Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Couey
For every person who gets into a relationship with that two-wheeled heartbreaker known as a motorcycle at some point the road beckons. Not the afternoon ride, or even the weekend junket; but a true epic journey covering several days and many thousands of miles. It’s inevitable, especially for an American kid who grew up watching the lone hero on horseback ride through countless westerns. We, all of us, go through our days feeling the ties of obligation and responsibility. And we all dream at least a little about shucking off those burdens for a feeling of freedom. For me, that first urge hit in the late summer of 2001. More and more, I was finding myself perusing road atlases, unconsciously choosing routes and stopovers, measuring the miles with my eyes and imagining what it would be like to watch the road unwind beneath my wheels.
I chose the Labor Day weekend, adding a couple of days on either end. And after weighing my available time and pondering the direction of my soul, I chose the destination: Lake Superior.
Lake Superior was gouged out of the tough hide of the Canadian Shield during the last great Ice Age. It is the largest fresh-water body by surface area, and the third largest by volume. It’s very name reflects its place among other lakes in North America. Shaped like a stylized wolf preparing to devour Minnesota, it is a place of heart-stopping beauty. It is also a place where, in the late fall and winter, Mother Nature unleashes her wrath with storms of terrifying fury. Hundreds of shipwrecks lay in her depths, most notably the ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald. Along her shores lie forests of deep green and rocky shores bearing mute witness to the power of her waves. As I read about the area, I knew it was a place I had to see.
In the morning, after a surprisingly good night’s sleep, I was up bright and early. Well, early anyway. I got dressed and said my goodbyes to my family. I was delayed by the necessary search for a certain tax document that had to be found before I left. It took two hours, but the document was recovered. With that requirement fulfilled, I finally hit the road -- not at the envisioned 6:30 am, but at a warm and humid 9:00 am, a delay that I would pay for much later.
I headed north out of Columbia, Missouri on US63. It was frustrating because of the heavy traffic and construction. My routing took me into Iowa through Ottumwa, Oskaloosa, then across on Iowa 163 to Des Moines. I hit I-35 there and headed north, making better time with the multi-lane road. As anticipated, the further north I went, the more pleasant the temperatures got. I crossed the Minnesota state line and finally hit Minneapolis about 6:30 pm. I got through the city traffic in surprisingly good shape and hit the junction of I-35E and I-35, north of town, about 7:00 pm., where I stopped to gas up. I studied my map and pondered the pickle I was in. I had been warned about the heavy deer population north of Minneapolis and told that after dark, that road was no place for a motorcycle. However, if I didn’t make the campground that night, I would lose my reservation for both nights. On a holiday weekend at a very popular destination that might leave me with no safe place to sleep.
With one last look at the distance from Minneapolis to Duluth, I hit the road, bound and determined to get there. The distance from the interstate junction north of Minneapolis to Duluth is 155 miles. I left that junction at 8:15 pm and got to Duluth at 9:37 pm, including 10 minutes for a fuel stop. I’ll leave it to the reader to figure out my average speed. (Also explains why I only got 33 mpg on this leg.) My intent was to race north as far as I could get before the sun set. As I flew northward, I became entranced as the sky turned from bright blue to soft lavender and gold and finally to deep purple. As darkness fell, the land remained lit softly by the light of a full moon. As I approached Duluth, for the first time in many months I began to get re-acquainted with the concept of COLD. Because of the late hour, I was loathe to stop to put on my heavier jacket (would have involved unstrapping baggage), so I endured the situation with what I hoped would pass for admirable stoicism. Then, just before Duluth, it began to rain. Cold, cold rain. Nevertheless, it was a moment of triumph when I crested the hill and coasted into Duluth. This is a pretty, pretty scene, with the lights of the city and the harbor laid out beneath you like a glowing carpet.
With a quick stop for gas, I found Route 61 with little trouble and headed north for my campsite at Two Harbors.
