By Kathleen Lavey
(Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from a longer one originally published in the Lansing State Journal.)
Unfold the AAA-issued map of Michigan that Ken Dunlap carries around in his Ford Focus, and angular red holes appear at the crease. It’s been well used.
Since 2011, Dunlap has used the map – plus others and a bulging, well-worn county atlas besides – to locate, visit and photograph 1,488 places in Michigan. That’s every settlement from ghost towns to Grand Rapids, cities, towns, villages and sometimes even crossroads.
He never set out to visit every hamlet in the state.
“I just stumbled into it,” says Dunlap, who lives in Okemos.
“It was a good stumble,” said his wife Donna.
Dunlap agreed: “It was great seeing so many different places and going to different places in the state I haven’t been to before.”
Dunlap’s travels have taken him from thriving cities to long-dead towns where little is left but a road sign or a graveyard.
“There were places where you couldn’t even tell any town existed,” Dunlap said.
He took a picture of at least one place in each, something with the town’s name on it. He’s sharing them on his website, Michiganmapster.com. In fact, he initially counted 1,565 potential towns, but had to write some off as they had no signs remaining.
The photos run the gamut. In the Thumb community of Bay Port, he shot a blue-and-green banner decorated with a cartoon fish and the slogan: “Home of the Fish Sandwich Festival.” In Detroit, he picked Comerica Park; in Grand Rapids, the Van Andel Arena. In the Upper Peninsula community of Germfask, he picked the metal-roofed, brick fire department. A cemetery sign represents the Livingston County community of Pennfield.
At 96,716 square miles, Michigan is the 11-th largest state, and Dunlap came to respect the magnitude of the challenge he had set for himself.
Dunlap’s journey around the state started as he was preparing to retire from a 30-year career as a computer programmer at Auto Owners Insurance. His mother, who lived near Traverse City, and his brother, who lived near Chelsea, both were sick, and he visited frequently.
He got bored with highways and started choosing less-traveled roads.
That, it turns out, made all the difference.
By the time he retired in October 2011, the idea of visiting each town in the state was firmly implanted.
He has thick stacks of pale-green pages torn from steno pads, planning his routes. He has maps with color-coded areas showing places he has already visited. He used a pencil to color in a circular mark next to names of towns he’d visited on the legend of the AAA map.
“After six months or so, I looked at the big picture and said, ‘I can make this in three years and not have it be a full-time job,’” he said.
Donna, a retired Okemos teacher, has been on a few trips with him, but mostly he has traveled alone.
He spent the first two years covering the Lower Peninsula. He had to replace his original car, a Honda Civic, with the Ford after a crash in 2012.
“It started out pretty easy, because I was going on a straight path somewhere,” he said. After picking off nearby towns, he had to plan harder. “I’d have to drive 30 miles before I hit my first new town,” he said.
In 2014, he headed to the Upper Peninsula, a treed and rocky landscape peppered with small cities, tiny towns and turn-of-the-century ghost towns left by the decline of lumber and mining.
“Finding most of them was a challenge,” he said. “And some of them a just gone.”
He has one town left to visit this summer: North Manitou, on North Manitou Island. It’s part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Dunlap is not sure what his next retirement project will be. “I think I’ll just sit for a while and reminisce,” he said.