Gravel Lake is about 130 miles from Chicago, and driving there east on I-94 should take between two and three hours, depending on the weather, traffic, highway construction, and so on. Going at night is usually dramatic--with the fireballs bursting over the steelworks in Gary and the blinding lights of 18-wheel semis in your rearview mirror--and it's quicker than during the day. About halfway through Indiana the speed limit jumps to 65, and that limit is in effect most of the rest of the way. In the daytime you'll see trees, billboards, and the occasional highway patrolman. Have fun picking out the other cars with Illinois plates--watch them, freed of traffic, buzz past cars with local identification. You could avoid the car ride and take the train instead--but once you're there, good luck finding a cab.
About 32 miles out of Chicago I lost WGCI-AM ("dusty radio," the most underrated station in town), but WXRT came in for the next 40 miles, or almost 'til the "Welcome to Michigan" sign. The hospitality center a few hundred yards beyond the sign has been revamped: you can still get a free Michigan map and an armful of brochures, but the center is nicer, more spacious than it was. The doors to the stalls in the men's room, however, remain way too low. The average ten-year-old could look in. Moving on, I tuned in to WJFM, 93.7, a classic-rock station from Kalamazoo. But once I turned off M51 (exit 56) and went by the grape arbors on the road out of Decatur, I turned off the radio altogether and listened to the country breeze cooling the sound of the motor.
To get to the lake, after about six or seven miles on M51 turn left onto George Street and take it past some fields, which when I saw them were black dirt and seemed to be smoking in the mist. After going around a sharp curve, take a left on Van Buren Street and go about four miles, turning left at Denny's Marine.
If you want a detour on your way to the lake, after turning onto Van Buren go only two miles and take a left onto Lawrence. Lawrence is a dirt and gravel road that will take you directly to Peacewood Farm, open during the day seven days a week. Peacewood sells its own organically grown fruits, vegetables, and flowers. These are hippie farmers who are really farmers; they've been here for years, and their produce is always good. Also on Lawrence, a couple of hundred yards past the farm, is the Decatur Cemetery, cool under some shade trees up a small hill. With its gracefully simple tombstones, some over 160 years old, it's a beautiful spot. I saw that, sadly, there had been some vandalism recently, a couple of broken stones. A sign nailed to a tree warns against picnicking, but once you look around you might say, "Who's going to stop me?" You might find out.
There are other fruit and vegetable stands dotting the area; to present a larger selection, most sell imported produce along with the local stuff. The best of these is Thompson's (on M40 between Lawton and Marcellus). It's open seven days a week, in season, until about 7:30 PM. Prices are good, and the sweet corn alone is usually worth the ride. There are also many farmers who open up their arbors to any amateurs who'd like to pick their own fruit. "U-Pick" can be fun: you pay by the basket and eat at the tree for free. Sometimes though, depending on the harvest, you may drive for hours only to find that the place has had its trees completely plucked. If at all possible, call ahead. In Decatur there are blueberries, blackberries, currants, gooseberries, and all kinds of raspberries at B & J Blueberry Ranch and Farm Market (616-423-8301, go left on Williams Street from M51, follow the signs to 51520 Gards Prairie Road). Regoni's (616-423-5491, 46101 on M51, about two miles past town) sells, in season, asparagus, strawberries, and peaches.
Speaking of telephones, unless you have one in your car, you will probably have to look for a pay phone--because if you're not camping, there are precious few places to stay in the immediate area. Practically every rental cottage for miles around is booked for every day of the season by people who return to this area year after year. The nearest motel or hotel is in Paw-Paw, up I-94 about 12 miles away.
There's camping at Stub and Lucille's (616-646-9884), located just down Van Buren and across the road from Gravel Lake. A sign poised over a deeply rutted dirt road trailing off into the woods advertises "Primative Camping." You may feel a sense of deja vu driving down the road, like you've seen this place before, maybe in a movie titled The Evil Dead. Keep going until you reach "Lucille Drive," which is where the office is. Trailers squat on ridges overlooking Big Fish Lake, and the woods are lush with crawling moss and small animals. The undead reside elsewhere. With electric and water, it's $12 a night, $70 a week to camp there; without, it's $6 a night and $35 a week. There are other campgrounds in the area, including Leisure Valley (616-423-7122) and Oak Shores (616-423-7370), but none beats Stub and Lucille's for real down-home camping.
