This is part one of an eight-part series recounting my first motorcycle trip.
Nature abhors a vacuum almost as much as a teenager. Having been governed by the laws of nature for fifty years and having raised three children successfully through their teenage years, I know this as fact. Clear a shelf of your junk and someone else's junk appears. Empty a basket of clean clothing and dirty clothing claims squatter’s rights. Ask a teenager to vacuum and the vacuum will sit motionless for days, proving another law that states, “A vacuum at rest remains at rest.” The only law of nature I know more true is that which states, “You can get everything dirty, but you can never get everything clean.” But I digress.
I used nature’s disdain for a vacuum to my selfish advantage when I planned my first motorcycle trip. The Plan – if it could be called a “plan” – was dirt simple; strap a just-purchased and hastily packed bag to my Yamaha Raider, buy tie-down straps on the ride north out of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and arrive in Manitowoc, sixty miles away for the summer’s last midnight-sailing of the S.S. Badger to Ludington, Michigan. Above all else this was a motorcycle trip and, in that spirit, detailed plans were avoided. Only the departure date, destination (Adrian, Michigan) and return date were sure things. The remaining details, I was confident, would fill themselves in.
More often than not the unplanned events linger as highlights of a trip. Stumbling upon delicious Belgian Waffles in Cheyenne Crossing, South Dakota. Fishing in a white, pouring rain on the Gulf of Mexico. Swimming with jellyfish on Topsail Island, North Carolina. Feeling very much like Clark Griswold while searching for a ghost town with a Dodge Grand Caravan filled with a family of five (and luggage), on roads that appeared on no available map and were posted for four-wheel drive vehicles only. All are highlights from past trips and not one was planned.
Riding north out of Oshkosh the sun, like a soft, fuzzy peach hanging low in the humid evening sky, shadowed my left shoulder as I settled in to an easy cruise. Navigation, like The Plan, was deliberately simple: ride State Highway 76 north to U.S. Highway 10 and then lean right, centering the setting sun in my rear view mirrors until the road ends, literally, at the Lake Michigan shore. The next sixty-eight miles of U.S. 10 is only 410 feet long. I’ll pause while you read that again... The paved portion of U.S. 10 resumes in Ludington, Michigan, but to get there you must board the 410-foot long S.S. Badger for the sixty-eight-mile crossing.
The ride from Oshkosh to the S.S. Badger was the full extent of my route planning. I carried no GPS, only a Michigan vacation guide in which a state of 98,000 square miles was reduced to less than eighty square inches. And that is why I found myself at a gas station, thirty miles in to my trip, asking directions. U.S. 10 was closed for construction. I could have followed the detour signs but I’ve taken enough detours to know they are less than direct and if anyone is going to know the shortest way from A to B when a road is closed it is the locals. And they did. Instead of completing the first leg of my trip on a state highway, the detour forced me onto back roads. Already The Plan was finding me.
A glacier had beaten me to east-central Wisconsin by about 10,000 years, and though the roads I traveled that evening aren’t as picturesque as the flowing and dodging roads forty miles to the south, in Kettle Moraine State Park, the glacier had created sudden, sometimes startling, changes in the landscape through which I rode. Straight, flat roads became, in a moment, tree-crowded roads that flanked or boldly crested rolling hills or cut straight through resilient layers of 420 million-year-old limestone – the same limestone mass that forms Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula, arcs through Upper Michigan and is responsible for America’s honeymoon icon, Niagara Falls, 600 miles to the east. Just as quickly the flowing ribbon of asphalt would flat-line and hasten me straight to the next town or crossroad, which were often one and the same: four corners occupied by any combination of church, feed mill, tavern, or gas station with a scattering of homes nearby. On that night the dips were filled with cool, moist air that smelled of fresh cut hay or smoke from a ditch-clearing fire, and the level flats radiated the day’s warmth and provided views of silhouetted buildings against a darkening sky. Even, or particularly, in the fading light my senses were fully engaged.
I arrived in Manitowoc and purchased my ticket for the S.S. Badger's 12:30 A.M. sailing. Though the S.S. Badger was designed to operate year-round in the icy waters of Lake Michigan, the elimination of rail cars from her cargo changed her primary role to shuttling vacationers, trucks, and tour buses between the east and west shores of Lake Michigan from May through September. I’m confident the 42,000-ton Badger never detected me boarding her stern. Nine hundred ten pounds (690 pounds of bike, 50 pounds of luggage, and 170 pounds of armored rider) caused her to list neither to port nor starboard and raised her bow not one millimeter from Lake Michigan. Directed by a yellow-vested man with urgency to his movements to park under a dimly lit staircase, I rode the long Raider onto an expanded steel grate, cautiously set the bike on its kickstand, and lashed her to the S.S. Badger with camouflaged tie-downs I had purchased just hours before. Camouflage was not my first choice in colors (Wisconsin officially recognizes camouflage as a color), red or black to match the flamed Raider would have been preferred, but this was hunting season in Wisconsin and the hardware stores had long ago determined camouflage was the flavor to stock in September.
