American Road Trip: The Great Lakes

I’ve never been much of a lake person.  Even those beautiful lakes in New Zealand that are surrounded by huge mountains perfectly reflected on the surface feel a little ominous to me.  I much prefer a wild beach or a river where there is something to see like waves, rapids or weather drastically switching things up.   But most of the lakes I’ve experienced just seem to sit around not doing much with the most excitement being a duck paddling by.  That definitely cannot be said of The Great Lakes.  They  might not be the prettiest lakes in the world but they are incredibly huge, seem more like open seas than landlocked bodies of water and are even capable of creating their very own weather systems.

I officially entered the Great Lakes region when I hit Watertown, New York and the Lake Erie area.  When I woke up in Watertown I was excited to see my first Great Lake so I spent quite some time failing to find a scenic drive along the lakeshore.  A recurring theme of my drive since the Florida Keys was that wherever there was shoreline of any kind it was virtually impossible to see it from a road, especially if you wanted to see it for free.  So during an entire 2-hour diversion and after much rechecking of my map, tourist websites and my GPS, I probably saw Lake Erie for a total of 60-seconds and only once found a place to legally park so that I could soak it all in and take a photo.   Sadly that place was covered in litter, had a very limited view of the Lake plus a couple of pervy looking guys hanging around the public restroom that made me not want to linger (like they were), so I never did get a photo of Lake Erie.

I also happened to be looking for a mailbox to send a postcard to my 96-year old Grandmother who doesn’t do e-mail.   I saw a sign for a Post Office in a small lakeside town but the lakefront was so closely guarded that there was absolutely no way to park my car within four miles of the Post Office without either trespassing or parking on a road shoulder a mile either side of the town limits then walking on the shoulder which was less than a foot wide.

The Post Office itself had a lake view as well as  ‘No Parking’ signs outside it, beside it and opposite it.  This made me really angry.  I’ve honestly never come across such jealously guarded places anywhere else on the planet.  Considering I was in the Land of the Free this didn’t feel anything like freedom as I knew it.  So in the end I said a big ‘screw you’ to Lake Erie and set off on the quickest route to Lake Michigan that I hoped would be more accommodating.

I wound up on Interstate 90 for the next day and a half and after an overnight in Erie, Pennsylvania I headed for Cleveland, Ohio to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  You can click here to read about my visit there in a separate post.   By the time I finished the Rock Hall it was mid-afternoon so I decided to find a motel close to Toledo and on a whim took a detour off the Interstate into rural Ohio.  I quickly found myself driving on wide open plains and part of the US I’d never really visited before as I assumed it would be a little flat and boring.  I was right about the flat part but completely off base about it being boring.

DSC04421DSC04426I was surprised to find myself enchanted by the landscape.  I had never seen anything like those huge skies and incredibly flat yet green wide open spaces before and there was no way my limited photographic talent or camera was going do justice to it.  I headed onto county roads that took me through endless farmland with incredibly long flat byways bordered by huge green, gold and sometimes grey fields, interspersed here and there with homesteads, barns and silos.

But what really enchanted me was the sky.  I thought I’d seen big sky in New Mexico but this was something else.  It was as if the flat green vistas somehow showcased the sky in a way I’d never seen before.  The sky was the show and definitely the main event, yet it carried this flat and unchanging landscape like the perfect accessory to an already stunning outfit.  I’m not doing a very good job of explaining myself so I’ll guess you’ll have to drive through rural Ohio on a sunny afternoon to see for yourself.

I spent the night in Bowling Green, Ohio and the next morning made for Ludington, Michigan.  A good friend had told me about a historic car ferry called the SS Badger that offered a kind of shortcut across Lake Michigan from Ludington to Wisconsin.   I spent most of the day driving on back roads through pretty farmland and I liked the feel of the small parts of the Michigan that I saw.

