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.

Day 55: Rondeau Park to St. Thomas, ON

Colonel Thomas Talbot got a grant of 7,000 acres along the north shore of Lake Erie after retiring from the British military in 1803. He also cut a deal that would give him even more land for every settler he persuaded to prove a homestead there. Talbot made the most of the opportunity, building a 300-mile corduroy road along rich farmland between the Niagara River and the St. Clair River. The area was settled between 1820 and 1840, and Talbot was known as “The Benevolent Dictator of the London District.” The region he settled is still one of Canada’s most productive agricultural areas. The road also lead to the development of Buffalo and Detroit. But Talbot never married, so the government took his land back when he died.

We saw echoes of the original Talbot Trail in tidy mid-19th century brick farmhouses along the route, as well as homesteads that didn’t make it. We slept late on Sunday the 5th because our rides in Ontario should be fairly short, and also because it’s too cold now to ride first thing in the morning. The late start gave us a bit of time to walk down the shore of Lake Erie at Rondeau Provincial Park, which was a revelation. I saw fine sand and miles or unbroken woods stretching southward in a peninsula that juts into the lake. Rondeau is one of Canada’s oldest parks, so the woods here are near maturity and the land has been managed well for biodiversity. It is a beautiful place, and it was nearly empty of people on a sunny Sunday in October. It would be a great place for a long hike.

After an unsuccessful attempt to find an internet connection in a nearby town, we ate a late breakfast at a diner in Morpeth and started east on the Talbot Trail. The truck was leaking brake fluid, and we learned from Sara that the leak got a lot worse as she drove ahead of us to our destination, Port Stanley. We needed to get it to a mechanic in the morning. So we rode the 45 miles as fast as we could, passing natural reserve areas and the Lake Erie shore in a few places but mostly staying in agricultural land. I could see enough to understand that this would be a great place for birdwatching, hiking, and lying on the beach. But we had a problem to work out.

Port Stanley is an upscale town people describe as “quaint,” which meant that it had no affordable lodging or campgrounds. We re-filled the truck with brake fluid and headed north to St. Thomas, a larger town about 15 miles north. We located a car dealer, a Comfort Inn, and a restaurant, which gave our credit cards a small workout. We fell into bed by 10pm, awaiting the morning’s verdict on the truck.