Tales of a Texas Transplant: Road Trip Down South
By Charles Chandler
One of the many benefits of moving to a new part of the world is that you get to meet new people, see and experience new things, and learn new stuff. And on rare occasions, all these elements come together in a singular event, like a road trip with a new good friend, Jim Charvat a great guy that I first met on a North Country National Scenic Trail work project in the Manistee National Forest near White Cloud. With Jim it was instant like and then discovery of a mutual fascination with big trees. Jim is a true renaissance man and a self-taught naturalist with an impressive knowledge of Michigan flora specializing in big trees and wild edibles.
Last year I took him on a kayak trip down a stretch of our local White River to meet this giant cottonwood growing on private property but viewable from the river. He in turn he had invited me on...
...several big tree/brewery trips with his Kent County contingency. So after a long winter and some finished projects I was finally able to commit to a road trip with Jim heading south to meet some of Michigan’s leafy monarchs.
I met Jim at his automotive shop in Grand Rapids and after a quick conference on the day’s agenda and several cups of coffee from the ancient and stained shop pot, we were ready to depart for Berrien County in the extreme southwest corner of Michigan. That coffee had a wonderful full body with a slight aftertaste maybe Quaker State 10W-20 or 30? We loaded into Jim’s green Subaru Forester station wagon and headed south. As we put Grand Rapids in our rear view I thought what a perfect vehicle for a tree hugging road trip. Our first stop was at the Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery to check on the resident sturgeons and big rainbow trout. At the hatchery that Jim introduced me to my first wild edible of the day, the Redbud blossom. Who knew those beautiful blossoms were so tasty and according to Jim, could spice up any ole salad?
The next stop was to see the GIANT Sassafras. My previous experience with Sassafras had been the road side sapling variety or as Filé powder that great seasoning used in Louisiana Creole cuisine such as gumbo and soup. As we drove up I was not impressed with the Sassafras trees that I saw, maybe 30 feet tall and 12 inches at the base; surely not the size of a state champion. Then Jim having seen this look before said, “You are looking at the daughter trees. Look up.” I did and experienced my first OMG moment of the day. This was a paradigm changing event because that tree is the Michigan Champ and maybe the world’s largest Sassafras. In the low morning light and mist you saw and felt the personality of this living entity.
I knew I was in the presence of the wisdom of the ages. After much muttering to myself, gawking and stumbling around taking pictures, Jim said that we had much more to see and needed to move on. I looked up one more time, thought I would take a chance and asked the giant Sassafras what the meaning of my frivolous life was and why I could never pass Algebra II. I thought I heard a woody snort of contempt.
Back in the Forester and down a maze of county roads was our next appointment. On the way I asked Jim how he knew where these big trees were located. “From my own research and with assistance from the Michigan Botanical Club I have compiled a simple database of Michigan’s big trees. I generally know where the champion trees are and their dimensions and sometimes where the second and third places are as well.” This information is only to be shared with a few because many trees are on private land and often the public is not kind to these ancient giants. In succession we saw the record Burr Oak, Red Oak, Beech and Tulip trees. The Red Oak was located on a two track by a very old founder’s cemetery. The size, shape and location of this tree only enhanced its mythical appearance.
As I hesitantly touched the massive trunk and looked at the ferns and small seedling growing from the folds of its massive roots I expected to see Merlin or a sleepy Nome emerge with staff in hand to inquire what we were about. The Tulip and Beech trees were located in the Warren Natural Area where amongst the exceeding tall Tulip trees Jim introduced me to Trout Lilies and Ramps, two more of Michigan’s delicious wild edibles. I will forever be a fan of the Ramps delicate taste and the wonderful earthy aroma of this unassuming little wild leek. The Tulip trees are located along a ridge on the west side of the Galien River and the old growth Beech and Maples are located in the 311 acre Natural Area on the east side. This climax forest should be a must see for lovers of great trees and those wishing to see what Michigan’s forest looked like before it was clear cut by early settlers and timber companies.
Too soon we were overwhelmed and exhausted from the sights and sounds and the happy/sad part of seeing these elegant trees, knowing that soon they would slip away. Jim being the perfect guide knew the Greenbush Brewing Co. in nearby Sawyer was the perfect place to recover. This brewery is a jewel and was the grand finale to the trip down south. I knew it was a winner because the parking lot was jammed with late model SUVs with Illinois and Indiana plates. The Tap Room was packed with serious logo-wearing beer drinkers and well-dressed weekenders. We were placed on a 15 minute wait which gave us time to discuss the innovative names of the beer selections and the extensive restaurant menu. It was apparent that Greenbush chef Jordan Gottlieb or someone on his staff has spent some time cooking and eating in the Deep South. On the menu were pork belly cracklings and Joique spicy wings, Texas style smoked brisket and hot links, gumbo and grits with shrimp.
We shared a serving of the spicy wings and I chose the smoked brisket with a side of mustard greens and hush puppies, paired with an extra hoppy IPA beer named Star Chicken Shot Gun. How could I go wrong with a name like that? The brisket was fork tender and the greens were cooked and seasoned to perfection. Jim had lentil soup with a small salad, hence the reason that at 60+ he can sling a Pulaski all day repairing a wash out on the North Country Trail.
On the drive home Jim and I discussed how magnificent the great trees were and how picture perfect the southern corner of our state is with all the rivers and rolling hills. It was obvious that the local Michiganders were industrious and took pride in their neat small farms and towns. The absence of junk and highway trash was noticeable. This could be the influence of the tourist business from the nearby cities or it could be the result of hardworking and caring people. Probably a combination of both, either way we need to encourage whatever it is to migrate up M 131 north.
Our road trip complete, I’d seen some new country, met new people albeit the leafy kind and learned that you can order up some excellent home cooking in southern Michigan. On the way back north Jim and I discussed our next road trip -- there is an ancient and very lucky White Pine in Luce County that has somehow escaped the lumberman’s axe that I would love to meet.
Charles Chandler is an avid outdoors aficionado who moved from the Lone Star State to White Cloud primarily so he and his lovely wife Dianne could access the fine fishing our area provides. Since then he has immersed himself in NC life, helping to forge the Trail Town Celebration, serving on several local boards and currently holding down a seat on the City Council. He brings experience from his years of writing for Aviation Maintenance Technology Magazine and his only drawback seems to be the ongoing affection he holds for the Dallas Cowboys, a peculiarity that only his skills at the keyboard allows us to overlook.
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