The Long Road Home, Part 2
Despite the need to put some kilometres behind us early on, Dawn and I took some time in the morning to view Niagara Falls, which until now I'd only viewed from the air and Dawn not at all. Having been forewarned not to expect much more than a touristy town next to a really big waterfall, I didn't come away disappointed. The alloted half-hour was more than enough time to enjoy the view, and we were soon in the saddle and heading north out of town on Queen Elizabeth Way. Soon Lake Ontario came into view, and as the QEW transited its west end towards Toronto, the traffic became both heavier and faster. In Hamilton we turned off on ON-6, the highway that would take us up the Bruce, and the pace immediately relaxed. I was happy to find the traffic light and the road in good condition. The scenery consisted mostly of flat farmland, but was punctuated occasionally by picturesque towns with ancient stone-and-timber shops, churches, and ramparts. Past Owen Sound, the countryside became progressively less populated as we entered the peninsula proper, and the last forty miles took us through a wild-looking forest of scrub-pine.
Our worries about making the ferry were needless, for we reached the end of the peninsula at Tobermory by noontime. After buying our ferry tickets, we ate lunch at a dockside Fish-N-Chips joint and wandered around the quiet town until the ferry's horn summoned us back to the quay. We and a few other motorcyclists were the first vehicles onto the ferry; after tying the Beamer down securely, we headed up top to poke around the 365-foot MS Chi-Cheemaun and claim some Adirondack chairs near the stern. The last vehicles loaded, the ship gave a parting blast from her horn and cast off. I was thoroughly enjoying the beautiful sunny day and the spectacular scenery of Fathom Five National Marine Park when Dawn mentioned that we didn't seem to be going very fast. She was right; the thirty-mile crossing normally takes two hours but we were making no more than five knots. Within a few minutes, we stopped completely, and then began a slow 180 degree turn. "Ladies and Gentleman, this is your Captain speaking," cackled a loudspeaker on deck. "We have encountered a problem with the bow of the ship that is not allowing it to latch closed, and therefore it is unsafe to continue to South Baymouth. We will be returning to Tobermory, everyone will need to disembark, and your fare will be refunded."
Hundreds of miles from the nearest NewCo airplane, the announcement suddenly gave me the feeling that I was at work. The irony of being on the receiving end now didn't escape me. I talked to a crewmember who said that the nearest mechanic was several hours away and that parts might need to be special ordered; even the following morning's sailing was in doubt. I didn't feel like an indefinite wait on a remote peninsula in the middle of Lake Huron, which left two options: going around Georgian Bay to the east and joining our original route, or riding around the south end of Lake Huron and heading to Chicago, then Minneapolis. I got out my Palm; Google Maps said the Georgian Bay detour was considerably longer. That made the decision for us; Chicago it would be. As soon as we collected our fare refund, we saddled up and headed back down the Bruce Peninsula. It was just after 3PM, and I figured we could knock out another 200 miles before sundown.
As soon as possible, I deviated off of ON-6 to the west and followed ON-21 around the eastern shore of Lake Huron. The road wasn't right on the lake but allowed occasional glimpses of it, the riding was pleasant, and the miles went by quickly. As the sun sank lower, fatigue began to set in, but we pressed on. The more miles we rode now, the fewer miles to ride in Memorial Day traffic on Monday. At the south end of the lake, we joined the ON-402 freeway westbound, which faced us into the late-afternoon sun for an extra dose of drowsy. I pulled out my iPod, synced it to my bluetooth helmet intercom, blasted a Tiesto album, and saddle-danced my way to the border crossing at Port Huron. We crossed the border behind two old guys on late-model Honda ST-1300s, both of which had higher mileages than the not-inconsiderable number on my 25-year-old BMW. Two miles after entering the US, we exited at Port Huron, Michigan, to make camp at the municipal campground - really an RV park, but nonetheless a decent grassy spot to camp for not much coin. We had ridden 475 miles since Niagara Falls.
After making camp we rode downtown to a microbrewery by the port, where we had a fine dinner and I sampled a tasty IPA. I talked about my disappointment at being unable to explore the northern shore of Lake Huron and at how comparatively dull the mostly freeway-bound new route would be. "Well, we don't have to go through Chicago, right?" Dawn queried. "You could still go through the Upper Peninsula, right?" It seemed like an awful long detour to go that way, but when I checked Google Maps it was a difference of only about 50 miles. That seemed like a very reasonable tradeoff for an infinitely more enjoyable route. And then I realized that rather than taking I-75 all the way up to the Mackinac Straights, we could hang a right on US-23 and hug the shore of Lake Huron. This would add on another 50 miles, but it was another area I'd flown over often but never seen from the ground. In for a dime, in for a dollar, as they say.
I slept well that night despite the busy freeway next door, and felt well rested as we broke camp early the next morning. It promised to be another long day of riding. I put on my chaps and thick gloves and pressed my legs tight against the engine as we accelerated onto I-69 in the chilly morning air. The first sixty miles passed by quickly despite some heavy construction as we approached Flint, then we skirted the city on I-475 and joined I-75 northbound. We passed through Saginaw, which I've flown into and overnighted at often, but the area looked entirely different from the freeway. Shortly after exiting onto US-23, we stopped for breakfast at the North Forest Cafe in Standish. The joint was packed with old-timers, and we enjoyed people-watching from our small two-top to the side of the bustling room as much as we enjoyed the $2.99 breakfast special and 99-cent steaming coffee.
