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Road Trip Across Michigan

While travel is meant to illuminate the beauty of the world around us, it sometimes also reveals darker truths. Two days in, it was clear that the Modernist buildings and furnishings we had discovered were struggling to justify their existence in a culture and economy obsessed, as Detroit is, with next year's model. Moving across the state turned into a scavenger hunt—everywhere a small but zealous crew of preservationists pointing out the next treasure.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the town of Holland, where we spent an evening at Alpenrose, a Bavarianrestaurantin the revitalized downtown. We drank wine and ate schnitzel and gulyas soup with proud residents Cal and Bobbi Rotman. They filled us in on the history of Holland, its week-long tulip festival in May, and the local industry, which is headed by Heinz. "If you're in the right part of town," Bobbi said, "you can smell pickles in the air."

The Rotmans, however, have worked for Herman Miller since the seventies; 10 years ago, when the Zeeland, Michigan-based company began reissuing classic furniture by Charles Eames and George Nelson, the couple got hooked on mid-20th-century design. They now buy and sell at several booths in Holland's antiques malls.

"Our kids call us Dumpster divers," Cal admitted, while regaling us with horror stories about people who had drilled holes through fiberglass-shell Eames chairs to drain rainwater. He told us about the chair that looked like a baseball, which he'd bought on impulse because he was intrigued by its stitching. A fellow collector visited the Rotmans' house one day and said, "Get the dog off that chair," explaining that the piece was one of four remaining models of airport seating designed by George Nelson. Years later, someone offered Rotman a second one. It cleaned up pretty nicely, considering that hunters had left it outside in a deer blind.

We spent that night at the Marigold Lodge, a 1913 Prairie School summer mansion on Lake Macatawa that serves as Herman Miller's corporate lodge. (We weren't the first by-invitation-only guests to suggest they convert it into an inn.) It was a perfect starting point for exploring U.S. Highway 31 and its offshoot, the Blue Star Highway (A2), as they snaked through beachfront communities and rustic resorts on Lake Michigan. On this crisp, clear day, we felt right at home as Ruby cruised past low-slung fifties motels (invariably decorated in what I call Low-Rent 1980's). In Saugatuck and Douglas, twin towns known as "the Art Coast of Michigan," dozens of galleries and studios, a public sculpture program, and Oxbow, an artists' colony and summer school affiliated with the Art Institute of Chicago, draw a mix of visitors that includes a sizable number of gay Midwesterners, who consider the area their Provincetown.

After digging into bowls of "Kalamazoo Klam Chowder" at a harborside restaurant, we took Ruby on a leisurely driveeast, past Kalamazoo to Battle Creek. Night falls hard and fast in these parts, and lodging becomes a choice between inexpensive chain motels on utility roads and out-of-the-way B&B's. We opted for the latter, following serpentine directions on foggy, unlit roads through the suburbs surrounding the "Cereal City," which even at night is redolent of roasting cornflakes.


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