Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Day 14: The silence of the raccoons

Wanatah to San Pierre. 16.8 miles/182.9 total

It's 10:15 a.m. I'm departing from the center of Wanatah, Indiana, and will be walking straight south to San Pierre. Unlike the last two days, it’s partly sunny today, with only a mild breeze. Temperatures are in the 50s.

This walk will take me through just two little towns besides Wanatah. LaCrosse and San Pierre.
Heading out of town on a side road, I have almost no company other than the cornstalks for a couple of miles, until I re-enter busy U.S, 421 with its narrow shoulder and incessant fast traffic.

I’ve scheduled a rest day for tomorrow, but I’m so far out in the sticks, I may take a side trip in the car over to Valparaiso, where there’s at least a university. It’s about 10 miles west of Wanatah. So I’ll stay in Wanatah in the motor home tonight, take my day trip tomorrow, then venture on down the road to LaCrosse, where I can spend the next night.

I think I may be drifting in and out of the Central time zone. When I went to check my cell phone for the time, it read an hour later. So Sprint has picked up the fact, somewhere, that I went into Eastern time. Here in greater Wanatah, it’s definitely Central. I believe this part of Indiana decides on a county-by-county basis which time zone it’s going to be in. There’s this cluster of counties in the northwest of the state, oriented to Chicago, that are in Central time. LaPorte County where I am now, is one of them.

Out on U.S. 421, if it weren't for the sound of vehicles, there wouldn’t be much other sound at all, except for the singing of the insects. No industry or commerce, just the sound of the crops growing. And the lonesome whistle of the occasional freight train. No passenger rail here; I left that behind up in Michigan City. Sure enough, the crossing gates go down and I am waiting for a train to cross. There’s so little train activity any more in Michigan, that I almost forgot about crossing gates, clanging and blinking.

And what a freight train it was. It had 132 cars, pulled by three engines of the Norfolk and Southern Railroad. Probably a couple of miles long. Mostly flatbeds carrying containers, which is what takes the place of boxcars these days.

I pass a field of tomatoes. A couple of semi trailers are piled high with tomatoes, to overflowing. Many more out in the field still ripening. These aren’t your fat soft slice-and-eat tomatoes. They’re small and thick-skinned and relatively juiceless and round. Probably developed that way on purpose, and used for tomato sauce and ketchup.

Here’s an interesting roadside find. A plastic burnished gold-colored cross, about seven inches high, with a pair of praying hands in the middle, at the crux. Something like this can't be ignored. I put it in my back pocket. Now if I’m found on the road dead, people will assume I am a person of faith, rather than a heathen. On the whole, I suppose it’s better to be mistaken for a person of faith when you’re not, than to be mistaken for a heathen when you’re religious. Not to mention that I am now armed against vampires who might try to get into the motor home while I’m sleeping. That’s always a good thing.

This Indiana countryside has me singing “On the Banks of the Wabash,” which, as some of you know, is the state song of Indiana. I happen to know all the words, thanks to a great album of Victorian-era standards by Ann Arbor musical artists Joan Morris and William Bolcum, called After the Ball. So I’m walking along, singing to the insects, who are singing back:

Round my Indiana homestead wave the cornfields,
In the distance loom the woodlands, clear and cool.
Oftentimes my thoughts revert to scenes of childhood,
Where I first received my lessons, nature's school.
But one thing there is missing from the picture,
Without her face it seems so incomplete.
I long to see my mother in the doorway,
As she stood there years ago her boy to greet.

Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight upon the Wabash.
From the fields there comes the breath of new-mown hay.
Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming,
On the banks of the Wabash, far away.

There’s a second verse, too. Hell, I bet most Hoosiers don’t know either one of the verses.

I’m beginning to get alarmed. I haven’t seen any dead raccoons yet, and I have already walked seven miles. In fact, I have barely seen any road kill at all. Just a lonely possum and something I couldn’t quite identify. This is singular, because over the previous two days I saw something like 23 raccoons, almost as many as I saw the entire time I was walking through Michigan. What has happened to the raccoons all of a sudden, I wonder?

I enter the village of LaCrosse. This is a small place, with a population of about 500, just spread out along 421 for a few blocks. The internet says it used to be part of Starke County, to the south, but was ceded to LaPorte County during the 19th century, for some reason, and became Dewey Township. The first township settler was George Schimmel, in 1854, and many of the early settlers were German farmers. No word on how it got its French name, since the French were long gone by the time this area was settled. It’s a shady little place, but without much going for it. Pretty dumpy, in fact. A liquor store, a bank, a few schools, churches. One gas station. I stop to buy a bottle of water, then I'm out of here.

As little as there was between Wanatah and LaCrosse, there’s even less between LaCrosse and San Pierre. Just the lonesome road. And really pedestrian unfriendly, I must say. The “shoulder” of the pavement is about a foot and a half wide, then there’s a dropoff and a slanted gravel embankment of another foot or so, then a ditch. There’s no practical way to walk on the pavement, and walking off the pavement requires walking at a slant. Pretty soon my left leg starts to hurt.

So what has happened to the raccoons? Still not a one. Eaten by the locals? The cans and bottles are still here, and the corn and the soybeans. But no raccoons. It’s as if someone told them not to go south of Wanatah. Or are they smarter down here? Quicker? Luckier? Nothing else has changed that I can see.

A great roadside find! A portion of the Guinness Book of World Records. The front torn off up to the letter “B.” The first page has a picture of the beef tapeworm, the world’s largest tapeworm specimen on record. Over 75 feet long. Damn. The book is soggy and not worth keeping, but before I toss it back I open it at random to one more entry. Most cobras kissed. Gordon Cates, of Alachua, Florida, kissed eleven cobras consecutively on September 25, 1999. Man, those Florida cobras must be pretty hard up.

I come to a bridge over the Kankakee River, where I leave LaPorte County and enter Starke County. The skies are cloudless now, and it must be in the high 60s as I trudge on toward San Pierre.

Many of you will have observed that there’s something of a linguistic anomaly in the name San Pierre. There’s San, the Spanish word for saint, followed by the French name, Pierre. I’m going to speculate that this might be due to either transliteration or what linguists call “false analogy,” or both. When the French say the word “saint,” it sounds pretty much like “san.” English folks may have heard French people saying St. Pierre, and written it down as they heard it—San Pierre. And maybe they knew already that the Spanish word for saint is San, so they figured it was spelled the same in French. Or they were barely literate and just didn’t care. Anyway, we’re left with San Pierre. Of course, the real reason could be even stranger or more ridiculous than that. You never know.

The sign says “Welcome to San Pierre,” but that’s just a teaser. The real San Pierre isn’t for another mile or so. Just before entering the village I stop to check out the cemetery of All Saints Catholic Church. After a day of no road kill, I’m eager for some evidence of death, even if it’s human. I suppose you could say that a cemetery by the side of the highway is the ultimate road kill, after all. The older graves have mostly Irish names—Carroll, Fitzgerald, McLaughlin—then give way in later years to eastern European and German names—Mazurek, Kohler, Simic, Smolek.

I enter the town. Such as it is, most of San Pierre is spread out for a couple of blocks along the west side of the road along a bend in 421. A few dilapidated storefronts, most of them closed. This is an eerie and unkind looking place. There’s a veterinary clinic at the corner of the main intersection, and on the other corner a building that's been condemned as unsafe for habitation. It's windows are broken out and the doors are all open, revealing trash and wreckage. A pretty grim-looking place. Down Eliza Street I have parked the motor home across from All Saints Church.

I stop to ask a postal truck driver if he knows how San Pierre got its name. He doesn't, but he suggests going over to the library. I'm amazed that there even is a library, but sure enough, there it is, about the size of a two-car garage. I ask the librarian if she knows why San Pierre is called that, and she doesn’t. She tells me she's just a substitute, from another town--Knox, the county seat. She says there are some books on Starke County history, but they're all over in the Knox library.

I then ask her whether San Pierre is on Central or Eastern time. Here she laughs, and says Central, but that Starke County and its neighbor to the south, Pulaski County (which she pronounces “Pulask-eye,”) switched over a only couple of years ago, and it’s been very confusing ever since. Over in Knox people are constantly missing doctor’s appointments and such, and the town government has refused to switch, and the post office still uses Eastern time, and so on. Also, before they switched to Central, Starke County didn’t go on daylight saving time, so that for part of the year they were on the same time as Central (after the “spring forward”), and for the winter months they were an hour later. They call it Eastern “fast time” and Central “slow time.”

