Along the Hart-Montague bike path, there are a few places where the trees grow together over the trail, creating a leafy canopy so perfect, it brings to mind a scene from a movie.
Passing under those canopies might have been when Steve Bass fell in love with Michigan.
Or it might have been one of the countless times he walked the 10 minutes from his home in Pentwater to the shores of Lake Michigan, watched the sunset, then clapped with his neighbors in celebration of another idyllic day.
Or perhaps it started when he sat around a worn table, feasting on some of the locally-sourced cheeses, wines, meats, vegetables and fruits produced along the Agricultural Trail that runs through Mason and Oceana counties.
The exact moment that Bass’s love affair with Michigan began isn’t really that important.
That it sustains him, is.
“No one in LA understands why I would want to come to Michigan. The first question they always ask me is, ‘Is there a direct flight,’” said Bass, a production designer and manager from California. His Emmy-award winning work includes televised awards specials that annually celebrate the best in film, theater and music.
“The only way to explain it is when they come visit. They are here for less than an hour and they say ‘I understand,’” Bass said.
Earth, wind and water
Western Michigan provides visitors a landscape kaleidoscope, from fertile farms, sandy dunes and beaches, pine-filled forests and of course, the lake.
It’s easy to understand why the uninitiated might not appreciate the ecosystem biodiversity, said Manny Valdez, unit supervisor with the Michigan DNR.
“Going to different state parks is what got me hooked on nature,” Valdez said. “It got me curious about what other parks had to offer.”
Once he caught the habit, Valdez found there was so much more happening when he was outside.
“Nature is very calming. When you witness a lake, or you’re in the middle of a forest, you see that nature is so much bigger than you. It’s humbling and that’s something.”
That influence was perhaps no more important than during the coronavirus pandemic.
“For me, I didn’t feel stuck at all because of COVID, because there was always a beach, a trail, always something for me to immerse myself into,” he said. “Being outdoors and getting a little exercise can lower your anxiety and give you peace of mind. And being stuck in paradise isn’t the worst thing to have happen.
“It’s something to do, people can get outside and enjoy, and [often] those things get put off when there are other options,” he said. “But people did take time to go see the parks and trails they wanted to get out and explore.”
With more than 100 state parks, and abundant forests and wildlife areas, the DNR maintains 4.6 million acres of public land ensuring year-round options are available.
Ludington State Park is one area that rolls with the seasons. On the border of Lake Michigan, Ludington is home to Big Sable Point Lighthouse and boasts camping, fishing, and warming shelters for colder-weather hikes along the park’s Lost Lake and Island Loop Trail.
Day passes for state park access for out-of-staters start at $9; and an annual pass fee is currently $34.
Valdez urges visitors to check the DNR website before heading out, to get updated park conditions.
“Doing a little homework ahead of time will make a visit better,” he said. “And in the spring and summertime especially, if you’re going to camp, you need to make your reservations early because the weekends fill up quickly.”
Sharing a table with friends
The springtime return of a steady stream of visitors is always something Dennise Wright looks forward to, because it means the return of so many families she’s come to call friends.
For almost 17 years, Wright, her husband Andy and their children have run Liberty Family Farm and Bakery in Hart. The family began farming after initially just dabbling in clean food, as a response to one son’s allergies. They grew enough that they had extras to sell at the farmer’s market near their then-home in Lansing. In time, they decided to make their farm interests a permanent endeavor, and made the move to the region.
There, they specialize in grass-fed animals, organically-raised fruits and vegetables and natural bread and other baked goods.
“It’s been a great way to raise a family,” Dennise Wright said.
The local farmer’s market in Pentwater became the place the family built up a loyal following. In time a desire grew, she said, to simply say thank you.
“It started as, ‘Hey do you want to come out to dinner?’” Wright said. “Long before the farm to table idea got popular, we essentially just invited people to come out and have dinner under the maple trees in our yard.”
Wright said the customers wanted to see the farm, and the family wanted to show it to them.
“They really liked it, and they asked if they could come out the next year.”
Thus were born the Sunday brunches and “Farm Dinners” the family hosts, inviting their farmer’s market regulars to be their guests.
Now when the family hosts a dinner, newcomers and veterans alike can give a donation if they like, but the Wrights don’t charge for the experience.
“We built this thing around donations, and we never suggest any [size] of donation,” she said. “So many of those people have come for years, it’s part of their routine to come to visit the farm when they are at their cottage.
“There’s people who have been coming from day one, and they are our friends now. It’s just like having friends for dinner.”
The family focuses on cooking seasonally, and setting a table that encourages guests to linger.
“We take the opportunity to cook with whatever is in season,” she said. “We grow a lot of vegetables ourselves, but then we get other local foods. We have so many things around this area that grow locally — asparagus, cherries, peaches.
“There’s so much to offer seasonally for food, we really try to do that. We feel very old-fashioned in that respect.”
Clean, simple life
Pentwater’s Steve Bass attests the dinners are as delicious and nostalgic as they sound.
“You sit out on the lawn and they show you around the farm,” Bass said. “The farm to table experience is part of the romance of what people think of when they come to the country.”
Bass said the experience exemplifies what he feels Michigan has to offer.
“It’s incredible simplicity,” Bass said. “Everything is real.”
That clearness has provided Bass clarity.
“I think it’s really understanding my threshold for work and personal life balance — Michigan has given me part of my personal life that I didn’t understand that I could get to. Understanding how happy you can be with so little being so much.
“There are so few places in life that you can go to where you stop looking for something else. When people come to Pentwater they feel like they have arrived somewhere that’s so fulfilling that they don’t need anything beyond this.”
If you go
Liberty Family Farms and Bakery