The Gutsy Migration Generation

It's the flipside of what we've come to know as our "summer people" – the autumn exodus of area retirees heading south or west for warmer climes.

But this current generation of seasonal travelers seems invigorated with independence and freedom. They dodge tornadoes, they condo-hop, they Skype. These are not your grandmother's snowbirds.

"We hate to miss the change of seasons in the spring, but if we get back here in time for that, it means we drive through tornado alley holding our breath," said Jean Robinson, a snowbird from Traverse City. "Two years ago, we spent all night in a Walmart. I don't mean inside our RV parked in the store's parking lot, but in a Walmart. It was safer."

Jean and her husband Ken took shelter inside the discount store when they were passing through Blytheville, Ark. on their way back to Traverse City from Corpus Christie, Texas. Several funnel clouds and one confirmed tornado dropped fist-sized hail, downed power lines, and killed seven people less than 100 miles west of where the Robinsons had taken cover.

Walmart is a longtime host to recreational vehicle travelers, according to the company's website, with many stores offering free overnight parking based on availability, though permission is controlled by individual store managers.

The Robinsons said they were grateful for the hospitality; their vintage 26-foot refurbished GMC came through the storm mostly unscathed.

Sometimes, though it's the local weather that throws up a roadblock. One autumn the snow was so deep that the Robinsons, who live on a dirt road, had to be towed out to a main road before they could get the traction to head south.

The Victorian term for following temperate weather was "moving house." "Snowbird" is the more egalitarian and modern word for retirees and other unencumbered residents of the Midwest, Northeast and Canada who migrate to warmer locations for the winter.

There is a Snowbird Association in Canada (snowbirds.org) and a Snowbird Network here in the U.S. (americansnowbird.com), though the Robinsons join up with another group, the annual Rally for GMC RV owners.

"It's just like a family," said Jean Robinson. "We've made some wonderful friends from all over. In the summer, we keep in touch on Skype."

Just like summer people have an economic impact on the region, snowbirds do, too, except when they leave, so does their money. In Traverse City, that impact is negligible and "businesses have learned to plan for it," said Laura Oblinger, chief operating officer for the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. In outlying areas, she said, the effect can be more severe.

"Anyone starting a business that is looking for that business to be year round needs to be aware of the nature of our region," said Mary Carol, president of the Benzie County Chamber of Commerce. "It should be part of their marketing plan and their business plan. We have a lot of second homeowners and a lot of resort property owners here. That's just part of the demographics."

Not all retirees who "move house" with the seasons head south, however, said Geri Valentine, assistant activities director at The Village at Bay Ridge, a senior living community in Traverse City. Some local seniors simply exchange their summertime lakeside view for a snug but short-term winter rental nearby. Valentine said Bay Ridge has a dozen residents who fit that description.

"We've even altered how we rent our apartments in order to accommodate them," she said. "They're able to spend all summer at their places on Lake Leelanau, in Arcadia, or on Lake Michigan, and then live here just for the winter. Or, they live here for the summer and spend the winter in Florida. Either way, the short-term leases are very advantageous for our residents. They still get to live where they want to live and when, without the burden of another house to maintain."

Bay Ridge on Silver Lake Road has two independent living apartment buildings with 120 units each. Valentine said about a dozen residents, mostly couples, take advantage of short-term rentals. One of those is Evelyn Galbraith.

"It's so nice to have my apartment to come back to," she said. "And I'm 94 now so best of all, I don't have to move the furniture!"

Though snowbirds put a lot of planning this time of year into escaping northern Michigan's snow and ice, the spring anticipation of getting back home is universal, too.

"Once we point the motorhome toward home, we can hardly wait to get here," said Jean Robinson. "We're anxious. Anxious to see the lake again." BN

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