Afterwards I check out the map, and sure enough, it still lists Starke County as being on Eastern time. Also I notice that as I go south I will go back into Eastern time permanently in Indiana, until I cross over the line into Illinois. Strange.

When I googled San Pierre, I got some really weird explanations of why they call it that. First, I should mention that San Pierre isn’t even a village, it’s a “census-designated place,” with a population of about 150. Back in 1854, it was originally called Culvertown. Then, according to legend, it was either renamed after a French Canadian whiskey seller, or a French railroad man, both named Pierre. The “San” was put before the name to add importance to it, according to some. In 1894 the name was changed to just Pierre, and in 1899 it was changed back to San Pierre.

I don’t believe either of those stories. And the raccoons still remain a mystery. The raccoons, Clarice.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Day 13: Rainman


Otis to Wanatah. 12.3 miles/166.1 total

I get started today at around 11:30 in the morning. The question was whether to walk at all, since it rained all night and is still raining. I figured I'd try to get in a walk, even though it will be a relatively short one. Better to keep moving, even in small increments, than to waste the day.

The raccoons continue their suicide mission here on U.S. 421. So many have died, and for what? Will there be virgin raccoons for them in heaven? Old corpses, new corpses, piles of bare bleached bones, leather skin and whisps of fur. The horror. The horror.

I am not totally averse to walking in the rain. I do, after all, carry the emergency poncho. It’s going to have to be done, probably fairly often. However, the constant spray from the trucks speeding by is something I could do without. More than once so far, I’ve had my hat blown off and into the ditch. Whenever that happens, I find myself getting angry at the trucker, as if he had any control over my hat.

Fairly early in the walk I cross over the Indiana Turnpike, Interstates 80 and 90, and shortly afterwards, pass by the Purdue University North Central Campus, which I suppose primarily serves the commuting students from this corner of the state. The broad front lawn, behind which is a stand of tall trees hiding the campus, features several nice sculptures. One I’m particularly fond of is called “Running Arch,” by Steve Adduci. Very nice. It is indeed an arch-looking thing, like the Arc de Triomphe, that looks like it's trucking along.

I must be a pretty amusing sight, walking along covered with my bright yellow poncho, the hood up and my hat on over the hood (to hold the hood on), my arms tucked inside, looking at the ground and making mental notes about road kill and the like. I think I might look a little more “special” than usual, muttering, “Uh oh, another raccoon,” and taking out my little notebook to write it down. I’m definitely doing a good Rainman imitation today.

About a third of the way along, I pass through the community of Westville. It’s a town of about 2000 souls. Here gas prices are the cheapest I’ve seen so far--$2.29 a gallon. The precipitation is tapering off to what the great Ernie Harwell used to call “a fine mist of rain.”
At the south end of Westville, past Prairie Meadow Park and the school playing fields, stands, in grim repose, as it were, the Westville Correctional Center of the Indiana Department of Correction. Far back from the road, perhaps 300 yards, is the huge red brick prison facility, surrounded by guard towers. It started as a mental hospital in 1945, with criminally insane inmates, then was converted to a prison. It houses over 3000 inmates, or half again as many as there are citizens of Westville. Looking across a cornfield at the prison puts me in mind of Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol,” two of whose many verses go like this:
I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.
The vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair.

After the prison, I come to where U.S. 6 crosses U.S. 421. Maybe if I look off to the east on 6, I can see Provincetown, Massachusetts, where it begins. Route 6 is one of the great old highways of the country, running all the way from P-town to Oregon. Paralleled by I-80, I guess. One of these days I’d like to take a driving trip of the entire length of U.S. 6.

A little south of U.S. 6 is a huge facility of the Nash Finch Company, a wholesale food distributor whose motto is “Performance Driven.” I see the sign for Wanatah, 6 miles, so I know I’m a little more than halfway. And there's nothing between here and there except corn and soybeans. And soybeans and corn. And some pumpkins.

The number of beer and pop cans really is incredible, after Michigan. I can’t help sort of keeping track. In any given mile there are probably about 20 of them. One garbage bag wouldn’t be enough here. Of course, if they had a deposit, there wouldn’t be nearly as many.
I get offered my second ride by a Hoosier, a farmer who looks like Rance Howard, Ronnie Howard’s father. In other words, like a bald goofy farmer. Ron Howard puts his dad Rance, as well as his brother, in just about every film he directs. Usually he tries to cast them appropriately, but sometimes the result is ridiculous, like when old Rance played a cardinal in the Tom Hanks piece of crap based on the Dan Brown novel, Angels and Demons. Casting Rance Howard as a cardinal in the Vatican is a little like putting a tutu on a pig.

It has finally stopped raining altogether. I’m thanking the gods of walking. The poncho is off and dry. It remains gray and overcast, but the wind has died down considerably. I just got offered yet another ride. I tell them, “No thanks, I’m just out for a walk.” They look at me as if I'm crazy. I haven’t yet told anybody the full extent of what I’m doing. The time will come when that will be appropriate. Right now it’s more information than most people need.

At last I reach a road, simply called 1025 W, which veers off to the southeast to take me the last couple of miles into Wanatah. This is a nice quiet little lane. As I pull away from 421 the sound of traffic diminishes and the crickets and grasshoppers can be heard. Corn and soybeans drying in the fields.
I enter the village of Wanatah, as quiet as that road. Town green, churches, huge grain co-op in the middle of town. Smaller than Westville, with only about 1000 inhabitants. Across from the Wanatah post office is the family truckster.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Day 12: O lucky man

Indiana line to Otis. 14.5 miles/153.8 total

The time is 12:20 p.m., central daylight time, my first full day in another time zone. I am embarking from the parking lot of the fireworks store just over the line from Michigan, headed through Michigan City, Indiana and down U.S. 421 to the village of Otis, near the Indiana Toll Road.

It’s very windy, temperatures in the 50s. The clouds are low and rolling in off Lake Michigan from the northwest. I caught sight of the lake earlier today and it was dark gray and rough and filled with whitecaps. Angry, “like an old man sending back soup at a deli,” in the immortal words of George Costanza. Quite a contrast to last week's calm.

I’m tempted to pick up the first empty can I see, then remember that they’re no longer returnable. This is still motel and beach resort country. The first little village I pass (but don’t go through) is called Michiana Shores.

The first official Indiana road kill is a raccoon. Then I see something I can’t identify, but I’ve decided that starting today I won’t have the category “unidentified mammals.” If I can’t tell what it is, I just won’t record it. Time to get principled about this. Then, a find! My first dog road kill of the entire trip. It’s pretty far gone, but it looks like it was a brown and white spotted smaller dog, maybe a beagle.

Just on the outskirts of Michigan City, I pass the entrance to the International Friendship Gardens, apparently a botanical garden with hiking trails. Sounds uncharacteristically pink and fluffy for such an otherwise gritty urban place.

And now, off in the distance, I can see the huge green glass tower of the Blue Chip casino and hotel. I’m walking right by the casino, so I decide to go in. Now, gambling is on the very short list of things I don't find the least bit addicting. So here’s my bargain with myself: I’ll put five dollars into the smallest denomination slot machine I see, then walk out as soon as I lose the five or win anything above that amount. (Big spender, I know.)

Well, my visit to the casino is over, and I was good to my bargain. I played a two-cent slot machine for about twenty minutes, then finally got ahead by $2.84, so I cashed out and left. But I also got a 12-pack of vanilla Coke for signing up as a newcomer (in convenient throwaway cans). I can't very well walk the next 9 miles with a 12-pack of Coke, so I give it to a somewhat startled elderly woman who's standing at the door. (Hmmm. Elderly woman at a casino. Isn't that almost redundant?)

Altogether, I count myself a lucky man. Whenever you can walk out of a casino with more money than when you entered, you’re a winner. Now, it’s on to the next casino. I doubt if that will be for some time, probably down on the Mississippi river somewhere in southern Illinois.

Heading south through downtown Michigan City. Walking down Franklin through the old city center, I notice very few pedestrians--pretty typical of most older U.S. cities. About half the storefronts are empty and the other half are specialty shops—a few art galleries, a bridal shop. On 11th street, there are what look like actual working streetcar tracks, complete with overhead electric wires. Maybe they dug a trolley out of mothballs and got it going again, in an attempt to attract tourists. These moribund cities are always trying things like that.

In the distance loom the Italianate towers and cruciform bulk of the church of St. Stanislaus Kostka. Leave it to the Polish to build an Italian-style church. Or maybe they took it over from the Italians, who maybe used to dominate this part of the city.

