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#856420 - 10/12/13 02:55 AM Dances With Cows: The Roadside America Edition
Joe Frickin' Friday Offline


Registered: 07/28/00
Posts: 17552
Loc: Ann Arbor, MI (USA)

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. grin

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:


mad dopeslap cry

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. mad mad mad
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 1940’s, 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 1800’s. 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. smile

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 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? lurk

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.

#856429 - 10/12/13 05:05 AM Re: Dances With Cows: The Roadside America Edition [Re: Joe Frickin' Friday]
Bill_Walker Offline

Registered: 09/18/04
Posts: 4370
Loc: San Marcos, CA USA
Got question marks for all the photos, Mitch.
"Dry-Town" Crew, San Diego
'15 R1200RT
'12 Kawasaki KLX250S
'04 R1150RT (gone)
'02 Suzuki V-Strom (gone)

#856442 - 10/12/13 11:33 AM Re: Dances With Cows: The Roadside America Edition [Re: Joe Frickin' Friday]
Rocer Offline

Registered: 10/22/08
Posts: 1182
Loc: Haliburton ON
GREAT!!! I always enjoy reading 'Dances.. ' and looking forward to this one.

Your loss in having to take the detour via Badger is our gain or at least mine as I've always had a fascination with the marine side of things. The dumping of coal ash was an interesting detail as I had no idea that one cruise could produce so much. It makes me wonder how much ash has/is generated in the coal furnaces of electric power plants. I believe in modern coal fired furnaces the coal is fed in a pulverized state rather than in chunk state and that is more efficient and I've assumed minimizes ash. I know that the fly ash is captured in pre-chimney scrubbers and used by the gypsum board industry but no idea about the actual coal ash. But I digress.

A coal fired steam engine - that's got to be so rare and it's ironic that it is transporting the latest in high tech equipment. I thought coal fired boilers had all been converted to oil and had no idea the coal relics were still around. I grew up in a town that had a canal right through it and when the coal fired ships passed through they were under strict orders to minimize their plume of black stack smoke because it drifted through the town covering laundry on outside clothes lines. Of course that was back in the day when electric/gas domestic dryers were just becoming popular and pretty well every yard had clothes lines.

I can't help but think if an engineer wink had made himself known to the ship's engineer that he might have been given a peek at the engine.

I'm hooked, let the 'Cows' continue lurk lurk
“Stay where you’re to till we comes where you’re at “

00 R1100RT

#856449 - 10/12/13 12:06 PM Re: Dances With Cows: The Roadside America Edition [Re: Bill_Walker]
Joe Frickin' Friday Offline


Registered: 07/28/00
Posts: 17552
Loc: Ann Arbor, MI (USA)
Originally Posted By: Bill_Walker
Got question marks for all the photos, Mitch.


Sorry, I had a password set for the SmugMug gallery. It's turned off now, so pics should show up. If you've already viewed the thread and seen question marks, you may have to refresh your page and/or clear your browser cache to get them to show up properly.

#856635 - 10/14/13 03:09 AM Day 2 of Dances With Cows: The Roadside America Edition [Re: Joe Frickin' Friday]
Joe Frickin' Friday Offline


Registered: 07/28/00
Posts: 17552
Loc: Ann Arbor, MI (USA)
Day 2: Thursday, September 26
Route: Manitowoc, WI to Winona, MN
Distance: 410 miles

Last night on the ferry one of the other bikers had recommended a particularly tasty local breakfast spot. Unfortunately my modified schedule for today means that my hotel’s hot breakfast is the “best” option. “Best” is in quotes because the sausage, potatoes and scrambled eggs are free, hot, ready, and on-site – but it’s all sort of flavorless, and there’s no ketchup in sight.

Does any hotel offer a hot breakfast that people actually want and truly enjoy?

