Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sweet Home Chicago

Yesterday provided a gorgeous end to my trip. The weather had slowly improved over the previous few days. Mostly cloudy skies were giving way to partly cloudy skies and the air was warming as I moved south. Friday I set off on the final leg of my journey under a bright blue, cloudless sky, and temperatures in the 70s.

I hit the Indiana border after a short ride along the coast in Michigan. Although Chicago was within reach, wildlife sightings continued. I saw a fox near Union Pier and a blue heron as I biked through the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Narrow lanes ran through wetlands in the dunes, leading to lakefront communities tucked away around the park.

A frequent traveler on the Indiana toll road, I passed through towns whose names I had become familiar with, but had never been to: Michigan City, Chesterton, Porter, Hammond. I was learning that there was another way to enter the city than the Skyway.

For my last day I spent the majority of my miles on bike paths: the Calumet Trail to the Prairie Dunelands Trail to the Oak Savanna Trail to the Erie Lackawanna Trail. Connecting from one to another added miles to my ride, but allowed me to avoid the growing congestion on the outskirts of Chicago. In Munster, Indiana, I headed to the back of a nondescript office park, where one of the Midwest's best breweries sits -- Three Floyds. After a burger and a pint, I started pedaling my final forty miles.

Entering the city from the south, I biked through unfamiliar streets, eventually connecting with 41, South Shore Drive. Families gathered on front porches, enjoying the warm September evening. My bike loaded with gear, I'm sure I appeared an oddity.

Chicago's bike lanes were a welcome sight. At Rainbow Beach I hit the lakefront bike path, which hosted its usual collection of runners, bikers, walkers and rollerbladers. I was home.

The past two weeks were challenging at times, but always enjoyable. These trips allow me to take a fresh look at the world, free of my every day preoccupations. It's an impressive education for two weeks. I return to everyday life reminded of what's possible.

Thanks to everyone I met along the way -- family, old friends, and new friends -- and thanks to all who followed along on the blog, sent emails, and wrote comments. I wish you all a little adventure to look forward to.

Friday, September 10, 2010


I've been fortunate to have met a variety of interesting people on this trip. Yesterday was no exception. The day started inauspiciously. I woke up to a second flat tire and found that my second spare tube also had a hole in it. I macgyvered the inner tube with a piece of electrical tape, changed the tire, and headed to a bike shop in Holland.

My tire had a rip in it, causing the two flats. The shop replaced my tire, fixed the flat, and sold me spare tubes that I hope I'll have no need for. On my way out they recommended that I have breakfast across the street at deBoers Bakery.

On my way into the bakery, I met Bryce, who stopped and asked about the trip. Bryce, a World War II veteran, ended up joining me for breakfast and we discussed a wide range of topics. At 83, he was more active than some thirty-somethings I know. In his fifties he and his wife of 63 years began taking bike tours in Europe, New Zealand, and the U.S. He still takes full advantage of all that the region has to offer. We covered politics, the Dutch Reformed, and the personality differences between lawyers and entrepreneurs (Bryce is both). When he noticed how much time had passed he excused himself, letting me know that he had just left the house to put gas in his wife's car. Through her church she assists other elderly in the community, many of whom are younger than her. I can only hope to be as spry at that age as those two.

After stopping at the Holland library -- an impressive, modern, light-filled building -- I finally hit the road. South of Holland, I biked through one beach community after another Saugatuck, Douglas, South Haven, St. Joseph. The influence of Chicago money was evident in the lakefront homes.

I was headed to Lakeside, a small community on the shores of Lake Michigan, ten miles north of the Michigan border. I wanted to spend my last night on the road at the Lakeside Inn, a rustic hotel, on Lakeshore Drive. The inn has an incredible porch, lined with rocking chairs and access to the beach down a steep set of stairs across the street. I raced down to the beach to catch the sunset -- remarkably the first one I had really seen on this trip.

A testament to its history, the Lakeside has a separate building on its grounds, which once served as an artists' retreat. Recently, the owner of Lakeside resurrected the use of this space in collaboration with the owner of an art studio in Chicago. I met two Chicago artists who were staying at the inn and working on setting up a metal-working studio. We had a great dinner at the taxidermy-filled Red Arrow Roadhouse and then a bonfire in the fire pit behind the inn. At the beach, the stars covered the sky right down to the water -- except for the one patch of sky across the lake where the lights of Chicago glowed.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Countryside

It didn't take long to get back into the rhythm of the ride on this trip. The competing concerns of normal life gave way to just one primary objective – to keep moving. Of course, there are other ancillary obligations, but they're all very basic: eat, find a place to sleep, wash my clothes. Those simple tasks can become more challenging when you're in foreign territory on a bike, but it has all come together nicely over the past eleven days, even in tourist country during the holiday weekend.