(I looked up Michigan City on the internet after the walk, and there's not much to tell. Resort city of about 33,000. Big dunes. Once proud shipping and industrial town. One of the points of interest they list is that on a clear day you can see the Chicago skyline from here. Not much of a claim to fame. In fact, in 1996, the mayor tried to introduce a new logo for Michigan City that featured the Chicago skyline, but many residents rebelled at this proposal, so it was abandoned. I checked the list of famous people who have come from Michigan City, and none of them are very famous. They do mention that John Dillinger was once a prisoner at the Indiana State Penitentiary here. That might just be the high point.)

Down along the south end of Franklin, which becomes U.S. 421, the houses are large, almost verging on mansions. This is where the wealthy of this city once lived. Now it merges with the commercial strip and its familiar run of fast food joints and drug stores and strip malls and major stores that could be absolutely anywhere in the country.

About a half mile after it crosses I-94, past the Gas City gas station, U.S. 421 narrows into two lanes, and becomes just a country road. I am fascinated with the variety of items by the road. Some I recognize right away, like vacuum cleaner parts, fan belts, an odd shoe, windshield wipers. Others are less recognizable. There are shards of plastic of all kinds everywhere.

Thousands of years from now when they dig up our stuff, they’ll probably call this the Plastic Age. So here’s an interesting scenario: Maybe within the next few decades biologists and nanotechnologists will develop some bacterium that eats plastic, so it can self destruct--biodegrade after whatever period we choose--ten years, twenty, fifty. We'll all be so proud of ourselves that we've eliminated the plastic that lasts forever. But the archaeologists of the future will notice that the age of durable plastic only lasted about 150 years, and suddenly died out. They’ll speculate on the fate of the Plastic People. Did they die of some disease? Were they driven into extinction by the metal and stone people, who seemed to have been there before and after the Plastic People? Were they like the Neanderthals? Maybe they’ll conclude that the Plastic People somehow lost the art of making durable plastic. All our brilliant work to eliminate nonbiodegradable plastic will be misunderstood. They’ll think we failed to thrive.

I am really out in the sticks now. It’s all dead animals. Whatever Indiana lacks in other charms it makes up for in road kill. I'm marvelling at how the raccoons seem to be committing mass suicide, then something happens to slightly ameliorate my opinion of Indiana folks. Two guys offer me a ride. That's the first time that's happened since I left home. Hoosiers, no less.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Day 11: Indiana wants me

Sawyer to the Indiana line. 15.8 miles/139.3 total

Friday, September 25, 2009

It is 11:20 a.m. and I'm in Sawyer, next to the Warren Dunes State Park, on what should be the last walk in the State of Michigan. It’s Indiana or bust for me today. It’s a somewhat cool and breezy day, but the clouds are high, and I see patches of blue. I’m walking right now across the street from, and parallel to, the grounds of the state park; I still haven’t reached the entrance. The reason for that is that yesterday I snuck in a back entrance some distance from the main entrance, but right near the campsite where my motor home was parked. So in an effort to be as precise as possible and to say that I walked every foot of this walk, I've gone back to the point where I snuck through the opening in the fence.

Today will be my last day of picking up empties. I’d expected to get quite a few more than I did. Yesterday I only picked up 3, and the day before 6. Altogether, counting the best day I had, 28, I've picked up only about 80 cans and bottles. Picking them up isn't a chore--they're light enough. But walking along with a garbage bag filled with empties sets one off as a certain kind of traveler. At least I'm not pushing a grocery cart.

Down the road from the park I enter the village of Sawyer. As I get closer to Indiana, I carefully check every empty to make sure it is indeed returnable; Indiana cans, of which I've been seeing more lately, are nonreturnable. Some readers aren't from a bottle deposit state (or for that matter, like mes cousines, from the U.S. at all). So here's the rundown on the process of collecting empties from the roadside. First of all, the container has to be, if not fully cylindrical, at least not crushed to the point where it can't roll through the MRI-like machines at supermarkets that read their barcodes and decide whether to give you your money. Some plastic bottles might have been run over a few times but they can pop back. Aluminum cans, once they’re flattened, are beyond redemption, but if they’re just a little dented they can be used. Only carbonated beverage containers are returnable--beer and soda pop, including some energy drinks, like Monster and Red Bull. That’s it. There are a couple of states, including Maine, which accept noncarbonated drink containers, but most, like Michigan, don’t.

The next step in the process, after this initial selection, is to check out the can before picking it up to make sure it’s not lying in the middle of poison ivy. Then I pick it up and empty it out, holding it away from my body. You’d be surprised how many times you will find slugs inside beer cans (or not surprised, if you happen to know the affinity of slugs for beer, and the recommendation to put pans of beer in your garden to catch them). So I empty the liquid out, and shake out any dead, drunk slugs. I also check to see if the liquid coming out looks as if it belonged in the can in the first place. For example, if what comes out of a beer can is dark brown, it might have been used as a spit can for chewing tobacco or snuff. Tobacco juice is usually really fermented and putrid-smelling by the time you go to pick a can up, so I don’t mess with those. In the case of clear plastic bottles, I sometimes see coke bottles with yellow liquid inside them. I’ll let you use your imagination on that one, but those I don’t pick up.

All this is one of the reasons I carry a small bottle of alcohol hand sanitizer with me. It occurs to me at this point that some of these things sound like warped Hints from Heloise. Hints for the wayfarer and collector of returnable empties.

Of course, only about 10 states total in the U.S. even have returnable bottles and cans. Elsewhere the beverage manufacturers and retailers succeed in lobbying the legislatures (bribing them, in other words) to vote against returnables. They always use artificial, high-minded aruments against having returnables, like the fact that we should be encouraging individuals to recycle all plastic, glass, and aluminum, and not just singling out the pop and beer, and how unfair it is to single out just carbonated beverages. The reasons for these arguments, of course, is money. It must be costly to deal with deposits, if you’re a beverage seller. You probably have to remit the deposit in advance to the state, or at least bank it separately, and then collect and pay out. In other words, you’re probably not permitted to make money on the “float” from the deposit between the time you collect it and have to pay it back. Or maybe the manufacturers have to pay the money and get reimbursed later by the state. Obviously somebody has to give up some money for a time, or else businesses would be behind the whole returnable thing all the way. Instead, they’ve been able to keep returnables out of the picture in 80% of the country. And it's no coincidence that the most progressive states--in the northeast and the west, particularly, are the ones with returnables. (Any program in which absolutely no former slave states participate usually has to be a decent one.) How Michigan got in there--and with a deposit of 10 cents instead of 5 cents like the rest--sometimes amazes me.

Now if you’re an anti-litter person, you recognize that having a deposit on containers cuts down on roadside trash, and that no amount of exhortations to civic responsibility to recycle can replace the motivation of having a monetary deposit on these containers.

Harbert is the next little community I come to. It’s a bit more upscale and artsy than Sawyer. Galleries. Antique stores that sell real antiques, and are presided over by fussy-looking old queens, looking up at you from over their reading glasses as if trying to decide whether you’re going to ruin their day somehow. The kind of “antique” stores I like are the ones that are really junk stores. It’s at those places that I am likely to find an old jack knife, which is what I collect.

I pass the Episcopal Church of the Mediator. I suppose they’re referring to Jesus. I never really thought of Jesus as a mediator. Sounds a little too impartial. Like he's getting paid by both sides. Nevertheless, "Mediator" sounds trendy and liberal, as opposed to Church of the Avenger, or Church of the Righteously Wrathful.

For the benefit of my cousin Claire and her husband Gustavo, I will mention here that I am walking right next to the Amtrak train tracks, the same ones that they take on the trip from Chicago to Grand Rapids. At 4:00, the Amtrak passes me, heading southwest toward Chicago.

The next little village is Lakeside. More antique stores, and again not the kind I usually go in. Lots of costume jewelry, and lots of really nice furniture, all very high priced.

Next down the line is Union Pier. I’ve always been partial to places that have “union” in their names. They remind me of labor unions, or the Union, that is the north during the Civil War. In either case it’s kind of a nice evocation. “This is a Union Pier—Rebels disperse.” Or, “This is a Union Pier—no scabs allowed.”

At about 10.5 miles into the walk, the Red Arrow Highway ends as it merges with U.S. 12, the old Michigan Avenue. A quarter of a mile later I enter New Buffalo, the last municipality in Michigan. New Buffalo is the home of the Bison, which must be the name of their high school team. It’s a small city, of just over 2000, a beach resort town.

