Following Hemingway: Motorcycle Adventure on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula
By William M. Murphy – July 9, 2014
Iconic author Ernest Hemingway followed his own path in a distinctively adventurous manner. I’ve compared his approach to life to that of motorcyclists, pursuing adventure on lonely ribbons of asphalt, willingly exposed to difficulties they could have chosen to avoid.
There are easier and more comfortable ways to experience life, but Hemingway, and motorcycle riders, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Hemingway spent considerable time in the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and many of his stories are based on events he experienced here. Riding a motorcycle is the perfect way to retrace Hemingway’s wanderings, visiting the same places he enjoyed as a youth and later as a veteran recuperating from wounds suffered in World War I.
I begin my ride in Charlevoix, on the coast of Lake Michigan. Kickstand up early on a perfect morning, I ride U.S. Route 31 north over the drawbridge that spans the channel connecting Lake Charlevoix with Lake Michigan. A couple miles north of town, urban traces are left behind as I ride east on Boyne City-Charlevoix Road, en route to the historic hamlet of Horton Bay. As it winds through a lush countryside of forested hillsides, the road hints at the motorcycling adventures that this ride offers.
After 10 pleasurable miles, I roll into Horton Bay. Hemingway spent many summers here and hung out at the Horton Bay General Store, my first stop. Built in 1876, the store was the center of social life a century ago; if only those walls could talk! Subsequent owners have kept the building much as it was and it is like walking onto a set for a 1920s movie. Besides buying the basics, a visitor can get a homemade lunch, or perhaps an ice cream cone. After a visit with the owner, I retire to the front porch and sit on a bench used by Papa, gazing upon sights he would have seen. This village was important enough to Hemingway that he married his first wife here in 1921.
After the relaxing break, I fire up my Harley-Davidson Road King and backtrack a half-mile to Horton Bay Road (C-71), riding it north to U.S. Route 31 and Little Traverse Bay. The hilly blacktop conveys me past orchards and farmland, with plenty of forested land to provide an “up north” flavor. The air is pure, the sky is blue and my surroundings are grand. Cresting the final hill before U.S. 31, I’m presented with a spectacular view of the bay with sailboats speckling the sky-blue water.
The highway soon delivers me to Petoskey and there are several historic locations here that I want to visit. The first is an old railroad depot, now the Little Traverse History Museum with a Hemingway display. This impressive building is reached by turning left onto Lake Street from U.S. 31. Jesperson’s Restaurant, at 312 Howard Street, is my next stop. This place was Hemingway’s favorite eating and socializing spot when he lived in Petoskey for several months. It is still noted for its home cooking and delicious pies. After a walking tour at other downtown sites, I saddle up and continue north.
East of Petoskey, I turn onto State Route M-119 toward the well-groomed municipality of Harbor Springs. North of Harbor Springs, M-119 is known as the Tunnel of Trees Scenic Heritage Route, a well-known destination road for Midwest motorcyclists. For more than 20 miles, the narrow strip of asphalt, perched on a bluff high above Lake Michigan, sculpts a path of extreme curves and amazing scenery. Admiring the view must take a back seat, however, as full attention is required when carving the curves on this road. It is narrow, has no shoulder and trees line the edge of the pavement. Traffic is minimal and I have the road nearly to myself on this beautiful early morning as I lean through the many curves, working the clutch, throttle and brake in a choreographed dance that every motorcyclist knows well. To say this road is a blast to ride is an understatement.
M-119 ends at Cross Village where I stop to admire Legs Inn. This unique restaurant, specializing in large portions of Polish food, is a destination for many who ride the Tunnel of Trees. Plan to arrive hungry for lunch or dinner. I continue north on North Lake Shore Drive, enjoying more curves through a forested backdrop. At the Sturgeon Bay Trail intersection, I turn left to stay on Lake Shore Drive and soon cross into Wilderness State Park. I unexpectedly find myself riding through a landscape of sand dunes—a distinctive feature of Lake Michigan’s eastern shore.
Lake Shore Drive becomes Lakeview Road and heads east, merging with County Road C-81, which I ride north. Its winding and pleasant path, with many views of the big water, eventually delivers me to Mackinaw City at the southern terminus of the Mackinac Bridge.
I explore Mackinaw City on foot and buy some fudge made famous by local confectioners, putting a portion in my saddlebag for a snack later in the day. Enjoying a rest at the marina, I watch ferries carrying so-called “fudgies” to Mackinac Island, and thrill at the sight of a Great Lakes freighter gliding under the bridge between its two massive towers.
Overcoming inertia, I resume my quest by riding east on U.S. Route 23 along the beautiful Lake Huron shoreline toward Cheboygan. Two miles east of that port city I turn onto County Road F-05, which meanders southward along the Black River and past Black Lake. In 1919, Hemingway escaped to this area in a friend’s Buick, trying to recover physically and emotionally from war wounds.
I ride for many very enjoyable miles on F-05, through forests and farmland that is slowly but surely reverting to its natural wooded state. The lightly traveled road eventually delivers me to State Route M-68, which I follow westward on its sweeping curves. I soon cross the Black and Pigeon rivers, both of which Hemingway knew well. He considered the Black River the best brook trout stream in Michigan and fished it several times. A century ago this land was cut over and blackened by fires. The scars are gone and much of the area today is preserved as the Pigeon River Country State Forest.
M-68 eventually brings me to the town of Indian River and Old U.S. Route 27, which closely follows the Sturgeon River, another of Hemingway’s favorites. My powerful two-wheeler carries me southward on the gently curving asphalt of this historic byway through a land of sparkling waters and verdant forests. The ride is especially rewarding since nearby Interstate 75 carries virtually all the traffic. At Wolverine, I stop at a restaurant/tavern called BS & Company that caters to motorcyclists and is known for good food and friendly service. Hemingway and his companions camped here on one of their trips, enjoying meals of freshly caught trout.
This is elk country, so I keep my eyes peeled for these large ungulates, and their smaller more troublesome cousin, the whitetail deer. Curves and hills become more pronounced and eventually I cruise down a long slope, the V-twin burbling effortlessly, and see a sign for County Road C-48, the road I am to ride westward. C-48 is a joy to ride, possessing the qualities of those special routes sought by motorcyclists. It is called The Breezeway and wends its enticing way through a beautiful landscape.
Eventually I reach U.S. 31 again and turn back north toward Charlevoix. This popular motorcycling route, with occasional spectacular views of Lake Michigan in this vicinity, was once a dirt path called the West Michigan Pike, carrying Chicago tourists to Michigan resorts.
After an unforgettable ride of 206 miles I arrive back at Charlevoix. It’s been a day when I have had to think hard to come up with new superlatives to describe the marvelous natural and manmade attractions and history of this remarkable region. It comes as no surprise to me that Hemingway, who had the wherewithal to explore the best that the world had to offer, counted this small corner of the planet as one of his favorite places. If you ride a motorcycle, I’m sure you’ll agree with him.
(This Favorite Ride: Two-Wheeling with Hemingway was published in the July 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)