Driving 12 hours from Detroit, we crossed a drawbridge onto the island. Then we took a car ferry to the next island. Finally, we rode a small passenger ferry to this remote rock. If we want to go any further, it’ll be by kayak or backstroke.

Standing at the tippy top of the lighthouse, my daughter Skye points out Escanaba, a zillion miles across the bay. Either that or she’s eyeing the enormous spider. It’s about six hours from here to Escanaba; the spider’s six inches away.

It’s a bit strange standing here at Death’s Door, so labeled because of the treacherous passageway that has claimed many a seafaring vessel. Door County Wisconsin, named after Death’s Door, is a curious mix of rural farmland, super upscale summer homes and a healthy schmattering of quaint little towns with quaint little galleries. “Tourist traps” cousin Dick calls ‘em. It reminds me of what Cape Cod might have looked like 50 years ago.

Door County Dick Leonard

My dad’s cousin, Dick Leonard, is a cool, seasoned world-traveler.

A series of islands and bays make up this peninsula jutting off into Lake Michigan, separating it from Green Bay. Cousin Dick spends a lot of his time here. The not-quite-80-year-old is the only one we know who remains on my father’s side of the family. We have recently become reacquainted, fortunately. He graciously opened his home to our invading throng, (all ten of us, when in the past, the most he’s hosted was two!).

After leaving the two northernmost islands along Death’s Door, I am regaled by my cousin’s stories. He has traveled the world over, including a trip to Antarctica last fall. This fall, he will outdo himself with an early-morning balloon trip over the Serengeti. Did I mention he’s almost 80? My journey in the minivan to get here pales somewhat in comparison.

But I had no real preconceived notions about what this trip would hold. I felt it would be more about the journey, as opposed to the destination. Sure, my brother and I wanted to hear stories about Dad from way back when. But something fascinating began to happen. Dad’s stories gave way to Dick’s stories. Somehow he became more fascinating to us than our long lost father.

Maybe it’s because he’s still thriving. Educated in economics at Harvard, he thought he’d become a lawyer. But his own father’s illness pushed him to become a doctor. His deceased wife was a high level ad executive, living the Mad Men life as a woman. Remember Peter Pan peanut butter being “the pea-nuttiest?” That was one of her many slogans. I still sing the jingle in my head.

Door County Forest Art

We visited during the Plein Air (art out in the open) Festival and found some fun outdoor installations including a mermaid, owl, fish and a “mowman.”

On the last night at his place, we spent time stargazing at the eye-popping display above us. In sweats and socks I stumbled across the sand down to his beach to see if I might snap the Big Dipper rising above his house. Fiddling around with my camera and bracing it against an incongruous pole that had sprouted up in the sand, I got lucky and scored Ursa Major.

Looking closely afterward, I couldn’t believe I’d also captured the binary stars in her handle, the horse and rider — Mizar and Alcor for you star buffs.

Dad loved looking at the stars. He loved sailing and flying too. It turns out his cousin is a lot like him in those respects. We caught various glimpses of our father in his cousin. But no, we weren’t looking for a replacement dad. That undercurrent never really surfaced during our time gallivanting around Door County. More importantly, I like that we have made a strong connection with someone who represents both our family’s past and its future. Dick says we’re welcome back any time.

Also — and this can’t be understated — I like that I can now claim I’ve been to Death’s Door both figuratively and literally. The first time around I feared the destination and hated the journey. This time, I bought custard, lots and lots of custard. Whipped cream and hot fudge do wonders for the soul (if not the waistline).

Door County Big Dipper

Ursa Major, The Big Dipper, rises above cousin Dick’s place along the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan.