Ahead of schedule

Feet in Lake Huron, at camp last night

When I set out from Philadelphia, I was concerned about making haste for Chicago to catch a flight, but also wanted to take a lengthy route around Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I wasn’t at all sure that nearly a month would be enough time to make it. Now I’ve realized I can afford to take my time a bit – I’m not far from the UP now, and still have almost two weeks to go.

So I’m beginning to ponder plans for what to see up there. I finally found a road map of it; surprisingly difficult, as it turns out gas stations don’t all have maps on sale in the age of smartphones. But I may need to conserve my phone’s battery life like water in the desert.

The obvious cyclists’ route, and the one mapped out by the Adventure Cycling Association, follows US-2 across the southern part of the peninsula, nearer Lake Michigan. But I want to see a number of things to the north, on Lake Superior – including Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and, as a stretch goal if I can manage to ride the distance in time, the Porcupine Mountains far to the west. If I have extra time, another option might be to take the ferry up to Isle Royale National Park, close to Canada. I’d have to explore the logistics of taking a bike there, though.

Tonight I’m taking a rest day in Alpena, MI after a short ride from my campsite on Lake Huron. I just saw a museum about the “Century of Shipwrecks” from when boat transport was much more prominent (and apparently much more risky) around the Great Lakes, and learned that the lake here near Thunder Bay is especially crowded with wrecks. If I had a bit more time, I could take a glass-bottomed boat tour or snorkel among some wrecks.

Another host from Warmshowers.com has kindly taken me in for the night; I’m downtown in a coffee shop to write this post and then loaf in a hammock for the afternoon while his kids are visiting. I really savor the loafing on this trip. It’s impossible to get enough.

I’ve spent the last four nights finally getting some camping in, as hoped. Michigan has a handy website showing the locations of all state parks and state forest campgrounds, which I’ve used to plan a somewhat winding route until now and which will continue to be handy in the UP. Backcountry camping is all well and good when you’re backpacking or on a mountain bike, but I have no desire to stealth camp on this trip. Hauling a road bike into the woods is a pain, and having the conveniences of a “rustic” campground (outhouses, picnic tables, and pumps that – when they work – bring up potable, if weird tasting water) is quite appealing.

Of course, there can be drawbacks. I’ve had two groups park themselves right beside me (out of dozens of empty campsites) for parties, one of which involved riding quad bikes around at the crack of dawn after screaming all night. I pondered what Walter White might have done – surely there was some way to cause their cars to explode in balls of fire when they weren’t looking. But I didn’t know what it was, and even failed to call in the forest rangers on them due to forgetting to save the phone number for when I got back to cell signal.

Hordes of ravenous mosquitoes drove me early from another campsite. I hope I manage to escape the worst of the hatching season and get to more arid country soon. Otherwise, though, sleeping in the woods is great. I believe an especially noisy cicada cohort is coming out of the ground this year, and there is a distinctive melody, or something like one, that I keep hearing variants of as I travel through the region. The frogs are in full force as well, so it’s quite the aural landscape. Around half the trees are leafing out; the maples and aspens are green, while the oaks lag behind. As I head north, the days get longer even faster than they would in one place, and as I go west to the edge of Eastern Standard Time, sunset gets later and later. By about 9:45 it gets too dark to read by natural light. I’m generally in the hammock well before that, so I haven’t used my headlamp very much at all. A nice break from Middle Eastern hiking, which must be done mainly in seasons with shorter days.

Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources website boasts that all of its forest campsites are beside a creek or lake. They’ve all been pretty scenic (see below). This means camp is generally the highlight of the day’s ride; the scenery in general continues to change at an extremely gradual rate. At least the riding conditions are favorable – the hills are almost all gradual and non-painful to ride up, and there have been few opposing winds.

