Sunday, October 18, 2020

Buchanan, Michigan


After completing my gathering of Carnegies, I extended my 1,200 mile ride around Michigan by swinging over to Buchanan on the St. Joseph River having learned from Randy of the Warren Podcast and Everesting fame that it had just been named the “nicest place” in the US by the “Reader’s Digest.” He grew up nearby and recommended a visit.

It was so nice that this quiet, four-stoplight town of 4,500 wasn’t even bragging about its designation.  There were no banners or signs proclaiming the honor, nor had anyone bothered to update the town’s Wikipedia page.  That could be in keeping with its namesake, the most obscure of US presidents, Lincoln’s predecessor.  There are fewer places in the US (towns, counties, roads, parks) named for Buchanan than any president.  

It seemed to be a closely-knit community with a huge American flag dangling over its Main Street, lined with stuffed scarecrows promoting local businesses.  The lamp poles all featured a photograph of a local who had served in the armed forces. 

A local school teacher nominated Buchanan, one of nearly 1,200 submissions, the most ever for the “Reader’s Digest” annual competition.  The nominations came from every state, enough that the magazine named a nicest place for every state along with the letter extolling it’s virtues. Collinsville earned the honor for Illinois.

Buchanan won out for having a spontaneous racial justice parade a week after the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis, despite having its Memorial Day Parade cancelled due to Covid-19. With a population of only eight per cent black, the large gathering, including the police chief, was mostly white.  They marched down the Main Street carrying signs and chanting slogans, stopping at the police station where they paused for those infamous eight minutes and forty-six seconds that the police officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck. 

Unlike Three Oaks, twenty miles away and a little closer to Lake Michigan, the town was not tainted with quaint shops and boutiques and restaurants catering to tourists.  It only gussied itself up to please its residents, not to attract outsiders. There was no pretension in its decorations, nor any effort to be anything but true to itself.  The “Reader’s Digest” made a fine choice in naming it the nicest place in America, and coincidentally on the day the story of a militia plotting to kidnap the state’s governor broke.

I was further gladdened to have made the effort to go over to Buchanan, as it brought me back through Three Oaks, a bicycling mecca of a sort, having hosted one of the nation’s preeminent annual cycling events, the Apple Cider Century, established in 1974.  A bicycle sculpture greets visitors when they turn off the highway to enter the town center.  The Visitor Center contains a bicycle museum, which was unfortunately closed due to the virus.

A similar sculpture resides in front of the library in New Buffalo further down the road along Lake Michigan.  The library too had been closed for months.

The sculptures were a welcome antidote to all the political signs that took over the landscape throughout the state.  Halloween decorations provided some relief too.

And all the innovative pumpkin displays.  

I greatly look forward to my next ride post-election when hopefully these divisive distractions will be history. They couldn’t help but undermine the usual escapism that going off on one’s bike provides.  

I could somewhat preoccupy myself with various podcasts.  I had fallen behind during The Tour de France when my podcast-listening was dominated by those devoted to The Tour.  There are quite a few.  I had limited myself to four of those offering daily stage reports during The Tour—those of Lance Armstrong, Bradley Wiggins, Johan Bruyneel and another featuring two English and a French journalist, supplemented by Randy’s weekly podcast.

While I cycled around Michigan I went back to the Cycling Tips daily Tour podcast, allowing me to relive The Tour and gain another perspective on The Race.  Among its five voices was a Dutch woman who gave a distinct female perspective.  She surmised that last year’s Tour winner, the young Colombian Egan Bernal, may have been struggling this year because he had recently broken up with his girl friend of five years, a fact that no one else had brought up.

During a post-Tour podcast on the World Championships, won in dramatic fashion by the French rider Julian Alaphilippe, this Dutch journalist said she had been watching the French broadcast, where Alaphilippe’s girl friend, Marion Rouse, a former French national champion, was a commentator.  Rouse was so overcome by emotion she couldn’t speak during the final three miles of the race as her boy friend tried to hold off the chasers. The journalist kept hoping she’d hear Rouse yelling encouragement or erupting in glee at his victory, but she couldn’t bring herself to utter a word. 

Though many called this year’s Tour one of the most exciting ever, the Cycling Tips website had far fewer hits this year compared to last year when Alaphalippe animated The Race on a daily basis.  That is until this year’s dramatic time trial on the penultimate stage when its numbers exploded, with the cycling community wanting to read about Pogcar’s spectacular and unanticipated seizing of the Yellow Jersey from Roglic.

Though I needed to replace my rear tire during my ride around Michigan, I didn’t suffer a single flat or any mechanical malfunction.  I went three weeks without a drink with ice, a marked contrast to my June ride when I’d stop two or three times a day at a service station or convenience store to avail myself of their self-serve soda and ice machines.  Not once did I stop at such a store for any reason this fall, not even to fill my water bottles or take a break. That may be why only twice did someone offer me money this time in contrast to a dozen or more on my June ride. 

