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Michigan's Thumbnail - October 10-12, 2003

I’d been yearning for another trip with Sarah Dipitee and my tent ever since getting back from West Virginia last year. But as luck would have it, my major client kept wanting my attention. For awhile, it looked like I’d have a couple weeks in October, but that client spoiled that.

Then, on a Friday morning, there was a bit of company politics that needed to have some time to play out. My project was ‘on hold’ for several days. Whoopie!

I checked the weather report. There would be rain early Sunday morning – over by 9am. Light winds out of the SSE on Saturday, and on Sunday, they would be 10-18 mph from the WNW.

I had never been in Michigan’s thumb area, but wanted to have a look-see. I got out my aging maps from the DNR (now sold dirt cheap by the League of Michigan Bicyclists) and my electronic MAP POINT software. I plotted a route on paved roads that would give me a tailwind most of the time. I allowed Saturday and Sunday about 40 miles each day, and a 20-mile Monday morning return to my car. I also plotted four ‘escape routes’, just in case I needed to return to the start quickly due to equipment, weather, or other issues.

I arrived in Bad Axe before 10am and found the airport a friendly and safe place to leave my car. My tailwind trip would be clockwise and include a lot of small towns.

The first town was Elkton, where I found a small café and had a good grilled cheese sandwich and Coke. I sat at the counter and struck up a conversation with a retired farmer. He still comes in during harvest to help at the grain elevator. There was still a crop in many fields that I didn’t recognize, thinking it might be alfalfa. He said it was soybeans. The big green leaves on a low plant I would recognize had died away, and the stalks with the beans were brown and dried – perfect for harvesting.

Back on the road, I noticed the bank clocks were reporting temps in the high 70s – my weather report from a day earlier only predicted a high of 69. I did a double take on one that read 83 degrees on a funeral home sign, but they must have had their sensor buried closer to the place no one wants to end up.

The next small town was Pigeon, which has a large Mennonite population. I stopped in a small non-Mennonite store and met the owner. He bought overstocked items and those approaching their ‘buy before’ date and priced them just above his cost. For instance, he had cookies that were 5 for a dollar. When kids came in, he told them to give him a dollar and take what they wanted. A friend kidded him that he would sell more if he became a Mennonite.

I didn’t find someone I could ask, but I wondered: When someone there dies and is buried, do they say he has been ‘pigeon-holed”?

I went on to Bay Port on Saginaw Bay. I should have taken a short cut around the town and saved a couple of miles. It seemed to me to be a ho-hum kind of place.

From this point on, except for the last 20 miles of my tour, I would be on M-25. It kind-of follows the shore of Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. As with the case of most roads by lakes, you don’t get to see much water. The land between the road and the water is rather pricey, with homes and woods frequently obscuring the view.

Five miles north is a finger of land that sticks out into the bay about 4 miles. On Cres Beach Road, there wasn’t an empty building lot on either side. At the end was a signed, private development. I ignored the sign, and found a small park with a couple of platform swings for watching the water birds on the beach, and probably the sunsets.

While I fought off the attacking ladybugs, I noticed one bird up close standing very still on one leg for a long time. Eventually, it moved by hopping on one leg; apparently the other one was injured. A couple of hops later it had to lie down and rest.

This detour added 8 miles to my planned trip, but I was feeling good. It was about 4pm and my planned campground was only another 8 miles up the road – no problem!

I went through Caseville and was disappointed, but only because all the potential ice cream sources were closed for the season.

It was about 5pm when the official at Sleeper (what a name for a campground) State Park said they were full. He suggested I go up the road to Cresent State Park. He had called two hours earlier when they had 10 open spots. This would turn my 40-mile day into at least a 67-mile day.

Now, 9 miles in a motor home is nothing, but to a guy on a loaded bike doing the arithmetic, I figured my chances were between slim and none. I even stopped along the way to buy dinner – a tube of Pringles and a half gallon of chocolate milk.

I pulled up to the registration building and was told there were still several places left. “Pick one, get set up, and come back here to drop an envelope with $20 in the slot.” I found a place that was level, and not all sand. My neighbors said no one had claimed it. It was mine! Before I could get my tent off of Sarah, they invited me to dinner. The Pringles were replaced by brats, burgers, and baked potatoes.

There was a young couple, and both sets of parents. Go figure! They treated me like family from the get-go. One of the dads had lost parts of his hand consistent with a hunting accident. The other dad had diabetes, and had to use a portable unit to do a blood exchanges. They had a large variety of alcoholic beverages and mixers, weren’t shy about partaking of them, but never appeared to me to be drunk. I should have been suspicious when they laughed at all my jokes.

It did rain overnight. As is usual on my first few days of camping, I didn’t sleep well, but I did get some rest, not feeling like getting up until 9am.

I first packed everything but the tent. When I got out, my neighbors said I could stick around for a while for breakfast, but I wanted to get back on the road.

I was now 10 miles ahead of my planned schedule with a stiff tailwind to look forward to. I began to think that I wouldn’t need a third day to finish the loop.

Port Austin was only 4 miles up the road. I found a nice café with people waiting outside for a table (a good sign). Before I went in, I talked with one couple about my trip. When their name was called, I went in to add my name to the list, and was invited to that couple’s table.

It turned out the couple was a brother and sister who had just stopped by after Mass to have breakfast. He used to be an assessor and knew the area well. I showed him a map segment I had with me, and he added some recommendations for the rest of my trip. I retrieved the rest of my map segments from my pannier, confirming that I already had selected most of the side trips he recommended.

He said I should stop at Danny Zebs, a combination bar/restaurant/party store for a unique experience. You know, just after noon on Sunday, it was different – the party store was locked and there was one guy at the bar. The TV was tuned into an infomercial telling us how to make thousands of dollars a week with no risk. I assume this gave equal time to opponents of reality television.

On the road again, I left M-25 to go through Huron City. It had a museum and a number of Elizabethan buildings. I couldn’t tell if they were part of the museum, or privately occupied. They were well maintained, but with not a human in sight.

Just down the road, I spotted park with a lighthouse. There was a pedestrian entrance at a split-rail fence. I had to remove a rear pannier to get Sarah through the right-angle turn. The buildings were closed for the season, but the grounds were open. At the far end is a campground. One couple I met said they would be there next year. For $1400, they could have a spot for the whole season – electricity and sewage included.

Back on M-25, I stopped briefly at Port Hope for a dish of Mackinaw Island Fudge ice cream.

Harbor Beach was my last stop along Lake Huron. The harbor is not natural; it was dredged by the U.S. Army Core of Engineers. So, I wondered (without satisfaction), what was the town called before the harbor was dredged?

Remember the assessor from breakfast time? He suggested an alternate route back to Bad Axe from Harbor Beach. Section Line Road would have less traffic and be more scenic than M-142, so I went that way.

His route had the same number of cute, small towns along the way – zip. This was all farmland, and most of it was post-harvest and wide open. My wonderful tailwind was now a full-on headwind for over 16-miles. Seeing ten miles an hour was a brief moment for celebration. More often, it was grind for two or three miles at six or seven miles an hour, and take a rest break.

Well, the rest of the ride was uneventful. I found the airport and got home before 11pm. That night, I had the best sleep I’d had in weeks! I didn’t get up until noon.

The roads were good to excellent, the drivers were courteous, and most of the people were friendly. Next time, I’ll take my shaver and extra camera batteries.

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