I love to hate Oakland County. The gas-guzzling SUVs, the seas of asphalt, the McMansions with their 1 acre lawns and 60″ flat screen TV – as The Eagles said in “Hotel California”, “We’re all just prisoners here, of our own device.” Back when I was in college, I always dreaded the aggressive can’t stop for nuthin’ drive up I-75 to Oakland University in Rochester Hills, where I attended journo school for about two years. When a fresh off the lot Dodge Viper passes your rusting ’99 Mercury Sable on the exit ramp in the blink of an eye and kicks water all over your windshield in the process for good measure, the sense of frustration and alienation can be overwhelming. As if your dwindling career prospects weren’t enough.
But then I rode my bike on Paint Creek Trail, a limestone trail in Oakland County that connects Rochester and Lake Orion. I don’t know if it was the gentle hum of the meandering stream, the earthy tones of the picturesque ponds, or the fairy tale red barns that did it, but the valves of my heartened heart opened for traffic again. For a moment in time, I loved Oakland County. I took in its rolling hills, its old mills and Main Streets, and I genuinely loved it. I finally understood why people want to live out here, why they relentlessly carve away at the landscape to build all those large winding subdivisions that never fail to get me tragically lost.
They saw the countryside, realized like so many Americans that it was good, and tried to approximate the accompanying rustic lifestyle within their city slicker comfort zones. That the result was a flattened bastardization of what our traditional rural communities stood for didn’t and doesn’t matter. I get it now. If you could live out here, why wouldn’t you? In the rear view mirror of a ’57 Pontiac Bonneville, it must’ve looked like paradise.
On my bicycle, it was even better.
Paint Creek Trail runs along a former stretch of the Penn Central Railroad, now prime but also somewhat protected real estate. In the 1800s and into the early 1900s, Paint Creek and the nearby Clinton River powered dozens of mills, and trains regularly brought goods in and out of the area. In Rochester and other towns like Goodison (now defunct) and Lake Orion, workers from the surrounding farms poured in to make socks, gloves, and mittens, cut logs from virgin forests into boards, and ground nature’s bounty into flour for the bustling metropolis of Detroit. In fact, markers on the trail still tell you how far you are from the heart of Detroit, which is a generally good 30 to 40 miles away.
Only the Western Knitting Mills in Rochester remains from the good ol’ days, at the start of the Paint Creek Trail. A wide two-story brick building with arched windows, the original name is etched in stone above the entrance, but everything else has changed. Where women in long skirts and baggy collared shirts once help stitch together socks, giant metal vats brew IPAs for customers wearing faded designer jeans and brand name shirts, and the smack of the cue balls has replaced the repetitive drone of industrial machinery. For all the good I could say about the Rochester Mills Beer Company, it doesn’t have the same sense of romance and vitality as a functioning factory. It’s another brewery, that’s all.
Now, there is a “cider mill” halfway through the Paint Creek Trail, but again it’s a stage set. The wooden water wheel is only for show and there are no functioning cider presses to be seen. Built in the same spot the Goodison Grist Mill stood, the restaurant at Paint Creek Cider Mill is currently run by the bald but bearded hometown kid made good Ed Granchi, and while its link to the past may be a bit tenuous, the food is prepared from scratch and is tasty but unpretentious. If you want a slice of pizza with cheese that clings for dear life to the rest of the pie when you try to pull it away, this is the place. Granchi may be a stocky biker dude, but from little I gathered he truly cares about food and people and it shows in the finished product. He’s trying to revive what for him was a fond childhood memory, and you have to admire the effort.
And anyway, beer and food (or should it go food and beer?) wasn’t – believe it or not – the point of my adventure. Primarily, I wanted to get away and enjoy some nature without having to travel too far from my home in Warren (roughly 10 miles from the center of Detroit), and Paint Creek Trail delivered. Why, I saw a painted turtle, a garter snake, a cardinal, and trout all within a relatively short span! In Metro Detroit, that’s like seeing Big Foot, Loch Ness, the Abominable Snowman, and Chupacabra back-to-back. Incredible!
The painted turtle in particular captivated me. He’d found the perfect sun bathing spot, a partially submerged log in a placid pond at the bottom of a steep hill. Below him, algae lay motionless and silver fingerlings swam with no apparent destination. With each ponderous step and slight crane of his neck, I waited for him to dive into the water, to do something, to go somewhere. But he stayed on the log, Zen-like, only moving to position himself more directly into the sun’s glorious light.
Why should he leave? He had everything he needed in that little pond – fresh water, a ready food supply, you name it. There was no need to rush. Here I was biking mile after mile, and for what? To see what could be. It’s that mad drive of humanity, to always feel unsettled, to always search for an answer, to drive and bike and walk and consume endlessly for even when we already have it all.
Maybe… maybe we could stand to be a bit more like the painted turtle. I don’t know, it’s a nice thought.