Whatever I was going to find on this bike ride, one thing was almost certain: the temperatures would be cooler than North Carolina. It seemed like a no-brainer.
My idea for this trip would be to bicycle from Chicago to Cleveland, a distance of about 400 miles. My good friends Jan and Gordon live near Cleveland. It would take me about a week.
As some of my readers know, my folding bicycle broke in half back in April, with me on it. I have needed since then to recover from my injuries. Yes, yes, I will be buying a new bicycle, probably a folding one. But I could not seem to make a decision. There are so many choices…
Meanwhile, I had also managed to drop my six year-old camera just enough times to make it unusable. For some reason I felt more excited about spending money on a camera than a bicycle. I put off a new bicycle for a while and spent $950.00 on this Sony RX-100V. It is small, has a very good German lens, has lots of up to date electronics, and I can pull it from my handlebar bag, turn it on, and take a picture all with one hand. I would no longer have to use two hands to take off a lens cap or log into a cell phone while on a moving bicycle. The salesman in the DC camera store said he uses this same camera to take pictures while motorcycling full speed!
For this trip I would use my existing backup bicycle, the Surly Long Haul Trucker. It is sturdy and stable but really heavy. I had no alternative so it would have to do. My friend Tom was driving from Florida to Wisconsin and he graciously agreed to transport me and the bicycle from North Carolina to Chicago. Just before leaving I loaded it up and checked it out in the stairwell of the seventh floor of Greenbridge, Chapel Hill NC.
I saved Tom some mileage by riding Amtrak from Durham to Charlotte. Tootie offered to drive me the twelve miles to the Durham Amtrak station, but I insisted on bicycling there. North Carolina intra-state Amtrak uses its own refurbished 1940’s rail cars that are nicer than the normal Amtrak. Even at twenty-five years on their second life, they do not seem old.
North Carolina Amtrak also has a nice no-extra charge bicycle carrying service, you just hand your bicycle to the guy in the baggage car. At destination, in Charlotte, I walked up and he just handed it down to me. The rest of Amtrak does NOT operate as easily as this.
I bicycled a mile or two over to I-77 in Charlotte, where Tom pulled his car over at a downtown exit. Driving up to Chicago we stopped for a delightful two day visit with our friends Dave and Gail in the cool Virginia mountains near Blacksburg. We eventually arrived the Chicago area in late afternoon rush hour traffic. To minimize the traffic and help Tom get moving to Wisconsin, he dropped me off in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst IL, about twelve miles from the Chicago Loop. He and his dog Frida posed for pictures with my bicycle.
And he took a picture of me.
He drove off. I bicycled about a mile to the Elmhurst Metra station, of the Chicago-area commuter rail system. I could wheel my bicycle onto the lower level of the double decker cars. It took about half an hour to go downtown to Union Station.
On arrival I walked the bicycle through a glittery Union Station and out to the street.
I do not know a huge amount about Chicago. I had bicycled through the more prosperous north side on previous trips. My cycle route this time headed south. During the car ride I had found on my phone an Airbnb for less than a hundred dollars total, on the north side of the south side, near what they called Little Italy.
It would be about a five mile late afternoon bike ride from Union Station to the Airbnb. Starting out there was a bike path along Clinton Street going south.
Chicago has lovely buildings.
Eventually the neighborhoods got more residential and lower rise, and more Hispanic. I bicycled under an elevated rail line.
My Airbnb was to be in a couple’s two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of this house.
At first I was taken aback by the messiness and lack of privacy, but it was fine, sort of like being the young couple’s actual guest. The woman worked in academia, there were leftist and environmentalist posters on the walls. My bearded host cordially offered me breakfast the next day (“You want some cereal? We have blueberries in the fridge.”).
Despite the current Hispanic vibe of the neighborhood, the one-block Little Italy really was just around the corner, where I went looking for dinner on this Monday night. There were three Italian restaurants all in the same block.
I chose Bruna’s, at the end of the block. The interior was dark, really old school. There were just three or so other tables with people eating.
I got a radicchio salad followed by delicious lobster ravioli.
For dessert I got a Sambuca.
