A Pandemic Escape in Michigan
Last weekend, I felt like I hit a breaking point. I was tired of spending all day in the bedroom with a one year old, staring outside at concrete. I have a pretty big connection with nature, and I hadn’t felt it in far too long. Periodically, I need to recharge that tank (like I did on my creative vacation), and I tried a lot of things before going on this trip. I spent time watching friends on Instagram who live in places like California and Montana. I looked up nature pictures. I opened the windows and tried to breathe in the fresh air. It really wasn’t cutting it.
It was actually Neil’s idea for me to take Miles on a road trip. He spends most of the day working in the living room, and I often don’t get his undivided attention until later in the evening anyway. He suggested that I look into going somewhere where I could relax and find a place where I wasn’t also absorbing his work stress secondhand.
Obviously, with everything going on in the world, I wasn’t planning on flying anywhere and also wanted to find somewhere the required limited to no human contact with anyone else. I wanted to go somewhere warm, but nowhere south of Chicago was really speaking to me. Anywhere further west would have been incredible, but I felt like the driving part would have been longer than I really wanted to go with a baby in the backseat.
I eventually settled on northwest Michigan because I knew there were a lot of scenic places and even though it wouldn’t be as warm as I wanted, during that week it was sunny and tolerable and I took it.
Here’s a look at where we stayed, what we did, and how traveling with a toddler has changed since he was younger.
Where we stayed
We wound up staying in an Airbnb outside of Traverse City. I decided on that area because I knew that I wanted to visit a town called Leland, so I searched for places to rent near there. I also didn’t want to spend an arm and a leg, so when I saw a number of condos listed at $34, I was sold. (To be fair, the cleaning fee ended up being twice the cost of our entire stay there, but given the current situation, I guess that’s reassuring).
The condos were part of a place called The Shores, which is located on the east arm of Traverse Bay. It seems like a lot of the condos were listed on Airbnb, and because of the time of year, not many were booked. It had a keyless entry, which I also wanted to limit human interaction, and was a really charming place to stay.
Traveling with a toddler
The last time I traveled with Miles was also to Michigan, but he was probably around six months old. At that time, he was still fine to sleep and be in new places, and it didn’t dawn on me that things might be different this time around.
I always have our Pack and Play stored in the back of the car, so I brought that along for him to sleep in. I also made sure to bring some toys and the travel white noise machine that I bought.
The car ride was mostly fine; he just had a little trouble falling asleep around nap time. When he started to get fussy, I simply put on the theme song to Narcos, which has been the only way to get him to stop crying since he was an infant. Throughout the whole trip, I probably listened to it for about three hours, but at least it wasn’t Baby Shark. 🙂
I had to pull over a couple times to either grab his pacifier if he threw it or fix the shade cover on the car seat, but I’ve always had to do that when traveling with him for awhile, so it was fine. He wasn’t really interested in eating/drinking as much as normal on our way there, and I just followed his lead.
By the time we got to the Airbnb (it was a 5 hour drive to Arcadia Dunes where we had our first hike and then an hour from there to the Airbnb), he was pretty tired and cranky, despite having slept some in the car. After I unloaded everything, I set him on the carpet and he immediately started crying. As I mentioned, I hadn’t thought that being somewhere new would bother him, but he seemed super confused about our new surroundings.
I knew he was tired and it was around his bedtime, so I set up the Pack and Play and tried putting him down like I normally would in his crib. He was NOT having it. He started sobbing and trying to stand up to get out, so when I saw he wasn’t going to calm down, I picked him up and laid down with him on the couch. He fell asleep on me almost immediately, which is something he hadn’t done since he was a very small baby. While I felt bad that he was having a tough time, I really made a point to sit and soak in all the moments he turned to me for comfort and safety — this trip was about my mental health after all. 🙂
After he had been asleep for awhile, I tried transferring him back to the Pack and Play and he woke up and went through the same wailing sobbing again, so I knew that I’d likely have to sleep with him in the bed with me — another thing he hasn’t done since newborn days when I was trying to grasp at any amount of sleep I could get. We spent the night in the bed together, which consisted of about two hour periods of sleep followed by him waking up and crying because he wasn’t at home. Then repeat.
The first night was tough, but the second was a little better. I tried the Pack and Play again while I took a shower after our day outside, but he was still crying when I got out, so we did our routine of couch napping and co-sleeping in the bed, which went a lot better this time.
On our drive back, he ended up being so tired from everything on our trip that he slept almost the entire time. Overall, we had some difficulties, but just going with the flow made dealing with them much easier.
Where we visited
I had a very loose itinerary given the fact that I was traveling with Miles and wanted the option to change plans if need be. The two main things I wanted to do were visit some kind of dunes (there are several along the coast) and check out Leland after seeing so many beautiful pictures of the area. After I decided where we were staying, I just clicked around Google Maps to see if there were places I wanted to check out.
Originally, I had wanted to go to Sleeping Bear National Dunes because it has amazing reviews and stunning views, but because it’s managed by the national park service, all trails, trailheads, and parking lots were closed (state parks are open in Michigan though). The website noted that you could still park on county roads and make your way around, but since I had never been there and suspected that its popularity might draw more people than I wanted, I decided to find somewhere else to go.
