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October 17, 2010

Postcards from Nowhere: Lake Michigan - Day 3 - The Muskegon Ferry

Day 3 - The Muskegon Ferry

I get up this morning before 8:00 a.m. and start packing up my things. Getting ready to leave the hotel room. Following my little ritual to make sure nothing gets left behind. When you travel, if you're not diligent, then things tend to disappear. Over time, they just go away. And where they went, no one knows and no one can say. They're just gone is all.

I walk next door to Raj and Chak's room and they're just starting to move.

"You already got your shower and everything?" Chak asks in amazement.

"I took a shower last night. Let's go Cinderella. Up and at 'em."

I've realized by now that, although Raj gets huge points for planning this trip to being with, no one is pushing the group to make deadlines. We're not accurately predicting our daily mileage. We're not arriving on time. Possibly it should have been a hint that they both left late from Madison to meet me in Green Bay.

"We haven't had breakfast yet," they whine.

They're spraying hairspray and packing away their slippers and I'm like "You brought hair spray and slippers? OK. I'm going to get gas. To hit US Highway 31 south, you go to the bottom of the hill and turn left. I'll be at the gas station."

And I drive to the gas station. When they come by, I'm waving at them but they don't see me. So, I hurriedly try to close up my gas tank but it's got this silly locking gas cap and I've never had trouble with it before but apparently it can sense that I'm in a hurry this time. This time, I can't figure out which way to turn it. Can't get the key to come out. Finally, I get the key out of the gas cap and jam it in the ignition but now I can't get the ignition to work. Can't get the key to turn and I feel like I'm living in a bad dream. The light is about to turn green and they'll be heading South at 90 mph and I'll never catch them. Finally, I get the key to turn and I fire up the bike and run the red light to catch up to them.

Predictably, no one is sure how many miles we'll drive today. The estimates range from 200 to 300 miles, a significant (50%) variation. Raj wants to take a scenic detour out of Traverse City that will take us some 50 miles out of our way.

But we all decide that we'll sort it out once we get to Traverse City, and not before then. So we take US Highway 31 south out of Petoskey. There is water on both sides of the road, and with so many lakes, rivers, bays, and inlets, it's hard to keep straight which direction the water is supposed to be. We're frequently surrounded by water on all sides, seemingly. At this point, we're heading down a narrow isthmus and I see a sign and motion for Chak to pull over.

It's a sign indicating the 45th Parallel - halfway between the North Pole and the Equator. Raj had mentioned this a few times during our travel. This was necessarily the place he had in mind, but it was, in fact, the 45th Parallel, as indicated by a sign on the side of the road. So we stopped and posed for some cheesey photos.

When we rolled into Traverse City, we discuss our options and we're not sure that we have enough time and Raj reluctantly agrees to scrap the scenic loop up the peninsula at Traverse City on Highway 22.

Instead, we hit US Highway 31 south out of town and as soon as we do, I'm regretting it. 31 south out of Traverse City is a 4 lane nightmare of urban sprawl - no different in Arizona or Texas or Michigan. Just bland, generic, urban clutter. And Raj doesn't say anything. He doesn't have to. This sucks and we all know it.

We head South for a few miles down this disenfranchised river. Straight south. Death. Not what we came here for.

Suddenly, ahead the road sign indicates we turn right to follow 31 South. Here we're actually heading due west, back to the coast. The road narrows down to 2 lanes and headed toward the coast, I never felt better.

I'm in the lead and running about 75 mph and eventually, we come to the little town of Honor, Michigan. Here, I pull over and get out the map.

"Look. We're here. We can cut over to Highway 22 here and follow the coast. That's what we wanted, right?"

Raj is on partially ameliorated, but I'm happy to be getting back to his scheduled course, even if we had lopped 50 miles off the trip.

A sign said "Hidden Bear Dunes", which I assumed took us to the coast. But Raj has his iPod out and he's saying that this is County Road 508 and we actually want County Road 506. So I wait for the next turn which is, in fact, County Road 506 and we take it and before long, we're on Highway 22 headed South along the coast.