Now it got scary. The moon was still low in the sky and is obscured by the very tall trees which now snuggled up to the roadside. I slowed to 40 mph, leaving the high beam on while I frantically searched for those tell-tale reflections of deer eyeballs. I was really shivering now and kicking myself for my masculine stoicism. Finally, with my thermometer showing 49 degrees, I finally got to Two Harbors. Two Harbors, as the name suggests, sits along two minor indentations in the lakeshore. Stopping for a fast-food dinner, I checked my trip log. I’ve just ridden 701.5 miles in one day, a personal record by a fair margin. I was dog-butt tired, but curiously also feeling quietly triumphant. The campground turned out to be just a half-mile down the road, and finally around 10 p.m., I pulled into the Burlington Bay. Naturally, everyone’s gone home for the night, but on the caretaker’s shack I found a sign posted with my name and campsite number. I get back on the bike and glided along the road looking carefully at the campsite signs until I round a corner, slide past a couple of RV’s and turn into my campsite, #19.
The scene stunned and transfixed me. The campsite was on a small bluff overlooking a rock beach and right on the lakeshore. The sky was clear except for a very light mist and few drifting scud clouds, both lit brilliantly by possibly the brightest full moon I’ve ever seen, bright enough to make the entire sky glow with luminescence. The path of the moon glow lay upon the calm waters like a carpet of pure silver. And as if on cue, an ore freighter, lit up like a Christmas tree, rounded the headland from Duluth and made its way along the horizon, bound for its next port of call. My cold and fatigue were forgotten and I can’t tell you how long I sat there on my bike drinking in this scene of indescribable beauty. For the first time, the peace I had sought on this trip settled on my heart and spirit. I’ll remember that moment for the rest of my life.
Eventually, I tore myself away long enough to turn off the engine and dismount. I took off my helmet and gloves and immediately started to unpack the bike. Even with the bright moon, I needed Seishin’s headlight to set up the tent and get ready for bed. I puffed up the air mattress, a 50-cent garage sale item, ran the extension cord and plugged in the cell phone recharger. I double-checked Seishin’s footing for the night and with a great sense of relief and accomplishment crawled into the tent and fell asleep almost immediately.
My first challenge occurred about an hour later when I woke up to find myself flat on the cold ground. I blew the mattress back up and listened carefully. Sure enough, I heard the sound of escaping air. Retrieving my roll of duct tape and flashlight, I carefully went over the entire mattress, plugging about 9 holes. I then puffed it back up and hearing no hissing, went back to sleep. Sometime around 3 am, the seams failed and the mattress, now even beyond the power of duct tape, went flat again. I cleaned out my duffel bag and put every thing I could think of (jeans, shirts, chaps, jackets) between me and that cold, hard ground. I wrapped myself completely in the blanket and returned to a fitful sleep, cursing the air mattress. You know, there are reasons things only cost fifty cents at garage sales.
The sun woke me up irrevocably just after 6. I stumbled out of the tent, my back complaining with every move, and headed for the bath house. I found the shower stalls in the back. There were two, both equipped with a coin-operated timer which promised 5 minutes of hot water for a quarter. After a moment of panic, I found a few quarters and inserted one, only to find that the timer was broken. Translation: No Hot Water. Meanwhile, the guy in the other shower stall is having a merry old time for himself. He has hot water. And apparently a lot of quarters. Eventually, he finishes and leaves. I grab my gear and go next door. What I find out is that this shower has the opposite problem. The timer is also broke, but stuck in the “on” position. So, I have all the hot water I want. And I use it, letting the stream spray on my back which quiets the baying hounds in the lumbar area. At one point, I start to get out my razor. I stopped, however and gazed thoughtfully at this instrument of male torture. I decided that if RALPH is on vacation, then so is the razor.
Afterwards, I returned to the campsite to find that one set of my neighbors, a nice couple my age from Minneapolis, had come out of their RV and were drinking coffee. They used to ride, he on a Victory, she on a baby Virago, but sold the bikes due to “not enough time to ride.” We talk while I break camp and re-load the bike. In this process I discover an error in trip planning. I had planned to be underway for the day’s riding no later than 8 am. However, I completely underestimated the time it took to break camp and load the bike. Admittedly, my level of effort was desultory, at best, but still I didn’t leave the campsite until after 9:30. I finally headed north by 10:00.
It was a magnificent day, mostly clear blue skies and temperatures that stayed between 62 and 68 degrees, a pleasant contrast to the Missouri heat. My route north took me through some of the most beautiful scenery and quaint villages I had ever seen. It was such a feeling of freedom and adventure to be gliding up a road dappled in sunlight and leaves with the blue sky above and the magnificent blue of the lake to the side. Euphoria took over. Between Little Marais and Tofts, is Taconite Harbor, a massive facility that loads taconite pellets culled from Minnesota’s Iron Range just off to the Northwest. Being a holiday weekend, no ships were loading, but it was interesting nonetheless.
