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Around The Lake
Father and son thumb their noses at death by celebrating life on a motorcycle
“Want to go on a ride around Lake Michigan?” I asked.
“Okay,” my wife answered.
All the best ideas are simple. Three websites and 45 minutes later, I presented my wife with The Plan. It called for us to cruise around the top half of Lake Michigan aboard our Honda Shadow Spirit 1100, loaded with two medium-sized TourMaster saddlebags and a cavernous borrowed sissy-bar tour pack.
Four weeks prior to launch day our 19-year-old son walked away from a horrific auto accident. And when we say, “walked away from,” what we actually mean is, amazingly, “without a scratch.”
We decided to celebrate his survival by riding around the lake on two wheels, the way humans were intended to travel. His wreck reminded us that life can be sort of like hair at a bad barber shop. It can be shortened significantly and much more suddenly than you might think.
So The Plan was altered with a pillion substitution. Instead of riding on the Spirit with Joy (my wife), Team Cothern would be comprised of me and my shadow on our Shadow, with Clark III behind Clark II. His Mom and I would ride two-up some other time.
I can’t think of any more appropriate way to thumb your nose at death than to celebrate life on a motorcycle, can you?
Lake? What Lake?
An imperative prerequisite to riding around a lake is to find one. So after a stop to fax a transcript request so Clark III could change colleges when we got back, we rode up, over and across the left hand (palm down) of lower Michigan.
We began in Tecumseh, near the thumb knuckle. Then we turned north, crossing that blue vein near the little finger knuckle, cruising through Lansing. Then we turned west an inch above the wrist, zoomed through Grand Rapids, the mole a half inch to the left, and all the way over to Muskegon, a native term which some say actually means, “Where the dark hair begins to grow thick.” Then we turned north at the hairline and motored up the tendon that connects the little finger to the wrist, to our first stop at lovely Ludington, where the little finger starts.
We encountered smooth sailing on our first 250 miles all the way to the lake. When we glimpsed the water we felt just like explorers Lewis and Clark, except for the fact that neither one of us is named Lewis, that Clark was actually the last name of one half of the famous duo (his first name was actually William), that neither of us have served as territorial governors, that the territory we were discovering had already been discovered, and that Lewis and Clark had traveled west across Indiana, over 400 miles south of where we were. Except for those few tiny facts, we felt exactly like Lewis and Clark.
Our first accommodation, a cozy-but-not-too-cramped unit at Parkview Cottages earned a whopping 25,000 points on our scientific rating scale.
Courteous phone encounter 5,000 points
Helpful hostess 5,000 points
Easily found 5,000 points
Attractive area 5,000 points
Pleasant price 5,000 points
We had arranged our clothing in the rear luggage compartment by means of two lightweight, water-resistant, recyclable liners, a.k.a. garbage bags. They made unpacking and repacking a Glad experience. It was a Cinch. Even with our Hefty heap of clothing.
Before staring at the insides of our eyelids for a few hours we made our way to the dock in town to see what this little ferry boat looked like. “Wow!” we both exclaimed when we saw it. It was an actual ship. Our only question was, “How do they plan to get that thing off their front lawn?”
Just Like Skimming Stones Across the Water...Only Slower
I awoke at 4 a.m. to the pitter patter of little rain drops making flowers grow outside. Our motorcycle was getting watered as well.
Falling back to sleep I dreamed that our Shadow Spirit 1100 had sprouted into a navigation- and ABS-equipped 1800cc daisy yellow Goldwing. At 5:30 I lurched awake again, fearing that I would snooze past the alarm. I turned it off and peeked outside. Still raining. Still just an 1100.
Our cottage shower had all the power of a Rebel 250, but without five gears. But I was clean. And awake.
(Photo #5: Lakeview at Ludington. Caption: A typically amazing lakeside view at lovely Ludington.
By the time I finished packing my “luggage liner” the rain had stopped. With a few swipes of a towel, the seats, thanks to the liberal lathering of leather lotion I had luxuriated all over it prior to Day One, dried to a soft luster, just like the blurb on the bottle had boasted.
I expected to employ a combination of highly creative awakening techniques to get the younger Clark moving in time for us to catch our ship. He surprised me, though, by popping up instantly the moment I said, “Rise and shine.”
