Without A Plan: Part 7 - Bikers On A Boat

This is part seven of an eight-part series recounting my first motorcycle trip.

Boarding the S.S. Badger had been a relaxed and informal process appropriate to the ship's age and character. Boarding the modern Lake Express also had a feel, unfortunately one of boarding an aircraft in this post-9/11 world. Chain linked fence segregates passengers from observers and the boarding area is entered through two checkpoints only by presenting the proper paperwork. The uniformed attendant at the second checkpoint directed me to a staging area that mimics the vehicle deck of the Lake Express and guided me fully forward to the starboard side where I took my position with two other motorcycles. We were soon joined by yet two more.

The Lake Express is a catamaran, purpose-built, not adapted, for shuttling cars – a mere forty-six compared to the S.S. Badger’s 180-car capacity – at high speed across Lake Michigan. Four diesel engines drive four water jets that propel the Lake Express to forty mph, an impressive speed for a vessel her size. Boarding the Lake Express feels more like driving onto a boat than into a boat, as the car deck is short, wide, and open at both ends; a stark contrast to the dark, cavernous hull of the S.S. Badger. Upstairs are two passenger cabins: Classic and Premier. The Classic cabin has the feel of a cafeteria at its center with comfortable, uncrowded rows of booths and tables. Along each side are well-spaced airline-type seats that provide a view of the lake through large windows. No portals on this ship. Complimentary nonalcoholic drinks and a bit more comfort are provided in the Premier cabin. I noticed not a single biker upgraded to Premier class – we took our ferry trip straight up.

Departing Muskegon on the Lake Express.

Departing Muskegon on the Lake Express.

As the Lake Express pushed from her mooring on the south shore of Lake Muskegon, I enjoyed the unblemished sky, warm sun and motion-induced breeze at the front rail of her upper deck. We sailed past the Milwaukee Clipper, its elegant century-old grey steel hull and white superstructure contrasted sharply with the Lake Express’ lightweight aluminum catamaran hull and low-profile cabin in the same way a Gulfstream business jet contrasts with a DC-3. Idling through the long, narrow channel to Lake Michigan we passed the S.S. Silversides and USCGC McLane, a brick-red lighthouse and, finally, the breakwater, where the captain commanded four diesel engines to bring the Lake Express to speed. The acceleration was startling and I leaned heavily into the rapidly increasing wind and squeezed the grab rail to remain in place. It was quickly apparent that the cabin would offer a more relaxing ride and I, and most of the others on deck, went below.

A clear sky and smooth lake promised an easy cruise across Lake Michigan to Milwaukee.

A clear sky and smooth lake promised an easy cruise across Lake Michigan to Milwaukee.

One last glimpse at Michigan's beautiful western shore.

One last glimpse at Michigan's beautiful western shore.

The cabin was uncrowded so there was little urgency to claim a seat. I circled the cabin before settling into a booth, open on both ends, in the center of the cabin. I was drawn there by the presence of the other bikers. They were likely drawn there by the presence of an attractive young woman. Formal introductions were never made. Our clothing identified us to each other as one of the other bikers and no one took the initiative to extract names. But we clicked immediately to the chagrin, I'm sure, of the young post-grad who had settled the booth first and attracted the rest of us like Protestants to a potluck.

A merry group of strangers on the Lake Express. I'm second from the left.

A merry group of strangers on the Lake Express. I'm second from the left.

The conversation began as expected; “Where are you going?" "Where are you from?" "What are you riding?" "Do you like it?” Of the five bikes not one was an example of Milwaukee iron, and none were traditional baggers. Three of the riders were on BMW adventure/touring bikes. Their bikes looked the part with utilitarian hard-sided panniers, hand guards, a few states’ accumulation of dirt, and bungees securing all manner of gear. The fourth bike, a mid-size 1980s cruiser, wore period-correct, color-matched angular hard luggage and a faceted three-quarter fairing. It also clung to the souvenir dirt it had collected from days on the road. My Raider, in contrast, was still clean from the power washing that erased all signs of my hard-earned Rain Badge, had no saddlebags, and wore only the smallest of windshields. Not one could accuse another of riding in luxury.

Two of the riders, cocooned in armored riding suits, were touring a loop from Kansas through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, down Michigan’s west lakeshore, and back to Kansas. A speeding ticket coupled with a misunderstanding about a previously-revoked driver’s license delayed them for a night in Iowa, and one had a fondness for the phrase “They pissed me off and I never went back.” He used it to great effect in each story he told. There was clear competition for the attention of the young lady who sat quietly with her computer but was obviously enjoying the performance.

Another of the riders was on a self-described “Ville” tour on which he was collecting photographs of city signs that ended in “ville.” This was his excuse to ride and see places he may not otherwise see. It seemed to me a motorcycle was the only appropriate vehicle for such a tour.

A broad conversation about other reasons to ride ensued – as if owning a motorcycle isn’t reason enough – and our quickly-bonding group shared previously executed, planned, and proposed rides. The most disgusting was the "college-years" ride from Minnesota to California with the underlying goal of eating only other people’s leftover food on the way west. Mission accomplished. The most creative idea was to follow a car with out-of-state license plates to its destination. This could become an epic cross-country ride or be as simple as following a transplanted Alaskan to his new home thirty miles from your own. And therein lies the adventure.

The two-and-half hour crossing on unimaginably calm water passed quickly at our table. Laughter erupted so quickly and frequently that I felt sorry for the other passengers for having to endure us, and for not having nearly as much fun as we were having. Eventually the young woman was drawn in to the conversation only to quietly mention that she had ridden on the back of a sport bike from Madison, Wisconsin, to Wyoming. For all the male bravado of the past two hours, clearly the woman had won.

Milwaukee emerges below a bright September sun.

Milwaukee emerges below a bright September sun.

Milwaukee’s skyline emerged on the horizon, backlit by a bleached sky and a white sun that hovered serenely above the tallest buildings, not yet setting but signaling that evening had come to this Monday in early September. The Lake Express reduced throttle and a good number of passengers, including myself, returned to the upper deck to watch Milwaukee’s details come in to focus. We passed through a breakwater covered in white gulls and white gull droppings. The breakwater was superfluous – the lake was serene and relaxed on its own shore as if it were also on holiday.



Disembarking announcements were garbled through the speakers on the upper deck but one of the bikers believed he heard that a bike had broken free from its tie-downs and had fallen over. If true it would have fallen into another bike, increasing the odds my Raider was involved by a fair margin.  We were all relieved to see five bikes still standing upright on the deck of the Lake Express.

We geared up, unleashed the bikes, shook hands all around, and wished each other a continued safe ride. We parted as nameless friends.