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Road Trip Across Michigan

We would have been happy to spend the day there, enjoying a picnic on one of the vast lawns and watching the play of water on the Triton Pools and Orpheus Fountain—the work of Swedish sculptor Carl Milles—but instead we continued north on I-75, stomachs growling. At Freeway Fritz, a drive-through chicken-and-bratwurst stand in Bridgeport, we realized that leaving the relative sophistication of suburban Detroit would be an adventure into Mitteleuropa villages and high-cholesterol foods.

Despite its prosaic name, Midland turned out to be a superior model of small-town culture. Blessed with the riches of Dow Chemical, which has been based there for more than a century, Midland has the highest concentration in the United States of architecturally significant landmarks designed by one person: at least 100 of its buildings are by Alden B. Dow, who was in the first graduating class of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin institute. The crown jewel is Dow's own house and studio, built between 1934 and 1941, an improbable ziggurat of glass, copper, and specially shaped cinder blocks.

The rambling interior, decorated in the vivid hues of spring green and crab-apple pink, reveals a harmonious balance of nature and architecture, utility and whimsy. According to the highly knowledgeable docents, Dow reacted to the notorious 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby by creating a secure warren of bedrooms, with a secret passage through a closet that led into the safety of Mom and Dad's master chamber.

From Midland, the most direct route to Grand Rapids—once the U.S. capital of fine furniture manufacturing—took us on dark, two-lane country highways lit up by flashes of neon from service stations and small-town corner bars. Just north of Rockford, a stronger glow pulled us off the road and into a parking lot with three gleaming stainless-steel, trailer-style diners. In the middle of this complex—called Dinerland—sat Rosie's: the very same 1946 diner, relocated here from New Jersey, where Nancy Walker first demonstrated Bounty, "the quicker-picker-upper" paper towels. It was 8 p.m., and, alas, Rosie and all her staff had left the building.

Spending the night at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, a plush Waldorf wannabe in Grand Rapids (owned by the pyramid-distribution soap empire headquartered in the city), made the Happy Days décor of Rosie's seem all the more appealing. We returned the next morning for Rosie's specialty: rib-sticking breakfasts, including "Cobblestone French Toast" with brown sugar and raisins. As we spoke with Jerry Berta, who founded Dinerland (the other trailers in the park have been transformed into an upscale bar and grill and an art gallery-studio), snow began to fall outside.

It fell inside the Oldsmobile as well, unfortunately, through a gap in Ruby's convertible top. But Ruby held her own on the slippery roads in Grand Rapids, on our tour of the thrift shops on Leonard Street and the museums downtown. (We bypassed the museum dedicated to native son Gerald Ford, which seemed about as intriguing as his accidental presidency.) That afternoon, the sun broke through just in time to fill the skylights of Frank Lloyd Wright's 1908 Meyer May House, which had been restored in 1987—right down to the shower fixtures that reminded us of samovars.

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