To ring in the end of a busy summer, and get away from the familiar noise of the city, I recently went north to Ontonagon (on-tuh-noggin), a small town of around 1,500 in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (the UP), near the Wisconsin border and the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, about 400-ish miles straight north of Chicago.
Despite having spent ages 10 to 18 outside Milwaukee, I rarely went farther north than the city, and sometimes Green Bay. Once in high school I went on ill-fated family vacation somewhere in the deep woods of far northwest Wisconsin, but never managed to make it to the UP. There was nothing about the trees and seclusion that interested me, though now that I’ve been in Chicago for more than a decade, I realize I squandered most of my time in the state. But my teenage priorities were punk shows and skateboarding, which in the northern Midwest are as out of place as PETA at a pig slaughter.
But now that I’m older, I have more patience and more respect for nature, so for a long weekend it made sense to go to the UP. It’s a day’s drive from Chicago and tucked in a hard-to-reach corner of the country. By accident or design, this keeps the area largely untouristed and therefore uncorrupted. Aside from state and Canadian locals, the area mostly appeals to hunters, hikers and hitmen looking for a good place to dump some bodies. With its crystal clear Lake Superior waters, virgin old-growth forests and diverse wildlife, the Pure Michigan tagline is no joke. And of course, the accents are fucking awful and brilliant.
I’d never heard of the Porcupine Mountains (aka the Porkies), partly because there’s no such thing as mountains in the Midwest. The highest points in the area are around 1,600 feet, but this area is less about elevation than the forest itself; 31,000 acres of virgin old-growth awesomeness.
We only had Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and with 16-ish hours of driving, we decided to do a mix of outdoorsy stuff in the UP and roadside kitsch. Using Atlas Obscura, Roadside America and Google Maps, I charted a there-and-back route with roadside stops including the World’s Largest Talking Loon, the Rudolph Grotto, the World’s Largest Hex Nut and other Americana.
To get ahead of travel time, we got out of Chicago Thursday evening. We made good time and got to Fon Du Lac around 7:30 to get a room for the night. A huge landscaping crew was also spending the night and the only room left was a handicapped room with a king bed and a high toilet. Some drunk landscapers on a balcony outside told us that next time we stay at the hotel, we should say we work for Schweikert Landscaping. “You’ll get a fifty percent discount!” For dinner we drove down the street to an “Italian” restaurant and ordered a starter of fried cheese curds and some beer.
The next morning we hit the road for the Porkies early. Along the way we saw a roadside memorial with a white cross and floral arrangements. In its center was a big sign that read, GOD WANTED A HAZMAT DRIVER. Then we stopped at this complicated geological marker:
On our way out, we came across the Taxidermy Store; a huge clearing house for anything dead and mounted, including elephants, water buffalo, wolves, gorillas, and other Trump family must-haves:
We also found the World’s Largest Talking Loon (which is different than the World’s Largest Loon, obviously):
There was also this run-down roadside mall-thing with lots of North Woods chic:
But my favorite stop from the drive north, and possibly my favorite roadside stop ever, was the Rudolph Grotto Gardens and Wonder Cave. It’s a sprawling, damp, eerie Catholic shrine in the small rural town of Rudolph, Wisconsin, built by Father Philip Wagner and friends from 1927 through 1983. Its amateur mosaics and stone monoliths stand at a surreal intersection of religious compulsion, artistic obsession and small-town boredom. I love it.
Later we made Ontonagon, checking in at the Sunshine Motel. It’s one of a few motel/cabin rental places along Highway M64, which lines the southern shore of Lake Superior and ends about 20 minutes west at the famous Lake of the Clouds Overlook, our first stop after checking into the room. The bed looked like this:
Overall we counted more than 24 wolf-related decorations, including lampshades, stickers, tapestries and framed art. All slightly mildewed from the dampness hanging in the air. Very little has changed at the motel since it was built in the 1960s, and it had no pretenses of being anything more than what it is: a clean, quiet place with lots of wolf stuff. There was no wifi or cell signal, so when we were in the room we watched some Canadian TV. Then we went exploring:
For dinner that night we headed to Lynn’s Cafe. I ordered a patty melt and Sarah ordered a salad, which was mostly iceberg lettuce and tomatoes.
The next day was dark and rainy, which spoiled our plans for a day-long hike, though we managed to knock out five miles on the Lake Superior Trail, carrying umbrellas, before driving back towards main street Ontonagon to check out the local wares, including the Gitche Gummee Landing Gift Shop, where we loaded up on rocks and minerals and all sorts of local magic. Because Ontonagon was originally a mining town, the shop was big on copper and Yooper merch.
For dinner on Saturday we went to Roxey’s Lounge, a spot for locals and alcoholics. A loud group of middle-aged northerners at a nearby table ordered several rounds of shots and made fun of each other for wearing plaid. Sarah and I ordered a couple of burgers and the bartender’s 10-year-old daughter brought them to us from somewhere behind the bar counter. Afterwards the rain finally broke and we watched this amazing sunset from the motel’s private beach:
Sunday morning we woke up early to head back to Chicago. On the way out we saw a bald eagle, a handful of deer and later, a couple of large, oblivious sandhill cranes causing a minor roadblock. Then we stopped in Laona, Wisconsin to take a gander at the World’s Largest Soup Kettle.
Later we refueled in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where just down the road from the Holy Site of Lambeau Field sits the World’s Largest Hex Nut.
We left Ontonagon that morning around 6:30 and with these short stops we still got back to Chicago before 2:00 p.m. If all it takes is a cheap rental car and a 7-ish hours in the car to see a bald eagle, then I’m ready to do it again.