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Sunset near Muskegon, MI.

[This piece also ran in Newcity magazine.]

One reason I’m glad I’ve cycled coast-to-coast a couple of times is that I feel like I’ve got nothing to prove when it comes to bike touring. As long as I’ve got my bicycle with me and get a few miles of pedaling in, it doesn’t matter what other non-car transportation modes I use – it’s a bike trip. Or at least a trip worth taking.

Case in point is a circuit of lower Lake Michigan I took a few years ago. While I covered a lot of ground with my bicycle in tow, I didn’t actually ride much more than a hundred miles. But this actually enhanced the experience.

Instead of my usual death-march mileage, the relaxed pace left me time to take walks in the woods and hang out on the beach before hitting the road to the next destination. Of course, a well-disciplined cycle tourist would leave early and get the day’s pedaling done before sightseeing. Maybe next time I’ll do it this way.

This excursion was inspired by a Time Out Chicago issue about Lake Michigan getaways and a yen to escape the big city and catch some sunsets over water. I was also curious to try the high-speed ferry from Milwaukee to Muskegon, MI. I’d already ridden the entire perimeter of the lake in stages before so this jaunt was about R & R rather than breaking new ground.

I loaded my bike with full camping gear and caught Metra commuter rail up to Kenosha, WI, early Monday morning. As usual I’d stayed up late packing and hadn’t slept much so I snoozed during most of the hour-and-a-half train ride.

Taking a combo of Rte. 32 and off-street trails I covered the 35 miles to the ferry dock on the south side of Milwaukee with just enough time left to catch the boat without panicking. Next time I’ll book in advance, though, since tickets were almost sold out. The slower Manitowac, WI, – Luddington, MI, ferry further north was cancelled due to mechanical problems so the high-speed ferry was picking up the slack.

One of the main functions of the ferries are to serve as a shortcut for drivers who want to avoid Chicagoland congestion, and the lower deck of the boat was packed with cars, RVs and motorcycles – mine was the only bicycle.

If you take the ferry, take Dramamine if you’re prone to seasickness, since it’s a surprisingly rocky ride, and bring a jacket it you want to hang out on deck. The ship moves so fast, what seems like 80 mph although it’s actually only 40, that it kicks up a powerful, chilly breeze and it’s hard to stay outdoors to enjoy the beautiful views. However, the large cabin was full of miserable-looking people with their heads in their hands since stuffy air exacerbates seasickness.

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I spent a lot of the ride lying on the deck behind a low front wall near the axis of the ship to minimize the wave motion. But I had fun anyway, chatting with a middle-aged waitress from Ann Arbor and a grizzled Harley rider from Muskegon who was drinking High Life out of a plastic bottle, both of them on their backs as well.

Muskegon’s the largest city on the east coast of Lake Michigan, a down-on-it’s-luck paper mill town of about 38,000. The under-populated downtown was a little depressing but there’s a great bike path that rings much of five-mile-long Lake Muskegon, populated by a colony of swans.

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On my way to a state park north of the city I stopped for a pint at the Bear Lake Tavern, recommended by the motorcyclist. Striking up a conversation about the Olympics with an old-timer at the bar who turned out be a Korean War vet, I received a fascinating lecture on the different styles of communism practiced Vietnam and Cuba. He also told me about his experiences in the army during the early days of racial integration. This card-carrying NRA member had a pretty different worldview than me but I could have sat there and listened to his stories for hours.

The state park was full and the ranger was unaware of the rule in Michigan that touring cyclists can’t be refused a patch of ground to pitch a tent, which has served me well on other occasions. But she sent me up the road to Pioneer County Park, which was just fine.

The place was swarming with kids and adults cruising around on bikes, the most I’d ever seen at a campground, including an older couple on a homemade, side-by-side recumbent tandem that seemed to be fashioned out of La-Z-Boy recliners. I made a b-line to the Lake Michigan beach just in time to have a pleasantly existential moment while watching the sunset and sipping Captain Morgan’s.

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I spent the next day strolling on the sparsely populated shoreline and reading on the sand, although water temperature in the fifties made it nearly impossible to swim. That evening I headed back into the city to meet up with my bike shop coworker Doug and his girlfriend Jenny who were, coincidentally, doing a more ambitious two-week trip, pedaling north from Muskegon to the Upper Peninsula then south to Green Bay, WI.

Doug and I stocked up on bread, dry sausage and Tasmanian smoked cheddar at The Cheese Lady, 808 Terrace St., one of a handful of interesting new independent businesses that were helping to spark a downtown revival. Jenny met us at the Tipsy Toad Tavern, 609 W. Western Ave., where we watched another fine sunset from their rooftop patio and sampled “jumpers” – chewy French-fried frogs’ legs.

