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Driving the Lake Michigan Circle Tour on the back of a Harley

Sun-Times reporter Mark Konkol rode his 2007 metallic blue UltrClassic around circumference Lake Michigan last summer. His two-wheeled journey totaled

Sun-Times reporter Mark Konkol rode his 2007 metallic blue Ultra Classic around the circumference of Lake Michigan last summer. His two-wheeled journey totaled 1,100 miles and spanned four states in five days. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 24, 2011 12:22AM

‘The road is life.” Jack Kerouac wrote that.

For me, it’s more like: The road is vacation. I find peace on the highway.

Ever since my ex-hippie neighbor goaded me into buying a Harley-Davidson during the height of my midlife crisis, I’ve taken to the road on the biggest two-wheeled rolling couch Milwaukee could muster — a 2007 metallic blue Ultra Classic.

During a week of perfect July weather — with packed saddlebags and a brunette holding on for dear life — we headed east, planning to make only left turns in a complete circumnavigation of Lake Michigan.

I didn’t come up with this idea. The Lake Michigan Circle Tour — a collection of scenic routes that, well you know, circles Lake Michigan — was established in 1988. It’s part of the Great Lakes Circle Tour, a 6,000-mile journey around the lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway.

We stuck to the Great Lake we know best, hugging the Lake Michigan shoreline. All told, we covered 1,100 miles and four states in five days.

Day 1

Technically, there’s an official “Circle Tour” route. You can pick it up from the East Side neighborhood at Indianapolis Boulevard and head past Horseshoe Casino and the BP storage tanks into Gary, Ind., on Route 12, which eventually snakes through the beautiful Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

But Gary — how can I put this nicely — is a rough place. I’m not talking about the boarded-up houses, bombed-out business and broken-down dreams of this former steel boomtown. This section of bumpy, inexplicably flooded, pothole-infested road is rough on your behind — and your bike. (Instead, take I-94 to Cline to Route 20, which leads to Route 12. Send me a thank you note later.)

We burned past some of our favorite day-trip destinations: dog-friendly Central Beach in the Indiana Dunes, the zoo in Michigan City, Michigan’s Stray Dog pub in New Buffalo and the White Rabbit Inn in Lakeside. Then the gas gauge said it was time for lunch.

We stopped in St. Joseph, Mich., with its quaint downtown perfect for window shopping, antique hunting and a cold beer after a nice day at the beach. But we only had time for a snack, a tank of gas and a bathroom break.

We lunched at the Golden Brown Bakery Cafe, a southwest Michigan staple since 1938. At this tiny shop, we gobbled tasty paninis, homemade soup and blueberry muffins the size of a football player’s fist.

Refreshed, we took a left turn on the smooth, gently curving concrete that hugs the lake leading to South Haven, Holland and on through the edge of Manistee National Forest to Ludington. Here you have the option of making the Lake Michigan tour a half-circle, courtesy of the slow S.S. Badger ferry ride to Manitowoc, Wis. Two passengers and a car will cost you about $200.

A great idea, but we were sticking to the road, which winds through forests, farms and fields. (That’s either an exact description or my memory was heavily influenced by Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” playing on the iPod.)

We rumbled into Traverse City before sunset. The National Cherry Festival was in full bloom as we cruised through town on Grand View Parkway — Traverse City’s mini-Lake Shore Drive — past the muffled beat of a local rock band and the wafting scent of funnel cakes. And past the fancy lakefront resorts — this trip is on a reporter’s budget.

We pulled into the Best Western, where a nifty and affordable duplex suite with a hot tub waited for us. A late supper of pub grub and a platter of beer samplers at Mackinaw Brewing Company — one of three microbrews in downtown T.C. — capped off a glorious 321-mile ride.

Day 2

After a breakfast of complimentary make-it-yourself waffles, we spent the day cruising Old Mission Peninsula, an 18-mile strip of land jutting into the deep-blue waters of Grand Traverse Bay.

Old Mission is a favorite among bicyclists (we buzzed past quite a few of them). The main road, M-37, takes you through pastoral cherry orchards and vineyards. The bay waters at times are visible on both sides of the road.

A few bucks gets you a self-guided tour of the Mission Point Lighthouse at the end of M-37. Built in 1870, the lighthouse is 1½ stories tall and sits just south of the northern hemisphere’s 45th parallel, halfway between the equator and North Pole.

We cooled off with a swim in the chilly east bay, motored along the waters edge on Bluff Road and stopped for a quick lunch of chicken salad sandwiches at Bad Dog Deli.

It was hard to choose which of the peninsula’s wineries to visit. We opted for Chateau Chantal, which sits high on a ridge of rolling hills with sweeping vineyard views.

Later, at a lookout point on the side of the road, we lifted plastic glasses of the Chateau’s Late Harvest Riesling and toasted the day’s end as the sun slipped into the lake.

Day 3

We followed Route 31 north along the shoreline through a string of small towns that lead to Mackinaw City. Or as we like to call it, Fudge City.

I tallied at least seven fudge shops in Mackinaw City, and that’s not counting the novelty shops that sell fudge as a sideline. I can’t tell you how many times one of us would shout with glee, “What the fudge, man! Another fudge shop!”

There are plenty of nice places to stay in Mackinaw City. But if you’re looking for a deal, you can’t beat Bell’s Melody Motel. It’s part of a string of family-owned roadside motels on the Straits of Mackinac, connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

We spent the day relaxing in the indoor-outdoor pool and private beach, which has the motel’s biggest bragging right: a “full view” of the Mackinac Bridge.

The rooms were tiny, dingy shacks with paper-thin walls and cramped showers. But for $65 bucks a night, what do you expect?

Day 4

I woke up with a nagging pressure and dull pain behind my eardrum. There’s nothing worse than having an ear infection while going 60 mph on a Harley wearing a half-helmet.

I blame this predicament on myself. Who goes swimming in a swampy beach area frequented by seagulls in the Straits of Mackinac? Dumb.

By this point, we were 421 miles from Chicago — nearly halfway around the lake. There was no easy way home. We slowly headed into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula over Big Mac Bridge and made yet another left turn on Route 2 along Lake Michigan’s northern shore.

As planned, we headed to the Fayette Historic Townsite. In the mid-1800s, the Jackson Iron Company built this company town around two blast furnaces, a large dock and several charcoal kilns on the Garden Peninsula at Snail Shell Harbor.

Fayette once had 500 residents. Today, it’s a well-preserved ghost town. And a walk through the blast furnace ruins and 19 surviving buildings — including an opera house, company store, motel, machine shop and private homes — hints at what the difficult, dirty life of a 19th century industrial town must have been like.

We got back on the road and were in Escanaba, Mich., by sundown. We had dinner at the House of Ludington, a hotel once known as the Great White Castle of the North. Rooms cost less than $100. Not bad for a castle.

Day 5

By morning, my head felt like it was going to explode. So we decided to spend the day on the road, skip our planned overnight in Milwaukee and finish the remaining 347 miles home. After all, this trip was about the journey, not the destinations.

We drove past Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers, to offer up a symbolic gesture — the single-finger salute — on behalf Bears fans.

And we stopped at Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha to get our fix of fancy cheese and blueberry strudel.

The sun hung low in the sky as our electric blue chariot rolled to our final stop.

Circle completed.

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