Personal Note: This is Part II of a blog about shadowing a Mackinac Island taxi driver one morning in July of 2009. _________________________________________________________________
You know all the clothes I had put on for my morning with Jeanine? Not one single piece came off during the morning. I never put on the rain gear, but I wore the earmuffs the entire morning and still had them on when I climbed off the taxi at 12:30 back at the barn. It amazes me (and even more so now) the conditions the drivers work in on the island. When you take into consideration that their year begins in April and runs roughly through the end of October, you can bet that they will have experienced rain, sleet, freezing temperatures, freezing rain, winds blowing up to 40 mph (and more), and possibly some snow. Carriage Tours provides their drivers with very nice uniforms including shirts, turtlenecks, vests, warm coats, and caps. The drivers provide their own rain gear, khaki pants, shoes and gloves. The taxis all carry blankets under the seats for passengers, but I have never seen a driver use one for himself. They are much more concerned about how the weather conditions may be affecting their horses than how it is affecting them.
Jeanine and I left the horse barn and went the rest of the way down the hill into town. The streets at 7 a.m. were quiet and empty. Our first pick up was a taxi driver in a leg brace. He can walk down the hill to the barn, and he can still handle his team. What he can’t do is walk back up the hill. We picked him up at the taxi stand, where he waited with a cup of coffee for Jeanine. I jumped off and ran into Marc’s Double Oven for caffeine for me and climbed back on.
By the time we got back to the horse barn and dropped off our rider, we had a call at The Grand. At The Grand, we pulled up under the porch, and a porter came out and said the people had decided to walk down the hill. He asked if we would take a cart full of luggage down to the ferry dock, and Jeanine said yes. We pulled around to the side of The Grand, and a worker hooked the packed cart to the back of the taxi.
We pulled the luggage cart down to the ferry dock where a porter was waiting to unhook it. We left the docks and started down the street to park and wait on another call, but we never got to stop. An employee of Wings of Mackinac (a butterfly house next door to our condo) needed a ride up the hill to work. We turned around in front of Marquette Park and picked up the lady at the taxi stand.
Market Street was empty too at that time of morning. Later on, after the first ferries arrived, the street would be teeming with visitors, but now it was quiet and peaceful.
We dropped the worker off at Wings of Mackinac just as another call came in for the Annex. Jeanine drove the taxi down the road in front of our condo, where Ted was out on the balcony with Maddie and Bear. I had called him coming up the hill, and he had jokingly asked if I wanted him to meet us at the boardwalk with coffee, bacon and eggs. Since I knew he was kidding, I declined even the coffee since I had already had a cup.
I loved the annex run. We turned into the state park on the same road where we walk Maddie and Bear. Driving through the woods on a chilly morning is almost surreal. It is so quiet you could hear your heart beating if it weren’t for the horses hoofbeats covering that sound in your chest. Jeanine handles the reins like a professional, and Thunder and Andy respond to her every touch. We talked for a moment about the things that can spook a horse. Since they wear blinders, they can only see straight in front of them. That’s why you always approach a horse in blinders from the front, or if you can’t do that, you start talking as you walk up beside them to let them know you are there. On the island, like anywhere else, the horses get used to where everything is supposed to be. If something changes, it startles them. Jeanine said a plastic bag flying across the road is the granddaddy of “horse spookers”. She said that is why you always see workers picking up any bags that have been thrown down as litter. A spooked horse in a street full of walkers and bikers is a scary thing to behold. It does happen – not often, but it does. Basically though, Jeanine said, the horses on Mackinac Island are what she calls “bomb proof”. They can handle most anything that comes their way. That is the way they are trained.
We arrived at a rental house in the annex to find a family group that was heading home after a month’s stay. They had their luggage out waiting. The men in the group loaded everything up under the back luggage compartment and strapped it all down. I knew that we had always loaded and unloaded our own luggage, but I didn’t know until today that the drivers are not allowed to leave their seats. Can you imagine a spooked horse with no driver?
Everyone got on the taxi, including Winston – a very cute dog, who his mom said was ready to go home. I don’t think this family was though. There were five brothers and one sister (who didn’t make it this trip) and their respective spouses, children and grandchildren. They have been renting this same house for the last 11 years, spending precious time together, making memories that will live into the future, and just enjoying being family together once a year in this special place.