I’m heading northwest tomorrow, either up a rail-trail (whose surface conditions are the subject of dubious remarks by locals) or on the apparently quiet, wide-shouldered US 23. One more Warmshowers host before I go into a run of camping again, hopefully this one through more scenic riding country. Hopefully I’ll also be able to stash the bike for a bit of hiking in state parks and other natural attractions, too!

I never bring up what I’m doing to people unless they ask. Mainly because unless they’re also a bike tourist (rare), the ensuing conversation is almost identical in every case, and I get plenty of it as it is. Today at breakfast, though, I rolled into the town’s one cafe to find a number of unloaded designer touring bikes outside. There was some sort of cycling club occupying about half the place that morning, and they put me at a table with empty spots and took turns inquiring about my trip, telling me about their past tours, and describing how devoid the Upper Peninsula is of supermarkets or food stops (actually, it doesn’t seem that bad – compared to wilderness backpacking, having the option to buy food once every 1.5-2 days is luxury).

One other biker I met on the trail told me that among the goals I should set for myself this trip is to have a cowboy buy me a beer. I imagine this will become pretty doable around Wyoming, where presumably cowboys populate every roadside saloon. I have gotten a few freebies out of the trip so far already, Warmshowers hosts aside, including the haircut that the barber refused to take my money for. Apparently I was the most interesting thing to happen all week.

Photo selections follow. I’ve just been offered a computer on which to type the rest of this post so the commentary will perhaps be more wordy than usual.

Above: Barns of Ohio and Michigan. Because often, there’s just not anything else to take a picture of.

A surprising number of sheep are found in Ohio. They look different than the sheep I’m used to seeing in the Middle East. Probably a different subspecies
Less common are llamas. The resemblance between them and camels is especially striking in their facial structure.
I was pleasantly surprised by the number of bike trails I came across – all simply because Google knew they were there and routed me onto them. This one was especially welcome because it led directly to the night’s Warmshowers host and the trees around it helped cut what was otherwise a brutal headwind.
Conrad, fellow bike tourist #7

Above is a guy I ran into in…some town, Ohio. I’ve got a lot more of these details in my daily handwritten notes and recorded in my GPS tracks. He was heading east, having started in Portland, OR in the beginning of April. Conventional bike touring wisdom says this is far too early, not only because you’re likely to have plenty of bad weather throughout the country (he did) but because passes in the Cascades and Rockies are likely still closed by snow (he had to reroute away from Yellowstone, which was closed).

That didn’t slow him down, though. Dude was hardcore. Note the lack of water bottle cages (he remarked “wow, so you don’t have to stop riding to drink water”), thin and tattered cloth that is all the padding he has on the handlebars, and the 1×6 drivetrain. I’ve struggled up some of the steeper hills with my relatively friendly 34-36 low gear. His lowest gear is one of the higher ones on my bike. And he’s carrying a much more cumbersome load. A good reminder: No matter how tough you might think you are, you’re not really.

