Biking Lake Michigan: A long-distance adventure

While going up and down, up and down, up and down, etc., the hills that roll over the dunelands south of Frankfort on M-22, on a 7-speed bicycle loaded with about 35 pounds of cargo, I got a bit delirious. 
 
Mashing pedals to climb--the totals for the day--2,419 feet, and then flying down 2,431 feet, will do that to a person.
 
I decided to form my own cult, based on a retelling of the Sisyphus myth. See, that old Greek was cursed to push the boulder uphill, only to watch it roll back. He should've kept pushing until he got to the top. There he could stand, recover, enjoy the view. Then he'd hop on that sucker and ride it down the other side of the hill, yee-hawing all the way.
 
Then he'd have to take on the next hill. A series of torture, euphoria; toil, exhilaration--that's life, isn't it? Or maybe it's bipolar disorder, I dunno.
 
I reached the top of a major hill, went up onto a roadside scenic outlook. I walked out onto the sightseers' deck, stood next to the coin-operated binoculars, buffeted by wind blowing non-stop from Wisconsin. Looked down hundreds of feet to the lake-side forest, the sand, the water all shades of green and blue. Looked north to see dunes about 12 miles away towering over the water. 
 
I overdosed on Pure Michigan, uncut. 
 
I got a little misty. 
 
The night before I'd heard the news of five bicyclists killed, four injured, in my hometown Kalamazoo. Serious bikers, riding in single file on the right side of a rural road, in daylight with clear visibility. Mowed down from behind by a pickup truck. The driver, Charles Picket Jr., was charged with five counts of second-degree murder and four counts of reckless driving. He was also charged with driving while intoxicated by a yet-to-be-named drug or drugs. 
 
The anxiety and tension I'd felt while on the major roads spiked. My left eye tended to be glued to my helmet mirror, examining every vehicle approaching from the rear to see if they were staying on their side of the white line.
 
But suddenly, looking out over Lake Michigan, it became a realization that pedaling 460 miles on USBR 35, solo, from Mackinaw City to New Buffalo, may be a dangerous and nutty thing to do, but it was the only way to experience true freedom; to see, smell and really experience the world. To hell with the fear. I'm living.
 
United States Bike Route 35
 
The United States Bike Route system is a set of options for bike adventures. 
 
It has its roots in the Bikecentennial, an effort to get people to see America, coast to coast, using pedals, during the Bicentennial of 1976. Guides drew maps of feasible routes, with information on where to find food, water, lodging. The mass ride and its support efforts developed into Adventure Cycling Association.

In the 2000s, Adventure Cycling began working with state departments of transportation, including MDOT, on making the USBRs official. (We'll have much more on the political, financial and bike-able realities of Michigan's USBRs in part two of this story.)
 
"That idea of getting out and seeing America is what Adventure Cycling is all about," says Kerry Irons, a Holland-based AC member who's been instrumental in forming the USBRs. "We want to provide a route that lets people reconnect with the America that they thought was gone." 
 
Or the Michigan you don't see on I-75. As I rode for hours through thick forests and sprawling fields; saw deer, fox, hawks and sandhill cranes; got soaked in rain and burned by sun; hit small settlements for food and water, and crested hills to discover yet another stunning view of Lake Michigan, I got the feeling I was an explorer on horseback. 
 
This is a throwback to the roots of travel. You can't get this experience on the interstate at 75 mph. 
 
It's like I was the French explorer of the Great Lakes, Pere Marquette. Or, more accurately, a grimy French fur trader. 
 
Note that near where I had a greasy lunch of fish 'n' fries in a Ludington bar, Marquette died of dysentery in 1675 trying to get back home to St. Ignace. Exploration is not all glory, and adventure is not comfortable.
 
Irons, who's been riding for over 50 years, sees it this way: "But at the same time, compared to our normal lives--you get up at 8-ish in the morning, and what's your deal today? I'm gonna ride my bike. And I gotta find some food and water, and a place to camp or sleep. What's the deal tomorrow? I'm gonna ride my bike."
 
It's a raw but simple routine that yields amazing moments, unlike most of our usual daily lives.
 
"You get into a rhythm after a while, and when it ends it's kind of disappointing," he says. 
 
Adventure Cycling has 50,000 members and 45,000 miles of routes. If you fall for the appeal of journeying by bicycle, you will find yourself staring at their maps, dreaming.
 
Last year I'd been on a portion of USBR 10, in the Upper Peninsula. This year, I went for USBR 35, which runs from Sault Sainte Marie, down along the coast of Lake Michigan, and through Indiana to Louisville, Kentucky.
 
No, I didn't do it all. In spite of what you might think, I'm not crazy. Nor do I have a lot of funds and free time. I modestly chose 460 miles, eight days, along the lakeshore that has played a major role in my Michigander life.
 
I say "modestly," because no matter what, there are always bikers more hardcore than you. 
 
While registering at a motel, when I'd have to put down my make of vehicle and license, I'd reveal my vehicle with the smugness of a newbie adventurer, gesturing to it teetering under its heavy bags outside the lobby door, 'That'd be a seven-speed Electra Townie.' 
 