The first half of the ride up the coast took us through an unbroken vacation-land of lake cabins, resorts, B&Bs, various tourist businesses, and occasional small towns. The road never strayed far from the lake, and the glinting waves often flickered invitingly through the pines. Past Harrisville, the development petered out and the road backed off into the hills, thick forests hugging both sides. The sunny day was getting quite warm, and I stripped off my chaps and took the liner out of my leather jacket when we stopped for gas near Alpena. I subsequently rode off without paying for the gas - no pay at the pump out here! - and got several miles away before I realized my mistake. The cashier still hadn't called the cops by the time I returned with a profuse apology.
We rolled into Mackinaw City a bit after 3pm, stopped to cool off with ice cream cones, and rode across the magnificent Mackinac Bridge to St Ignace. I landed here on a long cross-country flight in a Warrior ten years ago. Low on gas, I waited in an FBO attended only by an old golden retriever for over an hour until the fueler showed up, then took off over the straights at dusk as the lights on the bridge twinkled to life. Back then it seemed like making a long trip by small plane was the ultimate adventure. I think it still could be, but it's been a long time since I've flown small aircraft, and I associate flying too closely with work.
I had a bad scare about an hour after I turned westward on US-2, at around our 400th mile for the day. I rounded a sharp, rolling corner around a cliffside without backing off of my 65 mph pace, only to discover the Buick I'd previously been following by several hundred feet was stopped in the middle of the road, waiting for oncoming traffic to pass before making a left turn. Actually it took me a few seconds to realize that he was stopped, as the Buick had neither left turn signal nor brake lights on. By the time I jammed on my brakes, he was perhaps 100 feet away and I quickly realized I would not stop in time. I had to make a snap decision between two unsavory options: I could swerve to the right, where there was a ton of loose rock and not much room between the Buick and a small shoulder bordered by a yawning chasm of a ditch, all placed at the entrance to a left-hand curve to make staying on the road especially doubtful. Or, I could swerve inside of the Buick, straight towards the oncoming traffic, and then jerk back into my own lane before they hit me.
In a fraction of a second I let go of the brakes, snapped the throttle open, and leaned hard to the left. "Don't turn now, don't turn now!" I prayed as we blew by the unsuspecting Buick. The moment we were past him, I leaned back hard to the right and swerved back into my own lane with a good second to spare before the Ford cargo van roared by, horn blaring. It was several seconds before our intercom crackled to life. "That happened quickly," Dawn said. I didn't say anything for a while. I could have stopped if I'd seen the Buick as soon as I rounded the curve - but I didn't. The lack of brake lights were partially to blame, but I had also been cruising along fat, dumb, and happy, my attention span wilted in the late afternoon sun. At least I reacted very quickly and correctly. I rode on feeling curiously calm about the incident. I think it was over too quickly to produce much adrenaline.
We camped for the night on the shores of Indian Lake in Manistique. The town itself was pretty quiet on Sunday night, and the pub that a park ranger recommended was closed. We rode further downtown and found the unapologetically divey Buckshot Bar open for 99 cent Old Milwaukee and all manner of fried food. The Twins were playing on the old TV over the bar so we lingered to watch them complete a home sweep of the Rangers before retiring to camp for the night. On our return, our older neighbors invited us to sit by their fire and eat smores with them and their grandson.
Sometime during the night it began raining and had yet to abate when we could put off rising no longer. Breaking camp was a soggy affair, and it looked like my 41st and last day of riding around the States might be a wet, cold ordeal. By Escanaba, though, the western sky had begun to lighten, and the road was perfectly dry by the time we crossed into Wisconsin, the 32nd state of the trip. After turning onto US-8 at Norway, we quickly found ourselves plunged deep into the Wisconsin Northwoods. We looked for breakfast in a tiny town and came up with only a gas station diner (which proved surprisingly good). Deer sightings were quite frequent. Twenty miles out of Rhinelander, a black bear scampered across the road and up the opposing bank.
After Prentice, the more familiar landscape of northwestern Wisconsin began to unfold, and it finally started to feel like the trip was really coming to an end. When I'd set out westward from Minneapolis last July, I had no idea that so much time or so many miles would pass before I rode into town again - or that I'd be coming from the east. As we approached the Minnesota border at Taylor's Falls, the Memorial Day traffic got progressively worse, as I feared. At least we had made good time across Wisconsin, and I was still feeling alert. I needed it for the last forty miles of heavy traffic on I-35 and I-35W.
And then...I rounded a corner in the freeway, and there sat the Minneapolis skyline across the river. A few minutes later I exited I-94 onto Hennepin Avenue, rode the last few blocks, parked in front of our apartment, and turned off the Beamer. It was finished. I looked at the odometer. My trip around the states totaled 14,679 miles, an average of 360 miles per day of riding. Dawn rode along on 5000 of those miles, and my friend Brad rode alongside for 2500. As adventures go, this was an excellent one; I'll cherish the experience for the rest of my life. The last five years, Dawn and I have primarily done our traveling overseas, so it was good to be reminded how big and beautiful and varied my own country is. There's a lot left to be explored, and there are few better ways to do it than from the saddle of a trusty motorcycle.
(Photos to follow)