I left the restaurant about 9:00 PM as it was starting to get dark.
I walked around the neighborhood.
Back in my bedroom I turned off the noisy air conditioner and opened the window. The next morning I enjoyed my bowl of cereal with blueberries. I bid farewell to my host couple and bicycled off into the huge area which comprises Chicago. It would be about three miles east to the bike path along the lakefront. I gently weaved through residential streets. I saw a fair number of other bicyclists.
Just before the lakefront I could see the tall buildings of the Loop, as seen from the south.
I biked under a couple pedestrian underpasses, and I arrived at the bike trail that goes north-south along the lake. This is looking left, looking north, although I was turning right.
This is the view looking back north, after I had biked a mile or two.
I had worried about bicycling south from downtown Chicago, as the South Side is currently, in parts, the Murder Capital of America. Taking cues from the book ‘Round Lake Michigan, a Bicyclist’s Tour Guide by Harvey Botzman, I bicycled mostly along the lakefront bike trail, then along streets in the very southeast part of the city. It was fine, I never felt out of place. I did not even have to ride in especially heavy car traffic.
Some of the way the bike path was between a freeway and Lake Michigan.
After the lakefront trail ended I followed a series of streets and bike paths. These houses built on narrow lots look uniquely Chicago.
There clearly used to be a lot of heavy industry along this lakefront. Some of the land is completely cleared; there are miles of essentially vacant land, especially in the southeastern part of Chicago as it blends into Hammond and Gary, Indiana. In parts there are bike paths heading north / south.
I crossed the Illinois / Indiana state line near Hammond. Hammond did have some modernist touches here and there.
But downtown Hammond looked pretty rough. I looked like one of those cities such as Trenton NJ or Bridgeport CT, where the middle class has completely fled and there are huge vacant areas.
I hadn’t decided whether to continue ten miles east to even poorer Gary, Indiana. My decision was made when I saw how nice the Erie Lackawanna trail was. The trail heads off from downtown Hammond going southeast and skirts south of Gary. I would have to skip the birthplace of Michael Jackson and the subject of that catchy song in The Music Man. I guess I had already seen enough poverty.
As the suburbs got more prosperous the trail became better maintained.
Right on this rail trail was the story of American slash and burn urbanism. It says something about race and class in this country. Just a few miles south and east of the essentially abandoned cities of Hammond and Gary, new neighborhoods were being constructed in former cornfields.
I had bicycled thirty-something miles already and had not had lunch. In what seemed the middle of nowhere, in a new-something looking strip mall, was The Toast and Jam. At 12:30 on a Tuesday, you had to wait in line for a table. There were religious signs on the walls. The food was quite good, bacon and something on rye.
I still had about twenty miles to reach Valparaiso IN, which I knew had motels. Part of the way I bicycled on this major highway. Because the shoulder was so wide it was not particularly unsafe, but it certainly was not pleasant.
I found a quite nice chain motel in Valparaiso and later biked into town for dinner. Stacks Bar and Grill was certainly the busiest spot on a Tuesday night in downtown Valparaiso.
There were people waiting for tables. To get a seat at the bar I had to stand around for ten minutes waiting for a woman to finish eating.
Blackened salmon on risotto with asparagus, as $ 15.95 bar food in the out-of-the-way place of Valparaiso, Indiana in 2018, says a lot about how far American food has come in the past forty years. “Blackening” was only invented in the 1980’s by one chef in Louisiana, and he certainly never “blackened” salmon, a fish native to nowhere near Louisiana. Hardly anyone in America in the 1970’s had heard of risotto, which is an Italian dish. Fresh asparagus in the 1980’s were only available a few weeks a year. Who in even the 1990’s had heard of IPA, an obscure English style beer? Today it all was really delicious here in Valparaiso Indiana at the Stacks Bar and Grill. And all Americans should be thankful for that.
The next morning I biked back through downtown Valparaiso.
I was heading for my day’s destination: South Bend, Indiana, about sixty miles to the east. I would have to cross a lot of corn and soybean fields.