Historic cabin in Elmore, OH
Non-historic lambs in Elmore, OH, in the back yard of my host, Gordon. He takes good care of them (“They listen to National Public Radio all day) and come October, they become delicious dinners.
State #3 down! After the rough riding through Toledo, it was just good to be out of urbanized areas.
Unfortunately, Michigan’s roads almost immediately turned into a mess. I was worried this was going to be typical. Michigan has had the worst roads of the four states so far (in fact, they’ve gotten progressively worse with each state), but the majority are alright.
Typical barnless south Michigan scenery
I can’t remember what town this was. I had lunch in a Mexican restaurant and then rode on to Ann Arbor. Once again, there’ll be a lot more detail if I get around to writing a more thorough trip log. I’ve got much more written down in my notes than I can put in blog posts.
Another slightly interesting small town downtown, whose name I forget.
I like the Prius parked in the ancient barn.
More typical Michigan scenery
These horses freaked out and ran away as soon as I stopped to take a picture.
I think this was the Flint River? Looks more idyllic than the city it flows into. Actually, I think if I would have gone through Flint, my odds of running into somebody related to someone I know would be decent. In Beit Sahour, the Palestinian town I lived in when I first started my job at Abraham Path Initiative, everyone you talk to hears you’re from the US, and then tells you they have a cousin in Flint. I have no idea why they all moved there, of all places.
Yet another bike trail, this one with wonderful facilities for public use. I briefly wondered why Philadelphia never built anything like these, and then I remembered that the latency to be stolen would be somewhere around 4 minutes and 23 seconds.
Lots of old farm gear in a historical museum, along that same bike trail and near the night’s campground.
A 19th-century cabin relocated to the exhibit.
At Black Creek State Forest Campground, the first of my four-night camping stint. This turned out to be the nicest one, all things considered – quiet and mosquito-free. I asked another fisherman, at the camp, what he was catching. “Crappies.” “Excuse me?” Turns out that’s a fish.
I seem to have ridden north out of the terrible weather that’s supposed to be hovering over PA for the next few weeks. All four nights of camping I had a 0% chance of rain forecast, and I never put up my rain fly.
A canoe would be nice to have, but it wouldn’t fit on the bike. A pack raft would, but even six or eight pounds would be too much to be worth it. And I don’t have $1000 I’m itching to spend.
There were a lot of dirt roads in Michigan, often indistinguishable on Google Maps from paved roads except by zooming way in on the satellite image. Its bike directions certainly made no distinction. I had to do some creative, and sometimes lengthy, rerouting to avoid dirt road sections of as much as 20 miles. Some dirt can be fine to ride on, but you never know when it’s going to turn into a hellhole of loose gravel, potholes, and washboarding. My bike handles dirt just fine when it’s not loaded down, but with all this weight, it seems to quadruple every shock and deliver it straight into each part of my body.
Ambrose Lake was certainly the most beautiful of the state forest campgrounds. The night was perfect until after dark, when it was ruined by a bunch of extremely loud rural bros with quad bikes.
The amount of gnats was amazing. See all those little golden dots?
A somewhat surreal sports mural in Rose City. Each panel of the tableau is worth zooming in on, but my favorites have to be the Monopod Football Faceoff and the Great Tackle Massacre.
As you get to the north, Michigan does have hills. There’s a central plateau that I cut across the corner of which offered plenty of climbing. None of it came close to the tougher climbs of Pennsylvania, though, and I’m presumably in better shape.
Halfway there! I actually passed another one of these signs just today; I’d dipped slightly south to last night’s camp.
Jackson Lake, third campsite. I had the whole place to myself, in part because the water pump didn’t work. Several cars drove in, and then out again not too much later. Unfortunately, the mosquito activity was at murderous levels, and I had to flee out of camp while stuffing a Clif Bar into my mouth instead of breakfast.
I wound up having Saturday morning breakfast in Hillman, where some kind of biker convention was going on. Not my kind of biker, of course.
The most motorcycles I believe I’ve ever seen in one place.
Old houses are another thing that breaks up the monotony of midwestern scenery.
And here’s a Mennonite type plowing the fields the old-fashioned way.
Aren’t they clever.
Last night’s campsite. I got there really early and went 20 feet over to Lake Huron to dip my feet in and read.
My camp stove was out of fuel, so I went over to nearby Sanborn for dinner. The local cafe (where I had breakfast the next day) had this garden out back.
You know, the grammar might not pass muster in the New Yorker, but I’ve seen four-millennia-old ruins that really could stand to have signage this detailed.
Great Lake #2 of 4. I’ll have to make up Ontario some other time.
Another old house in the woods, near camp. From there it was a short day’s right to Alpena, where I’ve just showered and done laundry and am about to be fed. A guy in the restaurant at breakfast this morning commented how easy we kids have it these days on a bike tour, just looking up random people to stay with, most of whom feed you lavish dinners. He’s right; I’m a wuss. I’m alright with that.

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