“I have poured blood and treasure into the sport of motorcycling all of my life for moments and places like this.”
I remember during the beginning of a family vacation when I was a kid. As we pulled up to the highway my Mom said, “Tails we go east, heads we go west.” The result was a trip through most of the western United States, a trip filled with wonders and vistas that echo to this day. That trip, however, will always be punctuated by its impulsive beginning. Following the wind, a wandering bird or the toss of a coin always creates a cozy bed for future dreams.
We had seven days. West Virginia? Colorado? Wait a minute, how about Canada. It’s the middle of summer so we’re not going to run into raging snowstorms (I think). They speak English (I think). Bonjour Canada, bien sûr.
Now, I’m a high mile motorcyclist. I believe that every mile traveled by bike is worth five traveled by car. So, I went down to my local sponsor of mid-life crisis and plunked down payments aplenty. The FLHTP had a warranty, which makes anything barring crashes, someone else’s fault. Peace of mind is important when you’re exposed to the heap big wind miles from home.
Canada is not the U.S. The official rules for getting in to Canada state that you must have a picture I.D. (driver’s license) AND birth certificate or naturalization papers. Also, starting in 2007, you must have a visa or passport. However, I was told off the record by an employee of the Canadian consulate that it depends on the guard at the border crossing and most of them understand that American tourists dump beaucoup l'argent into the Canadian economy. She didn’t think I’d have a problem. I had my birth certificate, but my wife, Bridget could not find hers. So what we did was bring a certificate she received when she was on a federal grand jury years ago. We figured that they don’t give those out to non-U.S. citizens.
A quick consult of the map tells us we should point the front wheel toward Minneapolis. Time is 9:30 a.m., winds are light, and clouds are high. Now I’m a big fan of two-lane highways. They remind me of a beautiful and lonely country girl waiting for a handsome drifter, etc. Two-lane highways in between K.C. and Minneapolis might just be too much lonely and not enough beautiful, so I-35 it is. Since we started with a half a tank of gas we maxed out the fuel gauge at Cameron, Missouri. No problem, just pull off and head for the nearest 91-octane firewater. Evidently Cameron has foregone the pleasure of high-octane bike gas. With nothing but fumes in the tank, we barely make it to a BP station where we take on 4and 3/4 gallons of go juice. About 10 miles inside Iowa those high clouds began to descend and boil. Good rain gear makes just about all the difference in the world and if it’s just drizzle and light blowing rain there’s no misery factor at all. After lunch in Des Moines clouds parted to reveal sweltering heat. Rain gear off.
Next stop, Latimer, Iowa. The hot wind is blowing away all perspiration. It is hot, but the wind is at our backs pushing us along so we’re not at all uncomfortable. We need to replace fluids in a big way though. Along the way there are miles and miles of wind farms. I love these things with their gigantic blades beating out huge rhythms. I think of Don Quixote.
We stop in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota at about 6 p.m. We find a shady side of a gas station and lie down on the curb. We’re about an hour and a half out of Minneapolis and we’re starting to get a little punchy. Spirits are still high and we push on. Once we get to Minneapolis metro we decide that we should take the interstate through St. Paul.
Most of us who live in Missouri are familiar with the majesty of the Mississippi river. I have never seen the Nile or the Amazon but I have heard tell that the Mississippi is every measure their match. “Down here” we span the river with gigantic suspension and cantilever bridges that stretch for miles. In St. Paul, however, they span it with common single span highway bridges. I feel so sorry for it because it looks so anemic, only being a mere couple of hundred yards across. We consult the map for its headwaters. Maybe we can detour?
We decide to stop for the night about 20 miles north of the twin cities at a town called Forest Lake. If aliens wanted to create a terrarium of life on earth in America they would use Forest Lake, Minnesota as a template. Motel prices are high because it’s the 4th of July weekend. There also appears to be a town carnival going on. Our choices for motels are the AmericInn out by the highway or a charming motel downtown where the party is. The fact is we are beat, pummeled by a 10-hour motorcycle ride. We don’t want a party and we opt for the quiet. We order food from one of the local restaurants that offer hotel delivery. We tell the front desk to direct them to our room. They totally blow it and we wind up eating crappy convenience store food at 11 at night. The next morning we raise holy hell with the management about their screw-up and demand a reduction in our bill. They meekly comply.