I settled on Arcadia Dunes, which was a little further south down the coast. It took us five hours from Chicago and I was amazed to find only one other car in the parking lot. As soon as I got out and set Miles up in the Ergobaby, I felt better. It was cool, but bright and sunny, and carrying him around definitely warmed me right up. We parked and walked the Baldy Trails because those were the ones that would bring us out by the water. We took a short walk to the overlook, then ventured out a little longer to get to the actual dunes. During our whole time there, I only saw one other family and they were already seated on the dunes quite a bit away from us. It was perfect.
Miles got to play in sand, which I will say he enjoyed much more than the grass I had put him in the weekend before.
He loved the hike and babbled and yelled the entire time. I was already in such a better mood by the time we finished and hopped back in the car for our hour drive to Traverse City.
The following day, we headed out to drive to Leland. I’ve had several friends visit and another whose family owns a beach house there, so it’s been somewhere that I’ve wanted to check out based on all the beautiful pictures.
I grabbed carry-out lunch at a place called Trish’s Dishes — you had to call to order and then pick it up on a table outside when it was ready. Miles and I ate an egg and cheese breakfast burrito and then headed a little ways up the road to another short hike at Whaleback Natural Area.
This trail was a short loop — maybe a mile — and gave you more great views of Lake Michigan. A lot of it was through the woods and the overlook was pretty far up, but it was a nice view as you circle back. By the time we finished, Miles was exhausted and crying, so I got him back in his car seat and he fell asleep shortly after we left.
Because he didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before, I wanted to drive long enough that he could get a decent nap. It was 45 minutes back to our Airbnb, which I knew wouldn’t be long enough, so I looked at the map to see where else we could go since the two things I’d wanted to do were done.
I ended up driving 90 minutes total — 45 back to our Airbnb and then another 45 further north to a place called Fisherman’s Island State Park. I basically just clicked on places in Google Maps and looked at the reviews and photos to decide where to go. Miles slept about an hour of that, which still wasn’t quite enough, but it was better than nothing.
There was no one at the park, which meant that I really lucked out during this whole trip. Apparently, it’s a big camping spot, so since that park of the park was closed down, there was no one there. I parked, made my way down a small, rocky decline, and found myself on a beach with BEAUTIFUL water. The water and views at the dunes were gorgeous, but you’re really high up. Here, I was right at water level.
I only wish it was a little warmer and Miles was a little less cranky, but I was still so happy and reinvigorated. I took the time to set up my phone and take some pictures with the bluetooth remote that I’m able to use from further away. The whole experience was incredible.
That was most of our second day in Michigan, then I took us back to our Airbnb because we were both pretty tired from the lack of sleep the night before. We settled in and he slept with me again, but this time didn’t wake up as much and didn’t freak out when he did. He just curled up next to me in bed and let me hold him and it was everything.
Our check-out time wasn’t until 11 am on Wednesday, but I knew we had a long drive, there wasn’t much more I wanted to do, and I wanted to get him home and back to routine sooner than later now that I knew he was at an age where it mattered. We left around 7 am on the five hour drive back home to Chicago.
My friend Ashley had recommended Tunnel Park in Holland when I was still planning the trip, and I realized that the route home took me right through Holland. Just to take a driving break and get one more chance in nature, I made the stop, which only added about 30 minutes to the drive.
We stopped, checked out the water, and Miles crawled around a bit in the fresh air. Again, we only saw one or two people, and they were all at a much further distance. I sat and soaked in the last bit of sand and surf, then we hopped back in the car and headed home.
In summary, our trip was a much needed one. We had some minor hiccups in terms of routine and sleeping issues, but just being somewhere new with fresh air helped make all of it manageable. Sure, I brought my laptop to get work done while he napped (ha) and a book to finish up while he slept at night — both of which were never even cracked open. I was able to see how lucky I was to be able to have Miles there with me and that he turns to me when he’s upset. I was able to soak up the baby snuggles from my technically no-longer-a-baby. I was able to breathe.
If you’re looking to do something similar during this time, here are some of my tips:
- no air travel
- make as few stops as possible to avoid contact with others
- find a place to rent with keyless entry
- bring disinfectant wipes/masks with you and take precautions
- do research on where you’re going first and try to find places that are less likely to be crowded
- if they end up being crowded, find somewhere else to go
- choose days/times that are off-peak (why we went on a mon-wed)
- many park and nature sites will have COVID updates online so you can see what is open and what is not
Ultimately, be respectful. While it is more ideal to stay inside, the outdoors are not totally off limits and can really do a lot for a person’s mental health. Just because this is the case, however, doesn’t mean that everyone is entitled to swarm the same place. This is how our access to Lake Michigan here in Chicago was taken away. Try and find places that will have fewer people because those places are more worth it anyway.
I hope you all are hanging in there and can find appropriate ways to practice self-care during these tough times. If you’re somewhere with a backyard or even a balcony, please enjoy it for me. 🙂