Chicago IL to Grand Rapids MI; along the lake; July 10 – 15, 2021

It was time to get back on the road. I had been thinking of bicycling from Chicago to Grand Rapids, Michigan for several years. I knew almost nothing of the area, other than there is an easy direct Amtrak train the two hundred miles from Grand Rapids MI to Chicago. Why not fly to Chicago, bicycle to Grand Rapids over several days, then return to Chicago by Amtrak?

My friend Lyman was also chomping at the bit to bicycle somewhere. He lives in Austin TX; I live in Chapel Hill NC. Whatever the weather was like in Chicago and Michigan it certainly had to be cooler than the summer furnace climates both of us live in. We both were drowning in unused American Airlines frequent flier miles and there are nonstops to Chicago from both cities. This would be my first airplane ride since Covid began a year and a half ago.

Both flights were scheduled to land about the same time on a Saturday morning. We planned to meet at O’Hare airport at 10:45 AM, each of us having checked a Bike Friday in a suitcase. On arrival I exited my airplane, walking toward baggage claim. It had been weird to be wearing a mask for such an extended period.

All was fine until I received a text from Lyman, saying that his flight was still on the ground back in Austin TX. There was a mechanical problem with his airplane, and he would be at least two hours late.

What to do? Our plan had been to take the CTA subway to downtown Chicago with the bicycles still in the suitcases, then put the bicycles together downtown. Lyman had found a downtown luggage storage deal on the internet, to hold the empty suitcases for five days. By the time I learned of his delay I had already passed through security and I was lugging around a suitcase-with-a-bicycle-in-it. I learned (later to be confirmed by a Yelp search) that there is almost nowhere to eat or drink at O’Hare airport except on the airplane side of security. The difficult exception was the on-airport O’Hare Hilton Hotel. Getting there was a bit of a hike with a heavy suitcase but once in the basement of the Hilton a huge chicken sandwich washed down with a beer really hit the spot.

Finally Lyman did indeed show up. I had saved half of my Hilton chicken sandwich for him, and he made short work of that. We found our way to the on-airport CTA subway to the city. The CTA turnstiles now accept a credit card just by waving the card above the turnstile checker. It took about twenty stops and forty-five minutes but we walked above ground into central Chicago, looking for a sidewalk spot where we could put the bicycles together.

There is a bicycle in each of the large suitcases.
the Bike Friday emerges, piece by piece, photo by Lyman Labry

It took about half an hour for us to put the bicycles together and be ready to go. We dropped off the empty suitcases at the storage spot, a Seven-Eleven (!). We took off by bicycle, first eastward towards the lake, then south along the lakefront. We each were carrying a small trunk bag as our luggage for five days. Lakefront Trail is a godsend for bicyclists. On other trails in other cities I have noticed constant near collisions between pedestrians and cyclists on these paths. Along the lakefront Chicago has constructed separate trails for walking and bicycling. They prohibit pedestrians on the bicycle trail.

We headed south. We soon stopped near the Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, just south of downtown, and checked in with our friend Bob. Bob and his wife Helena normally live in Tampa FL; his wife Helena grew up in Hyde Park. Bob and Helena were in town to fix up the apartment she had inherited from her late parents and Bob met us at the lakefront. He showed us the spot where Helena has done long distance swims in the lake. We chatted for half an hour, but Lyman and I had to get pedaling. It was about 5:00 PM and we still had a long way to go.

Lyman and Bob

Downtown Chicago is often called The Loop, and the Indiana state line is about seventeen miles south of it. We had booked an Airbnb in central Hammond IN, about ten miles further south of the state line. The Lakefront Trail allowed us to bypass sketchy south side Chicago neighborhoods, before we had to turn inland to cycle around various small bodies of water that protrude from Lake Michigan. This South Side lakefront landscape had miles and miles of former industrial sites, many now totally empty.

This is the ride we were to take over the next five days.

After the Lakefront Trail ended we jostled through southern suburbs. In both Illinois and Indiana we bicycled past bungalows and worker cottages, most built in the distinctive Chicago style.

