LELAND -- The two-story cottage sits amid trees at the end of a winding gravel road, some distance from the M-22 highway.
It was a quiet morning, and warm, the early daylight coloring the western shore of Lake Leelanau a soft shade of silver. The house smelled cozy, like bacon.
Kathleen Sebelius was on her cell phone. She clutched it a few minutes later when she stepped onto a deck overlooking the lake, dressed simply in a collared tank top and sandals.
"This is a family house," she said in an interview last week. "It feels like coming home."
Summer vacation for Sebelius has always included a stay at the family home in Leland, a tiny Leelanau County village nestled between two sizable lakes. Her grandfather built it decades ago, making her children the fourth generation to frequent the region.
She grew up in Cincinnati, the daughter of John J. Gilligan, a former Ohio governor. The family home in Leland serves as a treasured gathering place for family and friends.
But this year, her annual trip is her first as U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services, having been sworn in as a member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet in April. And although she has vacationed here before while serving in politics -- most recently as the twice-elected governor of Kansas -- never has her position been as high ranking or high profile.
"She'd be the first to admit that her job is 24/7," said Bob Schlueter, deputy director of the Area Agency on Aging of Northwest Michigan and a longtime family friend. "She hasn't been secretary very long, but she's been coming to Leland her whole life."
As the vitriol escalates around Obama's sweeping health care restructuring plan, Sebelius is championing bipartisan cooperation and an end to the protesting she believes threatens to delay needed reform.
An early supporter of Obama, Sebelius initially asked him to remove her name from Cabinet consideration so she could finish her second term as governor. But Obama's offer proved to be "too compelling," she said.
"This is really the opportunity to work at the national and international level," Sebelius said. "You don't say no to the president."
Health care reform has since become one of the administration's top priorities. Goals include extending health care coverage to every American and preventing insurance companies from dropping customers because of pre-existing medical conditions.
Fred Keeslar, director of the Grand Traverse County Health Department, is not yet familiar with Sebelius' leadership style, but said it would be helpful if the federal government was in more direct communication with local jurisdictions.
"I've been trying to keep up, as most Americans are," Keeslar said, adding that much of the information his office receives is sent from indirect sources. "I certainly hope something comes out of this."
It will take thoughtful, serious dialogue from people on all sides of the issue to effect change, Sebelius said.
Efforts to undermine the process are "unfortunate," she added.
"As far as I'm concerned, the only point could be to frighten folks," she said. "A lot of the protesters seem bent on disrupting and preventing any conversation from taking place."
Locally, helping an aging population access health care services is a major priority, Schlueter said. Census data from 2000 shows there were nearly 23,000 people 65 or older in Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Antrim and Kalkaska counties.
Sebelius is the type of person who can encourage bipartisan thinking, Schlueter said, and she has the skills to do it.
"You would have to go a long ways to find somebody as thoughtful and as wide and as inclusive in their thinking," he said. "That's what she's all about."
Her visit to northern Michigan might be a retreat, however brief, from the political firestorm centered on Washington. But her work never is too far away.
"I can be reached very quickly," she said, her phone within arm's length of her seat on the deck.
Even so, she wasn't ready to leave Leland quite yet: "I hope to get a full week in."