The Money’s in the Ground
A Ride From Detroit to Grand Rapids
by Michael Goodell
June 3, 2009: Grosse Pointe to Mason
It was with some trepidation that I embarked on this trip. Having ridden fewer than 250 miles this year, and only once having gone as far as 35 at one time, I was seriously undertrained. I mentioned this to a couple of friends, but not to my wife, Mary, whom I was supposed to meet in three days’ time in Grand Rapids, where she was attending the Herb Society of America’s Annual Meeting.
Still, when I set out at 6:45, with the new day dawning, it was the familiar sense of excitement which held sway. I had originally planned to cross the northern edge of Detroit on Seven Mile Road. I thought this would provide a provocative perspective as the road originates in the suburban idyll of Grosse Pointe, and descends into some of the most impoverished neighbors of this impoverished city. From there it bisects part of Detroit’s growing Arab population before bursting into the bustle of some of the region’s newer, more prosperous suburbs.
I had dismissed friends’ concerns about my route, claiming I was more concerned about the busy rush hour boulevards of Livonia than I was the early morning denizens of Detroit. It was just white suburban timidity, I believed. However, when Detroit residents urged me to reconsider, I decided to look for another way west.
On my first long trip I took Nine Mile Road, and had made decent progress, so I opted for a reprise of that route. Things had changed in the nine years since that first trip. The surface, for one thing. It looked like not a single inch had been repaved in the last decade. Much of the time it was so rough, and the traffic so heavy, that I was forced to retreat to the sidewalk. That wasn’t in any better shape, but at least there was no danger of getting hit when I swerved to avoid the bigger holes.
Another change since the first trip was the plentitude of abandoned businesses. Factory after tool-and-die shop stood empty; dusty lots inside chain link fences, faded signs sometimes hanging crooked over cracked and broken windows. It is the collateral damage from the implosion of The Big Three. It was painful to witness, and will only become more painful as the months and years pass.
Drivers on the narrow, crumbling, four-lane road showed little inclination to give me space. Several times I felt the rush of air on my arm as someone’s side view mirror passed mere inches away. Perhaps, I thought, these drivers, heading to one of the remaining factories, saw bicyclists as contributors to their economic jeopardy. Maybe I should have worn a sign on my back announcing that my other vehicle is a Ford Escape Hybrid. Then I reconsidered. They might think I was a tree hugger. It would be safer if it said my other vehicle was an SUV. I could save the hybrid sign for when I got closer to Ann Arbor.
I made good time crossing the broad metropolitan swath, leaving the gritty industrial decay of Eastpointe and Warren behind for the trendy chic of Ferndale. In Oak Park I passed Orthodox Jewish boys on their way to school, dressed in black hats, white shirts and black pants, complete with prayer shawls. I rolled through Southfield, with the towers of the satellite downtown gleaming in the rising sun, and pushed into the outlying suburbs. At one point, in Farmington, I paused on a bridge overlooking the Rouge River, and while I stood there, two deer emerged from the woods to drink, a refreshing hint of the open lands awaiting me.
South of Novi the pavement ended, but the surface was solid and the riding easy. I stopped next to a quiet, lonely cemetery glowing in the rising sun. It was remarkably peaceful, despite the signs of the steadily encroaching city. By now I was in an area where every mile or two a chunk of farm land had been bulldozed into submission, with winding streets going nowhere, lined by oversized houses on undersized lots. Occasionally I would see a new subdivision which had barely gotten underway when the downturn struck. There would be one or two completed houses surrounded by vacant lots in varying states of demolition. What a lonely, meaningless existence it must be to occupy one of those homes.
Before long I passed under US-23, where Nine Mile became M36, a busy two lane road with a wide shoulder. This took me into Hamburg, a pleasant little exurban community which marked the start of the Lakelands Trail State Park, a 23-mile trail which would take me to Stockbridge, where I planned to end my day. Of course, as is typical of trips like this, very little went according to plan from this point forward. Luckily I stopped for an early lunch at the Hamburg Pub, where I enjoyed a triple decker BLT, while listening to the locals talk hockey. Good food, and good fuel.
