Northbound in Mid-October—Part Five
Turning Point to the Lower Peninsula
In the night, it rained for a short while. In the still dark hours before sunrise I lie, hoping the wind would dry the tent again before dawn. It wasn’t to be, and I had to pack the tent, fly, and footprint while it was all still slightly damp. Again, it was in the 40s while I set to repacking. The chill made me think better of a plan to get a shower in the unheated bath house. I could live with dirty hair for one more day.
While settling up at the office, I learned that this campground was closing in just a couple days as well, so my time in the UP was limited, unless I wanted to pay for motels the rest of the time, which was not a practical option for me.
I headed east, away from the coast and through the heart of the Upper Peninsula. After a fuel stop, I turned right on a county road that ran south toward Lake Michigan, leaving the dark clouds and rain that had been pestering me behind. From there I’d be aiming more or less south for the rest of the journey and leaving the cold behind me a bit more each day. The heated grips and seat on the Tiger had performed well, and I never felt the need to use the heated vest or the balaclava Ron had loaned me. Five fewer degrees would probably have had me donning both, but the temperatures had stayed just above that threshold, and I had never really felt chilled.
Emerging from the thickly forested interior and arriving at the south coast, the sun was out, shining brilliantly and sparkling on blue waters, white caps, and spindrift that was being blown from the southwest. The highway ran directly beside the big lake, sparkling in the sunshine, and it was not long before the Mackinac Bridge hove into sight in the east.
Approaching the Mackinac Briidge
At Saint Ignace, I rode up to the mighty bridge, paid a four-dollar toll, and crossed with a gale of wind blowing from ahead and my right side, making it necessary to make constant steering and leaning adjustments to stay on my solid right lane and not drift onto the gated left lane, which on a motorcycle, is a squirrely prospect at best.
As soon as I made landfall, I took a turn off the Interstate onto a smaller US highway. Glad to be off the busy and characterless Interstate, I rode south amid forests, past lakes, and through little towns. The rich aroma of fallen, decaying deciduous leaves mixed with a mild aroma of pine accompanied me to Boyne Falls, where I’d once spent a memorable evening stopping at my high school Spanish teacher’s home, tucked back in the woods on the shores of Thumb Lake. This time I did not stop to visit but was glad for the warm memories passing that way brought back to me.
With southern progress, the color show of leaves slowly returned to a solid green, with the exception of the swamp maples, which seemed to be the first to surrender to winter.
I stopped at a restaurant to reorganize my tank bag maps, which needed refolding to the next section, and to get a bite for lunch, having skipped breakfast altogether. I had seen numerous signs in the UP for the ubiquitous “pasty,” a pastry shell filled with meat and vegetables. I had always been too full from a big breakfast, which is my preferred must-have meal when on the road, so I hoped to finally give the pasty a try.
As I walked to the entrance, I wondered if it was open, because the parking lot was quiet and empty, but there was a big sign by the door saying, “We are open.” I entered, only to learn I’d been lied to by the sign. The place was empty, except of a skeleton crew of three, and they were actually closed. It was warm and welcoming inside the log walls, so I asked if I could just use one of their booths to reorganize my maps. I was told I was welcome to do that, so I chose a booth and sat down and began removing the maps from my tank bag, which I had carried in with me.
The lady out front apologized for being closed and told me that it was only because they had no wait staff to handle orders, which was a nationwide problem at that time. She turned the lights on for me over the booth, and I asked if there was any place further south where I could get a pasty. She said, “Well, if that’s all you want, then we’ll make one up for you.”
Soon, a hot pasty, much bigger than I had imagined and covered in brown gravy, appeared at my table along with coffee. I tucked in while looking over the maps and telling myself this would be my last meal that day, and really, it was enough for two days.
I had been thinking about stopping to see my old high school friend, Jeff, who lived near Grand Rapids, which was directly ahead. I rang him up but found out he was in Niles and would not be home until late that night. “Next time,” I said, “Planning too far ahead on this trip is difficult, so this kind of thing is inevitable. We’ll catch up another time.”