The second came a couple days ago when I was kneeling beside my bike outside a Walmart making room for provisions.  A young Hispanic woman snuck up on me and tried to give me a five dollar bill.  That I could decline, unlike the bag I didn’t realize contained a stash of coins that someone presented me earlier in the trip.  Some cyclists bemoan the hostility they bring out in motorists.  I prefer to dwell upon the goodwill I draw from those I encounter.  I can almost use that as justification for these meanderings—to bring out the good in others.  I’m not sure when I’ll have the next opportunity in these times of the Covid, but it won’t be soon enough.

Friday, October 16, 2020

St. Joseph, Michigan


When I returned to my bike after walking around the Allegan Carnegie, another dandy with the unique feature of an off-center entry, a police officer was waiting for me.  He was the grandfatherly type and was more welcoming than wary, observing, “It looks like you're traveling.”  It was my first encounter with someone wearing a badge and carrying a gun on this trip.  They can often have an attitude of “what are you doing here” and “the sooner you clear out, the better,” but that wasn’t the case this time.

Seemingly being itinerant earns me attention from the kind-hearted offering money, but also attention from the enforcers of the law considering me a suspicious figure.  None is more offensive than the other, equal representations of how unenlightened the masses are to the noble pursuit of traveling by bicycle. 

This enforcer was more curious than suspicious, and was happy to engage in conversation after I explained I was riding around Michigan visiting Carnegie Libraries.  He wasn’t aware the library behind us was a Carnegie, as there was no plaque acknowledging its status and only “Public Library” in a florid script on its facade adding to the library’s luster.  If he had been a little more observant he might have noticed “Historic Carnegie Entrance” in small print on the door, though it was no longer the actual entrance to the greatly expanded library.

He could somewhat relate to my endeavor, as he said he had ridden his bike six miles the day before, but not on the job, as his force didn’t have a bicycle contingent.  The state police actually had a lone bike for an officer to patrol festivals and other large local gatherings.

I asked the officer if I needed to lock my bike when I went into the library with the police station across the street and a Mug Shots Coffeehouse down the street.  He said, “Probably not, but I always advise people to err on the side of caution.”  

A few minutes later after I had settled in at a table looking out on to the Kalamazoo River the director of the library came by to give me a tour of the Carnegie portion of the library.  She advised me not to leave my belongings unattended.  But just as I felt no concern about leaving my bike unlocked in this small town, I felt it perfectly safe to leave my helmet and handlebar bag and charging Garmin on the table I had been sitting at.

The original library wasn’t open to the public, as it was only used for meetings and special occasions.  It was a typical large single room with a high ceiling and large windows. An elevator and furnace and auxiliary wall had been added and the light fixtures had been replaced by replicas true to the 1914 originals.  Though the books and circ desk and tables and chairs had all been removed, replaced by a scattering of contemporary chairs for meetings, the room still radiated that Carnegie aura.  

The Carnegie portrait had been moved to the new library, but there were portraits of the three longest-serving librarians, including the first, a stern-faced woman who held the post from 1904 to 1948, beginning her tenure ten years before the Carnegie.  My escort said she looked just like her grandmother.  She said the librarian she grew up with in a small town near the Carnegie in Owosso, which she visited for story-times when she was little, was the kindly, rather than task-master, type. 

This library had had two large additions, the latest offering a wall of high windows looking out over the Kalamazoo River.  The librarian was concerned that the beauty of the view might be altered, as a nearby dam was soon to be removed, as it was deteriorating and could give way as had those dams around Edenville.  It was cheaper to remove the dam than to repair it.

I had thirty-five miles of superlative riding through forests on lightly travelled roads to the next Carnegie in South Haven on Lake Michigan.  The western half of the state, away from all the automotive towns radiating out from Detroit, have a minimum of factories and minimum of traffic on the secondary roads, making for the finest of cycling.  I can wake up feeling lucky that I get to begin my day with a bike ride and feel equally lucky that I get to end my day with a bike ride and luckier yet that I get to spend the rest of the day on the bike with a library or two thrown in.  I have to ask, “Have I died and gone to heaven?”

Though I had visited the South Haven Carnegie with Janina, it was a genuine gem worth another visit, especially via bike.  It had long ago become the home of the South Haven Center for the Arts.  The twin inscriptions of  “Open to All” over the door and “Dedicated to the Advancement of Learning” below the roofline still applied. 

