Sunday, July 17, 2011

It might not be excellent, but it is Superior

They call it paradise
I don't know why
You call someplace paradise,
kiss it goodbye

-- The Eagles, "The Last Resort"

Breaking camp at Tahquamenon Falls wasn't bad -- the temperature had stayed on the dry side of the dew point and, since we were getting good at packing up, we were soon on our way. At Paradise, the nearby town, we stopped for food and coffee. The Eagles' song about paradise was playing in my head. I tried to find it on my iPhone without success -- I couldn't shake the tune, but I couldn't remember the title either.

After breakfast, we took Falls Road to Deer Park Road, through Pine Stump Junction and west on the truck trail to peaceful Grand Marais and West Bay, where a few vessels hung at anchor and some boat folk hung out at the town pier.

Grand Marais doesn't quite live up to its moniker, but it's a peaceful anchorage and harbor of refuge.

I was surprised to find this Border Patrol sign in Grand Marais, but willing to do my part to keep those pesky Canadians out of Michigan. If boats dropping off passengers qualifies as "suspicious activity," they must get a lot of calls.

On a bright, sleepy July morning what better place to hang out than on the docks?

Everybody told us the Pictured Rocks National Seashore on Lake Superior's southern coast was not to be missed. The reserve is comprised of more than 15 miles of shoreline with sandstone cliffs of up to 200 feet. We entered the park just west of Grand Marais, stopping first at a waterfall. The day before, we'd hiked a staircase with 94 steps to the viewing platform at Tahquamenon Falls. Here there were more than 130 steps, down to a falls that was perhaps a tenth as large -- but still pretty.

Longer hike; less impressive view -- Niagara and Tahquamenon Falls had spoiled me.

At Au Sable Dunes there is a log slide -- a sand cliff where loggers used gravity to deliver their goods to ships offshore. David hiked down and said the view was spectacular. Still recovering from the 130-step climb in heavy boots and armored pants at the waterfall, I demurred. "I don't want to spoil the picture of 'log slide' I have in my mind's eye," I said and stretched out on a picnic table near the parking lot to rest.

We saw Pictured Rocks on a post-card perfect day.

Next stop was at the Pictured Rocks overlook. There was a trail to the beach, but again I decided these boots weren't made for walkin'. On reflection, I realize to have come all this way just to snap a few photos and move on was a poor choice. But all this natural beauty can be cloying, especially to senses dulled by hours on the highway.

Could Pictured Rocks be more spectacular than Haunama Bay, just two miles from my home in Honolulu? Perhaps not, although better photographers than I have made it a close contest.

From the falls, it was a short ride to Munising, a city of 2,500 souls, where we ate pizza and watched the U.S. women's team upset France 3 to 1 in the World Cup soccer semifinals on TV, which improved my mood. David, however, had had enough of the Upper Peninsula. The area offered some great natural beauty and a few pleasant motorcycle roads, while exacting a penalty: hours on straight, flat, boring, bumpy roads. We rode south, passing through Escanaba to northern Wisconsin.

Our goal was to camp in Nicolet National Forest, which has multiple campgrounds spread out over more than 1.5 million acres. The person I reached by phone from Munising said there were plenty of campsites available, just stop by the forest headquarters in Laona for information. Unfortunately, Laona didn't show up on our Garmin's -- many Wisconsin towns don't -- and we blew by the park headquarters on US 8 without stopping, ending up in the town of Crandon, Wis., 12 miles down the road.

Crandon has a county park and campground on Metonga Lake. I called the camp office and was told there were sites available, with electricity, for $19 a night. There was cell phone service at the park -- which was unlikely at Nicolet; so we decided to camp at the county park.

The price, it later turned out, $19 per tent, plus $1 for showers. At $40 total, it wasn't as good a deal as we first thought, especially after the temperature dropped below the dew point and we awoke to find everything soaked in condensation. What's more, the morning sky was overcast -- no sun to dry things out.

David found a great motorcycle road using the "Greatest Road" app on his iPad. Wisconsin Route 55 follows the Wolf River from Pickerel to Keshena -- 43 miles of fresh, smooth, two-lane, black asphalt that follows the terrain with well-banked curves and helpful, consistent signage instead of clear-cut sightlines. Trees overhang the road's hills and curves, which had escaped being blasted and filled into levelled mediocrity. I choose to believe the engineer who designed this road owns a motorcycle and I'm glad.

Wisconsin Route 55 along the Wolf River is a biker's delight.

The Wolf River also attracts kayakers. In fact there are several kayaking outfitters and resorts along the stream including one called Bear Paw, which features a large dead tree bedecked with holed kayaks -- bringing to mind the "Tree of Shame" at the Tail of the Dragon in Deals Gap, N.C.

A "Tree of Shame" for canoes on Wisconsin's Wolf River.

At Keshena, we ran afoul of the law. Our GPS track sent us down some twisty back streets to pick up the county road leading west. As we came out of the narrow streets to County Route W, there was a speed limit sign about 100 yards up the road that I thought said 55 mph. I started to speed up when David, who was behind me, warned me on the helmet intercom, "Slow down, John. The speed limit is 35." I let up and watched the speedometer back down, but too late. A police cruiser waiting by the side of the road lit up and pulled us over.

