Day 1: South Haven -> Grand Haven
Miles Rode: 69.0
Time on Saddle: 5.5 hours
Temp: Partly Cloudy (S. Haven), Rain (Saug.-Holland), Sunny and Windy (G. Haven)
My mind twisted with worry and shame, I was unable to sleep.
I imagined the phone call I’d have to make to my mother. Tearful, embarrassed to say the words, I was going to have to ask her to come pick us up. On the first day, after only 69 miles completed.
South Haven to Saugatuck
The day started off perfectly: we departed from my Aunt Leslie’s house in South Haven at about 11 am, stopping at a roadside farm stand for fresh ice cream and at a picker’s lot full of rusty, eerie ephemera, before reaching Saugatuck, a small artist village on the Lake where we ate a soggy hamburger and were served half-full beers in a deserted patio bar, where we watched the storm roll in.
Saugatuck to Holland
It rained all afternoon, thirty miles worth of rain. All our clothes were drenched. We rode through, flashing each other encouraging smiles, taking advantage of the tailwind, but secretly cursing every mile marker we passed.
When the rain became so dense that we could no longer see one another, Ivan pulled onto a gravel path leading to a huge green-roofed barn, waving at me to follow. Inside, a row of horses slowly turned their long necks toward us. At the other end of the barn, a man squatted over some equipment, a tiny toe-headed boy standing at his side. The man yelled something at us and picked himself up from the floor, heading toward us, quick but unsteady.
A tingle of fear shook through me. Another touring cyclist we met described it as “hearing the banjos,” a Deliverance movie reference, describing the feeling when you are out in the vast country, surrounded only by forests, fields and strangers, and you have an instant and acute awareness of your vulnerability, of how quickly you could disappear into this landscape. How quietly you would go.
The man approached and mumbled something sharply at us from the side of his mouth.
My eyes got wide, and Ivan stumbled over his words, explaining we are just cyclists looking for a little cover from the rain.
“Sure, sure,” said the man, hooking his thumbs into his overalls and looking us up and down.
He smiled a fractured smile, “Well, I’m working on some projects and this here’s my lil helper,” and with that, the man tuned back around and began to tour us around the barn as if he had expected us all along. The little boy, wearing tall galoshes and sipping from a can of purple Faygo, was silent and at his side the entire time.
The barn was an equine therapy center for disabled kids and it was the man’s job to repair equipment and maintain the grounds. He mentioned with a wink that the little boy was a client there, and I could never quite tell if he was joking or not. We took some pictures, pet the horses and watched the rain with the man and the boy until his boss arrived, a chubby lady in riding pants who walked hurriedly around the stables and ignored us pointedly. I sensed she was annoyed with us being there and the rain was not as bad by then so we pushed off.
Our GPS was glitchy due to the rain but luckily we had to follow only one straight road to the next town. We arrived in Holland, a town known to have a giant windmill, a wooden-shoe store, and signs printed in both English and Dutch. When I was young, my mom would bring me there to take pictures at the tulip gardens in the summer. (*She says she doesn’t remember this, but only the time in Holland where me and all my cousins got wooden shoes with our names carved in to them and then someone hit someone else on the head with their shoe, and all shoes were confiscated. I don’t remember that part of the story…)
Maybe it was the rain, or maybe it was the fact that 7-year-olds can find the charm and awe in most anything, but my old haunts were not as exciting as I presented them to Ivan for the first time. So we found the bars.
Holland, MI, has a dozen breweries and coffee shops and a beautiful little downtown where we were able to duck in for a drink, dry off, and watch the clouds part.
Holland to Grand Haven
The sun finally broke through as we rode from Holland to Grand Haven. As my clothes dried, I could feel my thighs beginning to chafe. Sitting properly on the bike began to feel uncomfortable. We had one last hill before arriving at the campsite, and I nearly had to walk it.
At the top of the final hill was a glistening vista of the beach: sugar-fine sand, mellow blue waters, and parasailors gliding along the golden horizon.
We set up our tent on the beach, nestled comically between a row of about fifty RV trailers. The wind coming off the lake was too strong for a fire or camp-stove, so at nightfall we set off to Grand Haven’s town center where only one restaurant, on the fringe of town, was open. With each push of the pedal I felt the abrasions on my inner thighs worsen and worried about what I would find when we finally took our wet clothes off for the night. Back in the tent, we ate hoagies and onion rings ravenously, while outside another storm brewed. I rubbed aloe on the beginnings of my saddle sore and lay our clothes out to dry as best we could.
I lay on my back, shivering, the wind whipping so fiercely at the tent that one side had completely caved in, sand catapulted in from under the rain fly, and I was worried the poles might actually snap. All our clothes were wet, our maps were ruined, our GPS was water-logged, and I had a rash. I considered that maybe this was too big an undertaking. Maybe I had not prepared enough. I knew soon we would be out of cell-phone service areas, in the dense forests of northern Michigan, and I contemplated calling my mom to come pick us up.
Tomorrow, I thought. I’ll give it one more day, and if I must, I’ll call her tomorrow.
WATER PROOF GEAR: Buying cycling-specific water PROOF gear is worth it’s hefty price tag. Cycling-specific gear won’t ride up or expose the low back, has a huge hood that will fit over your helmet and keep your entire head dry, and has ventilation slits that keep you from cool without letting water in. There are water-proof RATINGS that will help you determine what level of protection you gear offers, and you local bike shop or REI can help you choose wisely. My Columbia shell was only water-resistant, which is completely worthless in the case of anything other than a light sprinkle or fluffy snow (it’s actually a ski jacket). Ivan had a proper cycling water-proof shell and he was completely dry.
BEACH CAMPING: I should have known better, I grew up on the beach, but when camping at beaches, it’s best not to set up right on the beach. The winds coming off the lake or ocean can be harsh and freezing. It’s best to choose a campsite with some cover, either behind a dune or tree-line, or on an interior site, where an RV will block the wind for you.
BEACH FIRES: Weather (wind, rain) may prevent you from lighting a fire or starting a camp stove, as was our experience. We didn’t really have a back-up plan for food, so we had to backtrack several painful miles to find a pizza joint that was open at 10pm on a Tuesday. If you find yourself in bad weather, consider buying food before you set up your site