Although the color in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was not ideal, now that we're in Michigan, the color is getting better as we head south along the coast.

At first, I was a little disappointed that I didn't get good shots of the Tunnel of Trees. But here, on Highway 22 heading South along the coast, the colors are actually better than in the Tunnel of Trees, and the road is very nearly the same.

Shortly after we hit Highway 22, I see a sign that says "Lighthouse" and so I do a quick right and pretty soon, we're on the coast of Lake Michigan beneath this ancient lighthouse and we all park our bikes and begin shooting away like crazy. Raj has a boner for light houses and I'm hoping this will make him happy.

Words can't do justice to the Michigan countryside, but I'll try.

The land appears to be largely undeveloped. Mostly, the land is used to grow hay or corn. Or orchards. Scads of apple and cherry orchards. Countless roadside produce stands "The Starving Farmer - Fresh Produce".

Tractors and all sorts of farm implements are busy toiling away in the fields. Every farmer seems to be harvesting or discing or working the land in some other curious manner.

Every little town we roll through has some sort of fall celebration going on...parades, pumpkin festivals, fall color celebrations. Everyone seems to be celebrating the fall, and for good reason, of course.

Those that aren't celebrating are busily raking the fallen leaves into great burning piles. They toss in a few apples to sweeten the smell so that the smoke from these fires smells like a county-wide cookout.

There are no police in northern Michigan or Wisconsin. Or, possibly to be slightly more specific, there are no state highway patrol officers. And as for the city police and county deputies, they apparently aren't interested in ruining someone's day just because they're driving without a valid license plate, speeding, or riding through town on one wheel.

The roads are littered with roadkill. Animals of all sizes - from chipmunks to possums to deer. And of course, we're dodging them as best we can. We missed hitting deer by a few seconds or so. Some creature scurried across the road that I managed to avoid. Not clear what it was. I hit a dead skunk at one point.

Many of the fields are a deepest green - possibly planted with Winter Wheat to restore nitrogen to the soil.

The skies are filled with flocks of birds. More than you would imagine lived in all of North America. Never-ending flocks of Canada Geese and Sandhill Cranes stretch.

And when the winds blow, they strip the leaves from the trees so that, as we're driving down the road, it's hard to tell at a glance whether the skies are filled with leaves, or birds or both.

And framing all of this are the trees in their richest colors. Reds, Oranges, Yellows, Greens. Just breathtaking beauty. Stunning.

I feel as though I'm driving through a wet oil painting. The pain and misery of last night has all faded from my memory as we circumnavigate Lake Michigan on these flying carpets.

Every so often, we stop and snap photos. Some scenes we pass by, but many times, we'll crest a hill and just all pull over simultaneously. We signal and break and pull onto the shoulder and kill the bikes and we all just start snapping away at the landscape.

Much of the time, Raj is in the lead, I'm in the middle, with Chak bringing up the rear. Many times, I can tell when Raj is going to pull over before he knows himself. I can read him like a book.

We stop and take photos and then move on, not always as a group. We get scattered frequently, and just keep track of who's ahead and who's behind. If you're ahead of the group and you stop, it's your responsibility to make sure that they see you when you pass.

So we're migrating south in this manner. Shooting the fall foliage and the rural landscapes at our leisure. Shooting and dispersing and reassembling as we go.

Highway 22 ends at Manistee, and we stop for lunch. I'm wanting to get something fast. They want a sit-down dinner and say we have plenty of time. Raj picks a restaurant it's it's just the coolest little local place you could find. Normally, I'd get a burger and fries to be safe, but instead I get the Walleye and American Fries and it's just spectacular. Sensational.

In Manistee, I find a service station that has chain lubricant for sale and I oil my chain and Chak's. Both of our chains were very dry and rusty looking. Not in good shape at all. After a good oiling, the look much better.