This morning I woke up to the first flat tire of my trip. Out of practice, it took me a little longer than it should have to change the inner tube. All the better, my late start allowed the cool morning to warm a bit. My plan was to gain back those miles that I lost yesterday, so I was in a race against the setting sun nine hours ahead.

As I rode through the Michigan countryside, it was clear that fall is upon us. I passed through apple orchards and pumpkin patches. A quiet back road took me past a row of Michigan centennial farms -- farms which have been in the same family for over one hundred years. An elk ranch was tucked away near cornfields.

Further down the road, as I turned around a bend, I scattered a rafter of wild turkey, which flapped and leaped in every direction. Several more deer crossed my path, including a buck that jumped out into the road right in front of me.

I spent just over twenty miles of my ride on Michigan's first rails-to-trails path, a paved trail from Hart to Montague. I continued on through Muskegon, a bigger city with more sprawl than I expected, down to Grand Haven. Lakeshore Drive from Grand Haven to Holland State Park was a pleasant ride along rows of luxurious lakefront homes.

I arrived at the state park after perhaps my longest day of biking ever -- 122 miles. After a steak at a nearby restaurant, I met a motorcyclist who was also riding the circuit around Lake Michigan. I joined him for a beer, provided some suggestions on routes, and talked about the joys of getting out on the road.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Dunes

One of the best things about this trip is the unexpected turns that a day can take. Yesterday, as I headed West to Sleeping Bear Dunes, the road I was traveling suddenly turned to dirt. The dirt road then became a seasonal road, all loose sand and gravel. At that point I was too far along to turn around. Unable to get any traction, I was forced to push my bike up a steep hill. While climbing the hill, I noticed the darkening sky above the trees. Claps of thunder were shortly followed by a downpour. When the road turned into an open field I saw the lightening strikes just to the North. I was in the middle of my first storm of the trip.

Two hours later I was sitting on the beach at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, eating a simple dinner. The water was as calm as it has ever been during this trip. The clouds had thinned to reveal blue sky. None of this seemed likely as I trudged up that muddy road a few hours earlier.

One of the worst things about the trip is the wind. The wind defined my ride today. I was reminded that when biking through Kansas I thought I understood strong winds until I hit Wyoming. Similarly, I thought I faced tough winds out of St. Ignace, but those paled in comparison to today's winds. It felt like some of the worst headwinds I had ever experienced. This was confirmed when I read this wind advisory on the Weather Channel website:


At least I wasn't hit by any lawn furniture.

My day started with a hike up the Dune Climb. The early morning skies were clear, but the wind was howling. People pay good money for the exfoliation I received. As I hiked along the undulating path I was repeatedly deceived into thinking that the lake was just past the next crest. It never was. After an hour of hiking, I settled for a nice view of the water.

After battling the wind for a few hours I stopped in Frankfort to eat. The one restaurant that was open was packed. As I waited for a table I struck up a conversation with a man, who invited me to join him and his wife for lunch, so I didn't have to wait. A recently retired couple from South Carolina, they had spent the summer in Frankfort. We talked about their travels in their first year of retirement and Venezuela, where the husband had done doctoral studies.

After lunch, I reluctantly headed back out into the wind. It took all my effort to stay upright. After crawling along, I stopped for another meal. I had significantly scaled back my goal for the day, opting to spend the night in Manistee. Finally, I arrived at the Riverside Motel. I appear to be the only person staying here. The owner told me that the weather had killed business.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Family and Friends

Unlike my last bike trip, this time around I have not met any others doing a similar trek. That was to be expected. The TransAmerica Trail is one of the most popular cross-country bike routes, so every season there are dozens of people traveling the route. It's great to encounter people having a similar experience and with whom you can share information about the places up or down the road. Yesterday, I did run into bikers on a tour -- several hundred of them. A large annual ride, the DALMAC, from Lansing to Mackinac was wrapping up its final day.

As I ate breakfast at a cafe in Petoskey, I met a few of the riders. One told me that the day before had been the toughest day of riding he had ever had. They were fighting high winds and subject to sporadic rain. Another in the group is planning a cross-country ride with his daughter, so we talked routes and logistics for an hour. Another couple in the cafe overheard our conversation and told me later that they had been sailing for the last 60 days. They were currently docked in the Petoskey Harbor, the waters too rough to sail. They offered that they would rather be on a bike than a boat these days. When I headed off into the Southwest winds, I wasn't so sure.