Restaurants are not always available in rural areas so in Laporte, IN, Christo’s Family Dining (“Highest Quality / Great Value / Large Portions of Food / Since 1982”) was ideal for a late breakfast / early lunch. Their special of the day was porch chop and eggs, $6.49. There was Fox News playing on the TV. I read The New Yorker on my kindle.
Laporte IN is a pretty town. Very neat and clean.
For about eighty miles, really since Hammond IN I had seen no minorities. And everything had been orderly and prosperous but somewhat bland. The moment I passed into the city limits of South Bend (population 101,000) everything changed, almost immediately. I saw black and brown faces and decrepit and abandoned buildings.
South Bend, with U of Notre Dame, is clearly not as depressed as a place like Hammond. There is stuff happening here. It reminds me of Durham NC twenty years ago.
The Studebaker brothers made wagons in South Bend from about 1870 to 1910 and then started making cars. The car factory and the company folded at last in 1966. I biked up to the Studebaker museum and went inside.
I had booked an Airbnb in South Bend that morning before leaving Valparaiso. It is the best Airbnb deal I have ever encountered; $ 26.30 including tax for a very clean and private room with cable TV, shared bath. There was only one other room occupied. It was in a nice neighborhood, walking distance to downtown. The owner uses the whole house as an Airbnb, he manages it from afar by giving his customers codes to unlock the building and the individual rooms.
Later on I biked into downtown and then across the St. Joseph River to eat at the bar of an Italian restaurant. Eggplant parmesan.
It is 160 miles from South Bend to Toledo, the next real city I would visit. If I wanted to bike there in three days I would need to plan carefully, as there are not many motels out here in corn country. Before leaving South Bend, I broke my own rules and actually planned, picking my stops for the next two nights. The first night would be the small town of Lagrange IN, the next night Bryan OH, just over the state line.
The metro area of South Bend stretch east for about thirty miles, through Mishawaka, Elkhart, and Bristol.
Leaving the built up area in Bristol IN, there is a rail trail for about ten miles before arriving in Shipshewana. On this bike path I saw several Amish / Mennonites on bicycles, each time dressed in their distinctive old-time garb. I forced myself to be polite and not take their picture!
Shipshewana IN is a weird place. Population 650, it serves as a center for Amish / Mennonite tourism. Apparently non-Amish / Mennonite people drive here to buy Amish / Mennonite gifts and take carriage rides in Amish / Mennonite wagons. I got lunch.
Lunch finished, I headed out of town for the twenty something miles on country roads to LaGrange IN. I did see several Amish / Mennonite carriages.
Amish also rode bicycles.
There is only one place to stay in LaGrange IN; it was a dump, but at least at $ 45.00 + tax it was a low cost dump. It was of course run by people of apparent South Asian descent, probably Indians named Patel.
The LaGrange post office has the Ten Commandments out front, and a POW/MIA flag.
The weather was turning against me, and I left the Dump Motel the next morning at 6:30 AM, trying to bicycle as far as possible before the expected thunderstorms began.
My weather luck ran out, and at 9:00 AM I was subjected to torrential rains in the middle of cornfield nowhere.
My strategy for rain while on bike trips is to not bicycle in it. However, if I have nowhere to seek shelter and the temperature is above about sixty-five degrees I do not use a raincoat. I choose to just get wet even if it means being totally soaked. I do, however, make sure that my change of clothes and my camera, wallet, and cell phone are safely in the front or rear carriers, double protected by plastic bags.
I was able to bicycle the entire 58 miles to Bryan OH, arriving there mostly dried off at about noon. I shivered and recovered with a delicious latte and an omelet at a coffeehouse in downtown Bryan. There were Christian posters on the walls.
I had to wait until about 2:30 PM before I could occupy my Airbnb, about two blocks away.
The Airbnb is part of a micro-brewery and restaurant called Father John’s Heavenly Devilish Brewing Company. Its shtick is the complete opposite of the pious statements I had seen in the coffee shop. In fact, I cannot remember a commercial establishment that so openly mocked religion. It occupies a former church in downtown Bryan OH.
I had dinner that night sitting at the bar, which is in the former church basement. The menu was full of snidely sacriligious jokes.