We cycled up to our Airbnb at about 6:30 PM. It was nicer than it looks from the outside; a basement apartment of this house in a conventional neighborhood in Hammond IN. There were two double beds and essentially two bedrooms in the basement. We had been cycling in light drizzle with the temperature was in the low seventies. We felt relieved to be at our day’s destination.

Lyman and I enjoyed meeting the Airbnb proprietors, a couple and their young daughter. After we had showered and gotten our stuff together, we got back on the bicycles to cycle one mile to go out to eat. The proprietors were hanging out on their porch.

Dinner at the very old school Freddy’s Steak House in central Hammond IN was only just OK. In hindsight we were too creative with our orders (grilled lake perch was fresh tasting but not filling enough; Lyman’s steak sandwich was leathery.) We should have split a large steak instead. The universal first course of bean soup was likely out of a can but still satisfied on this chilly evening.

The shelves of our Airbnb basement were filled with books I would not otherwise have known about.

The proprietors had strongly recommended we visit Les Cafe Pancake House for breakfast the next day. It was filled with families and what looked like church groups on this Sunday morning. Inspirational bible verses were on the walls. Breakfast was pleasantly filling. Banners of military veterans labelled as Hometown Heroes lined the streets of town.

I had spent half an hour in my bed that morning plotting a route to bicycle across the infamously decrepit Gary IN, a town famous to me because of the song in The Music Man, as well as the birthplace of Michael Jackson. Further mapwork revealed a surprisingly thorough network of paved rail trails across northern Indiana, a network that was too nice to pass up. We would have to miss Gary and pass just south of it. Cycling on rail trails without car traffic is indeed relaxing as we ambled across northern Indiana.

We had come north from North Carolina and Texas to get away from the summer heat and we certainly had succeeded. Skies this day were overcast and drizzly with a temperature that leveled off at about sixty-five all day.

wet but otherwise delightful rail-trail in northern Indiana

It was over forty miles to Michigan City, Indiana where we knew there were hotels. The map showed rail trails almost the whole way. Unknowingly we were succumbing to the frog-in-boiling-water trap. We cycled through an hour or more of drizzle so light as to be barely noticeable. That transitioned to light rain, we pretended not to care. By the time we had cycled into more remote wooded areas the light rain transitioned to heavy rain. Lyman had on a nice Showers Pass brand jacket of Gore-Tex like fabric and I had just a cycling shirt, but both rainwear strategies were failures. We both got very wet and were overcome with shivering if we stopped exercising. I could no longer take photos because I had to keep my phone and camera dry.

In the rain we transitioned into Indiana Dunes National Park, expecting sand dunes and the continuation of the smooth paved trail, as the map showed Calumet Trail just inland from Lake Michigan. Calumet Trail turned out to be a rutty dirt road next to some woods and under a power line, surfaced with two or three inch bumpy gravel, almost impassible with our narrow high pressure bicycle tires. Every few hundred feet there were giant rain-filled potholes. Soaking wet and shivering, we struggled along for about five miles before finding an off-ramp where we could cycle in the rain on a conventional highway. We were at our wit’s end as we limped into the town of Michigan City, Indiana at about four or five in the afternoon.

We thought we would have to subject ourselves to further danger and humiliation by having to cycle two miles on a major highway in the rain out to the Interstate Highway interchange, where the only motels on the Hotels Dot Com app were clustered. Michigan City, Indiana is a faded lakefront industrial town about five miles from the Michigan state line. Its claim to fame is that it is the home of Indiana State Prison. Standing under a restaurant overhang to stay out of the rain, at the last minute I located one possibility on Google Maps in downtown Michigan City, the Bridge Inn. I phoned from a few blocks away. Yes they had one apartment suite left, two single beds. They had no office but the guy would meet us in the parking lot. The room suite and the hotel turned out to be quite nice. I took this photo the next morning after it had stopped raining.

Our luck improved further when we learned that the hotel owners, three sisters, also owned the Bridges Waterside Grille across the parking lot. After cleaning up and drying out, we found seats at the Caribbeanesque outdoor bar. It was still drizzling, with temperatures in the sixties. People in this part of the country know to always bring a jacket, even in the summer. Everyone was drinking hard liquor.

