Saturday, August 30, 2008

Road Trip

Under a bright sun, the bus pulled up to 103 St. and Torrence Ave. The driver waited as I unloaded my bike from the rack. I surveyed the scene: An empty lot stood across from a gas station; right near me, a pole had an advertisement for “Round trips to prisons at an affordable price.” The stench of what smelled like rotting fish filled the air.

Fortunately, the scenery would change. I peddled off down the street, heading south and then east, towards the Indiana border.

The journey had begun.

When you’re a freelancer looking for a full-time job, one luxury you’ve got (no, not a big income— hah, hah) is free time. Combine that with warm weather, a free social calendar for a couple of days, and an increasing penchant for biking, and you come up with a two-day trip road trip.

To South Haven, Michigan.

You’ve never biked a hundred miles in two days before, but you take that as a challenge. And… you look forward to the nicer views towards the end of the trip as a reward for your efforts.

The starting point: Torrence Ave. and 103 St., Chicago. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Following the first of 14 Google maps I had printed out, I crossed into Hammond, Indiana, and headed southeast along Indianapolis Blvd. Fear can quickly overtake you when you’re vying for space with two lanes’ worth of cars and trucks whizzing by on what… well… technically is a highway.

Moments later, however, that fear morphed into dismay. My tape recorder, which I was using to make occasional notes for myself, had slipped out of a side pocket of my bicycle bag. I backtracked to the state line, made a U-turn, and continued back to where I stopped, scanning the ground as I went. Nothing.

Oh, well; whoever found it would probably hear me doing an interview for a class, doing another interview for a magazine, and then saying such important things like, “Smells like rotting fish.”

With notebook and pen still with me, I started off again, moving from hardscrabble Hammond into slightly-less-hardscrabble Whiting, where the smokestacks and jagged metal structures of the BP oil refinery came to dominate the landscape. In East Chicago, a flock of birds gently lifted off of the four-lane highway as I rounded the bend. In downtown Gary— a once-vibrant city, thanks to its steel-manufacturing plants— concrete buildings now stood over uneven sidewalks sprouting weeds in their cracks.

Seeing a sign hopefully proclaiming the city “100 years…steel strong,” I felt sad for Gary. I couldn’t help but wonder how the downtown used to be, before the steel industry declined precipitously here.

Gary, IN. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Around 5 o’clock, U.S. Route 12 took me parallel to the tracks of the South Shore Line, an inter-city commuter train stretching from Chicago all the way to South Bend, Indiana. Spotting the Miller station, I thought of Bill Murray in “Ghostbusters,” announcing dryly, “It’s Miller time!”

During a long stretch of road by Northwest Indiana’s famous sand dunes, however, I came to feel terrible cramps in my stomach. I wondered when the leafy surroundings would give way to a place— any place— to get food and drink.

A guy passed me on his bike. “How’s it going?” he asked.

“All right,” I replied.

A flat-out lie.

At about 6:30, I stopped at the Dune Park train station. I had gotten off the train here once before, so I knew the stationhouse had a vending machine. Walking by passengers who had just arrived from Chicago, I entered the waiting room to find a single vending machine with only chocolate bars and other sugary snacks— nothing resembling a sports bar. And no drink machine.

I pressed on.

Around 7 o’clock, I spotted a distant sign with red LED lights. A gas station!

And aptly-named: Marathon.

Having subsisted on Cliff Bars and sports “gel” for several hours now, I snatched a tuna-salad sandwich, bottle of water, and sports drink from the store and took a seat on the ground outside. As I ate and drank, weathering the cramps, I fixed my eyes on the dense foliage that lay across the road. The trees gave the station an isolated, calm feel.

At the same time, I felt concern— and disappointment. The ride was taking longer than I expected. (Either that, or someone had stretched out the distances.) I wasn’t sure if I’d make it all the way to New Buffalo, Michigan, where I had planned to spend the night— let alone to South Haven. I could always cut today’s itinerary short and spend the night in Michigan City, the next city up the road, but it wasn’t even in Michigan. (Yes, Michigan City is in the state of Indiana. No, I don’t know why.)

I returned to the store for a chocolate milk.