The first six miles were paved, and I rolled through peaceful woods and along freshly tilled fields. I stopped at a bridge to enjoy the view of the Huron River, which meandered placidly on its way to Lake Erie. However, just past the Pinckney Depot, an old, preserved but unused station left over from railroad days, the trail began to deteriorate. This section is subject to heavy equestrian usage. While horses are pretty to look at, and no doubt fun to ride, if you like that sort of thing, they are hell on unpaved trails. The crushed limestone surface was badly pitted, making the ride an unpleasantly juddering ordeal. “At least I don’t have to worry about falling asleep,” I thought.
Due to serious neglect on the part of the State Park system, the trail began to lose its integrity, and I was forced to hop on and off my bicycle as I kept hitting soft spots. Before long, I had to dismount completely, and wheel my bike through three-inch deep sand. I had to cover three miles before the trail crossed Highway 36 again. Just when I was thinking it couldn’t get any worse, the trail entered a boggy area where, thanks to the previous week’s rains, the sand became a muddy quagmire, which accumulated on my shoes as I trudged through. I had to kick my feet against a tree trunk to dislodge enough of the gunk from the soles to allow me to, finally, remount at the highway.
The Lakelands Trail is a disgrace. Having ridden trails in seven states and three countries, I can confidently state that this is by far the most pathetic excuse for a mixed-use trail I have ever seen. It is the height of dishonesty for the State of Michigan to advertise this travesty as a mixed-use trail. Equestrian traffic has utterly destroyed it. Short of spending the time and money to rebuild it, and to maintain it thereafter, the State should admit what they have, and call it the Mid-Michigan Bridle Trail.
I stopped at a car wash in Gregory to hose off my bike and shoes, and rejoined the trail which seemed to be in better shape. It wasn’t, it turned out, but at least it was dry, and it was only six more miles to Stockbridge. Naturally when I arrived in this attractive village I discovered there was no lodging, which meant I had another eighteen miles to ride to reach Mason, where, with two interchanges on US-127, a major north-south freeway, I would be sure to find a motel. So much for knocking off at 80 miles, though.
The ride north was actually quite enjoyable. The terrain consisted of gently rolling hills bisected by quiet country roads. The land was fresh, and the crops were coming up. The money’s in the ground, I thought, and now it’s time for nature to work her magic. There was something soothing, and yet thrilling about the newness of the landscape. It was such a contrast from the views of autumn, when I usually take my trips. Instead of tired land quiescent in the approach of winter, here it was vibrant, and pulsing with life. I loved passing cornfields, where thin green lines stretched across the gray-brown soil.
Mason is the Ingham County seat, and it wears it history with pride. The town is dominated by Courthouse Square, where the County Courthouse itself squats proudly. Built in 1904, it was designed by Edwin A. Boyd, and has been called “an exceptional example of the Federal Style of architecture.” Built of berea sandstone with a black buckingham slate roof, the structure features a detailed berea sandstone tower capped by a ridged iron dome.
Ingham County was named for Samuel Ingham, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Andrew Jackson, though Ingham never actually set foot in his eponymous county. The county is primarily agricultural, except for the industrial capital city of Lansing. Neighboring East Lansing hosts Michigan State University, the oldest Agricultural College in the country, and the prototype for 72 land grant colleges established under the Morrill Act of 1862.
There is a four-mile bike trail called the Hayhoe River Trail in Mason, which runs along Sycamore Creek. Maple Grove, an old, serene, and beautiful cemetery sits on a hill overlooking the town. Mason was almost the death of me as I discovered there were no motels at the interchanges. A ride through town, though pleasant, wasn’t promising. I saw no old hotels or inns, no bed and breakfasts, and it was growing increasingly more likely that I would have to ride an additional ten miles to Lansing. Not exactly the first day I had anticipated.
I finally stopped at a gas station where the attendant informed me that Heb’s Inn was just another quarter-mile up the road. Heb’s is one of those old-style motels which used to line the nation’s highways and loiter on the edges of towns. This one had seen better days, but from my perspective, it was still seeing days, and nights, and for this night it would be home. It was clean, safe and cheap, but unfortunately, the ice machine was broken so my knees would have to forego their long- anticipated treatment. A quick shower, a three-mile stroll around town and dinner at the Courthouse Grill, and I was in bed by 9:30.
June 4, 2009: Mason to Ionia
After riding 98 miles on Day One, I was gratified to discover that my legs worked just fine today. I started with a detour, riding two miles along the Hayhoe River Trail. Very nicely maintained, it snakes along Sycamore Creek. Unfortunately, it runs due south, and my destination was to the west, so I turned around and hit the road. Leaving Highway 36 behind, I headed west on Columbia Road, rolling through more farm land interspersed with woods and placidly burbling creeks.