My meal’s most redeeming feature is its brevity. Within ten minutes I’ve finished and headed back up to the room to collect the last of my gear. Another ten minutes, and I’m on the road, hustling southward on I-43. The highway never strays more than a couple of miles from the lakeshore, so it drones along in straight segments at a constant elevation. Just like breakfast, it’s a necessary evil because it gets me where I want to go as quickly as possible. As such, it stands in complete contrast to the riding that I know will fill my afternoon (and indeed the rest of the week). After a short jog west to Fond du Lac and then southwest to Sun Prairie, I graze the northern edge of Madison on WI19 before merging onto US 12. I’ve mentioned US12 before: back in the 1990’s it was a nice two-lane country road, but heavy traffic compelled Wisconsin’s DOT to turn it into a four-lane divided highway, shaving off hilltops and putting in long, smooth curves to provide motorists with unobstructed sightlines. In planning my “fun” routes for this trip, this is the kind of road I had taken pains to avoid. I was here only out of necessity; in fact, the entire 170 miles so far this morning was nothing but a preamble to the riding I really wanted to do – which starts on the west side of Sauk Prairie as I leave US12. I am finally onto my original planned route, albeit 70 miles from where I had wanted to start in Madison. C’est la vie. With perfect sunny warm weather to see me through the rest of the day, The Good Roads are finally here.

And soon enough, so is the first of my Roadside America stops:

This is a mouse (duh…), displaying the fine comestibles offered by The Cheese Maker in the village of Plain. If I had more time to kill I might opt to go inside – but I’ve got a long way to go and a lot to see today, and I’m already behind schedule, so I opt for a quick granola bar from my sidecase before charging west out of town.

70 miles later – after a particularly squiggly stretch of road through Wildcat Mountain State Park – I arrive in the tiny burg of Ontario. I had originally planned on eating lunch somewhere up the road in Sparta, but the morning’s highway cruise ate up a lot of time. I’ve still got 240 miles to go before my day ends, and my stomach is clamoring for food, so halfway through town I flip a U-turn and head back to a sign I had just noticed. Only 500 people live here, but they’ve got their own restaurant, and it’s about as local as it gets. Several farmers in the dining room briefly turn and stare as I walk in wearing my bright yellow Olympia jacket, leaving me feeling just a little out of place. I remind myself that they’re not hostile, just curious – and no matter what, I’m hungry.

Whereas the Old Hamlin in Ludington was festooned with pictures of shipping and lumber processing, the Milk Jug Café’s dining room displays an array of farm life imagery. Cows, barns, pastures, farmers doing…farmer-things…and so on. It all makes sense, I suppose, since the proprietor grew up (and still lives) on a farm. It’s a nice environment, preferable to the plastic cookie-cutter atmosphere of a McDonald’s or Burger King (as if either one would deign to open a restaurant in such a small marketplace grin).

Before long I’m back on the road, with a brief stop just 12 miles later in Norwalk. I came here looking for a big sign that said “BLACK SQUIRREL CAPITAL”, but after a brief search, I can’t seem to locate it. Instead, I find this:

The narrow stretch of brown gravel on the far side of the parking lot is the Elroy-Sparta State Trail, a 32-mile path for use by bicycles, hikers, and (in the winter) snowmobiles. If you don’t like bicycling up hills, then this trail is for you: It started life as a railroad track before it was converted for public use in the 1960’s, so the slope rarely exceeds a percent or two. But you’ll want a headlight: there are three tunnels on the route. The longest is 3/4-mile, and if it’s even slightly foggy inside (as it often is), you’ll be in complete darkness for most of it. I rode this trail out-and-back a couple of times in high school; quite an interesting experience.

20 miles down the road I’m in Sparta, at the trailhead, eyeballing this beauty:

With the shallow grades and gentle curves of the trail, a penny-farthing velocipede would be a fine choice indeed. grin

On the opposite corner, there’s a bear on roller skates. No, really:

And across town, Sparta High School features – what else??? – a Spartan mascot:

At the north end of town, I hit the mother lode, the wellspring, the source, the factory where all these crazy statues come from:

In the background of that last shot, you can see another penny-farthing rider (blue top, white pants) who appears to have crashed out of the race.

Whereas most of these statues exist for the sake of commerce, a dozen miles down the road – just south of Cataract – I come across an exhibit that can only be described as genuine folk art:

The Wegner Grotto is a sculpture garden built entirely by German immigrants Paul and Matilda Wegner in the early 1900’s. Their chosen medium was concrete encrusted with shards of broken glass, and there are several signs warning visitors not to touch anything for your own safety. Over the space of about a decade the Wegners were very, very busy:

About the S.S. Bremen sculpture

An anniversary cake:

The Wegners were devout Christians, and so many of their works feature religious themes, such as this “Crown of Righteousness:”

In Black River Falls, I encounter more commercial art:

Just how many cheese-mice are there in Wisconsin???

