Cedar Lake, Ind. to Grand Rapids, Mich.
We woke up early Sunday morning ready to roll. After a quick shower and goodbyes with the family, it was time to hit the road. We were super excited to get going because we were about to see our first (real) lighthouse of the trip and would end the day with an evening in 2012’s co-“Beer City USA.”
Our directions actually took us a bit out of our way around the top half of the Cedar Lake, but hey, adventuring is part of the ride. We had purposefully chosen a route that would keep us out of the city until we approached our first stop in Michigan City, and it turns out that was a great plan.
As we started out, all our roads wiggled just enough to keep it interesting. The scenery was just amazing: Gorgeous little houses with immaculate lawns, picturesque farms, and just enough crazy stuff (you know, the kind that “Makes you go, hmmm”) to keep my head on a constant swivel for quite a while.
About the time we got to the straighter, more main roads, hunger had set in. We needed breakfast, so my new job was to keep an eye out for places to stop. Well, there aren’t many options between Cedar Lake and Valparaiso before 8:00 on a Sunday morning. Thankfully, not too far down U.S. 30 we noticed the sign for the Viking Chili Bowl as we went by. Wally eased it into the next parking lot, turned around and got us back the half mile or so in no time.
I couldn’t have picked a better place if I planned the stop ahead of time. It was clean, had lots of great breakfast options and was really busy (a sure sign of a good restaurant). Our food came out quickly and was prepared perfectly. It — and the coffee— definitely hit the spot after a few too many drinks the night before. I especially enjoyed the hash browns, but then, I love to carb load on big trips. (Okay, all the time.)
It wasn’t too long after we were back on the road that we realized we had missed our turn north. I’m still not sure where we went wrong, but it had to be in this one intersection that had way too much going on to second guess our direction on a bike. It turned out that missing that turn wasn’t a bad thing.
I’m pretty good with a map, but all I had at hand was my paper with the directions on it. I remembered from when we reviewed the route before taking off for the day that we eventually ended up on a pretty major north-south highway, so I started to read ahead to see what might intersect with 30. Great success when Wally spotted the sign for U.S. 421! That road ended up taking us straight into Michigan City, allowing us to avoid every bit of the Chicago suburb traffic we were dreading on the way in.
While the road wasn’t too exciting as it headed due north, the ride was. We listened to our custom playlist, chatted about all kinds of things, and just soaked it all in. You could feel the last of the remaining stress leave our bodies as we realized we had no obligations for the next six days — what sweet freedom!
The countryside wasn’t anything special, but it was to us. Everything seemed new and exciting. And because it was Sunday morning, it was so quiet. We almost felt guilty driving by with our radio blaring … almost.
The Old Lighthouse Museum in Michigan City was our first scheduled stop. It’s a former functioning lighthouse that dates back to the early 1800s. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to tour it because it didn’t open until 1:00. (Lesson learned there: Always check the hours when making the plan.) But, we could walk around the harbor and along the beach to get a better look at the Michigan City Lighthouse.
It was at this point that I took a really good look at Lake Michigan. Of course, I had seen it before, but I never really looked at it like I did on this trip. Maybe it was because I had the time and was relaxed enough to pay attention, maybe it was because I finally realized its sheer size after planning the trip, maybe it was because I was walking right along its shore. All I know is that I saw it that day, and wow, was it amazing!
The lighthouse was at the end of a long concrete pier we could walk all the way down, but we stopped short to take a look and snap a photo. We had walked quite a ways already and still had to go back. Plus, we wanted to take a minute to ask a few gentlemen how their morning fishing excursion was going.
The stop was a huge mark in our trip. Not only was it the first lighthouse, but it also was the beginning of our run along the lake. Unfortunately, we ran into a snag when my bluetooth helmet intercom announced it had a low battery not too far outside of town. I was Wally’s navigator, and I had no way to talk to him. So, I relayed what I could before the last beep cut out then resorted to tapping him when I needed his attention and a weird kind of sign language for directions.
I gestured wildly when I spotted the sign for the I-94 on ramp, relieved that I had a bit to come up with a way to tell him when we needed to exit onto the Red Arrow Highway. Normally, I’m not a fan of interstate riding. It’s fast and boring, plus for some reason, the road vibration seems different and makes me feel like I’ve been on the bike for double the time. That day, I didn’t seem to mind. I think I was so distracted by the intercom issue that I didn’t notice the discomfort. Well, there also was the amazing scenery…
That scenery only got better once we were on Red Arrow. At the slower highway pace, we could really begin to take it all in. I marveled at the environment, a wide smile plastered across my face. The ride into St. Joseph had all kinds of places you could stop along the water. Of course, by then, the road was right along the shore. We were headed for our next lighthouse, so we opted to forgo a stop and continued on into downtown. That’s when the helmet issue became a real problem.