On the short ride to the dock I imagined a conversation with a total stranger. I figured we’d be lined up, standing next to a row of bikes waiting to board, when a retired gentleman wearing three cameras and plaid walking shorts would saunter over and ask, “Where are you two from?” In my imaginary conversation, I would answer, “Tecumseh.”
“Never heard of it,” he would say.
“Down here,” I would reply, pointing to my left hand’s thumb knuckle.
“Oh,” he would say.
“So why don’t you ride all the way around the lake?” he would ask.
“Three reasons,” I would reply. “First, we’ll avoid Chicago. Second, we’ve heard that the roads are a lot more scenic around the northern half of the lake, and third, we’ll avoid Chicago.”
He would just gape.
“So...where are you from?” my polite son would ask.
Unfortunately that conversation never happened. Sometimes fiction really is funnier than fact. I’m kind of sorry it didn’t take place though because I was all prepared with all the appropriately witty responses.
What really happened was that we arrived to join a row of about 10 bikes waiting to board the S.S. Badger and a guy with an American flag-painted helmet asked me about my bike and I told him all about it, and then I asked about his and he told me all about it, and then some guy wearing a Badger shirt hollered at us, telling us it was time to board. Not nearly as funny as the imaginary guy from Chicago.
It took only 15 minutes for us to ride into the belly of the S.S. Badger, a workhorse, steam-powered ferry ship that used to serve the railroad industry. It was well worth the $150 to get the two Clarks and our bike across the lake without having to ride through Chicago. I would have paid $200. No offense to our friends in Chicago. It’s just that I’d rather take the train into your traffic-infested city, not the bike.
My son asked, “How long do you think it will it take to cross?”
I said, “These babies cut through the waves at about 15 knots, which translates to about 17 miles per hour. It’s 60 miles across. And since 60 divided by 17 is just over three and a half, I’d say that with slower speeds on both ends of the trip, it’ll take us pretty close to four hours. And with the time change, we’ll arrive at 11 a.m. Wisconsin time.”
“Wow,” he said, looking so impressed that I decided not to tell him that I had seen this information on the Badger’s website.
It got dark as we entered the bowels of the ship where we began anchoring our precious cargo with our tie-downs. And speaking of tie-downs, another benefit of having cruised around on the ferry’s website was the fact that I knew bikers were supposed to supply their own.
The motorcyclist next to us, a 70-ish, lanky Michigander wearing a 10-pound, one-piece, expensive-looking mesh riding suit and piloting a nearly new Yamaha Venture, looked perplexed and a little upset as the Badger’s loading mate told him he’d have to take himself and his bike back off the ship if he didn’t have tie-downs. He unfortunately hadn’t read the website.
In my eavesdropping I learned that you only needed one tie down, so my son and I quickly offered to let him use one of ours. Just three days before our trip I had purchased a set of two, from Sears, for only 20 bucks. They were the kind with the loop in one end so you can wrap the webbing once around your left handlebar, stick the hook through the loop and then anchor the other hook to the metal grating below the bike. We ratcheted that baby down until she was attached as tightly to the floor as a teenager is to a cell phone.
I had also heard from another biker’s painful experience that you didn’t want to put the bike on the centerstand because of the side-to-side rocking motion associated with ships and waves. Once the bike rocks off the centerstand the tie-downs go slack and... well, it’s just too painful to think about.
The left kickstand is definitely the way to go. So I shared our extra tie-down and this little bit of cargo securing wisdom with our neighbor, who was very grateful. But, hey, we bikers know how to take care of one another, eh?
At precisely 8:00 a.m. the Badger bellowed a boisterous blast and I said to my son, “Aargh, matey, she’s about to up anchor, pour on the coal, heave ho, batten down her hatches, stow the gangway, loose her moorings, trim her mainsail, shiver her timbers and bon voyage.”
Thirty minutes later we discovered what waves are made out of. Wind. And you know where 87% of the wind in North America is manufactured? Wisconsin. You want to guess which way they send it after it leaves the factory? Toward Michigan. We rocked and rolled across 6-foot waves for four hours, taking whatever weather was hurled at us, without hurling back, which, unfortunately, wasn’t the case with a dozen green-gilled passengers.
