On the road to Leelanau

A visit from bicycling “wwoofers”

By Max Malsich
Sun contributor

On behalf of my brother, Zak, and I, I would like to extend a warm and kind-hearted ‘THANK YOU’ to the entire Leelanau County area. This is a beautiful place with an unusually (almost suspiciously) high percentage of amazingly kind and well-intentioned individuals. It has been our absolute pleasure to pass through over the course of the last three weeks. ‘If only we could stay longer!’ we silently dream, night after night, in the midst of our deep, contented, baby-like sleep.

But alas, we must be moving on! We are currently in the midst of a ‘Summertime West Coast Michy Bike Farm And Beach Tour’ and have further farm and beach engagements down south. If we may whisper to you though, Leelanau, on the sly, with the grand Sleeping Bear as our witness, we don’t think they’ll be able to top what you have offered us. I don’t think they will even come close. But shh! Don’t let them know we said that. It is never in good taste to spoil hospitality.

The road to our own personal ‘Tour de Leelanau’ started, in a grand sense, around the summer solstice, when we and our bikes pedaled out of the Chicago area with the intention, like so many others, of getting ‘out to the country’ to celebrate the warm months. Earlier, in the spring, while living and working in Los Angeles, we used a program called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) to get in contact with a number of farmers situated up and down the western coast of your great state. As its name suggests, WWOOF is a worldwide program that connects organic agriculturalists with those interested in traveling and picking up practical skills along the way. No money changes hands during the interactions — WWOOF-ers exchange their labor for room, board, and know-how from the (hopefully wise) land stewards they work with. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the new millennium’s form of indentured hippie servitude — WWOOF-ers are only required to work five hours a day, five days a week.

While looking into farms, our criteria were that they were no more than 10 miles from the beach and were reasonably small, with an emphasis on homesteading and self-sufficiency rather than profit. It is not uncommon knowledge that our food system is broken and needs drastic change. While large-scale organic farms and CSAs are hugely important and have their place within the necessary mosaic of production, we are both more interested in what we can do as individuals to grow as much of what we need by our own hands. For us this is not so much about a Walden-esque escape from society as it is about a system much like the ‘Victory Gardens’ of World War II, in which each house and each family does what it can to feed itself by its own toil. It is equal parts ecological, agricultural, spiritual and practical, and we are here for the summer to learn about how to do it ourselves.

Our first stop out of Chicago was at the lovely FloraLia Farms in Baroda, just south of St. Joseph. We stayed with Lia and her husband, Chad, for five weeks, and got our first taste of beekeeping, sheep shearing, blueberry picking, chainsawing, and Michigan sweet corn. At the beginning of August they invited us up to a cabin they frequent on the shores of Lake Superior just north of Newberry, and, no trip to Michigan complete without a subsequent trip to the UP, we hopped along for the ride. A week later, refreshed and cleansed by the brisk waters of Superior, we were dropped off with our bikes in Mackinaw City, ready and antsy to hit the road again.

Over the next four days we followed the contours of the shore down to Traverse City, which somehow, after only six weeks away from any major city, carried the intrusive air of a metropolis. But all in all, we were excited, for having reached Traverse meant that our next step was to once again head north, up the Leelanau Peninsula. It was a beautiful two-day ride, and as we went, the lovely Leelanau-ers began to poke their heads out and open their arms in welcome. We spent one night in Suttons Bay with Jan and Peter, two die hard sci-fi lovers, and their cat Püj (whose name is a Star Trek reference, apparently). As a trio they plan on re-watching the entire Star Wars series as a way of celebrating Peter’s recent retirement and getting back to “what really matters”. The next night saw us camping in Leelanau State Park, but not before meeting and spending considerable time in conversation with one Jim Bell of Bell’s of Christmas, a man we affectionately refer to as “the last elf on earth” for his amazing ability, in the year 2015, to rely primarily on the assembly of wreaths and hand knit beanies to make his living. He is truly an inspiration.

The final day of our ride took us back down south into Empire, where we had a lovely swim in the wind-sloshed waves, fell in love with the gorgeous coastal topography and spent an entertaining night with the Skrockis, the local surfer clan. The next afternoon we said our goodbyes to the village and trekked up the hills to the east, up to our second WWOOF spot — Mimi and Norm Wheeler’s quiet and picturesque Bard’s Hill. There we had a wonderful time tidying up and working on the gardens and cottages, and were quite blown away by the diversity of guests and acquaintances kept by our hosts. In just one week, we were introduced to an astounding seven Germans, two refugees from the former Soviet Union, one New Zealander, and upwards of five beautiful Midwesterners. It was quite the experience.

And now, as I write this, our time in the beloved Leelanau Peninsula is winding down. By the time of publication, Zak and I will be long gone downstate, to our third WWOOF spot, an experimental permaculture farm in Bangor, to the west of Kalamazoo. After that, come October, we’ll help winterize back at FloraLia. Then, a quick bike ride back to Chicago and a quick train ride back to Los Angeles, where we’ll utilize the cool, wet wintertime conditions to see how much food we can grow ourselves.

But we will not so quickly forget you, dear Leelanau! It will only be with the love and well-wishes we’ve accrued while in your midst that we will be able to go on. And just as the robin, the swallow, and the phoebe always return from their lush wintertime perches, so will we, for your county has been etched into our hearts and minds as one of the most beautiful (and friendly) in the country. Yes, perhaps one day we’ll be lucky enough to count ourselves among the ranks of the woodpeckers, the jays, the chickadees – those who, like many of you, rough winter out just where they are — in the lovely Leelanau Peninsula.