The idea of a bikepacking trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula midwinter appeals to a rather small group of individuals. A lot of people may be enticed by the idea of it, the romance of encountering Nature (capitalized here for dramatic effect) and pitting oneself against the elements of Snow, Wind, and the certain Freeze.
But how many people have actually gone out and done it? While our three intrepid adventurers are not likely to have struck first, they certainly went with unmatched chutzpah. Yes, the celebrity trio of Ty Hathaway, Jason Lowetz and Jess Scarantino went North (still pretty dramatic?) with more enthusiasm than most people head south to escape the exact conditions experienced.
Perhaps it’s time to paint the picture, to set the scene. It can be hard to explain the presence of the Upper Peninsula, when the Lower Peninsula is so easily identifiable; the stereotypical Michigander pointing to their outstretched palm to indicate where they live rarely includes the U.P., in part because they are without a third hand and also because people from the U.P. tend to stay put. Usually, you have to come to them.
The Upper Peninsula lies across the Mackinac Bridge and borders Canada and Wisconsin. It’s a crossroads of sort, but one with a decided lack of traffic since Pere Marquette; it’s not uncommon to make the drive in Highway 2 and go a few hours without seeing another car or, more accurately, ‘96 Ford F150 with the sides rusting to pieces. It is known for such metropolis centers as Marquette, Sault Sainte Marie (‘da Soo’, colloquially) and Houghton-Hancock, which, are either two very interconnected towns or one town with parents of forward-thinking and gender-equal naming values.
Finally, the U.P. is cold. As our heroes began their final preparations, the overnight low for the first evening out under the tranquil blinking stars was a frosty -21 degrees. Cities like Marquette have had snow for almost three months, and in places more than double the amounts found in even snowbelts like Gaylord in the Lower Peninsula. And, this is a very mild winter.
And it certainly took some preparations to get everyone together. At the onset, any blame for the loss of frost-bitten limbs would fall to Jesse, who took the communal idea of a bike-packing trip and placed it in the U.P. Due to timing, other obligations and probably a bit of brains, Cole Maness counted himself and his mustache ‘out’, but Ty Hathaway was quickly introduced as the trio’s new handsome tall person, with Jesse holding down the role of having ridiculously awesome facial hair, and Jason Lowetz having no particular role that meets coherent description.
Place them in your mind, dear reader: friends from ‘back in the day’, in sunny Los Angeles (our fair Verona), separated by years and many miles and a thousand obligations. Picture them united, in heavy winter gear, astride fat bikes and tuck between, above and behind all sorts of camping gear. And, most importantly, picture them rolling along into a the light of a hardly risen son, pedaling into adventure, hearts buoyed by friendship...
….but picture them going slowly. With the state of the snowmobile trails, six to seven miles per hour was no small task. That isn’t to say they were in a hurry. The rudimentary plan was 75 miles a day, but it was never set in stone, and Lowetz, especially, isn’t one to stick to a time table.
The first day, the coldest day, was the toughest. Due to an inaccurate map, the 36 mile ride north from St. Ignace was actually closer to 80 miles by the actual route, a snowmobile trail that meandered east and west more than perhaps was helpful. Ty and Jesse pedaled on, pulling ‘sick wheelies’ and ‘sick skids’ while Jason checked the map, gave up, and took the crew onto some snow-covered county roads.
“We were screaming.” It’s this line that sticks out the most when the guys talk about this trip, and they will, for years to come. Riding along, away from the hustle and bustle (but still doing some admirable work on Instagram) and in that eternal Nature, life became a simple reduction of presence, destination and survival. Where are we? Where are we going? How will we get there? It is startling how simple those questions are on a bicycle, and how uncomfortable they are almost while doing almost anything else.