I sat next to the couple on the far left in the above photograph. They live in Crawfordsville IN, a hundred miles to the south. The two had been travelling whenever possible the past couple years, looking for a place to retire. Their list of places to retire included the entire state of Florida, coastal South Carolina, and Michigan City, Indiana. (!)

We also met people who had come to Michigan City just to vacation.

Lyman got a cheeseburger, as I recollect.

I took the recommendation of the bartender and got the fried lake perch dinner, served drunken, which meant the addition of a spicy heavy coating. It ranks among the best fried fish I remember eating.

We cycled out of post-industrial Michigan City the next morning.

Looking out of our hotel room window at the Michigan City “yacht harbor” an Amtrak train passes every day over this incredibly rusty swing bridge.
Brutalism, downtown Michigan City IN

This video by Lyman Labry is only seven seconds long.

Cycling northward we discovered that there is a whole world of vacation towns along this shore of Lake Michigan, stretching northward. For the next three days, in the post-pandemic summer pandemic rush, everything, especially hotels and restaurants, were extremely crowded.

From Michigan City north to the Michigan line and beyond we cycled along the road accessing miles of lakefront vacation homes that front Lake Michigan and the sand dunes.

Lyman always wants a protein filled breakfast but on this day we had delayed it by ten miles; waiting to eat until we arrived in New Buffalo, Michigan, which we discovered is very much a tourist town, with yacht harbors and t-shirt shops.

At 10:00 AM on a Monday there was a wait for a table at Rosie’s, named after my dog back in Chapel Hill NC. I worried a little about Covid even though both Lyman and I are fully vaccinated. On hears about parts of America being vaccine hesitant and inside Rosie’s all the people were maskless and jammed together. I forced myself to ignore this and enjoy the breakfast.

I got the chorizo and eggs

Back on the bicycles we headed northward. When possible we stayed on the residential street directly along the Lake Michigan shoreline, looking at rich people’s houses facing the lake.

Owing to the rain the previous day we had not seen much of a Lake Michigan sand dune in Indiana Dunes National Park, but we certainly did this day in Michigan’s Warren Dunes State Park, which also had a public beach.

Those tiny specks in the above photo are people walking up the dune
Lyman and Lake Michigan

About twenty miles further was the double city of St. Joseph / Benton Harbor MI where we had decided to spend the night. St. Joseph had a busy downtown with souvenir shops; the Lake Michigan beach nearby down a steep hill.

We had a beer on the sidewalk of St. Joseph MI and looked at the tourists (were we one of them?). We searched on my phone for a place to spend the night. There were two hotels in St. Joseph that had rooms, but each cost over three hundred dollars for a two double bed hotel room. Furthermore, we decided the vibe in St. Joseph was just a little too cutesy for us. Only a couple miles away, on the other side of the St. Joseph River, was the city of Benton Harbor. I had heard the name Benton Harbor because I knew from somewhere that it was and is the headquarters of appliance maker Whirlpool. Airbnb offered a what turned out to be a really nice full apartment in downtown Benton Harbor. We accepted online and biked over there.

We had codes to get into the apartment but we ran into the proprietors and enjoyed chatting with them. Downtown Benton Harbor looks essentially abandoned but these guys told us of several restaurants. I have since learned from Wikipedia that Benton Harbor’s population is 89% African-American, although I saw no African-Americans in my brief stay in its downtown.

our Airbnb proprietors
The Airbnb was on the third floor of this nineteenth century building
Interior of our apartment. I slept on the sofa in the living room.
I told Lyman he could have the bedroom

The apartment had a great television and was really spacious. It even had a fully stocked kitchen for us to make our own breakfast the next day. It turned out that the two restaurants those guys had told us about were really the only places to eat dinner in Benton Harbor. This must say something about America. The one restaurant that was open was Houndstooth, a fancy place with entree prices over thirty dollars. It sounded good but we were just not in the mood for Big Food, at least not this day. The other place The Livery which features pizza, sounded great but was closed on Mondays. We had to carry the bicycles down the stairs to the street and cycle a couple of miles to the restaurant of a hotel in St. Joseph. It looked out over the harbor. It was crowded, with a long line to get a table. We discovered almost no one was at the bar around the hotel swimming pool, where we learned we could order food. A shared charcuterie plate really hit the spot.

