Photos courtesy of Michael Plymale
The author, at right, in the best shape of his life ...
In 1999, myself and two friends with very little bicycle touring experience decided to take the month of September off from life and the jobs we had at the time, and ride all over Wisconsin, The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and Minnesota.
The route went: Madison, Wisconsin, to the Green Bay region and over to Lake Michigan. We followed the western coast of that great lake north and into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, rode the northern coast of the lake to Escanaba—which is about halfway across the state—then due northwest-ish to Marquette, where we followed the southern coast of Lake Superior, veering over to Houghton, and on through the Porcupines into Hurley, Wisconsin. Then onward west across Wisconsin to just south of Superior, down to Eau Claire (where I grew up), and down to Red Wing, Minnesota. Once in that state, we headed over to Rochester, on to Winona, back into Wisconsin over to the Elroy-Sparta Trail and the 400 Trail, and back to Madison. All totaled, it was approximately 1,400 miles in 27 days.
We planned out the route for the first day, and every night after that, around dinner and a campfire; we made up the rest from our collective ideas about our trip goals.
We wanted a lot of lakes and dirt time, wherever and whenever we could find it. We didn’t have GPS or anything like that—just the Wisconsin Bike Federation maps, Gazetteer pages from the Wisconsin edition, a camping guidebook for the Midwest, and cheery dispositions mixed with a willingness to ask anyone and everyone a lot of questions. We left the door open for three visits with friends and family, and planned for camping the rest of the time.
We all rode rigid mountain bikes with semi-smooth treads and panniers up front and out back. Putting that bike together took me all summer and was my personal pinnacle of geeking hard. It was over the top—PTFE tape on every single thread, high-grade marine grease everywhere possible, racks perfectly level with the equator. I must’ve had a lot more free time back then.
The bikes, all geeked out …
We each had a tent, a bag and pad, some rain gear and clothes, tools, etc., and one shared stove for boiling water. We had a collapsible fishing pole among us, too, although only one of us knew what to do with it. All three of us were experienced mechanics, so any mishaps with bikes were not going to be a problem. (I recall only one flat among us.) I also had a standard film camera and a notebook for a trip diary. I came home with seven rolls of film and proceeded to lose them in a move without having developed a single one. The diary survived, though, and paints vivid pictures as well as any photo could. Glad I took notes (and glad Michael took photos as backups).
One of us knew how to use the fishing pole …
We rode anywhere from 110 miles to 30 miles a day, depending on the terrain. We got at least a sample of just about everything the upper Midwest has to offer.
At the end of the season, which is when we went, campground availability was never an issue, and we only got charged for campsites about 15 times in 27 days. A lot of Rangers were stoked about our trip, it seemed, and not charging us was like giving us a reward.
For food, we ate in a town nearly every morning, and for lunch it was usually peanut M&M’s, dried apricots, and beef jerky (yes, the flatulence was borderline nuclear). Instant soup with summer sausage and bagels was our dinner, with a few beers if we had room for them. Minimal space for food was needed being that we were never far from it, and that was pretty nice.
We read someone’s advice about breakfast on bike tours—it said, “Ride to the nearest small town after you pack up your campsite every morning, and look for Main Street. Ride up and down past the restaurants, and look for the one with the most senior citizens in it. That’s where you’ll get the biggest portions for the best price.”
We’d go in and look at the menu for anything with names like “The Hungry Lumberjack” or something similarly descriptive, and order two each. That always got us a comment and instant cred with the locals, and that led to the conversations that revealed the dirt roads, trails, shortcuts, or landmarks we wanted and needed to see.
Like clockwork, every time.
We rode some of the most beautiful country roads, gravel roads, logging roads, single- and doubletrack, and even a dried out creek bed one day. We had no idea what we’d encounter in the U.P., but we were treated to especially stunning terrain, despite the crapload of roads barring any signage that we ended up navigating by hunches. At campsites, we’d ask rangers about the status of logging roads in the area and often get Xeroxed copies of the roads from the year before with a “This is the best we got, good luck …” We got lost PLENTY.
Lost again on a fire road up north …
… but the scenery was always spectacular …
The camping ranged from great to spectacular. Most of the campgrounds were empty during the week, and weekends that time of year were manageable at worst. Even setting up tents between RVs one Friday night was OK, because the one to our left grilled dinner for us and the one to the right had us over to play UNO.
A few beers, whenever we could carry them …
We got rained on the entire time in the U.P. and rode into a headwind the whole way across Wisconsin. It didn’t matter. We were beasts by the time we hit Wisconsin again. That was the fittest I’ve ever been, and one of my longest stretches of highly compressed happiness.
Even after almost 20 years, I still think about this trip all of the time. Looking back, I think I realized about 4 hours into the expedition that bike touring would be on my Top 3 Favorite Things To Do list for the rest of my life. I plan for it, daydream about it, and work for it. I realized, too, that absolutely nothing compares to coming to an intersection on a road or trail at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning without an itinerary. Hard to describe how free that makes you feel. It’s better than any drug and makes you think about all the people sitting at their desks at work right about that time.
I rolled out of town with a crummy relationship at home and came back with the strength to end it. I returned with the knowledge that I was more resourceful and stronger than I thought, that I could figure out what I need to on the fly, and that I underestimated just how addicted to the outdoors and bikes I was. It’s only intensified since then.
Probably the most important thing, though, was learning that knowing who I am makes not knowing where I am A-OK.
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I had to live on both coasts a couple of times to realize that maybe being born in the Midwest wasn’t just arbitrary. I’m drawn to the terrain here, and if you catch me with one of this region’s supreme IPAs in hand, I’ll talk your ear off about my favorite spots. I’ll always take every opportunity though to explore every nook and cranny anywhere I can on a bike, because that’s what makes me feel most alive.