Twenty-five miles south following the shoreline the final Carnegie of these travels awaited me in St. Joseph right on the Red Arrow Highway just two blocks from Lake Michigan.  It had a corner diagonal entrance, Kirk’s favorite.  It now housed an architectural firm and another tenant and was called “The Library Building.”  

I have been a little more conscious of pushing deeper into the forest away from the road the past couple of nights, as people have semi-seriously been advising me to me wary of the Michigan Militia.  There was a chance if they spotted a tent in the woods they might use it for target practice.

Friends I visited after Kirk in Battle Creek, my old roommate of fifteen years, Debbie, the long-time manager of the Rapid Transit Bike Shop in Wicker Park, and her partner Gary, were among those expressing some concern, as one of the thirteen recently arrested for plotting to kidnap the governor, had been photographed with their sheriff.  Debbie and Gary had been living at the Circle Pines Retreat outside of Delton since June of last year, deep in the woods on a 286-acre parcel of land.  They were among a handful of year-round residents making improvements on this property that hosts a summer camp for kids and  gatherings for others seeking some tranquility to recharge their batteries.  Among their projects was installing a sawmill and a solar-powered kiln to cure the wood.

Debbie had spoken of Circle Pines with great fondness and near reverence ever since I had known her.  She had been a camper there some forty years ago and continued to return year after year and had been on its board of directors for years.  She and Gary felt privileged to have the opportunity to take up residence there.  It was easy to understand why.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Battle Creek, Michigan


The Carnegie Library in Portland is a beauty, an A-plus despite an addition to its rear. It was a rare addition that enhanced the Carnegie experience, as it included a large reading area with cushy den chairs looking out through towering curved windows upon nothing but forest.  It could have been the dream den in wealthy industrialist’s trophy house, complete with a fireplace.  The back wall of the magnificent native-stone of the original building could be seen over one’s shoulder looking back from the den in the addition.  Patrons were still welcome to enter through the original entrance up a set of stairs, though a sloping ramp had been added to one side.

The library was the crowning glory of this small town that had been uncontaminated by present-day franchises, maintaining its idyllic aura of by-gone times.  I could breathe deeply and freely, unburdened of current concerns in such a setting.  All was fine other than those out with their leaf-blowers, one of the worst inventions ever, marring the quiet tranquility.  Whatever happened to the joy of raking?  How had the invasion of leaf-blowers happened even here?  They are among the many culprits of the rampant obesity plaguing the land.  Each of those wielding the noxious blowers had bulging bellies.

It would have been nice to linger all day at this library, but I had fifty miles to ride to Battle Creek and Kirk.  I was lucky it wasn’t sixty-five miles, as I had ridden an extra fifteen miles the day before in the rain, forcing me to stay in a motel, rather than retreating to the forest when the rain began at 5:30, ninety minutes before dark.  I was hoping the rain would pass before long so I could dry out and camp, but it was not to be.  I was too cold and soaking wet to camp and was lucky enough to be in a town large enough to have a motel at dark—Ionia. 

On to Battle Creek I was able to avoid the busy numbered roads and take quiet byways, some unpaved, through colorful fall foliage.  I was out of the pines, so all the trees were turning.  My route took me through Vermontville, settled in the 1830s by a religious group from Vermont.  With the abundance of maple trees, it holds an annual maple syrup festival, which Kirk attends whenever he can.

A strong with wind from the south reduced me to my slowest daily average speed for the trip, just ten miles per hour.  But I still arrived at Kirk’s well before dark, on the outskirts of Battle Creek on Limit Street, the former limit of the Cereal City.  His boxer Digby was delighted to see me, maybe remembering me from my last visit in April of 2018.  I arrived in an ice storm then.  It was too inclement to camp, so I was happy to rectify that this time, especially after having to sleep indoors the night before.  

Kirk had a heaping spaghetti dinner awaiting me and a line-up of football and baseball to watch as we ate and chatted.  He knows cinema as well as anyone I know having served as the projectionist and manager of the Facets cinematheque in Chicago for a couple of decades. He was happy to report movie theaters had reopened in Michigan this past weekend and he was able to have his  first movie-going experience in months.  If he had been truly desperate he could have driven an hour south to Indiana where in the border towns ninety per cent of the movie-goers were from Michigan.  

I was hoping I might be able to join Kirk for an hour or two of making food deliveries, as he has been working for Grub Hub and Door Dash, but I had no energy left for that, nor did he care to leave me.  Like me with the bicycle messengering, he started delivering just for for the fun of it when he was visiting his sister in North Carolina for Thanksgiving last year and ended up staying through Christmas and was looking for something to keep himself busy.  He enjoyed it so much, when he returned to Battle Creek he checked to see if Door Dash had established itself there and was surprised that it had.  Grub Hub came in a bit later, which he prefers as it pays much better, guaranteeing at least $11 per hour, though he always does considerably better than that.