The first night ended somewhat early, with a stop at the Silver Creek Inn. Bars, you’ll find, are perfectly spaced in the U.P., and they serve as the cultural centers for most communities. And what a place they were to our wearied, frozen heroes. Slumped in from the cold, how beautiful a face was Sarah, with burgers and fries and beer half-ready, and eager questions coming from all angles. The trio were joined by some ice fisherman, and the lively conversation centered on the adventurous fat bikers, with the locals offering some very helpful information on trails, roads and alternative routes.
If the U.P. is between Canada and Wisconsin, but a part of Michigan, it might be easier to imagine the current U.P. as any one of those places but about 15 years ago. Life is slower. The people are not hurried. They do not rush about and take some sick pride in being perpetually busy, like most places and people. And when a Yooper asks you how you are doing, they are generally interested. It might be disarming to be so genuinely engaged in conversation, but, that is how mankind used to Facebook...face-to-face.
The tents and sleeping bags weren’t used the first night. The comfort of a real bed in a heated room was too much, but the second night wouldn’t afford anything but the comforts of the wild. The second leg left Silver Creek Inn and headed in the general direction of Paradise. The pace was steady, with unplanned stops for more ‘sick jumps’ and Jason’s need to turn all such actions into 10 second, SloMo videos. But there were also breaks to simply look around and create that sense of place, of Nature, and of travel. Entire forests bowing under the weight of heavy snow. The tracks of animals tracing their way across roads and into the trees, weaving indiscriminately. The low hum of wide tires on packed snow and ice.
Another evening, another bar, almost the same people. The same interest, the same calm. “People up there don’t have so much crap going on that they can’t care about other people,” Jason relayed. “The world could learn a lot from the U.P.”
For Ty, coming from L.A., the U.P. was a breath of fresh air. “If I ever get down about people, I will just come back here.” It’s a massive contrast of places, of people, and of experience from SoCal to places like Rexton or Newberry. Neither is necessarily right, but they are different, and the effect on outlook can be eye-opening.
To be sure, the U.P. is a treasure. Where else in the world can three fat bikers see three Great Lakes in one trip? Where else can the haute cuisine be burgers and fries, and not disappoint at all? There must be other places, but the list isn't terribly long.
The temperatures rose to comfortably in the double-digits each of the last few days, and the rhythm became a way of life. Start not with the sun, but at ease and when breakfast has been eaten, when the bags have been packed, when the legs ready. Roll until there is an Occurrence, an occurrence of Nature or of mind, some contrivance to stop a spell, to pull a wheel, to urinate in some creek and imagine the creek leading to some river, that river to some lake, that lake to the St. Lawrence Seaway and into some ocean. Connected completely. Remount, pedal on, onwards, just go.
The last day was the biggest ask of the legs and of the bikes. Seventy-two miles from home, from the return to St. Ignace, it was a three-man, fat bike time trial. Less talking, a simple pace of steady, steady and the fatigue of big miles, cold sleep, and two days of howling and screaming like madmen for the sheer thrill of it now taking its toll. Humhumhumhum. Big tires singing. The wind is cold but it is from the northwest and is on their shoulders. Only 40 miles to go.
Call it old age or bad luck, Jesse’s knee found it’s limit. Aboard his Blackborrow and carrying the most gear, he’s been pushing close to eighty pounds every day, and it has finally caught up. No man left behind, especially one with so special a beard. It’s up to Ty, Jason, and Jesse’s right leg to get The Beard home. The laughs are coming back, the howling. An hour left, maybe two. Plenty of time. They have learned not to hurry.
The trip is done, the stories have just started. Ty, Jesse and Jason had a final night, this time at Jason’s home in Traverse City, to chat and talk before obligation, hustle and bustle start to pull the story apart. Jesse has to get going, Ty leaves in the morning as well; Jason is scheduled to work at the shop the next day, 12-4.
They’ll be back. The U.P. isn’t going anywhere, which is lucky for our three heroes, and for all of us. Ride your bike across it. Ride your bike from one lake to another, and another. Find a road or trail to exhaust yourself on, then go the bar, have some food, and meet people some of the best people in the world. Take even a day or two to slow down. Find that dramatic Nature, find your place in it, and scream.