"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door" … "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to."
~ Bilbo Baggins from The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkein

Thursday, April 30, 2015

My Love Affair with the Bicycle

Our 2014 steel SEVEN bicycles loaded with gear posing in the dune grass of Gilson Park
[Note to reader: I fully intended this post to be about the equipment we'll use on our ride around The Lake. Instead it turned into a musing on my love affair with bikes. Now I understand how mystery writers feel when their characters take over the plot. Some day I hope to get back to the topic of equipment. For now you're stuck with this.]

I must confess, I LOVE bikes as well as maps. That, I suppose, is a good thing when you dream of being a bicycle tourist. Loving bikes also means KNOWING bikes, understanding how and why they work, always wanting to know more. Now, don't get me wrong, I am not a techno-freak about most things. Won't spend hours and hours researching the ins and outs of computers, or cars or even programable calculators (sorry inside joke). For most equipment in my life I'm perfectly content assuming that its going to function or calling in the experts when it doesn't. There is no urge within me to actually understand the inner workings or the mind of the inanimate objects in my life - EXCEPT when it comes to bicycles.

An Affair Begun Decades Ago

My 1980 Proteus - now red and decked out for our
2014 self-supported ride to Door County
Last night I was thinking back - when exactly did this bike love affair begin? Sure, I had bikes as a kid. Even earned the money for my own Schwinn sometime in late grade school. In 1973  along with just about everyone else I got my first 10-speed, a "serious" bike for "serious" riding. But, I think I didn't REALLY start being interested in the workings of bikes until I bought my first custom designed Proteus in 1980. It was then, when I had to pick out every piece of the machine from the type of steel to the lugs, the bottom bracket, the drop outs, the cables, the breaks, derailleurs, chain, gears as well as the blue paint, that I began this now decades-long love affair with the bike. Robert Penn's recent book, It's All About the Bike, The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels, captures my love affair with bikes as well as his own. In it he explores the history, lore and culture of the bike as well as its technology. To him its clear, the two parts, the technical and cultural are inextricably intertwined. And that's how I feel. To understand a bike is to understand the whole sweep of its history, human as well as machine.

Simple and Complex at the Same Time

I also love bikes because of the yin and yang of their simultaneous simplicity and complexity. Bikes are simple say when compared to cars. A few parts, a human motor and you're off. Put in enough fuel in the form of food and water and you can go for days. Yet, on closer inspection bikes are ever so complex. As I'm fond of saying, they're a game of millimeters. The smallest adjustment changes everything. Move your saddle up a smidge and your back hurts; your handle bars forward and the pain stops. Make a small adjustment to a spoke or two and a wobbly wheel come true. Understanding all this can take a life time and consume endless hours of conversation over coffee or beer. Tinkering becomes the past time of the real enthusiast.

And that's how someone like me, who's passionate about human history and culture gets sucked into the science of ball bearings. You never know Frodo where that road is going to take you.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The first HOW of Riding around the Lake - ROUTES

My Collection of Lake Michigan Bicycle Maps

Now that I’ve covered the WHY of my trip around THE LAKE its time to move on to the HOW component. Visions and dreams are all well and good, but there needs to be some practical planning and organizing before dreams take on real form. And a big dream, such as my 1,350-mile trip, requires a lot of preparation and planning. Today I’ll start by talking about routes.

Criteria for a Good Bike Route

Choosing a route for self-supported touring starts with the same major criteria as developing a good day ride. First, and most importantly, you need a safe route. Sometimes that involves bike paths, but not often. Paths are relatively few in number, don’t often go where you want to go and frequently have a bed of crushed limestone making riding far less efficient. So, a good route planner searches out lightly traveled but good surfaced roads with controlled intersections to cross major streets and highways.  Then you need to identify where you can refill your water bottles, visit the restroom and, at least on Evanston Bicycle Club rides, where you’ll have lunch. (We of the EBC are very big into eating mid-ride).
I love maps so much I even take
photos of ones I find along the way.

In addition, a good self-supported touring route involves finding a place to stay for the night with a restaurant nearby. After a day of riding that far, no one wants to clean up and then get back on the bike for another 5-mile trip. This daily end-point must be within a target distance from the start-point. Because we want to stop along the way to visit parks, museums and historical markers I limited us to a target of 50 – 60 miles riding each day. We’ve chosen NOT to camp, which saves our backs, but hurts our pocketbooks and limits our options. Given that we’re passing through popular tourist spots we decided to make reservations ahead of time. Finding out there are NO rooms at the inn at the end of a long day is not acceptable. But, this also means we’re locked into making each day’s destination regardless of weather, state of mind or soreness of body.  Having a nice cozy room with a warm shower to look forward to certainly helps with the motivation.

