Michigan is referred to lovingly as “The Mitten” for the way its shape resembles one of those cold-weather accessories the state’s residents normally wear from October through April (at least). In the four years since I moved here, I’ve traveled almost the width of the mitten’s cuff, from Detroit in the east to Kalamazoo in the west, and I’ve been to a number of places in the palm. I’m still steeling myself for a long drive to the fingertips, and I briefly considered going up there on a road trip for the five-day fall break/birthday vacation I took in the middle of October. But I felt like I wouldn’t have quite enough time to really relax and explore in between the journey up and back, so I decided on a day trip instead and turned my attention to part of the state closer to home but still unknown to me: what I think of as “the gusset.”
In knitting terms, the gusset is a wedge of stitches that shapes and allows for movement in a mitten’s thumb. In Michigan terms, the gusset almost perfectly maps onto the stretch of I-75 that angles northwest from Detroit nearly up to Saginaw Bay, passing through Flint, Saginaw, and Bay City along the way. A quick detour off the highway north of Flint leads to what was originally my only planned destination of the day, Frankenmuth—Michigan’s “Little Bavaria.” Frankenmuth was established as a German Lutheran missionary colony in 1845; today the town is a popular tourist destination, even without a rowdy Oktoberfest celebration this year.
Frankenmuth is only about 80 miles from Ann Arbor, and as I scrutinized the visitor bureau’s website I started to think that I didn’t need to spend a whole day there—if I walked around, had lunch, and did some shopping, that wouldn’t take up more than a long afternoon. Casting my eye northward on Google Maps, I saw that Frankenmuth is only a short drive from the beach at Saginaw Bay, which dips in to define the “Thumb” of the Mitten. If I left early, I thought, I’d have plenty of time to do both. And if for some reason I slept late or didn’t feel like jumping behind the wheel first thing in the morning, I could still go to Frankenmuth and leave it at that.
Not only did I not sleep late, I woke up so early and so antsy to get on the road that I was defrosting my Subaru by 7:00am, watching a thin layer of ice crystals slide down the windshield as I waited for the car to heat up and checked out the route on my phone. Head up US-23 N until it feeds into I-75 N, exit onto M-13 and within a few miles I’d be at Bay City State Park—total travel time about 1 hour 35 minutes. But then I stopped to think: it was ridiculously early. I had nowhere to be and no schedule for the day. The idea behind this trip was to see more of Michigan, not barrel along a series of monotonous freeways at 70mph while too intent on monitoring other drivers to enjoy the trip. Why should I care about taking the fastest route? I opened the Google Maps route options preferences and slid “avoid highways” to the right, increasing my expected travel time by nearly an hour but also increasing the possibility that I’d see something interesting along the way.
It was still too dark at first to see much as I navigated the familiar roads of Washtenaw County and started working my way north, but by the time I encountered a construction zone around Brighton I had to slide on my sunglasses; it was shaping up to be a brilliant, if chilly, mid-October day. Driving through miles and miles of farmland with the radio cranked up and red-orange-gold trees lining both sides of the road, I laughed to myself, feeling like I’d landed in a cheesy tourist ad touting the attractions of Pure Michigan in the fall.
With the exception of Detroit, Ann Arbor, Flint, and a few other scattered counties, Michigan went for Donald Trump in 2016, and I was driving through areas that had gone red, in some places by rather decisive margins, four years ago. What surprised me on this trip was how not-decisive the 2020 election was clearly going to be in those same areas. I saw lots of Trump-Pence lawn signs, yes, but it seemed that nearly every one was canceled out by a Biden-Harris sign planted in the grass next door, or across the street. It became my version of a road trip game: for each Trump sign, could I find a corresponding Biden one that evened the count? As I drove onward, I realized two things: (1) this election was going to be really close (not news, but I felt like I was seeing concrete evidence in a new way), and (2) the communities I was passing seemed deeply divided—literally neighbor versus neighbor. I wondered how this contentious election year had affected relationships in areas that were more politically cohesive four years ago.
