An Afternoon Ride
by Thomas Day
Late one Friday morning a year or so back, I set out to prove that we Cities urbanites have some of the coolest territory to ride, within 30 minutes of almost any part of the city. Because I live in North St. Paul, I headed northeast to prove my point. Fifteen minutes from my house and I’m cruising the countryside, heading toward Wisconsin, and isolated two lanes with a view.
I must have known I had an ulterior motive, because I packed my ancient Roadcrafter (in case I ended up close enough to Duluth to drop it by for repairs) and some camping gear (in case I found myself stuck in an idyllic camping site with nothing to do but read and loaf). I know. I didn’t really intend to turn the ride into an excursion, because I didn’t bring a change of clothes, money, or cold weather riding gear outside of the stuff I normally wear and pack in my soft luggage.
Nearly 300 miles later, I was at the RiderWearhouse getting new zipper pulls installed and having a previous do-it-to-yourself repair patched. An hour later, I’m all fixed up with no place to go. Except north. I still had 4 hours of daylight left and no urge to quit riding. In fact, I was motivated to keep going because I’d picked up two pair of Aerostitch riding shorts and wanted to “test” their Iron Butt enhancing powers. Besides, my wife wasn’t going to get home from work until sometime around 11PM and I knew she’d want me to be enjoying myself, harmlessly, instead of moping around the house, cleaning and cooking dinner. I take my responsibilities as a husband seriously, so I headed north toward Two Harbors and beyond.
As the evening came to an end, I discovered Minnesotans and Minnesota visitors are not as spontaneous as me. Every dumpy little motel, campsite, and bed-and-a-donut between Duluth and Canada was filled up and the most popular phrase pained on Highway 61 billboards was “NO Vacancy.” I’m not an Iron Butter. I don’t ride at night unless it’s an absolute necessity. I’m blind in one eye and use the other as a bug trap. My distance vision stops at my faceshield at night. Now my trip had developed a little focus. I needed a place to stop for the night and I needed it quickly.
Fortunately, I’d packed a hammock and a bedroll. I found a pair of trees, just off of the highway, and fell asleep, amazed at how many stars you can see through a forest canopy. The next morning, I was on the road, still going north, with the intention of crossing the boarder, checking out my hometown’s sister city, Thunder Bay, and checking out a Canadian motorcycle shop to see if they had any cool bikes that we can’t buy in the States.
I discovered that Thunder Bay is even more infected with urban sprawl than the south end of the Cities and I was instantly bored. The traffic was heavy, slow moving, and stuffed with vans and SUVs, just like home. I stuck with the highway and passed Thunder Bay without slowing down. Fifty miles down the road, I fueled up and considered my options; turn back and get home by evening or keep going and see some new flora and fauna. Being a tree hugging kind of guy, I kept moving northeast. So far, I’d done all of my international traveling without a map, so I was pretty clueless about where I’d end up, how far it would be between coffee and fuel, and if I’d be able to make it back home in time for work on Monday. But I’m pretty sure I remember Sev and Victor talking about doing this exact same trip, from the Cities around Superior and back home, in one non-stop ride. So, I figured I could do it in two stops and two and a half days.
The Canadian roads were flawless, smooth as a recently paved US interstate. Traffic was light to non-existent. In fact, pretty much everything except the highway and nature was non-existent for most of the loop around the north side of Lake Superior. My fingers would have out-numbered the cars I passed every hundred miles and there were nearly as many bikes on the highway. The scenery is spectacular, with plenty of scenic pull-offs to rest your butt and check out the view. Most impressively, I hadn’t seen a cop since a bit north of Two Harbors. So the view was unobstructed by politics and other irritations.
For an emergency backup, I carried a cell phone, but I got used to seeing the “no service” flag every place I stopped and started turning the thing on, only to be able to say, “Can’t you hear me now?” every fifty miles. I’m easily entertained.
Unlike north Minnesota, Canada is a great place for spontaneous travelers. In the dinky towns along the highways I traveled; every motel had vacancies. A fair number of nice looking facilities were boarded up and abandoned. Apparently Minnesota’s booming tourist economy hasn’t crossed the border. But I needed to keep moving until I could figure out where I was going. Mile after mile of spectacular scenery, incredible lake views, and beautiful roads and my butt was beginning to ache. For the last two hundred miles around the lake, I stopped every 50-75 miles to work some feeling back into my cheeks and I made far worse time than I had during the first part of the trip. But I was still enjoying myself and the SV was running pretty well, if not efficiently. For some reason, my mileage has dropped about 30miles per tank since the fuel sensor died. I get a little nervous anytime the trip odometer passes 100 miles. For the last half of the trip I averaged about 39mpg, which is pitiful for a 650 twin.
Finally, I made it to the Canada-US crossing at Sault Ste Marie. The border crossing was blocked by a mile-long line of cars, reaching over the bridge and a bit into Canada. I pushed the bike up one side of the bride, coasted down the other, and pushed across the border line. A symbolic gesture of fuel efficiency.
After getting gouged for two bucks at a Michigan tollbooth, I stopped at a rest area and stocked up on Michigan roadmaps, to get something for my two bucks. Then, I bounced fifteen miles over the crappiest “freeway” I’ve seen since the last time I was in Chicago, and turned west toward Wisconsin and civilization. I could tell I was in “civilization” because there were cops everywhere; flashing lights, obstructing traffic, and generating revenue for corrupt politicians all across northern Michigan. I crawled through that leg of the trip, spending more time looking around billboards, checking my mirrors, and worrying that my speedo might be miscalibrated by a couple of miles per hour. I made it about half way to Wisconsin, in the dark, and discovered that, once again, I’d passed up all of the available motels, and rolled into the first clearing in the trees where I could hang my hammock.
Michigan is, obviously, a very conservative state. They don’t waste a lot of money on unnecessary items like highway markers. Even though for the first time in 600 miles I had a road map, I didn’t have a clue where I was. The few signs they do bother to post are conveniently positioned behind immobile road construction vehicles and other, less useful, signs. Speed limits are equally obscure. Something made painfully obvious by the number of state-patrol-harpooned motorists I passed on my way through the last hundred miles of Michigan. When I came to, Henry Ford’s wacky attempt at a fundamentalist’s Epcot Center. I knew I’d been a victim of Michigan’s version of tourism promotion and, along with a half-dozen cagers, I turned back toward the unmarked highway known as US 22.
Finally, I crossed into Wisconsin and cut across the state, following a collection of my favorite two-lane backroads home. I made it back in time to fix dinner for my wife, who arrived about an hour after I’d unpacked and scattered gear and filthy clothes all over the living room. As usual, she thanked me for being the thoughtful husband that I’ve been for almost 40 years and threw all my crap into the garage for me to sort out in the morning. We ate while she told tales of ungrateful customers and mindless mismanagement and I kept my mouth shut, nodded my head, said “uh huh” regularly., After a while I closed my eyes. Visions of dark green forests, “moose crossing” signs, huge lake vistas, monstrous rock walls, perfect highways, miles of curving roads, and “NO Vacancy” signs flashed across my mind’s far-from-disabled eye.