Between Field and Sky

I’m discovering a new rule about traveling and needing stuff.  If you know where you’re going to be in a few days, and you order it intending it to be there for you, it won’t be.  In Michigan, I ordered a tire for Jalene with plenty of time to be shipped to my cousin’s house in Indianapolis.   It never shipped because we made an ordering error, but on the road we weren’t connected to the internet-cell world for several days, and we never found out.  With no tire to be found in stock in Indianapolis (!!), we reordered yesterday, next-day free shipping, great!  Now UPS says there is a hang-up and gives no reason, except that it may be delayed another day.  And so we sit at cousin Connie’s house in Indianapolis and wait.  But travelling, it’s all the same day.  “Late” doesn’t have so much meaning anymore.

This past week has been a family time for me, as we’ve been visiting with two of my cousins.  When we were in North Dakota, we learned that my cousin Kurt would be camping with friends in northern Michigan and he suggested we meet him there if we could.  That sounded great, and so we decided to make tracks east, following Hwy 2 straight across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan.

Still, we wanted to stay off the big highways, so we found smaller roads running to the east, tracing a long, straight route across North Dakota.  At first we followed the north side of the Missouri River, where a dam transforms it into Lake Sakakawea.  After that we were heading across the flats, with corn and soybeans to our left and right continuously, save where the land was used for grazing.  At times we could look off the road and the planted fields stretched on forever, rising to be lost in a hazy line where the green met the blue. I got to thinking of how the light from the sky entered the leaves in the field to make food for the plant (and us), and so the blur between field and sky seemed right.  It’s all the same in the end.

We camped one last night in North Dakota at Turtle River campground just west of Grand Forks.  A nice surprise was that there was a motorcycle-specific camping area, where seven sites are grouped in a shaded, grassy meadow, and each site has a small concrete pad where the bikes are parked.  Nice touch.  The pit toilets and water spigot are a short walk away, and showers not much farther.  For the modern folks, there’s Wi-Fi up at the entrance office with ice cream, too.  We had our “usual” dinner of fresh corn on the cob, and a veggie and meat stir-fry with sauce.  We used local-made sausage in the stir-fry, and it was delicious.  We were quickly learning that sausages and cured meats are something they do well in this region!

As we followed eastward across into Minnesota, I looked for the picture in my imagination that books and such had formed of this state, but I just saw more of same farm fields, flat as flat can be.  Only after we were getting into the middle of the state did it change, and rather quickly, to a place of water, gently undulating earth, and trees.  Turns out Minnesota is a beautiful state, with varying landscapes as you cross.  At first it was leafy deciduous trees, not the conifers I’d expected, but soon they came along and the picture was complete.  Often there would be lowlands by the road where flooding must have lasted long enough to kill the trees, as a forest of standing dead trunks would silently watch over new young trees below.  This was the birch-bark land of the trappers and voyageurs we read about in stories as kids.

On the eastern side of Minnesota we rolled into the city of Duluth, a major shipping port on Lake Superior.  The cold waters brought the air temperature down as we approached, giving welcome relief to the heat that day.  It could have been Tacoma or Portland, except that instead of container ship terminals, there were great grain elevators of immense size – far larger than anything I’ve seen on the west coast.  Also there were huge mountains of what must have been ore material for loading and transport to where it could be smelted into iron or other metals.  Rail yards brought it all in, ships took it further on its way.   The freighters and grain ships were every bit the size of ocean-going vessels.

A highlight was a stop at Aerostich on Friday afternoon before the holiday.  It was quiet, and much of the staff already gone from the big brick building down along the waterfront.  We were soon introduced to Andy Goldfine, the founder of the company, who gave us an impromptu tour of the place.  We all went out to the bikes for photos, and spent time talking motorcycles and learning more about each other.  I picked up a few needed spares and a secret stash pocket for valuables in less reputable locales.  I was somewhat embarrassed not to be wearing my Roadcrafter R-3 suit, but Andy understood that we had reasons for using off-brand mesh gear this time.  I wear Aerostich Combat touring boots and highly recommend them, and I’m also using their tank panniers on this trip.  Their elkskin roper gloves are also superb day in and day out, and we couldn’t go anywhere without the Ortlieb bags they supplied.  I’ve always been impressed with the customer service and product quality from Aerostich and recommend them without hesitation.  The visit was super-fun and I’m so glad to have met the fine people there.

I think it was the people of the upper Midwest that most impressed me.  Absolutely solid, frank, and open, and the most helpful attitudes one could ask for.  Several times complete strangers came to my aid unasked, such as the fellow in the grocery store who I mistook for a clerk.  I asked him where the milk was kept, and that I’d like a pint or half-pint carton to go with lunch.  He said that, though he didn’t work there, it was in the back corner, and proceeded to walk me over to it.  He then showed me what they had, and that these here were the smallest ones, and he hoped they’d be okay.  I assured him they were and took one, and he walked me back to the register.  It’s hard to transmit the earnest, friendly attitude we ran into many times throughout the crossing.  After listening to A Prairie Home Companion every weekend on the radio for years, I noticed the big Lutheran churches, community halls, and other touchstones of this culture.

Moving through Wisconsin was more of the same, plenty of farms, trees, water, and friendly, open people.  I remembered reading A Sand County Almanac years before, and how each month became a lesson in the ecology of Aldo Leopold’s farm.  Sand County is imaginary, of course, but all around me lay the elements he used as he taught us about the habits of birds, field mice, hawks, and other citizens of the state.  Here, as with Minnesota, the fields were often lined with trees, making this seem superb deer habitat.  To back that up, many of the farms had permanent tree-stands visible from which one could stand watch in comfort for dinner to come into range.

Soon we crossed into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and after hearing so many people wax ecstatic about it’s beauty when they learned we were crossing it, I was disappointed when the expected fanfare and angels didn’t appear as we crossed the line into the state.  Rather than a golden road in the clouds, there was more of the same gently rolling terrain, with trees and fields and picture-perfect farms with the dome-topped silos and old red barns that let you know you’re back east somewhere.

Eventually we neared Lake Michigan to the south of us, and the air cooled right down.  The breeze coming off the lake carried fog with it, and it was exactly like riding on the coast again.  But whole families were out swimming in the water and having a great time, not freezing in huddled misery and dressed like, well, coastal Oregon.  Nor were we cleaning the cursed salt-fog off our shields.

The Mackinaw Bridge stretches five miles to the southern half of Michigan, and rises high to let shipping through.  The slope is long and gentle, and the views around are long and gentle, too.  The center lanes are steel grate, so if you want to look down at the water below past your boots, you can.  Only bummer was we paid $4 each for toll, same as cars.  We blasted down the interstate to the campsite, arriving as darkness fully enveloped us.  Kurt flashed his truck lights and we were home for the night.

Take a peek at Jalene's Self Curiosity blog for insight into the inner journey happening as a result of our travels and our updated Photo Gallery.