Cheating Death on the Lake Michigan Loop: 1,000 Miles in 4 Days
An hastily conceived and ill-advised motorcycle trip pits two old friends against frigid fall weather to see just what the Midwest is really made of
It was early September and I was finally home in NYC after six months of near nonstop traveling. It felt nice, for 5 minutes. Then panic set in. October was completely empty. So, I called up an old pal in Chicago and asked if he was up for a little motorcycle ride. Maybe the Lake Michigan Circle Tour? Nick said yes, and very little else. The two of us have been dodging the clink together for over a decade now, and in that time you'd think I'd have learned to just sit back and enjoy the ride when with him, but I haven't. Because Nick is a fellow to follow if it’s adventure you want, and one to avoid at all costs if it’s not. And well, I guess I just like a good time too much to learn.
All efforts to plan were met with obnoxious retorts akin to, “just grab a backpack, get a bike, and stop worrying.” So I did. Sorta.
I didn’t stop worrying.
Nick laughed at the idea of camping this far into fall. Still I hauled enough gear from Brooklyn to both break my back and keep us covered for a few days well outside the city. Because I'm stubborn, and because camping is fun, and because I thought it’d make for some nice photos. “Michigan gonna eat you alive,” he texted just before my arrival. Pssh.
The general feeling around Chicago was we were too late—we had missed the Midwestern riding season. Had I known the conditions that lay ahead, perhaps I'd have heeded the not-so-subtle warnings. But I didn't, so we didn't. Instead I picked up my BMW R 1200 GS from Countryside, IL and we hit the road with the goal of running the iconic Lake Michigan Circle Tour—or the Michigan Loop, as we preferred. Spanning 1000 miles and four states (Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan), the Michigan Loop route is a local tradition. Most do it over a week, and almost exclusively in the summer. It was now mid-October, and we had just four free days. Easy peasy.
Go South, and Go Fast
This was the unsolicited advice we received as we mounted our bikes on the morning of day two. A storm was on the way, and the entire town of Green Bay knew it. We knew it too. We just chose to ignore it. I’ve ridden in rain before. Hell, I survived losing my mind in a zero visibility hailstorm outside Marfa, TX not long ago too. Whatever the Upper Peninsula had in store for us, I’ve faced worse. And Nick, well, he felt the same.
So we did as anyone in need of last minute supplies and something to take their mind off the impending doom does: go to Walmart. Thirty minutes or so later, with more camo than either of us had ever owned before in tow, we were ready for the north. We were’t likely to hit the storm for an hour or so, so we tossed the newly acquired gear in our dry bag packs and put rubber to road.
Eight miles. That’s all we covered before having to pull over under an overpass and toss on our rain gear. Eight miles. Yeah it feels just as silly now as it did then.
Rain gear is funny. It makes you look funny, and even though literally no one—NO ONE—cares what you look like when you’re hurtling down a remote highway at a mile-a-minute in pissing rain, it’s still funny. My near neon orange coat has long been a standby. The black Gore pants were a welcomed new addition picked up just a month before. Nick being Nick, owned zero rain gear until eight miles prior. Now he was head to toe in size way-too-big camo.
I had to admit, my dad gear perfectly matched my dad bike, and his matched his. From the get-go I joked that my BMW R 1200 GS made me look like an adventure dad. Nick felt it was more a “dentist on vacation” look. Jokes aside, I was damn happy to have a windscreen and more horses than I’ve ever ridden before under me. With 142 miles to go before the designated lunch spot, we posed for a few last second photos and Adventure Dad and Cool Guy set off.
It was wet. We were wet. It sucked. Like, really bad. But we found lunch at some funny named town next to another funny named town, between two more towns with funny names. Pancakes are a great way to cheer up. Four or five cups of coffee help too. The Diner’s many patrons took a few long, laughing looks at Adventure Dad. Cool Guy, in his Mossy Oak outfit—apparently the camo pattern of choice ‘round those parts—received less attention as at least 10% of the house had nearly identical outfits on. Sunday’s best in Escanaba.
One more trip to Walmart brought about a tough decision: Real Tree or Mossy Oak. I went Mossy Oak, like a real local. Nick stuck to his guns and opted to try Real Tree. Just 100 more miles to St. Ignace.
The Upper Peninsula is beautiful. US Highway 2 runs between the Hiawatha National Forest and the Sault Ste. Marie State Forest Area, with a great many miles offering little to look at but trees, trees and more trees. This was nice, sure, as autumn was close to being in full bloom. But I couldn’t help but gripe that it would be nice to see the lake, as you know, it’s a big deal in the region. Minutes later the shouldering trees receded and we were all alone on the water’s edge. It was windy as all get out. As in, blow-you-off-your-bike-with-ease windy. And rainy. It was really rainy too. This went on for some time.