Sources for Routes

So, you ask, how does one find a safe route with a good surface, frequent rest stops, a cozy room and good food at the end?  Good question! The short answer: lots and lots and lots of research.

The internet, the internet what did we all do before we had the internet? For route planning purposes the internet is an essential, but insufficient tool. You can go on Google maps or Map My Ride, or Ride with GPS or Garmin Connect, select your destination, click on a bike icon and the system will plan a route for you. Yet if you do that in your own neighborhood, where you know the good routes from the not so good, you find that these digital sources often pick the less desirable ways and ignore your favorites. If they do that at home you can be sure they’re doing it in the places you want to go but haven’t been to yet. So, to be sure a good bike route planner needs to consult other sources of information when laying out a route.

Maps, Maps and More Maps 

Map of Root River bike trail - Racine, WI
For my route around THE LAKE I’ve been lucky to have several great mapping sources. You can get a full list by clicking on the “Bicycle Maps” link on the right side of the blog. Each state we’re passing through has a different approach to bike transportation, but they’ve all provided some guidelines. My vote though for best bike planning resources has to go to Michigan. The Michigan Department of Transportation, The League of Michigan Bicyclists and Adventure Cycling’s USBR #35 are “the bomb” as my friend Will would say. Between them I found routes, checked for convenient parks, identified towns with accomodations and restaurants. I could easily identify the low traffic roads, the paved bike paths, and even some intriguing historic sites. Adventure Cycling USBR #35 and LMB also provide turn-by-turn directions border to border on the lower peninsula. Another wonderful, highly detailed source are the cross-country maps put out by Adventure Cycling. I used a portion of their Northern Tier route – North Lakes Map #2 for getting across the Upper Peninsula (UP).  It provides turn-by-turn directions, locations for food, accomodations and even sites of interest – especially useful in this very sparsely populated territory. The statewide user friendly website  “Michigan Pure” helped me identify places to stay with nearby restaurants. 

I found other state resources to be much more spotty. Wisconsin does have a set of printed bike maps, but they’re not nearly as detailed at Michigan’s. Fortunately, I’ve traveled much of that territory before and relied on routes from SAGBRAW (Scrams Annual Great Bike Ride Around Wisconsin) for Marinette to Sheboygan. My all time favorite map, "Milwaukee and SE Wisconsin bike Map" from Bikeverywhere.com provides great detail, but only covers the portion of the state south of Port Washington to the Illinois line. Northern Indiana’s map is good, but again, I relied on internal Evanston Bicycle Club sources for route suggestions there (so much industrialization to avoid).  The Active Transportation Alliance’s map of the Chicago, one of my local staples, wasn’t needed much in this planning because we’ll again, be traveling on known territory for this trip.

Bottom Line: I LOVE MAPS

All this discussion about routes reminds me how much I really do love maps in paper or digital form. I love pouring over their representations of reality. I love studying their icons for all the detailed information I can acquire. Mostly I love visualizing the reality underlying the map. When I finally get to see the real territory I’m usually surprised – things are never what I imagined them to be. Although with satellite views now possible, real images of confusing places help with landmark identifications. Still satellite images are not reality. Thus explains the pull of the open road within me. All these hours and hours pouring over maps, making routes, selecting motels must lead to an ADVENTURE!

Maps and route planning, essential as they are, are just the beginning of the HOW of riding around THE LAKE. More to come about training, equipment and packing in future blogs. Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Why Lake Michigan? Why Pilgrimage?

Most of my life spent on the Shore of Lake Michigan

I just realized that I’ve spent most of my life residing within 4 miles of the western shore of Lake Michigan. Over that time I came to anchor my internal compass on THE LAKE.  Its always east. Even if I can’t see it, THE LAKE secures that part of the dial. I can navigate from there. I noticed this for the first time when I tried to find my way on the west coast of California; water is not supposed to be on the West. My internal map had been turned upside down.