I stopped for lunch at Sven and Ole’s Pizza House in Grand Marais, a place recommended by Lake Superior magazine. The fare was very good and not too expensive. I left the restaurant and wandered about town a bit, looking for an outfitter’s store. The only real plan I had made this day was to get a new air mattress. The one place in Grand Marais had some very outdoorsy-type mattresses, but wanted $70 for them. For that amount I could have stayed in a motel. I kept looking around but didn’t find anything else, so I got back on the bike and resumed my trek. My goal for this day was Grand Portage, just south of the Canadian border. It was only about 125 miles from Two Harbors to Grand Portage, but with my leisurely pace, it took my until after 1 pm before I arrived at the turnaround in front of the Border Crossing Station, where I circled back south and stopped at a roadside vista for a break.
I was looking out across a series of small islands and peninsulas that clearly marked the border between the U.S. and Canada. The view was magnificent, so I got my camera out of the trunk and took some pictures. After the photos, I leaned on the bike seat and gazed out across the water, my mind comfortably blank. This was why I had made this trip. For the first time in several months, I was free of the truckload of mental and emotional burdens and the accompanying stress. I was free of obligation and the only schedule I had was the result of whatever stray thought happened to occur to me.
I was alone, had nowhere to be, and all the time in the world to get there.
Eventually, I got back on the bike and headed south. Bedeviled by the lack of sleep from the night before, I stopped several times to walk around and revive a little and drink in the magnificent scenery. The last stop was the Split Rock Lighthouse.
This is a fascinating place. The waters off Split Rock Point were, at one time, the most dangerous stretch of water in all of Lake Superior. The great storm of 1905 put over 20 ships, great and small, on the bottom within a few miles of this location. This prompted the government to put in the lighthouse. The station sits on a huge block of rock, which, according to the information in the displays, was thrust up from 25 miles beneath the surface during the epoch when area around the Great Lakes were formed. The rock is among the toughest and densest there is and resists erosion very well.
When the station was established, there were no roads, so the construction of the station and its eventual resupply had to be carried out from boats which unloaded their cargo onto a derrick crane while bobbing up and down in the waves at the base of the point. The light operated continuously before being retired in the early 70’s. However, once the road up the North Shore was built in the late 40’s, the Split Rock Lighthouse became something of a tourist attraction. It remains today one of the most photographed lighthouses in the U.S.
I spent quite awhile there, touring the museum and watching their movie (VERY high quality, BTW) before finally leaving there about 6 pm. I stopped at a promising-looking Bar and Grill in Two Harbors and had a wonderful Monte Cristo sandwich while enjoying football on the television.
Having had no luck finding an air mattress on my ride, I asked around for the location of a suitable store. I was directed to a place called Pamida, which is a Wal-Mart-ish kind of store. I managed to find a double-sized inflatable bed. I bought it, along with a small walkman. I managed to secure my purchases on the bike and headed back to the campsite. I arrived right at sunset and was treated to a sky with all the beauty of an oil painting. I then made camp. Unfortunately, when I got the bed out of the bag it came in, I discovered that it didn’t come with the air pump it was reputed to have. However, being the experienced public speaker that I am, I knew I had it in me to inflate this thing. I was successful, although the effort rendered me very light-headed for a time. I placed the mattress in the tent, delighted to discover that it fit the tent floor perfectly. I followed the mattress into the tent, zipped up the door and passed the night in blissful comfort.
I didn’t wake up until almost 8 am. I crawled out of the tent feeling wonderful and went up the hill to the shower room. Overnight, a huge number of RV’s had pulled in, but they were all apparently sleeping late. I showered and went back to the campsite to break camp.
The first step in that process was to remove all the gear from the tent and stack it on top of a picnic table while I took down and repacked the tent. It was quite a pile, covering the entire top of the table and both benches. While thus engaged, I acquired an audience, an elderly couple from the other side of my campsite. They came out of their RV and set up a couple of lawn chairs. I glanced at them, thinking they were just out enjoying the beautiful morning. I re-packed all my gear into the bags, managing to find room for the deflated bed, the erstwhile air mattress having been relegated to the trash can, abandoned and unloved. I reloaded the bike, finishing up by ratcheting the duffel bag to the passenger seat. I turned back towards the campsite, policing the ground as I went. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the lady pull a $5 bill out of her sweater pocket and hand it to her husband with a wry expression on her face. He accepted the bill and I heard him say, in that singular northern accent, “I told ya, Mary. Dose biker guys, dey know how to pack!”