Whipping by Stub and Lucille's, you may notice the name Melville's painted on their sign and think that's the way to get to this sprawling nightspot on the lake. But take Lucille Drive, and you may bottom out your car. Go past it, wind down Van Buren to the first right onto M40, take that to the next right, go down a street with new suburban-style houses and recently mowed lawns, and just over a rise in the road is Melville's (14625 Loveridge Road, 616-646-9742). Built in 1945 and lit all around with tiny Christmas tree bulbs, it recalls lakeside resorts of the past. New management takes over early in July, however; call to find out about entertainment and restaurant and bar facilities.
A few hundred yards past Melville's is Francoy's (51650 Fishlake Drive, 616-646-9880), where for five dollars you can rent a rowboat and take a water tour through six lakes: from Big Fish to Little Fish to East Saddlebag to West Saddlebag to Mud to Finch. Unless you're feeling very strong, from Big Fish to Little Fish is probably enough; but the lakes are small, so rowing to all six is not impossible. If you spent the morning knocking back a few at Melville's, you shouldn't do this. There are other places for boat rental in the area, notably at Little Cedar Lake (for fishing--follow signs from Van Buren and leave two dollars in the can for the day), and on Gravel Lake at the Willow Beach Grocery (616-423-7861, turn off Van Buren at the sign). Besides being a general store, it also rents boats (a rowboat is $6 a day), knee boards and tubes, and cottages (there are six).
Decatur, located in Van Buren County, is closer to Gravel Lake than any other town (though three townships claim parts of the lake). It's a pleasant village with an understated resort feel. Established in 1848, with the coming of the railroad, Decatur has long had a surprising ethnic and racial diversity, due mostly to the variety of migrant laborers who arrive each year to pick fruit and corn; over the years, some have settled here. It retains a strong sense of its history--even in the local pizza place, the walls are lined with antique photographs and kitchen implements used in "old Decatur."
Decatur's small shopping district, about two blocks by two blocks, has a variety of shops and restaurants. The Hard Times Family Restaurant (103 Phelps St., 616-423-8788) serves home-style food amidst quaint home-style artifacts; Coke comes in a fruit jar here. The Penny Lane (105-107 Phelps St., 616-423-7857) features unusual Beatles posters on the wall. The history-minded pizza place, Debarino's (107 W. Delaware, 616-423-7017), sells a decent large cheese pie for seven bucks. You can also buy condoms in the men's room for 50 cents. All of these places are within walking distance of each other in the center of town. For dessert, try the Hayloft (616-423-8287, on M51 just past town), known throughout the area for its ice cream.
Lawton has a large crafts store, the Village Gallery (616-624-2361, at 301 N. Main). Lawton is in the heart of grape country, just a few miles away from the big wineries in Paw-Paw, and it's a big supplier of grapes to Welch's--Lawton was instrumental in the creation of Welchade. It's a pretty and prosperous place. There's a golf course on the outskirts of the village, on Main after it turns into M40, Mark's Golf Course (616-624-2051). Or take exit 60 off I-94, the Paw-Paw exit. Paw-Paw boasts two wineries, St. Julian Wine Co. (716 S. Kalamazoo St., 616-657-5568) and Warner Vineyards (706 S. Kalamazoo St., 616-657-3165), which sit next door to each other. They both offer tours and wine tasting daily--the tour is a nice rainy-day thing to do, it's free, and children are welcome. They get sparkling nonalcoholic cider at the tasting, and you'll get a selection of the real thing, served up by a pleasant tour guide, who doesn't mind pouring seconds if you get something you particularly like. And you can buy a bottle, which is also a nice rainy-day thing to do.
Back at Gravel Lake, before you head out to fish, be sure to get your bait at Don's Bait Shop, Mr. Black, proprietor (616-423-8258, turn at the "Willow Beach Grocery" sign from Van Buren onto the dirt road and stop at the corner). Mr. Black, who really knows fishing, will give you a good price and tip you off to which bait is best.