Even though he grew up in Battle Creek his deliveries have greatly expanded his knowledge of the area.  Most of his deliveries are from McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Red Lobster and Wendy’s, sometimes as little as an order of fries or a coffee from Starbucks.   When he receives an order he knows exactly what it will pay, including the tip and mileage.  If it is too little, as happens with Door Dash three dollar payments, he can refuse it.   

With the pandemic he just leaves the delivery at the door of the recipient and lets them know it has arrived.  With a business he must take it in.  His favorite delivery is to a strip club where the strippers, whose livelihood is centered on tips, always give him a twenty dollar tip.  They generally order a couple slabs of ribs and come out in their skimpy outfits to receive the order.

At the outbreak of the pandemic business was so hectic Kirk was kept out on the job much longer than he would have liked, sometimes with a backlog of five or six orders after he had been working for eight hours and was ready to call it a day.  The job was losing some of its luster, turning into a job, but it has slackened and he can enjoy it once again as I enjoyed the bicycle messengering.  Before the pandemic he had to verify that the food he was picking up was all there.  Now he doesn’t have to verify the contents of the bag he’s picking up, just grabbing it and heading out.

Digby always accompanies him on the job, so he has no concerns of making deliveries in shady parts of town late at night.   He’s never offered food at any of his pick-ups though if he’s given a bad address and the right one can’t be found he can keep the food.  Unfortunately the couple times that has happened he wasn’t interested in the food and lost time while headquarters tried to find the correct address.  And time is money, even when one isn’t doing it for the money.  

Monday, October 12, 2020

Sparta, Michigan


Halfway between the Carnegies in Cadillac and Sparta I took a small detour to pass through the long-forgotten town of Idlewild, the largest resort town for African-Americans for fifty years until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation and freed blacks from around  the country from having to make the effort to get to this out-of-the-way cluster of small lakes in the northern forests of Michigan.  

This once thriving town, founded in 1912 and comprised solely of black-owned businesses, has become a virtual ghost town.  I had this once “Black Eden” virtually to myself as I biked it’s network of residential streets, many unpaved.  There was no one to be seen other than an occasional Black out on foot.  There wasn’t an open store.  The relatively new museum (Historical and Cultural Center) on the outskirts of the town had a sign saying “Closed for the Summer.”  It at least provided a detailed map of the town.

One could tell what homes were presently inhabited by the Biden signs out front.  No Trump signs here. I could thank Jeff H. of Chicago’s “Reader” for suggesting a visit if I was nearby, as I had never heard of it.  Nor had Janina or even Rick, who knows Michigan like the back of his hand.  

It was an otherworldly experience cycling around this largely abandoned town reflecting on its past, that such a place was necessary, but also that it was a place of pride for those who built it and the thousands who had a joyous time there romping in the cool waters of the lakes and horseback riding in the woods and letting it all hang out in the clubs at night and glorying in the floor shows that rivaled anything Las Vegas could offer. 

Plaques scattered about town in front of various buildings and on a walking tour around the largest of the lakes expanded upon its past and what a draw it was for black entertainers including Aretha Franklin, The Four Tops, Sammy Davis Jr.and Louis Armstrong.  Their performances attracted large crowds of blacks and whites, who sat side-by-side.  An Idlewild review toured the country during the off-season, spreading the word of the resort.

It is still Edenesque, more forest than town with lovely lakes and beaches and dozens of cabins waiting to be renovated.  The most modern complex of buildings is a retirement home, presumably the largest employer in the town.

Jeff also recommended the Hartwick Pines State Park twenty-five miles south of Gaylord, noted for patches of old growth trees.  It was another exemplary experience cycling through its majestic forest of trees.  If a hurricane force wind happened to come through, there might be a neckerchief to be found around it’s entry.

It was a good day’s ride through mostly forested terrain to Cadillac, another town nestled around a cluster of lakes. It’d been three days since I’d coseyed up to a Carnegie.  It was nice to once again feel that surge of pleasure at its first sight, even though this own had let itself go, desperately needing a make-over.  It had been replaced in 1969 and its next tenant, the police department, had done little to maintain it during its eight years residence.  The biggest travesty was letting the steps to the entry deteriorate and rather than fixing them wiping them out so one wouldn’t have to walk up steps to get into the building.  The entry had been replaced by a window, greatly undermining the beauty and integrity of the building.

It’s been a historical museum since the police left, without the funds to return it to its former glory.  It’s dome is its most notable feature, so much so that the museum’s slogan is “Your history under the dome.”  It had recently been repaired and repainted, unlike the pair of columns flanking the original entrance.  They are in desperate need of being painted, as rust is showing through.  