Black River Falls also has a deer jumping over a log:

And a gigantic orange moose:

The moose and deer are right next to I-94. When I was in grad school in Madison in the 1990’s, every time I went to see my parents in Minneapolis for the weekend I drove by these and knew I was about halfway home. This is the first time I’ve ever stopped to check them out from close range.

My planned route from Black River Falls to Winona (Minnesota) is 192 miles, but I’m not going to be able to cover all of this before sunset, and I don’t want to be out after dark; this is deer country afterall, and the last thing I need is a side of venison wrapped around my headlight. I go for a compromise, following my original squiggly route until the GPS predicts that a direct shot will get me to Winona at sunset. It works perfectly, and I roll across the Main Channel Bridge into Winona just as the sun disappears behind the bluffs.

My hotel is in the shadow of the bridge:

It’s a fine example of the cantilevered truss design (see how the tallest sections are directly above the supports?), a combination that isn’t done much anymore; like most of the surviving examples of this type, Winona’s Main channel bridge is many decades old. The town recognizes the historic appeal of the bridge, and although they are planning a new one, they will be keeping this one around for a while too.

Dinner comes from a recommendation by the hotel clerk: the Jefferson pub, built in an old railroad freight building. Neat place.

My day ends with an episode from Ken Burns’ documentary series about America’s national park system. It’s fascinating – touring the national parks was a huge part of my childhood – and I make a mental note to myself to look up the rest of the series after I return home.

#856650 - 10/14/13 11:51 AM Re: Day 2 of Dances With Cows: The Roadside America Edition [Re: Joe Frickin' Friday]
Mike Offline


Registered: 07/19/00
Posts: 10311
Loc: Chicago area, IL, USA
[quote=Joe Frickin' Friday]Day 2: Thursday, September 26
Route: Manitowoc, WI to Winona, MN
Distance: 410 miles

This is great, Mitch! Your Ride Tales are always great. I've long contended that the riding in Wisconsin, particularly the southwest part of the state, is among the best anywhere. There are tons of scenic twisty roads without a lot of traffic, lots of good food, and inexpensive accommodations. Well worth a visit (plus, more cheese-mice than you'll find anywhere).
Mike The Moderator
Born to be Mild

#856666 - 10/14/13 01:51 PM Re: Dances With Cows: The Roadside America Edition [Re: Joe Frickin' Friday]
Traveler1 Offline

Registered: 11/04/03
Posts: 660
Loc: SF Bay Area
I read every word - what a great excuse to take a ride.
Really enjoyed to photos too. Thanks for sharing

Honda Africa Twin (sold)

#856690 - 10/14/13 03:43 PM Re: Dances With Cows: The Roadside America Edition [Re: Traveler1]
Marty Hill Offline
The Energiser Bunny

Registered: 09/04/01
Posts: 9477
Loc: Atlanta, Ga.
Mitch, thanks for another great tale. I'm going to try the ferry next summer.
49 states/31 countries/3 continents

700GS/white...old age moto

WWMHD...ride till you can't

Semper Paratus

#856773 - 10/15/13 01:17 AM Re: Dances With Cows: The Roadside America Edition [Re: Joe Frickin' Friday]
eddd Offline

Registered: 12/04/06
Posts: 5809
Loc: Hurricane, UT

Definately a great place to and bicycles. I spent many years in that area and return on a regular basis. The bike trails in the area are first rate. Since they connect with each other it is easy to do a century ride, all on beautiful and peaceful bike trails.
12 Kawasaki EX650
13 Yamaha XT250
16 KTM RC 390
96 R1100RT - forced retirement at 175,000

#856815 - 10/15/13 12:49 PM Re: Dances With Cows: The Roadside America Edition [Re: eddd]
Lighthiker90 Offline

Registered: 02/22/13
Posts: 182
Loc: Wilson, NY
Nice trip. Where did you get the high vis stickers for your saddle bags? They look great.
1997 R1100RT

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