Traveling in time—Part one, memories of Ontonagon

July 1, 1993

Our protagonist is tired … tired of the restaurant business. He seeks escape on his motorcycle to the upper reaches of the Michigan peninsula, land of the yoopers. (Actually, he has no plan. He leaves Rockford on his motorcycle and heads out Route 70 to Durand and then follows back roads to Monroe.) Hungry and thirsty, he stops at Baumgartner’s and eats cheddar and braunsweiger, chasing it with several glasses of Wisconsin Club light.

John Huber still owns the place, and he is everywhere bartending and supervising. He recognizes our hero and says nothing, but gives a knowing look. Our hero is still hungry, so he orders some hard salami. He ponders how a place like this would do in downtown Rockford. Pretty well, he thinks; it is the Fourth of July, and the place is crowded. He counts eight employees busy serving beer and cheese sandwiches. How do they pay their bills, he wonders.

He heads out of town. He wants to go far enough west that he misses Madison. He has no definite plan, only a general direction, north. He drives the back roads and thinks about when he first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He thinks about the smells and the sounds, the description of the view out the window of a car being like television. He is glad he is on the bike and not in a car. His calculations turn out to be incorrect, and he runs smack dab into the belt line. He follows it around Madison and then follows a group of motorcyclists out 151.

Circling the Capitol to get to West Washington Street, he sees the Inn On The Park, the hotel with the great restaurant on the top floor, and thinks how many years it has been since he has been there. Better do something about it. Have to have a woman to take, though. Minor problem, probably solvable. Turn right, head out, following 151. Drive a while. Drone, drone, drone, the 1200 Yamaha engine is running smoothly enough. He is starting to get his motorcycle sea legs; the seat doesn’t seem as hard. Better stop for gas again, almost empty.

The group of Harleys leads him around the Capitol. The group of Harleys leads him out of town. Stopped at an intersection, the group of Harleys asks him for directions.

Don’t know the hotel, never heard of it— on his way again. Then at the edge of town, there it is, the hotel they wanted. He remembers the time in Monterey when he asked the people in the Volkswagen for directions to the Hotel Sierra Gorda. They drove all the way across Monterey to show him, then waved feverishly as they drove off.

Seeing signs, Fond du Lac—can’t be! Huge lake on the left, better check the map. Hundred miles in the wrong direction, oh well; 151 goes east, should have taken 51 north. Heading north now on 55, then 47, then 45. Drone, drone, drone; right straight to the UP. Stop for the night in a little town called Pelican Lake. Stop for the magic word, vacancy. Circle the little hotel on the motorcycle. Pass by the little bar and look in. Looks OK, but not sure. Head up the road almost leaving town, but then the Pelican Lake Supper Club, still open. Ten o’clock, better stop. Getting late, turn around.

The big Yamaha seems at home here. Pay the man $30 (cash). Walk down to the Pelican Lake Supper Club. German people with thick accent. Kitchen is almost closed, steak sandwich? Yes, and several gin and tonics; just make it good gin. Then back to the motel bar. Couple of more gin and tonics and then fall asleep in the tiny, clean motel room, empty but for our hero. But back in Rockford, Ill., trouble is afoot. Trouble is brewing, and it is in the form of a dervish, a whirling dervish and a bunch of his friends. In fact, it’s a whole dervish convention. Our hero sleeps soundly, without a care, unaware of the mischief the little dervish is causing.

The next day in Eagle River, only miles from EJ’s (a friend’s), should he stop? Not now, maybe on the way back. Want to get up to the UP. Heading up 45 to Bruce Crossing. Seeing the sign to Ontonagon, thinking about the time he came here with an old girlfriend, and she wanted to dance at the strip bar on amateur night. Didn’t let her, so the next day she took her shirt off and rode the motorcycle bare breasted on the narrow, winding roads through the lush green woods. It was raining when they got to Ontonagon. It was raining when they walked out to the lake in the mist. It was raining when they went to the little bar to drink beer. Good memories. Back in his hometown, it was another story. More of that next week.

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are also available on his Web site: IrishRoseRockford.com and featured on the Chris Bowman Show, WNTA talk radio AM 1330.

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