Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Le Grand Tour Begins

After a 3-week trip to Japan for Matt's wedding, we're now on the road on our tandem, bound for Ithaca NY.

We had a surprisingly unfrantic 26 hours in Seattle, given all that had to be done and was done. But Steve and Janet Sisson helped us recover from jet lag with a good sleep at their place, and we got our wedding post online and handled all the other Seattle-centric tasks that had to be done with no sense of hurry. Janet gave us a lift to Amtrak via the FedEx store, where our suitcases and backpacks from the Japan trip got sent on to Ithaca, and off we were.

Although the tandem has couplings and can be fit into two suitcases, we used the standard Amtrak method of taking two single-bike cardboard boxes telescoped together to pack our bike, with only a few parts removed to make it fit. Fortunately, we had all those removed parts where we could find them when we hit Milwaukee, so 45 minutes after we stepped off the train, we were biking the half-mile from the station to the lake shore, where we had the first of many lighthouse sightings of this trip. Having spent much of our lives on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, we never realized how many lighthouses are inland on the Great Lakes. One week into the trip and we've seen almost a dozen.

The first three days were north along the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan. We had a 25-miler through the north half of Milwaukee and into the suburbs right after getting the bike reassembled, but it was an easy urban 25 since the nice folks in city govt. had sent us a Milwaukee bike map that showed us bike trails (about half the distance) and quiet streets (almost all the rest) to Cedarburg. As we came into town a lycra-clad fellow on a ride squeezed between work and dinner showed us to the door of the Washington House Inn, a charming 120-year-old hostelry in a beautifully cared-for town that grew up around mills on the Cedar River in the 1850s. Walking through town that evening was like being transported to another, more gracious age.

Day 2 was rainy for the first half of the ride, but the Interurban Bike Trail more than compensated by providing a pleasant route through two more towns and a lot of countryside. It mostly followed an old interurban (long-distance trolley) line, and wherever the right of way could not be used, it took us with clear markings to wide, low-trafficked streets 'til we were back on the original route. Our third and final day in Wisconsin was on a road recommended on the state bicycle map, and it did not disappoint -- it was mostly level with only gentle rollers from time to time, with a decent shoulder for the 4 or 5 times an hour a car passed us. On top of this, it came out to the lake shore mid-way to Manitowoc, our destination, and gave us good views up and down the Lake Michigan shore. As we left Wisconsin on the S.S. Badger for a 4-hour ferry ride across the lake, we decided that eastern Wisconsin was both as beautiful and bike-friendly as western Wisconsin was when we toured a few hundred miles of it 5 years ago.

The ferry goes from Manitowoc WI to Ludington MI, and 1 1/2 hours from the former, all you can see from the boat is a sharp line between water and sky for 360 degrees around the boat, except for what looks like a soft pencil line above the horizon in a small area to the west. 15 minutes later and that is gone as well. In short, Lake Michigan is so wide that the curvature of the earth keeps you from seeing either shore when you are in the center, at least at the minimal height above the water, maybe 25', of our top deck. BTW, the Badger had a sign we decided to adopt, at least for our blog. Thought they might object if we took it down from the wall next to the cabins on the boat, but it expresses our thoughts poignantly.

The Michigan side of the lake, which we have now ridden for several days northward, is quite a bit different than the Wisconsin side, which is most farmland and gentle topography. Here, prevailing westerly winds have created sand dunes and a more irregular coastline, and a lot of the land is covered in forest, predominantly birch, ash, beech and scrub pine. The forest understory is usually low to the ground, so you can see quite a ways in to these forests, though no wildlife has yet come into view. Many of the roads we've found have been narrow and low-trafficked, and riding down them is sometimes like taking a hike in the woods, on wheels.

One day we stopped at a crossroads to check our map and a woman cycling by stopped to be sure we knew which way to go, then took off. By the time we got going, she was a few blocks' distance in front of us. With great effort, we caught up with her a few miles later, only to fall behind when she cranked it up over 20 mph. We saw her later in the next town, and she admitted to being named Cathy and being 57 years old. She was training for a century (100-miles in 1 day) ride, and it's clear she's going to do just fine.

We've stayed at three very nice B&Bs in Michigan so far, but one deserves special mention, Bear Lake Manor in the very small town of Bear Lake. It was built a little over a century ago for a physician and it is a beautiful building with a large, friendly living room just off the entry and a porch that wraps around two sides of the building, where we had breakfast. The night before, we walked down to Bear Lake itself, and watched the sun set on this 3-mile-wide circular lake, apparently a "kettle lake" formed by the receding glaciers. The hosts were gracious, the dinner in town was delicious, the evening relaxing, the setting beautiful. What more can you ask for?

The last four nights have been spent overnight in two locations, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Traverse City. A friend Louise made 15 years ago, June Thaden, lives in the latter and came to the former to treat us to some great hikes in the National Lakeshore. We spent Monday exploring the sand dunes, some as much as 460 feet (46 stories, for you city-dwellers!) above Lake Michigan. With the assistance of June's car, we accessed some great trails and had fun catching up with each others' doings. June was president for 3 years in the mid-90's of the League of American Bicyclists, the largest bicycle organization in the U.S., and is a wealth of knowledge about biking, bike touring and bicycle advocacy. She's not a one-sport person, either, and is leaving Saturday for two weeks of backpacking the Appalachian Trail in central Maine. She is one active 75-year-old! As you can see, she's also a tree-hugger. Hopefully we'll stay at least partly as active as June.

June also put us up at her home in Traverse City, the heart of the cherry region. This area grows one-third of the world's cherries! We went to a store that sells only items with cherries or made with cherry wood. Cherry salsa? Got it. Cherry mustard? Got it. On our "rest day" here in Traverse City we took a 40-mile ride up the Mission peninsula, 35 miles of it along the shore of Lake Michigan and 5 miles down the center of the peninsula where cherry orchards stretched along all the roads and off into the distance.

Tomorrow we're off on a 3-day jaunt up to Mackinac (pronounced mack - in - awe) Island, where the state highway circling the island has an enviable record. It's never had an automobile accident. Because automobiles have been banned from the island since state highways were "invented." We're spending three nights there to force ourselves to have a true rest day or two, and hopefully we'll find computer access to tell you more about Mackinaw Island and the route there through the famous "Tunnel of Trees."

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