South of Ludington, MI, 31 becomes a 4 lane all the way to Muskegon and I'm driving like a mad man. I open it up and actually get the bike into triple digits for the first time. They claimed I was running at 100 mph - 105 mph for some time. The speed limit in Michigan along this stretch is 70 mph, but it's not like it matters. I just opened the throttle and held on.

When you're going triple digits on dirt bike, you become one with the motorcycle. The two sort of fuse into one. I lower my helmet until it touches the speedometer and just hang on. The winds blow the bike from side to side. Everything is whipping in the wind. Even with my helmet on, my eyes start to tear up. The jacket seems as though it might fail at any moment. The chin strap vibrates madly in the wind. If I don't hold my shoes just right, they feel like the wings of an airplane pulling me down. It's a grueling ride on a dirt bike, as the winds just beat you to death.

And then, of course, we have the morons driving in the passing lane, so I just resort to passing them on the shoulder at 105.

Eventually, we roll into Muskegon, but we have no idea where the ferry departs from, of course. Reminds me very much of when we rolled into La Paz, Mexico, Baja California Del Sur last year, only to find out that the ferry actually leaves from Pechilingue. But I digress.

We have reservations and all, and the tickets aren't cheap. The motorcycles ride for free, but it costs each of us $85 to cross. So, we want to make sure we're on the ferry. And we're running out of time, of course.

So, we're racing around through Muskegon like lunatics, without really getting any closer to the ferry. At one point, I'm riding a wheelie through a subdivision when I see a cop. I drop the front tire just as he turns onto the street I'm on and passes me going the other way. For some reason, he didn't come after me. It's possible he didn't see me riding a wheelie, but the bike doesn't even have a plate for Christ's sake. What's a guy got to do to get arrested around here?

Eventually, we find the ferry and we pull in and they're all deadly serious official-like...a bunch of TSA wannabees.

"You need to have your photo ID out and blah blah blah," and I show my driver's license to two different people at the ferry and he tells us to go to the front of the line where there's three other bikes already parked, all much nicer than mine, of course.

We ask them where they've been and basically, they did exactly the same ride we did, as best as I could tell.

Eventually, they start loading us up and they tell us when to drive onto the ferry and this is really exciting for me. I've never had a motorcycle on a ferry before. And I haven't been on a ferry since we were in Ireland so I'm pretty excited about this.

They show us where to park our bikes and where the tie downs are to secure them. Somehow, Chak and Raj have never seen or used tie-downs before, which is hard to imagine, but I have to show them how to use them and after a while, we get all three bikes strapped really good like because I have no idea what the lake will be like. I'm not sure how rough it is, but that folk song about 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald' is about a real ship that sank in Lake Superior in a massive storm, so I know it can get pretty rough out on the Great Lakes.

Then, we go upstairs on the ferry and all of the good seats are taken, of course, so I spy a separate lounge that says "Premium Passengers Only" and motion for Raj and Chak to follow me.

Pretty soon, someone shows up and informs us that the lounge is, in fact, only for "Premium Passengers" and that, unless we pay the additional charge, we'll have to leave.

"How much extra is it?"

"15 dollars each"


I'm thinking this is the best money I've ever spent. So we sit back for the pleasant ride across the lake in what are essentially airplane chairs that recline. And we get free soft-drinks and chips and the ride is so relaxing that I nearly fell asleep.

Eventually, about dark thirty, we arrived in Milwaukee. We all unloaded. Raj headed south toward Chicago, and Chak and I headed west back to Sun Prairie.

"Where are you staying tonight?" Chak asked.

"I dunno."

"You don't have a room yet in Sun Prairie."

"Nope. I'll sort it out when I get there."

And we shook hands and said goodnight and, so far as I know, everyone survived and lived to take a warm shower tonight and crawl into a clean bed and dream of the North Woods, the Tunnel of Trees, and the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Posted by Rob Kiser on October 17, 2010 at 8:58 PM


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