MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich.—Almost every summer of our childhood, my sister and I and various cousins came here at least once. Our parents or grandparents drove up as far as Mackinaw City, and we all took the boat to a land without cars.
Now I decided to go there in winter. It figured to be a cold place, possibly bleak, but I had a lot of memories to keep me warm.Automobiles aren't allowed on Mackinac Island, so, in season, it always evoked the Old Days. I could pretend the village was a frontier town right out of a Western movie, because that's how it looked to me.
People walked and rode bicycles, too, but I focused on the horses in those days. As far as I was concerned, horses ruled. What would Hopalong Cassidy drive?
The Mackinac Island excursion almost defined summer for Michigan kids--a special privilege back when Disneyland was just a gleam in Walt's eye. And even after that theme park opened, we preferred Mackinac Island's brand of nostalgia to his.
The voyage over to the island got things started in a big way. A boat from the Arnold Transit Co. or Shepler's or Star Line filled up with happy people for the short trip across the Straits of Mackinac, where the Great Lakes Michigan and Huron meet.
Once there, we could have treats: popcorn, sodas, hot dogs and fudge. Fudge makers rolled fresh goo on marble slabs inside several shops--right behind the plate glass windows, so everyone could see.
The sweet scent of bubbling chocolate mixed with the odor of horses left a permanent imprint on the memory. Grown-ups told us Mackinac was famous for its fudge, and we never knew that locals called us "fudgies" behind our backs.
During a day on Mackinac Island, pretty sailboats bobbed in the marina beside the Chippewa Hotel. A cannon roared occasionally from the hilltop fort. Piano music tinkled out of a mysterious Chippewa Hotel saloon called the Pink Pony, which wasn't a kid's kind of place at all.
But the people inside and in a few of the other honky-tonks seemed to be having almost as much fun as we were, even though they lacked cotton candy and souvenir balloons.
Our day on the island would end with happy tummy aches, one last sniff of eau de Mackinac and the ferry ride back to the Mackinaw City parking lot.
This year, I paid a visit in the dead part of winter, when January freezes solid into early February and northern Michigan grows icicles.
It's the time when locals Up North tell you, with pride, that summer is just a few weeks of bad sledding.
But I remembered otherwise.
During my long winter weekend here, I experienced what might be described as the adult version of Mackinac Island. Fudge shops, popcorn stands, Doc's House of Magic, the fort, the historic landmarks, the Grand Hotel, ferry docks--all closed. Only 20 horses remained. The others had been sent back to mainland farms.
Doud's Mercantile, a no-nonsense grocery behind a 19th Century facade, does stay open in winter, but deals mostly in the necessities of everyday life. Same deal with the Harrisonville General Store up the hill. The few children around spend their weekdays in the public school and their leisure time far from downtown, or so it seemed. I could stroll the sidewalks of Huron Street--otherwise known as Main Street--on any weekday and have them almost to myself.
I could look around and appreciate the lines of vernacular summer resort architecture adorned with snow: the hulking gray Lake View Hotel, the big white Iroquois Resort with a "No Swimming" sign in the yard.
On weekends, snowmobiles add a definite buzz to an atmosphere that at other times can feel almost eerily quiet.
Snowmobile jockeys drive to the island on the "ice bridge," a 3-mile stretch of the Straits connecting a northwestern portion of the island called British Landing with the Mackinac Grille restaurant in St. Ignace, Mich., a city on the Upper Peninsula mainland.