If you were lucky enough to cruise M-22 during the glory days of October, you likely agree with USA TODAY that it’s America’s Number One Best Scenic Autumn Drive. The byway weaves alongside the Leelanau, Benzie and Manistee Lake Michigan coastline, mile by mile unfolding colorful contrasts of land and sea.

M-22 road trips are often undertaken based on what attractions dot the route — and there are many — from wineries, breweries and beach towns, to galleries, boutiques and farm-to-table cafes. Journeys are marked by wheres, from historic sites to parks and preserves, with Sleeping Bear Dunes Lakeshore shining as M-22’s brightest star.

What many overlook is the who.

Who over the decades preserved our M-22 treasures? Whose passion and vision developed the rich experiences we discover along the route — experiences which uplift our senses, minds and souls? Meeting these people and learning about their journeys gives dimension to the 116-mile road trip in every season.

People who created both the foundation of M-22 life and its cultural and historic gems came from far and wide. Our indigenous peoples called the peninsula The Land of Delight. Then along came European settlers. Leonard Thoreson’s family farm was among 22 farmsteads worked between 1870 and the mid-1950s. The 92-year-old still lives near his childhood home, now a part of Port Oneida agriculture community which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Farming the sandy soil near the tip of the peninsula was difficult. Most families, like Thoreson’s eventually abandoned their hard knocks agriculture life for city life but left behind a rich historical footprint.

Campers flock to D.H. Day Campground at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Did you ever wonder just who was the man called King David of the North? David Henry Day was a savvy Lake Michigan shipping baron during the late 1800s. He owned a 400-acre farm near Glen Haven that included 5,000 cherry trees. Day donated a portion of his land to the state in 1920. It later became part of Sleeping Bear.

Founder of the Suttons Bay-based Inland Seas Association, the late Tom Kelly, considered any day a good day that he could sing old shanty songs and sail Lake Michigan waters. His passion and vision for the lake have transformed people of all ages into Great Lakes guardians since 1989.

It was also in 1989 when Bob Sutherland began selling t-shirts from the trunk of his car to earn money for college. His tees promoted “Life, Liberty, Beaches and Pie.” From this modest beginning he formed the now iconic Glen Arbor-based Cherry Republic which today produces more than 200 cherry products and draws visitors by the thousands to its retail headquarters.

John and Anne Hoyt brought cheesemaking artistry from Switzerland to found Leelanau Cheese Company more than 25 years ago. Bernie Rink is considered the father of the region’s wine industry. His pioneering Boskydel vineyard established in the 1950s at Lake Leelanau led the way for cultivating what is now a cornerstone of the area’s agriculture and tourism business.

Whos of M-22 made the near impossible happen. It was a Herculean battle for the people of Arcadia and Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy to preserve the magnificent Arcadia Dunes. The effort resulted in conserving 6,000 acres of extraordinary dunes, coastline and natural sites.

These are but a few of the dedicated individuals who rolled up their sleeves to follow a vision — and in the process made exploring M-22 an adventure we all may share and enjoy.

Sally Barber is a newspaper reporter and travel writer. She authored “The Michigan Eco-Traveler: A Guide to Sustainable Adventures in the Great Lakes State” available through University of Michigan Press.

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