The road to a new rhythm… Illinois through Wisconsin to Michigan

Walking away from Ushuaia with a puffed chest, smug smile and the nagging doom of a return to ‘normality’ was never going to be my style. Having spent so long exercising the power of choice I was determined to keep flexing that muscle and continue to choose life. For much of the past year that new ‘life’ was going to be a flight to Vancouver and a ride down the Great Divide Mountain Bike trail south to Mexico. But unsure of what I would learn on that route and determined to evolve my riding style, I made other plans and instead set my sights on a return to the Great Lakes region of the U.S.A. That decision set in motion a laboured escape from South America, an exciting introduction to Chicago and a fun week of riding out of Illinois, up Wisconsin and across Michigan.

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Downtown Chicago… one way to live

Half-way through my five year journey south down the Americas I took time off the bike to follow my heart back to the US, all the way north from Central America to Michigan. What followed grew to be one of the most valuable lessons of the past few years. Objectively Michigan held very little allure: it’s generally quite flat, has a desperately failing principal city in Detroit and experiences particularly harsh winters. But after a few twists and turns I was surprised to discover a powerful sense of home there and it dawned that I’d somehow succeeded in a search I hadn’t even known had been driving me. A shallow dig beneath the surface unearthed a state of wonderful diversity, stunning landscapes, strong communities and kind positive people. So it felt natural to head back that way post Ushuaia and enjoy a Michigan summer with my friends Katie, Jacob, Freeda and Forrest on their organic farm. It was a decision that felt right on many levels.

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Natures Pace Organics… another way to live

Despite the obvious advantages of regular exercise, life on a bicycle is actually quite unhealthy. I may be fit but five years of appalling and utilitarian diet have left me feeling disgustingly unhealthy and desperate to reconnect with the soul in my food. In a similar vein, I’ve developed riding related muscle imbalances that desperately need ironing out. Then to top it all off, after the plasticity of travelling friendships I find myself lusting after a deeper human connection. The only place I could see to right so many of the wrongs in my lifestyle and give me the space to start respecting my body again was Natures Pace Organics. A return to the farm would cover all bases, reuniting me with people I love and respect in a haven of high-quality food, while simultaneously providing the chance to inject a little altruism into my generally self-absorbed life. In short, Michigan farm life represented the greatest chance of catching myself from any potential post-tour fall.

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Despite my preference for remote tranquility, I really enjoy visiting big cities and Chicago was not a disappointment… it has everything

I think leaving a long bicycle tour and diving back into the same routines and existence of pre-tour life must be supremely difficult. I imagine the romance and idealism of travel getting mercilessly gobbled up by the harsh realities of life; hard learnt lessons quickly forgotten and long forgotten anxieties soon returning.  My hope is that the refusal to view my journey south as a contained experience will soften the blow of the transition towards a more static lifestyle. I’ve always tried to position myself away from the idea of being on a bicycle tour, instead viewing my bicycle travel as just one chapter in a larger journey. This helps me maintain a healthy context and recognise that during evolution towards the next stage of my life more things will stay the same than will change: I will still be me and I will still do the things that make me happy (including riding my bicycle). So there is no reason to be fearful, nothing has stopped or ended, there is nothing to mourn, just change to celebrate. In this vein continuing to ride in the manner I have been would represent more a fleeing from, than an embracing of adventure. I’m on a new journey now; braving change is to be my adventure in the coming months.

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Surrendering myself to the joys of Michigan’s vivacious forests

My Dad recently reminded me that ‘every long journey starts with the first step’, and my first step on this new course had to be an escape from Ushuaia. Although happy to work through my usual touring routines of photo editing, blogging and planning, the time did eventually come that I’d have to leave the Patagonian snow and fly north back to summer. Flights research revealed three affordable options with three distinct catches: I had to choose one of three hurdles to jump, either busing out of Ushuaia back to Chile, taking a cab across Buenos Aires in an airport switch or riding 700 km from Chicago to the farm in the thumb of Michigan. It was an easy decision, the Chicago flight was considerably cheaper, I’d wanted to visit the city for a long time anyway and I never need an excuse for a few hundred miles biking. So I boarded a flight in Ushuaia  and two days later stepped out into the heavy humidity of Chicago Illinois.

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The size of the Great Lakes can be mind-blowing… they are both fresh water lakes and oceans

I remember on my first visit to Michigan getting in trouble with a Michigander for suggesting it would be a boring state to bike tour. Since then I’ve cycled the length and breadth of the state on two separate trips and can conclusively say… I WAS WRONG… way wrong. I now know that despite a definitive lack of mountains, Michigan is a great place to ride a bicycle. Not least because of the glorious mesh of deserted two-track that hunters have forged through massive areas of forest wilderness. This niche riding compliments an extensive network of off-road bicycle trails that mean road riding can be kept to a minimum and busy roads avoided altogether. The hills are rolling and big-mile days effortlessly packed with a diverse mix of dirt track adventure, quick bikeway distance and small town ice-cream. Such balance between fun and progress is perfect for a convenience trip like the one I’m about to share.

