On a map, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan float north to the border fitting like puzzle pieces around their Great Lakes neighbors. These lakes convene on the map like five watery states, and I can feel the impact of the states’ lake shores, like the freshwater reflections and the waves without tides are persuading these states into something of their own. Perhaps, I wonder as I bike, if the lakes are that shared ingredient that leave visitors like myself attaching Upper to their Midwest identity.
If it is not the big lakes making these states feel like a unit then perhaps it is the smaller lakes that are interwoven with the land. The line between land of lakes and lakes of islands seems blurred. Regardless, as I bike, summer is in full swing and the waters give refuge to migrants of all shades and reflect the greens of their forest shores. Here, the prairies of the Midwest, the boreal forests of the North, and the hardwood forests of the East meet, mingle, and create a unique hue from all three. These families of states are a swirl of transition, the eye of a vegetation storm, a collision of three ecotypes, and a pretty good bike ride.
Whatever it was, crossing the border of Iowa into Minnesota felt like crossing into something new. At the MN welcome sign I took refuge in the sign’s windbreak and the opportunity to eat an apple (a pink lady of course). Cars drove by, scanning me and my bike and my apple, but they didn’t stop. What did stop was a monarch, welcoming me to a new state. The first monarch I had seen in days. Breaking my trance, he settled onto a dandelion, giving the yellow flowers a second chance. As I enjoyed my apple the monarch inspected the flower with its proboscis, a dance of touch and taste. I wondered what the world would be like if we all settled into the beauty of these dandelions and discovered what they really were. I wondered why we hate these little yellow suns born from the green of the grass.
Full from the dandelion, he flew away. Well, to fly is the wrong verb. Monarchs don’t fly exactly. They are more like drifters in the streams of wind. They use their wings like sails to tack and turn and settle onto a tempting flower. When they draw power from their wings it seems like a hesitant second thought which both surprises them and tentatively pushes them forward. When determined, their flying reminds me of doggy paddling through air. When the monarch flew/drifted/doggypaddled/continued on, so did I; there were still many miles left in the day. As I biked, flowers erupted on the sides of the roads and even the dull gray of heavy clouds didn’t entirely mute the color or my relief at finding nature. The wild welcome was not a fluke and continued with a pack of wild kids at my first town stop.
I had stopped to escape the wind at the town’s park, which was equipped with a picnic bench shelter (with three miraculous walls to break the wind), a spigot, and working outlets (what more could you need?). I was turning the shelter into my kitchen, my office, and my lounge, when a group of kids, freed from school and shoes by the summer holiday, rolled up on bikes. One kid cussed as they approached, displaying just how cool they thought they were. I ignored the cussing but not their questions and quickly they uncovered my story and fully inspected my bike. All attempts to be tough yielded to admiration and wonder. I had been transformed from a stranger typing on a laptop that they needed to impress, into something of a legend. Their questions, like all questions from kids, revealed their minds processing the possibilities. I helped them fix a flat tire and we put a bit of oil on their chains. They wished me safe journeys, with the exact same tone and inflection that their parents and grandparents would have used. I waved goodbye and headed back into the wind.
The wind made for slow going, but consistently slow was still faster than not moving. I kept my head low and moved forward, the anger that had crept into me over the last month was still hot and real and no amount of wind seemed able to clear it from my mind, until that is, I started writing it down.
At night I would sort out my thoughts: what did I feel biking through my country scarred beyond recognition, where even the clouds seemed to swirl in confusion, wondering where the earth they once knew went; what do I do with the anger that comes from living in a culture that thinks it owns the earth; what responsibility do I have to protect the planet from selfishness, greed, apathy, and ignorance? Writing didn’t pull the dread from my soul but it did seem to numb the desperation. I hadn’t shed a thing, but I’d found a way to help carry the weight.
It took several weeks for me to write something that seemed to balance the good with the bad, the fear with the hope. Seeing nature and meeting folks who cared cast light on the shadows, and gave me the balance I was looking for. The first person in Minnesota to help me with this was Tom.
