Riding with a Carriage Tour driver was something I have wanted to do all summer, and today was the day. I had asked if I could ride with Justin Diemert, the young man who was driving the 3-horse hitch carriage the day I took a nose dive off my bike in front of him. I got my wish! Who better to showcase than Justin, who, as far as I’m concerned, saved me from serious injury, and possibly saved my life.
A little about how the Carriage Tours work. Downtown on Main Street there is a booth where tourists can purchase tickets for Carriage Tours. That is where you are loaded onto a 20-passenger carriage. Group tours also start their sightseeing trip from there. Once you are underway, the driver gives a narrated tour through the downtown area of Mackinac Island – covering the main attractions on Main and Market Streets. From Market, they turn up Cadotte, go past The Grand Hotel and the horse barns, and at the bottom of the hill that our condo sits atop, they take a slight right and go up to the Surrey Hill Carriage Museum. There they unload and spend 15-20 minutes in the museum – looking at the carriages, going through the shops, or having ice cream, or fudge, or a sandwich (if you get there around 9:30 in the morning, you may be lucky enough to get piping hot donuts that are to die for).
After you finish your visit to the museum, you move to the back of the building and exit onto the backporch. There you wait to be loaded onto a 3-horse hitch carriage, which holds 35 passengers. Now if I went into the logistics of how all this works from downtown to the top of our hill, I would be here into next week trying to explain it. Surfice it to say that their method works smoothly, and the passengers get where they need to be 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the entire season.
Denise is usually loading and unloading folks at the front of the building, and Kim is usually on the backporch doing the same. But today Kim was off, and Denise and Judy were working the back.
Justin pulled up about 15 minutes after I arrived, and Denise explained I would be job shadowing him today. I reminded him about what he had done to save me from his horses, and he smiled and said, “Oh yeah, you’re that crazy woman who tried to scare my horses to death.” HE DIDN’T SAY THAT! What he actually said was, “Oh, I thought you looked familiar!”
Let me tell you a little about Justin. This is his third summer on the island, his second summer driving for Carriage Tours. He visited a friend on the island one summer, and the friend was driving carriage horses. He came back the next year, after applying for a job as a driver, and learned his skills on the “school bus”, as they call the “learning carriage”. Justin was born in Detroit, lived most of his life in the small town of Roscommon, MI, and is now a senior at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. He has a double major – Film and English – with plans to be a screenwriter and director. He has already written several screenplays, his most recent “Mortuary Angels”. Justin hopes to be able to take a film project from beginning to end, preferring to direct his own screenplays, rather than have someone else do it. That way he will have complete control of the finished product. He has no plans to move to New York or LA – at least not now. He says Michigan has a booming film industry, and he feels he will be able to stay here to follow his dream.
I rode with Justin through three tours – about 45 minutes each – and when the passengers were loaded, Denise told them why I was on board, and that I would be taking pictures for this blog. No one objected at all. In fact, I think they thought it was pretty cool – although I did have a couple of gentlemen ask me, “What’s a blog?”
We loaded the first group, and we were on our way, with me riding shotgun beside Justin.
When Justin is driving and talking to the passengers, he is constantly turning around and making eye contact with them. I really think that is why his passengers connect with him so easily and feel comfortable asking him questions. He uses a headset mike, so even the people in the very last row can easily hear him.
On the second leg of the Carriage Tour (the first being downtown), you see the three cemeteries, Rifle Range, Skull Cave, Arch Rock, the Avenue of the Trees, and Fort Mackinac. I’m not going to give Justin’s narrative word for word, or share with you all the jokes he told. But just in case you are ever on his tour, I am going to help you out with answers to three questions he might ask. If you remember these, you will make Justin think you are really, really smart!
We passed the three island cemeteries just a few minutes into the tour – St. Anne’s Catholic Cemetery, the Protestant Cemetery, and the Post Cemetery. First question I am going to help you out on: What are the three criteria you must fulfill to be buried in one of the Mackinac Island cemeteries? One is that you have to have lived on the island for at least 15 years; the second is that you must own property and pay taxes here. What is the third? (tick tock, tick tock) – you must be dead!
From the cemeteries, you pass Skull Cave, where Justin told the scary story of the cave’s history. Something I learned was that the cave originally was much bigger, but the limestone from the cave was quarried to build the walls of the fort – I had never heard that!
