Destination: Lake Michigan
Book: A Walk on the Beach: One Woman’s Trek of the Perimeter of Lake Michigan, (NEW 5/2011) by Loreen Niewenhuis.
Just a little lakeside stroll–a stroll on steroids. Loreen Niewenhuis‘ stroll, detailed in the travel memoir A 1000-Mile Walk on the Beach, took six months to complete because although she walked a total of 64 days, she took a few breaks along the way.
When I review a travel book I try to focus on that book alone. But as I read about the 1000-mile walk (taken in segments) I could not help comparing it to the continuous five-year, 14,000 mile walk of Polly Letofsky. At the Tucson Festival of Books, I heard Letofsky talk about her book, 3 MPH, so that longer walk was fresh in my mind.
Faced with a midlife crisis, Polly Letofsky aimed to fulfill a childhood dream of walking around the world and she was motivated to raise awareness of breast cancer along the way. Also motivated by mid-life angst, Niewenhuis sets out to challenge herself and to feel in her core the lake she has loved since childhood, Lake Michigan. Once she starts, she also discovers a mission to inspire people to take better care of this American treasure. Her book became an ecology lesson along with adventure travel memoir.
Starting in Chicago and keeping the lake on her left meant covering the most industrialized part of the shore early in her journey. We become familiar with a complex route that has to skirt smoke-belching, waste-spewing factories and circle around nuclear power plants before it can become a scenic route beside and over sand dunes or thickets of trees.
After hearing about a 14,000-mile walk this 1000-mile trek might sound downright wimpy, but of course it isn’t. The farthest I ever walked in a day was 13 miles–up a mountain in northern Arizona, mostly on well-marked pine needle-cushioned paths. Niewenhuis has to clamber over rocks, find a way around icy streams and calculate when good sense calls for heading inland for a spell. Understandably, she becomes obsessed with distance covered. One day when a friend is walking with her, a dog runs up and befriends the two. The friend knows the owners and makes a cell phone call, then announces they should return the dog to its owners. “They live real close…a quarter mile or so, and then up a big hill.” Niewenhuis thinks:
“These sentences have many bad words in them: a quarter mile the wrong way, up a big hill. Better words: right over there, the way we’re heading and down that hill, right by the lake and she told me where she keeps the gourmet chocolate.”
These humorous reflections and her conversational tone make the writer seem like someone you’d like to get to know–perhaps someone you’d even like to go for a walk with. But the book is not all about her and her feelings (a travel writer trait I regularly deplore in these posts). She is an experienced writer and good reporter. She explains the myriad environmental challenges with intelligence and backs up her personal observations with plenty of hard facts.
The book puts in perspective the enormous effort that will be needed to restore the Great Lakes to their once pristine state. Interestingly, the author emphasizes the personal motivational side of the book and I did not believe it succeeded as well at that task. Her insights about herself and what the walk accomplished for her life seemed unoriginal and predictable. “Life should be an adventure.” “Life your life as an adventure.” “Launch out on an adventure to find yourself.”
Perhaps it comes from my distrust of cheery “you can be anything” motivational pep talks, but I much preferred the parts of the book where we learned about the people who live and work around the lake and the impact of human activity on the great national treasure of the Great Lakes.
A step-by-step retracing of a journey could easily become flat and repetitive, but Niewenhuis rescues A 1000-Mile Walk on the Beach with her humor. She also knows when to tell a detailed story and when to skip ahead for a few days. My only criticism is that I would like to have seen more detailed maps. The only map, which appears on the back cover, shows the outline of the lake and start and stop points for each of the segments she mapped out. But that does not explain where the towns are that she stopped in, how the highways related to her path, and where parks and preserves begin and end–all information that would be useful for someone who wants to replicate any part of her walk.
Although the book lacks photos, you can find some at her web site . For anyone who knows and loves Lake Michigan, or another of the Great Lakes, or for anyone who wants to travel in the Great Lakes region, this is a good addition to the travel library.
If you want more reading material, she suggests important books in a bibliography. For those who get interested in the environmental issues, she lists organizations to contact. She also includes a list of bookstores she visited along the way–an unusual addition, but important to writers and book fiends like you and me, right? The author sent me this book for review, and I will be happy to pass it on to a reader who leaves a comment telling me what their own favorite long walk has been. The Photos are from the author’s web site. You might also want to read about a different book on a road trip around the Great Lakes. (And if you are curious about the 14,000- mile trip, you can check out Polly Letofsky’s adventure or her book web site.) So tell us about your own long walk.
Which of my readers has gone the farthest?