7. Michigan Bicycling Across The USA

Day 52: Midland to Caro, MI

This was a short day with little in the way of scenery, lots of bad pavement, rude drivers, and a cold rain all afternoon. If Michigan could speak, it would be saying, “get the hell out of here.” But we did meet two very nice and somewhat wacky people.

We left Midland at 9am and were pushed out of town fast by a stiff west wind. Suburbs yielded to scattered rural sprawl on top of fertile cropland, and the further we got from town, the more farms we saw. We rode west and south through fields of beans, corn, tomatoes, pumpkins, potatoes, and sugar beets. Some of the houses had already put up Halloween decorations, and the weather was way into autumn.

When we got to Bay City, the Adventure Cycling map got too confusing and we got somewhat lost, which wasn’t good. We ended up riding on some busy city streets and fought off some of the most aggressive drivers we’ve encountered on the trip. We were passed too close, turned in front of, honked at, and stopped short, all in the space of about ten miles. Either Bay City was having a bad day, or every day there is bad.

We rode for several hours through more farmland until we got to the small village of Fairgrove. Sara was waiting for us at Castamore Zangalotti’s Flashback Café, along with a table of 12 high school kids and several parties of old ladies. The food was great. Jim had a milkshake and grilled ham sandwich, Sara and I had chili, and for dessert we shared homemade cinnamon sugar donut holes, which are called “Martian Nuts” on the menu. “Ron was messing around with these for a church function, and someone who tasted them said they were out of this world,” said Jo Thomas, Ron’s wife and the waitress of the place. “One thing lead to another. Now there are a lot of jokes. Did you hear the Martians screaming out back after you ordered?”

Ron was in back cooking, and after the lunch crowd emptied out he came out to meet the cross-country riders. Castamore Zangalotti doesn’t exist, we learned. “I woke up from a dream and the name was in my head,” said Ron. “I wrote it down on a pad and went back to sleep. I checked Google, and didn’t find anyone who really has this name. But I couldn’t get it out of my head, so we named the restaurant for him.”

Ron and Jo were friendly and funny and not in a hurry. Their place is decorated with some great old weird stuff. They put a carpenter’s nail bag around the waist of a life-sized cardboard cutout of Elvis. There are lots of boosterish signs for the local high school football team (the Vikings), and just above our booth were the results of an actual popularity contest held by the village’s grocery store long ago. We didn’t want to leave, especially because it was starting to rain, but we still had the afternoon ahead of us, so off we went.

That was a mistake. The rain got worse as soon as we left town, and by the time we got to the next town, Caro, we were soaked. Having done 55 miles, we declared victory and checked into a motel. We wanted to watch the Biden-Palin debate, anyway.

I cleaned up and rode back into town, where I visited the local Democratic headquarters and got an Obama sticker for my bike.  Election season had finally caught up to us, and the news was good; that afternoon, the McCain campaign announced that they were pulling out of Michigan.  I told the woman at Obama headquarters this news.  She was so busy that it didn’t really sink in.

Later that evening, I was snoozing and trying to stay awake while Joe Biden and Sarah Palin jabbed at each other.  The cell phone rang. I picked it up and a deep, menacing female voice slurred, “I hate her.” It was Tania.  I love her.

7. Michigan 8. Ontario Bicycling Across The USA

Days 53 & 54: Caro, MI to Rondeau Park, ON

The rain stopped during the night and dawn came up clear and cold. We left the motel in Caro around 9am favored by a northwest wind, with a 100-mile expanse of farmland and small towns separating us from Ontario. We were following Adventure Cycling’s route, so most of the ride was on flat straight county roads with cultivated land on either side. There was not much to talk about and not many reasons to stop, although we did see some cool Halloween decorations. We rode 30 miles before our first stop in East Branch, where a young waitress with French braids served us cinnamon toast. The walls were covered with photos of another young woman who had reigned as a rodeo queen. The young waitress told us that the queen had moved away.

Two other towns we saw were also places where important things had happened long ago. In the small town of Brown City, Ray Frank got an idea while he was playing around in his garage fifty years ago. He welded a trailer onto a truck. Then he ignored the jeers of his neighbors, packed his family into the contraption, and drove it to Florida. It worked so well that his friends began asking him to make them one, too. He originally sold them as “Frank Motor Homes.” As business grew, the company was re-named Travco. Ray later sold a line of motor homes under then name Xplorer. Now it seems that every baby boomer wants a personal bus. Jim and Sara had me over for dinner in theirs every night.

