Lessons from a bike ride through Michigan

Sunday, October 20, 2019 - 7:17pm

.

File Photo

During exam season last semester, I was chatting with my friends Kartik and Nav in a café. We were talking about finding time to meet up over the summer. Kartik, always up for spontaneous plans, joked that he and I could bike from Ann Arbor to visit Nav at her house in Saginaw. Nav and I gave a passive chuckle and nodded to his idea, and I returned to my hometown north of Chicago with the understanding that no such trip was going to happen. I mean, who would bike 103 miles — 206 miles counting the ride back — in mostly unknown, rural areas just to hang out with your friends for a day?

After coming back home, I was sitting in my basement on a yoga exercise ball starting an essay that was due the following morning when I got a text from Kartik. It read, “Let me know when you’d like to begin planning the trip.”

It would be a lie if I said I was totally confident in our ability to bike over a hundred miles in one day and do it again a day later, but I went along with the plan anyway. There was something exhilarating about the idea of a bike ride across a state I’d only been living in for about a year. It’s easy to stay within the comfort that a college town like Ann Arbor provides, but a journey like this would widen our perspective of Michigan and the Michiganders who live beyond Washtenaw County. Besides, there weren’t any direct buses, and it would at the very least be a killer workout and a great way to strengthen my bonds with close friends.

We typed in Nav’s address on Google Maps and found a feasible route from Kartik’s house to Saginaw. We couldn’t see all of the roads on Street View, but since the app had a bike route option, we trusted the algorithm would direct us to ride on the flattest paved roads possible. It was hard to determine how much supplies we would need to survive a day trip in which we would likely burn thousands of calories, but I figured that a handful of energy bars, a couple of Gatorade bottles, a half-dozen bagels and a jar of peanut butter would suffice. After two train rides from Chicago with Metra and Amtrak conductors eyeing me with distaste for taking up seats with my bike, I arrived in Ann Arbor on June 20, ready to bike over a hundred miles. 

We were up at 6 a.m. the next day. We wanted to cover as much ground as we could in the light, and we estimated we’d be biking about 10 to 11 miles an hour, which would get us to Saginaw before 7 p.m. The start of the journey was slow, as we configured our phones to save the route and speak to us through our headphones. After passing the Diag and the League and taking a few turns, we were biking downhill heading west from the hospital. I stood up on my pedals to enjoy the breeze, and as I swung my head around to make sure Kartik was following, I saw him standing over his bike squinting at his phone in his hand. I turned around to see what was up. 

“I think we missed a turn,” he said.

“Where?” I responded. I went up to his side and squinted with him. If we kept going down the hill, we would’ve run into a dead end about a mile later. I looked west toward where the route pointed and saw a small paved black trail that led into a forest clearing. It seemed a little sketchy, but since we had decided to trust the minds behind Google Maps to keep us on the right path, we had no other option. 

Those early frustrating moments served as a microcosm of the entire trip — every few miles, we would miss a turn and have to pause to check where Google wanted us to go. At times Kartik would stop in the middle of an intersection to check, and I would have to gesture for him to come to the side and get out of the way of traffic. Soon after our hospital debacle, we biked a few miles alongside Argo Cascades, a set of small interconnected waterfalls flowing into the Huron River. Though I had been to the Nichols Arboretum, I didn’t know Ann Arbor had such a calm natural site just beyond Kerrytown. We paused to take a few photos before continuing on our way. 

About six miles later, the serene trail opened up onto Whitmore Lake Road, and it was here that I learned that all of my elementary school geography teachers lied to me for years about the Midwest being “pancake flat.” A more apt name for the road would’ve been Whitmore Hills as there was no flat pavement at all. Each time we somehow pushed ourselves up one steep hill, we would spot another five awaiting us with gradual downhills in between. Our legs grew heavier with each rotation. We stopped to rest at the top of one hill, which happened to be next to a cemetery. I took out my water bottle and lay down on the grass, imagining my fourth-grade geography teacher, Ms. Pemble, burying me there under a mound of dirt.