In what seemed like no time at all, I was passing a funeral home that advertised drive-through viewings and entering Saginaw, where I followed the sparkling Saginaw River and drove under the I-75 bridges that could have carried me not through the city but over it (way over it; seeing the height of the freeway made me glad I had stuck to solid ground). Mile after mile ticked by on my odometer as I left Saginaw behind and navigated past Bay City, heading not for the town itself but the state park that lies to its northwest.
Much as I had genuinely enjoyed the drive, I was glad to have arrived when I turned off the ignition and could finally stand up and stretch. I took a quick tour through the park’s visitor center, which has a small exhibit on the area’s natural environment and wildlife, then grabbed the thermos of coffee and breakfast burrito I’d packed and started following the signs directing me toward the beach.
I knew not to expect a beach like the ones I’ve spent time on in Delaware or California: no boardwalk, no ice cream or funnel cakes, no surf shops. I could spot a handful of other people walking at different spots in the distance, but I was entirely alone at the northern end of the stretch comprising the state park. The shore at Saginaw Bay extends right up to the treeline, and fallen autumn leaves were crispy under my feet as I sought purchase on dry mounds of sand that collapsed as I stumbled over them. The difference between this beach and others that I didn’t really absorb for a few minutes was the quiet. No crashing waves; instead, the bay gently lapped at the coast, calm and nearly silent. As I sat on a log to eat my breakfast and gaze at the water, all I could hear was the wind rustling through the trees.
In a fit of optimism that morning I had packed a beach towel and my Kindle, thinking that if I dressed warmly enough I could sit in the sun and read on the beach for a while. By the time I finished eating, though, I knew that plan wasn’t going to work: that breeze causing a gentle rustle in the trees was also making me damn cold, and my clothes weren’t offering quite enough protection against the chill while I sat still. Wishing that I had brought gloves and a knit hat, I decided that the only thing to do was walk.
While it might not have ice cream or funnel cakes, the beach at Bay City on a sunny October Friday is the perfect place to walk and think. I moved down to more firmly packed sand that wouldn’t shift under my sneakers and started making my way south, stopping occasionally to take a photo or watch birds hop around at the edge of the water. A power plant glittered in the distance, and somehow even that intrusion on the coast’s natural beauty didn’t mar the vista. I walked and I gazed and I thought and could practically feel the wind blowing 2020-induced cobwebs from my brain.
I reached the southern end of the park’s beach a mile and a half later and turned around to walk back to my car. In addition to the beach, Bay City State Park is also linked to a wildlife refuge, Tobico Marsh, that has its own nature trails and observation towers; if I’d planned to spend the entire day in the area I would have ventured in that direction next. A glance at my watch told me it was closing in on noon, though, and I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to see all that Frankenmuth had to offer. Once again, I slid behind the wheel and set my course in Google Maps, this time for a relatively short trip southeast estimated at 35 minutes.
The beach had been so deserted that seeing what at first appeared to be throngs of people on Frankenmuth’s sidewalks startled me as I drove into town. I had thought that I’d avoid crowds (or the 2020 version of them) by coming on Friday rather than the weekend, but I started to worry that this might not be the best idea after all. Driving cautiously down Main Street, scanning both sides to assess both the parking situation and potential for coronavirus exposure, I began to relax. The sidewalks, I realized, weren’t actually crowded; scattered pairs of people and small family groups walked together, but otherwise everyone was giving their fellow pedestrians a wide berth. Nearly all were wearing masks outside. A few well-known restaurants—Frankenmuth Brewery, Zehnder’s—had lines of people waiting outside for tables (in fact, it was the line at the brewery that had first given the appearance of a crowd), but when I entered the large public parking lot at the southern end of town, it was nearly empty. Yellow lines of paint marked off spots stretching way into the distance, revealing the disparity between Frankenmuth’s usual expectations and the reality of tourism in the time of COVID. I’m not in the habit of taking risks, but it seemed more than possible to walk around Frankenmuth while also keeping my distance from other tourists. If I wasn’t comfortable with the situation after all, I decided, I’d go home.