Despite that proximity, or maybe because of it, I grew up taking THE LAKE for granted – its beautiful blueness, its limitless horizon, its fresh waterness, its fishy smell, its clean drinking water. The first time I visited New Mexico I was appalled at how dry and treeless it was. How could anyone live in a place like that, with no lake for comfort? But, at least the mountain was on the east. My internal compass functioned very well in Albuquerque.

Have known little of its history - until now

I grew up learning a small amount of THE LAKE’S history, both natural and human – enough to be in
Doing Lake Michigan research
during February snow storm

awe of the Big Water, freighted of the shipwreck history. I’ve traveled some of the lake shore, particularly from Chicago north to Door County, a little bit north of that to Marinette, a little on its eastern shore up to Warren Dunes, and then a big leap to Mackinaw Island. But, there’s a big swatch from Marinette over to Mackinaw through the UP (Upper Peninsula of Michigan) and down the west coast of the state of Michigan that I’ve never seen, much less understood.

A "Green" Pilgrimage to THE LAKE'S Sacred Places

But, now in the last few months, in anticipation of this trip, I’ve done lots of reading about THE LAKE both its natural and human history. When we did our bike trip to Door County last year I lamented not knowing the histories of the towns we passed through. I knew even less about the geology. Now I know a little more and want to give life to my newly acquired book learning. I want to ride the roads and put real places into my maps. I want finally, after all these years living so close by, to take THE LAKE into myself, and put some of those history pieces together. I could say that this will be an odyssey of discovery: “an extended adventurous voyage or a spiritual quest.” But I prefer pilgrimage: “a journey made to a sacred place,” because to me THE LAKE is truly sacred. 

Wikipedia mentions a new, Green Pilgrimage Movement, one focused on minimizing the impact of vast numbers of pilgrims on the very sites they revere. Thus, to do this pilgrimage to the sacred sites of Lake Michigan by bike is a fitting and proper fulfillment of my obligation to care for the current environment of THE LAKE as well as to learn its history.

Encounter Lake Michigan's History with me as I ride

On this pilgrimage I intend to pay homage to the whole gambit of Lake Michigan history: from sand dunes and their environs, to abandoned mining towns and smelting factories, to shipyards and shipwrecks. I want to learn some about fruit growing and forest fires, to put my hands on ancient rock and to trace the Niagara Escarpment outcroppings. I want to visit fur trading sites and the forts of Mackinaw and St. Ignace, to learn more about Father Marquette & Joliet and walk through Indian mounds and Ojibwa settlements. I also want to see the current state of industry and commerce. Now that the woods, the iron and the fish have been decimated what’s left? Who’s surviving and how are they doing it?

I've pulled together a bibliography of Lake Michigan history books and articles you might like to consult if this whole idea intrigues you. You'll find it on the right side. Click on the link and check out the list. Unfortunately, the very best source I've found appears to be out of print, Margaret Beattie Bogue's 1984 Around the Shore of lake Michigan: A Guide to Historic Sites. Ms. Bogue was a history professor at the University of Wisconsin - Madison and her professional discourse is a nice change from the usual local histories I've read. I found the book at the Milwaukee Map Store last November when I went looking for a Lake Michigan Map. It contains a great but simple map of the lake with its historic sites numbered and catalogued. In addition to the site references Ms. Bogue also gives us 100 pages of professional historical writing about The Lake from geology to glaciers to Native Americans, French fur trappers on into and through the industrial age. If you're a history buff as am I, buy it when you can find it. Or check for it in your library. I'll be referring to many of her references throughout the trip. A slightly new book, Lake Michigan: A Guide to all towns, rural areas and natural attractions by Donna Marchetti , 2000 is still in print and contains many of Ms. Bogue's referenced sites.

You'll also find a list of Lake Michigan sites we hope to visit in the right column. (Those of you reading this on e-mail will need to log into the actual blog to pick up these extra bits if you're interested.) I've listed them in the order we'll be riding - counter-clock wise starting in the Chicago area - and separated them into the Stages of our journey. As much as I'd like, I know we won't get to all of them, but I hope to hit the highlights. If there are other, less obvious ones you think we should check out, let me know. Hopefully each day's travel will include one or two. 

Through these visits I hope to soak in their meaning, absorb the history a little, feel the pull of nature. I’m willing to hold sacred both the human and environmental history.  I’m willing to work through what should be several levels of paradox. I’m trusting that somehow, experiencing THE LAKE up close I’ll see some confluence.