It turned out the directions we had weren’t quite accurate. We ended up on some weird back alley that was a ways away from the St. Joe Lighthouse. And, it was hard helping get us to where we needed to go without my intercom. We stopped for a minute, got our bearings, and headed toward where we noticed some traffic. Yep — it was a beautiful, sunny afternoon in August, just before the kids were going back to school, and the area was a zoo. Seriously. A. Zoo.
While working our way through the uber traffic of not-so-patient tourists, we had a chance to talk and agreed to skip that stop and look for somewhere to eat. It was lunchtime, after all.
Several blocks away, actually right where we’d be getting back on our lakeside road, we spotted a funky looking Mexican restaurant called Azul Tequila. I absolutely and totally love Mexican food, and I didn’t eat all that much at breakfast, so I was ready to dominate some tacos.
The place was massive and had awesome decor. You could tell it was probably an old steakhouse or barbecue joint because of the way it was laid out, but they did a nice job tailoring it to their culture. And, the staff was amazing. I explained to the hostess what had happened to my helmet, and she let me leave it in their employee storage area to charge before taking us to our table.
The menu at Azul was nothing new to me. In fact, it was essentially the same thing we have at our favorite place in Peoria, but that was fine by me. I knew I would love what I ordered, which was a cold Michelob Ultra and three beef tacos to enjoy with our chips, salsa and queso. Wally ordered a standard favorite: carnitas. It all came out fresh and piping hot. Thankfully, there weren’t many people in there, so I don’t have to feel as ashamed as I would have for the display of food inhalation that went on. Mmmm — tasty!
Our lunches devoured, bill paid and intercoms reconnected, it was that time again. The ride got much better from there, as we could once again freely communicate directions and questions, but more importantly, share the excitement of what we were experiencing as it happened, which was perfect timing since we were about to hug the water most the way into South Haven.
As I mentioned, it was a gorgeous day. The sun was warm and would peek from the behind the clouds now and then, but it wasn’t hot. A truly ideal day for riding — and apparently for shopping, too.
South Haven was an adorable town with quaint little shops down by the harbor where the South Haven Lighthouse is located. On this particular day, people were everywhere: flowing in and out of shops, crossing the street, trying to park, wandering from here to there with absolutely no purpose. Ah, people.
Once parked in a lot near the water, we walked down toward the pier. On the way, we came upon a little concession stand in the middle of the sidewalk and bought a couple waters so that we could rehydrate while sightseeing. I remember thinking the price — only a couple dollars — wasn’t too bad considering the fact we were limited in options.
If you don’t think you’re familiar with the South Haven Lighthouse, you might be wrong. Its picture is often included in calendars and shown on television due to the gothic-looking ice castle it becomes in the winter. In August though, it is a hotbed of tourist activity.
I couldn’t believe how many people were checking it out, but I do have to say the pier didn’t feel crowded. About a quarter of the way down the length of it, I spotted a mother duck and her ducklings seemingly swimming out to the lake. I suddenly became concerned for them and caught up in their journey.
About then, Wally called me over to take a few pictures with the iconic lighthouse. Distracted by our exploration of the piece of maritime history, I forgot about the ducks until we began to head back to land. It was then that I noticed the family had simply gone around the pier and were headed back in, too. But, one of the ducklings got caught up in some wake and started drifting out, so it cried out to its mother. She immediately responded with a quack — by now, I’m completely caught up in my own real-life Animal Planet documentary — and seemed to gather the flock of ducklings together with a type of “Stay” command before going to retrieve the straggler. Everyone was united once again, but that same situation played out a couple more times before everyone had their feet back on solid ground.
That’s when we noticed a rather large, tall-mast ship heading down the channel toward the lake. As we watched it pass, we realized it was a pirate ship tourists could pay for rides on. Even as a re-creation, the sight was something to behold. To be honest, I had this moment when the hair on my arms stood on end, the same way it did at the end of Goonies when One-Eyed Willy’s ship finds it way back out to sea — good stuff.
Not too far from our bike, we noticed a large group of fellow riders had parked nearby and were lounging in the grass by the parking lot. Friendly greetings were exchanged, and they told us about the organization they were with. I gathered that they were on the backside of their Lake Michigan Loop and were about to split up for their final legs home. The smiles on their faces reassured me that I could do it, too.
Our last stretch of the day was a quick run up I-196 into Grand Rapids. It was a pleasant ride as we hugged the shore for a while before the road turned northeast into the city. We continued to joke about the pirate ship — arrrgh — and began to ponder our options for drinks that evening, but first, we had one more stop to make.
The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum was something Wally really wanted to see. He’s quite a history buff, especially presidential history, and loves checking out new museums. It was a no brainer.