It rained heavily that night, and the next morning it was still threatening rain. I got an early start so I could (hopefully) beat the rain in bicycling to the Big City of Toledo, about sixty miles away.
Rural bicycling in these northern regions of Indiana and Ohio is quite pleasant, although sometimes boring. Absolutely straight farm roads lattice the landscape. I would see a car only about every twenty minutes or so.
I have a Bluetooth speaker that I sometimes attach to my handlebars with a large rubber band. This day I was listening to Elvis Costello’s second album on Amazon Music.
Google Maps is not always foolproof. Their map shows the Wabash Cannonball Trail following a straight line for about twenty miles in the area southwest of Toledo. What Google Maps does not show is that about the first five miles the trail is not really a trail, essentially unrideable on a conventional bicycle, looking something like this:
I cycled around instead on a longer route on conventional roads, where I crossed the Wabash rail-trail again. Now the path was paved and therefore glorious, looking like this:
I had heard that Toledo has a problem with sinking housing prices, as its population continues to decrease and industry has closed. Young people are moving to other states. Fifteen miles outside of downtown, however, new housing is being built on what looks to be previously unbuilt land.
Toledo is built along the Maumee River, near where the river empties into Lake Erie. First in the suburbs and then in Toledo itself, I biked parallel to the river towards downtown through leafy neighborhoods on the pleasant River Road.
Getting closer to downtown the neighborhoods declined.
This piece of modernism needs some love.
Downtown Toledo seems to be doing, uh, O.K., which is my opinion on how the entire city of Toledo seems to be doing. Stuff is happening, things are getting redeveloped. It is not Flint MI or Bridgeport CT but there are still a lot of empty buildings.
The downtown area around the stadium for the minor league Toledo Mud Hens was lively. I had completed my sixty mile bike ride by about 1:00 PM. It had been cloudy all day but had not rained. I went directly to the crowded Ye Olde Durty Bird, for a delicious chicken wrap and beer.
I stayed around the corner at the high rise Park Inn. My room had nice views, including the former Holiday Inn next door that has been stripped to the bones
That skinny brown thirty story building to the left of the dead Holiday Inn has an interesting story. It was built in 1969 as the headquarters for Owings Corning Fiberglass. They moved out in 1996 and it been completely empty for the last twenty-two years. Someone has recently purchased the building; condos and office space are now available. We’ll see.
This is the view a little more to the west. I really like the Art Deco PNC Bank building.
Much later in the afternoon I walked out to look for the evening meal. I eventually settled on a seat at the bar of this Italian place.
After dinner, in the early evening twilight, buildings looked different.
The Mud Hens were playing and you could walk right up to the outfield fences.
The next morning I needed to bicycle east towards Cleveland. But first I wanted to see an area of Toledo I had heard about: Old West End. It would require me to backtrack west for a few miles.
The neighborhood abuts the Toledo Museum of Art. A quick check of Zillow shows these houses are insanely affordable by national standards. A fixer upper is way less than $100,000; a completely renovated designer showcase with 5,500 square feet is $ 290,000. The neighborhood goes on and on. Most of these houses were built between 1875 and 1915.
After checking out these neighborhoods, I bicycled back across midtown Toledo towards downtown, across the Maumee River, then on this Sunday morning across miles of depressed Toledo suburbs. Eventually I found myself back on straight and traffic-free farm roads across the flat landscape.
I was heading just south of the Lake Erie shoreline. After this I would only have two day’s ride to Cleveland. This day’s destination was the “resort” town of Port Clinton OH. Although somewhat faded as a resort, Port Clinton is the jumping off point for tourists going to the Lake Erie Islands. Its motto is “Walleye Capital of the World.”
Because I had started so early from Toledo, hoping again to bicycle before expected afternoon thunderstorms, I had arrived Port Clinton in time for a nice late Sunday brunch at a restaurant downtown. These guys across the bar seemed to be having a good time.
After lunch I biked around the town and the lakefront.