I had been biking and simmering in hopelessness, but had paused to go to the store and buy groceries. Since I was hungry, I bought twice as much as I could carry, and was tying bread and lettuce and sunflower seeds to the outside of my bike, when Tom drove up and asked about my trip. I took a deep breath, and explained. When he offered me a place to stay I said no thanks. It was in the wrong direction and I didn’t feel I had the energy for it. I knew a church was at the edge of town, and churches, in the Midwest, are some of the best places to camp.
Of course, this church had no hidden view and was surrounded by houses, so it was not a “best place to camp.” The sun was sinking and running away with my light, so I was running through my options when Tom called. He had gotten my number off my business card and was calling to offer to drive me to his house. This time I said yes.
Saying yes is the key to a bike tour. At the church, I had been lamenting on how I had broken my "say yes" rule. The say yes rule, of course, is to say yes to offers and opportunities because those are what you will remember. This is not always easy for me, and is never the most convenient, but if convenience was my goal, I’d have chosen an animal to follow that doesn’t migrate! So when Tom called, it felt like a cosmic eyebrow raise, like the universe was asking “Are you SURE you wanted to say no?”
Tom lived outside of town in a tiny house surrounded by a wild and small family farm. There was diversity in the crops and the roadside ditches and the plot of land he’d recently converted to native prairie. At his house his wife and son and two dogs greeted us, and soon I was fed, showered, and learning about all the prairie restoration work being done in Minnesota. Apparently the government will pay farmers 300 dollars per acre to convert acreage to prairie. He tells me farmers are losing 100 dollars per acre on corn these days, so the option is viable. He assures me that we are waking up to the obsceneness of monoculture-money-losing-ethanol production. In fact, he says, every day farmers call him up to ask him what they can plant besides corn. He feeds me this hope which I need more than food.
So the next day when I leave, I leave better than I arrived.
My next stop of Rochester, Minnesota was a few days away by bike, and arriving in town was a pleasant surprise. Snaking through the city on milkweed-lined bike paths, I felt like MN was medicine. Normally cities equal pavement and lawns which in turn equal no milkweed. But in Rochester, the city seemed to be finding every bit of unused land and giving it back to the prairie. Giving it back to the monarchs.
Rochester had not exactly been on the way, and, as a tired cyclist I had to fight the urge to aim directly to the Twin Cities where my next presentation was scheduled. The reason for more miles was an offer of a house and to see my friend Andrew, a friend from the mountains.
Sometimes when we meet folks we must talk in circles, find shared priorities and experiences, and only then become friends. When there are lots of people and no reason to stop and talk, we pass by these potential friends, the world too big to sort. But in the mountains, far from a trail, a chance meeting means a friendship. Meeting in the woods, where bears outnumber humans, cuts through all the preliminaries because the very action of walking away from the world and into the world means we agree on the simple truth that stars and mountains and unnamed lakes are valuable.
So, last summer while working for the government, counting toads and falling in love with the Sierra, I met Andrew on a mountain I’ll call Sky Button. On a map next to the delicate lines of a razor edge peak you won’t see this name. It is a name of my own making which lets anonymity leave the mountain in peace. And really the name is unimportant. What is important, is that after climbing to the top of Sky Button and being lifted into a world of the rocky gods and mountaineering butterflies, I ran down the mountain and crossed paths with Andrew. He sat by a stream looking at the view. Here pines cheered on the distant creek, which, escaping the howls of the mountain tops, flowed like strings of wind. A collection of drops of water diving into the rocky security and safety of the unknown below. When you cross paths in the mountains, you stop and talk.
Andrew and I talked for a few hours. I told him about ButterBike and the far off future when I would be biking through his home town. We exchanged contacts and said goodbye for now. I left, clambering through the half-covered rocks in the grassy valley, mentally tracing future routes up future mountains for future views. Andrew continued with his thinking, tracing the story he led with a friend, who spend his last day on a Button in the Sky. Nearly a year later, I was in Andrew’s living room, watching the local news coverage of ButterBike with his family. Some call it surreal, some call it mountain magic, I call it the collection of everything, leading us all to where we are now.