We disembarked, followed The Plan north, skirting around Green Bay, grabbing a burger next to McCoy’s Harley-Davidson and then decided to walk off the last 40 miles of breezy freeway riding by gawking at the shiny stuff inside.
A pleasant 40-minute ride along a slightly curvy, tree-lined highway led us to the not-so-opulent Oconto, which, if I had anything to do with it should have been where The Lone Ranger’s sidekick was born: “Greetings, Kemosabe. I’m Tonto from Oconto.”
We were in for a pleasant Clark and Clark discovery, happening upon Copper City Coffee in quaint downtown Oconto. It earned a whopping 30,000 points on our ‘Round the Lake Coffee Shops Rating Scale:
Coffee is served here 5,000 points
Outstanding aroma 5,000 points
Friendly service 5,000 points
Finely decorated place 5,000 points
Espresso drinks made 5,000 points
Even motorcyclists served 5,000 points
If you’re headed south on 41 toward Green Bay, or north on 41 toward Marinette, be sure to head a few blocks east to Oconto’s Copper City Coffee and tell ‘em Clark and Clark sent you.
As I drifted off to sleep that night I thought, “I wonder if we’ll see any of those plentiful deer they are so famous for.”
So Long Civilization
Glorious weather greeted us as we traveled toward the top o’ the lake, or to be more precise, along the bottom portion of the Upper Peninsula. At Menominee when we veered right off from Hwy. 41 onto 35 the roads became slightly more adventurous, the trees got closer to the road and you could feel the lake to your right, with temperatures shrinking to what felt like 10 degrees cooler near the water. Ahhh. Now we were having fun.
At our lunch stop in Escanaba we noticed some menacing clouds building on the land side o’ the lake to our northeast... right where we were headed. Fortunately for us, someone had built a WalMart just 500 yards behind Fazoli’s and stocked the shelves with rain gear. Wasn’t that thoughtful of them?
Fifteen minutes up the road we saw what looked like a mirage in front of us. The pavement looked shiny about a mile ahead, and there appeared to be a sheet hanging from the sky. We pulled onto the shoulder, a couple hundred yards behind three other bikers who were obviously doing the same thing we were doing, changing clothes in public.
We wrestled our way into the suits and took off. One mile later we discovered that the time it took for us to put on the suits had given the rain just enough time to blow across the highway. The only water we got for the next 45 minutes was spray from passing truckers. We dodged a majority of those rain bullets. We arrived early in the afternoon to explore the magical mystique of Manistique.
We stretched and aired out for about an hour and then took off in search of interesting stuff to photograph. Nothing north. Nothing west (we had just come from there). Nothing east. Nothing but water to the south. So basically, there was nothing of significance to see, except for the town’s unofficial mascot, the Manistique lighthouse. But that was enough. Silhouetted against the constantly changing dramatic Michigan skies, you could watch the show for hours.
Sailing Above the Cares of the World
“What is up with this Michigan weather?” I asked as we awoke to more sunny skies. “It never shines this much!” But hey, who’s complaining?
The first two thirds of today’s ride east across the lower shore of the Upper Peninsula was flatter and straighter, and a bit farther away from the lake. The huge number of deer here are legendary so we were stunned that so far we hadn’t seen a single one. That sentence makes you think we’re about to encounter a close call, right?
Nah. Just thought we’d throw in a little anticipation for you. Still no deer.
Some of the most rewarding riding of all would take place in the next couple of hours. As we headed east we saw only a couple of little towns large enough to support a gas station. Naubinway looked kind of cute, and if you needed gas, you could actually find some there. We were glad we had gassed up back at Manistique, though, because frankly we didn’t see anything much worth stopping for along the rest of Highway 2, expect maybe a lake view or seven.
But oh those views. Wow. You’d feel the temperature drop, a signal that you were about to burst through into an opening in the trees, and then your eyes would be lit up by the azure waters of Lake Michigan to your right. And the last 20 miles (and minutes) before arriving in St. Ignace had to be some of the most gawk-inducing miles of the entire trip. Sometimes the highway would skim so close to the water’s edge that signs warned you to beware of sand that might have blown up onto the highway from the beach.
It was High Noon when we pulled into St. Ignace and too early to check into the motel, so we pulled into the parking area at the Star Line Railroad Dock and bought a couple of tickets so we could have lunch on Mackinac Island.