The standard Carnegie portrait greets those mounting the steps to the museum entrance.  It had been amended by a feminist faction with a tiny clipping of a photo of his wife, who he married later in life after his mother died.

The following day a couple hours after my time in Idlewild I stopped at a Dollar Store to restock my ramen and take advantage of its electric outlet and WiFi.  With a temperature of 60 I had the rare opportunity to sit  outside and eat a peanut butter sandwich while checking my email and the football scores.  And it gave someone an opportunity to make me a charity case, even though the discerning eye would have realized my attire of tights and long-sleeved Garmin winter-jersey, a hand-me-down from Christian Vande Velde, defined me as something other than an indigent with no place to live. 

It wasn’t long before an SUV pulled up in front of me and a kindly lady, after rummaging around in her glove compartment, got out and  approached me with a small cloth pouch.  At first I thought she was offering me a handmade mask, as it had a couple of strings to draw it closed.  But no, it was a bag with about a pound of coins in it—11 quarters, 42 dimes, 19 nickels and 86 pennies, many corroded as if they’d been confined to the bag for quite some time. It wasn’t as much as a similar stash a guy gave me in Ohio earlier this summer, but still a tidy sum, well more than a day’s expenses. Five minutes later she reappeared with two bags of groceries saying “God bless you.”  

They contained two bags of trail mix, beef jerky, cheese sticks, two mini-apple pies and two bottles of water.  I had to struggle to make room for it, as the day before in Cadillac I scored big at an Aldis, just the third I had come upon in this trip.  I harvested four one-pound containers of soup (three chicken-noodle and one tomato), a bag of Halloween candy and a dozen packages of fudge peanut butter clusters.  I could have gotten a year’s worth of the clusters, but that’s all I had space for. The clusters were premium fuel, each in the packs of six provided one hundred calories, just fifty calories less than the chicken noodle soup.  I was sorry there was only one tomato soup, as it contained four hundred calories.  And the score also included a bag of Halloween candy—mini-Snickers  and Milky Ways and bags of M&Ms.

I had a similar bonanza  at the first Aldis I came upon in Owosso.  It offered up several dozen one-pound bags of a deluxe chocolate-coconut granola.  I only took five,  some of which I still have, along with a pound of Colby cheese, four bananas and two quarts of pineapple juice.  The one time I had loads of capacity was at the Gaylord Aldis, but the dumpster had just been emptied.  I had been hoping to come back with a week’s worth of food for Rick and Jeanie, as I regularly do for Janina and I.

Twenty miles before Sparta I said hello once again to the Carnegie in Newaygo, which I had visited two years ago when Janina and I were driving up to Traverse City for Michael Moore’s film festival. It had had no more additions than the several it had already had to its back and sides.

The Carnegie in Sparta also had had a significant addition to its side and rear, but its original building retained its regal splendor.  The building didn’t have Carnegie on it, but a sign out front identified it as a Carnegie.

It had greatly reduced hours, not opening up until one on Mondays and Wednesdays and open only four days of the week, so I had to sit outside to use its WiFi and drain my battery.  Hopefully I’ll be able to gain entry to the next Carnegie in Portland, north of Battle Creek, and good ‘ol Kirk from Facets.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Gaylord, Michigan


Just as we did in April of 2018 Rick and I met up at a small town library so he could escort me the final twenty-five miles to his home on some of his favorite, lightly-traveled roads. The last time he led me into Lansing, back when it wasn’t under threat from white supremacists. 

This time our destination was his girlfriend’s cottage on the shore of Lake Otsego, outside of Gaylord, 190 miles north of Lansing and 60 miles south of the Mackinac Bridge way north in the state.  The library in Lowells wasn’t our designated meeting point, rather it was wherever we happened to meet up as Rick cycled towards me knowing the route I was coming in on.  I stopped at the dinky library in Lowells, a room in this small town’s offices, to email Rick my location.  Not ten minutes later Rick walked into the library, having spotted my bike out front, not having received my message.

I’d had a wonderful morning ride of twenty-five miles on F97 with hardly a vehicle passing.  I could well understand why Rick was so enamored with this road, enough so that he had biked the 190 miles up to Gaylord from Lansing three times this summer, then driving back to Lansing with Jeanie, his girlfriend of twenty-five years.  He used to make the ride in one day, taking no more than twelve hours, thanks to a lifetime of conditioning that at one time back in the ‘70s had him strong enough to qualify for the national championships on the road and on the track and have Olympic and even Tour de France aspirations.  

He can still ride with the Big Dogs, but rather than making a day of the nearly two hundred mile ride between his residences, he divides it into two, carrying a tent and sleeping bag so he can camp halfway.  His three rides this summer are his most in one summer.  Thanks to Covid allowing him to conduct his business on Zoom and on-line, he had spent more time in Gaylord this summer than he had the previous ten summers combined.