My next contact was in the Twin Cities thanks to another chance meeting. In Omaha, I had been lucky enough to stay with Kate and her family, a connection made thanks to some email listserv, which like word of mouth can catch fire and spread in magical ways. After leaving Omaha, Katie told her sister I was coming, and the fire kept spreading. I couldn’t have picked a better place to stay in the Twin Cities. Not only did I have a place to rest in the sea of city, but I got to enjoy the company of Sue and Chris, two cyclists and monarch stewards with more bikes than cars, jars of pickled cherries (so much better than they sound!), magical cooking, and a front yard devoted to milkweed! My kind of rest!
My only scheduled presentation in Minnesota sat in the bustle of the Cities, and when it was over it was a bit like finishing the last day of school. I had no scheduled stops in the near future and so all I needed to do was bike, but first I had to bike through the tangle of two cities. Again Chris and Sue came through for me, escorting me out of the city via one of the city’s Open Streets, an inspiring program that closes a stretch of city road to cars and gives people, culture, and the sounds of living the opportunity to reign. When cars were abandoned, the potential of our cities to be built for people rather than cars is revealed. I hold this vision in my head whenever I pass through a city.
When the security of Open Streets ended, Chris led me through the labyrinth of bike routes and to the bike path that would lead me to Duluth. It was as if Google Maps sprang from my phone to give me not just a tour guide with knowledge of the best bike routes but conversation as well. There is no better way to get through a city!
Out of the city, on my “summer break”, all I had to do was bike. Bike, bike, and bike some more, in an attempt to gain some ground, buy back lost time, and keep the monarchs in my sights. The only problem with this plan was that biking was beginning to feel like a chore. I needed a break, a change of pace, and an excuse to not think about bikes or butterflies for a few days (I know, crazy, right?). I hankered for a canoe trip into the wilderness, where cars and roads and wheels were not allowed and loons, moose, and mosquitoes were king.
I found this thanks to my friend Maddy, my mountain-climbing, frog-counting, adventure buddy, and coworker from several seasons in Glacier National Park. With Maddy I don’t have to explain the mountains or what we find in wandering. It is a true break to have the company of someone that understands the power of wilderness, the thrill of arriving from the power of your own body, and the freedom of drifting. And even though her to-do list included writing her thesis, training a new puppy, moving out of her house AND packing/planning for a six-week canoe adventure, Maddy agrees to a three-day canoe trip into the boundary waters. Maddy is an intense person.
The canoe trip was a break from reality, bikes, and butterflies (though we did see a few monarchs crossing lakes too). We built fires on islands, swam in lakes filled with water clean enough to drink straight from the lake, paddled with muscles we’d neglected, trained the dog to sit in a canoe, and caught up on our lives.
By the time I was back on my bike I was ready to pedal, which was a good thing because timewise biking was all I could afford to do. The canoe trip had squeezed the amount of days I had to get to Sudbury, Ontario. I now had 10 days to cover the 700 mile gap. That meant I’d be biking through every wind, every rain, and every obstacle that came my way as I rushed across the Upper Peninsula, the arm of Michigan that holds Lake Superior to the north and Lake Michigan to the south. I’d also have to pedal with purpose, and try to avoid getting distracted by every little creature I would pass, all worthy of a pause for an investigation.
For me the three biggest distractions on the Upper Peninsula were butterflies, turtles, and lakes. How could I not stop to move a snapping turtle off the road, take a picture of a knot of swallowtails, or swim in lakes like oceans? Well, I conceded, I wasn’t THAT rushed.
So I stopped a lot, but not for schools or to visit people. In fact I hardly talked during the 700 mile stretch. Instead I stopped to inspect creatures, like the wood turtles whose shells were often covered in a second shell of dirt betraying their earthen homes. On a path meant for ATVs but used by me, I stopped to watch a wood turtle stretch her neck and decide about me, the predator with a camera, admiring her yellow legs and patterned shell. I suspect she was pacing the trail looking for a suitable nesting spot.
The next few turtles I found had found their spots and were digging holes in the trail, testing the ground before laying their eggs. I scolded each one in danger of being run over, while noting the shine of their shells, their painted beaks, and speckled eyes. The snapping turtles were my favorite. Huge moms, vulnerable on land for the sake of the future, sitting like rocks waiting out my dangerous visit. Only when I would grab their tails and pull them off the roads and trails, would they expose their power and danger. Their muscles would contract and power would radiate to my hand as they whipped up a fury. They would snap their necks, while showing me the pink inside their strong, unstoppable beaks. I worked with care and purpose to avoid losing a finger to these powerful, tank-like animals.
