Why Change Isn’t All Bad: Notes from a tourist on a return to Door County

This summer I came back to Door County after a year-long absence. My parents – retirees and Ephraim residents for nearly 25 years – had moved out of their home and into Scandia Village, stoutly declaring themselves unwilling to make any more long trips by car or plane. Anyone who wanted to see them in the flesh would now have to come to them. Accordingly, my wife and I packed a minivan with our three kids under seven and an excessive amount of baggage and set off on the three-day drive from Connecticut to Sister Bay.

I’m not a native son of Door County, but I did attend Gibraltar High School and spent my summers working service jobs in the tourist industry until midway through college when I drifted on to other pursuits in other places. My fondness for Door County, however, developed long before residency. When I was a child – the youngest of three boys – my family lived in a Chicago suburb, and every summer we’d put in some vacation time in Door County, usually popping up our tent-trailer at a site at Camp Tel in Fish Creek. Our favorite things were simple things. We’d take a drive through Peninsula Park looking for deer, romp in the waves at the beach at Baileys Harbor and then go for sandwiches and malts at The Sandpiper, watch from Sunset Beach as an orange sun sank beneath the horizon. In the evening we’d sing folk songs at the campfire while we Jiffy-popped corn. Typically I put in a good deal of vacation time nagging for go-karts and bumper boats at Thumb Fun.

These were our rituals, the things we did simply because we were a part of the same clan and these were the ways of being that we had evolved together. Each summer we were all a year older, but we stuck to the script and played our roles. The repetition helped us to look back and remember the experiences we’d shared together in the past, and they glued us more firmly together as we went forward as a family into the next year.

As I drove along Highway 42 into Door County this summer, I felt some anxiety as I noted the changes that had taken place since I moved away. The road had been widened on the outskirts of Sturgeon Bay. Egg Harbor had been transformed into a regional mecca for antiques. In Fish Creek the high school had been given a makeover, with newly painted signs, a new outfield wall for Billerbeck Field, and new bleachers and scoreboard for the football field. Bay Ridge Golf Course looked like it could be a corner of St. Andrews, its rough having been allowed to grow two feet high in places. New condos had been built beside the Country Walk, Krist’s had become Pamida, and elsewhere new shops had opened where I remembered other businesses. Al’s even had a security system with video surveillance of the goats, someone told me.

What I had always appreciated about Door County was the sameness, the way the familiar rituals of a visit invited me to remember my own family and be grateful for the times we’d spent together here. The changes that I noticed made we wonder whether this was still that same place, the Door County that I felt attached to.

My family and I stayed six days and had a good visit with my parents. Their neighbors at Scandia Village must have been fully aware of it whenever my family was in the building; our three children would thunder down the hall to knock at my parents’ door, and later they would thunder back up the hall to push the elevator button. We spent our vacation doing a lot of familiar things: splashing around at Ephraim Beach, grocery shopping at The Pig, watching the sun set from Ephraim’s north shore. My sons and I scaled Eagle Tower, which looked much taller to me now that I had two small boys at the top who were not afraid to climb the guardrails to get a better view.

On our last morning we met my parents for breakfast at the White Gull Inn, a family favorite. Mom and Dad wanted to take us to a different restaurant that would probably have a shorter wait – isn’t that just like locals? – but no, it had to be the White Gull. We ordered the cherry-stuffed French toast – a must – and recalled some of our past visits. There was that bushy-bearded waiter who stared at the ceiling in his earnest effort to remember the specials, and the era when my brother seemed to order one of everything on the menu just so he could taste it all. My favorite memory is the time my father narrowed his eyes at me and told me to go to the bathroom and wash my face, which I dutifully did, only to discover that the blemish on my jaw that he’d pointed out was a birthmark, not dirt. It all happened at the White Gull Inn.

My kids loved the French toast. They loved the beach at Ephraim, the playground in Sister Bay, the frozen custard in Fish Creek. Sure, the county is changing, and the world beyond that is changing all the time. My parents are another year older, and I can’t stop them from losing their hearing or their strength or balance. But hey, we made another family memory! My six-year old will remember this trip to Door County for years. I’ve started to initiate him in the family rituals. For him, there’s no dissatisfaction with the changes he sees; for him, everything is brand new.

So while I certainly don’t want to hurry the pace of change and development, I find that I’m not so worried about it either. I’ll go on sharing the things I love about Door County with my own children. No matter what changes may come, we will go on with the rituals that mark our time together. Everything is unfolding just the way it should.