Another customer came in but was told the restaurant was closed. I was hidden away behind a half-wall, and the person who’d served me put her finger to her lips, indicating to me to be quiet, so I obeyed. I waited until he’d left, paid my bill, and thanked them profusely for being so kind, then got back on the Tiger to head out, now a couple pounds heavier than when I had entered.
Near Cadillac, the road turned more southward and grew, eventually morphing into an Interstate in all ways but in name. It became a four lane, divided highway, with limited access and exits, instead of intersections. The speed limit jumped up to seventy-five, a speed I wasn’t willing to go, as my mileage dropped substantially at that speed. I set the cruise control at seventy, which was in reality, per the GPS, an actual speed of sixty-five. There was little traffic at that point, and on the wide highway, I would not be holding anyone up rolling at that much under the speed limit.
As I rode south, the highway became busier. It started raining again late in the afternoon and had dropped back into the 40s. I decided that I didn’t want to set up camp in the rain, so instead, I’d try to find an inexpensive motel if it continued to rain and damn the budget.
Miles flew by, and I guessed there would be plenty of options at each exit, but as afternoon turned to dusk, each exit I passed listed gas stations and fast food restaurants, but no motels. Eventually, I saw one exit with both a “Lodging” and a “Camping” sign, so I pulled off to investigate. I found no motel or hotel anywhere, but did pass a campground that looked deserted, probably closed for the season.
I got back on the highway and continued south, scrutinizing every exit for signs of a motel. Miles rolled under me, with no sign of lodging anywhere. The highway was obviously quite new, and it appeared like the first thing to get built on the new exits were gas stations, which were plentiful, followed by fast food restaurants, but planning and erecting hotels must take longer, and none had been built yet.
It was getting dark, but still no places appeared where I could stop for the night. I gave up completely on looking for camping, despite it having stopped raining, and resigned myself to paying whatever it took at the first motel I saw. Light had almost faded completely, and I would soon be breaking my rule to not be on the road at night.
I was approaching Grand Rapids, a large city, so I hoped my chances would improve the closer I got. Finally, on the north side of Grand Rapids, I spotted a motel that looked fairly pricey, but by then it had fallen completely dark, and I was exhausted. I figured, “What could it cost? $100?” So, I’d pay whatever it cost. After pulling under the porte-cochère, removing my gloves and helmet, unzipping my jacket to get to my credit card, I entered the lobby, only to be asked if I had a reservation. I said, “No. Do I need one?” I was told there were no vacancies, because there was a mountain bike rally of some sort along with homecomings and reunions going on that weekend, and everything was full, including the hotel next door. The clerk called somewhere further south on my route and informed me that they were also filled up. I trudged back to the bike, redonned all my gear, clicked into first gear, and headed back to the highway.
The now truly Interstate-scale highway ran straight through the heart of the city It was unnerving riding in the heavy traffic, in the dark, in a city with which I was completely unfamiliar. I managed to get through and emerged on the south side of Grand Rapids, where I stopped at another exit and motel, only to get the same answer: “No vacancy.” But that time I was smart enough to not undress before asking and so got back on the highway quickly.
I made another stop, this time well south of Grand Rapids and north of Kalamazoo, again only to find no vacancies. Luckily, the clerk made a call and found a place in Allegan that had rooms. I thanked her and set out again, this time off the big highway and bound for the small town of Allegan, near where we used to camp with my family when I had been just a lad.
Arriving in Allegan, I took the left at the second light, as I had been instructed to do, and found the motel. I went inside to finally be told there was a room available. I said, “Fine,” and pulled out the credit card, when the person behind the counter said, “$150”! By that time, I was too tired to argue or to ride any further, so I reluctantly paid the bill as she was telling me to be sure to not smoke in the room, “State law prohibits it.”
I found the room on the second floor of the shabby place, a fifty-dollar room at best, and opened the door to the stench of stale cigarettes saturating the room. So much for state law. I made a second trip to the bike for the rest of my gear and lugged it up the stairs to my “non-smoking” room. At least it was reasonably clean, and I could see the Tiger from my window. After a quick check of the forecast on television, indicating 70s and dry for the upcoming days, I hit the bed like a bag of rocks.