The trail beckons....
You try to ignore its call. You're not one of those crazy adventuresome biking types who ride across the state or across the continent. You don't have the time or -- so you think -- the stamina, to pedal any real distance.
Still, you wonder about wandering off on a bicycle. Leaving your neighborhood, your town. Seeing what you could see from behind the handlebars. Getting to a beauteous spot using just your legs and gears. Having a little adventure.
A few years ago the Adventure Cycling Association, which has been promoting bicycle travel
since 1973, came up with the Bike Travel Weekend
. It’s an option for those who want to hit the road, but not for weeks at a time.
Pedal for a day, or three, from your front door, and what can you see?
I needed to test out a new bike, and my old legs, for a ride across the U.P. later this month, so I took up Adventure Cycling's challenge....
'These trails go nowhere!'
I load up my Surly Troll and head out on a hot Friday at noon. I roll the beast through downtown Kalamazoo and decide what to name my new bike.
It's Sherman, because it's a tank
. Especially under the load of baggage, heavy enough to squish the tires down into wide tank treads.
I admit I got it for the brand and make name
, and because it's a heavy-duty workhorse designed for touring on both pavement and dirt. But as long as you're comfortable with your bike, and you know you can go a fair distance while carrying enough supplies for the weekend, your bike is just fine. My old bike, a seven-speed cruiser type, the Electra Townie, was so comfortable I used it to tour all over Michigan since 2012 and took it from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. last year. When grinding noises started coming from it, I realized that, after 14,000 miles, it was time for some new Surly wheels.
Sherman and I headed for the Kal-Haven Trail
, the most beautiful stretch of car-free bikeable grit (firmly packed, mostly; fine for everything except skinny road tires) in southwest Michigan.
The length of the Kal-Haven would be the perfect weekend ride for the beginner, or anyone wanting the most relaxing weekend on wheels. Just ride out around 40 to 50 miles (including the linking Kalamazoo River Valley Trail, starting in Galesburg), spend a night or a day in South Haven, take in the majesty of Lake Michigan, ride back--
--what was that? I skid to a stop. Some critter scurrying around. A weasel? Perfectly brown coat. Long body, long tail. Doesn't seem to notice me sneaking up on him (or her). Looks like it's really interested in one of the many holes chipmunks dig in the trail.
It sees me, runs off. I'm pretty sure I've just seen an adolescent mink
. I had no idea they were in this area of Michigan.
Later on the trail, a huge whitetail deer bounds parallel to me along a farm field. At camp at dusk, what I thought must be a little dog with a white bushy tail rustling through the underbrush turns out to be a skunk. "Hey, I won't bug you, you don't bug me," I tell it.
The Kal-Haven isn't wilderness, but it's close enough for the weekend adventurer.
While sitting at a picnic table at Gobles eating lunch, I encounter a human.
"Ortlieb!" he exclaims, reading the brand of my bike bags. "Are you German?"
"Yes, I'm German," I joke.
He's maybe in his 50s, a bit portly, on a Schwinn cruiser. He rambles on to tell me he used to ride all over, tour across the country, "up until the early '90s. But you can't do that no more. Too many crazies on the road! And this trail's nice, but it goes nowhere!"
I try to tell him that this trail does go somewhere, but he won't stop talking.
"Yeah, these trails go nowhere! Where are you coming from?"
"Kalamazoo," I say.
"I thought you're from Germany."
He pedals off along the trail. I didn't get a chance to explain that the trail goes to a Great Lake. And it'll get me to US Bicycle Route 35
. The MDOT-official route runs from Sault Ste. Marie, down Lake Michigan, through Indiana to Kentucky.
I planned to go south on the USBR Saturday, but the other option was tempting. Go north, hit Holland's many bike paths, hop on the trails that now connect Grand Rapids with Muskegon, all the way north to Hart.
Nope. If I took that route I might just keep riding and not return. This is just for the weekend, I have to remind myself.
I like the convenience of a cheap motel on these bike trips. But I thought I'd give camping a try.
The Kal-Haven Outpost
is right by the trail at the little spot on the map called Kibbe. The campground opened last year and has nice modern showers and restrooms, cabins, and RV hookups, and the primitive campsites that make you feel like you're far in the woods.
I set the tent up where, literally, the skunks like to frolic. There were no other primitive campers, everyone else was in their cozy modern RVs far on the other side of the grounds.
Shower, put on clean clothes, ride the trail another five miles into South Haven. Eat a torta at Su Casa. Go to the beach. Watch the sun get low over Lake Michigan. The sparkling water is magical.
It would be great if I could get my friends and loved ones riding with me, but I'm fine with venturing forth alone. Solo, I'm falling into what I think of as the "Big Two-Hearted River" state. Ernest Hemingway's 1925 short story
about a guy alone with his thoughts fishing in the U.P.
Alone, miles from home on a bike, you manage to quiet that incessant buzzing of worries and media. You no longer think about what the president tweeted today. Instead, you think, the DEET is working, but I should've also put it on my ears.
Or, is that a skunk?