The morning, however, is glorious. We’ve slept 9 solid hours and feel like athletes ready to run all day. The goal is Thunder Bay, Ontario. As we pull out onto I-35 toward Duluth we suddenly realize we might have a problem. It’s the 4th of July weekend and traffic is at best heavy. After riding less than an hour we decide it’s time to go two-lane. We make the right choice. State Route 23 is a clean, well-maintained road that leads us to Duluth. It is a road that in many ways reminds us of the Natchez Trace in Mississippi, very tame and pastoral. Towards Duluth it starts getting a little wilder though. About 25 miles from Duluth the land starts to rise and fall.
We pull up to a scenic overlook called Evergreen Memorial Drive and marvel at the vista. A gentleman who is probably about 65 pulled up on a 1979 Yamaha XS400 with a small dog riding on the tank. He bragged that he just picked it up for $100. I asked him whether he was talking about the dog or the bike. The bike and the dog are pretty clean, sounds like a bargain for either or. There are several other people on bikes at this scenic overlook too, a couple from Bloomington, Indiana, a guy from Lacrosse, Wisconsin, everybody’s got something interesting to say.
Duluth is not what I thought it would be. There will be many times on this trip that I will feel that way. Crossing the St. Louis River, Duluth sits on the side of a mountain that descends into Lake Superior. On the south shore lies Superior, Wisconsin. From almost any place you can see the entire area and this place looks busy. We travel on through town right up to the end of Interstate 35 where it essentially turns into state route 61. The road splits into a two-lane “expressway” to Two Harbors or a route that follow the lake. We opt for the lake route.
We stop along one of the many roadside parking areas to take pictures of the lake. We notice that our T-bag has got some major sag to it. It appears the rigging I made to fasten the bag to the sissy bar pad has torn the studs out of the pad. Seems all I needed to do was throw money at the problem, hooray! After a trip to the friendly yet expensive Harley Davidson dealer we’re on our way.
We’re now doing what we came here to do; riding the north shore of America. It is positively glorious. Sun, sky, land and sea come together to produce one of the most satisfying rides I have ever been on. Many people can say they’ve seen the color blue but the sad fact is that until you’ve ridden the shores of Lake Superior your description lags.
There appears to be no lack of services in this part of the country. Gas, food and lodging are in ready supply although I imagine that they would dry up fast if we wandered far from the main highway. We can still see the Wisconsin shore and there are small islands and crags along the shoreline. The foliage is splendid with birch and pine in great supply.
Twenty miles northeast of Two Harbors is Split Rock Lighthouse. The decommissioned yet fully functional lighthouse is one of Minnesota's best-known landmarks. Shipwrecks from the great storms of 1905 prompted its construction. Completed by the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1910, it has been restored to its 1920s appearance. The state historical commission runs it, and even though the admission might be considered high ($8) I feel that it’s worth it. The view along the shore and its setting in general is something that inspires awe on all levels.
I start to become slightly concerned. The afternoon is waning and we’re trying to make it to Thunder Bay. We’re still 130 miles away and the country is starting to look wilder.
The north shore is quite a mixed bag. Sheer rock faces and primordial vistas often give way to taconite mills and terminals. The lake is beautiful and calm though due to a mild and steady west wind. We push on past Silver Bay and Grand Marais. The border is at Grand Portage and we’re getting the sensation that we are truly way far north. Once at the border we’re both a little nervous about getting in since Bridget does not have a birth certificate. The border guard however, is courteous to a fault and explains that Canada is a foreign country and he must see a picture I.D. and ask a series of simple questions. It is a totally painless experience and we continue pushing north.
At this point it becomes apparent that Canada is not what I thought it would be. Glaciers have carved the terrain and the mountains jut through thick forests of birch and fir. Everywhere there are lakes and rivers. State Route 61 has turned into provincial highway 61 and the road signs are bilingual. Comment dit-on cela en français? Although the mountains are no higher the Appalachians or the Ozarks they take on many of the characteristic of the Rockies. That is perhaps due to the fact that we’re in such northern climes.