From our pool bar vantage point we enjoyed watching a huge Great Lakes freighter departing from the harbor. We did not know but wondered what specific cargo this Canadian flag vessel had discharged here. We imagined the ship must look a lot like the Edmund Fitzgerald, in Gordon Lightfoot’s song, also a huge single purpose vessel built to carry one bulk commodity on normally flat seas.

The next morning we took the opportunity from the Airbnb and cooked our own breakfast but we had to use the ingredients we were given; Oatmeal, then Eggo waffles, bacon, and eggs.

The cycling this day went through a landscape that was more wooded and less populated, interspersed with a couple of the resort towns that line the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Our day’s halfway point would be the town of South Haven. The last five miles into town were on this excellent bike trail.

Van Buren State Park Trail

South Haven MI was the most touristy spot we had seen on this trip; people were all over the streets of town, apparently just wanting to walk around the streets.

There was a coffee place downtown and we got lattes. We also found a bike shop for some chain lubricant. We wanted some kind of light lunch. What to look for? Tacos, especially since Lyman came here from Texas, seemed destined for failure. Why not that Midwest standout, the hot dog? A walkup hot dog place in Saugatuck had all sorts of styles, each with the same price of five dollars. Lyman got the Detroit style (chili and onions), I got Chicago.

Chicago style hot dog, but in Michigan

Back on the road heading north we were in lovely wooded terrain.

We rolled into Saugatuck MI at about four in the afternoon. We still were not sure if we were going to continue on to the the larger town of Holland MI; twelve miles further north. Saugatuck MI was at least as crowded as any of the coastal resort towns we had visited but had a more upscale feel. Cape Cod or Nantucket on Lake Michigan.

Although we had no idea where were going to sleep that night and we already knew that all the hotels and restaurants were pretty full, Lyman and I responded by looking for a place to get a beer. We found The Mitten, a brew pub in an old house, named after the shape of Michigan on a map. We were able to get a seat because we were standing there when they opened at 5:00 PM. They had excellent pizza and beer. We could watch the scene walk by on the street.

View from the front porch of The Mitten

I had wanted to keep cycling the twelve miles to Holland MI but it became clear that it made much more sense to go to the one motel that we had found on my phone; their last room, out on the highway about two miles back in the direction we had come from. I hate going backwards, but whatever.

It was actually a pretty good motel. Standing and looking out the window of our room in the twilight we could see rabbits running around on the grass underneath all the fireflies.

photo by Lyman Labry

My original idea of this trip was to cycle to Grand Rapids MI in the allotted five days. To keep this plan and our airplane and Amtrak reservations we would need to cycle more than fifty miles the next day.

Our motel just south of Saugatuck had free pre-packaged bad breakfast, and after packing up we cycled back through Saugatuck and then the twelve miles to Holland MI, arriving there mid-morning.

Holland MI is aptly named, as it was settled by Dutch religious fundamentalists (also described as Dutch Calvinist separatists) starting in the 1840’s. A significant percentage of the population of the Holland / Grand Rapids area still claims Dutch heritage and religious tradition, including Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. I had heard that Holland MI has such a vibrant downtown that many people come to visit just for the urbanism. We cycled into downtown Holland and found this pleasant looking local coffee place. We stopped and got a latte, sitting outside in those wonderful plastic Adirondack chairs.

We started cycling again.

Modernist bank branch, Holland MI

It was still almost forty miles cycling to Grand Rapids MI. Some of that Dutch cycling aura must have rubbed off on planners around here. In grids of farm roads through the Michigan countryside, in an area where bicycle paths are not even really necessary, there were enough bicycle paths that we were able to bicycle most of the way from Holland to Grand Rapids on separated paths.

bike path in rural Michigan

Grand Rapid’s city population is only 200,000 but it felt like a much bigger city. I have learned that for a Midwestern city its economy has been doing quite well, home of several major industries, including furniture manufacturers like Herman Miller, and Amway, seller of questionable dreams. Over twenty years ago, we had friends in Carrboro/Chapel Hill NC who had to move to Grand Rapids for family reasons. They described Grand Rapids as having “the charm of Charlotte with the weather of Buffalo.” I found it nicer than that.

