Sunday, July 20

Circling Lake Michigan--Revisited

Somewhere on this blog you can locate the the trip report of my journey around Lake Michigan. Two years ago, I blogged about it in almost daily entries. I'm putting the story here now, in one piece, in one place, to accomodate a request to write something about the trip, what route I took, what "must-see" things exist, etc. Moreover, I've been housebound this weekend (it has just about killed me!) so posting this re-write has made me whine a little less. I apologize for the lack of photos embedded in the text. I recommend a slide show prior to reading the story--the link is below.

Selected photos can be found here:

In January 2006, when I purchased a blue 2001, low mileage (7000 miles) SV650 in pristine condition, I had not been on a motorcycle in more than 20 years. I am female, over 50, and now an avid, solo rider. After completing a safety course, I did the customary parking lot practice and read everything I could on safety, maintenance, and touring. By June, my gal-pal and I were inseparable.

With a Sargent seat on the bike, staying in the saddle was easy. Day trips of 200 miles became customary. Eventually, I longed for a challenging excursion before the summer’s end. Circumnavigating the lake sounded fun. Residing in downtown Chicago, I’m a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan and although I’ve been around it, I yearned to see it from the seat of a motorcycle. I planned an August trip and immediately started collecting maps. The “official” Lake Michigan Circle Tour map required far more Interstate travel than I thought necessary. I wanted to ring the lakeshore as closely as possible. Armed with print maps and a new GPS, I planned a route that looked interesting. Yet, something was lacking.

By sheer happenstance, I came across a book that filled in all the gaps with insider suggestions on where to ride (on and off the beaten path), where to eat, sleep, locate a repair shop and find emergency help. Motorcycling Across Michigan, by William Murphy is the guide for two-wheeling it throughout Michigan. The book anticipates the needs of motorcyclists. With the exception of Lake Ontario, the Great Lakes Circle Tours are expertly mapped with detailed comments on road conditions, alternate routes, and other gems only an insider could share. Murphy provides a people’s history of roads and places and little known facts, like how Michigan got its name and why Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island are spelled differently but pronounced the same.

I left Chicago on Tuesday, August 22 at 5:45 a.m. heading southeast on Hwy. 41 toward Gary, IN. Although the ride through this area was rather unspectacular, the diversity and industrial character of the region would serve as a wonderful contrast to the Indiana Dunes area and the summer resort homes that surround it. The smell of the lake was evident and a gentle breeze made riding through the gray industrial region of East Chicago and Gary, IN quite pleasant. I hugged the lakeshore through Long Beach and Michiana but eventually needed to make it inland in reach US 12. Around New Buffalo, I picked up Red Arrow Highway, a historic stretch of road, built prior to I-94 to honor WWII soldiers. Much of this nice, vast road parallels the more preferred I-94, which made Red Arrow Highway fun, fast, scenic, and lightly traveled.

My next big stop was Saugatuck, MI where I searched for Oval Beach that Murphy claims is worth the ride. To me, it was the curly, slithering roads that lead to the beach that created the real thrill. At stops at state beaches, park guards in their little box shelters permitted me a quick ride through without paying. Miles later, I stopped at Muskegon State Park office and loaded up on travel literature. While there, I met a Texan riding a Honda Goldwing. He was completing the Iron Butt National Parks tour and still needed to collect stamps from IL, IN, WI and IA to close the year successfully.

Although I knew intellectually that a Lake trip would mean a lot of sand, I experienced a firsthand sand encounter that stressed the point. A tempting abundance of opportunities to pull off the road for photos existed and one of these impromptu digressions caught me off guard and I forget that I was navigating a fully-loaded bike with a week’s worth of clothes and a computer in the Nelson-Rigg luggage. Trying to uphold a heavier than usual bike will snatch your attention. When the bike tire slide a bit, the weight lifting I practice paid off and I was able to keep the bike from tipping over. Speaking of luggage… My formerly broken wrist still had not allowed me to get the bike on its new SW-Motech center stand. Had I been able to, mounting the luggage properly would have been easier. Even with practice, mounting the luggage on a leaned bike, resulted in a cock-eyed placement. I seemed incapable of compensating for the lean. Thus, when the bike was at its most vertical, the luggage was not. By day three, I had figured out how to mount the luggage correctly on a leaned bike.

I left Muskegon State Park and immediately encountered multiple sweeping curves. A few bumpy spots and a few road fissures did not detract from the overall splendor of the ride. The variations in lake views, bustling water activities, the homes that ranged from small shacks to stately lakefront mansions, created captivating scenery. I made my way to Ludington, MI by alternating among South Scenic Drive, which put me nearest the lake, Old Hwy 31 and newer Hwy 31 that carried me inland. The continual weaving northward provided a delightful experience of the area’s changing landscape, road surfaces and Michigan’s faster highway speeds.