With a smile and a laugh, I hit the road headed south for Duluth. Heavy rain started as I entered the city. I pulled off at the first gas station, mainly to get under shelter. I topped off the tank and donned my wet weather gear. After about 20 minutes or so, the rain slacked off and I got underway. I found US2 and headed east into Wisconsin. The rain picked up again and stayed with me all the way to Iron River. Traffic was very heavy and there was quite a bit of construction on this leg. On the advice of the Lake Superior Travel Guide, I stayed on US2 through the Brule River and Chequamegon National Forests, an absolutely beautiful area. Growing up, one of my favorite books was “Rascal” by Sterling North, a story about a boy growing up with a raccoon. In one part, young Sterling goes with his Father from their home in Southern Wisconsin to the Brule River area, just east of Superior. In the book, North described the area as being a thickly forested. While the trees have evidently been cleared out in the 80 or 90 years since then, it was still a beautiful sight. I bypassed the Bayfield Peninsula and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, because of my late start and slow pace. It was during this day that I began to suspect I had not allowed enough time to do this ride properly.
Even though the rain had stopped, the skies remained overcast and leaden for most of the day. I passed into Michigan at Ironwood. As I passed through Wakefield, I noticed that the main drag was closed for some kind of parade. I had stopped at one of the intersections to check things out when I was approached by a Harley guy. A REAL Harley guy. He came up to me and asked if I knew what the helmet law in Michigan was. I had to plead ignorance (helmet laws being superfluous to me since I won‘t ride without one). He went on and complained that his helmet made his head itch. I carefully refrained from pointing out that an occasional shampooing might ease his discomfort.
Going on, I picked up Route 64 out of Bergland, through Silver City and Ontonagon, then US45 for the trip up the Keweenaw Peninsula. Passing through Houghton I had to cross one of those God-awful bridges with the steel mesh decks. I was very happy that it had stopped raining for that moment because even with Metzelers, the wheels danced like Madonna going across that bridge.
North of Houghton, the rain came back, off and on. This was a disappointment because I was now on Michigan 26, a twisty tree-lined highway that I had been anticipating. Even with the wet pavement though, I still managed to have some fun. The further north I went, I began to see driveways for houses. They had two mailboxes, one pretty normal one, and the other on top of a 4x4 post about 10-12 feet in the air. I puzzled over this for several miles until I saw one with a sign: Winter Delivery. You see, there’s a thermometer-type sign that shows all the record snowfalls over the years. The record was 390 inches. That’s about 33 FEET of snow. Wow. Going up this road, I tried to realize what it would be like to live here during the winter. If the mailboxes were any indication, I can’t believe there would be much moving around up here after about early November. However, humans are a resilient sort and home is really where you choose to make it. I suspect these people think Floridians to be pretty wimpy.
I pulled off at a scenic site between Eagle Harbor and Copper Harbor to rest and take some pictures. I also found a really interesting-looking rock (no, I WAS NOT looking in the mirror) which I put up on the cowling behind the windshield. Why I didn’t put it in the trunk, I don’t know. More about this later… I managed to put the camera on one of the guard posts and take two pictures of me and the bike. As you look at them, you will see the odd expression on my face. I was squinting at the camera trying to see if that delay timer was actually working.
As I got ready to get underway again, a large group of about 10 bikes went by headed south. A mixed bag of Gold Wings, BMW’s, and ST1100’s. We all waved at each other. Be seein’ them again…
As I pulled into Copper Harbor at the top of the Keweenaw, it started to rain again, a persistent cold drizzle. It was getting late, so I made a loop around the town and headed south, this time on US41. I followed that road to Mohawk and turned east to visit Gay, Michigan and the famous Gay Bar. Gay sits at the end of a narrow, two-lane road lined with tall trees. I tensed up, because this is the kind of area that screams DEER COUNTRY!!! at you. I saw a couple on the road and confidently gave them the obligatory air horn treatment. What I got instead of the commanding blast was a weak toot that gradually ebbed silent. Great. I slowed down and continued through passing showers until I pulled into Gay.