Further down the line in the town of Memphis, we passed a historic marker with the headline, “The Thing.” It continued, “Thomas Clegg (1863-1939) and his English-born Father, John, built The Thing, the first recorded self-propelled vehicle in Michigan (and perhaps in the country), in 1884-85. The Thing, driven by a single cylinder steam engine with a tubular boiler carrier in the rear, seated four. The vehicle was built in the John Clegg & Son machine shop in Memphis. It ran about 500 miles before Clegg dismantled it and sold the engine to a creamery. The shop was razed in 1936, just before Henry Ford offered to buy it for Greenfield Village.” The backyard where The Thing emerged still has a few weird metal things in it, but no other signs.

Those crazy guys tinkering in their shops. What will they come up with next?

We had done 70 miles when we reached Memphis. It was 4pm, we had been averaging better than 14 miles an hour, and we still had some snap in our legs. We decided to go for a 100-mile day and end at Algonac State Park, near the ferry to Canada. The last 15 miles were on the Bridge To Bay rail trail, which runs along Lake Huron, the St. Clair River, and Lake St. Clair. It was a bonus not to have to look at cars and traffic at the end of this long day, when we were tired and oxygen-deprived and more likely to make mistakes.

The state park was more like a huge RV parking lot. A grove of ash trees had shaded the lot until recently, when they were destroyed by ash borers. We arrived as the sun was setting. My daughter Emma and her boyfriend Jon showed up a couple of hours later, and we all wedged into the camper for hamburgers and jolly conversation. It was cold, down near freezing, when we climbed into our down cocoons for the night.

Day 54: Marine City to Rondeau Park

Emma and Jon are good company, and I was touched that they drove more than three hours from Oberlin College to see me. They were so bright and energetic that we old folks just watched them and marveled. We groan whenever we get up out of chairs. They play lacrosse and Ultimate Frisbee. We struggle to remember names and places. They take college courses in organic chemistry and molecular biology at the same time. Yet they seemed impressed by what we were doing, which made us feel better. We drove down the road and had Big Breakfasts at Big Boy, a Midwest landmark that has special childhood significance to Emma. Then they left to go back to work, and we broke camp.

RV park culture was in full flower at Algonac. The rigs were decorated with colored lights, and some people had hung carved-wood signs with their names and home towns on their propane tanks. The style is to put a large square of indoor-outdoor carpeting next to the entrance of your rig, and also to put a pink sweater on your small dog. The whole scene had a bizarre cast. The campground was wedged between a busy highway on one side and a shooting range on the other, so starting at 9am there was the constant sound of gunfire and traffic. Yet the place was full. People had driven up from Detroit to spend the weekend here. Why?

Marine City has two small ferryboats that go across the St. Clair River, which is maybe 500 yards wide. Only one Homeland Security officer was on duty there to protect us from terrorists, but he was extra-nasty and didn’t allow me to take any pictures. So while we waited, we walked down the street. It was Saturday morning, October 4th, and we saw the leavings of the Marine City Pirates’ high school homecoming game, which had happened last night; I didn’t learn the score. On the rail trail we had ridden past students dismantling one of the parade floats, a pirate ship which sails made out of bags of potato chips.

The ferry ride was quick and the Canadian policeman let us right in, although she did insist on seeing our passports. We drove a few miles into Canada before unloading the bikes. We started off around 2pm with 50 miles to our destination, Rondeau Provincial Park on the north shore of Lake Erie. Most of the ride was south through more agricultural fields, but there were subtle signs that we were in a different country. The roads signs were in French and English, of course. More intriguing were the political posters for Ontario’s elections, which are also coming up. The Conservative Party’s signs up here are blue, and the Liberal Party’s signs are red.

We rode into the town of Dresden, where we ate potato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches at another diner where the locals acted like they had never seen men wearing black tights. Then we rode just out of town to the site of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which is what the government calls the residence of Josiah Henson (1789-1883). Henson was born a slave in Maryland. After escaping to Ontario with his family, he became an abolitionist leader and bought a 200-acre farm here in 1841. He ran a vocational school for slaves who escaped on the Underground Railroad, and his memoir, published in 1849, inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Henson later presided over a black community named Dawn, and he continued to organize after slavery had been abolished in the U.S. His home site now has a large interpretive center that details the experiences of the African diaspora in Canada. It would take several hours to see it. We didn’t have the time, so for the thousandth time, we vowed to come back.

Most of the ride happened on a flat, straight provincial highway called Kent Bridge Line (roads are called “lines” up here). It was harvest time, and we rode past threshers cutting wheat and field workers picking plum tomatoes. At one hamlet we saw an intriguing sign about the personal habits of Wendy; I don’t know the details, but feel free to call the phone number if you’re curious. We pulled into Rondeau Park around 6pm and set up camp. Tomorrow would be another short day. We should have time to look around the park before we start heading east along the Canadian shore of Lake Erie.