Since my son had never been to the island before, and since I had only been there twice, we decided to do some Clark and Clark exploring. It was well worth the ferry ticket prices and we thoroughly enjoyed our leisurely three-hour lunch hour.
At the dock we parked next to a row of shiny Victory motorcycles and noticed a string hanging from the handlebar of one handsomely painted beauty. Apparently the owner hadn’t read the Badger’s website about providing your own tie-downs either.
We had traveled the entire trip with a $50 gift certificate to Starbucks burning a hole in my wallet and still had not found a single Starbucks... until today. We walked across the street after lunch and had ourselves a Clark and Clark adventure in coffee.
I said to my son, “Right here on this spot, on this wooden bench, located on this very street, aromatically decorated with strategically dropped horse dookey, Clark turned to Lewis, wiped the steamed milk foam from his mustache and exclaimed, ‘My dear Meriwether, I must say that this is a stellar cup of coffee,’ at which time Sacagawea backhanded William, sending his latte flying as she let out a war whoop and screamed in her native tongue what could only be roughly translated into English as, ‘Just what in the great untamed territory do you think I’ve been serving you for the last 27 weeks, you ungrateful buffalo brain?’”
“Yup,” my son replied.
Motorcycle explorers do two things really well, explore and eat. After lunch we sampled some famous Mackinac Island fudge made while you watch, then walked and gawked some more. We then caught the ferry back to St. Ignace and ate some really fresh fish at a local eatery.
Trail explorers experience boredom after many days on the adventure, so we decided to go in search of a grocery store where we could purchase some shortbread, the perfect after-dinner luxury for true world travelers. We found a little market and hatched a plan to trick the checkout lady into thinking we were actually from Scotland.
At the cracker and cookies aisle we were sorely disappointed that the shelves contained nary a Walker’s brand, Spartan brand, or any other brand of shortbread, for that matter. Neither did they stock any Hob Nob oat biscuits. Not even a single canister of McVities Digestives, for Robert Burns’ sake. Ach! ‘Twas a dismal day in St. Ignace, surely.
But we recalled that Lewis had reprimanded Clark when the explorer had reportedly slumped his shoulders upon not finding a McDonalds when they arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River on November 16, 1805, by yelling, “Suck it up, man. Don’t be a cry baby!” So, in the spirit of those courageous adventurers, we quickly placed our grief aside, settled on a small package of Value Time Chocolate Mint Cookie Squares and hoisted our jooks, high stepping it on the high road toward the Express Lane Checkout.
I proudly placed our single item on the conveyer belt and in my thickest Dundee-esque counterfeit dialect, offered, “Aye, there’s nae but a wee sweetie to settle one’s thoughts before putting the capture on the ever elusive Zs.”
The other Clark chimed in, piling on the authenticity. “Aye,” he said.
The nice lady slid our cookies across the laser until she heard a beep, looked completely intrigued by the “foreigners” standing before her, and asked, “So, if I’m not being rude, where is that accent from?”
My mind was saying, “From my feeble imagination,” but my mouth said, “From the wee shire of Pitlochry… in Scotland.”
Her face shone as brightly as a freshly white-washed crofter’s house as though she had just answered correctly the final question on “Who wants to be a brogue expert?” and she exclaimed triumphantly, “I thought so.”
“So,” she added, “where exactly is that?”
“Aye, at would be sommers ‘twixt and ‘tween Glasgow and Inverness,” I said, knowing full well that just about everything in Scotland falls somewhere between Glasgow and Inverness.
She offered a reverential kind of grin, obviously grateful to have had the pleasure of conversing with people who had come all the way across the Atlantic just to go through her checkout lane. “And your friend here... or is he your brother? Is he from, uh, well, the same place you are?”
“Ach, you’re too kind, mum,” I said, feeling less confident in my ability to maintain this charade with each additional falsely pronounced word. Patting my son on the shoulder I said, “My young chum here is an Aberdeonian loon,” and looked affectionately at him as though that was an endearing expression. “Isn’t that right?”
