It rains all night, whipping winds and roaring waves not tampered by night. I woke up at 1 am, unable to sleep no doubt from the evening coffee and the weather demanding my human fear. I don’t remain lucid for very long and then I awake again at 7 am, this time from the alarm set on my cell phone. I rarely set an alarm as I worry about draining precious battery life but since my auxiliary power was charging all night, I’m got plenty of power for the next stretch. I’m trying to get up and out because I have a heafty stretch of biking ahead of me and my typical sunshine wake up call would be too late. I don’t get out of sleeping bag until 7:30 am and then I make *HOT* coffee mixed with powdered coconut milk and the second bowl I add turmeric and black pepper. I get a visit from the campground manager in his pick up while packing up. He tells me about an alternative road that will be an easier ride and recommends a stop at Connie’s Café in town. I’m grateful for any scrap of advice as I face down a long day and I thank him as I stuff the last bit of my gear in my bags. I roll out around 10 am and today looks to be equally as brutal as yesterday. Three days left and Mother Nature is letting me know it is gonna be a fight to the finish.
I stop at Connie’s Café for a chocolate chip muffin and a latté and the woman (who I presume to be Connie herself) is kind and direct, confirming the L.P. Walsh road recommendation from earlier and telling me about a pizza place in Bergland that people around here seem to like. I bike out of town along the lake, angry as ever, trying to find this blessed shortcut of a road. I keep trying to check Google Maps to see where I am but I’m not getting any signal and there are many roads that don’t have signs and I cannot afford to miss this road and double back. Not today, not with this wind. I finally find it, the L.P. Walsh road, which cuts directly away from the lake in toward the trees and it is long and desolate. At this point, I am at a crawling speed with my bike, it feels like I am trying to cut through a wall of gelatin with an empty balloon. I am beyond exhausted from the previous day’s windy ride and all attempts at humor or trying to look on the bright side has been stretched and snapped. I have no desire to move forward, just a slow drip of frustration. With my mind wheeling in it’s own terrible storm, my wheel come to a sudden halt. What the hell?! I dismount my bike and try to hold it up while I figure out what is wrong. It topples over like a clumsy toddler. I pick it up again and look toward the back wheel, where one of my straps flew into my derailleur and got tangle. The EXACT same technical I got on my first day on the trail. ARE YOU SERIOUS. I steady the bike and yank it free, but feel tired from even this small amount of effort. I push back tears as I walk the bike for a few minutes, not wanting to get back on and continue down this never ending road. I pedal for a few more miles before I need to pee and I start to look for a good spot to pull over. There is a deep ditch next to the road on both side and sizing up it’s depth, I’m not sure I’ll be able to gracefully slide my bike up and out of it, but I can’t just lean in on its side. I finally find a historical marker sign that looks to be sturdy enough to support my bike and there is a thick cluster of tree that will offer me some privacy as I squat. As I walk towards the thicket, I notice an apple tree with clusters of fruit and small piles of half rotted ones on the ground. A few feet away is another apple tree and I imagine that this must be the result of an apple core tossed out a truck window, such an odd site on such a plain backwood road.
I feel like a backwoods Eve, plunked in the middle of these sagging apple trees. I decide to take this break and get some much needed juice for my cellphone from my powered up solar charger. I dig through my panniers and my electrical device pouch until it hits me. I left my power adaptor and the solar charged still plugged in at the campsite in Ontonogon. I have no way to charge this fucking phone and I just lose it. I text my brother in Minneapolis, wondering if he can pick me up. Someone, anybody. I feel like flinging my bike on the ground, the tears just streaming down my face.
As I stomp and cry over the next ten minutes, I realize that my text is unanswered and I know I don’t have a choice but to keep going. More terrible miles and I finally end up in Bergland, which barely extends beyond an intersection with a gas station and a restaurant labeled ANTONIO’S, which I imagine to be The Place I was told about this morning. I try to find tiny relief in the fact that at least I made it here, but I’m too tired for optimism. I plunk down in a seat and I order a medium pepperoni, mushroom and cheese pizza and finish the entire thing over the course of a difficult hour. Next to me there is a large table packed with an extended family and this toddler is having a fucking meltdown, shouting and huffing. I try to hold back tears as my frayed nerves are being shredded by this child and I try to focus on each bite I’m eating, reminding myself PIZZA GOOD PIZZA HAPPY. I let the cheese work its magic and I slowly begin rally. I promise myself I will make it to Ironwood, as it is right at the Michigan/Wisconsin border and then I’d only have two days left before I would get to Duluth. It becomes like a chant ringing through my head. IRONWOOD. IRONWOOD. IRONWOOD. I get the last few slices wrapped in foil for later and stride back to my bike, determined.
