I often vacation in Ossineke, Michigan at my family's cottage on Lake Huron.
Ossineke has two major attractions. The first is a swell tavern called the Wagon Wheel, a joint consisting entirely of one big room, complete with a juke box (40% Country, 20% Western, 30% old rock-n-roll, 10% “traditional” songs like “Happy Birthday”), a small stage for bands or karaoke singers, a large dance floor, foosball table, two pool tables, and electronic darts. There's also, of course, a lot of liquor and beer, and a full menu of greasy food. Its ambiance is polished off with local softball team and NASCAR paraphernalia. Any man who doesn't enjoy the Wagon Wheel is a man still seeking maternal approval.
One of my favorite “up north” stories revolves around the Wagon Wheel. My brother Dean and I were drinking beer at the cottage's beach one afternoon in preparation for an evening at the Wagon Wheel. My Mom, an excellent worrier, told Dean he should stop drinking or he wouldn't be able to drive home. Exasperated, Dean said, “Heck, Mom, I've been to the Wagon Wheel so many times, I could drive home blind.” He paused then added, “And I often have.” It's not MADD's favorite anecdote, but even my Mom got a kick out of it.
Now that we're more responsible adults, we make sure the driver stays sober, which is good because the increased traffic up north makes it more risky to use the center line as a guide: keep it between your wheels, and you'll stay out of the ditch.
The second major attraction is a place called Dinosaur Gardens Prehistorical Zoo, a place with over 25 life-sized replicas of Prehistorical birds and animals. In the 1940s, Paul Domke (a friend of my Grandfather's) drained a swamp and started to erect the exhibits from a special compound he invented himself. Based on discussions with my Grandpa, Mr. Domke was a talented and unique individual whose life would probably be a neat microcosm-shot of the quiet man who lives the life of art with little recognition. He died long ago, but the business is still owned by locals.
I've been to the Gardens over twenty-five times in the past 33 years, and I'm beginning to enjoy them again as much as I did when I was eight, partly because I have five little children in tow, but also because I've discovered that the Gardens are a genuinely cool place to visit for reasons besides the dinosaur attractions. As you walk through the Gardens, you hear nothing from the outside world, almost as though a thick wall surrounds them. The path through the Gardens is old, solid, and elevated about three feet off the ground (a fact you hardly notice while walking through it, but which adds to the place's enchantment). It has cedar swamps that lie in their natural, untouched, state; a variety of trees; an assortment of birds and small mammals; a stream with an excellent name (the Devil River); and non-reptile attractions that dot the sidelines of the elevated walking path, like concrete frogs and rain shelters and giant mushrooms that serve as seats. When you walk out of the Gardens into the tacky gift shop–but so tacky, it's charming–and back onto U.S. 23, you feel crushed as your quiet, barely-perceptible sense of euphoria is sucked from your lungs by the sound of rubber peeling against the road at 60 mph.