“Aye,” he said again, returning my endearing expression, patting my shoulder too, as though we were lifelong tramp steamer mates who had survived many a stormy adventure together. If my memory serves, I believe what I told her was that he was a male person from Aberdeen. At least I hope that’s what I told her. I hereby humbly offer my sincere apologies to our friends in Scotland and to bird lovers everywhere if what I actually said was that my son is a nearly extinct species of heron.
“Well,” she said, affectionately wrapping our cookies in a thin plastic bag and handing them over as though she were presenting us with William Wallace’s original sword, “I do hope you gentlemen enjoy your visit to our area,” and we nodded, received our prize with a polite bow and made haste to our motorbike waiting out in the car park near the carriageway.
In order to leave her with something to tell her co-workers, I raised a hand high in the air and called back over my shoulder, “Cheers!”
“Aye,” the other Clark added, to seal the deal. “Cheerios.”
We hopped aboard the Shadow and puttered back to our motel, laughing loudly and offering poorly affected, thick, semi-Scottish accented well wishes to total strangers strolling the sidewalks. And on the way, we sighted another motorcycling find. If you want to sail your yacht up Lake Michigan and dock in St. Ignace, you can there rent a Harley-Davidson from a shop conveniently located right on the ever-popular Highway 2 and then you can motor around the area. This country rocks.
It’s All Downhill from Here – Almost
As we packed I pestered my preoccupied pillion with some fairly interesting and fairly forgetful facts related to the bridge we were about to cross. He was armed with a toothbrush while I was armed with a couple of brochures from the motel lobby.
“Did you know?” I asked, “that the Mackinac Bridge, pronounced Mack-in-awe, is just a couple of motorcycle lengths shy of 5 miles long?”
“Hmm,” he continued brushing.
“And did you know that the Edmund Fitzgerald was 729 feet long?”
“So that means...” I scribbled feverishly on the little note pad by the phone, “that you could fit 36 Edmund Fitzgeralds end to end on that bridge!”
“Hmm. That’s cool,” he remarked as he spat. “Are you hungry, Dad?”
We got to the bike and saw that another compassionate motorcyclist, probably the owner of the BMW K1200LT parked one row over, had slung a small towel over our handlebar as a considerate gift so we could wipe the dew from our saddles. We motorcyclists do know how to take care of one another, eh?
We sucked some lake-fresh air into our lungs and felt its 66 pleasant degrees, lifted our faces toward a ton of sun, looked at a sky bluer than the eyes of the girl to whom I wound up proposing to and eventually married (oh wait, my wife’s eyes are green... well, anyway the sky was almost as pretty as she is), and then we peered out across a nearby pier to a color of blue in the water deeper than the Edmund Fitzgerald itself.
My brochure reading back at the motel revealed that I wasn’t the only one celebrating my 50th birthday in July, 2007. So was the Mackinac Bridge.
Before we had left for the trip, someone had spread the ugly rumor that they had closed the paved lanes for repairs so we would have to ride across on that exciting metal grate; the one you can see through to the water 200 feet below, and the one that makes you feel like you have just awakened from having all of your wisdom teeth pulled and that you still have a significant percentage of anesthetic in your blood stream.
Fortunately, the road work was finished in time for the big bridge birthday party, so we had really good pavement under our bike as we crossed. The younger Clark captured a few seconds of video footage while we crossed, offering nearly indisputable evidence that we are not in fact making all this stuff up.
After conquering the bridge we paused for one last cup o’ caffeine in Mackinaw City and headed for the (mostly) downhill run. We veered slightly from The Plan by heading off of I-75 onto highway 31 toward what we hoped would be a great view or two in Petoskey. Thirty minutes later we realized that this had been a mistake. Twenty stop-and-go minutes later, we emerged onto 131 south, found a restaurant for lunch and counted our blessings that Petoskey was behind us.
The pleasant ride on 131 south almost made up for our doomed detour, and we regained some sense of being away from too much civilization by the time we hit 32 East headed toward Gaylord where we picked up I-75 south, where we should have been all along.
It felt good to fly at 75 on 75 again. With the temps climbing into the upper 70s I unzipped my jacket vents for the first time the entire trip. You could smell pine, campfires from the many campgrounds in the area, and only an occasional road kill, though still no deer... fortunately. In fact we only saw one more deer, a dead one, on that leg of the journey, for a total of three the entire trip. For us, in a part of the country where the highway attracts deer about as fast as Meriwether Lewis’s horse attracts flies, to see so few was just shy of unbelievable.