One lady in this group (Susan) followed us on her bicycle. One of the women riding the taxi explained that the biker was preparing for a biathlon (1/2 mile swim and 5K run) in Delaware. Susan has won gold, silver, and bronze medals in the Senior Olympics and has appeared in Sports Illustrated. She was awesome, and you could tell the family was so proud of her.
I had explained to the family why I was riding along and asked permission to take pictures and write about them on the blog. They were excited, and everyone wanted the blog address. When we dropped them off at the ferry dock, one of the ladies told me she couldn’t wait to get home and read the story because she taught writing. My face fell. I was wondering how I could get back the address I had given them, because the thought of an English teacher reading this made me ’bout have the vapors. But she explained she wasn’t an English teacher of writing. She taught writing from the heart. “Oh”, I said, “that’s what I do.” She wrote the kindest comment to me today after reading the blog – I confess it made me cry. I hope I get to see this family again next year when they are on the island. Friendships could definitely grow there.
Back in town we got a call to pick up a lady at the Lakeview Hotel going to the Governor’s Summer Residence. Now if you ride a taxi alone, you are charged for two people so it was going to cost this lady $9.50 for that ride. Right after we picked her up though there was another call for the Governor’s house from a lady at the Cloghaun Bed & Breakfast. The fare was instantly cut to $4.75 for each lady. The Governor’s Summer Residence is a popular spot for tourists on Wednesdays during the summer. They open the house to the public in the morning hours, and guided tours are conducted through the first floor of the mansion. And it’s free! Ted and I have done the tour, and the house is absolutely beautiful. I will blog on it one day soon.
With permission granted to photograph them and with blog address given out, I learned that one of the ladies was from Michigan and the other was from Maryland. The Baltimore lady had stayed on the island an extra day just to see this house, and when we arrived there was a long waiting line.
We went back to town by the East Bluff mansions and down a VERY steep hill – so steep that carriages without brakes are not allowed. We had brakes, but Jeanine assured me that Andy and Thunder could stop the carriage even if the brakes failed. Good to know. We stopped to water the horses, letting them drink their fill.
I had the cutest comment this week from another taxi driver’s (Alyssa) grandmother. She told me all about Alyssa driving taxis, and that she thought Alyssa and Jeanine knew each other. She was right – they were roommates at one time. While we were parked waiting on a call, Jeanine saw her coming up the street. Alyssa parked right across from us, and I jumped off to run over and take her picture. Her grandmother had already been in touch with her, and Alyssa knew she was going to be so excited to see the picture on the blog. So this one’s for you, proud Grandmom!
After about a 10 minute wait for our next call (during which I dashed into The Pancake House and got Jeanine and I a MacMuffin with sausage and onions), we were sent to pick up a couple at a hotel on Main Street who wanted to be driven out to British Landing and dropped off. When we arrived, Jeanine explained that British Landing was the farthest point on the island that a taxi goes, and the cost would be $29.00. That was fine with them. They wanted the experience of walking half-way around the island, but because of the weather didn’t want to chance being gone long enough to do the entire 8.2 miles. We started out on M-185, the highway around the island, and I did my “blog talk” to this nice couple from Kentucky.
They were so cute, all snuggled up together in the back seat. I told them the story of how we ended up on Mackinac, and they told me a little about themselves. They asked Jeanine what had brought her to the island, and Jeanine said, “the ferry”. We all cracked up. Jeanine said she doesn’t use that one a lot, but it does get a laugh every time. Then she told them the real reason she was here – her love of horses. As we covered the four miles out to British landing, the clouds over the bridge looked threatening, but the rain never came.
We passed the West Bluff with its “cottages” and went around a drive-it-yourself buggy. The Kentucky couple asked if the companies used the oldest horses for those carriages. Jeanine said yes – a lot of people who rent the buggies have no experience at all in driving horses, so they try to put a safe, calm horse with them. That led to a discussion on the ages of the horses on the island. Jeanine explained that most horses come to the island at about 5 years of age and will usually work until they are 15 or 20, depending on the horse. Andy and Thunder are eight or nine years old, so they are just getting started. The majority of the horses are bought from the Amish who have already trained them to pull loads. The horses are switched between taxis, livery, tours, and drays each year.
We let the couple off at Cannonball, the half-way point and a great place to get something to drink and their famous fried pickles. The lady who runs Cannonball was out the door like a shot when we pulled up – she knows the drivers can’t get off, and she knows they are on a tight schedule. Those pickles were ready in a flash.