I parked, slipped on my mask, and started toward the Holz Brücke, or Wooden Bridge, that crossed the Cass River separating the parking lot from the rest of town. I’d seen pictures of this covered bridge before—it’s one of Frankenmuth’s most photogenic spots—and had thought it was a legacy of the town’s 19th-century German residents. As I approached it, though, I could easily see that even to my untrained eye the wood wasn’t that old; maybe it was a replica of a previous bridge, I thought. But then I spotted a plaque on the bridge’s peaked roof dated “1979,” underneath another displaying the name “Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn,” and realized that the structure actually belonged to the hotel and restaurant sitting at the edge of the parking lot. The bridge might have nodded to the town’s history, but it was deliberately constructed to facilitate tourism by connecting the main Bavarian Inn complex with the heart of downtown Frankenmuth.
That blend of actual history and Disney-fied infrastructure continued as I turned right onto Main Street and started walking north. Various plaques narrated the town’s past: its founding as a missionary enclave (unsuccessful, one placard noted with breathtaking blandness, because the local Indigenous groups “moved away”), its decades as a farming community, the woolen mill that opened in 1894 and was once Frankenmuth’s largest employer. While the village is still surrounded by farms and the Frankenmuth Woolen Mill continues to turn out bedding for consumers across the country, the downtown commercial district appears to have re-oriented itself toward attracting tourists in the 1980s; even the famous Oktoberfest only dates to 1990. As I climbed the gentle slope of Main Street, the stucco-sided buildings topped with dark timbers reminded me not so much of anything I’d seen in Germany, but rather of the Dutch Wonderland amusement park we used to go to in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County when I was a kid. Everything was just a little too smooth, a little too picture-perfect. With a bright-blue sky dotted by fluffy white clouds overhead, though, I couldn’t deny that the town looked ready for its close-up.
I made two slow loops of Main Street, window-shopping at stores selling beer steins and lederhosen, checking out the menu for Zehnder’s “world-famous family style chicken dinner” (all you can eat fried chicken and sides, followed by ice cream or orange sherbet for dessert, $27.95 per person), watching a lone horse and carriage carrying two tourists clip-clop along the road. While I was never a fan of large crowds in pre-COVID times, there was something eerie about Frankenmuth feeling so slow and empty on such a beautiful fall day. The lines of diners waiting for tables at some of the restaurants were clearly a function of the state’s restrictions on seating capacity (limited to 50%), rather than an actual glut of customers. I endured a lengthy wait before I was seated for lunch at the Bavarian Inn, but once I ordered my Reuben sandwich came out so quickly I wondered if the kitchen had actually toasted it. (They did; it was delicious.) When I stopped in at the Covered Bridge Gift Shop for a souvenir magnet before returning to my car, the salesclerk confirmed that my impression was correct: “It’s totally dead around here,” though she expected the weekend might be slightly busier.
I found more of the same at Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, where the parking lot offers over 1,000 spots but only a couple dozen were occupied when I pulled in shortly before 6pm. Claiming to be “the world’s largest Christmas store,” Bronner’s sits on a sprawling complex just south of downtown Frankenmuth; the parking lot is adorned by holiday light displays and includes a replica of the Austrian chapel where “Silent Night” was first sung in 1818. The retail store itself is almost overwhelming. When I first stepped inside I felt frozen by indecision—stunned by the lights, the Christmas carols, the enormous stretch of displays before me. In addition to religious ornaments and the usual array of Santas, snowflakes, candy canes, and reindeer, Bronner’s prides itself on its vast selection of ornaments catering to niche interests. If you name a profession, hobby, animal, food, nationality, sport, or life milestone, Bronner’s can probably supply you with an ornament.