Responses from clerks ranged from "wow" to a blasé "there's a lot of that, lately." A couple of clerks said they'd had guests who came through biking coast-to-coast.
 
While going through Traverse City, I spotted a trio on the TART; Alan and Maggie Pendleton of Somerset, UK, and Ed Rodriguez of California. They were doing the entire lake, clockwise from Chicago.
 
The Pendletons, a senior couple on a tandem bike loaded with bags, have been pedaling around the world for over 20 years. Rodriguez met them on a bike tour years ago, and regularly joins them.
 
They're all retired, older but much more fit than I. It sounds like they're living my future, I tell them.
 
"I'd recommend it," Alan says, with dry British wit. 
 
They got ahead of me, of course. I caught up with them on the other side of the Leelanau. They were frozen, watching with awe as a sandhill crane performed a little hopping, wing-flapping mating dance around another. 
 
I start to say something, they shush me. 
 
Just experience the moment, was the unspoken message.
 
The Good, the Bad, the Ugly and the Learned Advice on USBR 35
 
Good: I started from the north, which is like eating dessert first. The woods south of Mackinac, feeling like the U.P. though it's below the Bridge. The Little Traverse Wheelway, Harbor Springs to Petoskey to Charlevoix, is a care-free ride of stunning Lake Michigan beauty. Then the cherry-lands around Grand Traverse Bay, pleasant with chances to talk to horses in pastures and to gorge on turnovers at roadside fruit stands.
 
Bad: If you tour via bicycle, you should know that plans will need to be scrapped, hardships will have to be faced. On the first day, rain forced me down the 20-mile-shorter non-USBR North Western State Trail, a recently-improved crushed limestone trail from Mackinaw City to Petoskey. I still ended the day soaked and miserable. 
 
Ugly, in the Nose: Unseasonably cold weather ruled in the north. Two days of warm clothes stretched to four days = too ripe to be in public. Also, roadkill--you see it up ahead, close your mouth and hold your breath, yet the stink somehow manages to crawl into your face anyway. The raccoon's revenge.
 
Really Good: Sleeping Bear Dunes to Manistee, mostly along M-22--the landscape, and the biking experience, will truly mess with your mind in a good way. Example: Morning in Empire, roll down to the Lake after breakfast, stare at the choppy surf in the sun. Dunes and bluffs towering to the north and south. Turn around and, a short walk away, South Bar Lake. Sun glittering, birds chirping. Woods on the opposite shore. If the big Lake isn't enough, here's a little lake--Michigan, you're trying too hard! It was inspiration for myself to try hard, to slog up a 12% grade, 250 foot climb to get a better view. (see photo DSC_0755)
 
Bad: Any misdirection can lead to extra miles, which can ruin your day. A motel mixup--who woulda thought two Lakeshore Inns would be in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area?--had me riding another ten miles, miles that were spirit-crushing after I thought I'd arrived to my hot shower, delivered pizza and bed. And I had to skip my planned exploration of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail
 
Good: The flood of nostalgia in the sights and smells of forests, lakes, shore towns. I grew up in southwest Michigan, and have been to spots like these every summer since birth. Towns sparked memories ranging from we-were-just-there-last-week to was-I seven-when-Uncle-Jim-had-his-big-boat-docked-here? South Haven, Saugatuck, Grand Haven, Pentwater, Frankfort, Suttons Bay. Each with charm, amazing beaches, life-giving restaurants, all surrounded by Pure Michigan. For me, maybe for anyone who grew up Michigander, much of the coast feels haunted by memories of vacations, camping, beach trips; parents, grandparents long gone.
 
Learned Advice: As Adventure Cycling's Irons says, "this isn't for Mom and Dad and the kids on Sunday." 
 
But, on the other hand, a week of riding USBR 35 is not impossible. If you've pedaled enough to ride at least 50 miles a day without keeling over, have a bike you're comfortable on, can fix a flat and are competent at riding trails-to-heavy-traffic, you can do it.
 
There are many forms of bicycle adventuring. I did what's called a "credit card tour," where the magic card got me food and lodging. Others do fully self-supported tours, loading bikes with tents, sleeping bags, food and cooking utensils. An option for the new rider would be guided, supported tours such as the Michigander, where you ride with a group while trucks haul all your gear, and support is available for mechanical/physical mishaps. 
 
Study the maps: Adventure Cycling's and MDOT's USBR routes. Be sure and take them along in paper form--it never needs a charge or cell coverage. 
 
Portions of USBR 35 take you on peaceful bike trails and little-traveled country roads. Most of its state highways are busy, yet you feel safe on wide, paved shoulders. Other parts, specifically on US-31 in Antrim County, set you on the white line between motor vehicles breaking the speed limit on a two-lane freeway on one side, and a soft sandy gravel shoulder on the other. Bicyclists are potential roadkill in spots like these. We'll ask MDOT why that is in part two of the story. 
 
Mark Wedel is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo. He's about to finish his book, tentatively titled "Raw Power: Casually Obsessive and Obsessively Casual Long-Distance Biking." For more information, find him online here.
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