It wasn’t that the biking was so much better up there than in Lansing, as in the summer months the roads are clogged with vacationers, many in grotesquely large “McMansion” RVs.  Even worse are the reckless locals in their black pickup trucks, who he fears all want to run him off the road. He’d love to carry a baseball bat so he could swing it at their heads, just barely missing, so they’d know how he felt when they pass him so closely.  The perils of the road are outweighed by the cozy comfort of Jeanie’s long-time family cottage and its million-dollar view out over the six-mile by one-mile lake. It is nestled right up to the lake and has one of its few beaches a few steps from it’s porch.  

The view to the left isn’t so fabulous, as it is of a recently built, inordinately large house on two lots with a sprawling driveway that takes up a good part of the property to accommodate a three-car garage.  It was made an even worse eyesore with most of the trees on the property having been cut down, in contrast to just about every other residence on the lake clustered with trees. “A Detroiter,” Rick said, just like the neighbor to the right, though that one had a much more civil mindset, kind enough to let them use their WiFi before Rick and Jeanie installed their own.  

Like all the cottages ringing the lake these were close enough that when Rick and Jeanie were on their porch, they could engage in conversation with their neighbors without having to raise their voices.  In the summer months when the lake was crowded Rick had to try to block out all the noise from the neighbor’s socializing along with the near non-stop jet skis and leaf-blowers and lawn-mowers.  

Summer was actually his least favorite time to be at their retreat.  He was particularly aggravated by all the “nature-fakers” holidaying there who were always in a hurry to get somewhere or do something and were afflicted by that disease of the “me” in America. They had come to be in nature, but didn’t know how to do it.

Our first ten miles of cycling together on F97 couldn’t have been finer, other than  a three-mile stretch of badly pocked road, as we were able to ride side-by-side chatting away with only two non-aggressive vehicles intruding upon us.  It is hard to find such a road anywhere, at least in the paved universe.   I was in a good mood as I had finally found a Michigan license plate earlier in the day to add to my collection.  It wasn’t the version with the “Pure Michigan” slogan, but it would do.  Rick said he couldn’t recall ever seeing a license plate along the road in his thousands of miles of biking all over the state.  I was delighted to hear him say that, as it was a good omen that I’d find another while riding with him.

And indeed I did the next day, and it was a “Pure” one, when we took a ride to a nearby ski resort on the fringe of what Rick calls the “Otsego Alps.”  Rick rode right past it, not attuned to the offerings of the road.  He was similar to Chris, who I rode with in June.  He hadn’t spotted a single neckerchief in the 9,000 miles he had ridden up to that point on his trip.  But after I gathered a couple in our time together, his eyes were opened and now I hear from him regularly about his latest find as he nears the completion of his ride on the Oregon coast, about to finish up his nine-month circuit of the States at his starting point south of San Francisco.  I’ve gathered three neckerchiefs so far on this trip, including a take on the flag with rows of white stars on three diagonal strips of red and blue.

The road does provide.  I mentioned earlier how I wished I’d brought along heavier gloves with the temperature in just the thirties some mornings. Since then I have found two strays that will do.  They are both left-handed, but one is large enough that I can flip it over and fit my thumb in the thumb slot and little finger in the far right slot.

There is a minimum of aluminum cans along the road, as Michigan has a ten cent bounty on them.  I didn’t realize that until I noticed a cluster of disheveled folk with shopping carts full of cans gathered in a corner outside a Walmart.  I thought they were an enclave of homeless sheltering themselves from the cold wind.  But then I noticed one gain entry, taking his cart in to feed his cans into a machine.  Since then I’ve spotted lines of people returning cans and bottles outside of grocery stores.

The Treetops ski resort Rick took me to was less than ten miles north of Gaylord.  It didn’t offer much more than two hundred vertical feet, but it had several lifts and a nice selection of trails.  The back road we took to the summit had us straining when it’s twelve per cent grade suddenly ramped up to eighteen per cent.  The views were exceptional out over the colorful forest.  

A golf course adjoined the ski resort.  It was hard for us to fathom why so many guys would want to be hitting golf balls on a driving range when they could be riding bikes, getting their blood flowing, feeling alert and alive and taking in an ever unfolding panorama of fabulous scenery on this gorgeous fall day.  Standing around whacking at balls seemed like a silly endeavor, as they no doubt regarded us riding bikes.  Hadn’t we heard of the automobile?