Back between two fir forests, a lull in the incessant rain drew us down a sandy service road in search of something new to look at. “Old Man’s Graveyard Road” read the sign. Good enough for me, I thought. A couple hundred yards in and the gravel turned to sand, my glasses fogged and so did my helmet's face shield. And then, I fell over.
Not a crash, really. Just a topple. It still sucked—my foot took the bulk of the 550+ lbs—but at least the damning sand offered a soft landing. Nick approached with caution and a shit-eating grin. I went for a walk to shake off the spill and see if in fact there was a grave yard. Turns out it was just the name of a road. They got us. They say the UP is no place for weenies. I certainly wouldn’t call myself one, nor Nick, but man, I sure left US 2 with my tail between my legs.
"We’ll take these memories to our grave, whether we wind up there tomorrow or fifty years from now."
A lot more. Some hail too, cus why not kick us while we were down? Now toss in a few (read: many) logging trucks and cut visibility to a dozen feet with incredibly dense fog and you’re looking at exactly what we spent another hour plus riding in. We had no choice.
Our rain gear held strong and confidence grew. Or maybe it was indifference. Either way, facing death for hours on end really cheapens the thrill. So what'd we do? Shifted to sixth gear and hit the ton. After all, we'd done it each of the two days prior, and would do again the following two—100 mph in rain, wind, fog and under sunny skies too. It's a nice way to bring attention back to the matter at hand, like a sip of coffee in the midst of a boring meeting.
Now I know what you’re thinking...and the answer is yes, hitting triple digit speeds in a hailstorm is super stupid. But it’s also super fun. You’re not likely walking away from a spill at 50, so who cares what happens at double that? Yeah, sure, in hindsight it’s easy to find a few holes in that logic, but when screaming T. Swift into your helmet is the only thing keeping your mind off how absolutely horrible the current conditions are—and even that's not cutting it—dancing with death is only a step away.
At any rate, we survived, literally limping into St. Ignace with puddles of water squishing out our boots with each step. After a couple tries we were directed to a motel with vacancy. We squeezed out of our soaked gear, cranked the room temp to 90 and tried to shake the soggy chill from our tired bones.
Making The Most of It
Mackinaw is a cool little town, home to the largest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere, and really the only thing keeping Michigan’s Upper Peninsula connected to the real world—or from being annexed by Canada for that matter.
Weather was in our favor on day three. We crossed the impressive bridge and ripped down the northwestern corner of the mitten, with brief stops in Petasky and Traverse City. Both are pretty neat little towns, and a world apart from those we passed in the UP. Many, many more old, wealthy white folks in this corner of the state. A few more fun, winding roads too. (Side note: It was right about here when I realized by bike in fact came equipped with heated grips—a feature that would have been REALLY nice to know of just 20 hours earlier.)
As a native to the Pacific Northwest, I will be the first to admit to my coastal bias. Seeing the rawness of the UP and mainland Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park instilled a new admiration for the state known to many outside (and probably many inside) the midwest as the Murder Mitten. The Upper Peninsula let us out alive only because I asked nicely. Lower Michigan’s fall foliage, warmer temps and coastal sunsets welcomed us with open arms. Here we felt the Midwestern niceness the region is known for.
Just when we thought we were home free, a last second decision to change ferry’s added a hundred more miles to our final tour day and brought us into Muskegon, MI well after dark. We’d run the final stretch of pitch black highway at an average speed of 90 plus, tipping the ton whenever the wind died down long enough. Fresh pavement and empty roads were the perfect excuse to do so. And like I said earlier, what’s the point of riding a death trap if you’re not gonna ride like old Grim himself is on the back riding bitch?
Our final morning brought about temps in the low thirties, and after that didn’t thwart us, endless lane splitting nearly did. By the time we returned to Chicago via a Lake Michigan ferry (we opted to skip Indiana, cus duh), the tally of how many times we each cheated death was well beyond double digits. Favorites include Nick nearly being pancaked by a two-ton truck in nowheresville, Wisconsin, more than a few squirrelly attempts at riding no-hands and no-feet like a starfish, and of course the time I accidentally played chicken with a Mack truck while passing another in a hail storm.
It may sound macabre, but we’ll take these memories to our grave, whether we wind up there tomorrow or fifty years from now. And hey, we even got a nice picture of us together on the ferry ride home. Something to share with the kids someday, ya know.