How does one travel from Minneapolis to the east coast while avoiding Chicago? Of course, take a ferry across Lake Michigan then motor southeast; why did it take me so long to figure that one out? The SS Badger is a ferry ship. She is named after the University of Wisconsin mascot, and her sister ship, the SS Spartan, is named after the Michigan State University mascot. She was built in 1952 and beginning in 1953 she sailed back and forth between Manitowoc, WI, and Ludington, MI, 60 miles across the width of Lake Michigan. She sails that route today, but instead of carrying C&O rail cars for which she was originally built, she carries cars and trucks and their passengers and cargo. Oh yeah, motorcycles and their riders as well.
Ok, the SS Badger has a cool name, but what really makes her special? Well, she is the only remaining coal-fired steam ship operating on the Great Lakes and probably the only one on waters of North America. Also special is that the Badger is a registered historical site in two states. Her uniflow steam engine was designated a mechanical engineering landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and in 2009 she was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. What is extra special is that her website says she is motorcycle friendly!
It had been a long time since I took a ferry as part of a cycling trip. As I booked a ticket on the Badger, I conjured a memory of a ferry ship I took from Brindisi, Italy, to Athens, Greece, some 40 years ago. After strapping down my motorcycle in the hold of that Italian ferry, I remember grabbing my sleeping bag and joining a group of hippies on the open-air deck for the overnight trip to Athens.
After a week-long fishing trip in western Ontario, I rode Boxxer from Minneapolis toward Manitowoc, WI, the point of departure for the ferry ride across Lake Michigan. The roadside flowers in north central Wisconsin were vibrant, especially after the midsummer showers that dogged me most of the morning. With an empty gas tank, damp from persistent drizzle, and hungry for a home-cooked breakfast, I was pleased to find a Shell station (always my first choice) and the village diner side by side. Two Angels Family Restaurant in Antigo, WI, was the place for a little rehab after a chilly, wet morning; the breakfast special for $3.19 advertised outside in bold letters sounded perfect.
Arriving on the dock for the SS Badger that afternoon, I got in a line of six motorcycles. Immediately in front of me was a low-rider Harley Davidson. Just after removing my helmet I heard a female voice say:
“You have the motorcycle I wish I had; if only I could put my feet on the ground when in the saddle.”
Sue was a 50s something librarian who worked at a small college in southern Ontario. She was about 5 feet tall with a short inseam, thus the low-slung seat on her low-rider Harley (photo). Sue was the real-deal motorcyclist which was surprising given the bike she was riding, but, hey; “you gots to put dem dogs on ta ground when ya comes to a stop”. Sue was traveling alone, as she usually does, on a multi-state tour of the Midwest. This trip was an example of the type of long-distance ride she takes each year, as was her trip last year to Lexington, VA, and Civil War sites throughout the region. As we got ready to board the Badger she cranked her Harley just before I plugged my ears. Whoa! She told me about her bike, but didn’t tell me about her non-stock pipes. I touched Boxxer’s starter and whispered into the Badger behind her.
It was a smooth, 4-hour sail to Ludington, Michigan. After a nice pint of Leinenkugel ale purchased at Badger’s bar, I forgot about the discomfort of the cold rain that morning. The trip went quickly given I napped in a lounge chair on the open, sunny deck. I really did try to read, but the soft, rhythmic splash of waves on the bow of the ship weakened my resolve and I finally surrendered to dreams of a ride on the deck of a ferry ship sailing from Brindisi, Italy, to Athens, Greece. The dream was better than the actual experience as I remember, but that’s what’s nice about dreams.
Given that the SS Badger arrived after 7 pm, I stayed in a Ludington motel. After getting checked in and unloading the bike, I rode back to the harbor for a bite to eat just in time to see the SS Badger set sail toward the sunset for her night trip back to Manitowoc (photo).
Skip, about my age, the proprietor of the James St. Station restaurant in Ludington (photo) had a lot to say about the Badger and the tourists that travel the area (there was only one other group having dinner so he had a lot time on his hands until his wife arrived with their dog). He saw me park Boxxer on the street in front, so, of course, we also talked motorcycles while I ate my fish and chips at the bar. He regaled me with his travels on his 350 cc Honda through California and along the Pacific Coast Highway during a previous life. Like mine, his memories of early motorcycle travel, are crystal clear because those experiences, among a myriad of life experiences spanning decades, are special. The difference between Skip and me now is that I am still riding while he walks his poodle. I waved to Skip and his poodle as I departed James St. Station on Boxxer and thought: “I am blessed.” The forecast for the 350-mile trip to Indy the next day was sunny and cool—perfect!