Sunday, May 10, 2009

A semi-disasterous four-day ride around Lake Michigan

As another practice trip before heading out on my 25k summer road trip, I decided to take a three-day trip around Lake Michigan. Partly to see what there is to see, but also to have a long multi-day trip with the full load of gear, to make sure I have everything that I need, and to make sure the bike is loaded properly and still handles okay with all my stuff piled onto it.

Given that the weatherman called for some showers, but mostly sunny, warm and clear weather for the next five days, I decided to take my Olympia riding suit, but to leave the insulated liner for it at home. This turned out to be a mistake, but we'll get to that later.

Of course, just because I'm awesome and have great luck, within about half an hour of leaving, it started to rain. And not just a summer sprinkle. We're talking epic fucking downpour. I pulled into a gas station to put the rain covers on the luggage, and pulled out to find . . . TRAFFIC! Yay! Hell of a way to start a trip.

I took 41 north, eventually merged with 94 and kept heading North.

Everyone who's grown up or spent time in the tri-state area has seen this sign many times, but for some reason I never bothered to stop and get my picture taken with it before.


At this point the rain was letting up some, eventually stopping all together, although the humidity in the air prevented me from drying out much. I rode through Milwaukee, getting onto 43 north, and after an hour or so pulled off into a Subway to stretch and get a snack.

Om nom nom nom

Now, I'm used to being gawked at, seeing as I usually wear a black leather trench coat everywhere, but it turns out that wearing a neon-yellow riding suit gets me stared at even more then normal.

I poked around in my GPS, trying to find a route north that looked like it would be interesting, but didn't have much luck. It looked like cool stuff didn't start until you get a good deal farther north, so I just said hell with it, and stuck to 43 for a while, eventually pulling off onto country roads just south of Sheboygan around 7pm to find a spot to camp for the night.

It was getting late, and dark, but I eventually found a pretty great spot off a tiny little un-named road and down a little trail next to a railroad bed. Even with hardly and leaves on the trees, I was well concealed and the area was pretty flat. Just as I found the spot, it started raining again, and hard. Through a probably very comical process, I managed to set up at least the rain fly for the tent with all my riding gear still on. So while everything else (including my thermarest, which is essentially a giant sponge) got soaked, I at least stayed mostly dry.

It stopped raining at about 3am, and by the next morning, all that greeted me was clear blue skys and a warm breeze.

I actually didn't break camp until almost 10am, taking advantage of the sun to help dry stuff out a bit. After taking off the rainfly, I discovered that I'd been attacked by an army of ladybugs through the night. These guys were all over EVERYTHING. After shaking them off the best I could, I road the bike out (you can hear me swearing a bit when an angry bush scratched up my left hand, the result of me forgetting to put on my gloves).

I headed back to the lake, hoping that the shore would provide some interesting riding.

It was pretty, but too developed to be any fun, and at LEAST 15 degrees cooler then just a mile farther inland. I didn't have my suit liner, so I abandoned I-43 and headed inland on country roads in search of good riding.

They were not really fun, but at least they turned every so often to give a break from the arrow-straight monotany that is most of I-43. According to my GPS, I'd have to go well inland to find anything fun, so rode up through Green Bay and got on Rt 29 heading to Shawano.

Better, but not great. The area around showed promise, though. Some national forests and state parks were in close proximity, which on the map seemed to be full of bendy things.

Speaking of bendy things;

I have no idea what the hell happened there. It almost looks like it was semi-deliberate, as there's relatively little body damage.

Anyway, I road through Shawano and stopped by a Wal-Mart (I know, I know) for some supplies of cereal and granola bars.

After snacking and refilling my water bottles, I took 55 North, which runs along side what I think is the Wolf River. This . . . now this was what I was talking about! It wasn't SUPER twisty, I had no problems doing most of the turns at 40mph, and I'm an inexperienced rider on a fully loaded cruiser with touring tires. Still, it was a shit-ton of fun, hardly any traffic at all, very pretty, warm, clear air . . . it was heaven.