To take this solo excursion, I made some compromises with my family: no camping and no motoring at night. I carried with me an Internet-equipped phone and a small wireless PC and a weapon I prefer not to describe here. Still, friends and family relayed horror tales about wild animals and the Michigan militia. Being fearless, I ignored them but must admit to some edgy moments when not seeing another vehicle for miles seemed spooky. Given that I never knew how much I would ride in a day, I had no pre-arranged hotel plans. My strategy: ride until just before tired or dark, find a hotel, call it and make a reservation.

Although day two started with predictions of rain, when I left the hotel early morning, it seemed perfect-- low 70s, sunny and a few puffy white clouds. I was resolute about finding three of Michigan’s 116 lighthouses after missing four yesterday. I ended up finding two: the White River Light Station in Whitehall, MI and the Little Sable Point Lighthouse, near Silver Lake and surrounded by beautifully wind-sculptured sand dunes—really cool!

I continued following Murphy’s recommendations for venturing off Hwy 31. Consequently, I saw sights I would otherwise have missed following only the official Lake Michigan Circle Tour route. Specifically, Murphy’s route led to incredible county roads, long, sweeping beautiful curves, mixed with tight snake-like twists that climbed and dipped in the most tummy-tickling way. I followed all the speed limit warnings when approaching these twists and although some were challenging, I was able to handle them with little or no braking. For this re-entry “newbie” that was more fun than I thought possible! A major advantage in following Murphy’s recommendations is his unequivocal goal to present the most enjoyable, scenic and least traveled roads, while still riding as close to the shoreline as possible.

By mid-afternoon, the sky had turned gray and eventually it rained bullets. At the time, there was nowhere to pull off the road. So I kept riding. My FirstGear Kilimanjaro jacket and pants kept me dry, as did my waterproof touring boots. I donned yellow rubber household cleaning gloves over my riding gloves, which kept my hands dry and made it easy to clear rain from my visor. The two lane roads turned slick and the few cars and trucks that passed, drenched me and caused momentary blindness. At any speed, this is not fun. At 60 mph, it made me feel vulnerable. After about 30 minutes of riding, I finally saw a rest stop sign and entered the area. I covered the bike with a rain cover (not sure of the point) and sought shelter in a bleak brick hut. I was wet, but remained dry on the inside. The storm ended approximately 45 minutes later and under a darkening sky, I road another 40 miles to reach the hotel.

Do not, under any circumstances stay at the Roadway Inn in Manistee, MI. Had it not been late, had I not been exhausted, I would have left. From the outside, the hotel looked satisfactory. The inside, however, was dreadful. The bed dipped, the sheets looked dingy, and worst of all, the place reeked of human funk, fish gone bad and cheap perfume. The carpet was frightening to walk on and I wrapped a face towel around the remote control to use it. I slept in my clothes--including my shoes. In the morning, I found a hair in the bed that did not belong to me. To depart as fast as possible, I skipped the dirty shower stall and free breakfast. Later, someone told me that that hotel chain was known as a place truckers took “their low flying doves.” That, at least, would explain the vile smell.

From Manistee, there is a small section of US Hwy 31. Follow 31 to M-110, until you can link up with M-22. For the next 115 glorious miles, M-22 will be a constant companion in route to Northport. If you’re not smiling by arrival time, ice water courses through your veins. M-22 is a motorcyclist’s dream. It offers twisties and squigglies (beyond twisties), long sweeping curves, lots of lean opportunities, gorgeous terrain variations, and the most breath-taking views. In route to Northport, M-22 leads through the quaint towns of Empire, Glen Haven and Leland, as well as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore with its 35 miles of stunning shoreline. At the Dunes visitor’s center, I met a couple on a mammoth, black Harley Davidson. They hailed from Minnesota and were circling the lake “in reverse.” Before departing, they warned me that traffic in Traverse City was a nightmare. The beauty of M-22 is experienced anew when one heads back south along Grand Traverse Bay through the towns of Omena, Peshawbestown, Suttons Bay, and Elmwood-- charming settlements that truly make this southward journey grand.
I braced myself for the traffic nightmare in Traverse City. But when I reached Traverse City, I never found a “nightmare.” I soon realized that the “nightmare” the couple referred to was really about perspective. To them, Traverse City traffic was a nightmare. From a downtown Chicago viewpoint, Traverse City traffic was trivial.