There’s a new Indian casino here in New Buffalo—Four Winds, that has no doubt brought new money and jobs with it. New Buffalo also, because it is at the extreme southwest tip of Michigan, tends to play up the whole southwestern angle. All kinds of little references to the American Southwest—Mexican food and horned cow skulls. The El Rancho CafĂ© and Mexican Cantina. There’s Joe Jackson’s Southwest, a landscaping place, with pictures of sombreros and cacti on the front of the store. (And speaking of cacti, I saw an actual cactus plant growing in the ditch near that nuclear plant that threatened to kill you if you trespassed on it. The prickly pear variety, I think. Maybe it got thrown out somebody’s window as they passed by and took hold, I don’t know.)

The New Buffalo story is this. Of course the area was first explored in the 17th century by the old French guys—Pere Marquette and La Salle, but they took little note of it. For the Americans, it started in 1834, when a ship was wrecked along the Lake Michigan coast, at the spot of the present town beach. The captain, named Whittaker, became interested in the area, and decided to get permission to start a town there. He named it after his home town, Buffalo, New York. He went back home and persuaded Buffalonians to resettle.

I come to another cemetery. Lots of Germans--Geertz, Schwenk, Schroeder, Kruger, Wittenburg, Nagel. And some English folks. The name of the cemetery is Pine Grove.

I am pulling out of the south end of New Buffalo. Nothing now between me and Indiana but a few miles of lonely highway. The cars are coming by fast. All on their way to somewhere. Probably the casino. The exhilaration of having almost made it to another state carries me along, despite fatigue. After a week of dunes and motels and art galleries and antique shops, I’m ready to descend into whatever the Hoosiers have in store.

At Judy’s Motel, I know that I have 1.7 miles to the Indiana line. A couple more shops and I will have slipped the surly bonds of the Great Lake State. Here’s the Mix N Mingle Interior Design and Home Furnishings store, and the Grand Beach Motel, and another antique store, also specializing in new concrete statuary of all kinds—lions, madonnas, angels, gargoyles. Now I can see the Indiana state line sign. Still too far off to read the words.

A quarter of mile from the sign, and I can clearly read the state name. Here at last is the state line, and the sign: “Welcome to Indiana, Crossroads of America.” Under the sign is another, attached to it, that says, “Lincoln’s Boyhood Home.” That was added this year, no doubt, due to the 200th birthday of Lincoln. Now no fewer than 4 places claim Lincoln. Kentucky, where he was born, Indiana where he grew up, Illinois, where he became a lawyer and ran for office, and Washington, D.C., where he was president.

At 5:08 p.m. (or 4:08 central daylight time, which it now is), I cross into the Crossroads of America and leave Pure Michigan. A tenth of a mile later, in the parking lot of a fireworks store closed for the season, is the motor home.

Just a final recap of Michigan walking stats. Got 25 cans and bottles today, for a total of 104. That's a little over 4 gallons of gas, anyway. For road kill, the raccoons won it, hands down. Saw 29 of them (and that's just the ones I noticed, of course). Second was possums, with 15. There were also 22 unidentified small mammals, most of which were probably coons and possums. After that were 10 squirrels (they're a lot faster I guess, and can use the overhead wires to cross), and 8 snakes. Remaining were about 10 miscellaneous categories.

Now for a couple of days off, to go to Ann Arbor for the Indiana-Michigan game and to rest up.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Day 10: Majestic equality

St. Joseph to Sawyer. 13.4 miles/123.5 total

Today I depart from a Whirlpool factory parking lot in St. Joseph, heading for Sawyer, and the Warren Dunes State Park. I’ll camp there tonight, and accomplish a few things at once. For one thing, of course, it’s a place to stay. Also, I get to empty my tanks, an occasional motor home necessity, as well as fill up on clean water. In addition, after tonight, they'll let me store the motor home for free at the state park under some sort of gas saving program they have, so I'll leave it there tomorrow night while I go back home for the weekend.

A few hundred yards to the west of the Whirlpool plant, I turn south onto Lakeshore Drive. It iss cloudy and misty today, very humid, and you can barely see, over on Lake Michigan, where the water ends and the horizon begins. I stop at a little roadside park and look out over the lake, but there is nothing much to see. There is a sculpture, a seven or eight foot high bunch of grapes made of rocks, hanging from a wooden cross piece. It must weigh several tons. Called “Grapes and Other Promises 1.” Pretty pretentious title, if you ask me.

A sign thanks me for visiting St. Joseph, and I enter the village of Shoreham. At Lakeshore and Maiden Lane, a beautiful smell comes from a place called Dale’s Donut Factory. Down the road is a real factory, where they make, or made, Bosch brake parts. Not too many cars in the lot for a Thursday.

From Shoreham it's on to Stephensville. Not much to report here, just scattered commercial businesses, some still occupied, and some empty. The people of Stephensville want you to know you've arrived. I pass no fewer than three signs welcoming me, including one that says, "Welcome to Stephensville, Michigan. Building a future. Leaving a legacy." Who the hell makes up these town slogans? I hope they don't spend money hiring ad agencies to do this kind of thing.
I especially like walking through interstate highway interchanges, because there's usually a lot of unused grassy and weed-choked space, often with an interesting variety of garbage. Also, I always marvel, when I’m on foot, at the sheer size of these cloverleafs. In a car it doesn’t seem like much, but when you’re walking, the distance from, say, the entrance to eastbound I-94 and westbound I-94, is pretty appreciable.

I also enjoy going under the highway because it's such a stereotypical place for people to dwell, even though I don’t think too many people around here live under highway bridges. But there are nooks and crannies where someone could definitely hole up. It reminds me of that great quote from Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Which then puts me in mind of the majesty of the law, such as it is, here in the U.S., or at least of the social contract as we’re carrying it out. We put billions of dollars into these enormous items of infrastructure, such as highway interchanges, for the sake of our convenience and that of our cars. Even now the government is plowing jillions into stuff just like this, and everyone's all for it. But we have to sit down and scratch our heads and think really hard before we decide that it's okay to cough up just a fraction of what all this concrete costs to provide health care. Universal road care, fine. Why aren't the right wingers threatened by the almost complete governmental control of streets and highways, I wonder? (Well hell, maybe they are. They're a pretty frightened bunch.)

A few miles into the walk, I officially enter the Red Arrow Highway. No more Blue Star. That’s over. The Red Arrow Highway was named after the Red Arrow Division, which is (or was) the U.S. 32nd Infantry Division. It was originally made up of National Guard units primarily from Michigan and Wisconsin. It’s insignia is a red arrow on a green background, pointing upward, with a sort of cross in the middle. In World War One the Red Arrow Division was called “Les Terribles” by the French, because of their fighting prowess (or maybe because they drank red wine with fish). In World War Two the division fought in the Pacific. So the Red Arrow Highway runs through Michigan, parts of it along U.S. 12, and up into Wisconsin. Another sturdy old highway which was, like the Blue Star, sort of replaced by an interstate.

This piece of the Red Arrow Highway reminds me of Dixie Highway where it went south of Drayton Plains down to Telegraph Road in Pontiac. Same thing. Busy, fast, four-lane highway, with no shoulder to speak of. Scattered real estate offices and dilapidated bars, until you got down to the Aunt Jane's Pickle sign down by Telegraph.

It was always a big deal for us kids to cross the Dixie when we were young. We had to go to the light. But my dad, who was kind of a dignified scofflaw, would park behind the cleaners next to the Drayton Clinic and the bank, and walk across Dixie to the post office, because we had a post office box. He’d go two lanes at a time, stopping and standing on the yellow line, cars whizzing by him, and then take the second half. Sometimes I’d get to go with him on his small-time daredevil missions.

I pass the Donald C. Cook nuclear plant entrance. Very inviting, with a neon sign showing the temperature and time of day. A kinder, gentler nuclear plant than that one the other day.
All the nuclear plant companies took the word “nuclear” out of their names a long time ago, for PR purposes. I think nuclear is going to make a comeback, though. The problem will still be what to do with all those spent fuel rods, made of plutonium or whatever. I propose we send them to Mars. Just put them in unmanned spaceships and aim them for Mars and crash land the suckers. I guess there's too much nuclear waste in relation to the payload capacity of rocket ships. Well, let’s put NASA to work on that project. Someone I was proposing this to suggested we should ship the stuff the other way, toward the sun. What the hell, that’s all radiation anyway, right? Just shoot it toward the sun until it burns up. What’s a little extra plutonium gonna do to the sun?

