7. Michigan Bicycling Across The USA

Days 49, 50, & 51: SS Badger to Midland, MI

Day 49: Aboard the S.S. Badger

We boarded the S.S. Badger at 1pm and set sail for Ludington at 2. That gave us the morning to visit with our hostess Amy and her daughter Ceci, do laundry, and make a blog post. Then we clamped our biked onto the camper and went into Manitowoc.  I got an outstanding massage from Bobbi Totten at Bay Bodyworks. Jim and Sara shopped, and Jim thoughtfully bought me a small bowling trophy so I wouldn’t feel so bad about losing back in Rushford (see Day 45). We met for lunch at Beerntsen’s, an amazing candy shop with an interior that has been largely unchanged since it opened in 1932. Then Jim gave the car keys to an S.S. Badger staffer who drove the camper into the hold of the ship, and we got on board.

The Badger is the last surviving coal-fired passenger steamship in the world. It is 410 feet long, with two decks for passengers and one for cars. It has been sailing between Manitowoc and Ludington, Michigan since 1953, and is the sole surviving Great Lakes auto ferry from the pre-Interstate era. It can carry 620 passengers and 180 vehicles. The passage was not cheap ($65 a head, with an extra $100 for the car) but it saved us two days of driving and maybe two weeks of bicycling.

We were fortunate to cross on a calm day. There was no land in sight for three of the four hours we were en route. Had the waves been any larger, Jim and I would have been hanging over the rail.

The ship is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is an important engineering landmark. In its heyday it was like a floating resort, with a full kitchen, dancing, and staterooms (which are still rentable). But although it is historically impressive, what impressed me the most was Badger Bingo. Jim took a seat near the stern, gulped fresh air, and worked on trip planning. I set up my computer in the Portside Bar, which was half-full of passengers. A couple sat down at the table directly in front of me. Both of them were at least 100 pounds overweight. Others in the lounge were even heavier. Several couples were in their 80s or older. These were the best-dressed people on the ship.

The overweight woman walked over to the bar while the man sat staring at the table. When she came back she said, “We have a serious problem. They don’t have bottles and they don’t have draft.” She put two cans of Miller on the table and he opened one without responding. After a few minutes, the man broke out a cribbage board and they started to play. The couple seemed content with each other, maybe even happy, although their speech tones were flat and they made no public displays of affection. After a while, a third member of their party appeared: a woman in a powder-blue tracksuit with stringy hair piled on top of her head. She took the couple’s picture. She was excited. “You’re nice and warm but I’m freezing up on the deck,” she said. “It’s raining, too.” The man grunted with what seemed like pleasure. The woman turned to Sara and said, “It’s our first time. We’re from Missouri.”

A staffer handed out bingo cards. He then took a microphone at the front of the lounge and began calling bingo games. He worked the crowd as well as he could, but told jokes so terrible I can’t repeat them — not because they were obscene, but because they were too lame. OK, here’s just one. A skeleton walks into a bar and orders a pitcher of beer and a mop. See, I told you.

Fox News was on in the next room, reporting that the House of Representatives had just voted down the financial bailout package and that the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 800 points. This didn’t cause a ripple in the lounge. The tracksuit woman returned to the couple again. The woman greeted her and said, “Did you hear?” I thought, Wow, somehow she’s heard the news and she understands it, too. Then she said, “I won the pizza!”

If this had been the Long Island Railroad, the bar car would have been a funeral. But out here on Lake Michigan, between Manitowoc and Ludington, the unveiling of a global bank collapse didn’t seem to have much to do with anyone’s real life. When the recession hits them, the couple from Missouri might have a vague notion that crooks in Washington and New York caused the pain they’re experiencing.  They would be right, of course, but I don’t think they’ll connect the dots and take action to stop it from happening again.  I hope I’m wrong.

The ferry docked at 7pm, having taken us from the Central to the Eastern time zone. We drove ten miles north to Ludington State Park, which is a stretch of large sand dunes and beautiful lakeshore. The forecast was for rain, and it was getting dark. We set up quickly and returned to Ludington for a fine Italian meal at the Luciano Ristoranti, then crawled into our beds just as the rain began to fall.

Day 50: Ludington to Lake Sunrise

Another day, another 75 miles. We woke up to a dramatic fall sky of white and gray clouds scudding across the lake front, and a north wind that had me digging for a sweater. The rain was supposed to continue all day, so we suited up in full regalia. We had detachable fenders, rain jackets, rain pants, tights, and neoprene booties. As it turned out, it only rained while we were inside a diner eating lunch. Otherwise, it was dry. Hey, you never know.

Salmon were running on the Big Sable river. We rode past trucks parked along the State Park road and saw men in hip waders where the river met the lake. We hoped to follow county roads eastward to the remote village of Luther, which for some reason is the starting point for the Adventure Cycling Association’s “Lake Erie Connector” route. We had several maps to depend on, but floods had washed out many of the county roads. We were also told that some of the roads that were supposed to be paved were actually soft dirt. We met the dirt roads after an hour, and rode for three miles on a surface that was a little better than beach sand – but not much.

