I agree with William Murphy in his book Motorcycling Across Michigan, that the whole point of a lake circle tour is to travel as close to the lake as possible, seeing it from all its various perspectives. With this in mind, I prepare to do a lot of riding, accepting that at some point I will need to hop to the interstate to save time and make my way home. Traveling is a trade off. At times, some things get tossed; tough choices may be made. Whatever. I'm just glad I'm in a position to travel via two wheels.
I sleep well Sunday night. I wake up a bit too early, however. I do more mapping and eventually leave around 9am-- a little late for me but I'm a prisoner to the national parks visitor centers. Many open at 9 or 10. I learned that one of the places I want to visit won't open until noon--or so I thought. Like the other lake trips, this one is cold. No matter the inland temperature, which was gorgeous, lake temps tend to run from cool to cold and require dressing appropriately. Well fed, packed and jacket liner in, I head towards Conneaut, OH.
I make my way to State Hwy 5 and follow its southwesterly path as it embraces the lake. Often, the road takes on another name in a small town, like Lakeshore Drive, but if one just stays on the road closest the lake, the rewards eventually come in the form of gently rolling dips and turns, gradual climbs uphills and steep downward swoops. Pennsylvania has some great roads many of which Steve, from Scooter in the Sticks, presents beautifully in both words and pictures. As I travel today, Lake Erie is on my right. At times, the view is open an the space clear. I can see Erie's vast blue waters that blend so well with an azure sky. Most times, I must peek through the openings between the many house and cottages that lined the shore.
"Lucky people," I think. "What do they do to afford such prime land?"
Looking at the lake is one of the joys of these trips but also one of the inherent dangers, in my view.
The speed limit on such roads tends to be between 35 and 45 mph. Occasionally, it will reach 55mph but that's not the norm particularly through the small towns. Although the going can be slow, it is best experienced at a leisurely pace. Some of the views are breathtaking enough to be distracting. One runs the risk of taking too long a view and forgetting what is on the road ahead. Many of these roads are surprisingly lightly traveled. I had no problem doing the speed limit--much to the ire of others following behind me.
I leave Pennsylvania behind and cross into Ohio and enter the town of Conneaut. Despite its cheery and welcoming appearance, I do not wish to stop; the ride is that lovely. I have three stops in Ashtabula. If I am efficient I can do them quickly and continue the long ride along the coast. Timing is everything. I start humming Bob Dylan songs trying to come up with the one that has Ashtabula among the lyrics. I never figure it out but have fun, happily motoring and sneaking looks at the lake.
I think of one huge difference among the other lakes I have circled. Lake Erie is modest not just in size; Lake Erie is humble in its presentation. One will not find as many pull-off places. These spots allow you to park and take a closer look, which can mean climbing for a "on-high" perspective. It allows one to relish and contemplate the landscape. One must access the water via its natural habitat (e.g., beaches, trails, marinas, parks, ports, etc), or, trespass on private property. Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, on the other hand, are boastful in their presentation. Each is brazen in displaying its beauty, showing its colors, breath, and diversity. The pull-offs are ubiquitous, each special place is offered up as if with a grand sweep and turn of the hand as if to say, "Here I am, adore me, love me, sink into my essence." The Michigan side of Lake Michigan is a piece of heaven. Lake Superior is heaven at its ultimate best. This is not to diminish Lake Erie, it is after all a great lake too! In fact, Lake Erie is a come back lake after being declared virtually dead about a decade ago it's rebirth is nothing short of a miracle that shows no traces of its earlier demise.
I reach the Ashtabula's harbor area and stop at the Great Lakes Marine and Coast Guard Memorial Museum.From there I should be able to see the lighthouse far off into the distance and stare at the newly finished, more people-friendly harbor area. A huge bonus is that the Marine and Coast Guard Museum is down the street from Hubbard House, a terminus on the underground railroad for sheltering escaping slaves. I pull into the parking lot and notice a small group of "mature" men talking to one another.
When I dismount, a fast walking man approaches his vehicle. I see him and what seems almost like an afterthought he walks over to me and introduces himself. I'll call him Jack. He is tall, thin and immediately tells me his a "bullheaded blue fin." At least, I think that's what he said. He extends his hand and tells me that he was a former "seaman" as are all the guys milling about.
He is a fast talker too who tells me he was a "Harbor brat." "I grew up right here in this harbor--been here all my life. I've seen the changes..." Jack tells me that he used to be quiet and reserved until he married his wife, a "Irish-German-Italian woman." We start talking all things under the sun. At one point he is chatting about music and asks me if I know what a dulcimer is. I give him an "Are you kidding me look!" But I'm thinking, "What am I, a dolt?! Of course, I know what a dulcimer is!"
When I tell him what it is, it is he who now looks astonished. He quickly tells me that most people don't know what it is. I tell him how much I adore string instruments and especially the sound of a dulcimer. His face brightens. I guess it is my lucky day. He returns to his truck and brings me a dulcimer that he practically remade from a kit. I am unable to contain my excitement. It is a fine instrument and he and his wife are seriously dulcimer students.