Without horn, bells, confetti or brass band the S.S. Badger eased from the dock into the darkness with a motion so fluid that its departure was detected by my eyes before it was felt by my body; no lurch, no bump, no sway. It seemed an impossibly smooth acceleration though, without doubt, the two 7,560 hp coal-fired steam engines and twin thirteen-foot diameter steel propellers were making considerable noise somewhere within the bowels of the ship and below the surface of the silent black lake.
It was past midnight and I was tired. The air had turned cool and damp but I was determined to remain on the open bow to observe the night sky free of the interference of city lights. I didn’t last more than ten minutes. Though the darkness on the deck was so complete I stepped carefully among the deck chairs to keep from tripping on them or other passengers, the stars were obscured by the same cold humidity that was chilling me to my core. Satisfied to have tried, I retreated to the warmer, dryer comfort of the ship’s interior.
The bar was open –a pass-through in one of the Badger’s interior walls reminiscent of a snow cone or cotton candy vendor at a county fair – and I was pleasantly surprised by the strength of the drink I was served. I carried my plastic cup to a steel table bolted to the ship’s floor and dispensed of its liquid cargo rather quickly. I considered having another but dismissed that idea and sought a comfortable seat in which to nap, as had most of the passengers. The S.S. Badger offers sleeping berths for an additional charge but I elected to try my luck in one of the semi-reclining seats. Had I taken a berth I would have lied there thinking about how little time I had to sleep. In a chair sleep was unexpected so any would be a reward. I pulled my armored jacket over my head, crossed my arms over my chest to cling to the precious body heat I had remaining and, for the next three hours, fitfully cycled through the few positions the seat allowed. A mother with two young children gave up on the seats altogether and unapologetically made camp on the floor.
Thirty minutes before docking in Ludington I rose from my seat, gathered my helmet and jacket, and made one last round of the ship. The souvenir shop was closed. The bar was closed. The grill had never opened. A steward was knocking on the door of each berth, waking up those that opted to sleep horizontally. My nose was filled with the odor of the coal burned to produce steam for the engines. It permeated the ship and was particularly pungent on the semi-enclosed stern. It was an odor that would stay with me for the next two days.
Unlike the modern, purpose-built high-speed ferry that serves the southern portion of Wisconsin and Michigan, the S.S. Badger is an old ship, commissioned in the 1950s to carry rail cars, automobiles and passengers year round. But a changing world had brought her to her current, seasonal role as a unique way for travelers to avoid the rigors of driving the Gary/Chicago corridor or the lengthy, yet scenic, northern route through Upper Michigan. What makes the S.S. Badger charming – her age, her smell, her leisurely four-hour sail – would be wholly unacceptable of the much newer, much faster, high speed ferry operating to the south, yet it is a maritime experience without equal in the ‘States and if the S.S. Badger becomes nothing more than a floating museum it will be a loss to travelers, maritime fans, the economies of Manitowoc and Ludington, and the history of the Great Lakes. I first sailed the S.S. Badger in 1974, as a geeky fifth-grader on vacation with my family. It had taken me thirty-five years to get back to her, though she’s only sixty miles from my home, but I have since sailed her often.
The S.S. Badger docked in Ludington with the same amazing ease with which she set sail. Ropes and cables tethered her bow to U.S. 10 and, while the other passengers waited on shore for their vehicles to be off-loaded by sprinting, safety vest-clad valets, I removed the tethers that held my Raider to the expanded steel deck and rode away. With the S.S. Badger in my rear view mirror I had consumed all of my preplanning. It was 5:30 in the morning; the crossing had taken four hours and passing into the Eastern time zone had stolen another. I was very tired and very hungry and as I rode through pre-dawn Ludington I envisioned breakfast in a quaint café followed by four hours of sleep at a classic motel – the kind that still advertises “Color TV” below a neon vacancy sign. But Ludington still slept and I found that motel offices keep hours for travelers who keep traditional hours.
I rode south out of Ludington on Highway 31. The door was wide open for The Plan to find me.