After the awful night at the Roadway Inn, my Traverse City hotel felt luxurious. I parked myself there for two days and caught up on some much-needed sleep. Hung around the “downtown” area bookstores where I met some interesting folks who seemed amazed that I had ridden alone from Chicago. Children and young men seemed curious about the bike, which proved to be an icebreaker everywhere I ventured. At a popular bookstore, a man sat himself at my table, drawn there, he said, by my helmet. He proceeded to talk nonstop about motorcycles. “We don’t’ get many people like you up here” he said. Not sure what he meant; he told me later that he meant “black” people. Initially, I thought I was talking to the town loony but the guy turned out to be quite knowledgeable about many things, especially motorcycles and literature. He called himself ABD, which stands for “all but dissertation” and really means he finished all requirements leading to a doctorate degree in literature but quit before the completing the dissertation. He detested--and ordered me to do likewise—the following: fundamentalists, conservatives, most Republicans, all rednecks and “people who live in Florida but actually originated from Massachusetts.” After three hours and hearing stories about every African American he’s ever known, I said my farewell to this quirky stranger. Despite his cajoling, I passed on going to his farm to see his motorcycles.

On my second day in Traverse City it rained. Not a heavy rain, but an unrelenting drizzle. With the luggage covered, I headed north. Hunger made me stop for breakfast and by the time I finished, it was raining harder. Ten miles later, it was raining buckets. A hefty, hard, pelting rain fell and I again, had no place to pull off. I rode another 10, death-defying miles—at least that was how it felt—before encountering a pull off. Shelter consisted of a concrete slab over which a roof had been erected. A man and woman, whose shiny green Harley Davidson was parked near them, already occupied the one I spotted. After covering my bike, I stood in the rain and contemplated standing under a tree. When the man invited me to share the roof, I accepted. The couple hailed from Petoskey, about 50 miles north. They were heading to Traverse City to celebrate their anniversary. Their matching Harley Davidson outfits were not rain-friendly and the man told his wife that they would “invest” in rain gear next. They said Petoskey was bright and sunny when they left and a call to a relative confirmed that the weather remained clear. We talked for about an hour. I remained another 45 minutes after they departed.

When the rain abated, I headed north and came to the lovely town of Charlevoix, a bustling hamlet of activity with fashionable shops lining the downtown. The rain had long stopped and the temperature was in the low 70s. However, a strange thing happened when I left Charlevoix. At some point, it felt like I had entered a sort of artic-zone. The temperature felt like it dropped 15 degrees! It was an amazing, palpable transition into a mysterious, inexplicable cold space. I still don’t know what caused this dramatic temperature shift. As dramatically as it appeared, it passed and the warmer air returned once again.

I bunked in Petoskey. I wanted to be well-rested—and dry--for tomorrow, for and what Murphy promised would be magnificent ride near Harbor Springs, MI. I wanted also to do some touring before entering the upper peninsula of Michigan, which meant crossing the Mackinac Bridge, a five mile stretch on metal grating that connects lower and upper Michigan. Chicago has its share of metal gratings, but none compares to the Mackinac.

Long before the bridge, I located M-119, near Harbor Springs. By that time, I had become accustomed to attractive towns and quaint shops, stately homes, fun twisties and incredible lake views. But I had not yet experienced the 22 miles from Harbor Springs to Cross Village, through the dense “Tunnel of Trees.” This is a twisty—at times, extremely tight—road where the trees butt against the edge of the path. The trees form a canopy all along this narrow route that is devoid of a centerline to separate the two-way traffic. It was a surreal experience. Some of the tight twisties were a bit scary but sufficiently challenging. I heeded Murphy’s warnings and rode sensibly. At times, maneuvering along the path was arduous and difficult to predict because the trees could limit one’s viewpoint. Throughout the twenty plus miles, there were warning signs of narrowing, winding, sharply curving and multiple twist-backs ahead. If you looked closely at some of the trees, they bore signs of cars that had failed to heed these warnings. This spectacular ride from Harbor Springs to Cross Village turned out to be a major highlight of the entire trip!

Before crossing “The Mighty Mackinac Bridge” to St. Ignace, I spent a day in Mackinaw City, where I bought the required fudge and had a fabulous lunch of fish and chips at Scalawags. Ran into a family vacationing on motorcycles. One son rode pillion with the mother; the other son rode on back of his father's bike. Everyone wore matching Harley Davidson uniforms. My plan to ride the slab part of the bridge was thwarted when all traffic was being diverted to the grated metal lane. With head straight ahead and hand steady on the throttle, I made the five mile trek and learned that I could hold my breath an amazingly long time. Once in the UP, I hopped on Hwy 2 and made the long ride west, which was beautiful and striking in its solitude. It was along this solitary stretch that I appreciated having brought the two MSR bottles that I had filled with fuel in case I needed them.

