Of Gravel. Dirt. Roads & Paths.
A moonlit bike camping adventure through Illinois Indiana Michigan and Wisconsin.
The idea for the ride was conceived by Out Our Front Door Organization's very own Kyle Trebotich on an excursion from Starved Rock State Park and implemented and designed by Anna H. a Chainlink race team member and an OOFD Field Guide, Thomas TK a donor for Working Bikes, and Andrew the Prairie Rambler from The House of OOFD. Together the three of them set off from Chicago.
The 4x4 Bike Tour is a bike-camp ramble through four States, four breweries, and done in four days all while using four modes of transportation. Hence the name. It takes you through the States of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin where you will be greeted by beautiful people, discover new landscapes to enjoy, and not to mention crossing big blue Lake Michigan by Boat.
Although the path may change and the places and people you will visit will become anew, what does remain the same is that you bike 4 states and 4 breweries by using 4 modes of transportation done in at least 4 days. Hint, one transportation mode is your bike.
With a little creativity and ingenuity you can imagine the possibilities of what this weekend getaway can look like. So we encourage you to to explore your own path.
Story, map, and route down below.
Go get lost and you will find something new...
Nature abounds on the path less travelled
The 4x4 Bike Tour
Chicago | South Bend | Kalamazoo | Grand Rapids | Muskegon | Milwaukee | Kenosha | Chicago
The Route travels through a mixture of varied terrains, with heavy dose of country gravel roads and miles upon miles of paved bike paths. When going on the 4x4 Tour consider your tire size to accommodate:
The Terrain Traversed and Into The Open
Their Adventure began in the Chicago flat lake plain as they boarded the classic South Shore Train Line, an interurban commuter rail line hugging the southerly shores of Lake Michigan traveling between Chicago's Cultural Center and Indiana's South Bend International Airport. The rail line boasts full dedicated train cars designed for bringing your bike on a train simple and easy and sets a standard the nation should take notice. It passes through city, industry, nature, and depicts the spirit of travel with an impressive set of vintage travel posters by the which of any backpacker, hiker, or traveler would appreciate; featuring landscapes and stops such as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore where one could spend the day and night here visiting it's many stops. But onward they went to South Bend's Camp Eberhart and to their first brewery South Bend Brew Works.
Camp Eberhart is a local yard spot where you must have an "in" to be able to pitch a tent and it is here the three of them set up tents between backyard tomatoes and pepper plants. Warm showers is a community of bicyclists and those who support them.
We stopped in a radical new giveback brewpub called South Bend Brew Works in downtown South Bend, Indiana featuring on-site brewed beer and bottle-cap donations. A business that benefits its community and the people who visit by.... drinking beer! So how does it work? When you purchase a drink or a flight you are given different colored bottle-caps which represent different donation denominations. When you are ready to give your donation at any time you walk to the community pillar, which features descriptions of local organizations and what they are currently involved in. From here you drop your bottle-cap in any community jar of your choosing and then drinking beer never felt so good.
Passing State Lines Indiana to Michigan Day Two
Welcome to Pure Michigan where we encountered our first gravel road, the smell of grapes, apples abound and Bells Brewery. Bell's Brewery in Kalamazoo has a striking first impression when you walk in as the sun gleams through their custom stained glass windows between their traveler decor lining the walls, as well as drinking a seasonal beer only available onsite. Whats great about the 4x4 tour is that you can change the camp or brewery anywhere along the route. Maybe we'll try out another place like Territorial Brewing Company or maybe we'll come back and try another beer here at Bells.
Arriving To Camp Fort Custer:
We entered by night through worn paths of an old meadow prairie and an old abandoned road. Talk of cougars was the topic of conversation as we searched to find some legitimate road. The night was foggy and the ground apprehensive as we stumbled and swayed through the darkness passing by three lakes as well as the Kalamazoo River, through high rolling meadows, soggy wetland, and abundant woods before making it to camp.
Fort Custer Recreation Area comprises of 3,033 acres located between Battle Creek and Kalamazoo. The terrain is typical of southern Michigan farm country, with second growth forests and remnant areas of prairie. Prairie restoration is in progress with excellent results and trail system. The area, originally farmland, was acquired by the federal government to establish Camp Custer, an induction and military training center for the U.S. Army during WWII. The land was deeded to the State of Michigan under President Nixon's Legacy of Parks in 1971.
