This is part three of an eight-part series recounting my first motorcycle trip.
Riding out of Hart, Michigan, I was still without a route or timetable but my need for sleep had been squelched by four cups of coffee and the opportunity to rest and warm up in the Pink Elephant. I studied my tiny map of Michigan and determined that any road east would work unless I hit Interstate 75 or water – both were signs I had gone too far. Roads south were okay unless I passed into Ohio or Indiana. The guiding principal of the trip was unchanged; let The Plan find me and remain, as much as possible, on back roads.
Rain and I were converging on southeastern Michigan: I from the west-northwest, the rain from the west-southwest. We would meet soon and I looked forward to it. It would be a baptism of sorts – one more step in earning the right to call myself a biker – and I was not going to shrink from the challenge. But for now, as I chose appropriate roads east and south (or they chose me), the sky was solid overcast, threatening neither rain nor sun.
I have no idea which roads I traveled but it wasn’t the first time I traversed the width of Michigan with only my internal compass guiding me. The last time I was in my venerable 1974 Triumph TR6, driving west from Adrian on two-lane roads, purposely avoiding the Tri-State Tollway that would have carried me more swiftly to Chicago. On that trip, as on this one, I passed though small towns that hadn’t changed much in fifty years, perhaps more. Too small for a Super Walmart or ten-screen cineplex, yet too big and too far removed from the next city to relinquish their locally-owned grocery store or downtown movie theater, they survive at a slower pace than the world beyond their border, a world which is accelerating in a way that obsoletes ideas and products almost at their conception.
When I close my eyes and picture these towns they all have a short main street (almost always named Main Street) composed of two- and three-story buildings – intricate in their brickwork, ornate in their wood molding, inviting with their large glass windows – standing shoulder to shoulder, protected from the street by a wide sidewalk. The store entrances are heavy wood doors with cracked paint or varnish, large panes of thick glass, and aged brass hardware, which swing easily on their worn hinges. Inside, the wood floor gently rolls and dips from age and alternates in hue: dark from water and snow carried in on shoppers’ feet, beige, rough and lifeless from heavy traffic at the entrance and register, and glossy golden brown at the edges where feet seldom step.
If this scene isn’t repeated across the street, then there lies a green space with a large white gazebo decorated in patriotic bunting, protected by a battery of civil war canons or a World War II howitzer. Nearby is a bronze or granite bust of the town’s founder or most notable citizen, and a brass plaque commemorating by name, branch of service and war fought, the town’s children who served but never returned. The playground equipment, tattooed with the initials of young kids professing their love for each other or simply recording that they had been there, is a memorial of its own, though less formal and unsanctioned by the town’s counsel. And I wonder: How many souls have their name recorded on the teeter-totter and the brass plaque?
When I drive my TR6 – slab-sided as it is with a blunt nose and tail and fifteen-inch wheels sporting, by today’s standards, high-profile tires – I’m accustom to waves, thumbs up and comments from other drivers and pedestrians. The Triumph TR6 was a classic in its day and now, thirty-plus years after the last of the 94,000 produced rolled from the assembly line, it is safe to say fewer people have seen one than have not. But I’m still caught off guard by the attention a motorcycle receives. Such was the case as I eased up to a stoplight and received a thumbs-up from a man seated three tables removed from the window of a downtown diner. Motorcycles represent freedom, an unrestricted lifestyle, simplicity, danger, romance and, yes, rebellion. I felt a responsibility to revel in my experience, as it seemed with every mile I added the dreams of those who could not ride to the leather bag strapped behind me.
Rain and I became travel companions. I waited for the gravel shoulder to widen before I pulled over to put on the borrowed rain suit I stowed in a quickly accessible pocket of my bag. The rain, I could tell, was there to stay. It was a slow-moving system that would soak southeastern Michigan, and me, for the remainder of the day. I took back to the road tentatively; I was confident Yamaha had equipped my bike with tires up to the task of gripping a wet road, yet I needed to prove it to myself. I was, you’ll recall, new to riding in the rain. My Raider has no fairing and only the smallest of windshields, so the bike provided no barrier to the rain. It only took a few miles to discover that turning my head slightly left and right would clear the rain from my helmet’s visor. I also discovered the elastic band meant to hold the rain suit at my ankles fell short of the task and water, lifted from the road by the front tire and sprayed on to the bike, found its way off the bike and onto the leg of the rain suit which funneled it perfectly into my left boot. I was earning my Rain Badge on my quest to become a biker.
I rode right past Depot Italiano Restorante as Highway 50 led me through Charlotte, but it caught my eye so I turned back. It was just after 11 A.M. and once again I was walking into a restaurant just as they opened, only this time I was dripping wet rather than chilled to the bone. Depot Italiano occupied a brick train depot in a manner that had left the station’s architecture intact, serving a rich visual experience with each meal.
Cream-colored walls rose to support a soaring cathedral ceiling of dark tongue and groove. Finely crafted beams and arches supported the ceiling and tied in to the walls with ornate, curving wood supports worthy of a catholic church. The lighting gave the appearance of having just recently been converted to electric from gas, and frosted, leaded glass windows populated the perimeter. The Lionel train track suspended above the windows of two walls was not in operation during my visit but plenty of vintage signs – both painted and neon – advertising Coke, Pepsi, and long-extinct gasoline and oil brands held my interest while I waited for my lasagna. I took my time eating. Stops like these were as much a part of the trip as the miles that passed beneath my motorcycle.