Saturday, April 14, 2018

Dowagiac, Michigan


I awoke on Friday the thirteenth in Hell, a tiny town on Hell Creek amongst a cluster of small lakes forty miles south of Lansing. There were no town signs, perhaps because they were too often pilfered.  The town had a campground, but I chose to wildcamp, as a sign at the campground said, “Casual attire required.”  I was concerned my biking outfit might not qualify as “casual.” 

I had descended to Hell at the recommendation of my friend Rick in Lansing after visiting the Carnegie in Howell fifteen miles to the north. It was in the opposite direction I was headed, but I had time to spare before meeting up with Rick the next day in Dansville for a ride to his home.  He said the camping would be much easier around Hell than I had found it the night before in this thickly settled region of people willing to commute long distances to their places of servitude.

Hell was not only notable for its tavern and casual campground, but also for a restaurant that claimed to have “the best home cooking on earth.”  I was eager to see if it’s hotcakes transcended all others, but unfortunately it wasn’t open.  If Howell played the bragging game, it could justifiably gloat over its Carnegie—a true gem in the upper echelon of Carnegies, constructed of local stone and crowned with a mini-dome.  The extended addition behind was well hidden preserving its dignity.


The town had enhanced its frontside with a stand alone clock tower and well-maintained landscaping.  It’s foyer under the dome was majestorial as well, with notable light fixtures and hand woven rugs and comfy chairs along with a Carnegie portrait in a corner.  This was a full-fledged shrine/temple.  Sitting in its grandeur couldn’t help but inspire one to lofty thoughts.


A special display promoting the library’s genealogical services further honored Carnegie.


The next day after my time in Hell, I arrived at the Dansville library, a former bank, at noon, two hours before Rick was due.  My route had taken me through other small towns with personality. The Community Church in Gregory had an oversized Little Free Library.   The local barber (Hairworks) advertised, “Let us tame your mane.” 

The small Dansville library didn’t open until three.  It was warm enough to sit in the sun and eat and read and take advantage of the WiFi zone outside the library entrance rather than retreating to the town cafe.  I considered heading towards Lansing to meet Rick, but I wasn’t certain of his route.  Good thing I hadn't, as he came via a different way than I had anticipated. He arrived right at two clad in tights and windbreaker.  I was wearing tights, but had hoped it would warm up as it had the day before allowing me to ride bare legged for the first time since Africa.  But a severe storm that would plunge the temperatures and bring a cold rain was on its way.  It was already clouding up and growing cooler, enough so that I had to put on a vest shortly after we started.

Rick was astride his Seven, a bike he races on and also tours with having to use a special rack as it does not have eyelets to attach the standard rack.  He’s the rare cycling fanatic who only has one bike.  He’s been riding this since 2002.  Some time this year it will register 100,000 miles.  Rick has less than 5,000 miles to go and has a pool among his friends trying to guess when it will happen.   Though Rick lived in the Chicago area in the ‘70s and was one of the preeminent racers in the Midwest at the time with Olympic aspirations, we didn’t get to know each other until I started blogging and a mutual friend of ours suggested he read it.

And the person who set up my blog happened to be a friend of Rick’s as well, Jeff of the most worthwhile website outyourbackdoor, who also edits Bicycle Quarterly.  He lived in Lansing as well and would be joining us for dinner along with another ardent cyclist who tours and races and follows this blog. Rick briefed me of our evening to come as we pedaled along mostly side-by-side on the lightly traveled rural roads that he knew like the back of his hand.  We were so absorbed in conversation he didn’t always alert me that we would be turning.  He’d apologize saying, “I keep forgetting you can’t read my mind.”  We are kindred spirits enough that it wasn’t a far-fetched notion.

We were able to ride on a bike path for a spell through East Lansing, almost in honor of Rick having designed the first rails to trails route in Michigan over thirty years ago as part of his job as an urban planner.  His house reflected his bike fanaticism with a wide array of bicycle art, some dangling from his light fixture over the dining room table and a bike as an end table and many mini-bikes here and there.  Our last few miles were in a misty rain.  We were relieved not to have been soaked as the ever darkening sky looked like it could unleash a Biblical  torrent at any moment.  Before I showered though I had to pay my respects to the local Carnegie Library three miles away in the shadow of the domed State Capitol Building.  I shed my bike of its load, put my pump and spare tubes in my backpack and defied the impending storm, which considerately held off, allowing me to complete my mission.

