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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.