It was an uneventful day. Upstate Michigan at the end of September looks and feels like early fall in the southern Adirondacks. The houses are modest but well kept, and they are spaced wide apart. The woods are second-growth but maturing, and there are a lots of small lakes and wetlands. Every so often there will be a general store or a bar and grill, usually near a lake. It went on like this all day.

We rode into Luther, the biggest town of the day because it had a grocery store and two cafes. We had a bowl of hamburger and mushroom soup, which was a lot better than it sounds, and turned in our mystery maps for the excellent Adventure Cycling map. If you’re considering a long-distance cycle tour, visit their web site and review their routes. We have followed the ACA’s instructions for hundreds of miles now, and they are almost always great. They make a touring cyclist’s life a lot easier. Twenty miles past Luther, the map lead us to a primitive campsite on Sunrise Lake, where we cooked steak and went to bed by 9pm.  We were headed another 80 miles the next day, to a camp in the big town of Midland.

Day 51: Luther to Midland

“This campsite isn’t so bad,” said Sara as we were packing up. “I mean, it’s cold, dark, and wet…”

“Filthy, too,” I said.

“Yes, and filthy,” she said. “But other than that it isn’t so bad.”

Michigan’s state parks and highways are in rough shape. It cost us $37 to stay at the State Park and $15 to stay at Sunrise Lake, which had no electricity, a hand pump for water, and a pit toilet you didn’t want to use. The pavement on Michigan roads was the worst we saw since Montana. It’s hard to blame a place for neglecting basic services when its economy is on fire. Still, the roads in many parts of rural Michigan were so bad that it was hard to get around.

We left at 9am with 80 miles before us to Midland, where we had located a “deluxe” RV park. About a half-hour into the ride, we turned onto a highway and asked for directions at the Country Kitchen Diner at the intersection of highways 61, 66, and 115. A plastic sign outside advertised a Sweet Roll and Coffee Special for $2.50. It had been a while since the last sweet roll. We went in.

The diner was full of locals who were talkative and friendly. It took a long time for the sweet rolls to come, and while we waited we talked to three asphalt truck drivers who had been given the day off because of the rain. “Season’s almost over,” one said. “I can’t wait.”

“What do you do for money in the winter?, I asked.

“Unemployment,” he said. “People here need to string three things together to get by, but in the winter there’s no alternative to going on unemployment.”

The sweet rolls arrived. Each one was as big as a hubcap. They had been split in the middle and fried in butter, then covered with hot frosting. “I can’t eat all of this,” said Jim, who quickly cleaned his plate. They were absolutely delicious, and they were also great fuel. We didn’t need lunch. That huge dose of fat and sugar stayed in our stomachs all day, burning as slow and steady as a big hickory log. We rode like banshees, again averaging 15 mph over the 80 miles.

Soon after we left the diner, it was apparent that we had entered another area where impoverished people throw interesting stuff out of their car windows. Jim found a sparkplug remover for a chainsaw and spied two éclairs in a clear plastic container. I saw two books lying in a pile.  One was a paperback Readers Digest Condensed Books from 2007. The other was an unread hardbound copy of The Man Of Property, a 1906 satire of Victorian morals by the English writer John Galsworthy. It was also a Readers Digest product — one of those “classic” editions with a gold-embossed cover that is sold through the mail. I felt sorry for it and put it in my bag.

We rode through a bunch of roadhouse and gas-station towns and finally hit the town of Farwell, which was big enough to have a library. I went in, told my story to a young man at the desk named Philip, and gave him the book. “How disrespectful of them,” he said. “I’m sure we can use it.”

Small-town public libraries are consistently the most inspiring places I’ve seen on this trip. Even in places that are hurting badly, there is almost always someone behind the desk at the local library, serving people who still have ambition or imagination.

In the next town, Clare, there was a major fire going on downtown. An abandoned ice cream warehouse had gone up around 9am, and they had evacuated the city. We dodged the barricades and rode through deserted streets, ogling the big cherry-pickers spraying hundreds of gallons of water a minute. Everyone else was watching, too. It was a strange kind of festival.

At the outskirts of town we reached the brand new Pere Marquette bike trail. It was perfectly flat, perfectly straight, perfectly paved, and it went on for 30 miles. Someone less hardened by bad pavement and 2,500 miles of pedaling might have found it boring, but Jim and I were delighted. It was like a speedway. We cranked our machines up to 22 miles and hour and kept them there, using up the last of the sweet roll energy and a favorable wind to push us along. Before long we were in Midland, the stately and well-planned home of Dow Chemical. We puzzled through the city’s bike path system and rode the last few miles to an RV Park that was connected to a deluxe health club and a Best Western hotel. It occurred to me that we started this trip all excited about seeing America’ beautiful parks and public lands, and now what really gets us excited is a TV lounge and a wireless internet connection. I felt guilty for a moment, but as soon as I got into the hot tub I forgot all about it.

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.