I’m sure when the sun is shining this is a pretty and attractive village. However today, with the dark clouds hovering overhead, the wet, empty streets and abandoned buildings it seemed bleak and foreboding. In my head, I began to hear Rod Serling.
For your consideration: A lone biker, cold and hungry pulls into a run-down bar in a lonely town on the edge of forever. He thinks he’s stopped in for a meal. Little does he know that what seems to be the doorway of this establishment actually marks the threshold of….The Twilight Zone.
I parked outside the bar and went inside. A group of locals was seated at the bar and it was apparent from the tone and tenor of the conversation that they had been there quite awhile. For a brief moment, standing in the doorway, the conversations died. They all looked me over. I felt like Josey Wales. However, once the moment of inspection passed, the welcome I received was a warm one. I sat down, cold and wet, and the waitress/barkeep came over and gave me a warm smile and a menu. I ordered a cheeseburger and fries and was pleasantly surprised to find that the burger had the rough edges and lumpy shape of a hand-pressed piece of meat. It was good, too. I didn’t take off my coat because I was really getting cold. However, I downed three cups of hot cocoa along with the burger and began to feel better. I tried to follow the conversations at the bar, most of which had to do with a recently imposed leash law, but I was very tired and finding it hard to concentrate. After eating and paying the bill, I went outside. I wanted to take a picture of the bar, but it was raining again. I mounted up and found a road sign pointing me out of Gay and towards Lake Linden.
The towns now began to look a lot alike and as the evening wore on I got colder and wetter and the prospect of camping at Baraga that night was getting less and less attractive. I pulled into Houghton just after sunset pretty much at the end of my string. I crossed that awful bridge again, pulled into the first cheap-looking motel I could find and got a room, the last one as it turned out. I unloaded the bike, took all my gear inside, and began hanging everything up to dry. The room had a space heater, which I turned on. (Space heater? In August?) I found the Weather Channel on the television and carefully watched the forecast. Rain and thunderstorms that night, but clearing towards morning with a beautiful day tomorrow. Good. Shower. Hot water and no quarter needed. Bed. Doesn’t have to be inflated. I could get used to this.
Next morning, rested and chipper, I headed out of Houghton on US41, going as far as the town of L’anse (pronounced like the things you mow). At the edge of town was a restaurant called The Hilltop. In the parking lot were close to 50 motorcycles (yeah, I counted ‘em). Figuring that to be the best kind of endorsement, I went in. The place was full of bikers in all manner of dress. I figured out that there were about 4 different groups having breakfast there. Of course, in my Canyon jacket and carrying my Nolan I got a lot of waves and greetings. They had a wonderful breakfast bar, but the thing this place is famous for is their cinnamon rolls. Not precisely knowing what I was getting into, I ordered one. When the server brought it out, my jaw dropped. This thing was HUGE!!! Getting out my trusty key chain ruler, I measured it at 5 inches wide at the base by 4.5 inches tall, icing included. I only managed two bites out of it and had them wrap it up in saran wrap. It took two days of dedicated snacking to vanquish this Godzillian confectionary.
After eating, I joined the general movement out to the parking lot and it was as we talked that I realized that this particular group was the one that had passed me the day before on the Keweenaw. We had a lively discussion. They were from the Milwaukee area and were on their way towards the bridge at the Mackinaw Straits. I told them about my trip and after awhile, we parted ways.
Energized by the meal and the encounter, I headed east on US41 through Ishpeming, Marquette, Newberry, towards Paradise. The terrain was marshier with lots of small lakes and ponds and streams meandering their way through the tall grass. There wasn‘t much civilization and it wasn‘t hard to imagine what a desolate place this would be in January with 4 or 5 feet of snow and 40-knot winds blowing wind chills into the50-below-zero range. Even the people I encountered during fuel and food stops seemed a bit standoffish and almost alien after the talkative warmth of Minnesotans. The weather probably didn‘t help my mood at all, since the sky was still very overcast and gloomy. I stopped at Whitefish Point, home of the Shipwreck Museum. The sky had lightened momentarily, but by the time I pulled into the museum, it looked pretty sobering, a perfect setting for what I was about to experience.