We were on the Menominee Indian Reservation and the cop, a business-like young woman, said I was going to get a ticket for doing 50 in a 35. "And you," she said sternly to David, "were probably going just as fast."

The officer couldn't issue the citation herself, but she would contact the local deputy sheriff and have him write the ticket. We explained the situation from our point of view, said we were being very careful going through towns and told her about our trip. She went back to the cruiser with my license and registration to call the deputy.

About 10 minutes later, she returned, gave me back my papers and said she couldn't reach the deputy. "When are you going to be back in Hawaii?" she asked. I told her in September. "Well, if we mail a ticket to your home address, you won't see it for more than a month. By then, they'll issue a warrant. Since you've been so respectful and cooperative, if you have a phone number the deputy can call, he can contact you and mail the citation to someplace you're going to stay along the way."

I gave her my cell number but no deputy has called. I think we're in the clear.

From Keshena we rode south to visit the Wisconsin Dells, a kind of huge Cheesehead Disney Land, and then turned west toward LaCrosse and the Mississippi River. Again, we encountered the problem of the GPS not being able to find towns that appeared on our highway map. A GPS needs way-points, the names of towns along the backroads we wanted to travel, or it will only give the fastest or the shortest route to a destination, which tends to be a boring four-lane highway.

We were stopping about every 20 miles to consult the map and pick a route. It was about 5:45 when we stopped at Norwalk, about 40 miles east of LaCrosse, pulling off into a parking lot in the town park. There was a bulletin board next to the lot with a poster announcing "Free Tent Camping in Town Park." Now that was a deal.

There was a welcoming committee in Norwalk.

The park had two picnic pavilions with tables and showers, a bicycle trail built on the old railroad bed and a truck/tractor pull arena with bleachers. There was a small restaurant/snack bar next to the park and we asked the woman running it about the free camping. She said to go right ahead and we could park our bikes on the grass next to the tents, between the big plastic lion with the water fountain in its mouth and the jungle gym. "I'm the tent police," she said, "and it's OK with me."

"Where's the best place in town to eat dinner?" Daid asked.

"Right here!" she said.

We parked in the shady campground and two older men and a small dog drove up in a four-wheel utility vehicle. "I'd steal one of those bikes," one said.

"I'd steal them both," said the other.

They turned out to be the president of the town park association and his pal. We joshed each other for a few minutes and, after they were convinced we weren't skinheads out to molest the womenfolk and children, they waved good-bye.

After making camp we stopped by the restaurant to make sure it was OK to bring a bottle of wine with us for dinner and to find out where we could find wine in Norwalk. The answers were "sure" and "the bar on Main Street." We went and found the bar.

When the door opened, about six men who looked like either Hells Angels or pirates -- more facial hair than average, but not as many fingers or teeth -- turned and all conversation stopped. I have seldom felt more out of place. We asked the bartender, a young man in a baseball cap, if we could buy a bottle of wine to take out. He shooed a couple of the pirates out of the way and told us to come behind the bar to see what he had: a couple of bottles each of cheap port, white zinfandel and Boone's Farm.

"We've got some other stuff in the walk-in," he said and told me to follow him behind the bar to the refrigerator. There was more port, white zin and Boone's Farm, partial bottles this time, but on a top shelf, all alone, was a bottle of California chardonnay.

"We'll take it," I said. "How much do we owe you?"

"Well, how much do you think it goes for?" he asked.

"Ten dollars!" I said.

We had wine with dinner.

The only bottle of chardonnay in Norwalk, Wis.

Back at the restaurant, the woman we'd spoken to was gone and a teen named Allison had three tables of customers and was doing everything: waiting tables, busing, cooking, making desserts and running the cash register. David ordered a burger; I the fried chicken. Under appetizers, we saw "Hand Battered Curds," a Wisconsin delicacy. When in Rome...

Hardworking Allison made us a "Hand Battered Curds" appetizer. The curds were excellent, although they arrived after dinner instead of before.

We had a dry night and, wakened by the sound of horse-drawn Amish carriages, we got off to a good start in the morning, heading first toward the Mississippi, then turning north. Our destination for the day was Minneapolis, where we'd stay with my sister-in-law Amy and her partner Mike.

Our track across the northern Midwest: A - Tahquamenin Falls; B - Munising, Mich.; C - Escanaba, Mich.; D - Crandon, Wis.; E - Keshena, Wis.; F - Wisconsin Dells; G - Norwalk, Wis.; H - Lake City, Minn.; I - Minneapolis.

As we made our way north along the surging Mississippi, the sky began spitting rain. We buttoned up and kept going and crossed the river, but at Lake City, Minn. the sky opened up, the bikes threatened to hydroplane, visibility went to zero and we pulled over at a derelict gas station, which had been repurposed and was now a derelict pizza parlor, and parked under the roof that had once covered the gasoline pumps.

A passerby in Lake City and my laid-up V-Strom during a lull in the storm.

The view from our shelter in Lake City, birthplace of water skiing.

We spent more than an hour watching the radar track of the storm on the iPad. When it looked like the worst had passed, we mounted up and made it to Red Wing (home of the shoes of the same name) before another wall of water forced us to take shelter under the eaves of a McDonald's. After an hour at the Golden Arches, the tail end of the storm finally passed and we ventured out again, eventually reaching Minneapolis about 3:30 p.m.

There, the adventure continued.

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