Or, I've got to walk through the dark to go brush my teeth.
Night falls. Walk out across the campground to the restrooms, look up, and see all the stars in the universe.
Bikes are free
I thought it'd be OK to leave the bulky camping mat at home, but I was wrong. The ground was hard, and no thoughts of "Yay, this is how cowboys used to sleep!" could make me feel less-stiff.
The camp general store provided coffee and something I realized should be breakfast that morning: A small container of Palazzolo's ice cream
, Fennville's finest.
Biking all day makes it possible to eat ice cream for breakfast, guilt free. Photo by Mark Wedel
When you ride a bike all day, food becomes something that isn't guilt-inspiring, or just the usual stuff you consume. You burned 2,000 calories yesterday, will burn another 2,000 today. Eat that ice cream. For breakfast.
Pack up, put the load on Sherman, leave the Outpost. Have second breakfast (pulled pork sandwich, sweet potato fries) at Six Chicks Scratch Kitchen in South Haven. Hit the road south.
If the trail yesterday is perfect for beginners, the route this day is fine for the somewhat-more-experienced. The USBR 35 here mostly follows the Blue Star Highway. Most of that has a nice, wide, paved shoulder, and the traffic is light.
But know that this stretch has many rolling hills. Going uphill, you'll be panting and spinning in low gears, wondering why you're putting yourself through such torture. Going down, you'll be flying and feeling giddy.
I stop at Van Buren State Park. Wait behind the cars at the gate. They need a state park pass, or have to pay admission. I reach the gate. The ranger waves me through. "Bikes are free," she says, smiling.
It's a nice day. I'm giddy. I say as I pass, "Bikes are always free!"
Go to the beach. The sand dunes are towering over the lake. Waves are high, there's a no-swimming flag out, but families are frolicking at the edge of the water. I walk in ankle deep. The water is freezing. It's hot today, but it seems like freak spring snow was just weeks ago.
Get back on the road. Uphill, downhill, up, down. Fueled by pork and ice cream, I'm a machine. Get into a magic zone where I don't want to stop.
Get spacey. Dehydrated. Stop at a party store. Though I've got a 64 oz. tank half-full of water strapped to my fork, I shop the coolers full of fluids. Buy a bottle of water, just to have an excuse to sit outside at the store's picnic table.
Next door there's a parade of shaggy dogs going into Fluff N' Suds Pet Salon, coming out clean and groomed. "Go tinkle, Lucy!" a lady tells her little dog before getting in the car.
Sometimes, riding a bike, you find yourself in some fairly mundane scenes that stick with you.
Keep moving. The Blue Star scenery was 90 percent trees. It grows more populated as we enter the Benton Harbor and St. Joseph area.
The road becomes a wide four-lane highway. Speed down a long downhill run to the city, hit 25 mph without really trying. The tank has become a bomber.
Suddenly, it's an urban world. Take a look at Silver Beach, where some sort of festival is happening. Hang out on the St. Joseph River. Climb up steep hills, weave around people in fancy attire going to some fancy shindig on Lake Boulevard.
USBR 35 takes me past large homes of wealth, lakeside neighborhoods. My destination is just a couple of miles away, a cheap motel somewhere between Shoreham and Stevensville.
Outside Room 9. Photo by Mark Wedel
Ray's Motel. Yelp reviews were mixed, "funky (in the good sense)," Jessie I. writes
. But it has a life-size statue of Jesus out front, arms outstretched and welcoming, so could it really be as sleazy as might be implied?
I called the number on the office door. The proprietor came buzzing up on a motor scooter to check me in. Got a real key, of course, with the iconic green plastic tag, a faint "9" stamped on it. Room 9 was large, and, let's say, vintage. Dark wood paneling. A kitchen area with appliances, including a non-working refrigerator, that looked like they were new the year I was born. Cigarette burns on the couch, but things were clean.
Lodging on the lakeshore can be pricey. And the less-expensive chain motels have no character. This place had character. Lots of it. The bed was clean and free of bugs. And it was really cheap.
I'd pedaled 37 miles, after a rough night of trying to sleep on the ground after pedaling 50 miles. Instead of seeing what's hopping in Stevensville, I have a pizza delivered. Eat it all while watching an old werewolf movie. Collapse in the comfy bed and have strange dreams.
'Go back to Chicago!'
You don't have to stay in cheap motels or rustic campsites. You can throw down bills to stay at a fancy room in St. Joe or South Haven.
You don't have to ride 50 miles or 25. You could just ride until the scenery changes, or go nuts and do a century (a 100-mile ride).
After my ride, I see that a friend on Facebook, Cindie Niemann, rode with her family to the Brighton Recreation Area, north of Ann Arbor.
It was only 18 miles, on "half paved and half dirt roads." She noted that inflatable sleeping mats are "pretty small and pack easily. More comfortable than I expected."
Niemann participates in century-a-day fundraising rides, so a bike weekend is not an unusual idea for her. "I guess I like to camp and I like to bike, so it is a challenge and an adventure to be able to carry everything we need on the bike," she says.
