Posted By: Joe Frickin' Friday
Dances With Cows: The Roadside America Edition - 10/12/13 02:55 AM
OK, you’ve seen Dances with Cows and Dances With Cows, Too. Here’s the latest and greatest, with a twist: I made it a point to visit every Roadside America attraction I could find along my route. I’m pretty sure my writing has gone downhill, but you should at least enjoy a few entertaining photos. In keeping with the rule proposed by Ron in his Muffler Men photo thread, I did my damndest to get my bike in every shot.
Thanks for sticking around; here’s Day 1.
Day 1: Wednesday, September 25
Route: Ann Arbor, MI to Manitowoc, WI
Distance: 232 miles in the saddle plus 60 miles by ferry
This is my third ‘Dances With Cows’ adventure. And just like the first one in 2010, I find myself leaving from work after lunch, with my departure timed to catch the Lake Express ferry in Muskegon. Trekking down to the Carolinas for one of the spring/fall moto events is somewhat of an endurance test, but these commutes to Wisconsin are always pure luxury: 180 miles to Muskegon, a 2.5-hour ride across Lake Michigan on the back of an earth-hugging rocketship, and then a final 90-mile cruise to Madison, one of my favorite cities. And this day starts off true to form, with warm, sunny weather for the run to Muskegon. But something is odd when I get there. As I arrive at the Lake Express terminal, a guy on a Harley is on his way out.
The ferry hasn’t arrived yet. So why is he leaving????
As I come around the last bend to the waiting area, I find out why. There are cones across the entrance, and a small sign:
”TODAY’S 4:45 CROSSING HAS BEEN CANCELLED.”
I putter off to the parking area and head inside, where I’m told that the ferry is stuck in Milwaukee with engine trouble. Funny, I always call before heading to the airport for a flight, but in my 10 years of using the Lake Express, it never occurred to me to question the mechanical reliability of a sailing vessel. I didn’t even have to call: if I hadn’t turned my cell phone off last night, I would have noticed the voicemail they had sent me this morning informing me of the cancellation.
OK, so I’m not taking the Lake Express today. I briefly mull over my options:
- scuttle the whole trip, turn around and go home
- saddle up for a 340-mile ride to Madison, hitting Chicago right at rush hour
- head 60 miles north to Ludington to catch the 8:30 departure of the Badger Ferry
Compared to the Lake Express, the Badger Ferry leaves late, moves slow, and it’s in the wrong spot: it’ll put me in Manitowoc (80 miles north of Milwaukee) at 11:30 PM.
A frenzy of phone calls ensues and confirms a few important facts:
- I have a spot reserved for the Badger Ferry’s 8:30 departure.
- I have a hotel room reserved in Manitowoc.
- I’m too late to cancel my hotel reservation in Madison: Best Western will be keeping my $90, thank you very much.
After arranging for a refund of the first half of my round-trip on the Lake Express, I gear up and head north to Ludington.
Upon arrival at Ludington, my first stop is a Wal-Mart; unlike the Lake Express, the Badger Ferry asks riders to provide their own tie-down straps, and when I made my reservation the operator helpfully suggested that Wal-Mart would be cheaper than buying tie downs at the port. After picking up a pair of reasonably priced tie-downs, I head into the heart of Ludington to find some dinner.
The last time I rode the Badger Ferry was in 2003, at which point I was still in the habit of seeking out major chain restaurants for my meals, regardless of how much time I had. It’s funny how my riding behaviors and habits have changed since I started riding 14+ years ago. I’m pretty sure I ate at Subway back then, but now that I have a couple of hours to kill before departure, I make it a point to look for a local restaurant. Ah, found one: The Old Hamlin. Not only is it local, but it’s got some history: the menu cover features portraits of all of the owners dating back to the 1940s, and the walls of the dining room are covered with photos of the shipping and logging industries that put this town on the map back in the 1800s. In addition to the historic atmosphere, it’s nice to have hot food served on a plate instead of pulling a cold sub out of a plastic bag.
With dinner taken care of, I still have some time to kill before boarding the boat. I saddle up and head north along the lakeshore, eventually arriving at Ludington State Park. The road has maybe a dozen small parking areas before I arrive at the park’s tollgate and turn around. I stop at one of them, and wander out to the beach. The water extends to the horizon; I might as well be standing on the edge of the ocean. Behind me, my RT waits in the space between two grassy dunes:
Finally, it’s time to get to the ship. It’s already in port, and before I even get into town, I can see the smoke plume rising from its stack. The S.S. Badger (I later learn that “S.S.” stands for “Steam Ship”) is a historic relic, a coal-burning, steam-driven dinosaur that first set sail back in 1952. It started out ferrying railroad cars between Ludington and Manitowoc, but in 1992 it began a new life shuttling cars, motorcycles, and pedestrians across the lake.