DSC04437Sometimes it was reminiscent of the Ohio plains but mostly it was gentle rolling countryside with woods or farms bordering the roads.  Once I got to the cute and surprisingly vibrant lakeside town of Ludington, I went straight to the shore of Lake Michigan to see if it was more welcoming than Lake Erie had been.  What a difference a lake makes.  There was ample free parking right on the lovely beach, lots of easy beach access and a big free playground for kids to enjoy when it was too cold to go in the water.  I finally got to get out of the car, wander up the beach and fully take in one of the Great Lakes.  I loved it and hoped it was a sign of things to come.

DSC04441I treated myself to a night in a slightly nicer motel than usual so woke up refreshed and excited to have the crew of SS Badger do all the navigating that day; all I had to do was chill out and be a passenger.   You drive your car to the docks then the ferry crew drive it on and off the steamer at each end which makes things nice and easy.  The trip takes about 4-hours and there is lots to do on board including a movie room, several lounges, two different places to eat, a museum and a gift shop.  You can even get a massage.   However I was most interested in soaking up the scenery so I wrapped up against the cold wind and stayed on deck for the first hour watching Michigan fade into the distance.

DSC04468

DSC04443DSC04455DSC04481We soon hit a rain squall so I headed for the lounge and set up my computer to write my New England blog post.  I slowly realised I had sat myself in the middle of ‘Badger Bingo’, a free game played for an extremely long time on each sailing to keep passengers occupied.  It finally became a bit too much for me and the rain had stopped so I returned to the outside deck to experience what it was like to be on a lake so huge that you couldn’t see the shoreline in any direction.   Turns out it was pretty cool and I don’t know if this is a normal thing or something to do with the weather that day, but despite the blue skies the water seemed inky black which made a lovely contrast to the whitecaps being generated by the ferry.

After a very calm sailing we approached Manitowoc, Wisconsin and suddenly I wasn’t feeling as happy.  The water was full of tiny dead fish and whilst I was reassured this was a natural phenomena due to lake temperatures, it didn’t make the smell or outlook any more pleasant.  Even the seagulls wouldn’t touch them.    The port area was pretty nasty and I’m not sure what was going on with the winds that day but that entire area of Michigan was covered in the worst smog I’d seen since I was last in Hong Kong and a big smog cloud blew down from China.  My eyes were in agony and I couldn’t stop coughing.  It was depressing for a whole lot of reasons but somehow doubly sad to drive through the beautiful Wisconsin countryside complete with lots of open pasture, cows grazing, cute barns and the odd quaint lakeside village, only to have to look at it all through a sickly grey haze and stinging eyes.  The irony that I was contributing to the problem by driving a gas guzzling car all around the country was not lost on me.

DSC04496DSC04501It was only noon when I got off the ferry so I decided to take a scenic drive around the Door Peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan a little northeast of Green Bay.  The smog lessened a little and it was a beautiful drive.  It was Friday so things were starting to get a little crowded with weekend traffic and I’ve discovered that in America there is some kind of unwritten law that you have to drive 10mph under the speed limit whenever you are in a touristy area, but I still enjoyed it.  There was more lovely Wisconsin farmland, quaint towns and pretty beaches.

Thanks to the crew of the SS Badger giving me a break from driving that morning, by the time I finished in Door County I was still feeling fresh enough to drive for a few more hours so I decided to head northwest to Iron Mountain, Michigan.  I quickly booked a motel there and as I headed happily up the road I realised that I had broken a golden rule in not checking the weather along my route and at my destination.  That is something you shouldn’t really do anywhere and that you definitely shouldn’t do in America with its huge weather systems that frequently produce extremely strong storms, not to mention tornadoes.   I pulled over on a shoulder to check the weather on my phone and of course it went without saying that I saw a severe thunderstorm was approaching Iron Mountain.  It wasn’t due to hit there for another 40-minutes and at that point I was an hour away so figured I might just beat it or at least not be in it for long.  Wrong again.

I’ve been through some pretty violent storms but this one was something else and it happened in a matter of minutes.  I was driving through bright sunshine and the temperature reading on the car was 83F.  Less than 5-minutes later it was almost as dark as night and the temperature had dropped to 63F.  The rain was so intense that my wipers were next to useless even on full speed and it felt like a helicopter had emptied a monsoon bucket right on top of me.  The wind gusts coming from the side were so strong that at one point my car got swept sideways right into the oncoming lane with me powerless to stop it.  By now I was driving at about 20mph on a highway bordered by a forest of tall trees.  When I saw a big branch blow across the road in front of me like a feather I knew I was out of my depth and based on the eerie greenish light I was certain a tornado was close.  The only tornado warning sign missing was the hail and I was sure that wasn’t far away.