As the last pickle was going down, we got a call to pick up at Pinewood, behind Stonecliffe. We took the road going up through the center of the island (one of my favorites), and were rewarded by woods filled with blooming wildflowers.
We waited for nearly 10 minutes for the riders at Pinewood, only to find out that they had decided to take the hotel shuttle downtown. By then it was 12:15, so Jeanine headed for the barn to switch out her team. Andy and Thunder would not work again until the next afternoon, have the whole next day off, then begin the cycle again the next morning. Aiden and Donny were waiting to unhitch the tired horses, and they were led into their stalls, where Jeanine checked to make sure they were ok and had started eating. The new team, Anna and Newt, were ready and waiting for Jeanine. When it’s time to switch horses, it doesn’t matter if the taxi has riders or is empty. The horses are switched on time. Because of that, the driver cannot get her second team ready, so that is done by the barn workers.
After Jeanine leaves, Andy and Thunder will be unharnessed, curried, brushed and given another bath. Jeanine climbs aboard for the second half of her shift and starts back downtown. When she returns to the barn at 7 p.m., she will unharness Anna and Newt and repeat the process the barn workers did for the first team. She won’t go home until she has done everything she needs to do to make sure her horses are comfortable, fed, and settled in for the night. When that is accomplished, Jeanine’s shift will be over.
I gained a tremendous amount of respect during my ride for these men and women who handle the big horses. They have to have strength, control, and a calm spirit to accomplish what they do with the horses. They also must be honest, kind, and patient to deal with the riders they transport. It’s not an easy job, and on Mackinac Island it is a very important one. Thanks to Dr. Bill Chambers for allowing me to ride along on a taxi. And a big, special thanks to Jeanine for allowing me to tag along and ask dozens of questions, and for not making too much fun of me when I couldn’t lift the two tons of harness off my head. I loved every minute. See you on the streets!
1) The morning shift is generally easier on the horses. In the morning, the majority of the people are going toward town, so the heavy load is going downhill. In the afternoon, the majority of people are going home, so the heavy load has to be pulled up the hill.
2) The horses get new shoes every 4-6 weeks – unless they throw one in between. The front shoes are rubber because the majority of the weight is taken on the front legs, and the rubber gives more bounce. The back shoes are steel, which contain a gritty substance to give the horse more traction.
3) What a taxi driver never leaves home without on Mackinac Island? Raingear, a jacket, and sunglasses.
4) The island is divided into taxi zones.
5) Silly tourist questions: Does the water go all the way around the island? When do they swing the Mackinac Bridge over to the island?
Another Personal Note: Spending as many summers as we do on Mackinac Island and writing about our adventures there tends to link us to folks who love the island as much as we do. Reading back over this story, I realized I’ve been Facebook friends with several of the people in this blog since 2008 and earlier.
First – Jeanine, the taxi driver. Jeanine left the island and moved to Savannah where she drove carriage tours in that city for several years. Ted and I looked her up and took one of her tours in that city when we were there for a class reunion at Paula Deen’s house (Ted graduated with Paula from high school). I connected with Jeanine again when she drove to Sylvester GA (my hometown), to adopt one of the shelter dogs I’d written about at Best Friends Humane Society.
Jeanine now lives and does taxes in upstate New York. This photo is from her Savannah days with one of her all-time favorite horses,Charlie.
Second – Sue from the family we picked up at the house in the Annex (not the Sue on the bike, but the Sue who taught “writing from the heart”).
As recently as a few weeks ago I received this beautiful SoulCollage card Susan had created in memory of Bear.
A few years ago I interviewed Susan’s granddaughter Devon for a blog story. The then 15-year old had written and published a youth novel (“Get Over It”) about a boy and girl who meet on the island. She used her memories of spending a month each summer on Mackinac to give authenticity to the story.
Third – Alyssa, the other taxi driver in the blog above. Alyssa lives on the island as a year-round resident now and drives for Carriage Tours. We see her every summer!
Fourth – Alyssa’s grandmother Alice. Alice contacted me after she read Part I of the taxi driver story and told me she had a granddaughter who also drove taxis – and she thought she was friends with Jeanine. It became a regular thing for me to snap a photo of Alyssa each time I’d see her and send it to Alice.
I feel so continually blessed to have met each of these precious folks – and hundreds like them – who share my love of Mackinac.