Midwest best. From Traverse City to Cheboygan—Michigan's most scenic drive
Chicago Tribune, October 6 1991

Cheboygan, Michigan - Before arctic winds snap the leaves off the trees, bringing on the blight of snowmobile season, an excursion by car on certain northern Michigan highways and country roads helps the difficult adjustment from lazy days at the beach to slush-flooded pavement.

This drive is scenic, manageable, varied and vaguely nostalgic, and I can't imagine any other in the Midwest quite so attractive.

It winds from Traverse City to Cheboygan, although some wandering souls could just as well go farther, and the impatient might want to stop far short of here.

But no one should skip one essential leg of the journey, the restful, care-cleansing and visually stunning Michigan Highway 119.

A strip of two-lane asphalt 27 miles long, HIghway 119 traces a lazy curve around a knoblike projection of Michigan's lower peninsula, just south of the convergence of Lakes Michigan and Huron. That route is the center jewel in a setting of major thoroughfares and country roads that combine great beauty with just enough of the bizarre and tacky to supply human context.

The best drive in the Midwest must start on U.S. Highway 31 in Traverse City, even though it seethes with motels, resorts, cabin compounds, franchise restaurants and gas stations. Yet that inauspicious beginning is crucial, because every major route in the northern Michigan vacationland crosses it.

I picked Cheboygan as the logical terminus for this trip because its rolling farmland and attractive waters tend to counterbalance the urbanized, tourist-heavy towns encountered elsewhere. Besides, I was born in Cheboygan and later spent childhood summers there. I hadn't returned in at least two decades, so I felt compelled to see it again.

Nostalgia and my own singular curiosity helped write this itinerary, I confess. Still, any traveler ideally harbors a few personal reasons for covering a considerable distance.

So, the drive that lights my own ignition starts on U.S. 31 in Traverse City with a loop on Michigan Highway 37 around the reefs that grew in the salt-water sea that covered the entire Midwest.

An ancient view
From gemlike Sunset view Park, one can look westward toward the main body of the big lake and take in a scene much like the one commanded by Ottawa chief Pe-to-se-ga of the Bear River band. The trees were thicker then, before the lumbermen came, and the area had to be considerably quieter. A succession of French Jesuit and Presbyterian missionaries, a summer colony of Methodists, lumber barons and vacationing Midwestern Industrialists gradually changed the pristine wilderness into a leisuretime and mercantile paradise.

Quaint houses—Victorian "painted ladies" worthy of San Francisco—spread their verandas in adjoining Bay View, and old-fashioned neighborhood where strollers look out-of-place without bonnets, parasols and high-button shoes.

Beyond Petoskey, glorious Michigan Highway 119 begins, wheeling around the beaches of charming Petoskey State Park to Harbor Springs. More wealth. More cunning emporiums. I sat beneath an umbrella on Dudley's Deck, ate a steak salad and watched strollers gawk at the haughty vessels berthed in the marina.

In most of Harbor Springs, tourists are welcome to observe the patricians at play. Where the harbor hooks into the bay, however, an iron gate permits only a glimpse of the summer mansions beyond. Although old Detroit money built those piles, cars have been banned from the compound and residents ride horsedrawn taxis.

The fabled "tunnel of trees" on Michigan 119 begins on the outskirts of Harbor Springs and twists its way toward the Straits of Mackinac. It needn't be traveled at posted speed limits; traffic is infrequent and the splendors of this natural dappled-light show are best enjoyed with frequent stops at some of the regularly spaced turnoffs.

On the northern route
I like to take a northerly direction on Michigan 119 with the sun fairly low in western sky. Black-and-white tree trunks make a strobe light of the sky and deep blue water on my left, while a wall of forest darkens the right. overhead, oak, maple, birch and cedar branches form and unbroken arch often likened to the nave of a cathedral.

That comparison seems too hushed and reverent. If people hadn't cut a path through them, the trees would have no reason to arch over anything. The spectacular effect must be attributed, at least in part, to highway engineering. Yet Michigan 119 never fails to toss a veil of tranquility over the most jangled nerves.

Along the way, I spend part of the afternoon decompressing in the Thorne Swift Nature Preserve near Harbor Springs, a 30-acre sampler of pre-condo Michigan, where the rare Pitcher's thistle and Lake Huron tansy grow. The preserve feels untouched, almost like a shore life diorama, where dunes meet wetlands and wetlands meet birch, cedar, balsam, willow and trembling aspen. Flitting through the branches are the kinds of birds seldom seen from the tree-vaulted highway, including the pileated woodpecker (among this country's largest) and the saw-whet owl.

A honky-tonk is the last thing one might expect to see at the end of Michigan 119's leafy chute in Cross Village, but just as the big trees give way to big sky, the bouldered edifice of Legs Inn looms on the left. At some point in the state's history, long before the lumber harvests, one can imagine a settler looking around and thinking, "What are we going to do with all this wood?" Legs Inn provides one answer.

Its vast interior goes far beyond eclectic into the neighborhood of Decor Anarchy, with gnarled driftwood archways, log walls, shellacked beams, phone booths in hollow tree trunks, oak-slab tables, totem pole pillars, mooseheads, stuffed owls and rough-burled doors.

Barroom jumps
Most weekend nights, the large barroom with its polished (wooden) dance floor romps and stomps with music from combos, such as the locally popular Jelly Roll Blues Band out of Boyne City. All afternoon and well into evening, the kitchen puts out home-style food, which includes and extensive line of Polish specialties honoring the memory of Legs founder Stanley Smolak.

An immigrant auto worker, Smolak left Detroit in the '20s and settled in Cross Village, where he made friends with the resident Ottawas and learned from them how to build with found materials—including, presumably, the rows of chair legs the sprout from the roof and account for the inn's name. Out back, the kirsch fives way to a restful yard overlooking Lake Michigan. An alfresco lunch in that setting reinstates beauty and peace, while reminding us what trees look like before they can be rendered cute.

-Robert Cross