At the Graceland Cemetery they have some really sharp-looking polished black tombstones, a newer color. And lately they've been etching pictures onto the stones. One big one, for a guy named Bill, has a photo of him on his motorcycle, with his honey on the back. Maybe that's how he died.

Outside Bridgman I pass a place with a really intriguing juxtaposition of ethnicities: D’Agostino’s Navajo Restaurant and Lounge. Then, a little later, the Roma Pizzeria, featuring American-Italian food. Out front is a sign that says, “Try a Swedish Pancake.” I’m picking up a little bit of a pattern here of cross-cultural dining.

An indication I’m getting close to Indiana: a nonreturnable Coke bottle. Bought outside the state. It's no good to me so I leave it. I’m not out there to pick up trash, at least not just any trash. Anyway, many of you know my philosophy about garbage. If we humans made it, it’s either all garbage or none of it is. It’s all litter. Or all not. An empty plastic bottle, a barbed wire fence, a Methodist church, a telephone pole, a mailbox, a chunk of asphalt, a manhole cover, an American flag hanging limply, a police car, a gas station, a hospital. Junk, relics, litter, things of value, things of no value? Send them all to Mars. Send planet Earth to Mars.

I pass another factory with an empty parking lot, whose name seems to be “NO TRESPASSING. All Visitors Must Report to Office."

This relatively short and uneventful journey comes to an end, as I slip through a hole in the fence and walk over to the campsite where the Wagon Queen Family Truckster awaits.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Progress report: the good citizen


[I took your advice, rm, but I'm still not succeeding in importing the google map. Looks like it wants to load, but is getting hung up. So here's another homemade progress report, through yesterday.]

Today, while I rest my legs, I'm trying to get a few things done by way of maintenance of the motor home and myself. A new pair of walking shoes is in order. I've discovered that the new ones I bought before I left are a half size too large, thus allowing too much foot movement. Lately I've started wearing my shoes larger, since my feet seem to have widened. But for this much walking, I need my real size, just in a larger width. So that's one item of business.

Probably the more important one was the fixing of the generator. Without the generator I don't have AC power for the computer, air conditioner, TV, etc. That's not intolerable, since I have all other comforts, and I can always go to a wi-fi spot and plug in; it's just inconvenient.

So this morning I went at the problem with determination, even though I had only a vague idea of why the thing wasn't starting. I began by going to a car parts place and asking them to test the batteries that are used to start the generator and that store extra juice for use when the generator is off. The testing of the batteries (a pair of enormous 6 volt batteries attached to one another) showed that they were both weak. So off I headed to one of those farm/tractor type stores, to get replacements, because the auto parts place didn't have any (which was good, since if they had, they would have cost twice as much as at the farm store).

I don't know a whole lot about mechanics, but I can replace batteries, so I did. Then came the moment of truth, when I went to start the generator. Nothing. Just a click, the same as before. So I figured well, new batteries were probably a good thing anyway. The old ones looked pretty old, and the guy who tested them said they were weak (or do they say that to everybody?). As I was going back into the farm store to turn in the old batteries for recycling, or whatever they do with them, I met a man standing at the door, who smiled and asked me something like, "Well, did you get her going?" I explained the situation as I understood it. He replied, "Yeah, it's probably the starter hung up. That's an Onan generator, right?" All this, mind you, from about 150 feet away from my vehicle. I said yes, it was. (By the way, what kind of name is Onan for anything? Wasn't he the one who cast his seed upon the ground, in the Book of Genesis, thus displeasing the Lord enough so that he killed him off?)

So the guy (who looked a little like Howard Sprague from the old Andy Griffith show, with a perpetual small smile of contentment that comes, I suppose, from knowing all about how things work) walked over to the motor home with me. After a couple of questions he could tell I was relatively clueless, so he explained that the starter was behind the generator. He took the hammer I had from my battery-changing, reached his arm around the back, and tapped the starter a few times. Then he pushed the button, and the thing started right up. "Yep," he said with that little gentle smile, "that's what I thought. Happens a lot with these Onan generators. Just tap that starter whenever it gets hung up like that."

I shook his hand and thanked him, and off he went. A good citizen whose name I didn't bother to ask. And I'm thinking that the information I got from him was worth more than the cost of a couple of batteries.

So here I sit in the motor home, in the far corner of the parking lot of the farm store, generator purring, computer plugged in, air conditioning running. Listening to Muddy Waters singing, "Ohhh yeah, everything's gonna be all right this morning."

Until tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Day 9: Hot legs

Lake Michigan Beach to St. Joseph. 13.4 miles/110.1 total

This will be a relatively short walk today, from the countryside down into Benton Harbor-St. Joseph. The first 9 miles is nothing but road, and then the city begins.

Spent a couple of restful nights in the motor home in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in South Haven, where people in motor homes apparently feel free to spend the night, along with miscellaneous truckers. Nice deal. And close to a store if you need it. Everything in the motor home is working well, except for the generator. That works only when it feels like it. I think it's the batteries or the solenoid. I'll have to get it checked out tomorrow, when I'm taking a day off from walking. Without the generator I don't have AC power, which means no computer (the battery is shot on the laptop). Everything else runs on DC power or propane--refrigerator, hot water, the stove and oven, the lights.

Each day presents a new challenges to my muscles. The foot problems are largely gone. They've toughened up, I guess. Now it's one set of leg muscles or another, depending on the day. Yesterday it was the hips. Today it's the quadriceps and the left calf. It's always something, as Roseanne Roseannadanna said.

Usually about two miles into the walk, when the aches and pains are beginning to declare themselves and I haven't gone far enough to feel that I've accomplished much, I get into what you might call the dark day of the soul. I start to wonder if I can do this, and whether I want to do it, and what I would do if I didn't finish. Dark thoughts. Then something comes along to divert my attention.

Today I see a public beach access called Hagar Park and decide to walk down the steep steps to the shore, to walk along Lake Michigan. Very tranquil. The lake is like glass, and all misty. The dunes have forgiven me, and I them. I look off to the southwest in the direction of Chicago. I walk along for about forty-five minutes, going south, figuring I'll find another way back up to the road sooner or later. I am put in mind of Lewis Carroll's poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter."

The walrus and the carpenter walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock, conveniently low,
And all the little oysters stood and waited in a row.

"The time has come," the walrus said, "to talk of many things.
Of shoes, and ships, and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings,
And why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings."

It's not briny on the beach, and there are no oysters or other marine life in evidence. Just small smooth stones, and not too many of them. Finally I find a way up and out, an asphalt path climbing steeply up the 80 foot cliffs, and back to the main road, M-63.

At the Hagar Bar and Grill, they're advertising a Hot Legs Contest this weekend. With all the walking I've done, my legs might just be hot enough to enter. Take a walk on the wild side.

A few miles down, on the left, is none other than the World Headquarters of the Whirlpool Corporation. Who knew? Right here in Benton Harbor. I have to put in a good word for the product here, because Whirlpool washers and dryers have always been, in my experience, good reliable appliances. For years Sears sold Whirlpool stuff under their Kenmore brand name. Also, Whirlpool bought the other really good appliance company, Maytag, a few years ago. So they've got it all going on, as they say.

I'm obviously not walking through the urban part of Benton Harbor. Where I am it’s all expensive subdivisions and golf courses in the process of being built. Finally I catch sight of some tall buildings and a water tower that says St. Joseph. It’s the city of St. Joseph that I’m primarily going to be walking in. The twin cities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph are divided by the St. Joseph River as it flows into Lake Michigan.

After the walk, at the computer, I get the story on these twin cities. Benton Harbor, which was settled in the latter half of the 19th century, is the younger of the two. It was named for Thomas Hart Benton, a Missouri Senator who was instrumental in helping Michigan attain statehood. St. Joseph was settled in the early part of that century, and was full of shipping magnates, timber barons, etc.

Also, interestingly, the demographic makeup of the two cities is starkly different. In effect, Benton Harbor is St. Joseph’s slum. Benton Harbor is 92.4% African American, while St. Joseph is about 90% white. Which explains why 92.4% of the patrons of the McDonald’s in Benton Harbor I’m sitting in typing this (still can’t get that generator to run) are African American. I missed this on the walk. The part of Benton Harbor I visited must have been the home of the 5% of the population that is white.

I walk over the river. At Main and Broad streets there are statues of animals—giraffe, a gorilla, a rhino, a lion. Brightly colored. This is a close in St. Joseph as things get to Africa, on the whole. St. Joseph has taken on itself the title of “Michigan’s Most Romantic City.” I’m not feeling the romance, but what the hell, this might be the wrong time of day.