After a few more miles on Whitmore Lake, we took our planned stop at a gas station to use the bathroom and to learn that we were about 30 minutes behind schedule. We pushed ourselves to try and catch up, attacking each hill with double the resolve. That resolve didn’t matter once we turned the corner onto Kearney Road and found ourselves on a dirt road with our tires caked in wet mud from a rain shower the day before. While my bike was a hybrid designed for both road and off-road situations, Kartik’s was a racing bike meant exclusively for pavement, so we pedaled slowly and just walked whenever we encountered a hill. He had to stop a couple of times to clear up the mud that clogged the space between the bike frame and his tires.

While we were taking a break on the side of the road at one corner, a red pickup truck rounding the turn slowed down as it approached us. We hadn’t seen a house for at least a couple of miles and were surrounded by trees. Plenty of cars had passed us, but none of the drivers ever stopped to interact with us. “Well,” I thought, “I’ve had a good life.” We must be trespassing or something. There’s no way that an Indian American and an Indian are going to be received well in the middle of nowhere. 

Once the truck came to our side, the driver pulled down the window and peered out at us. “You guys OK? You need anything?” I saw concern in his eyes but was too stunned to reply, so Kartik thanked him and told him we were all good and just taking a break. He nodded and drove on, slinging mud back with his truck’s tires.

This hospitality was one of the few consistent traits we encountered on our trip. Whenever we stopped to take a break or reevaluate our route along the side of the road, instead of being met with hostility, we encountered strangers who shouted friendly or supportive remarks at us. One woman in Howell asked us if we wanted any water as she saw us wheezing after walking up one hill. Another parked his car a few hundred yards ahead of us and ran over to us, offering to help us repair our bikes. Every truck driver helped me understand that, contrary to the popular narrative, those who don’t live in cities or suburban communities aren’t automatically hateful or ignorant. You’d think that being in unfamiliar territory in rural Michigan would unsettle me, but the longer we spent biking through fields and farm territory, the more comfortable I felt as Michiganders welcomed us with open arms. 

By six o’clock, we had just passed through Howell, then Durand and still had over 30 miles separating us from Saginaw. We invoked the backup plan and called Nav to see if she could pick us up. The clouds seemed to pop out of the sky when we saw her van pull up beside us. Having a friend support you is great, but you really feel humbled after she saves your life and her family welcomes you into her home after a sweaty 60-mile bike ride. 

Saginaw reminded me of Michigan’s cultural diversity and how a culture can survive well beyond its home. Punjabi iconography was on display across Nav’s house, and the Indian programs playing on TV were the same ones my grandparents watched. We were quiet at first walking into the kitchen, partly in an attempt to express our gratitude and partly because we were grimacing from our aching legs. Her mom offered us shahi paneer and naan as we chatted with her brothers. It was as if I had entered a close sibling or cousin’s house — I felt right at home. 

While I expected to see Indian culture in Chicago, a hub for the South Asian diaspora, finding it here, in suburban Michigan, was a surprise. Our common Indian heritage brought Kartik, Nav and I together early on in college and brought us even closer this summer.

When we left a day and a half later, Kartik and I knew we wouldn’t be able to do the full 100 miles back to Ann Arbor. Nav did one last huge favor for us in driving us most of the way, to Howell, leaving us about 35 miles to cover. We made it back to Kartik’s place after about six hours of biking on busy roads. All told, we had covered about 100 miles in biking over the course of our two travel days. While the travel itself left us with cuts and bruises, I left Ann Arbor the next day believing that the journey changed my relationship with Michigan. 

The hospitality of complete strangers left me in awe, encountering Indian culture was reassuring and welcoming, and I never expected friends that I made in college to be like a second family. Our close, sentimental talks and our more competitive banter harkened back to my antics with my older brother. My bike brought me closer to the state of Michigan and turned close friends into siblings. Whenever I feel myself lulled into a complacent routine, the hills of Whitmore Lake or the friendly faces along the roads come back into memory.

I just need to put my feet back on the pedals to get a little closer.