Back on highway 28, it is flush with orange construction cylinders and plenty of cars (it is Saturday, I always forget what day it is). I begin to pull together my mind and realize that I’m going to need to deeply focus in order to make it through these final miles. I thought of Bruce Lee and his unstoppable spirit. I imagine that my bike and I are enclosed in an invisible tunnel that has a silent conveyor belt that is pulling us effortlessly to our destination, that the entire universe is conspiring for us to arrive at Ironwood. I build ease into my muscles and stop fighting and instead accept that I will get to where I need to go. I build a cheering section with my imagination, all of my friends appearing on the side of the road. Some are handing me fresh strawberries and others dangling whiskey shots in my direction while floating a cigarette out of the corner of their mouth. Others spray me with water or hoist a thundering boombox over their head with We Are the Champion echoing around them. Some of them are too busy flirting with the person next to them in a crop top to even notice me. I picture every single person in their ridiculous, peculiar glory. I can hear their laughter and see every gesture and smile as if they were before me that very moment. I am gurgling salty tears through gasps of laughter and deep in my chest builds and expands outward. For the next few hours, I just try to enjoy the ride.
I roll into Merryweather, a mere 10 miles before Ironwood and it sits next to this gorgeous lake and there are brightly painted wooden signs advertising a campground near the lake shore and it is tempting me to stay, considering that but I’m convinced that beloved Ironwood will hold something even more golden. I swoop into Family Dollar next to the road and buy a new wall charger (3rd one this tour!) and decide to press onwards toward my goal. Ironwood looks to have a municipal campground, so I’ll have a place to stay! It will make tomorrow a little bit easier, just rolling right into Wisconsin! I GOT THIS!
I roll into Ironwood around 5 pm, feeling like I had won the goddamn Tour de France. I stop at a Walgreens to buy some denture wash, as earlier today I had opened my water bottle to look inside for the FIRST TIME this entire tour and noticed that I had a deep wall of black mold growing inside, small lumps protruding from the plastic sides. I am horrified yet I still need to drink the water inside this disgusting bottle. For some reason, in my completely fried brain, I think that denture wash tablets are the best solution for the mold problem. I asked the cashier in Walgreens if I can use the restroom and she directs me to the back of the store. I’m in and out quick and then grab some denture tablets and snacks. I ask about the municipal campground and she tells me it is at the fairgrounds only a few blocks away. The sun is starting to duck beneath the trees and I roll up to the fairground which is small and surrounded by a metal fence. The entire grounds is dark with the only light being provided by a beat up RV parked in the distance, emitting a green glow. I find a concrete building which looks to hold the restrooms but it is also completely dark and locked. The “campground” is just hard dry grass spots best suited for RVs and it is completely empty except for the eerie RV. I feel sick in the pit of my stomach and know that I will not be able to stay here. Ironwood is a mid sized town with lots of motels on the main stretch and I’m confident I’ll find somewhere else to stay, although I am still deeply unsettled by the the oddly desolate campground.
I head to the motel across the street and the front lobby door is locked. I spot a buzzer next to the door and I get let in. As if in a hurry, the woman at the front desk let’s me know that they have no vacancies and that she only knows of one other place that still has a room, I should call the AmerInn. I asked her why all the rooms are full and she looks at me like I’m dumb and tells me it’s the weekend of the Bayfield Apple Festival. WUT. She tells me that I might be able to find something in Ashland. I try not to panic and I decide to try the significantly crummier looking motel across the street.