Passing through Columbia I made my first contact with the Grand River. At this point it flows northward, to Lansing, where it passes through the MSU campus before heading off to the northwest to Lyons. There it absorbs the flow of the Maple and turns sharply to the west. Along the way the Flat and the Thornapple Rivers join it, until Ada, where it turns again to the northwest. At a point some five miles north of Grand Rapids, it swings to the south, through the center of the city. From there it veers back to the west until it flows into Lake Michigan at Grand Haven.
There being no wind, the riding was easy, as I rolled past Amish homesteads and Centennial Farms. At one point I saw a homemade sign boasting “Gizzard Hall, Population 5.” The 5 had been crossed out, and replaced with a 1. As I passed the substantial, well-maintained house I saw a “For Sale by Owner” sign. It was somehow poignant.
I reached Vermontville after 37 miles, where it seemed like a good idea to stop for breakfast at the Sugar Hut Café. After a hearty meal of eggs, bacon and hash browns, washed down with several cups of coffee, and enlivened by the young waitress’ recounting of her nascent appreciation for cycling with her boyfriend, I explored the village.
Vermontville was founded in 1836 by the Reverend Sylvester Cochrane, who recruited thirty “colonists” from his native Vermont to form a new community in the wild and free wilderness of Michigan. After months of searching, representatives of the colonists found the site of the present town. Heavily wooded with maple trees, and watered by the Thornapple River, it promised to be just like home, with better soil. In 1844 Cochrane called upon the villagers to build the Vermontville Academy, “ a house in which we may instruct our children and worship the Lord.” The Academy was advertised as “an ideal location for an academy, since there was little to distract the children from their work.” Vermontville hosts the annual Maple Sugar Festival the last full weekend in April.
While I was at breakfast a brisk wind picked up. Happily, it blew from the south, and Vermontville was the point where I turned north. About four miles up the road I stopped in a dale where Scipio Creek flowed through a marsh, and I enjoyed a symphony of bull frogs and twittering birds. While there I saw a cedar waxwing, my first in the wild. An otherwise unremarkable brownish bird, its tail feathers are enlivened with a splash of yellow, as if it had been dipped in a can of paint.
Before long I joined M66, a heavily-traveled highway which featured a wide shoulder, and I made good time along it until it crossed I-96. Here the pavement deteriorated dramatically, and the last eight miles into Ionia promised to be harrowing. The bad surface was exacerbated by the slalom course of orange construction barrels dotting the shoulder. At least they were going to repave the road it seemed. And not just any repaving, this project was, as the signs trumpeted, “Funded by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.” So this was one of the “shovel-ready” projects which was going to save America?
The road was in such disrepair it obviously was on the schedule already. How was funding this project going to improve the economy? If the Federal Government hadn’t paid for it, the State Government would have. Rather than calling it the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, perhaps they should have called it the Bloated State and Local Budget Preservation Act.
I reached Ionia just after crossing the Grand River, alongside of which I noticed a bike trail. That bore promise for exploration. Among other attractions, Ionia offers an American Inn on the edge of downtown. This is where I stopped for the night. The clerk mentioned that another cyclist had left just that morning. “Hey, maybe I should advertise in Biking Magazines,” he said. I thought that was a good idea and gave him some suggestions on things to promote. Like the whirlpool bath in the room he rented me.
I iced my knees while I filled the tub, relaxing in a motel rarity, a recliner. Unfortunately, when the tub was half full I noticed a lack of steam rising from the water. Sure enough, there was no hot water coming from the tap. While a brighter person would have requested another room, I just shrugged and settled for a hot shower. On the other hand, it turned out there was no hot water anywhere in the room. Nothing like a good brisk shower after 66 miles on a bike.
Refreshed from the icy stream, I set out to explore Ionia. Main Street is lined with turn-of-the-century storefronts, most of which have seen better days. The rest of them were vacant. Still, there was a grand County Courthouse, made from the distinctively hued Ionia sandstone. Beyond the courthouse were several blocks of substantial houses.