This was an important stop for me. Having been in the Navy for 10 years, anything about ships fascinates me. Like many others, I have had a tremendous interest in the wreck of the ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald, made famous by the Gordon Lightfoot song. The museum is actually on the sight of the lighthouse station. Unlike Split Rock, this station is still active, albeit completely automated. Whitefish Point forms the southern half of the navigational choke point that leads into Whitefish Bay, the front door into Sault Ste. Marie. Because of this choke point and the ferocity of the storms that rack the lake in late fall, this area has had more shipwrecks over the years than any other place on any of the Great Lakes.
The facility was first-class. The displays were informational and serious without being overly maudlin. Although the place was very crowded, people were quiet and respectful. Even the children seemed subdued. The actual museum was surprisingly small. As you work your way around the room, you read about the more significant shipwrecks. As I read I began to imagine in my mind what it would have been like to be at sea during one of those storms. I had been through several strong storms and even one hurricane (all right, typhoon) while in the Navy, but somehow as my appreciation for the awesome power of Lake Superior grew, my own experience quailed in comparison. This feeling was amplified when I walked out to the lakeshore and gazed out to a dark and somber horizon to the grave of the most well known of these ships. I kept running the lyrics of the song through my head as I looked, and as so often happens when I visit an historical sight, the tale of the wreck became much more real to me. The most powerful phrase of that song came into my head and struck me like cold gust of wind:
“Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours”
I stayed there for quite awhile. I guess in my own way I was honoring the memory of a great ship and her brave crew.
It started to rain again, so I made a quick investigation of the other buildings and gift shop, where I bought a key ring, possibly the only thing I could have fit in with my load. I headed south for Sault Ste. Marie. I hugged the lakeshore through Bayview, Bay Mills, and Brimley. The clouds began to break up as I got closer to Sault Ste. Marie and finally the sun broke through as I climbed onto I-75. I pulled into town, amazingly, while the sun was still up. I checked into the Days Inn, found out where the Laundromat was, and had dinner. After dinner, I rode over to the Soo locks and watched the few ships pass through.
I ruminated on the events of the week. I thought, with sadness, that tomorrow I would leave this Great Lake that I had come to love so much. The waters, colored by the mood of the sky, the wooded hills and shorelines and the harsh, rocky beaches had done much to lift the emotional burdens I had been struggling with for several months. I felt cleansed and renewed; ready to resume my life. I said a silent thanks to Gitchee Gumee, the Great Waters, turned my back, and left.
Upon returning to the motel, I decided I’d better try and diagnose my horn problem. 45 minutes of tracing and testing produced no tangible results. I gave up and went to bed.
The next morning, I got up earlier and took another stab at the horns. I was thus toiling assiduously when I was startled by an ominous rumble of thunder. I glanced up in surprise to see some very black and angry clouds rolling in off the lake. Hurriedly, I put the bike back together, dashed inside, and grabbed my gear. I loaded the bike in record time, checked out and headed south. The storms caught me just as I was entering the Interstate and for the next 26 miles, I was blasted and almost drowned by 5 very heavy thunderstorms. I was down to 30 mph for most of the way. Any thought of taking shelter under a bridge was negated by the evidence of the weather radar (checked before leaving the room) that showed these cells moving south. If I had pulled over, I would have just had to ride through them again. The rain was heavy enough to be blinding and was pooling rapidly on the road surface. The winds were gusting at least 40 knots and lightning was frequent and close. Adding to that, my helmet seemed to be leaking and I was getting water down my back. I only had to get to county road H40 to turn west and away from the storm track and it seemed to be taking forever to get there. Despite the high winds and heavy rains, the bike never faltered once. The engine, that wonderful, wonderful engine, purred like it was sunshine and 70 degrees.
Eventually I did get to my turnoff and headed west. It took almost an hour to get completely out of the rain. I got some strange looks from people as I went down the road shedding water. I passed through Trout Lake and Rexton, picking up US2 at Epoufette. Near Naubinway, there was a roadside rest area, which marked the northernmost reaches of Lake Michigan. I stopped and stripped off my rain gear and headed to the restroom. Fortunately, it was equipped with those wall-mounted blow driers. I used one for almost 10 minutes trying to dry off my heavy leather gloves, which seemed to weigh about 10 pounds each. My chaps felt like a lead suit, but I figured they would dry in the breeze as I rode. I was definitely on the warm side of the weather front as the temperature, which had never risen higher than 52 on I-75 was now in the upper 70’s and noticeably more humid.