Before this trip I must admit that I had never heard of Thunder Bay, Ontario other than in mere passing. I imagined a sleepy, beat up, old lake town that people migrated from. My perceptions were so far off the mark that it has made me a fool. It is a large metropolitan area with a population of around 125,000. Every imaginable industry and services are available there and the lakefront is world class. A lot of shipping goes through Thunder Bay, anything that can be put on rails or a boat.
We arrive around 8 p.m. local time, check into the motel and search for a good meal. The front desk tells us that may be tricky because today is un Juillet (July 1st), Canada Day. Every Canuck with a firecracker is on the loose tonight. We are able to locate a very fine steakhouse though. When we finish our excellent meal we walk outside to discover that it’s raining buckets. After about a half hour wait the rain starts to subside. It is 10:30 at night and I notice that there is still plenty of light. This briefly confuses me until I suddenly remember that we are “way up nawth.”
When we arrive back at the hotel we discover that our air conditioner has magically turned into a boat anchor and is pumping out stale hot air. The management puts us in the presidential suite, the nicest room in the hotel. Let me tell you, these are custom digs. It has a shower that is bigger than my garage.
The next morning we pack up with the intention of making it to “The Sault” (remember, we pronounce in French, Su), Sault Ste. Marie. We gas up at the corner Petro-Canada station, $1.20/ltr. (Canadian, of course) and head down Arthur Street to take a quick tour of the downtown. It is Sunday morning, the day after Canada Day and the place looks sleepy. Crews are cleaning up Marina Park. The view of the harbor is stunning. Through the morning mist we can easily see the Welcome Islands. As we scan toward the east we can barely make out through the lake fog “the Sleeping Giant.” This island resembles the outline of a giant sleeping on its back. There is an Indian legend that accompanies the island; however, one should note that you can’t swing a dead cat around here without running into an Indian legend.
We finally pick up the Trans Canada Highway Route #11/#17 and start heading east (actually farther north). About a mile into our travel day my heart sinks. The road sign reads Sault Ste. Marie, 705! There is no way I can make 705 miles through the Canadian wilderness in one day! Then after briefly realizing I was having a brain fart I surmise that they’re talking kilometers. Oh yeah, 440 miles through unknown territory is much better.
A couple of miles down the road we stop at a truck stop near a place called Wild Goose for some breakfast. There we met some fellow cycle ridin’ fellers from Detroit. They we’re on the second day of a 21-day trip through the Canadian Rockies, to British Columbia and back. I felt like a lightweight, merely buzzing around the Great Lakes. Hmmm…sounds like next year’s trip might be taking shape.
On we go to Nipigon Bay, arguably one of the most beautiful places on earth. The mountains and the lake start to take on a surreal quality as we round the bay. It is starting to occur to me that surely they must be running out of names for all the lakes and rivers up here. Up here the terrain embodies the meaning of wilderness. It also occurs to me that I have never been this far north. The farthest east I’ve been is the Atlantic, the farthest west, the Pacific. I feel I am at the very zenith of geography.
The Trans Canada is a damn fine road, well maintained and apparently not too traveled. Consulting the map reveals that venturing north beyond it would thrust us into an environment that a Harley-Davidson is not suited for. A KLR 650 or a pack mule would probably work for the great expanse of mountains, water and timber that stretch up to the Artic circle. To our right is the lake, always coming in and out of view, always revealing some island or crag straight out of a fairy tail.
Until now the wind has been out of the west. When we round Nipigon Bay it starts to come out of the south. Things change dramatically. On goes the rain gear as we plow through the very thickest and fastest moving fog I have ever experienced. The temperature drops also as the wet wind is carried off the lake and onto us. Even as the misery factor climbs the scenery is still quite breathtaking with the fog somewhat punctuating these fascinating lake vistas.
By the time get to Terrace Bay we have to stop, not because of the weather or fatigue. This spot on the lake is just too beautiful. We are overwhelmed. I have poured blood and treasure into the sport of motorcycling all of my life for moments and places like this. I consider this trip paid for.
We continue on to Marathon. There’s no denying the cold, fog and rain are starting to generate an attitude. We need coffee, now! The people look (and are) friendly but the place looks hard. Every building in town is a Morton building and it looks like winter kicks their asses every year. Quite a few of these towns look like this. Even though it is the middle of summer, winter casts a long bony shadow and these towns and villages up here look like they are ramped up for it all year round.