Though it was a large two-story building, Lansing’s population increase had long ago required the construction of a larger library.  The Carnegie had been appropriated by the neighboring Lansing Community College in 1964.  A plaque in front of its blocked off entrance read, “Its simple style featured a classical facade that suggested a return to the enlightened days of antiquity.”  The only entry now was through the attached glassy college building.  It looked a little forlorn in the gloomy weather, but still radiated an air of quiet dignity.


I made it back to Rick’s before the rain hit.  While I was showering, Rick’s “squeeze,” Jeannie, and Jeff arrived and shortly after Layne.  Jeff and Layne were foregoing the weekly Friday night ride of local cyclists.  The nasty weather helped them make their decision.  The conversation was most lively as we dined on heaping plates of spaghetti.  Big news was a local 58-year old cyclist they all knew being handed a four-year ban for refusing to give a urine sample after finishing second in a high-profile race.  They had all been impressed by his placing and credited it to his recent retirement, allowing him to train more. All of us with our racing experience and acumen know doping  is an inescapable aspect of the sport, enough so that we hardly hold it against Armstrong.  As many readers of this blog, they wanted to know Janina’s reaction to all the fabric I brought back from Africa for her.  She loved it.  It’s presently stacked on her piano.  Anyone who visits marvels at it as well.  Janina has many plans for it.

It was lucky I’d had a long mid-day break and just a sixty-mile day, as our conversation continued until after midnight.  We thought others in the cycling community might drop by but the wintry spring storm curtailed all.  The big question was whether I’d be able to ride the next day or the day after, as two days of cold rain were predicted.  A prolonged rain isn’t usually too hard and usually has lapses that allows one to dry out a bit, so I had hopes of being able to ride, though Rick was encouraging me to hang out.

When I awoke the next morning the rain was just a light drizzle.  It was 37 degrees with a forecast of the temperature dipping rather than rising during the day.  My friend Kirk awaited me in Battle Creek 54 miles away.  I headed out at eight, knowing that within fifteen minutes I’d know if it were too cold or wet to continue.  I was immediately happy to be out pedaling.  I had six layers on my torso, including a down vest, but just tights on my legs.  The cold wasn’t penetrating and the wet wasn’t gathering.  I could endure this at least to Charlotte (pronounced Char-lot as in “used car lot”), where a Carnegie and motels awaited me.  A northeast wind hurried me along, but kept me from exerting myself to create extra warmth.  Fortunately I didn’t need it yet.

The Carnegie was more of a slightly embellished home than a public building.  It sat on a corner of Charlotte’s main street with no room for expansion, so it was no longer a library, but rather the quarters for an accountant and a florist.


I warmed up at the nearby McDonald’s before continuing on to Battle Creek 32 miles further.  A bank gave a temperature of 33 degrees and it felt it.  The forecast didn’t call for it to fall any further, so I didn’t need to worry about ice. At least the rain was slackening.  I had three pairs of gloves.  I switched to my wool gloves.  The ones I had started with were damp despite plastic bags covering them.  My feet were damp as well, water penetrating my booties through the holes in their bottoms to accommodate my cleats.  I felt chilled but not cold.  I rode steady warding off the cold and arrived at Kirk’s by three after taking another break at a McDonald’s for food and warmth.

Even if arriving at Kirk’s hadn’t meant surviving the inclement weather, I would have celebrated seeing my friend of many years when he managed the theaters at Facets a mile from where I had lived in Chicago for a couple of decades.  His love of cinema was undiminished.  We talked cinema as fervently as the conversation had been cycling the day before.  He fully keeps up with the movie world driving to Kalamazoo, Lansing and Ann Arbor, all within an hour, for films that don’t show up in Lansing.  He had recently driven to Ann Arbor for the latest Sally Potter film, “The Party,” which had just been at Facets, a wickedly funny delight Janina and I had greatly enjoyed. He had held off on “The Panther” though and me too.  With nothing more enticing we made that our Saturday night film at the nearby cinema where Kirk began his projectionist career in 1976.  The stand-alone theater out near the airport had expanded from its original two screens when it was built in 1970 to seven and had upgraded to deluxe seats and designated seating in all its theaters.  The local competition kept tickets at five dollars for matinees and seven dollars for features. 