We passed Rifle Range, where the soldiers from the fort used to practice firing their muskets for accuracy and distance. I learned that the phrase “Get the lead out!” was first used right here on Mackinac Island on the Rifle Range. Seriously, this is a true story – but to hear the whole thing, you will have to take the tour!
We went on to Arch Rock, the Avenue of the Trees, and then stopped at the fort to let out anyone who wanted to go in and explore or eat lunch. Those remaining on board had the option of getting off at the Governor’s Summer Residence and walking down Fort Hill to town, or returning back to the Carriage Museum. From there they could get back on a 2-horse hitch carriage and go to The Grand Hotel or back to town.
We pulled up for our second group, and while they were loaded, Judy sprayed the horses with bug spray to keep the biting flies at bay. On the front row of the second group was the cutest little baby (remember that statement a few blogs ago about 6-month old babies always making you smile?). This one had to be about that age, and she was a doll!
At Arch Rock, the carriage stops for “7 minutes” – according to Justin. Everyone gets off the carriage and walks over to take pictures from the lookout point, which overlooks the beautiful blue waters of Lake Huron. While pictures are being taken, the horses get buckets of water to drink. From left to right, that’s Grub, Megan, and P.K.. All three are Belgian draft horses.
When the tour stops at Fort Mackinac, there is an interpreter waiting to tell the group a brief history of the fort and what is available inside to see. The interpreters are always dressed in period costume and address you as if it is still the 1800’s.
OK – here’s another question/answer that will make you seem very smart on this tour – and this one is serious. At the post cemetery, you will notice that the flag is flying at halfstaff. It is always like that at the Mackinac Island Post Cemetery, where there are many graves of unknown soldiers. Here’s the question. Where else on U.S. soil is the flag always flown at halfstaff? Have you thought about it? They are: Arlington, Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor, and Normandy. Yes, Normandy. France gave the United States land to bury our soldiers, and that cemetery is considered to be on U.S. soil.
We headed back to pick up another load of passengers (the third trip of the day) at around 12:30. I asked Justin when he “does lunch”. He doesn’t. Not in the traditional sense anyway. Like the taxi drivers, carriage drivers eat on the fly. When we returned to the Carriage Museum, we were three back in the lineup. So Denise came and sat in Justin’s seat and held the lines while he ran inside to grab something to eat (he was back in 3 minutes with ice cream). Also like the taxi drivers, the carriage tour drivers cannot leave their horses unattended.
Our third group loaded. At several points along the tour, Justin stops his narration and gives his passengers time to ask questions. This group liked to ask questions, and listened attentively to everything Justin said. I think he could have given a quiz after the tour, and they would have all made an “A”!
At the Avenue of the Trees, which is a riding and walking path that does not allow horses (hence, no horse poop on this one), there is at least one of every tree that grows on Mackinac Island. They were not planted, but grew there naturally.
At some point in each of the three tours, Justin allowed me to stand up and tell the story of my bike wreck. I emphasized how crazy we all were to be passing a carriage on such a narrow road, how crazy we were to not be wearing bike helmets, and how fortunate I was that the horses I fell in front of were being driven by Justin. Every group gave “my hero” a big round of applause.
Ok, here is your last tip for the tour if you take it one day. Question: Which U.S. President lived in the Boy Scout barracks on the island and worked there for a week in the summer when he was a Boy Scout? If you know your Presidents’ home states, you know this one. It was Gerald Ford.
The third trip of the day was over around 2 p.m. Justin would be on the job until around 7:30, then he would go back to the barn and wash and stable his horses before heading home around 9 p.m. His day began at the barn at 7:30 a.m. I asked if he had a day off. He said all the drivers have one day off a week, but he usually doesn’t elect to take his. He prefers to work. And if he does take a day, he will usually sleep late, then end up either at the barn or up at the Carriage Museum. This young man truly loves his job.
I had a great time riding with Justin, and my admiration for the job that all these drivers do grew even stronger today. They have to be aware of everything going on at all times – their passengers, people around them, bikers, horseback riders, dogs, and other carriages. They are sitting behind 3,000 lbs. of powerful, intelligent creatures who trust that young man or woman on that high seat to guide them safely through town and through the woods. And, once in a great while, a driver is alert enough to pull those great animals back by the lines and prevent them from stepping on some clutzy blogger who fell off her bike in front of them. Thank you, Justin!
NOTE: Tomorrow, some reflections on your reflections about my blog.