Over dinner Jeanie lamented that if not for the virus they would be in England.  Rick could lament the cancellation of the 50th DALMAC ride, a four-day ride from Lansing to the Mackinac Bridge that attracts 1,500 riders every year, and that he has ridden almost as many times as anyone.  It was started by a Michigan legislator, Dick Allen, a bicycle advocate.  He gathered a handful of friends in 1971 to “ride all the way to the bridge to prove that bikes and cars could share Michigan’s roads safely.” It has grown considerably since then.

Rick had been on its board of directors and caused a ruckus one year when he refused to ride with the mandatory safety flag on it stick, electing to just have it dangle out of his jersey pocket.  A rules-stickler wanted to ban him from the ride.  That led to a “Let Rick Ride” campaign that caused such a stir that one need only type those three words into google search to find out all about it.

As always, it was an enlightening and entertaining time spent with Rick and well worth the swing up to Gaylord into the cold north wind.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

St. Helen, Michigan


My visit to Bay City for its Carnegie would be further enhanced if my cycling friend Gary was in town visiting family, as I  hadn’t seen him since he had retired to Thailand several years ago.  Besides catching up with his ever interesting life, I would also be happy to let him see the Surly I was riding as it had originally been his.

He had bought it for a trip to South America, but after reading reports of others who had cycled there thought he needed a different bike, one that could accommodate 650mm tires rather than 700s.  He wasn’t able to return his practically new Surly, so was going to offer it up on eBay for a bargain.  I wasn’t in need of another bike, but it was such a good deal I couldn’t resist adding it to by stable of bikes and to have a touring bike in reserve.  Ever since I have been alternating my travels with it and my Trek520, prolonging the lives  of both.

When I emailed Gary asking if he might be home, he replied from Vietnam, where he was taking a break from Thailand, as he had to periodically leave the country to renew his visa.  I had once visited Gary in Bay City, back in the days when he was selling cars.  He drove me and my bike up from Chicago, and I happily biked home.  That was twenty years ago.  It left no memories of this city on the Saginaw River where it empties into Lake Huron, so it was all fresh to me as I arrived in search of its Carnegie Library.

It was on Center Street, a four-lane boulevard lined with mansions built at the turn of the previous century by lumber barons and others who had amassed wealth in coal and sugar beets and ship-building. Among them were impressive churches and the Mason’s building, many with plaques out front, as had the Carnegie.  The entire street has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Carnegie was now a bank, replaced by a huge two-story library filling an entire block a few blocks away closer to the city center.  As other Carnegies in the region, it was constructed of red-brick, though it was larger than the others in smaller towns and was accentuated with a set of columns.  

From Bay City I continued north after crossing the Saginaw Rive, heading to Gaylord and the cottage on Otsego Lake of a cycling friend who I knew would be there, taking a break from his base in Lansing.  It was off my Carnegie route,  but would take me into the North Woods.  The next Carnegie was in Cadillac about one hundred miles west.  Gaylord was more than one hundred miles away, mostly north.

Almost immediately the traffic diminished and the trees closed in on me.

It would have been idyllic except for a strong wind from the north and the many political signs desecrating the otherwise pristine landscape. It was by far the most fearsome headwind of the trip gusting up to thirty miles per hour.  Flapping flags along the road reminded me what I was up against, on the bike and politically.

The day dealt up more woes when I approached Edenville and the Tittabawsee River, where I came upon two bridges that had been wiped out this past May when two dams burst due to heavy rains.  It required a considerable detour to come to a still intact bridge across the river.  The head wind and the detours meant that my reunion with Rick and my arrival in Gaylord would be half a day later than planned.

That allowed me an extra night of camping in the thick forests of Michigan’s north, the best and easiest camping of the trip.  I could ride right up to dark knowing I could camp just about anywhere.  I waited until I came upon a dirt track into the forest so I wouldn’t have to push through the brush along the road, though there was so little traffic I would be on no hurry to disappear before being sited. 

The forests were so spacious the deer didn’t even object to me encroaching upon their domain.  Now I just have to hope the wind continues from the north when I head south to Cadillac and back to Chicago.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Owosso, Michigan


The temperatures have become more amenable, climbing into the sixties for the first time in a week.  It is much easier to crawl out of the tent when it is fifty degrees, rather than forty.  It is no longer November, but rather Biketober, the best month for cycling.  Along with the warmer temperatures, the sky has cleared.  It is always good to be on the bike, but all the more so when it is bright and sunny.

It didn’t even dampen my spirits to be passing through Flint, a symbol of industrial decay and government not concerned with the welfare of its citizens.   Even before it’s disastrous drinking water crisis when the mayor chose to change the city’s water source from Lake Huron to much cheaper, heavily polluted river water, Flint had the image of a downtrodden city where one wouldn’t want to live, partially thanks to Michael Moore, who grew up in the neighboring town of Davison.  His documentary “Roger and Me,” about his attempt to interview the CEO of General Motors so he could give him a piece of his mind, established Flint as the epitome of a city strangled by corporate-firstism, at least in the mind of Moore.