Finally I reach the end. For such a short walk, this one has been tiring, and I'm looking forward to some time off tomorrow. Hot legs.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Day 8: The critical dunes

South Haven to Lake Michigan Beach. 15.3 miles/96.7 total

Before heading out onto the Blue Star Highway again, I take a brief stroll through the downtown of South Haven, not so much because there's anything special to see there, but because this will be absolutely the only civilization I go through on today's walk.

A sign in Gaelic on the side of an Irish pub says, "Cead Mile Failte to South Haven," which I imagine means welcome. The place is called Biddy Murphy's. Around the corner I pass the South Haven Center for the Arts, as well as the town library.

As I slide back out toward the highway, I pass a Burger King and notice that they're promoting something called "The Angry Whopper." It has hot sauce on it, I guess. So, I think, it's finally come to this here in the 21st century:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an Angry Whopper....


A little way down the road I see a McDonald's, advertising their Angus Burger, and I realize that this Burger King thing is probably a riff on that--Angus Burger-Angry Whopper. At first when McDonald's started marketing the Angus burger I thought, big deal, Angus is a beef cattle breed. Then I remembered that this was special, because the average McDonald's hamburger is probably made from retired Holsteins.

After I've been out on the Blue Star Highway for a couple of miles I see a brown and white sign, from the State of Michigan, that says, "Michigan Critical Dunes." I immediately figure that these dunes must be the fussy, censorious kind, as opposed to the more laid back, live and let live dunes.

Now, as I walk down the road, with the Critical Dunes to my right, I picture them looking back at me through the trees, one eyebrow raised, thoughtfully frowning. Like Steerforth's man Littimer, in David Copperfield, giving me a look that says, "You, sir, are a very foolish man. Very, very foolish indeed."

Of course I know that Critical Dunes are ones that are somehow, in the judgment of some guardian of the environment, especially "important," in that they are essential wildlife and vegetation habitats or the like, and that we must protect them against all enemies, foreign and domestic, lest dunedom as we know it become a mere historical relic. (Later, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality website confirms this, stating that Critical Dunes are are "a unique, irreplaceable, and fragile resource that provide significant recreational, economic, scientific, geological, scenic, botanical, educational, agricultural, and ecological benefits to the people of this state and to people from other states and countries who visit this resource." Jesus, how verbose. Sounds like it should end with, "when used in a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene and regular professional care."

A few miles down this otherwise very boring road I encounter another "Critical Dunes" sign, and I can once again feel the heat of the opprobrium of the dunes radiating toward me from the west.
Then, as if Critical Dunes weren't dangerous enough, I pass by the premises of a nuclear facility, the Palisades Power Plant. Wonder what that sucker did to the dunes. Every hundred yards or so, signs warn me that the plant's "safety personnel" are authorized to use "DEADLY FORCE" on me if I trespass. Makes a little criticism from the sand seem pretty tame by comparison.

Finally, about 14 miles into the walk, during which I saw very little of anything but trees and a few wild turkeys (alive, no less), a dead four-point buck, and the usual assortment of possums and raccoons in varying states of decay, I come to a roadside park that allows me access to the lake. I walk about a quarter mile down the soft sand to the beach, and get my hands and feet wet and take a few photos. Lake Michigan realized at last. Then I steal a final glance northward into the mist, toward the Critical Dunes.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Day 7: The shining Big-Sea-Water

Douglas to South Haven. 17.9 miles/81.4 total

By the shores of Gitche Gumee
By the shining Big-Sea-Water
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.

Those of you who are my age probably recognize these as the opening lines of "The Song of Hiawatha." It's a poem written in 1855 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which had once been passed off to school kids as serious literature. By the time of my youth it was mostly being made fun of (by us, at least), and soon went the way of other schlocky 19th century poetry, including interminable epics by Tennyson, whose stuff my mother and her contemporaries could recite by the hour.

Now, I know that Gitche Gumee is supposed to be Lake Superior (and not just because of the equally forgettable work of Gordon Lightfoot), but Lake Michigan is as close as I am going to get to old Gitche Gumee on this trip. I've been walking down the coast since I hit Holland, but today the Blue Star Highway finally cut close enough so that I could see the big lake.

But let me back up. I was supposed to walk last Friday, then take Saturday and Sunday off, but I had to get a new alternator on my car on Friday, so I took the weekend early. Watched Michigan beat Eastern yesterday on TV. Then today I took the motor home and the car, and I'm starting the serious stuff. By the time I got down to Douglas in the motor home, then drove the route, trying to find a place to park the motor home all day, and finally found one and got back up to point A, it was already 1:30 p.m. and I had almost 18 miles to walk.

Walking 18 miles is something I was sort of saving for a little later, when I'd worked up to it. But that's the way it had to be this time, because of the difficulty of finding a parking lot for the motor home. And it goes reasonably well, in a ridiculously tiring sort of way.

My walk takes me down into the bucolic fruit-growing regions, and then into a little village called Ganges. Once a few years back I think I read that the township was actually named after the river in India. At any rate, now it is the home of a spiritual retreat, probably located there because of the name, called the Vivekananda Vedanta, "embodying the all-encompassing outlook of Sri Ramakrisha," according to its web site. Hiawatha might fit in because of his name, come to think of it. There's also the Ganges United Methodist Church and the Ganges Baptist Church, so you see, there are many paths to enlightenment in Ganges. (You're supposed to wag your head back and forth like a bobble-head doll when you say that.) Otherwise, there isn't much to the village.

The next village I come to is Glenn, which calls itself "Pancake-Town," but I see no evidence of pancakes. They do have this wooden sign as you approached, with a stack of two or three pancakes with what I suppose is meant to be a dollop of butter in the process of melting over them, but which looks more like a snail or a slug. Obviously, I missed something.

Somewhere south of Glenn I catch a glimpse of Lake Michigan, passing only a few hundred feet from it.

Partly because of the length of the walk and partly because of the very rural stretch I am on, today's been a great day for road kill. I saw my first deer (two of them), and my first domestic road kill, a cat. Fluffy won't be coming home tonight. But mostly it's a lot of possums and raccoons, some of the latter looking so recently slaughtered that their fur still waves a bit in the breeze, and their striped tails remind me of the authentic Davy Crockett coon-skin cap I had in the 50s. In fact, some of the raccoons look almost fresh enough to eat, and I imagine a ragout of 'coon, with corn and apples pilfered from the farms along the way. Maybe some wild carrots. Talk about living off the land!

Today also has been a banner day for returnable empties. Maybe thirty. I haven't counted them yet. The motorists of this area are truly generous.

At last, just as it's beginning to rain and get dark, I arrive at the motor home. Future walks won't have to end this late in the day, I hope.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Day 6: The tunnel

Holland to Douglas. 12.5 miles/63.5 total

Another beautiful day for a walk, sunny and about 70. Heading pretty much straight south now, along the Lake Michigan coast. I guess I'll be going south for the next few months.

Leaving the southern suburbs of Holland, I cross from Ottawa County into Allegan County. Not long after, I get to something called the Washington Avenue Tunnel. Pretty fancy name, considering that I'm out in the sticks at this point. And I'm wondering why a tunnel is necessary here. On the car ride down this road earlier in the day, I saw the signs that said no trucks carrying explosives were allowed in the Washington Avenue Tunnel. That made sense. What I failed to see were the signs near the entrance that said "Bicycles and Pedestrians Prohibited."

So on the way back up, on the bike, I was building up a head of steam, going downhill into the tunnel, when I saw the no bicycle signs. Ooops. Well, the tunnel is four lanes, and there wasn't much traffic, so I decided to brass it out, and put my head down and ride like hell through it. It was only a quarter of a mile long anyway, curving slightly. As I climbed uphill on the way out, a couple of cars kindly honked at me indignantly, even though I hadn't inconvenienced either of them in the least. People whose mission in life is to police the social contract that binds us all, I guess.

Well, here I am, walking south toward the tunnel again, and wondering what options I have. There are absolutely no other roads around. I figure out that the reason for the tunnel, way out there in the outskirts, is that it goes under part of the airport, maybe one of the runways. So, being on foot, I could climb up the grass embankment on the side of the tunnel and cross the airport runway, climbing at least four fences in the process. But this choice strikes me as the more foolish one. I could imagine strolling across the runway of the Tulip City Airport and being descended upon by homeland security Valkyries. No, airports have become zero-tolerance places for nonconformity, however lighthearted and practical it might be. Even small landing strips are known to have signs on their fences warning that trespassers will be waterboarded on sight. So I walk through the damn tunnel. And a really nice walk it is, too. There's a catwalk, elevated about three feet above the motorway, with a stout iron railing. It was obviously put there so that authorized personnel could walk through the tunnel all day long, if necessary.

