On October 5, I woke up on a frigid morning at Fayette State Park, situated in the Upper Peninsula on the shores of Lake Michigan, having just experienced one of the colder nights in my 27 years of existence. With 11 days of camping remaining, it was enough to make me reconsider the wisdom of taking a 12-day trip across the UP in the fall, and it certainly made me realize that by calling us “brave” for embarking on such a journey, what our friends really meant was that we were “foolish.”
You see, my wife and I were not only camping, but tent camping. We had none of the blessed luxuries of a pop-up camper, trailer, or RV—namely, solid walls and indoor heating—but only a thin sheet of synthetic fabric to shelter us from the cold.
Nevertheless, we managed the cold. I learned to layer up at night and got better at clumsily caterpillaring myself into my sleeping bag while wearing two winter coats. We also made enormous fires each night, the size of which were buttressed by two survival skills we became adept at: finding the best local vendor of firewood, often at a nearby farm, to avoid the price-gouged wood sold at camp headquarters, and scouring the campsite each day for wood left by departing campers. I won’t say we pulled half-burned logs out of firepits to salvage them for our own use, but I won’t deny it either.
For our itinerary, we skipped Mackinac Island and Tahquamenon Falls, in my opinion the low-hanging fruit of the UP, easily accessible for Lower Peninsula Michiganders like myself. From Fayette, we traversed the peninsula to spend several days each in the Porcupine Mountains, Copper Harbor, and Munising near the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Our resolve to brave the cold was rewarded by a bounty of natural beauty I never before realized existed in my home state. Besides Pictured Rocks—which we already expected would be spectacular, and now can heartily endorse the 26-mile round trip boat tour—we were repeatedly impressed by the places we visited. We recommend Bond Falls, the lookout atop Brockway Mountain Drive, and honestly everything there is to do in the Porcupine Mountains.
My fellow writers have already written about the transition to fall, praised its sights, smells, and sounds, and contemplated the melancholic hope of a dried leaf. To that, I’ll add that the autumn colors on our trip, though perhaps just past peak, were still in full bloom, brilliant with burnt oranges and mustard yellows woven into kaleidoscope patterns of fading reds, light browns, and deep, conifer greens. The image that remains in my mind is of Lake Superior’s rocky, sandstone shore along the eastern edge of the Porcupine Mountains, its chocolate drabness set ablaze with the shining, golden leaves of the yellow birch trees that hug the shoreline.
The trip also forced us to enter into a state of removal. Most of the time, my phone was either off, dead, or without service. Only one item of the 24/7 news cycle—the sadly not-so-shocking revelation that white nationalist terrorists had planned to kidnap and hold trial on Governor Whitmer—was critical enough to hold our attention on the spot when it eventually surfaced on my phone. I discovered that, even in these turbulent times, it is helpful to decouple from our so-often compulsive desire to instantly digest the news. The world moved on without me, and I without it, with almost zero friction. I was better for not caring about any of it for nearly two weeks.
Perhaps this state of removal, as I believe Jon Gorter also suggests, is best thought of as an invitation to being present. On our trip, it was a presence that forced me to sit still rather than reach for my phone while I waited for the water to boil on our Coleman stove. It was a presence that brought the Little Dipper, a notoriously tricky constellation to make out in full and made worse because of light pollution, into crystalline relief against a pitch-black, light-free sky. And it was a presence that washed a wave of halting awareness over my body as I stepped into the absolute silence of a stand of closed-canopy, old-growth forest.
If you value comfort and not having perpetual hat hair, don’t be like me and go tent camping in I-can-see-my-breath-but-can’t-feel-my-fingers weather. I encourage you, though, to find ways, whether ordinary or bold, to briefly withdraw from the roiling chaos of life and step into the resplendent presence of autumn. What you notice may just surprise you.