After a minute I shook off my daze and started browsing the nearest display, quickly getting sucked in by the Bronner’s holiday spirit. Behind my mask I sang along to Christmas carols, my eyes skimming over dozens of ornaments that ranged from delicate and beautiful to the ones that I think of as “only in America.” (“Ranch is my favorite food group,” declared one bauble in the food section; “I ❤️Ravioli” stated another.) The store was so large that the small number of other shoppers and I rarely crossed paths, though I heard more than one parent instruct their child to “look with your eyes, not with your hands,” and I wondered how much inventory Bronner’s loses to breakage in a given year.
I meandered through the store, looking more closely at some displays than others—to really scrutinize everything would have taken hours, and I was on a targeted search mission for ornaments pertaining to some specific interests among my family members. Bronner’s is most definitely one of those stores where it’s easy to buy way more than planned, though, and more than once I started reaching for an ornament that had caught my eye before sternly telling myself to leave it on the hook. Overall, I decided when I felt I had looked at everything I needed to look at, I had exercised impressive restraint: the basket I carried toward the checkout counter contained fewer than ten items.
Like the parking lot, the Bronner’s checkout areas are built to accommodate large crowds of shoppers, with one terminal after another lined up behind a new plexiglass barrier. On this October evening, however, only two lanes were open, and I walked right up to the cashier. Still, Bronner’s is bracing itself for a busy holiday season: a small cluster of new employees attired in red vests stood behind the registers, listening to one of the other staff members explain where certain items were located, and my cashier worked slowly as he showed a trainee how to wrap and box the fragile ornaments I had selected. Christmas 2020 isn’t going to look or feel like any holiday in my memory, but Bronner’s is preparing for a typical shopping season—at least, to some degree—nonetheless.
I got back into my car and poured a fresh cup of coffee from the thermos I had prepared more than 12 hours earlier, fortifying myself for the drive back home. The sun was setting as I exited the Bronner’s parking lot, the Christmas light displays around its perimeter just starting to stand out, and a billboard bade me farewell from Frankenmuth with an “Auf Wiedersehen!” Soon I was once again cruising past long stretches of farmland interrupted by the occasional strip of stores, still listening to the radio but not at the same volume or with the same energy as I had when I set off in the morning. I considered cutting over to I-75 to speed up the return trip south, but then discarded the idea; I was feeling too relaxed to insert myself into the chaos of tailgaters and sudden lane changes. The local route suited me just fine.
I won’t end this on any sort of cavalier note: “So go out and visit places! As long as you wear a mask it’s okay.” Nope. A leisurely drive up Michigan’s gusset, a long walk on the beach at Bay City—these were wonderful ways for me to relax and see more of the state. But in Frankenmuth I was ever-vigilant, starting from the minute I drove onto Main Street and worried that there were more people in the town than I was comfortable with. In a previous time, I would have likely browsed through every store, gone into the historical society to see their exhibit on Frankenmuth’s past, and lingered through a long lunch at whatever restaurant caught my eye, not the one that seemed to have the best COVID protocols and the fewest people. It was interesting to walk around and see a new place, but it wasn’t relaxing. I felt like I spent the afternoon on high alert—monitoring how close I was to others on the sidewalk, checking to see if people were wearing masks properly (it goes over your nose!!), carefully entering only the few stores that offered items I knew would be good Christmas gifts. While I never felt like I was in the “wrong” situation, I also wished I had taken the time to drive up to Frankenmuth before this year, so I could really see and enjoy everything.
I woke up early again the next morning, and for a split second allowed a thought to run through my head: I could be back on the beach at Bay City in under two hours. I brushed the thought aside; I wasn’t in the mood for another long drive, and I had plenty of other things on my to-do list. It seemed silly and wasteful to go all the way up there two days in a row, when there are plenty of nice parks and walking trails near Ann Arbor. And so forth. But I was struck by how, in the space of a single day, I started thinking about time and distance differently; these places that for so long had seemed far away, required too much effort to reach, were actually … well, not close, exactly, but within the bounds of an impulse decision to get away and go somewhere for a day. Local route or express, all it takes is a drive up the gusset.