Biking through the city, I couldn’t distinguish it from Gary, Indiana or Port Huron, or other cities in serious decline.  There wasn’t much traffic, pedestrian or motorized.  I figured it would be a good place to find a cheap motel, as I was in need of a shower after six nights of wild-camping.  TripAdvisor offered a handful for fifty dollars or less, most with breakfast included.   None mentioned that breakfast had been cancelled due to Covid, as I learned when I checked in, a huge disappointment.  Motel breakfasts may not be anything special, unless they are accompanied by a do-it-yourself waffle-maker, but they are generally self-serve.  I can often eat enough to get me through the day.

Besides a shower, I was also in need of a tire, as my rear one had surprisingly shown spots of tread having worn through.  I had replaced it in Columbus on my last trip, a little over 2,000 miles ago.  I can generally count on getting 2,500 miles on my rear tire and twice that on the front.  I had expected it to last this trip.  

Having to replace it wasn’t all bad, as it allowed me to search out a bike shop.  There seemed to be only one in Flint, five miles south of the city center—Assenmacher Cycling Center, named for the owner, Matt, who had at one time been a frame-builder.  When demand declined for custom frames, he turned his urge for welding to making lamp shades and other objects from bike parts.  

The possibilities are endless, as was demonstrated by the yard full of bike art I passed by  earlier on this trip, and, of course, by all the concoctions I encounter along The Tour de France route.  Matt is an ardent racing fan and had gotten to The Tour de France a couple of times, including 2004 when we were both among the tens of thousands packed on L’Alpe d’Huez for the only time it was a time trial in The Tour, which Armstrong won on his way to his sixth consecutive Tour victory.  Matt was wearing a well-faded Postal Service baseball cap from that year.  In hand was another of the arty bike objects scattered around his large shop—a pen and pencil holder made from bike chains.  

His artistic whims went beyond bicycle parts.  He had arranged a couple of piles of rocks in front of his shop as well.  He didn’t really need to draw attention to his shop as he acknowledged he is about the only one in the area.  “There might be one downtown,” he said, “But I’m not sure about that.  There were five Schwinn shops twenty-five years ago and several others, but they’re all gone.  There is one in Davison to the east of the city.”

Flint’s Carnegie has been razed in the ‘60s, but it was flanked to the east and west by towns twenty-five miles away whose Carnegies remained—Lapeer and Owosso.  Both were home towns of distinguished authors, who their libraries featured.  In 1981 Lapeer put the name of the Newberry Award-winning children’s author Marguerite de Angeli on its Carnegie.  She had been born there in 1889.  The basic red-brick building sat on a slight hill and had just a small addition to its backside, which was now the entrance.  

It was very community-oriented, open on a Sunday.  The Carnegie portrait resided in a corner above the original wooden book shelves.

Owosso hadn’t placed the name of its renowned author, James Curwood, on its building, though it did have his portrait and several other photos related to him, including his nearby castle, on a wall.  Curwood was born in Owosso in 1878.  Most of his books were adventure tales set in the Canadian north in the spirit of Jack London.  He was one of the top selling authors in the US in the 1920s.  More than 150 movies were made from his books and short stories, one staring a young John Wayne in 1934, “The Trail Beyond.” He was also a zealous conservationist and served on Michigan’s Conservation Commission. He built his castle in 1922, about the same time the Carnegie was built.  It is now a museum dedicated to him.

The library was located on the busy four-lane highway, Main Street, that passes through the center of the town. Entry is now through the small addition on its backside, away from the hubbub of the traffic.

In this time of Covid, as in all the libraries I’ve stopped at, plexiglass surrounded the librarians and the drinking fountains were closed down.

Twenty miles north of Lapeer in Marlette is another later-Carnegie, also built in the 1920s. It was the last in the Midwest to receive a grant from Carnegie and the second to the last in the country. It too was a modest, but distinguished-looking, red-brick building, as Carnegie preferred.  He didn’t endorse the ornamentation of the early libraries—columns and domes and such.  His usual ten thousand dollar grant went further a decade or two before these libraries built in the ‘20s and could provide for such excesses.  

It had an addition to its side, more than doubling its size.  A plaque out front gave the false information that it was one of fifty-three Carnegies in Michigan, confusing the number of grants to the state with the number of libraries.  Carnegie gave grants to fifty-three towns and cities in Michigan, with the grant to Detroit providing for nine libraries—its main library and eight branches—bringing the total of Carnegies in Michigan to sixty-one.  I’ve gotten to all but nine of the fifty still standing, each a marvel.  Six more await me on this trip and then three more in the far west of the Upper Peninsula.