The Ford Museum was featuring an exhibit on aircraft carriers, as a new carrier class had just been named for the former chief executive. The entire place was really cool. It had a huge collection of papers from his presidency, including many about Nixon and his pardon. My personal favorite was seeing the original speech drafts with Ford’s notes about how to deliver the addresses, like where to add emphasis, pause, etc. For a writer like me, that insight into his process was fascinating.
We spent about an hour checking the place out, only skipping the short movie (neither one of us was in for sitting for more than the 10-minute trip to the hotel). On the way out, something familiar caught my eye: It was a piece of the Berlin Wall.
Now, I understand that it’s a bit weird for a Midwesterner like me to say I recognized a piece of the Berlin Wall, but I finished my bachelor’s degree at Eureka College, an alma mater I share with President Ronald Reagan. Long story short, Germany gifted Eureka a piece of the Berlin Wall at a ceremony held on campus the day after we moved to Illinois. We were there for that momentous occasion, and I walked by that piece of wall every day for an entire academic year. So, yep, I recognize a piece of the Berlin Wall when I see it.
After our trip through history, we found our way to the hotel, parked in the deck, dropped off the bags, and headed down the street to the breweries we had been looking forward to. We always choose our hotels very strategically, with the main requirements of a swimming pool/hot tub option and a local pub within walking distance. Our stay in Grand Rapids was no different, as we were mere blocks from a bustling downtown. While there was a Buffalo Wild Wings and other all-too-familiar chain places, we were looking for the breweries the city was known for. We opted to start at the end of the block and work our way back toward the hotel, so we bellied up to the bar at HopCat.
The place was hopping (no pun intended), so we figured we chose well. After agonized over the myriad beer options, we both picked one and settled in. As our bodies adjusted to an evening off the bike, the smell of food began to fill the air and our minds. Knowing we wanted to try a few places, we didn’t want to eat too much, so we ordered the mussels appetizer. Oh dogs, was it ever good, and they served it just the way I like with crusty bread to soak up the leftover white wine sauce.
Another round of drinks later, we decided to go down the street to the Grand Rapids Brewing Company. It was an organic brewery that looked too interesting to miss. Their list of beers was expansive, a challenge to anyone like me who needs to fully examine a menu before making a decision. That said, the experience was fantastic, especially our snack.
We ordered a whitefish dip with pretzel sticks. It was served in a beer mug, which made for a unique presentation that was only trumped by the flavor. I had sneaking suspicion that I wouldn’t like the treat, but I really did. It was so different from anything I’d ever had before; it was light yet filling, creamy yet salty, smooth yet crunchy … it was well done.
We had another beer each before deciding it was time to check out the restaurant in the hotel, which was part of the reason we picked that particular place. As we approached the last cross-street before our hotel, a car approaching what appeared to be police tape grabbed our attention. We were joking how “Of course, a BMW driver would be too good to go around the blockade,” when Wally noticed the “Coroner” designation on the car’s license plate. There was something serious going on just behind our hotel. We couldn’t see much as we walked by, so we headed into the parking deck to do our standard bike check to ensure everything was locked up tight for the night. Standing next to the bike, I realized the police scene was just over the railing.
I never should have looked.
If you have ever seen NCIS, Law and Order, CSI or any of those criminal justice-based shows, you’ve seen the scene I saw. A shoe in the street. Another on the sidewalk. Two cops taking notes. A sheet with what appeared to be a small amount of blood soaking through it. … A sheet. …
Yep, I shut down there for a bit. I mean, that’s some serious stuff, you know what I’m saying? Well, not to leave you hanging, we followed the local papers for a while and found out they determined it was an accident. But, before we knew that, I was pretty shaken.
We made our way into the hotel and sat down at the bar. When they asked how our evening was going, well, you can guess what we said. A shocked bartender quickly told a couple waitresses, and the search for answers was on. While our sweet bartender poured us some drinks, she assured us that wasn’t a normal occurrence for Grand Rapids, something I was all too happy to hear.
The bartender went on to tell us a bit about the town, its nightlife, and what she did outside of work. We enjoy hearing other people’s stories when we travel, and she was willing to share. As we had a couple drinks and ordered some snacks, we started to take in our surroundings. We had chosen this particular place, the CityFlats Hotel, because it was LEED Gold Certified, which means it meets strict eco-friendly guidelines with respect to its construction, energy use and furnishings. It definitely didn’t disappoint.
The hotel’s efficient use of space was nothing short of amazing. While it was small, it didn’t feel cramped. Our room even more so. While we noticed it was much smaller than the typical hotel room, it wasn’t a big deal. There was a large window that let lots of natural light in, which helped make it feel larger. The glass shower doors also helped open up that space. I couldn’t stop rubbing my feet on the floor, which was covered with cork flooring. It was like ceramic tile but softer — very groovy.
Exhausted after our excitement-filled day, we crawled into bed and dozed off while catching up with the day’s events on the news. I slept like a rock that night and woke up refreshed, ready to see what Day 3 had in store…