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Doug offers sausage to a two-dimensional Muskegonite.

After we strolled through the town’s gorgeous little garden, which was supposedly inspired by the colors of a Monet painting, Doug and Jenny retired to their B & B. I headed a few miles south in the dark towards P. J. Hoffmaster State Park through a surprisingly long stretch of auto-centric development which abruptly turned into silent countryside.

In the morning I checked out the park’s large interpretive center detailing the history of the Michigan Dunes, then climbed said dunes and took another long hike along the shore. Then I got back in the saddle and rode a few miles to Grand Haven, a tourist town of about 11,000.

At the local history museum there was a great little exhibit called “Circles in Motion: the American Bicycle 1860 – 2008.” The models on display included wooden “boneshakers,” high-wheelers, classic ‘50s cruisers and beefy WWI-era military cycles. Just the displays of cycling medals and head-plates were amazing. My favorite was for the “Lincoln” made by the Chicago Cycle Supply Company, featuring the image of Honest Abe standing solemnly in front of his chair.

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I pedaled another 30 miles to Holland State Park, just west of the city of Holland, Michigan’s tulip growing capital of course. Heading to the beach I had another Zen moment watching the sun sink over the water as a young park employee swept sand off a long walkway like a Buddhist monk cleaning the temple. A tourist came up and told her that it would be a lot faster to use an electric blower on the sand. “That would be too noisy,” she replied. “It would spoil the sunset,” I said.

As I was pitching my tent in the dark (yes, even the low mileage didn’t keep me from setting up camp late most nights), two parents from the Kalamazoo area came up and asked me to give some tips to their daughter. She was about to start community college and was interested in biking to school and doing some overnight trips.

I happily went into bike salesman mode explaining the features of my touring bike. I tried to be polite when the girl showed me her department store road bike which sadly looked unfit for any kind of utilitarian use – it would have been be hard even to install a rack on it. Afterwards I made myself a delicious makeshift fondue, cooking the Tasmanian cheddar with white wine and sausage over my camp stove and dipping bread and veggies in it.

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The next day while picnicking by the water in the small town of Saugatuck, I watched the Saugatuck Chain Ferry, an old-fashioned hand-cranked boat, carry passengers across the Kalamazoo River. I continued down the coast to South Haven, probably the most touristy town I passed through but fun nonetheless. The large beach near downtown was packed with skimpily-clad teens and college students. I strolled down the pier and took a dip in the water which, oddly, was comfortably in the 70s even though it had been freezing a couple dozen miles up the coast.

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As Time Out suggested, I sampled the blueberry-flavored coffee at the Blueberry Store, 535 Phoenix St. and then hit the Thirsty Perch Grille, 272 Broadway St. As at the Tipsy Toad, I felt compelled to eat the eponymous animal (OK, they were frog, not toad legs) and ordered the perch tacos with portobello fries.

It was time to head over to the Indian Trail Bus Line station in a strip mall a mile west of downtown. The previous summer when a friend rode from Chicago to Michigan with me during a cross-country trip, my friend had no problem putting her unboxed bike on the Indian Trails bus home from Benton Harbor, just down the road from South Haven. I’d assumed I’d be able to do the same this time.

But the elderly, wise-cracking ticket agent, a former Chicago cop whose silver Rolls Royce was parked next to the station, insisted that I box my bike. Fortunately there was a small bike box in the office, left by another cyclist. I had to break down my bike pretty well to make it fit and since I didn’t have suitable tools with me for removing the pedals I had to cram it in there with the pedals on. It wasn’t pretty.

The bus ride itself was a trip. As the agent had warned me, the bus was overbooked and several of us had to sit or stand in the aisle. This had to be completely illegal and it made me feel like I was riding a bus in a developing nation, minus the live chickens and goats on board. Fortunately, my iPod kept me entertained and I didn’t mind standing, so long as we didn’t crash.

After I assembled my bike at the Chicago bus terminal, found that even the fenders were miraculously intact after the rough treatment and pedaled a few miles back to my house, I deemed this multi-modal mission a smashing success. I wasn’t going to win any randonneuring prizes for it, but combining bicycling with train, boat and bus allowed me to cover a lot of ground in a few days with plenty of time leftover for some creative loafing.

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  • Kevin Mulcahy

    I know that Wisconsin state parks also have the touring cyclist rule. I lucked upon that on an impulse ride to Kohler Andre State Park.