I had no idea how to take shelter with those huge trees around and just as I was starting to get pretty panicked I saw a neon sign from a gas station through the rain.  I made for there and found some other vehicles attempting to take shelter.  I didn’t like my chances in the car if it hailed or if there was a tornado so I made a run into the store where we all got to know each other pretty fast thanks to a lot of pumping adrenalin.  I brought up the weather radar on my phone and although there was a tornado watch in our area there were no reports of one hitting the ground and it looked like it was a thin band of storms that would pass quickly.  So after having a nice chat to the other people taking shelter and trying not to dive for cover every time there was a lightning flash, I hit the road again and nervously made my way to the motel in Iron Mountain where I quickly consumed a large alcoholic beverage.

The next day dawned beautiful, hot and sunny.  I kept up a north-westerly direction, passing over the Wisconsin and Michigan state lines a couple of times before finally hitting Minnesota.  My goal was to pick up US2 again near Duluth, Minnesota which is on the shores of Lake Superior, the last of the Great Lakes I would see on this trip.  So after driving through lots of beautiful wild forests, past rivers and small lakes, and nearly causing the tailgating bastard behind me to rear end my car whilst I tried to avoid a ridiculously huge turtle, I wound up in the tiny town of Cloquet, Minnesota just outside of Duluth

DSC04511DSC04523DSC04529My plan was to do a scenic drive along the lakeshore the next morning but after consulting my schedule and my map I realised that I didn’t really have time and not only that, I didn’t really trust it to be an actual ‘lakeshore drive’ based on previous experiences with shoreline drives in the US.  I wasn’t willing to risk a day of travel only to end up on a road through more forest with only a few glimpses of Lake Superior.  It wasn’t that the forest wasn’t lovely around there, it was just that it didn’t seem a worthwhile way to spend my time.   I may well have made a wrong call on that but my lake viewing was done and I was anxious to get to the Wild West so I struck for North Dakota instead.

HighlightsSS Badger  |  Door Peninsula  | Any of the driving through rural and/or forested areas of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota – nice open roads, great landscape, not too many humans. |  My brief taste of the Ohio plains

DSC04533Travel Safety Tip:  Try not to get caught driving in a butt-clenching storm like I did.  They are just plain dangerous and not to be underestimated.  I particularly say this for non-Americans who may not have experienced this kind of weather, at least not so frequently.  Throughout spring and summer (depending on where in the US you are) you can expect severe thunderstorms a few times a week, sometimes daily.  So make sure you have a phone with a data connection that enables you to regularly check the weather, bring up a weather radar map (that you have learned to read) and that will alert you of severe weather in the area.  You can’t rely on Wi-Fi access.

Whilst there are some exceptions to the following rule, generally you should start any long drives early when the weather is usually calmer and try to wrap up any driving through open areas by early-afternoon when the severe storms start, or at least be sure you are in built up areas where you can easily seek shelter.  Your car will keep you safe from a lightning strike but will be pretty much useless in golf ball size hail that can come through the windshield.   A car definitely won’t keep you safe from falling trees or a tornado.    And don’t even get me started on the very real dangers of flash flooding.

One good thing is that unlike storms in Europe or Australasia which can linger for a long time, they tend to pass very fast in the US so just waiting somewhere safe for 20 to 30-minutes is often enough provided you’ve assessed any flash flood threat by talking to locals or checking a reliable weather website.  Flash flooding may not appear until well after the storm has passed.

So there is no real excuse for being a dumbass like me and trying to outrun a storm.  Just stop somewhere safe and wait it out.  And few Americans are going to think you are a drama queen for doing that. For the most part people take the weather pretty seriously in this country and are happy to help out anyone in need, so if you need to ask a stranger or a business for shelter then go ahead, you are very unlikely to be turned away.

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