July 11, 2014 at 1:00 am

Home Life

Michigan, pure and simple, draws in family

Like legions of other Metro Detroiters, we crawled along at a snail’s pace on our way up north this past Fourth of July weekend. Every hard-earned mile only amped up the urgency because surely our holiday was infinitely more important than everyone else’s.

On Sunday, the traffic on the way home was even worse. The proverbial bumper to bumper for as far as the eye could see was marked by hopeful stretches of acceleration that were only to be doused by a sea of red tail lights. The braking up ahead was my cue to shriek, swear at my husband and then stomp my foot at the imaginary brake pedal on the passenger side floor mat. Once again.

Aiming to outwit everyone on the road (as if they weren’t thinking the same thing,) we put our GPS in overdrive calculating an alternate route, speeding off the exit ramp in all manner of see-ya-later-sucker pomp and circumstance. My Mom used to chirpily call this maneuver taking “the blue highways” (of William Least Heat Moon fame). “It’s the scenic route, kids,“ she’d say, all the while trying to prevent my father from blowing a gasket while manning an overheating station wagon hauling a camping trailer and six whiny, sweaty kids.

By the time we got home Sunday night, a normal four-hour drive had taken 6 ˝ hours. And yet there had been no grousing, no complaining and certainly no regrets.

In two full days up north, we went swimming at our own private beach on Lake Michigan, played golf, went fishing, did some wine tasting at the local vineyards, took a quick stroll through the cherry festival, saw fireworks, bought organic veggies at roadside farm stands, visited an alpaca farm, toured a lighthouse, searched for Petoskey stones and went swimming again and again.

It may sound jam-packed, but, with the exception of fishing on the Manistee River one early morning, we experienced it all never having left Mission Peninsula or nearby Traverse City.

New Yorkers have the Hamptons or Long Island. Californians have Big Sur and the mountains. There’s Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, too. But nothing compares to our Great Lakes and the vast beauty and stillness that is up north. Besides Lake Michigan — which has the world’s longest freshwater coastline— I can list close to a dozen inland lakes that my family has vacationed on: from Torch, Higgins and Houghton to Burt, Elk, Crystal, Charlevoix, and Long Lake. That’s a remarkable travel log.

It’s also incredible to realize that from anyplace in the state, you can travel just a few hundred miles and experience, as Tim Allen intones in the Pure Michigan ads, “the beauty of nature and the beauty of simple pleasures.” And I haven’t even mentioned Sleeping Bear Dunes and its ranking a few years back as the “Most Beautiful Place in America” by ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

One of our kids drove from Cincinnati (an eight-hour drive that due to traffic turned into 11 hours) because she wanted to show off up north to her friend who hails from Buffalo. After so many years of Detroit bashing and continuing brain drain, to have your kids take pride in where they were raised is heartening.

Because the truth is, where home becomes is often a crap shoot. Once you have a family, where you live is likely determined by a confluence of events rather than a planned destination. It’s where the job is, or the good schools are, or where the ex lives or the safe neighborhood is. Before you know it, you are sitting in a steamy high school gymnasium watching your kid walk across the stage to accept a diploma, and you’re just hoping they have good memories.

It’s nice to be reminded how lucky I am to have made our home in a state that can claim some of the country’s, if not the world’s, most pristine beauty.

It’s also a relief to see that the water levels have risen: Experts say lakes Michigan Huron and Superior are at least a foot higher than they were a year ago and are expected to rise 3 more inches over the next month. (Lake Ontario and Lake Erie are 7 to 9 inches higher than a year ago.) Apparently we owe our thanks to the long bitter cold winter that froze the lakes long enough to considerably slow evaporation.

At the very least, our compensation after all the shoveling out, the spinouts, the ice storms and the rest of the misery that made us wonder why we live here, came in the form of restoring our most prized natural treasure.

And so after a weekend up north when the weather was so perfect we made fun of how often we said it was “so perfect,” the traffic seemed little price to pay to get away from it all.

The best thing is summer just began. Up north is ours for the taking.

mkeenan@detroitnews.com