Hwy 2 had some lonely sections. One bright spot was riding parallel to the Hiawatha National Forest. Pressed for time, however, I did not stop but made note to heed warnings I had heard about the wildlife there. In five days, I had fortunately seen none. Hwy. 2 was vast, smooth and sweeping. I pushed ahead hoping to reach Escanaba but when I felt myself getting bored and a little spacey, I settled in Manistique. The two rainstorms and the extra stay in Traverse City had put me a day behind schedule. I resorted to stopping for photo ops only at the most accessible lighthouses. My chats with strangers were cordial but brief. By then, I had become accustomed to people’s curiosity about me. It was impossible and perhaps unimportant to tell whether they were more curious about me being a lone woman, a lone black woman, or a lone black woman from Chicago, as conversations tended to blend these elements together. In any case, every single person I met along the way was kind, helpful, and conversant.

Next stop, Escanaba, MI. While there, workers at a friendly Honda motorcycle shop oiled my chain and key slot, which since the two storms had rendered nearly impossible to easily insert and remove the key. I paid little for the oil and nothing for the labor. They directed me to the lakefront and suggested a place to eat. Motoring toward the lake revealed a town that had seem some hard times. Some of the buildings looked forlorn. The picturesque lakefront, however, was replete with brightly colored boats. In striking contrast to the business strip, this section of town showed large, upscale, rambling homes sitting on a hill near Ludington Park. At a local restaurant, I met a couple who had relatives in Kankakee, IL and they seemed pleased that I had visited Kankakee many times. They both had fond memories of visiting Chicago more than forty years ago.

I caught State Hwy 35 south toward Green Bay, WI. For miles, I traveled without a vehicle in sight. When trucks passed, I experienced some truly disturbing wind buffeting. My little Barracuda windscreen helped some but I was exhausted by the time I reached Marinette, WI, where I stopped briefly at the River Walk. A woman there told me that she and her late husband courted along that very river nearly sixty years ago. Back then, the city organized year ‘round activities for young people. She lamented the days of yore.

I followed Hwy. 41 to Peshtigo, a place that has every reason to be ticked off at Chicago and its mythology about the O’Leary cow kicking over a lantern and causing The Great Fire of 1871. On that very same day, Peshtigo erupted in flames too. Unfortunately, Peshtigo’s fire museum was closed when I arrived, but a historical marker outside honored the 800 lost lives. Peshtigo’s fire is considered the “worst forest fire in recorded North American history…” Death toll, property destruction and resources lost far exceeded the Chicago fire’s damage. Yet, comparatively little is known about Peshtigo’s fire.

By the time I reached Green Bay, I had decided to skip Door County. It is close enough to Chicago that I could easily catch it on a weekend ride. I motored around Green Bay and enjoyed the company of the “heavy” traffic. I found my hotel just as my exhaustion was beginning to show.

I left Green Bay on Tuesday around 6 a.m. The bright, clear, morning was perfect for riding. I stayed on U.S. Hwy. 41 south until I reached I-43, which took me south and closer to the lake. At times, getting to the WI lakeshore seemed more challenging than fun. Often it required considerable riding to the lake and back inland on roads that palled in comparison to Michigan. Thus, the zigzagging was not always worth the effort. Compared to Michigan, Wisconsin’s lakeshore seemed less developed. Alternatively, it could have been that exhaustion corrupted my perspective. Nonetheless, I-43 allowed me to make excellent time. The road was comfortable, open and fast.

By the time I reached IL, I learned that it was raining in the southern suburbs and the Chicagoland area was expecting heavy rain by evening. Sure enough, when I reached North Chicago, it was pouring! I changed into my rain pants and rode through. For the first time on the trip, I encountered impatient and rude drivers who seemed oblivious to the rain and refused to reduce speed. I was forced to pull off somewhere near Lake Forest, IL, where I decided to sit out the madness. After more than two hours and no sign of the rain stopping, I headed toward home in darkness. From Skokie Hwy, I picked up Sheridan Road, which is on the route of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour, an area I frequently ride. It took five hours to travel what should have taken around ninety minutes. Around 10:00 p.m., I arrived home safe, exhausted and wet. As I unloaded the bike, I thought I heard her purr. And to this solo rider, that just about said it all.

Selected photos can be found here