A few times I found snappers and painted turtles laying eggs. It took me back to my first wildlife job in Hawaii, where I fought the lull of waves and the darkness of stars to stay awake and hold vigil on the beaches waiting for nesting sea turtles. We would watch mamma turtles dig nests with their rear flippers, often abandoning a site for their own particular reasons. When they finally dug a hole they were satisfied with, they would lay their eggs, cover their nests, and return to the ocean’s safety. Here in Michigan I saw the same phenomenon playing out. False digs pocketed the path, and successful moms would lay eggs in their laborious nests. I saw snappers, painteds and woodies in cliques all doing their thing and hoping I’d leave them alone.
Finding these turtles alive was a victory for me. They have no idea that they are laying their eggs on humans’ paths. Crossing roads seems like nature’s futile attempt to argue for space, a declaration that this planet is home to more than just humans. I wish I could flip a switch and wildlife would no longer perceive the false danger of me but the real danger of motors. I wish I could do this for all the animals that look for homes along roads. But I can’t. Instead I stop to move the dead from the roads, to put the dying animals out of their misery, and to apologize for our human arrogance. For those that I don’t or can’t move, I have a strange, nearly religious ritual to help give me closure from the carnage. I coast by the dead, breathing deep, pulling whatever I can (regardless of the smell) into my lungs, carrying bits of the fallen with me, giving their essence a flight of freedom, a chance to carry on. Nothing deserves to die so casually.
The car kills rarely end. Sometimes I can ignore them and other times I focus in on them. One day, in Wisconsin I started counting and recording the number of dead swallowtails I passed in random, one mile increments. I saw no reason I couldn’t extrapolate and thus concluded that 6.5 swallowtails were killed every mile. Double this to account for both sides of the road, then multiply that 13 by the 102 miles of hwy 28 in Wisconsin, and I can estimate that 1,326 dead swallowtails could be found that day on the road. Considering I was biking and could not look past the gravel shoulder into the grass, or on the grilles of cars, it seems easy to double that number. But regardless, a thousand dead or three thousand dead, these deaths are silent and ignored. The solution? I don’t know. Even driving with Maddy I know we killed a swallowtail. Driving slower would help. Perhaps a bit of land management to pull them off the road. As I bike, I think that the problem is not just that they die, but that we accept this as the way it is.
The good news for the wildlife is that there are not a lot of roads between Duluth and Sudbury. I was happy knowing there were less chances for car kills, but it did mean my options for heading east were limited. To leave heavy traffic meant going due north or south and connecting with other heavy use roads. This would have added many miles to my rushed schedule. Luckily there was a healthy shoulder and I could enjoy my fast speed on my direct route, with convenient detours on “bike paths.”
Often I would be lured by a “bike path” on Google Maps. Sometimes these paths were turtle-covered ATV routes, compact and perfect for biking. These paths broke the wind and boredom of the highway and were quintessential biking glory. Other paths were less…perfect. I pedaled for distances on paths with deep, sinking sand, where speed was sucked from my wheels and at times walking was faster. Because I couldn’t tell the difference looking at a map it was a bit of guesswork, luck, happy surprises, and tiring disappointments. Still, I am grateful that even in the information age an adventure can still hold the same meaning: to go into the unknown and find a bit of everything.
We can all have an adventure, go into the unknown and find a bit of everything BUT our reactions to the bits of everything change depending on the person and their level of hunger and tiredness. About half way to Sudbury I found nasty weather. The sky kneaded clouds until rain and hail fell in sheets, blanketing the road and me. I had been enjoying the nervous feel of building storms. The green and pink skies warning land of approaching weather. The darkening clouds that seemed like they were training for a future fight. My tiredness lifted and I biked with purpose. The clouds taunted me and I biked faster. At the first raindrop I knew there was no escape. I bundled into my raingear, replaced my shoes with crocs, tightened the buckles of my panniers, turned on my blinky lights, and embraced the rain.