I spent quite a bit of time at this rest stop looking at my second Great Lake of this trip.
Eventually, I returned to the road and continued west.
I was now enjoying the most pleasant ride of the whole trip. For the first time since the first day, it was warm enough to go with just my light jacket and summer gloves. The sun was pleasant and the sky hazy enough to blunt the direct sunlight. The only down side was the presence of about 9,000 RV’s on the road, all going about 45 mph The lake and I made the big turn south at Rapid River. I stopped in Escanaba and had a Pastie for lunch. A pastie is sort of a pot pie on steroids and while it was good, it also made me long for a nap.
The road south to Green Bay was a bit of a disappointment. I couldn’t see much of the lake because of the presence of a very dense line of trees on that side of the road. I figured that they functioned as a wind break during the winter
My original estimate had me hitting Green Bay by about 1 pm. I finally hit town just after 4. By then I was contemplating the cross-state trip from Madison to Prairie du Chein (mega deer country) and realizing that I was going to be on that road after sunset. I pulled off in Appleton long enough to leave a note at my cousin’s house to explain why I couldn’t stop, and, after spending 30 agonizing minutes finding my way out of there, was headed south towards Madison. Or was I? For some odd reason, the road signs kept referring to the approach of Milwaukee. I pulled off, consulted the map, and realized I had missed my turnoff to US151 at Fon Du Lac. The traffic had been very heavy and I figured I must have missed it while trying to watch the other vehicles. I perused the map and found a state road (Wisconsin 49) that would take me straight across to Waupun where I could pick up the right road. I was now riding directly at the setting sun, so I had to go slower than I wanted to. I made it to Waupun and jumped on 151 and made excellent time to Sun Prairie, where I left the main road to take Wisconsin 19 to Wisconsin 60 and on to Prairie Du Chein Route 19 follows some hills and bluffs and is a great motorcycle road with lots of twisties, sweepers, and marvelous scenery. However, it was now nearly dark and my paranoid predilection with Bambi and friends kept me from completely enjoying the road.
I got completely lost at a road junction between Mazomanie and Black Earth. The route I was taking jogs south and then west again, but my road atlas page I was navigating with was singularly uninformative as to the identity of the jog road. Eventually, I did find the right combination of turns. This road was dark with lots of forest close up to the roadway. The last thing I wanted was to end my vacation on this lonely road wrapped around a dying deer.
Route 60 follows the banks of the Wisconsin River starting at Spring Green and would have been a terrific ride during the day. Even at night, it had its moments as the trees would occasionally part and I would see the peaceful surface of the river lit by the full moon. It was getting colder, but I hardly noted the change as I was utterly focused on looking for wildlife. At one point, I came upon a skunk that appeared in my headlight less than 30 feet from the front of the bike. A quick “push-push” saved me from a singularly aromatic fate. The miles ticked by ever so slowly, but my destination was getting closer all the time. Suddenly I came upon a detour sign. Route 60 was closed! Damn! Only 20 miles away! The detour, south on US61 to US18 west, added only about 12 miles to the journey, but at 11:00 at night and as fatigued as I was, it seemed like forever.
Why, praytell, did I not just stop and grab a motel? Well, herein lays one of the weaknesses of my travel planning. My motel stops in Sault Ste Marie and Prairie Du Chein were internet reservations and in compliance with the rules under these “special rates,” I would have had to cancel the day before no later than 4 pm or be billed for the room anyway. Finally, finally, finally, I pulled into my destination city about 11:30 or so. I found my lodging with no trouble. I checked in, grabbed my gear, got into the room and just managed to remove my clothes before collapsing on the bed and falling asleep.
The next morning dawned quite gray, and when I looked outside, I could see why. A dense fog had formed during the night, so dense I couldn’t even see my bike, less than 50 feet away. Obviously, I wasn’t going anywhere at the moment, so I took my time getting cleaned up and packed and wandered down for the continental breakfast. After eating, I collected my gear, checked out and headed for the parking lot. The fog had lifted enough so that I could see the bike by now, although the businesses across the highway were still a bit of a mystery.
I crossed the Mississippi River, twice as it worked out, into Iowa and followed the signs to Pike’s Peak State Park. I had never heard of this place before, but I was totally blown away by the views from the top of this bluff. It overlooked the place where Father Marquette canoed in and became the first white guy to discover the upper reaches of Old Man River.