Railroad cars? Yeah, it’s that big:
As it turns out, I’m lucky this 8:30PM crossing is happening at all, as they don’t usually do so this late in the season. As I look around, there are only four of us on bikes, plus maybe another half-dozen cars, waiting to board a ferry that can handle 180 vehicles and 600+ passengers. So why are they running????
The ferry soon disgorges its real economic justification:
These are wind-turbine parts for an installation near Saginaw, and the ferry crossing cuts 300 miles of driving off of their trip. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more “OVERSIZED LOAD” than these turbine post segments. Each one is 82 feet long, not including the tractor and the front and rear carriage units, which look like they double the length of the whole contraption. As they creep out of the ferry’s vehicle hold, the operators activate hydraulic lifts in the carriage units to raise the post segment so it will clear the hump on the exit ramp. One of the operators walking behind the rig fiddles with a handheld remote control: he’s actually steering the rear undercarriage so they can wiggle their way out of the terminal without hitting anything. It’s all pretty smooth and fast; they’ve been doing this all summer, and they’re pretty good at it. In fairly short order all four post segments are out of the ferry, and we roll aboard.
While tying our bikes down, two of the other riders are chatting about the wind turbines. One of them likes the ‘green’ energy they provide, while the other decries them as subsidized nonsense. The funny thing is that the guy who likes the wind turbines also much prefers the Badger ferry over its modern, high-tech competitor (the Lake Express). I want to tell him what I found out later:
The Badger Ferry dumps four tons of toxic coal ash into Lake Michigan every day.
It’s amazing that they get away with this, considering that Lake Michigan provides the drinking water for countless communities along its shore. And let’s not even talk about what they’re pumping into the air. Suffice it to say the EPA is not real happy with the S.S. Badger.
After tying my bike down, I head up to the passenger area and make my way to the forward sun deck – and that’s where I am at 8:30 when the Badger scares the living crap out of me with its horn, announcing its departure. The sun set nearly an hour ago, and twilight is almost over when the steam engines finally rumble to life and propel the S.S. Weasel Badger across the harbor and out into open water. We’re on our way.
If you can look past its dirty nature, a cruise on the Badger does have its historic appeal. I expect it’s a bit like travelling on a B-29: the trip is gonna take a while, but there’s a lot of interesting things to check out while you’re aboard. There are informative exhibits like this one at various places around the ship, and in fact one room houses an entire museum full of artifacts and info dedicated to the history of shipping on the great lakes, with (of course) a heavy emphasis on the Badger. We’ve got four hours before we reach Manitowoc, so I take my time, reading everything.
OK, that took an hour. Now what?
I pull out the latest issue of Wired magazine and sit down in the cafeteria to read it.
OK, there goes another hour. Two more hours to go.
I head up to the foredeck and lay down on one of the sun chairs. It’s a fine spot for a nap, with only a bit of dim light coming from the wheelhouse and from the walkways on either side of it. The ‘railing’ at the edge of the deck is a solid sheet of steel about chest-high, and it subdues the 16-knot breeze rather nicely. Still, without the sun I’m barely warm enough to fall asleep, in spite of all the gear I’m wearing.
Half an hour later I wake up and find that my night vision is in full effect. The moon has not yet risen, we’re still a good 25 miles from the light pollution of Manitowoc – and the night sky is stunning. Living on a well-lit street in the suburbs, I don’t see this sort of thing very often. I have an unobstructed view in nearly every direction with stars too numerous to count, and the Milky Way galaxy is brightly apparent. I even manage to spot a few shooting stars. It's amazing, and funny to think I would have missed this experience if the Lake Express had been running as scheduled.
I pass the final hour of the trip in a cycle of cat naps, star gazing, and checking my GPS receiver to see how far we have left to go. Finally the Manitowoc harbor looms large; the rumble of the steam engines soon fades to nothing, and we’re coasting silently toward the shore. The ship veers to starboard as it slows, and suddenly there’s a loud buzzer, followed by the anchor being dropped into the water; the entire ship resonates as huge links of chain rattle through the windlass and out the hawse pipe. The anchor digs into the bottom of the harbor and holds the bow fast while the stern slings around, bringing the entire boat into line with the seawall; the captain has judged his momentum perfectly, and now he backs the vessel the remaining hundred yards or so to the landing.
After coming ashore, it’s just a few blocks’ ride to my hotel. It’s late and I have a long ride to catch up to my originally planned route tomorrow, so I waste no time before getting to bed.