I must confess, I had not planned to tour this museum. I had wanted only to get in, buy a trinket for my godson and leave. After talking to this man for a long time, and hearing about the dangers of seamen, and this being Memorial Day, I couldn't say "No" when he asked me to be a guest of his at the museum. I just couldn't resist this kind gesture.
So I did but first the museum had to open and the men had to hoist flags.
Then, I take Jack's private tour. When he is asked if he wants to take a couple on the same tour he responds, "No, I'd rather do this separate."
The tour is long, interesting and I learn a lot--did I say long. I also make a new friend. Jack tells me that whenever I return to Ashtabula, I must stay at his home, that his wife would be "thrilled" to meet me. I am glad I took the tour but when it ends, it is now almost 2.5 hours since I rolled into the parking lot. "Dang!" I do some yoga breathing and release it.
Before leaving, one of the women in the gift shop tells me that my second stop, which is down the street, is closed on holidays--UGH!! I go to Hubbard House anyway for a photo op. This house was a major stop along the underground railroad. Ohio is so important to the history of this period. The influence of Quakers in OH--especially-- can be seen everywhere in these "underground stations" for runaway slaves. Also, OH has important waters, like the Ohio River and Lake Erie that made clandestine escapes more possible.
I am now realizing that I need to be home TODAY! I am now hungry and behind schedule. I think of my stop in Cleveland. It is huge. Lots of things to do and see. I decided to shelve it all. I've seen a lot of Cleveland but will add the new places when I return next month. I decide that I still have time to get to Mentor, OH. I do so and am glad I did. This time, I tell myself, I can't take the tour. Get the stamp watch the customary short video and that's it.
The mostly interstate ride toward Cleveland is mundane. In Mentor, OH I reach President James A Garfield's home, aka "Lawnfield" by reporters.
This National Historic Site is located in an easily reachable location, 8095 Mentor Ave. I watch a compelling video that inspires me to take the tour. I resist, however, and reluctantly move on.
But I do walk through the exhibit. In the end, I spend more than an hour there. Now I am really behind schedule. But I talk myself into ignoring the clock--a little. And to prove that, I decide to take the scenic, lakeshore route to Cleveland. It will be slow(er) going but the ride promises to be sweet. I will make a determination after that on getting home.
One rather confusing feature of this lake trip that I did not experience on the other two is the relatively poor signage--at least to me. On the Lake Michigan trip you can travel without a map. Just follow the green and white signs and you'll be directed all the way around. Same is true for Superior. On a few occasions one might think they've lost the trail but just when you think this, a sign pops up to light the way.
Lake Erie, once you get back on American soil, has a lot going on. I think this is good and bad. It's good because all along the way there are tons of things to see and do. It's bad because the signs posted to follow the Lake Erie Circle Tour can seem to disappear for long stretches--miles, in fact--and can cause confusion if one is dependent on it. The circle tour also follows much of the Seaway Trail in OH. Also, the OH Coastal Trail is part of this route. So, what does one follow when one sign wants you to go one way and another signs wants you to go another and you haven't seen the Erie sign in miles? Signage colors can be a tad puzzling too. In PA, I think the signs are blue and white; they are green and white in OH, with some blue ones thrown in too (if memory serves me well). It pays to have a map as well as a GPS. Eventually, I ignore many of the OH Lake Erie signs and follow the Seaway Trail. Eventually, somehow I always ended up back on the official route. Instead, I tried to follow Murphy's map and my own notes. It's difficult to get lost with Murphy.
Around Cleveland, I see that the GPS has me arriving home at around 10pm. It will be much later as I haven't had lunch or dinner yet. Hmmm... It's hard to believe it will that late given this bright, sunny, shiny day with hours remaining before the setting sun. I am tempted to do more touring... Unfortunately, the Interstate does become my home for the next seven hours! Near Cleveland, I see a motorcycle post-accident. Don't know what happened but one badly damaged bike is sitting off in the grass, with policemen blocking off one lane. Another rider has his bright yellow and black sportsbike parked near an underpass. He appears rather forlorn and I wonder about the other rider. Right before this spot in the road is a large, ostentatious sign that warns drivers so slow down to 35mph for a curve ahead that appears to be an extremely sharp curve. Perhaps, the missing 'cyclist didn't slow down enough.
While riding along, I decide that before the ride season ends, I shall return to Geneva-on-the-Lake, which is southwest of Ashtabula, and follow the Ohio Coastal Tour through Toledo.
I roll into the garage at 11:34p.m. It is after midnight when I finish unpacking the bike and removing all my gear. I thank the heavens above for all the good things under the sun.
Lake Erie proves that it can stand up to its big cousins not by competing directly with Michigan or Superior but by being a lake with its own resilience and beauty. Three down, two to go. Go around any of these three, and you'll know why these lakes are called "Great."