By Don Capestrain
My good friend Jeff Norton bought a 2001 Ford Econoline van a couple of years ago and set it up as a camper by removing the bench seats, installing a bed and storage shelves of his own design and construction, and loading it up with camping gear.
Every time we spoke, he mentioned that we should plan a week-long van camping trip together — he in his Ford, me in my ’78 VW Bus Westfalia camper. I was hesitant to commit because of the myriad of issues I’d had with my Bus engine since endeavoring to rebuild it myself in 2019 (May/June 2020 and March/April 2022 Autoist). Luckily, Jeff never came forward with any plans more definite than “we should.”
However, as the fall of 2023 approached, my Bus had logged around 2,000 trouble-free miles on the latest engine rebuild iteration. During the most recent teardown and rebuild (I’ve sort of lost count of how many there have been), the questionable GEX counterweighted “high performance” crankshaft was finally ditched and replaced with an unmolested stock VW unit (used, but still within specifications).
The engine was running smoother than ever, and my confidence was building. I contacted Jeff and said, “OK, let’s stop talking about a van camping trip and actually plan one. Where should we go?”
We decided, based on our respective home bases (Canton, Ohio, for me and Cincinnati for Jeff), the availability of a lake cottage owned by Jeff’s family in Townsend, Wisconsin, and his parents’ home in Park Forest, Illinois, to plan a counterclockwise trip around Lake Michigan. Jeff tried to allay my concerns about the Bus by stating, only half-jokingly, that if its engine blew up, we’d rent a flatbed car trailer, load the Bus on it, and tow it around with the Econoline. I didn’t find that idea amusing at all.
With many spare parts and tools hidden in nooks and crannies in the Bus, our trip began on beautiful, warm, sunny Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. We planned it as a full day of driving to set us up for lower-mileage days during the middle of the trip. Jeff left from Cincinnati and I from Canton, and within a few hours we met at Harrison Lake State Park just north of the Ohio Turnpike (I-90), about 50 miles west of Toledo, Ohio.
After a picnic lunch, we caravanned on to our campsite for the evening at Taylor’s Lost Haven Campground, about 25 miles northwest of Midland, Michigan. The campsite was quite large and the surrounding scenery was beautiful, which I’ve found to be somewhat unusual for a private campground. We enjoyed a hearty evening meal at the campsite and turned in early, happy to finally be putting our plans into action.
On Saturday morning, we made breakfast, packed up and drove a few miles southeast to Sanford, Michigan, where we unloaded our bicycles and rode the Pierre Marquette Rail Trail to downtown Midland. We spent some time checking out the “Tridge,” the three-way wooden footbridge spanning the confluence of the Chippewa and Tittabawassee rivers in Chippewassee Park, explored downtown and enjoyed a sweet treat from Cops and Doughnuts before riding back to Sanford for a picnic lunch.
Then, it was back in the driver’s seats for the next destination, Wilderness State Park Campground on the shore of Lake Michigan, just a few miles west of Mackinaw City. The most direct route would have been straight north on the racetrack known as Interstate 75. Instead, we worked our way northwest to » the Lake Michigan shore in beautiful Charlevoix and turned north onto US 31.
A little north of Petosky, we left US 31 to continue hugging the shoreline on Michigan Route 119, a winding, narrow road known as the “tunnel of trees,” with awesome glimpses of the lake and gorgeous lakefront homes as we went. The drive ended perfectly as we backed into our Wilderness State Park campsite located right on the beach, in time for dinner before sunset.
Sunday’s sunrise promised another gorgeous day. We spent the morning biking and hiking our way west through the park (it is aptly named!) to reach its western edge at Waugoshance Point. The views and the solitude were simply spectacular.
We found our way back to the campsite, had lunch, packed up and began the next leg of our journey: 250 miles around the top of Lake Michigan to Jeff’s family cottage on Bass Lake in Townsend, Wisconsin. The highlight of that journey was crossing the Mackinac Bridge into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Despite the stiff breeze from the northeast requiring me to crank the steering wheel about 45 degrees to the right to maintain a straight course, the Bus confidently traversed all 26,372 feet of the bridge, unlike the Yugo that plunged off the bridge and into the Straits of Mackinac during high winds in 1989.
We spent three nights in Townsend, enjoyed hiking in the nearby Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, pontoon boating on Bass Lake and all the comforts of home at the cottage (despite its rustic appearance).
My Bus relaxed in the carport with the hope that none of the many chipmunks frolicking around it would try to move in (none did). On Wednesday morning, Sept. 27, we winterized and locked up the cabin, then began our drive of approximately 100 miles in the rain to our next campsite, at Wisconsin’s Calumet County Park Campground on the shore of Lake Winnebago.
After setting up the VW on the campsite, we drove the Econoline to a local watering hole on the lake to enjoy a cold brew while we waited patiently for the rain to stop. It did, in time for alfresco dining with a beautiful view of the lake and sunset.
On Thursday, we packed up yet again and began the 250-mile drive to Starved Rock State Park Campground near North Utica, Illinois. We plotted a westerly route passing near Madison, Wisconsin, using state and federal highways to avoid the interstates, Milwaukee and Chicago.
We stopped in downtown North Utica for a picnic lunch at a trailhead for the Illinois and Michigan Canal Trail, then unloaded the bikes again. We first rode west to the trail’s end where the canal joins the Illinois River, then rode east to Buffalo Rock State Park, where the bluffs provided beautiful views of the river from high above.
Returning to the vans, we loaded the bikes and drove the remaining few miles to the campground. The campsites were very close together but felt quite private due to the dense trees and vegetation between sites. We enjoyed our final campsite dinner and enjoyed an intensely bright full moon before calling it a night.
On Friday morning, we left the campground and drove into the main area of the park to visit Starved Rock itself. A dense fog obscured our view of the Illinois River below, so our visit was a little shorter than we planned. We returned to the vans and began our trek to Jeff’s parents’ home in Park Forest, Illinois, about 35 miles directly south of downtown Chicago. Again, we used state routes and federal highways to avoid Interstate 80 and the Chicago suburbs.
We enjoyed lunch at the house, and Jeff departed shortly after for a weekend family event in Springfield, Illinois, marking the conclusion of our travels together. I spent the afternoon riding my bike on the nearby Old Plank Trail.
I made an early start on Saturday morning for the longest solo drive of the trip: 360 miles from Park Forest to my home in Ohio. US Route 30 was the chosen path, and the sunny, warm day was perfect for that final day of travel.
If you’re still reading this, you’ll note that I’ve made no mention of any breakdowns or mechanical maladies. That’s because there were none. Both the VW and the Ford ran flawlessly for the entire trip, which was just over 1,600 miles for me. That said, the alternator on the Ford expired the week after Jeff got home. I told Jeff that if it had happened during our trip, the VW couldn’t have towed the Ford but that it would have gladly been a “parts runner” to procure and deliver a new alternator.
But the cost would have been bragging rights for the rest of our lives.
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