Portage, IN. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

The two-lane road continued along the South Shore Line tracks before snaking its way toward Lake Michigan. Shortly before 8, under a darkening sky, a man with a dog waved at me from the side of the road. At a quarter past 8, I finally found myself in downtown Michigan City.

I had passed through here before on a day trip, so I made only a brief detour to explore, riding by the Rag Tops Auto Museum and a police station.

Then, with perhaps more determination than thought, I continued along Route 12 out of town.

At 9 o’clock, under a thoroughly dark sky, a sign on the side of the road beamed, “Welcome to Michigan.”


I looked up as I rode along. The sky was full of stars. FULL of stars! The sound of chirping crickets filled the air.

I took a deep breath. The air smelled FRESH! Later, the beautiful smell of burning wood (or maybe it was charcoal— hey, I grew up in New York City) wafted by. Oh!

At about 10:40 p.m. (one hour later now because of the time-zone change), I finally rolled into downtown New Buffalo. The small commercial district was almost completely dormant, save for a Mexican food stand and a Subway sandwich shop that remained open.

I stopped into the Subway and asked the woman behind the counter for a recommendation for a cheap place to spend the night. A man sitting at a table told me to head up the road to the Buffalo Motel.

There, in a small office with an “OPEN” sign in the window, a woman came out from a back room.

“Do you have any non-smoking rooms?” I asked.

“I’ve got one left,” she said.

“Great. I’ll take it.”

As I got into bed around 12:30 a.m., some 60 miles from 103 St. and Torrence Ave., I noticed a poster on the wall. It made me stop.

“SUCCESS,” it read. “Success is a journey, not a destination.”

U nder a brilliant mid-day sun, I mounted my bicycle and began to peddle.


My leg muscles.

In the last year, I had gotten more and more into bicycling. I had done some long-distance rides, but never for two days in a row. I had heard you’re supposed to give your muscles a day’s rest after exercising them; on the other hand, professional bicyclists ride on consecutive days, so obviously, it’s doable.

In any case, today, it had to be doable.

New Buffalo, MI. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

After a breakfast of pancakes and eggs in a café downtown, I made a brief stop at the New Buffalo beach. There, views of sand and Lake Michigan bolstered my spirits.

As I rode along hilly, residential Marquette Dr., with its quiet and greenery, I felt a high. The day was gorgeous, the setting was beautiful, and I was in Michigan!

Somewhere along the four-lane Red Arrow Highway, my cell phone rang. I pulled over.

It was Mom. (She couldn’t talk earlier and said she’d call me back.)

“Do you know an inexpensive place to stay in South Haven?” I asked casually.

She said she and my dad had stayed in the Comfort Suites outside of downtown, in an area with a cluster of chain hotels.

“Give me some context,” she went on. “Who’s this for?”

“Me,” I said.


She continued softly, “Don’t tell me you’re biking there. I’ll die.”

I may have mentioned something to her a while back about wanting to bike from Chicago to South Haven. And she may have replied something to the effect of, “Oh, no, you’re not!”

I paused.


She let out a screech.

“I’m just north of New Buffalo, Michigan,” I said. “I hope to get there by nightfall. Before nightfall.”

The road continued on— and on. Red Arrow Highway became Lakeshore Dr., then became Main St. through the town of St. Joseph, then became State Highway 63, and then became Blue Star Memorial Highway. My legs kept pumping. I drank more water; ate more Cliff Bars; crunched on more trail mix.

Somewhere along the way, with vehicles zipping by me, it dawned on me: Those drivers were paying for fuel, but was I technically traveling for free? Not if you consider the extra water and sports drinks I had to buy as I rode, and the snacks bars and gel and trail mix I purchased before the trip. Then again, those drivers had to eat, too— though not as great a quantity of food.

Then again, I’d be having more meals on the road, since my trip was longer. And yet, I would have bought food even if I weren’t biking.

At one point as I rode along the shoulder of the road, another bicyclist waved to me from the opposite shoulder. I gave him the peace sign.

St Joseph, MI. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

It was close to 5 o’clock when I pulled over to a small park in St. Joseph. There, a plateau of grass with shrubbery and a tall tree offered a beautiful view of Lake Michigan, with a stretch of water glittering under the sun.

A man stopped me to ask if I knew how to get down to the water. “Sorry,” I said.

The man had an accent, and I asked where he was from.