My back and III’s backside were due for a stretch after we passed mile marker 222, so we found a restaurant, topped off our tanks (the bike’s and our own) and called my brother-in-law Dave, who lives in Mt. Morris, near Flint, to let him know we were on our way. Dave said yes before his wife, Mel, realized that she had company coming.
When we put our bike in Dave’s garage I noticed his new acquisition, which was sitting there, temptingly under cover, and asked if we could see it. Clark and Clark aren’t the only explorers to realize a dream. Dave Cunningham realized one of his own by buying and restoring a 1969 Honda “Dream Cruiser,” also known by marketing men as, “The Top of The Line in ‘69.”
Dave’s Dream boasts 305 mean cubic centimeters, cranking out a whopping 22 hp and able to cruise along at a breathtaking 50 mph. After dinner he rode his bike – the nearly completed and perfectly functioning Honda 300 – on a 10-mile “parade” to his parent’s place in Clio while I and my Shadow shadowed him. He has a historic vehicle license, so he can only ride it in parades. Clark III stayed behind to enjoy a chat with his Aunt Mel.
Dave and I drew a lot of looks, possibly because of Dave’s cool whitewall tires and that nifty light on the chrome front fender, or possibly because we were singing Italian opera arias at the tops of our lungs.
After we got back to Dave’s place, he said to my son and me, “In about three years, just after this guy finishes college, we should all three get some big bikes and do a real bike trip someplace cool... like Alaska. I looked at my son and we both grinned.
Now that’s a dream worth exploring.
Meanwhile, Back to (so-called) Civilization
We were so seasoned on that bike by now that we wanted to hit that last hundred miles in one non-stop gallop. The gallop slowed to a trot and then to a walk, and finally to a full stop – several dozen times – between Brighton and Whitmore Lake since US 23 was at the dentist getting some bridge work.
That stretch reminded us how much we already missed Highway 2 in the U.P. Doggone it. We missed the adventure already and we weren’t even home yet.
Clouds were building but held off raining on us all morning. To go six days straight without getting dutifully doused in Lower Upper Michigan and Upper Lower Michigan is really a rarity.
At two minutes ‘till Noon on Day Six we hopped off the bike in our own driveway, high-fived each other and congratulated ourselves on our exploration achievement. Two minutes after we arrived home we saw a tan-colored animal chewing on flowers across the street. It was the first live deer we had seen in six days.
We came pretty close to the estimated 1,000 miles estimated in The Plan, logging an actual 1,003 memory-laden miles. And even at the over $3.00-a-gallon gas prices, we spent a total of just $75 on fuel.
My wife asked, “What was the most memorable moment on your adventure?” I had been working on my response.
I said, “It wasn’t seeing Lake Michigan for the first time. It wasn’t riding into the S.S. Badger. It wasn’t the amazing views of the lake all the way around the top. It wasn’t having lunch on Mackinac Island. And it wasn’t even crossing the Mackinac Bridge. Although each of those moments rates right up there among the top six.”
“Well,” she asked, “Then what was the most memorable?”
“It’s when we were standing next to a lighthouse, looking out across that sparkling blue body of water, knowing that Chicago was down there 300 miles over the curve of the earth. Our son turned to me and said, ‘Dad, I’m really glad we took this trip together.’”
Considering what my son had walked away from just four weeks earlier, and considering that he would soon leave home to live on campus at college, that single moment in our trip was inestimable. I figure this is the kind of adventure we’ll share with my grandkids some day, God willing. I imagine that my son and I will stretch out the tale with dramatic embellishments, hilariously poor fake accents and badly sung Italian opera arias. Maybe by then we’ll have an Alaska adventure to add to our exploration story repertoire. Who knows?
I read somewhere that genuine explorers do what they do because they feel compelled to see sights they’ve never seen before, hear sounds they’ve never listened to, smell aromas that make them breathe deeply, sigh and close their eyes. If that’s true, then I guess my son and I qualify as genuine explorers. My son’s statement made in an unguarded moment was by far the most valuable reward of the trip. I’d ride a thousand miles to hear my kid say that any day.