UP IN THE UP

This was not the best idea I ever had. At the time, though - well, you know what they say.

It was May of '89 and I was in Chicago, visiting my daughter. She and Phyllis had some activities planned; I thought maybe I could take a little side trip and leave them to enjoy themselves. I don't know why I thought of checking out the Michigan Upper Peninsula; I guess it was just one of those notions you get looking at maps.

I should have known I was in trouble the first day; I got off to a late start - it was noon by the time I got clear of Chicago - and then as I rode up I-43 the weather began to turn cold and windy, and the sky to cloud over in a really menacing way. At Sheboygan I lost my nerve and checked into a none-too-cheap motel. The TV weather geek said it would clear up by morning. The evening news had a story about the controversy over Indian fishing rights, which apparently was getting nasty again. There was a shot of the Governor of Wisconsin declaring that while it was true that Indians had certain legal rights, they better watch out about exercising them or they could get hurt. I shivered, and not just because it had started to rain outside; and dug in my bags for the Jim Beam.

In the morning the sky was clear and the temperature was a bit warmer, so I kept going. I made pretty good time on the Slab and the first bit of Highway 41 but then on a long stretch of two-lane I got stuck behind some son of a bitch poking along at 50 or so in a decrepit old car with a mattress tied on top. When I finally got around him I took the next few miles pretty fast, trying to make up for lost time, only to get pulled over by a Wisconsin trooper. Well, shit, now it gets expensive...but after running the usual check he said he was going to let me off with a warning. "You know why?" he said. "Because you stopped. State line's just about a mile up the road. A lot of guys would have tried to outrun me." I might have done the same, if I'd known it was that close, but I didn't tell him.

The campground where I'd planned to spend the night turned out to be unusable; it wasn't exactly closed - at least there weren't any signs to that effect - but the ground was covered in snow. Snow? In May? At this altitude? What a strange and unnatural thing. By now I was starting to realize that I might have made a mistake...but it was too late in the day to turn back. I kept going, looking for a place for the night, and finally found a park on the shore of Whitefish Bay.

It was the coldest night I ever spent outdoors, and I have spent some damn cold ones. The wind came down across Lake Superior, not blowing hard - by High Plains standards it was practically a dead calm - but at that temperature it didn't have to. I had a good four-season sleeping bag but even so I wound up sleeping with my clothes on. All night long the horns sounded from the big freighters and ore boats out on the lake. "Lake Superior seems like a young man's dream," yeah, well, maybe, but for a middle-aged man on a motorcycle it's something else. I'm a huge fan of Gordon Lightfoot, but if he'd been handy that night I might have kicked his ass.

Morning found me stiff and creaky and almost as tired as when I'd turned in, with a distinctly negative attitude; this wasn't going worth a damn. But it was just a few miles to the Sault Ste. Marie bridge, so I figured what the hell, go on across and have a look around, give the day a chance to warm up....

Which was another mistake. On the Canada side I ran into the nastiest, snottiest customs guard I've ever encountered, anywhere in the world. I don't know what her problem was - maybe prejudiced against bike riders, maybe prejudiced against guys in general, maybe anti-US; there was definitely something going on, beyond the simple and common compulsion of an unimportant person in a low-grade job throwing her weight around. She snapped at me to take off my helmet; then she asked a long series of increasingly hostile and intrusive questions - what was my business in Canada, what did I do for a living, where did I spend last night, was I married, where was my wife now, on and on...I thought about just telling her where to shove it and turning back, but the way the bridge was set up there wasn't any way to do that. Finally she ordered me into an inspection building, where a young guy, looking very embarrassed - I got the impression she did this a lot - went through the perfunctory motions of a search and then waved me on through.

But I was no longer interested; that shitheaded little Canuck bitch had ruined it for me. I rode around for maybe an hour or so, mostly along the waterfront - this was where Lake Superior hooked up with Lake Michigan, so it was an important marine passage - but I couldn't get into it; and Sault Ste. Marie looked like a thoroughly uninteresting town, so I turned and went back across, giving a one-finger gesture of farewell as I crossed the bridge. On the US side they didn't even ask for identification.

I rode westward, pausing at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to snap the same damn picture that everybody else takes; I don't know why I didn't just buy a postcard.

See that white spot? That's not a scratched place on the picture, that's an iceberg. A small one, but still, Christ! In May!

There was a good-sized state park west of Marquette and I considered stopping for the night, though it was still early; it was an attractive place, off in the woods and well clear of the lake, so maybe it wouldn't be so cold. But while it didn't seem to be closed, it didn't seem to be quite open either; the restrooms were locked, and the water sources weren't working, and after looking around a bit I rode on.

That was another mistake; it would have been a far, far better place than where I finally wound up, at a place called Baraga at the bottom end of Keweenaw Bay. There was a small public campground there, and I gave it a try, but the wind was coming off the lake so strong that I wasn't having any luck putting up the tent; and I realized that even if I did get it up I'd be in for a wretched night, as cold as the previous one and windier besides. I said shit several times and repacked the tent and rode back up the road to a cheap motel and got a room and stood under a hot shower for a very long time.

I took that picture at some point, but I'm damned if I remember where it was. Somewhere on the shore of the damn lake, that's all I know.

The Keweenaw Peninsula, though, turned out a good deal better. The road up toward Copper Harbor wound through fine stretches of forest, with such unexpected delights as a waterfall right beside the road.

I stopped at a little rest area and had a leisurely hot lunch. This was much better; I wished I'd come here directly in the first place. But still there was that white shit on the ground, and even ice here and there - you can see some of it on those rocks in the background - and all in all this just wasn't my kind of country. This was the one part of the trip that I was glad to have seen; but I was quite sure I wouldn't be coming back.

By midafternoon I was set up at a pretty little roadside campground north of Rhinelander, finishing up the Jim Beam and watching some beavers. Funny how your perspective can change; just a short time ago, that night in Sheboygan, I would never have guessed that Wisconsin would ever look this good to me.

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