The lakeshore turns south and the road turns east. We are heading into the wilderness, toward White Lake and White River. South of us somewhere is Pukaskwa Provincial Park. North of us, maybe Russia. We pull into White River and it is 90 degrees. Sixty miles later we pull into Wawa; it is 65 degrees. Through the wilds we plunge though a vast area perhaps hundreds of square miles once devastated by forest fire. It is fascinating to behold. The area has started to rejuvenate itself after many years. I find it starkly picturesque.
At Wawa we stop for more coffee and the largest order of french fries I have ever seen. As we continue now along through Lake Superior Provincial Park and down the lakeshore, clouds and fog have dissipated and the result is a mellow and perfect summer afternoon. We’re no longer on the north shore but on the east shore. We stop at Agawa Bay for a little bucolic frolic including pictures along the beach and among the rocks. In case I haven’t mentioned this, the water is as clear and clean as any water anywhere. It is calm considering that we are on the far windward shore of a mammoth inland sea.
The day wanes. We find ourselves admiring the afternoon vista and forget about the gas gauge. Just as the fuel situation starts to look acute we see a sign for gas right off the highway and up a hill. As we pull up we notice this is really somebody’s front yard with gas pumps. As I start to put the hose in my tank a man says, “We’re really closed, but if you need some gas I’ll go turn on the pumps.” This place looks quite rundown but the man is friendly and sincere. By the way, his little fuel outpost sits atop a mountain overlooking Batchawana Bay. This guy has got it made.
By now we’re within an hour of Sault Ste. Marie. There’s nothing to do accept soak up scenery. It has been a long day and my brain is suffering from sensory overload. We’re heading back to civilization now. Houses, campgrounds and resorts are starting to dot the terrain. The sun hangs lazily over Whitefish Bay and we’re starting to keep eyes peeled for a motel. As soon as we get within the city limits of Sault Ste. Marie it appears that we are on the main drag of any city in the U.S. Wal-Mart, Burger King, checks cashed, title loans. We decide to forego the big chain motels for a home-owned place called the Starlight. The owner is very bike friendly, even offering a hose and cleaning supplies if we feel like washing our now completely filthy bike. He recommends a fine restaurant only two blocks away. We eat, we crash. I have arguably been through one of the single most intense travel days in my life. There will be more to come.
The next morning we drive through downtown Sault Ste. Marie to the St Mary’s River and the “Soo” locks. It is truly amazing to see such a great expanse of water traveling so fast. Lake Superior is 29 feet higher than Lakes Huron and Michigan. There would be no way to navigate this river without the locks but the river still has rapids running its length in places. We get on the International Bridge, a fabulous double span truss arch bridge, and head back to le Etats-Unis.
We head down I-75 for the Mackinaw Bridge. Sorry, no more mountains. The terrain is still pretty but it doesn’t rise like Ontario. It’s about 45 miles and we need breakfast. We stop in St. Ignace, a pretty tourist town full of resorts, gift shops and the like. There are jet ferries to Mackinac Island. Indeed, there are several islands dotting the seascape out in Lake Huron. We go down to the observation point for the Mackinaw Bridge. This bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere. It is possible that the deck at center span could move as much as 35 feet (east or west) due to high winds. Also this bridge has a grated steel deck between spans. We won’t be taking our motorcycle across today.
Instead we are going through the Upper Peninsula bound for Milwaukee where our daughter is attending college. We’ll be taking in Lake Michigan today. From the Bridge we take U.S. Route 2. From Pointe Aux Chenes to Epoulette the road is right along the lake and there are miles upon miles of light beaches and clean water. Needless to say since this is the middle of summer the road is lined with the parked cars of beach-goers. These people are committed to serious lake frolic. This would be okay if not for the fact that it is starting to get a little cold and is showing signs of rain. The road rises and falls, sometimes down on the lake, sometimes riding tall bluffs overlooking the lake. By the time we get to the Brevort River the rain gear has to go on. Past Millecoquins Point the road drives inland (and the rain comes down). This is pretty wild country and I wish I could see more of it but we are slamming through the rain. Around the town of Manistique we rejoin the lakeshore. Also the heavens part and reveal beautiful warm Michigan sunshine. We ride through the Hiawatha National Forest, along Big Bay de Noc.