As I roll up to the head office, a little boy wanders out of the parking lot and opes the door of the office for me. I walk in to a room that features a few worn couches and a loud TV in one corner and the little boy joins a girl that is already sitting in the corner. There is a woman with thinning hair pulled back in a ponytail and pale white eyelashes and she rushes over to me when I walk in. I inquire about a room and she stills peeling off words “oh, I have one but it isn’t cleaned yet and there was another one that just got deep cleaned but the carpets are still wet.” I tell her I don’t mind about the carpets but she tells me that I can use that room and then starts to whine about not remembering about the apple festival and how she didn’t have everything ready in time but maybe next year? She asks if I have tried another motel and before I even talk she starts rambling in a deep Kentucky accent, saying that I cannot go to the Ivy because it is a DRUG motel and she swears heavily, punctuated with fake modesty for profanities in front of the children, but they both seem unfazed by this dramatic display. I’m quickly realizing that this woman is just talking in loops and night is creeping in close and I NEED to find a place to stay and quick. Another couple peaks their head in the door asking about a room and I quickly dart out the door toward my bicycle. As soon as I step outside a sleek black car pulls up outside, “Six Inch Heels” thumping from inside, a red light radiating from underneath. I go lean up against my bike and my head is swimming as I’m quickly cycling through options when I call my ex boyfriend, whose uncle lives nearby. It rings and I leave a voicemail and try to sound as fun and carefree as possible while asking for immediate assistance in these dire circumstances. Next, I call my dad. He picks up and we both start trying to think of solutions. He tells me that he’ll talk to his friend who grew up nearby but that I should contact the local police to see if they know of any place I can stay. DAD. It is a Saturday night in mid sized town located on a central highway (hello, drugs!) that is packed to the brim with tourists. I am sure they are quite busy and considering how incredibly weird this town has been so far, I don’t know if I want to make myself vulnerable to the dudes with guns. I start to take bites of the stale chocolate chip muffin from the morning and I end the call with my dad so he can call his friend. At this point I can hear loud arguing from inside the front office and a police cruiser pulls up to where the stereo thumping car was minutes before. I make a note of the situation but I’m still too busy to really consider it and the suddenly the door of the office swings open a man shouts I’LL BE BACK as he storms out while his sidekick scuttles, I mean, actually scuttles, across the parking lot next to him. It is at the moment that I know I need to get the fuck out immediately before things get even weirder. I cannot stay one minute more in Ironwood, there is NO ROOM AT THE INN. I take another bite of the muffin, chew and swallow before inhaling deep. I know exactly what I have to do. I call up a few hotels in Ashland and there is only one that has an available room, it is the giant hotel with an indoor waterpark and the room is going to be $220, which is way beyond my meager budget. I also quickly consider the likelihood of some terrible shit happening if I stay in the Ironwood Municipal Campground and decide that $220 is cheap compared to the cost of a lifetime of therapy bills required to mend whatever trauma was lurking behind that green glow RV. I reserved the room and then call my dad back, who still hasn’t been able to talk to his friend. I sigh and tell him that I am going to be biking 35 miles to Ashland, Wisconsin. Tonight. In the dark. Today is the final fucking exam. I’ve already repeated previous hurdles, the strap in the derailleur technical and lost cell phone charger. I am being asked to put all the lessons I have learned this past month to the test and this bike ride on a Wisconsin highway in the darkness is the biggest, scariest challenge yet. There are no other options, I have to swallow my fear and do the damn thing. I tell my dad that I love him and that I’ll call him when I arrive in Ashland. I zip up my jacket, put on my headlamp and turn on my thimble sized back light, tuck the headphones into my ears and press play on the Novos Baianos album. No point in hesitating.
I riding for about thirty minutes before the sun completely disappears and it is pitch black. Oncoming cars blind me with bright headlamps and whenever I start to see a glimmer of light heading towards me, I learned to look down and just keep my front wheel snug to the white line of the edge of the road. I keep glancing in my side mirror for cars approaching from behind me, knowing that my tiny light is a joke and I won’t be visible until they are too close. There is a thick gravel ATV track beyond the small paved shoulder and I try to veer off into this section when a car approaches. Since it is Saturday night in Wisconsin, I’m more than a little concerned for drunk drivers and can’t be careful enough. My heart is pounding and I try to focus on the music playing in my headphones but at this point it is near impossible. A bold attempt to look at the bright side, I shout AT LEAST IT IS NOT SNOWING and mere seconds later tiny flakes start to appear in my light beam and crunch onto my jacket. Flurries in early October isn’t out of the ordinary in the north woods. The words NIGHT DANGER flash in my mind, remembering the moose warning sign on Canadian highways. I don’t feel much physical pain from the riding, just sheer terror of the dark. I don’t want to be brave. Bravery is an incredibly stupid thing. Yet here I am, alone on a bike on a highway in Wisconsin at night. At one point, I glance up to look at the stars, hoping beauty or awe would distract me. It did not. Besides my fear of roaming beers, drunk driving wackos mowing me over or getting a flat and being forced to pitch a tent in goodnessknowswhere, I’m mostly worried about my dad, knowing that he is far away, equally anxious as I pedal these miles.
The AmericInn sign is a glowing beacon as I ride towards it, thankfully located on the outskirts of town. I check in at 11:30 pm and the room reminds me of the one I stayed in after my first accidental century to Thunder Bay, except this time I don’t have any Surly beer to put on ice, just a half stale muffin spread with Nutella and the rest of the cold pizza, still wrapped in foil. I send my dad a weary selfie so that he knows I am, in fact, alive.
I’m still jittery from the adrenaline and try to relax in the shower. I use the entire bottle of hotel room shampoo to rinse out the last few days out of my hair and I finally smell like a normal person. I lay down on the queen sized bed and turn on the big screen TV to a PBS special about how the ancient Polynesians, the first great human explorers, travelled across vast oceans through navigation using the stars in the sky as guides. I feel appropriately small again.
DISTANCE RIDDEN: 98 motherfuckin’ miles
SONG OF THE DAY: “Don’t Wanna Fight No More” by the Alabama Shakes