I could have followed 55 northwest all the way to Crandon, but that would have taken me way off course, and I didn't have a ton of time to spare. So when I got to Langlade, I poked my GPS and it to get me to Iron Mountain, MI. It routed me on a bunch of flat and dull-looking state highways and interstates, which didn't sound too appealing, so I told it to suggest the shortest (but not fastest) route it could find. In a big, scary-looking red screen it said something to the effect of; "ARE YOU SURE? RESEARCH HAS SHOWN THAT THE SHORTEST ROUTE IS NOT THE FASTEST, MAY BE MORE DANGEROUS AND GET WORSE GAS MILEAGE!"

After reassuring it that yes, I was okay with that, it said "Oh yeah? Well, fuck you." It took me on some wonderfully remote, and twisty, but not so smooth rural roads.

But then those roads turned into this;

And then this:

And eventually, this:

Videos! Yeah, they're really shaky. This is partly because of the rough roads, but mostly because a point-and-shoot camera gorilla-podded to the handlebars isn't that stable of a mount. That's why I embedded in a smaller size, it makes the shaking less noticeable.

Eventually I made it out of the logging roads, and north up to Norway, Michigan. This . . .

This is where it all went horribly wrong.

I tried finding a place to camp, and . . .

What I didn't know (because I'm stupid) was that the battery actually was effectively dead, it just still had enough power to occasionally make the lights work. In trying to get the bike out, I'd been stalling it semi-frequently and constantly had to re-start it, which drained it in pretty short order. I was expecting that when the battery got low, the lights would start to dim and the starter would crank more slowly, giving me some warnings. But bikes are much different then cars, and while one moment it seemed fine, the next . . . *click*

This was the turn-off from the road, and I was about 500 yards down it. Why I didn't just freaking stop at some point? I don't freaking know. Because I'm stupid.

I think I was over-confident in myself and the bike's abilities, having spent most of the day on logging roads, I figured some grass shouldn't be a problem. Going into it, I didn't know just how soppy the ground under the grass was. I think even a tractor would have had major problems in it.

I (barely) had cell reception, and put in a call to AAA. In my defence I did say that the bike was 500 yards off the road, but I guess the lady didn't hear me because of a lousy connection, or just pretended not to. Technically, they only provide assistance within 15 yards of the road. Not if you're a complete dumbass who tries to take a cruiser with slick touring tires through a bog.

After a couple minutes on hold, she told me she was having trouble getting ahold of a company in the area (and I'd asked specifically for a tower that had a sense of humor), and said she'd call back when she found someone.

I'm not going to lie, I was feeling pretty bummed at this point. I didn't really know how/if I could get my bike out, it was dark (I got stuck at maybe 8:30pm, and it got dark quickly after I recorded those videos), I was in the middle of po-dunk nowhere, and I could actually occasionally hear wolves or Cyotes or something howling in the distance. I hung my bag of food up in a tree a few hundred feet from me, hoping that if they came browsing, they'd go for it, not me. (To be honest, I wasn't that worried about them, I think they'd have had a difficult time getting through the riding suit and helmet)

What more was there for me to do? I carried most of my gear back to the road, sat down, and took a nap with my phone jammed under my chin (so that it would wake me if she called).

They eventually called back around 10pm, saying they'd found someone, and that it would be about a two-hour wait. I wasn't in a position to complain, so I thanked them, pulled out my iPod, and listened to some This American Life.

The towers showed up around 11:30pm, a husband and wife team that looked and acted very much like your stereotypical country mechanics, which was exactly what I needed. We hiked out to my bike, them carrying a jumper box and big flashlight, and the three of us managed to muscle the bike out of the ditch I'd gotten it into, and onto (slightly) firmer ground.

The jumping box got the bike going again, but because of a really stupid design on Yamaha's part, you have to disconnect and then fully pull the battery out of the bike to get to the positive terminal. This means that you can't get the battery back into the bike without disconnecting it . . . which would stop the engine. Adding to this that the battery was SO flat that the bike wouldn't run by itself, we had to keep the jumping box connected to it. We ended up bungee-cording the battery to the size of the bike and putting the jumping box into the saddlebag.

I was able to ride the bike out, but barely.