One of them, the Blanchard House, was also made of Ionia sandstone. It looked remarkably like multicolored marble. In 1835, at the age of fourteen, John Celsus Blanchard “lit out for the territories” from Cayuga, New York. After working in Detroit, and Livingston and Shiawassee Counties, he walked the last 60 miles to Ionia, where he spent $50 of the $53 he had saved to buy a forty-acre farm. In 1839 he began studying law, was appointed Ionia County Prosecutor in 1850 and enjoyed a distinguished career of public service.
With its prosperous heritage so proudly displayed, it was sad to see the hard times on which the city seems to have fallen. The Detroit and Milwaukee Railroad, whose coming in 1838 opened up so much of Western Michigan, is gone. Much of the town’s industry is shuttered, and its major source of employment is the two State Prisons nearby. On the other hand, the Grand River flows through the city, and it is attractively situated. The town seems to be betting its future on tourist dollars. With the railroad ties in the process of being torn up, there is hope for an expanded rail trail. As long as the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act keeps paving the roads leading into town, Ionia’s future looks bright.
June 5, 2009: Ionia to Grand Rapids
After a six-mile detour to ride the delightfully wooded and scenic Ionia River Trail, I headed out of town on Grand River Drive, which would carry me along the Grand River all the way to Ada. The road ran mainly through the flood plain, though occasionally it decided to climb the bluff only to dip back down after a mile or so. With wind in my face for the first time on the trip, I wasn’t pleased with the added work. Still, the land was pleasant enough, and there was very little traffic.
At one point I passed the Vosburg Block and Gravel Company. There was an ancient tractor in front of it. It looked like an early model locomotive, and it, along with the building, was abandoned and overgrown with vines. A fine example of Michigan’s Industrial Heritage, a relic from an earlier economic shakeout.
I picked up a bike trail on the outskirts of Ada, and rode it into the Twilight Zone. Or so it seemed. The town was so pretty and clean, with a nexus of bike trails and foot paths, one leading to a covered bridge over the Thornapple River. Children frolicked at the water’s edge, and the river thundered down a spillway in the distance. There were attractive shops with friendly, helpful staff, including one at the Ada Bike Shop who gave me detailed instructions for the balance of my ride into Grand Rapids.
Ada was certainly appealing, a testimony to the benefits of having a good corporate citizen in residence. In this case it was Amway, or Alticor as it is called today. Regardless of what you might think of the company’s business model or practices, it has returned a good deal of its profits, both to its base of operations, and to the nearby city of Grand Rapids. The wholesome cleanliness of the town evoked a bygone age, an evocation which became downright spooky when two clean-cut high school students greeted me with a hearty “Good afternoon, Sir!”
I left town on a bike trail which ran alongside a busy highway, sweeping up and down rolling hills and meandering through wetlands. Soon enough, as all good things must, the trail came to an end. However, armed with directions from the bike shop, I managed to pick my way across a network of busy highways, ever following the Grand, until I reach the White Pine Trail north of the city.
The White Pine Trail is a 93-mile long State Park. Extensively paved along its southern portion, it features a solid, well-maintained crushed limestone surface for most of the rest of its route. Another section is paved around Reed City, where it intersects with the Pere Marquette Trail, and again for the last four miles leading into Cadillac. I have ridden it before, and had planned to do so again after the conference, but a forecast featuring two days of thunderstorms and heavy winds convinced me to make Grand Rapids my terminus.
The White Pine Trail runs smoothly alongside the ever-widening Grand River until it ends in the town of Comstock Park. At this point Grand Rapids’ network of bike trails begins, which enables the cyclist to ride almost all the way into downtown. The trail rolls through the extensive Riverside Park, replete with a variety of recreational facilities, picnic benches, hiking trails, fishing holes and a series of signs detailing the history, geology and other interesting details of the river and its city.
After an awkward six-block detour around some road works (no indication whether this was stimulus money or just a run-of-the-mill project), I found myself on Grand Rapids’ River Walk, which ran the length of the City Center. Built to commemorate the city’s Sesquicentennial in 1988, it is a well-maintained, multilevel construction, intersecting with two pedestrian bridges, one of which leads to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library. The walkway was heavily used, perhaps in part because the Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts was in full swing.
It was a warm and welcome conclusion to a pleasant three-day journey through the best and worst of Michigan. From the gritty industrial decay surrounding Detroit, through pristine woods and vibrant agricultural lands, dotted with attractive, almost fairy tale towns and villages, and culminating in the lively confidence of Michigan’s Second City, this trip reminded me that the state has many strengths which, judiciously corralled, can help offset some of its weaknesses.