The Great River Road follows the banks of the Mississippi and it takes a sharp eye to find all the route changes as you go along. Nevertheless, the ride was magnificent. I went deep into valleys and high atop bluffs with spectacular views. The roads were twisty enough to be fun and the morning was magnificent.
It was in Muscatine that I had my only near-accident of the entire trip. I was crossing an old stone arch bridge in the right hand lane. There was a blue sedan with several teenagers in it in the left hand lane. They had assumed the “we’re cool; we’re cruisin’ for chicks” posture, which meant none of them were looking for traffic. I was even with the passenger door as I realized this, so I began to chop the throttle to move behind them. Sure enough, they began to change lanes rapidly towards me. Still falling back, I got as far to the right as I could and found myself looking over the edge of the bridge at a roadway at least a mile or so below the bridge (well, it looked like a mile…). I was rapidly running out of room, so I grabbed a handful of brake and got clear. I was so mad that on impulse I reached up on the cowling with my left hand, grabbed my only Lake Superior souvenir, and flung it at the car, hitting it in the rear quarter panel. Four heads bobbed up to see how close I was, took note of my expressive gesticulations, then laid on the accelerator and sped off, leaving me shaking and enraged. I caught up to them two stoplights later only to see them all roll up their windows as I rolled up on the left. The car and I were pointed in the same direction, but when I looked over to their car, all I saw were backs. They seemed to have acquired a case of shyness.
As they motored on, I had the satisfaction of seeing a rather sizeable dent in the car from my rock. Well, it sacrificed itself for a good cause….
The further south I got, the warmer and more humid it became. And having gotten acclimated to the cooler climes, I had to force myself to remember to pull off and drink from time to time. I pushed through Burlington, Fort Madison, and Keokuk, crossing back into my home state.
I got into Hannibal just after six. I headed south on Route 79. This road, south of Hannibal is a real gas and I enjoyed myself to the hilt, feeling good that my journey was nearing its end and at the same time a little sad. Nightfall was rapidly approaching so instead of staying on 79 all the way to Winfield and Route 47, I turned west on US54 from Louisiana and in the gathering darkness, headed for the junction with I-70 at Kingdom City, and the last 20 miles home. And finally after six days in the saddle, I pulled into my driveway a little after 9:30 pm to a joyous reunion with my family.
At least until they saw my beard…
Things I should have thought about…
This was a great trip. 2,816 miles in 6 days. Except for the two rainy periods, the weather was as close to perfect as it could have been. There were plenty of times that I was wet, cold, tired, or in pain, but that seemed only to amplify the experience. The best way to describe my feelings during this trip is to say that I was “intensely alive. “ I was renewed and refreshed by my time in the North Country, but there are things I will do differently next time.
1. PACE and Daily Mileages I vastly overestimated the average speed I could maintain on this route and as a result spent a lot of time riding in the dark when I shouldn’t have had to. Next time, I will figure an average speed of 45 mph and a day of no more than 250 miles. My days on this trip (after getting to the lake) were between 350 and 475 miles and this was far too much to be able to do any real sightseeing.
2. Accomodations I tried to save money making the reservations on the internet, but the arcane rules about cancellations really limited my flexibility and actually on two occasions put me at some risk due to fatigue and darkness. The camping was excellent, but the Lake proved its ability to produce rain out of a sunny forecast. I should have budgeted enough for emergency lodging if camping proved impractical. Also, the numbers of motels on the internet don’t even come close to matching the number of them that actually are. Some of them are places you wouldn’t want to take your family, but traveling alone, they would’ve worked just fine.
3. Packing I packed more stuff than necessary. Camping required the addition of quite a number of items and while the camping was fun, after a long day in the saddle at my age, perhaps a bed would have been better.
4. Routing up and back While it is an accomplishment to boast of, actually doing 702 miles in one day on a motorcycle is borderline insanity. Next time, I take it easy. Then instead of watching the clock so much, I can spend more time watching the scenery and doing more touristy stuff.
Any trip on a motorcycle should be an adventure. While planned destinations can make for handy bookends to each day, the whole purpose of a motorcycle trip should always be the trip itself and not the destinations. By exploring our world, we also explore ourselves. Therein do we find the most profound discoveries.