Now . . . I've been scared at some points in my life, really scared, but riding that bike out through the forest at 6000rpm in first gear at close to 30mph, in the dark, on uneven, boggy, marshy, wet ground with flakey electrics and a headlight that wasn't too reliable . . . that was one of the most terrifying things that I've ever done. Worse because I knew that I COULD NOT STOP. If I stopped, the bike would get stuck again. There was NO traction, the bike was sliding all over the place, I couldn't even pause for the split-second to shift gears, because that would transfer load to the front tire and probably send me sprawling. So I had to have the engine revved insanely high, and engage in some very fancy clutch work to not stall at the points where I DID have traction.

This while the battery is bungee-corded to the side of the bike about an inch from the hot exhaust manifold.

I can't tell you how relieved I was when I actually got back onto the road, though. I mean . . . utter joy, but I was also still shaking from the adrenalin rush of riding the bike out.

(damn, this was a giant block of text. I wonder if anyone will actually read all of it)

Anyway, I road the bike (with the battery bungeed to the side) about 10 miles to the nearest hotel, with the towing people following me carrying all my stuff. I thought that this would have been enough to charge the battery enough to re-start the bike, but it wasn't (I learned later that it would take at least 2-3 hours for a bike to fully charge it's own dead battery)

I took this opprotunity to unpack some of my gear to let it dry out as much as possible, some of it was still soaked from that last rainy night.

The bike, with the battery bungeed to the side so that I could jump it again to ride it to the nearest bike shop.

I rode to Iron Mountain Powersports, pulled out the battery and brought it in for them to test. They said that it didn't seem like it was bad, just mostly flat. I left it with them to charge for a couple hours, while I went and got food.

They had crayons, for children to doodle on the paper tablecloths with, I assume. It turns out that I am still children.

Shoutouts to the various other places that this report is posted to (If you don't get the jokes, don't ask. Your brain will thank you). And then while waiting, I traced everything on the table.

I gayed it up with a salad instead of an actual meal. Because, well. You know. It was tasty.

I went back to the shop, and they confirmed that the battery was fine, simply flat. Yay for that. I put the battery back in, packed up, and hit the road.

Sadly, most of Northern Michigan is pretty flat and dull. At least there's lots of trees, though. It's better then endless farmland.

Some of it did run along the lake shore, which was nice, but a good deal cooler then inland, and still not that twisty.

I made it across all of Northern MI, and across the $3 Mackinaw bridge. I didn't think to take many pictures at this point, although I don't know why. If you're really curious what it looks like, google.

It was getting late, and I made to into Wilderness State Park (just west of Mackinaw City) just as the sun was setting. The roads in the park were actually AWESOME fun, but I was tired, and just wanted to throw up the tent and sleep. So again, no pictures of them.

I did find a great camping spot, though.

The next morning when packing, I managed to rip the stuff sack bag for the tent. Fortunately, this was my last night of camping for this trip).

I headed south, sticking to costal roads, and eventually . . . I found the glory, the shear joy that is M-119.

Signs said that it was a designated scenic route, called "The Tunnel of Trees". It was filled with glorious warning signs like this:

And just for the record, THEY GODDAMN MEAN 20mph. Even at low speeds, there were some OHSHIT moments where I was over far enough to be scraping my heels on the ground. The road is REALLY narrow, has very steep hills and razor-sharp turns.

It was wonderful.

Sadly, my camera's memory was almost full. So no videos of it.

But people, really. If you're EVER in northern MI. YOU HAVE TO RIDE THIS ROAD. It's fucking awesome.

The rest of Northern MI, though? Mostly sucks. I tried exploring some, but it was cold (45f), and I really just wanted to get home. So I mostly stuck to Rt 31 south until it joined I-196, and then I-94. It was almost 600 miles this last day, and as I type this the day after, I'm still sore from it.

I was trying to hold off having to pay for any more food, but I was so damn hungry that my stomach was starting to cramp up. So somewhere north of Muskegon I stopped in in inhaled this in about 7 minutes flat.

There's no more pictures, because nothing else that interesting happened. I was very cold, and just wanted to get home. I finally pulled into Chicago at 9:30pm, took a shower, and went to sleep.

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