The rain wasted no time soaking me to the bone. I hooted in delight. This, universe, is what it feels like to bike in the rain. Soon rain was replaced by hail which stung like a wet whip on my skin. My hands flinched, hail on naked skin. I tucked one arm in, using my body like a shield. Alternating arms, I laughed to the clouds. Who signs up for this, painful hail, wet clothes, and a dreary night? Well, I do! I laughed and I biked. It was a fun distraction.
When the shoulder disappeared and traffic picked up, I was no longer laughing. Each time a car passed they would churn up a thick watery wall, and I was uncertain if trailing cars would see me in time. It didn’t seem worth carrying on, so I biked off the road, through a roadside ditch, and into the company of equally wet trees. I found a flat spot on enough of a slope I assumed where I wouldn’t wake up in a lake, and set up my tent.
Setting up camp in the rain is not fun. I had considered waiting the storm out but darkness was descending and it was a guessing game as to if the storm would last minutes or hours longer. It didn’t seem to be leaving so I frantically set up my tent. I had sketched out a strategy in my mind as to the fastest, driest way to set up my tent and of course the pressure led me to set up my tent in the slowest, wettest way.
By the time I was in the tent I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry. Since crying seemed like a waste of time and the opposite of drying out the tent, I grumbled and then set out to make the tent livable. Firstly I sat at the low end of the tent, my weight pulling the water down like a stream. When I sat in a “lake” I used my cooking pot to bail the water out. With the lake gone, I used my pack towel to make an island in the tent, where I sat as I traded wet clothes for pajamas. I found the last remaining dry spots on my shirt and pants and used them to wipe the tent floor, then I gave up on them, tossing them outside. They couldn’t get wetter and I’d deal with them in the morning. Next I unrolled my sleeping pad, and found that between the towel and sleeping pad, I had the makings of a warm, dry home. I found something to eat, brushed my teeth, and went to bed. Tomorrow the sun would come out and everything would dry!
Not only did the sun come out the next day and dry out everything, the next day led me to my first taste of the famous pasties, a pot pie you can eat with your hands, and a throwback to both immigrant and mining culture that is now wrapped in tourism and roadside distractions. They are delicious!
The entire Upper Peninsula has the tourist vibe, which culminates at Mackinac Island, an island without cars that draws tourists from all over the world. In fact, I had visited with my family when I was young and remember being impressed by a world without cars and had been proud to have biked around an entire island. Even knowing it was touristy I really wanted to go back. I wanted to see if my memories would match reality and if I’d be as impressed. So I splurged on a ferry ride and went to an island without cars.
As I get older, I seem to abandon the fierceness of my drive to limit cars on our planet, but even as my passions evolve, that desire will always be part of my DNA. Even on the island, I see why. Instead of car traffic which sends people away and forces us all to suspend conversations and spontaneous stops, the roads on the island are filled with voices and laughter and a traffic made from people. You can feel the freedom of knowing the roads are yours. Horses pull carriages full of those not yet ready to accept that they have the power to move, and bikes sit like fence rows ready to carry someone somewhere. You can buy fudge or plastic junk everywhere, but people are mostly outside, walking and biking to enjoy the island. I made several laps through “town” and then biked the perimeter of the island. It is smaller and easier than I remember, but I liked revisiting it all the same. I saw two monarchs on the ride, and reflect that my younger self probably would believe I’d chosen to bike around a continent following butterflies!
From Mackinac, back on the mainland, I searched unsuccessfully for a camp spot in a mat of poison ivy with a view of the Mackinac Bridge spanning the straits of two Great Lakes. I settled for a mosquito trench in a mat of dark forest (good enough!) and woke up the next morning for the final push to the Canadian border.
With just 200 miles to Sudbury, I was ahead of schedule and confident that I will arrive in time for presentations and the end of my “summer break.” As I approached the border, I stopped long enough to swim in Lake Huron, eat a generous passerby’s gift of “the best pasty around”, took photos of the plentiful yellow orchids, and enjoyed the quiet road that led me from the Great Lake States to the Great Lake Provinces. And so Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan blended together in a swirl of big lakes, small lakes, wildlife, long days of biking, and a pretty good bike ride.