I love the names of some of these places we’ve been to. As I’m riding I try to get my tongue around them. Some of them I repeat over and over again trying to imagine how they sound in the local accent or dialect. Because of the road noise Bridget can’t hear me so I make up little games with their pronunciation. Pointe Aux Barques, Escanaba, Tahquamenon, I roll them around in my mouth like lifesavers and finally top it all off by putting a southern accent on everything. Putting a southern accent on some of these names gives them a kind of perverse validation. I crack me up.
Past Esanaba the lakeshore straightens out and heads southwest along Green Bay. All along the way at rest stops and fuel stops we ask people how far it is to Milwaukee. Some tell us “oh you’re about 2½ hours out.” Other say, “You’re not gonna make it tonight, it’s 10 hours away.” It’s starting to occur to me that these people don’t have any clue about where Milwaukee is.
We get to Menominee/Marinette on the Wisconsin border. This is a pretty little lake town split by the Menominee River. Just a couple of miles out we stop at the Harley dealership in Peshtigo. Vandervest H-D is friendly and clean. I feel sorry for H-D dealerships sometimes. They have so much of some people’s money that they have to be friendly to them even if they’re assholes. We get the oil changed, buy the perfunctory T-shirts and in general try not to be assholes.
We’re bound for Green Bay. Like most Americans, I’ve never been there and imagine that Green Bay is merely a stadium surrounded by a parking lot surrounded by where the people live. It is not, it is a hard working town with a huge industrial base and a huge port. As we head south out of town I see on the far southwestern horizon storm clouds rise. I know that at some time they have to cross I-43. I pour on the speed determined to get around it before it pummels us. At this point I’m kind of wishing I had a GPS just to help me work out the triangulation of the storm. In the end we outrun it.
We pull into Milwaukee just after sunset and promptly get lost. We call our daughter and she comes to our rescue, leading us out of confusion and into her neighborhood. After a nice visit we head to the ‘burbs of Waukesha to find lodging.
The next morning is the 4th of July. We have been invited to Bridget’s sister’s house in Joliet for a party. “Sounds wonderful, let’s avoid the interstates and go there on two lanes.” This is a good idea as long as we are in Wisconsin. The terrain is rolling farmland and perfectly suited for motorcycle travel. Lake Geneva is pretty but way too crowded. As we drop in to Illinois on Route 47 the land continues to be pleasant, but once we get south of Interstate 90 we start to experience the outer fringes of Chicago suburban sprawl. I’m quickly getting sick of pastel subdivisions with fake names that sound like you’re one of Robin Hood’s merry men. We arrive in Joliet though and have a wonderful family party.
The next morning we head for home. Joliet to K.C. is usually an eight-hour drive via I-80 to Des Moines and then south via I-35. We pull onto 80 and realize we have a light headwind and the trucks are as thick as fleas on an ugly dog. After consulting the map we decide that we don’t want to take another eight hours of boring landscape getting our asses kicked by trucks going 90 miles per hour. Two-lane highways it is and we decided to follow the Illinois River.
This route will take us longer, that is for sure but it will be gleaning scenery from an area that was once thought to be bereft of scenery. Yes, central Illinois is very pretty in places as long as you go where no one else goes. We stop in Peoria to eat. We are both weary, our heads and hands are buzzing. We are also a kind of happy proud for coming so far and seeing so much. We continue on via U.S. 24 along and through the Illinois valley. It occurs to me that in my younger days I used to travel this route on a Honda 550. Memories are vivid now. As we go through a town called Little America the entire valley is in view and it’s apparent we have made the right choice as far as routes go.
We are bound for Quincy along the river. Once we cross back into Missouri we head for Hannibal where we pick up U.S. 36. From there it is just a matter of a couple of hours through placid Missouri farmland. From Cameron we head south and home. We arrive at sundown.
How do you feel? How do you tell people where you’ve been? How do you equate the experience so others know? When taken in total once you’re home, the entire trip seems strange, somewhat surreal. When you ride in a steel and plastic box to these places it’s almost as if you’re being shown a movie. It’s like you’re not really there. Taking the trip via motorcycle is the next best thing to walking through the land, touching it, smelling it. I feel as if I’ve been gone for weeks on end. Home feels good.
By Bob Harvey