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It was somewhat inevitable that I should feel inclined to issue an apology to Michigan, and so here we are. Of course I am delighted about this fact, as you will remember that the point of this trip is to have great experiences, not to badmouth states with offensive generalizations.
Rolling out of Flint, Lily and I riding together for the last day, the stubborn ruggedness of the roads relented and following highway 21 I encountered nothing more exciting than a flat and relatively well paved surface. The headwind buffeted us from the North-west, and the trucks crashed past at full speed, but by now I had realized this comes with the territory and my immature mood of the previous days dissipated. Nothing much passed by other than fields and an occasional tree; indeed the most noticeable characteristic of the landscape was it’s lack of any feature which could be deemed memorable. The perfect condition for entering into the ‘zone,’ and that is exactly what I did, awaking some sixty miles later to find myself in somewhere very much resembling the place I had left that morning. What luck, then, that I was to be rescued from this ignorant view of the territory as colourless and commonplace, of the hideous crime of being mundane, or ‘average.’
Mike Braun found us looking for freezies in a gas station in Fowler, around 50 miles east of Grand Rapids, MI. As many do, he looked at the attire Lily and I were sporting, and did some quick calculations in his head that led him to a solid conclusion – we were not from around there. When people reach this stage, they often react in one of three ways. Some glace away, back off and remove themselves from the vicinity. Others decide a quick look is not enough to satisfy, so they find a comfortable stance and show no shame in scanning our every move with an eagle eye. Yet others, who sometimes cross over with the second ‘starer’ category, make the bold move to engage these dirty beasts in conversation. Of the three, I encourage strangers to be part of this brave third group, and luckily they are not a rare species.
(My apologies for lack of photos with this post - my stills camera ran out of batteries. However I was also filming the whole thing, so this story will appear in an interview once it has been edited.)
Mike quizzed us with a few good natured questions, covering the wider generality of our trip. These details were enough to lead to an offer of his lawn as a place to pitch our tents. Ready to call it quits for the day, we agreed, and thus begun the whirlwind of the real mid-west. The powers that govern these sort of things had delivered Lily and I into the hands of a really unique individual. In just one short evening and following morning, it became clear that Mike had a reciprocal relationship of love with Fowler and all of it’s inhabitants. Taking us in and feeding us, he brought us up to speed on his family, a not small amount of kids and grandkids who all lived in the area. We were treated like guests of great renown, and we traded information on our differing lifestyles between bites of pizza, lemon pie and ice cream. Mike was enthralled with our tales, and decided the stories were worth taking further. The happy news that his grandson had bought a house around the corner was perfect – he could join in the merrymaking and introduce these wandering cyclists to the neighbourhood. To be honest, I cannot fully recall the rest of the evening events. In a nutshell, we met many of the townsfolk, some of whom were related to Mike, others who were as close as family; all, however, had time and respect for him. He had an air of authority, yet seemed like a best friend to everyone.
He took us on a tour of the town, explained the history, and let us pick strawberries from his son’s back yard. We played pickleball, which he describes as ‘an old person’s version of tennis.’ We ate delicious home grown peaches, and drank ice cold beer. We saw all the kids in the town wave and smile at Mike (‘Handsome Mike’ to them, after a clever tactic of bribery with popsicles.) I learned about the rise, fall and rebirth of General Motors in a way that I never had before. I have never felt so much love and kindness from one person in such a short time. Fowler seemed like a magically wonderland that Lily and had tripped and fell into while searching for ice lollies. Things there were too perfect to be real – the sun shone, the neighbourhood was out and about, and everyone showed only affection to everyone else. ‘This is the real America,’ I was told. I hope that is true, because then there is indeed much hope for the world we live in. I am no great writer, and am not ashamed to admit that I cannot yet really put into words the experience. I, and you as the reader, will have to settle for this mishmash of details and expressions.
‘I feel like I’m losing some of my children,’ was the last thing I remember Mike telling us as we rode off. And in no small sense did I feel that I was leaving family. Michigan had come up trumps, and delivered the perfect antidote to my negativity. This was Smalltown, USA, but the type that I know has to be lived to be really believed. From the outside it may seem cheesy, or merely an illusion of happiness. I am honoured to have felt it from the inside, and to have had my own boundaries and skepticism blown away. This is the mid-west that inspires. I still feel energized and enlivened by having been a part of it for even just a short time. I am almost scared too seek Fowler on the map for fear that it does not exist, that it's perfection was merely an invention of my troubled, Michigan-loathing mind.
Grand Rapids provided beauty and delights of it’s own, but I don’t want to saturate this blog with superlatives more than I have already. My stay there was brief, and I rode the Muskatawa Trail to Muskegon the next day. After deciding to avoid Detroit, it made sense to also stay north of the metropolis that begins east of Gary, Indiana and would suck a bicycle in and swirl it around, before spitting it out west of Chicago days later. My solution was to catch the ferry across Lake Michigan and reach Milwaukee on the opposite shore. From there I can cycle due west across Wisconsin, and eventually into South Dakota and Sioux Falls.
Currently my bike sits in Milwaukee, and I have taken a brief trip down to Chicago to rest, relax and get ready for the next couple of months. Actually, it has been a 4 day trip, which is not quite so brief. Barring unforeseen circumstances however, it will be the longest break I take until I reach Vancouver, so I’m feeling content about it. I will withhold details of what a great time I've been having staying here with Abby, because once again I have written much more than I should have. Apologies, I do not blame you if you lose interest. In short then – I love bed, beer and the World Cup.