"It's also fun to see how minimalist one can be. We ended up with trash that would fit into a small ziplock bag when we were done. I also watched the people camping across from us pack up for hours while we sat around the fire and had our coffee and breakfast. We finished up, packed our things and were back on the road long before they were finished packing everything into their car."
Be minimalist or load your bike, as I did, as if you're crossing the Continental Divide. (Did I really need the animal scat identification cards my wife Jules gave me as a gag?) The beauty of the bike weekend is the freedom of it all. As long as you feel that freedom, that's all that matters.
Sunday arrives. I could've planned to pedal back to Kalamazoo. That would've been around 90 miles, all those hills, and I would feel less free on that trek. I've had rides like that, and the feeling is not so much of freedom as it is one of how-much-can-I-take-without-dying?
I didn't want that, but I didn't want to stop. I headed south to New Buffalo. I could've gone across the state line, but Jules said she'd pick me up. Apparently, I have a life, based in a home in Kalamazoo. I have this thing called a "deadline" that I can't meet in the bike saddle.
This would only be a 28-mile day. I stuff down a giant omelet with french toast and roll off into beautiful sunshine.
USBR 35 takes you through some quiet neighborhoods, then you're on a long stretch of country road, Thornton Drive, running parallel to I-94.
Just look at those metal boxes speeding along, people trapped inside, seeing nothing! I pull off the road and plow through tall grass and weeds to get a good look at a billboard, just for perspective's sake. "Pure Michigan," it’s advertising to the people going 75 mph on the interstate.
Slow down to 12 mph, and you'll see lots of pure Michigan.
On a whim, I turn into Grand Mere state park. The lot and some trails are closed due to flooding. If it weren't for the "No Bikes" sign at the trail, I would've splashed further into the woods.
The park was empty, and the forest deadened all sounds of the nearby interstate. If you do this crazy bike travel thing, be sure and go into the woods and just stand there, absorb the peace.
I needed to absorb some peace because in about three miles I'd be on the Red Arrow Highway.
If the Kal-Haven is for beginners, and USBR 35's Blue Star-dominant section is for intermediate riders, the USBR on the way to New Buffalo has a section that's for experienced bikers. And that section is the Red Arrow Highway.
Red Arrow is four lanes, two in each direction. No center turning lane. Speed limit that's supposedly 55 mph, but with all that room drivers seem to think they're on the interstate.
There's a white line, a couple inches of pavement, and a gravel shoulder on your right.
With all those lanes, it would seem safe for bikes. And most drivers do give you plenty of space when they pass. But I had an incident on this day, detailed in Second Wave here
Don't let this near-miss and road rage confrontation scare you out of embarking on a bike adventure. I've pedaled thousands of miles, in areas from New Orleans to the U.P, and this was the worst I've experienced.
Just let it be a reminder that you should always be on your toes when pedaling. Be visible, put on a few flashing lights, and keep one eye in the rearview mirror on hairy roads. Also, even though you may be angry that someone's carelessness nearly killed you, don't flip drivers off.
After calling me a nasty obscenity, he yells "Go back to Chicago!"
Now that was totally uncalled for. I'm a Michigander. A taxpaying citizen enjoying my state.
He then drives alongside me to berate me some more. I smile -- I'm realizing that my anger is so much more temporary than his -- and say "I'm just trying to enjoy the scenery!"
A mile later, I turn into Warren Dunes State Park. The ranger waves me through. "Bikes are free."
Warren Dunes. Photo by Mark Wedel
I haven't been to Warren Dunes since I was 14. I watch paragliders hop from the dunes to float down to the parking lot. Go sit at the beach, watch the big lake's white-capped waves. I'd climb the dunes, but that would put more wear on my legs.
Four miles from the Dunes you get a break from Red Arrow to ride the very nice and quiet Lakeshore Road. I stop at the Lakeside Inn
, put on my journalist hat to go in, take pictures, and be nosy.
It's a vintage that’s different from Ray’s 1965 decor -- an inn restored to its 1920s glory. It once had its own zoo, and the ballroom hosted Chicago's finest jazz bands. Al Capone
is rumored to have been a guest.
"Mmmmaybe he stayed here," the clerk says. "Old Al stayed everywhere around here if all the stories are true."
I find out that rooms are as cheap as $135 -- more than I wanted to spend, but that includes a path through the trees to a private beach on the Great Lake. Maybe next time.
I realize that I have to meet Jules in less than an hour, time to stop dawdling. Reach New Buffalo with time to spare. Michigan's southernmost resort town is full of cars with Illinois plates. Chicago people crowding-up my state.
Manage to make my way to one last beach on the beautiful lake. Lean Sherman against a rack full of kids' bikes, right by a snow-cone truck playing a synthetic tropical steel drum instrumental of "Don't Worry, Be Happy."
I get a mango cup of ice. Realize that I'm sore all over, sweaty and sunburned.
It'd been a fine weekend.
Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992. His first long-distance road bike ride was down to the country store four miles from home to buy fireworks and a Mad Magazine. He wrote a book on riding from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. last year, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information see http://www.markswedel.com