MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — What is America’s only state-owned and maintained highway that does not allow any motorized vehicles on it?
The same highway that has never recorded an auto fatality, the 8.3-mile M-185 which encircles this tree-covered, granite-rock island which the Odawa Native Americans described as a great turtle arising from the dark cold depths of the Straits of Mackinac near the Canadian border.
The incongruity of purpose is because only horse and bike transport is allowed on the island visited annually by about 750,000 tourists during the May through October season, conscribed by severely cold and challenging winters of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
White picket fences, acres of luxuriant gardens and the eponymous novelty of clop clopping around astride a rented valiant steed or in-charge, holding the reins, or as passenger in a buggy or tourist carriage give the island a unique ambience.
Presidents Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and the “Today” crew; as well as many A-list celebrities have visited the iconic Grand Hotel, where two major movies were filmed.
An exquisite Victorian home is available as a summer residence for whomever is Michigan’s current governor.
My every-few-years summer visits are among those ritualistic treks one repeats out of nostalgia and curiosity.
If you’re not an equestrian, you can rent a bike to weave past horses and tourists to the serene end of the island, then — as we did — opt for a super elegant evening of dinner, dancing and demitasse off the 1887 Grand Hotel’s 660-foot porch under a sky ablaze with stars.
As a college student worker in the Grand’s gift shop in 1961, I lived at the Grand in a room over the nightclub.
But those lively halcyon summer days with 300-plus college students from all across America — staffing all the businesses — ended in the late 1970s according to a just-debuted book, “Mackinac Island: Inside, Up Close, and Personal,” by Dennis Cawthorne (Arbutus Press).
Students were replaced with “foreign students and seasonal workers with visas,” Cawthorne, a former state legislator, writes. He attributes the shift to: “Colleges changing their start time to August,” and “a pronounced dis-inclination to work hard and appreciate the value of a dollar on the part of younger American workers. Foreigners, appreciative of their opportunities, filed the void.”
Cawthorne, who worked one summer as a relief police officer in Manistee, explores an unsolved cold case mystery — the July 1960 strangulation murder of tourist Frances Lacey, 49, a Dearborn widow. His well-researched book details historic eras, including the controversial decades-long presence of the Moral Rearmament residents.
In 1960, Cawthorne began his requited love for the island when working as a carriage driver, moving up to the chamber of commerce manager, then eventually a 20-year chairman of the Island Park Commission.
“I will be buried there,” Cawthorne writes.
Cawthorne and I were Albion College classmates until I transferred to University of Michigan. We both became attorneys: He at Harvard Law, which did not admit women until 1950 and admitted women as undergraduates in 1977.