“Holland,” he answered. He and a friend were traveling here in a minivan.

Although the man was, indeed, from the Netherlands, I laughed later when I saw on a map that Holland, the city, was just up the lakefront from here.

At 5:59 p.m., I sent a text message to my brother: “100 miles in 2 days and going.”

And yet it wasn’t over just yet. A series of slight, but long, inclines— probably combined with my not having slept well enough last night— caused me to slow down significantly. Just the same, the sun was high enough that I surely would arrive before dusk.

At ten to 7, I spotted a mailbox on the side of the road with the words “South Haven Tribune.” 15 minutes later, a sign reading “South Haven Charter Township” appeared. Perhaps another 15 minutes after that, I turned from Blue Star Memorial Highway onto the final stretch, 76 St., a straight, residential road. I followed it, passing houses on both sides, until I noticed a clearing between the trees up ahead that revealed an expanse of blue.

Moments later, at shortly after 7:30, I stopped. Before me, a wide beach with tranquil water spread out next to a pier, as a large, late-evening sun prepared to descend over the horizon.

I called Mom.

“Hello?” she answered.

“I feel like I’m going to keel over and die,” I said, “but after 118.7 miles, I’ve arrived in downtown South Haven, Michigan.”

And in some of the most peaceful moments I had experienced in the last two days, my trepidation, my angst, my determination were washed away by a wonderful feeling of tranquility.

Along with nausea.

After 118 miles, South Haven, MI. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

I set out towards the middle of downtown, swinging down by Riverfront Park, where children played on the grass, and up to Phoenix St., a road crammed with charming storefronts in the heart of the business district.

South Haven held sweet memories for me, which was in part why I chose it as a destination: I had spent a summer here with my family when I was maybe ten years old, and had come back on several other occasions. My aunt, uncle, and cousins had spent time here, too, as did my grandparents on my Mom’s side when they were still alive.

That night, in my room at the Comfort Suites (the cheapest accommodations I could find in the end), I soaked my legs in hot water with four pounds’ worth of Epsom salt.

I t was around 11 a.m. when I walked into the bike store.

“Can I help you?” asked an employee, coming over to me.

I asked if he had a bicycle box. He said he did, and offered to sell it for ten dollars— or charge 20 to disassemble and package my bike, box included.

I debated whether to carry the box to the bus station and then put the bike in it, or have him do the packing. If he were to pack it, he said, I should allow 45 minutes.

My bus left in 55 minutes.

“If we’re short on time, I could always run you over there,” he added.


With the box shoved into the back of his station wagon, we climbed into the front seats. Seeing a cassette with a protruding audio cable in the tape deck, I asked if I could connect my iPod.

Soon, Rihanna’s “Umbrella” was playing over the speakers.

The writer's approximate route from Chicago to South Haven, MI. (Click here for a larger map.)

As we drove along, the man said he had been to Chicago and hated it. He had seen people hail taxis in the movies but didn’t know you were actually supposed to do that; he once stood for an hour waiting for a taxi to pick him up as a number of them whizzed past. He only leaned into the window of a couple that were parked on the side of the road. “I felt like I was soliciting a prostitute,” he said.

I told him I was from New York City, had lived in Chicago for five years, and never owned my own car.

In a few minutes, we had arrived at the bus station, where he unloaded my bike.

“Have a good trip,” he called out before riding off.

As the bus drove up an incline for the first time, I felt a tinge of fear. But the motor kept on, while my legs remained still.


Two-and-a-half hours (and one transfer in Benton Harbor) later, I looked down from Interstate 90 to see the McDonald’s that sat at the Illinois-Indiana border.

It may have been around there that I lost my tape recorder.

Soon after, with Natasha Bedingfield’s “Pocketful of Sunshine” playing softly from the front of the bus, a light Chicago skyline materialized in the distance.

Back in Chicago, the downtown skyline in the distance. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

2 o’clock. The Greyhound station in downtown Chicago. It took just a moment to claim my bicycle box from the beside the bus, and another 22 minutes to sift through the cardboard, metal, masking tape, plastic, and rubber bands to reassemble the bike.

And then, once again, I rode off— across the street.

There, a bus sat waiting. I loaded my bike onto its front rack and took a seat inside.

I was off in search of a massage. And I didn’t feel like biking there.

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