Our accommodations showed the strengths and weaknesses of Airbnb. Each Airbnb has its own story; read the descriptions and reviews carefully. Here in Grand Rapids for the price of a nice hotel we could get an eighth floor two bedroom, two bath apartment in a new-looking building with an outdoor balcony in a good location. Once inside we found the apartment practically perfect.

Downsides: I had to sign all sorts of non-Airbnb legal release forms my cellphone. I had several tense texts with a non-Airbnb “customer representative” who had a San Antonio, Texas area code, and she gave us special verbiage to use if anyone asked why we were in this building. When finally approved for occupancy I was given the combination to a lockbox to pick up a key, which turned out to be almost two miles away, and I had to bicycle there in the heat of the day through traffic up a steep hill, after I had already bicycled more than fifty miles that day! The entire process did not involve any person to person contact.

bizarre “boxes” in a hipster looking part of Grand Rapids, where I chose “my box” and entered a combination, in order to retrieve a key to an apartment two miles away in a high rise.

Dinner that night was delicious, although I was suspicious of any restaurant with that names itself the French / Italian bastardization “Bistro Bella Vita.”

The restaurant had a huge open interior space, full of people eating, which is a good sign, and it had outdoor seating available, which made us more comfortable in these Covid times. Lyman really wanted the steak frites, even though the price of $52.00 was, in my mind, insane. We told the restaurant we wanted to split the steak frites and it was actually perfect, both portions plenty to eat and nicely presently as if ordered separately. With a split fried calamari appetizer and a split $ 36.00 bottle of pinot noir, the whole meal was not ridiculously expensive.

For dessert we got Asian ice cream takeout and sat on our balcony, listening to the roar of the nearby freeway (a real downside to this apartment if you lived here full time) and looking at the city.

Looking the other direction, the city’s Van Andel Arena, named after the Dutch surnamed man who co-founded Amway, a company characterized by many as a pyramid scheme.

The Grand Rapids Amtrak station was only about a quarter mile from our Airbnb. We cycled there at 5:30 AM for a 6:00 AM departure. Other than having to wear a mask the whole time, the four hour train ride was great. This particular train took full size bicycles, no need to fold, for a $10.00 fee.

We got to Chicago early enough that we could cycle around Chicago for a few hours, including cycling the six miles from The Loop north to Wrigley Field, then back along the Lakefront.

We had a healthy $ 7.00 Middle Eastern lunch downtown at a place called Oasis Cafe, in the back of jewelry store, of all places. My eggplant sandwich was delicious. We retrieved our suitcases and put the bicycles in them before taking the CTA subway back to O’Hare for the flights home late that afternoon.

6 responses to “Chicago IL to Grand Rapids MI; along the lake; July 10 – 15, 2021”

  1. What a great trip! Very inspiring.

  2. Harvey Botzman Avatar
    Harvey Botzman

    This tour reminded me of the times I circumnavigated Lake Michigan. Usually half the lake every four years when I was writing bicycle tour guide books.

    Fifteen to twenty-five years ago the resort towns (with a few exceptions) mainly served a lakeside cottage crowd. I camped as I was bicycling along the shore. It is beautiful.

    We don’t have such well developed resort areas along the southern shores of Lake Erie or Lake Ontario. There are more resort areas on the northern (Canada) shores of those two lower Great Lakes.

    Thanks for this tour.

  3. Good to see you back on the road. What a great trip!

  4. Randy S Greenberg Avatar
    Randy S Greenberg

    Who knew Michigan was so touristy

    1. I had no idea either that Michigan was touristy!

  5. What an adventure!!
    When you were writing about the light rain I was thinking what are they going to do when it pours!???
    All that food made me hungry!

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