Well, the sky doesn't fall and no cops come along, and that's about the only thing that happens today. I visit a couple of cemeteries. The first, East Saugatuck Cemetery, a couple miles south of the tunnel, is chock full of dead Dutch people. All of them, without exception, as far as I can tell (Dutch and dead). Overbeek, Vandenberg, Brink, Kuiper, Sprik. So Dutch were these folks, that the epitaphs on their tombstones are in Dutch. The second cemetery, much larger, is just outside the village limits of Saugatuck, and appears to be pretty much full of Yankees, folks with names like Woodworth, Hanson, Butler, Powers. So Saugatuck was not settled by the Dutch. Both necropolises are peaceful and shady, filled with huge ancient trees that are like monuments of their own.

The village of Saugatuck is a summer tourist destination, catering to arty types up from Chicago, and has been since the 1800s. It has a beautiful harbor (actually a wide part of the Kalamazoo River as it heads toward Lake Michigan) filled with yachts, and lots of boutiques, art galleries and co-ops, upscale knick knack stores, and bars and restaurants. The houses range from stately two-and three-story Italianate mansions to smaller Arts and Crafts bungalos. The place smells like money.

Douglas, over the bridge that crosses the narrow part of the harbor, is smaller, but with the same collection of galleries and boutiques. This is where my walk comes to an end today.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Day 5: Werewolves of Holland

Zeeland Twp. to Holland. 11 miles/51 total

I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand
Walking through the streets of Soho in the rain.
He was looking for the place called Lee Ho Fook's.
Gonna get a big dish of beef chow mein.
Ah-oooooo, werewolves of London.

On the iPod on the bike back to the beginning of the walk I heard Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London," one of my favorites. Unfortunately, it put me in mind of that fascist punk Kid Rock, and how he has messed up the song for me lately, because he uses the opening bars for his song about sweet home Alabama and Michigan in the summertime, blah blah blah. What a turd that guy is. He and his fellow Michigander Ted Nugent could probably benefit from whatever it is they do to werewolves in the movies. Ah-ooooo.

So it seems almost inevitable, after the unflattering things I said last week about the Dutch of Ottawa County, that I would find the towns of Zeeland and Holland to be quite charming, at least in their downtown business districts. They both look like pretty nice places to live. It's just that so much is always said about the industriousness, thrift, success, and tidiness of the Dutch (and it's all pretty much true, both here and in Europe), that I just couldn't resist dwelling on the darker side of it all--the religious intolerance, reactionary politics, the werewolves, and all that. But that's not to say that I expect them to leap out from between buildings and rip my lungs out. Monsters? Just in the way the poet e. e. cummings meant it when he said, "pity this busy monster, mankind, not. Progress is a comfortable disease ...."

Out on W. Chicago, before I get to Zeeland, I continue to see those white turkey feathers, stuck to the weeds on the side of the road. Then a couple of onions, perhaps fallen off a big truck loaded with them. And a stalk of celery. Vegetable road kill.

Just after entering Zeeland, I see the headquarters of Herman Miller furniture, the company credited with inventing the office partition in 1968, perhaps a dubious distinction. Dilbert fans, take note. Also the aeron chair and the Eames chair, both pretty comfortable ways to spend your time behind your partition, if you're lucky enough to have them. Across the street from Herman Miller is Howard Miller clock company. I think, from the looks of it, that this might be their headquarters, too. Nicely designed building, modern and rounded and sleek. They make grandfather clocks on a large scale. Don't know if Herman and Howard Miller were related, but there they sit. Anyone out there know? The Miller brothers--Herman, Howard, and of course, Henry.

Down the street toward town there is a huge facility, most definitely for manufacturing or processing, of Mead Johnson Nutrition, which makes pediatric nutritional stuff, like formula. Big plant.

The downtown business district of Zeeland boasts banners hanging from the lightposts that proclaim, on one side, "Z!" and on the other, "Feel the Zeel." I'm feeling the Zeel myself, with the walk going well, feet feeling fine, and a rare wind out of the east at my back.

Decorating the concrete sidewalks of the downtown are terra cotta diamond inserts every several feet, and on every third or fourth one of these is the crest and the name of one of the twelve provinces of the Netherlands.

Leaving Zeeland I come upon a couple of state historical markers proclaiming the site of the village of New Groningen, founded back in the 1840s by folks from the provinces of Groningen, Friesland, Overijsel, and Utrecht, which are in the northeast of the Netherlands, along the German border. The hinterlands. Even though Zeeland and Holland are named after Dutch provinces, too, few settlers to Michigan came from those places.

Approaching downtown Holland I am again struck by how damned tidy the place is. Holland's logo is a stylized tulip, and they have a tulip festival every year in April or May, when all the several million tulips the town has planted bloom. Holland also has a Dutch village, a sort of mini-Greenfield Village, with 19th century crafts and cottages and cheese making and delft pottery and wooden shoes and all that crap--sort of a Disney version of the Netherlands. I don't think they have any hash bars or Indonesian immigrants plying the streets. Oh, and they have a big windmill, of course.

Well, downtown Holland is prosperous and really good-looking. It's near the campus of Hope College, and has lots of restaurants, bars, theaters, boutiques, and all that. There's little doubt that the Dutch of west Michigan have not lost that ability to turn a buck (or guilder), for which, as a nationality, they are justly famous.

Turning south on River Street I head out of town, but stop to sit on a bronze bench that's partly occupied by a life-sized sculpture of Benjamin Franklin, holding a page from the Constitution. I ask old Ben what he thinks of this walk I'm on, and wonder whether he would have approved. I suspect that he would have deemed it rather frivolous. After all, in his day walking was just a way to get from one place to another, and long walks were no big deal. He might have thought that I should be putting my energy to more practical use. Be that as it may, I say goodbye to Ben and continue on my way, for the last couple of miles, ending at a Burger King at 30th and Michigan.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Progress report


I've been resting for a few days, after having taken the weekend off to go to Ann Arbor for the Michigan-Notre Dame game on Saturday, which most of you know Michigan won, 38-34. I'm not yet willing to let Rich Rodriguez keep his job, but since I don't have the money to buy out his contract, I suppose he'll have to stay. But he still has a lot to prove after last year, as far as I'm concerned.
Tomorrow, the 16th, the walk will resume, around Zeeland, Michigan. I'll begin to slowly increase the daily mileage.
I've devised a crude method of showing the route, with each of the four walks so far. I just took a photo of a map, after having marked it up.
There is a better way, I know, but I haven't yet figured out how to import a map from Google into the post. I'm missing some small but important piece of information, sort of like Lamarck was when he was working on his pre-Darwinian theory of evolution. (Okay, that was pretty grandiose, I admit.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Day 4: Ouch!

Jenison to Zeeland Twp., near Beaverdam. 9.8 miles/40 total

Remember when I said yesterday that I woke up and could walk? Well, this morning I got out of bed and couldn't walk. That is to say, I had this serious hobbling pain on the outside of my left foot. For a few minutes I thought about just skipping today, but then I decided to take a couple of pills, drive on down to the site of the walk, and see how I felt by then. Once I got the car situated and rode the bike back to the starting point, the pain had subsided, and the cycling had sort of stretched out the muscles in the feet. So I set out.

This stretch of road is really pretty boring. Those of you who know the area know that it's mostly flat farm country, with nothing too interesting in the countryside. Lots of greenhouses, large produce warehouses, and of course fields. (Probably a taste of quite a bit more to come.) Hudsonville calls itself Michigan's Salad Bowl.

Chicago Drive is a four-lane divided highway of ancient vintage, with nothing in the way of modern concessions to pedestrians or bicyclists. Just cars and trucks careening along at breakneck speeds and places to walk and ride about two feet wide.

Since I am out of Kent County and into Ottawa County, and seeing all the Dutch names on the businesses everywhere, I got to ruminating about the Dutch in west Michigan, and just why they are so damned conservative. I mean, really right wing. Ottawa County usually goes Republican by at least a three-to-one margin. And as some of you know, I have some Dutch ancestry, and it's always bothered me that these Dutch around here are so far out on the geekoid fringe of U.S. politics. Why, I always wonder, are they so different from the laid-back, tolerant folks of the Netherlands, with their hash bars and unionized prostitution, and all that.