Chicago to Mayville, MI Route elevation profile

So here it is, the story of my 715 km spin from the windy city over to Natures Pace farming paradise. A week of fascinating people, blazing sun and broad smiles…

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Through the wonders of Warmshowers I touch down in Chicago and have a beautiful, vibrant and welcoming home to retreat to. The humid heat I arrive to soon gives way to a much more autumnal feel but that doesn’t stop my hosts Jasmine and Ben taking me out on a riding tour of the city

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During my days riding around the city I discover Chicago to be spread out, highly segregated and incredibly seductive. The strength of the bicycle culture is reflected in the quality of the cycle path network and hoards of commuter riders

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It seems that wherever you point your camera in Chicago you’ll likely get a cyclist in shot

Leaving Chicago

All too aware of how easy it would be to stretch a few days out into a few weeks I force myself out  of Chicago and onto the road. It’s a warm and muggy day that I ride through downtown to the shores of Lake Michigan and start riding the bicycle-way north

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For lunch I dip into the tranquil oasis of Chicago’s botanical gardens before continuing on to meet  up with Daniel, another fantastic Warmshowers host in Waukegan

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The next morning I jump back onto national cycle route 37 and start pumping my legs into a stiff breeze

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As the day goes on the weather improves, by the time Milwaukee comes into view it’s a beautiful evening. I’ve hardly ridden a road all day thanks to the incredible bicycle trail network

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No ride through Milwaukee would be complete without a visit to Vulture Space, a do-it-yourself not for profit community bike shop. Set up by Evan (right) a few years ago this idea has grown into the beating heart of an already strong bicycle culture.

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I love the passion and attitude of these guys…

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… nearly as much as I love their dog

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I don’t stay with the Vulture Space guys in Milwaukee, instead enjoying yet more great hospitality with Beth, someone who manages to combine two of life’s most noble interests, beer and bikes (check out brewcitybiker.com). From Milwaukee yet more bicycle-ways deliver me north…

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… through sun soaked lakeside communities…

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… along rural railways…

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… and past idyllic churches to Sheboygan Falls. Once again I strike lucky with Warmshowers and enjoy a relaxing evening of great food and conversation with soon to married couple John and Kristi. It is not usually my style to use Warmshowers so intensively but for a shorter ride it’s fun and really energizing

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Thankfully I only have a short ride the next day up to Manitowoc. A storm passes through during breakfast leaving a trail of grey and rain for my morning ride up the coast of Lake Michigan

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In Manitowoc I board the SS Badger ferry and head out over lake Michigan, away from Wisconsin…

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… and into Michigan

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In the coastal Michigan town of Luddington I strike Warmshowers gold once again in the shape of Juliann. Juliann is a serial host, if we were hikers she would be known as a ‘trail angel’, someone who tirelessly devotes herself to empower others in their cycling adventures. An inspiring lady we find ourselves with lots to talk about, so much so that my tired legs are easily able to persuade me into a valuable day off

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Back on the road again I run into cyclist Mike, a recently retired school psychologist coming the other way…

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… just before ducking off the road onto seasonal forest two-track

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This is why I enjoy riding Michigan so much, miles and miles of deserted two-track through deep and vibrant forest. In some places the tracks are closed and carpeted with an intimidating depth of Poison Ivy…

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… while in others they are open and quick

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When I do eventually pop out of the trees I spin the White Pine Trail for a little way…

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… before making my way back into the trees, this time in Cadillac State Forest area…

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… where I know I’ll find a quiet place to sleep

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A network of sandy tracks…

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… takes me through the state forest

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The sand is sometimes deep and the riding tough (there is some pushing involved), but I’m having incredible fun and thriving on the secluded wilderness feel of the area

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One of the best things about sandy roads like these is that they reveal the richness of the wildlife community. I pass numerous animal tracks, some are easy to identify but others remain mysterious

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I discovered on my last ride in the US the calorific bounties that can be found in McDonalds. I hate the place but they have wi-fi and their milkshakes contain about 35 miles easy riding

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After popping out of the forest at Evart I join another motor free bicycle-way…

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… the Pere Marquette Rail-Trail…

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… which delivers me quickly…

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… over to Farwell where it links up with National Bicycle Route 20

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Arriving in Bay City inquiries lead to a night in Bay City State Park on the shores of Saginaw Bay. It’s a massive $23 to camp the night so I employ my proven tactic of getting in late and getting out early. Leaving the park about 6 am I’m treated to a beautiful sunrise over Lake Huron…

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… and ghost town views of Bay City

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After a huge breakfast in a Bay City cafe I get on the bike path out of town and start to loosely follow the national route 20 again

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Before long I encounter a couple more cyclist coming the other way, Meredith and Kate are cycling home to San Francisco from Vermont where they recently finished university.

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A few more miles of tranquil bike-way…

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… and deserted rural roads…

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… and I find myself rolling down the driveway to the farm

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I feel instantly at home. It’s great to catch up with old friends…

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… and get acquainted with some new ones. Friends who will be my family for the coming months.

Route Tips

7 days,  715 km ( 444 miles),  2,100 m (6,890 ft.) of climbing

There are basically four options for a ride like this heading over to Michigan from Chicago: The shortest route would run around the south shore of Lake Michigan  and the longest around the top, through the Michigan Upper Peninsular. The other two options involve taking boats across Lake Michigan, they run between either Milwaukee and Muskegon (Lake Express) or Manitowoc and Luddington (SS Badger).

When planning my route north out of Chicago I was amazed at how easy it is to connect a series of bicycle-ways and bike routes all the way to Milwaukee and beyond. I found this page of information about cycling Chicago to Milwaukee to be invaluable. I deviated slightly from my original plan for various reasons but still think it offers the best ride (see that route map here).

I highly recommend taking advantage of the bicycle-ways and routes across Michigan, they will help you avoid busy traffic while ensuring food and water is readily available. People are almost universally friendly and it’s perfectly legal to camp in State forests so finding places to camp should not be a problem. If you enjoy dirt tracks then be sure to study the OSM cycle maps (available on various computer mapping software) they represent these fun seasonal roads with dashed lines. Be prepared to change your plans though, I got thwarted on my first attempt riding into Cadillac State Forest area by private roads, a locked gate and an angry farmer. I find it always pays to respect private property when riding in the US.

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