While I haven't encountered as many bikers on the road during this trip, I have had the pleasure of seeing friends and family along the way. After a shorter, but tougher day of riding on hilly backroads and against strong headwinds, I arrived in Traverse City, where my parents and my niece Bea met me for dinner. Bea, who lives in Spain, is a true adventurer. She's living in northern Michigan for the next several months to do her first semester of ninth grade at a local high school. Good luck, Bea! After catching up with my parents. I met up with friends, Joe and Carly, who were on vacation from Chicago. Carly, a Traverse City native, took us to some of the local haunts.

A late night has led to a late morning. Fortunately, today is going to be a light day. I'm headed to Sleeping Bear Dunes. With the summer vacation season officially over, I'm hoping it will be a quiet retreat.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Bridge

Growing up in Michigan, I've crossed the Mackinac Bridge many times, but it was not until yesterday that I truly appreciated how impressive it is. As I pedaled West, I studied the distance trying to catch my first glimpse of "Big Mac." Once again the sky was thick with clouds, some rolling like waterfalls down to the horizon. Finally, I saw the bridge's five mile span over the Straights of Mackinac.

While biking the TransAmerica Trail, I hit road construction outside the Grand Tetons. In order to pass, I had to take a ride from a worker through the two mile site. Because of that drive, a few friends maintain that I didn't really bike across the country as much as take two really long bike rides. I imagine they would have the same complaint with this ride. Bikers are not allowed to cross the bridge (today is the only day pedestrians can walk across the bridge in an annual Labor Day tradition hosted by the Governor), but for $2 can get a ride across. After scurrying across eight lanes of traffic at the toll booth on I-75, I loaded my bike in the back of a pickup and headed to the lower peninsula.

Serious, Wyoming-style winds ruled the day. Thirty mile per hour gusts blew off the lake, creating twelve foot waves. I had a love-hate relationship with the wind. I loved it when it was at my back, allowing me to cruise up to 25 mph, and I hated it when I turned West and it all but held me in place.

By the time I hit Cross Village at the junction of 119 and Lake Shore, I was ready for a break. I could not have been happier to see the Legs Inn, a unique Polish restaurant that had come recommended by many (including my bridge authority driver). On the way out of the restaurant, I met George, the owner. His uncle built the stone and wood structure. George lamented the weather. It was too cold, damp, and windy for anyone to sit outside in the back gardens overlooking the lake. However, indoors the restaurant was packed. With all its warm wood, it was an inviting space for a cool, fall day. The Michigan game played on the bar T.V. and the restaurant erupted every time the team scored a touchdown -- three times just while I ate my meal.

I left Legs Inn ready for my last twenty-five miles into Petoskey. County Road 119 curves along the coast in a c-shape. This route known as the "Tunnel of Trees" has more in common with a woodlands trail than a road. I appreciated the trees' shelter from the wind and occasional rain shower. Even on an overcast day, this stretch of road is stunningly beautiful.

While it rained sporadically throughout the day, it didn't start in earnest until I was a few miles out from the Petoskey State Park where I planned to stay the night -- weather be damned. I managed to pitch the tent in record speed and quickly took shelter. A little Jim Beam comforted me from the cold rain.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


Yoopers have a reputation for being a reticent people. I've heard stories of people who moved to small towns in the U.P. thirty years ago and still are not accepted as locals. That's a birthright. Despite this rap, I've encountered several outgoing Yoopers. Yesterday, as I enjoyed lunch at the Three Seasons cafe outside Manistique, an older couple struck up a conversation with me. After we covered the weather and my trip, the conversation turned to my height. They told me that they had one nephew who was 7'6" and another who was 6'6" and 300 lbs. It is the land of Paul Bunyan. On my way out they told me repeatedly to be careful out on the road.

The couple's words of caution were well taken. The paradox of biking through the Upper Peninsula is that even though this is the least populace area of my trip, it has the busiest and fastest roads. There aren't many choices for crossing the U.P. U.S. 2, with a steady stream of traffic doing 70 miles per hour, is the only real option along the southern coast. Fortunately, the road has a very wide shoulder, which makes it more than manageable. Like driving an expressway, riding on U.S. 2 is also a bit monotonous. It has provided a few vistas of the lake, but it hasn't been the most scenic stretch of the ride. I'm told my last stretch into St. Ignace offers several highlights.

Somehow I made it through the day yesterday without any serious rain. The clouds were constantly threatening, but didn't deliver until I was snug inside my room at the King's Inn. I also benefited from strong winds out of the northwest. Mostly at my back, they added several miles to my mph.

The troubled economy is evident up here in the form of "for sale" signs, closed businesses, and unique opportunities.

I ate like a Yooper last night, devouring a pastie (insert burlesque joke here). This pastry filled with meat, potatoes, carrots, and rutabaga, was a favorite among the Cornish miners and is now a U.P. tradition. It was a hearty meal for a cold night.