mackinac Island.
As I drove across the huge suspension bridge, the other three took turns standing up and hanging their torsos and arms through the open moonroof of my car. I wanted to join them, but somebody had to operate the vehicle. I satisfied myself by singing along with a Whitesnake track and vicariously enjoyed their happiness and excitement. This was truly as much fun as anything I had ever done in my teenage years.
More Hospitality From Strangers
We were behind schedule for our trip. Our stay in Ludington had taken longer than planned. The weather report was not looking positive, either. Heavy rains were forecast for the late evening and night.
We did manage to stop at the Mystery Spot! which had been advertised up and down the highway since we crossed the bridge. Deciding to skip the paid optical illusion, we instead ran through the goofy maze hunting each other. Again, having adult-size kid’s fun.
Before leaving the Mystery Spot!, we debated on renting a cabin or roadside motel room for the night, instead of trying to camp. Felicia had another option for us. She had posted in the Green Bay, Wisconsin Couchsurfing group looking for last-minute accommodation for four people. I had serious doubts about anyone accepting that request.
However, she got a positive reply from some guy named Joe, who said his roommate was out of town, and that we could crash there for the night. We climbed back in the car and I drove four hours in the darkening gloom and rain to get there just before midnight.
Joe had some other guys over for company, and we were invited to join them for Jenga and beer. I think they also ordered a pizza. After a couple of hours and a few beers, I was done. I found my way to the roommate’s bedroom and crashed on the floor between the bed and the door.
When the other three made it upstairs, the women took the bed, while Rahul grabbed whatever floor-space was left. I didn’t have a mattress to lay on, but I slept just fine, thankful for a warm, dry place.
The next morning, Rahul accompanied me across the street to the parking space. I had to jack the car up and take off the right front wheel to inspect the rotor and brake caliper. The car had been making grinding noises when I applied pressure to the brake pedal, and sure enough, the caliper had seized.
There was a parade now forming up on the street between Joe’s place and the car, reminding us that there was probably not going to be any place open for a repair that day. Armed with the knowledge that the car would most likely stop using the other three wheels, I decided that I’d live with the fact that the right front would be completely destroyed by the time we got back home.
I had the feeling that Rahul didn’t have a lot of experience with automotive repair, but I really appreciated him coming out to help me with it.
After treating our gracious host, Joe, to a big breakfast at a crowded home-style restaurant, we headed down to Milwaukee, and spent a few hours on the waterfront and ate in the historic Third Ward.
It’s about 90 minutes from Milwaukee to Chicago. During that time, the other three fell asleep in the dark. I silently sang along to my tunes, glancing in the rear-view mirror. Felicia’s head was resting on Rahul’s shoulder. It was such a sweet sight, as the two of them had previously been engaged in some debate- not heated, but vigorous, nonetheless. There wasn’t anything romantic about it. Felicia’s boyfriend was waiting back at the apartment for her. But it was a gesture of friendship and trust.
Marija’s hand was resting on the console between us, and I took it in mine, gave it a gentle squeeze, and received one in return. Again, not an amorous gesture, but something borne out of a sibling-type affection.
I don’t remember another occasion where the four of us got back together. But I do have fond memories of spending time with Felicia and her boyfriend at house parties. I also remember attending a great party that Rahul had at his place. And I hold sentimental images in my mind of Marija using her skills as a make-up artist to transform me into a zombie for C2E2- Chicago’s version of Comic-Con.
I’m on the other side of the world now, in Vietnam. Felicia and Marija are still in Chicago. Rahul has moved to Texas for work. I’ve not seen them since I left Chicago at the end of 2016. Marija was kind enough to let me crash at her place for my last night there.
We don’t always keep in touch, only on occasion through social media. But I’ll always consider them as my good friends, these three strangers with whom I shared an unforgettable adventure.