Monday, January 16, 2012

1979: Touring in the UP

(This is the start of 3 or 4 posts to tell the story.)
It was August of 1979, the summer I met Linda. After a 6 week externship at MSU, she had left Lansing to return to her parent’s and college in Missouri, and I had a week of vacation. So I packed my bike in my pickup, and drove 5 hours north to St. Ignace, Michigan, arriving at Noon. I parked my truck and paid for a weeks parking in one of the Mackinaw Island overnight lots. Then I pulled my bike out and loaded my gear for a week of solo touring in the UP. On the way out of town and across the Highway from Castle Rock, there is road sign with miles and distances for the eastern UP. I stopped and out came my camera and tripod, and I took a self portrait under the sign. I now have pictures at that road sign from over a half dozen trips, spanning four decades.
My first UP road sign picture, 1977

By 1979, Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, the UP (pronounce both letters), had become my favorite bicycling destination. While growing up in southern Michigan, our family had seldom traveled farther north than Lansing or Grand Rapids. We lived on a tourist lake, helping my grandmother run a tourist lake resort, so why go to a lake for vacation? Then my first bike tour, on the Labor Day weekend before my senior year in high school, took me to Mackinaw City and across the Mackinac Bridge. That was my first DALMAC (of four, so far) and on that 4-day, 350 mile trip I experienced all the wonders of northern Michigan; the endless forests, the inland dunes and hills, and the shores of Lake Michigan, all by bike at 14 mph. But St. Ignace was as far as I got that trip, and a repeat of that first trip the following year. Over the next 4 years, I made two weekend trip from St. Ignace to the Sault Ste. Marie and back, once solo, and once with a brother and a friend. But the `79 trip would be my first long touring ride solo.

There was a level of isolation and independence in that trip might be hard to contemplate in the digital today. As I rolled east out of St. Ignace along the north shore of Lake Huron toward Detour Village, calling home was by pay phone. The only mail took stamps, and any pictures I took would (or maybe not,) be locked in the camera and on film until the Kodak mailer returned the slides a couple weeks in the future. Trip research was finding county map books and atlases, or waiting weeks for response’s by mail from local riders, but usually you navigated with a state highway map with notes in the margin.

My gear was pretty simple, a pair of panniers on the rear rack, and stuff sacks rigged as panniers for my tent and sleeping bag on the front rack. I had never liked the way a stacked load on a rear rack had made the bike handle, and I was already experimenting and with front loads a few years before “low-rider” front racks were common. My first Eclipse brand handlebar bag held a 35mm camera and a spare lens, along with maps, film,  and my wallet.

My clothing was a mix of cotton wool and gear, with a couple pairs of wool cycling shorts, a light wool sweater, and wool arm warmers and leg warmers. I was riding in t-shirts mostly, with a nylon wind breaker and a bicyclists rain cape. I had a lightweight pair cargo pants for the campground (no jeans, they were too heavy), and for shoes I had a pair Beta Bikers, a very popular cotton cycling shoe that weren’t much more than low-cotton running flats with an extra thick sole. For sleeping, I had a very small 2-man a-frame tent, and a very-light first generation synthetic sleeping bag, with a 3/4 length foam pad. I was packed pretty light, and had done it all on a pretty reasonable budget. My gear list has changed only in fabrics over the years since.

For hot meals in camp, I had a SVEA 123 backpacking stove that burned white gas, and required a meticulous lighting ritual that involved an exciting, three foot tall open flame. Once the brass fuel tank warmed up and self-pressurized, it cooked with a blow torch roar that sounded like small jet plane taking off. I boiled noodles and soups and the occasional free dried meal with a two nested aluminum pans in that held the entire package. Breakfast was usually cold bagels and spreads, and lunch was found along the way. Bicycle touring was once described by a friend as “Five meals a day, plus snacks”, and it really was a constant grazing through cookies, donuts, muffins, fruit and staples picked up in stores, and eaten as the miles rolled by.

(End of Part 1)

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