I stayed that night at a pleasant but cheap motel in Port Clinton. I had two days left in my journey to Cleveland. The Port Clinton area sits on a peninsula, and there is only one bridge, a limited access freeway that prohibits bicycles, from the end of that peninsula to the mainland. I decided to bicycle the five miles east from Port Clinton to the beginning of the bridge, and then seek some alternate way across. Online I looked for taxis, and I found this interesting guy with a limo to drive me and the bicycle the six miles across that bridge for twelve dollars. We chatted and found common ground. He told me his daughter is going to UNC law school!
I started bicycling again the other side of the bridge. Marshes along Lake Erie can be quite wild and beautiful.
I biked through several Ohio towns along Lake Erie.
I turned slightly south of the Lake towards a town that seemed like it might be a nice place to spend my last night before arriving Cleveland. Oberlin, Ohio’s principal industry is Oberlin College. Both the town and the college have embraced progressive causes from way back. Oberlin played a big part in the abolitionist movement. Oberlin was the birthplace of the Anti-Saloon League, which successfully lobbied for Prohibition. (Can you believe prohibition was once a progressive cause?). Oberlin College has been in the news more recently, pushing stringent and specific rules about what “consent” means in sexual encounters between students. (“Is it OK if I unclip your bra now?”) Oberlin College must be a very good college; I have two (smart!) friends that went there; my brother-in-law George and my good friend Gail from Blacksburg.
As a college town that seems mostly college, Oberlin OH perhaps is what Chapel Hill NC was like fifty or sixty years ago, when pretty much everything revolved around the college.
I ate a baba ghannouj and hummus for a late lunch downtown at this excellent Middle Eastern restaurant.
I stayed at a crummy Airbnb on the outskirts of town, housed in this trashy building.
I waited for the rain to stop and biked back into downtown for dinner. I had this place’s version of eggplant parmesan, eaten while talking to interesting people at the bar.
The next day I only had about thirty-five or forty miles left to get to my goal for this trip, the lovely city of Cleveland, Ohio. Gordon and Jan live in Brecksville, Ohio, about fifteen miles southeast of downtown Cleveland. Gordon works as a computer consultant for various locations of the Cleveland Clinic. His current posting was at their largest location, located in mid-town Cleveland, about six miles east of downtown. We agreed that I would bicycle to his work site and be there when he got off work at 3:00 PM. From there we would put my bicycle in his car and drive back to his house.
Heading out of Oberlin, there is a nice rail trail for about ten miles in the direction of Elyria, the North Coast Inland Trail.
Elyria has a civil war monument, just like the ones you see in almost every Southern town, but it was for the other side!
There was the interestingly modernist Elyria Baptist Church, right next door to the Elyria Historical Society building.
One of the slowdowns of bicycling through an urban area like the suburbs of Cleveland is that I normally have to stop and look at Google Maps every five or ten minutes, carefully looking for a route that stays off major roads.
I lucked out on this trip; Detroit Road was never particularly full of traffic and I bicycled it for over twenty miles, all the way from the outskirts of Elyria to the center of downtown Cleveland.
Cleveland is huge. Even though I was now in the city limits, it was would be about six miles to downtown. Later, after many miles through the city, I could finally see downtown off in the distance. I was still on Detroit Road.
There is a nice bike path on the bridge across the Cuyahoga River.
Like Chicago, Cleveland has amazing buildings.
I had time to kill, so I stopped in a downtown coffee house, and spent almost an hour sipping a latte. Things felt so much more cosmopolitan than they had just a couple of hours and five miles earlier. “Elvis Costello” sat off in the corner.
There is a six mile gap between Downtown and the University Circle area, where Gordon’s job was located. University Circle is home of not only Case Western Reserve University, but also the Cleveland Clinic, and Severance Hall; home of the Cleveland Orchestra.
I had bicycled this six mile stretch back in about 2004. Then it was almost all semi-abandoned heavy industry, sort of frightening, really. Since then it has radically changed. It is now either vacant land or Big Medical. The Cleveland Clinic stretches for more than a mile.
Thanks to cell phones Gordon and I found each other easily. We drove to his house in Brecksville and I spent two days hanging with him. His wife Jan and son Thomas were out of town. We looked at birds through his Leica binoculars. On the second morning he dropped me off at a rental car agency near his house, from where I drove back to my home in North Carolina. Gordon posed for a picture with my bicycle.