So I did a little research. It seems that most of the Dutch who came to west Michigan came between 1840 and 1880. And it happens that in the 1830s there was an evangelical religious revival movement, in which some Dutch folks broke away from the official Dutch Reformed Church, because it had become too "liberal." Now, what being liberal consisted of was probably horrible things like administering the sacraments to too many sinners, and tolerating drunkenness, Sabbath-breaking, nose-picking, and other sacrileges. At any rate, in 1834 there occurred this "Afscheiding," which means a breaking away, from the state church, and those who broke away became known as Seceders.

It so happened that the Seceder movement accounted for only a tiny fraction of the population of the Netherlands, and those mostly in the outlying, farming areas such as Groningen, Leeuwarden, and the Frisian islands. In other words, the sticks. But wouldn't you know it, the majority of Dutch who came over to Michigan were Seceders from those areas. (For comparison, think of the Amish, the Mormons, or for that matter the Puritans.) They gave this area names from the old country, like Holland, Zeeland, Overisel, Drenthe, Harlem, and many more. And their origins also account for the fairly high number of surnames of Frisian origin, like the ones than end in "stra," as in Dykstra, and "ma," as in Jelema.

Like most folks with religious chips on their shoulders, they brought with them their bickering, self-righteous clergymen. So it wasn't long before the Christian Reformed Church was formed, in 1857, mostly in this part of the state, as a breakaway from the regular Dutch Reformed Church. In addition, any number of other smaller offshoot reformed denominations came into existence, some of which made the already conservative Christian Reformed people look like a bunch of wide-eyed New Agers by comparison. And that's been the story of west Michigan. We already know that Dutch farmers removed from their homeland are a dangerously narrow-minded bunch--look at the South African Boers. And farmers and right-wing politics and evangelical protestantism go together like, well, like all those vegetables in the salad bowl of Michigan.

The Netherlands, I'm sure, isn't losing any sleep over having lost these citizens. More chocolate and dope for the rest of them.

One fact for which I am somewhat thankful is that my own grandfather got here relatively late--about a hundred years ago--and was a tradesman, not a farmer, from the province of North Holland, not far from Amsterdam, which would have made him almost a city slicker next to these Ottawa County people.

Well, thanks for bearing with me on that little rant, particularly since it's been an otherwise uneventful day. One empty beer can. I do find some new and exciting road kill, though--a hawk. Oh, and also an endless scattering of white poultry feathers along the roadside--for miles. Probably turkey feathers, from a big truck full of flapping birds, since this is about the time for putting those guys in the freezer.

And mostly, for the last half of the walk, I commune with my pain, wondering whether it's ever going to go away. The next four days of rest should help.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Day 3: St. Ann's Pig Roast

Grand Rapids to Jenison. 10.1 miles/30.2 total

Got out of bed this morning, and I could walk! My feet had healed, somewhat. I slapped some kind of analgesic foot pads on the tender spots and I was good to go. Somewhat persistent pain on the outside of my left foot all day, which is ironic, considering that the pain in my right ankle that panicked me before the walk even began is gone. Well, I think the good news is that the pain is travelling around from place to place, so that probably means no one spot is too bad off. Just have to walk it all off.

Very pleasant walking through the shady and affluent west end of Grand Rapids, an area I wasn't familiar with, since my grandfather, a Dutchman, lived on the east side, where most of the Dutch settled, and had little or no use for the west side. In fact, I don't think I ever even went there as a kid, except to go to the zoo once. Who knew (well, some of you, I'm sure) that there were so many beautiful houses and mansions up in the hills of Leonard Street?

I pass a number of beautiful old trees, too, one of which in particular catches my attention. It's probably forty or fifty feet high, and has these huge beans hanging from the branches. Like gigantic green beans. (I look it up later, and discover that it is a northern catalpa, or catawba, tree.) Anyway, it makes me think of that Captain Beefheart song from his Clear Spot album, "Big Eyed Beans From Venus."

A little later I pass a Catholic church with a sign out front that said, "St. Ann's Pig Roast." Maybe I'm still in a Captain Beefheart mood, but it puts me in mind of that old blues standard, "St. James Infirmary," which goes way back, done by Louis Armstrong in the 20s and many others, but which I first heard on a Dave Van Ronk album under the name, "Gambler's Blues." So I juxtapose the first line with the sign in front of the church, in a way that I think gives it a new and exciting meaning:

Well I went down to that St. Ann's Pig Roast
And saw my baby there,
Stretched out on a long white table,
So sweet, so cold, so fair.

With cole slaw and baked beans on the side.

The walk takes me out of Grand Rapids, and through some really nice rural areas of Walker, down through a nature preserve and along the Grand River, wide and brown, running slowly west by northwest toward the big lake. Walker, by the way, says on its signs that it is the sister city of Colac, Australia. I'm picturing Colac as a flea-bitten, dusty little outback sheep station, with about six houses and a bar. Then again, I wonder what the folks of Colac think Walker, Michigan might be like? Maybe like Springfield, Homer Simpson's home town, or filled with killer cops and gangbangers, or women who look like they should be on Sex and the City or Desperate Housewives. Who knows?

Then it's back into the city, or at least the suburbs, as I walk through a little of Grandville and onto Chicago Drive, which I guess used to be the way to get to Chicago, before they built I-196. More on Chicago Drive tomorrow, since I'll be on it for a couple more days.

I end up at another McDonald's. Started at one in GR and ended at one just inside the Jenison city limits. They seem like pretty safe places to leave a car, and a bicycle. People don't hang around in the parking lots looking for things to steal. They're either in line at the drive through, or inside, fully focused on the fries.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Day 2: You Got To Move




Belmont to Grand Rapids. 10 miles/20.1 total

I was right. Today I felt the pain. Mostly in the ankles and the bottoms of the feet. I think it's just a matter of building up callouses on the pads of my feet, however long that takes. The bike ride was fine--ten miles isn't bad and doesn't consume much energy. But after about three miles of walking, I feel like I did at the end of yesterday. Can't wait to see how tomorrow's going to feel.

The mood of the walk is set on the iPod on the bike ride. The Rolling Stones doing "You Got to Move," not their original version from Sticky Fingers in 1971, but the one from Love You Live, in '77, with Billy Preston on piano. There's a point where you think the song is over, then the piano starts again, and they do one more chorus. That kind of what's been going on in my mind throughout the day. I feel like I am just about done for, wanting to sit down, then once more it's, nope, you gotta move.

The walk starts out in the bucolic suburbs and ends in the city. Late summer with the grasshoppers singing and jumping all over the place, the goldenrod in full bloom, the leaves of the maples starting to turn, making me think of lines from Shakespeare and Wordsworth. Then I turn on to Alpine Avenue and head down into the city. Alpine, for those of you not familiar with the greater Grand Rapids area, is one of those fat commercial thoroughfares containing every big box store, fast food joint, restaurant chain, and gas station brand there is. Streets we absolutely need, but love to hate. So the mood changes dramatically, and the traffic gets fast and loud and incessant.

I enjoy the change of pace. Not much road kill, to be sure. Just a lonely possum and something flat with claws that I can't identify. I think I see several large black snakes, but they turn out to be broken fan belts, which I guess is what passes for road kill in the city. And lots of other fascinating urban junk--shards of plastic, pieces of hubcaps, miscellaneous car parts, a half dozen smashed watermelons, a fork in the road (literally--a stainless steel fork bent over double and run over about a hundred times), a child's smashed wristwatch, a big shiny slug that I though might be a half dollar until I got closer. Stuff that sometimes makes me stand there and try to think of what transpired to put those things at those spots.

But by far the major find of the day is a beat up Polaroid photo of a man in a casket. He looks to be in his twenties or thirties. Deep ebony skin against the white satin, wearing a grey suit with a burgundy windowpane plaid pattern and a maroon tie. On his chest is a single long-stemmed red rose, and behind him, leaning against the coffin lid, a small floral arrangement on a heart-shaped satin pillow. From the hole near the top of the picture, it looks to have been tacked somewhere, perhaps for quite some time. I read recently that there's a publication called Found Magazine, which collects and publishes things, such as love letters, lists, poetry, doodles, and photos--things that give glimpses into unknown lives. Check out their website at foundmagazine.com. I think this might be my first submission.

Not much in the way of empty cans, either. I think there are already a number of folks plying Alpine in search of a little extra cash. I pass one guy who had his own plastic bag full of empties, and looks rather askance at me. As I get down into the city, though, I start to feel like I really belong. Older guy walking down the sidewalk with a bag of cans, pockets bulging with stuff, grey hair sticking out from his ball cap, limping a little. Just another old dude on the street without a car.