Neither Kirk nor I care much for the generally mind-numbing superhero movies and this one, despite all its acclaim and box office craze catapulting it to the third highest grossing film of all time already, didn’t win us over.  As Kirk said, “I could have lived my entire life without seeing this movie.”  We won’t be enticed by the many sequels to come.  We have seen countless movies together, memorable and forgettable, so we didn’t regret this outing in the least.

Unlike the day before, I awoke to a rain coming down too hard to dare riding in.  The forecast was for it to wane by two.  By one it had dissipated to a slight sleet.  The trees were covered with ice, but the road surface retained enough heat for it to remain ice free.  I had loaded up my bike hours earlier awaiting the chance to hit the road.  Once again I set out with the knowledge that I’d know within a couple of miles if it was within my tolerance to keep riding.  With the precipitation more ice than rain, it didn’t wet my tights, so I was in business. I had the options of motels in Kalamazoo, twenty-two miles away, or in Paw Paw, where a Carnegie awaited me, twenty miles further, or before Dowagiac, another twenty-six miles.  Halfway to Kalamazoo the sleet stopped and I started warming up enough to pull the zipper down on my jacket a couple of inches.  I took refuge in another McDonald’s in Kalamazoo for a McChicken and some warmth. By the time I resumed riding the road was dry.  Riding the bike was once again a joy and not a grim test of fortitude. Not only was it “Paw Paw here I come,” but Dowagiac as well.  Life was not only good, it was wonderful. 

The standard red brick Carnegie in Paw Paw has been the Carnegie Community Center since 1995.  It had been well-maintained and was as welcoming and inviting as an old friend.


Three chain motels just south of Paw Paw along the interstate beckoned, but there was nearly two hours of daylight remaining.  With no rain to contend with for the first time in two days I couldn’t not keep riding.  I knew there was a cheap independent motel north of Dowagiac.  The lone review of the Peck Motel said, “This is the dirtiest, nastest (sic), unlivable place I have ever been.  I wouldn’t even allow my dog to sleep here little (sic) alone a human being.”  This I wanted to check out.  I arrived at 7:45, fifteen minutes before dark.  It was a typical small town motel. There were only three cars parked and a Vacancy sign.  There was Christian literature in the entry. A sign saying no smoking in the rooms meant I wouldn’t have to ask for a non-smoking room.  The owner was Caucasian, not Indian.  He said he didn’t accept credit cards.  When I asked about a senior discount, he said I could have a room for forty, rather than the posted fifty dollar rate.  He kindly led me to a perfectly fine room and put down a matt for my bike.  He turned on the heater and the tv.  Whoever had written the scathing review clearly had a personal grievance and not to be believed.  It provided a fine finish to Another Great Day on the Bike, sixty-four miles.  Knowing how intimidating the weather had been, Rick had emailed mid-afternoon—“So how far did you get before the weather won??? I am not betting against you; I am just saying you are human.... and without submarine.” As I have learned over the years, one shouldn’t let the weather be a deterrence.  It has to relent at some point.  Rarely do I regret persevering.



3 comments:

Andrew said...

Congratulations on beating the weather into submission George.
I remember reading a few articles on outyourbackdoor a few years ago. Jeff frequented a bike email list I was on. He often had good ideas for bike related gear made out of simple materials.
Did you post a review of the hotel to offset the grumpy bastard's?

dworker said...

I will have to ruggedize myself to get used to riding in weather again. carry on.
Ps. Have you seend LOVING VINCENT? I was impressed by an entirely new format of movie. And I thought Streep proved that she is among the best actresses alive in THE POST.

george christensen said...

Loving Vincent was extra special seen in the outdoor theater at Telluride. Along with the original style was an intelligent script, something the Isle of Dogs lacks. Didn’t get a chance to see The Post before I went off to Africa and it was out of the theaters when I returned. Will have to catch up to it with the dvd version.