To their surprise, each rider brought a specialty item to fire. Anna brought the flint, TK brought fire starting lint, and Andrew brought his kindling maker, the log splitting hatchet. A couple of good warming tips for any camp fire: One don't chop a finger off. Two start a morning fire to dry off any damp clothing from the mid-night dew To do so: Restart a small fire with the hot coals from the night before. Stir up your ashes to expose any large coals which didn't burn all the way through. Gather them into a pile and place kindling of small twigs and leaves on top. Then blow air at the base of the coals to achieve a flame. Add larger pieces of twigs and logs to grow the fire. Then dry off your clothes while you make breakfast.
Day Three The North County Trail...
Horses. Woods. And the Single Trek trail
After Fort Custer we traveled out with sunrise on our skin alongside Battle creek and traveled north towards Grand Rapids and through the great woods.
Segments of the 4x4 tour intersect with the massive cross country path known as the North Country Trail, the longest National Scenic Trail in the United States passing through 7 states and 12 National Forests. Once you start to understand the scope of the trail, you can begin to imagine where you might spend your next hiking and camping trip.
The North Country National Scenic Trail is a footpath stretching approximately 4,600 miles (7,400 km) from eastern New York to central North Dakota in the United States including New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota, it is the longest of the eleven National Scenic Trails authorized by Congress. As of early 2017, 3,009 miles (4,843 km) of the trail is in place.
When you near Yankee Springs Recreation Area you will start to realize why this trail is unique but before we entered the forest we did have to cross some roads....
May all past souls rest in pieces...
Something needs to be said about how the amount of animals and insects smashed by moving vehicles could be decreased and how this ever increasingly problem can be addressed, but more should be talked about on why so many people love to throw couches onto the side of the road. Especially in the middle of nowhere! We came into contact with one of these Couch Throwers and politely asked him for an interview. The following conversation perused:
Why do you throw couches?
Bob sat back down on his couch doing what he does best, taking in the farm field views from his road side couch providing myth to legend, as we saddled up on our bikes and were off again.
In Nature, one must pause to reflect...
There came a time where we had to get off our bikes, walk through the woods and eventually came to a halt. There is always a peaceful moment had one you come to a stop in nature and just listen.
We heard the majestic Pilaeted Woodpecker, a deep echoing drum tapping amidst the canopy as we tried to glimpse one of the biggest most striking forest birds on the continent. With its bold white stripes down its neck and a flaming-red crest upon its head the Pilaeted Woodpecker can drill holes the sizes big enough for owls to live in them. Seeing or hearing one of these birds is sure sign of healthy large natural habitat such as the Yankee Springs Recreation Area.
The Yankee Springs Recreation Area lies within the Kalamazoo Interlobate and has a unique topography. Dry-mesic Southern Forest and Battle Creek are on its west half in a flat Outwash Plain with major streams flowing through the it. The east half of Yankee Spring Recreation Area consists of the narrow hilly bands of end moraines at the northern edge of the subsection, and also has sandy features that run roughly north-south.
If you prefer to ride on flat ground, then I would suggest riding in the flat out wash plain west of the park... though how can you bypass such a beautiful landscape filled with abundant wildlife in the hilly forest? Yankee Springs Recreation Area was once the hunting grounds of the Algonquin Indians and the famous Chieftain, Chief Noonday. The site was established in 1835 and the village was made famous by Yankee Bill Lewis who owned and operated a hotel along the stagecoach run from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids.
But sometimes forests hold a darker side as we came to learn before exiting the park: The Dead Mans Hand. As we paused in the shade before exiting the forest, Tk noticed a degraded rolled up tarp in a ditch. At first we didn't think anything of it, but as time passed with nonchalant conversations some other haunting questions started to arise as we kept glancing back into the ditch. "Does the tarp look like something's in it?" Kind of. "It's rolled up almost as the same size and shape as a human?" No one really dared to answer the question, we kind of just stared at each other hoping that's not the case. "How did it even get here in the first place?" Someone could have dumped it. "Lets get out of here." Wait, what if there is someone or something in there? We can't just walk away from this... someone's sister, father, or mother could be looking for them and we need to provide them closure. "Who's gonna go down there and check?" We all just stared at each other again. "We at least need to call the local authorities to have someone check it out." But that would mean we would have to wait for them. So Andrew went down to confirm if there was anything inside. As he climbed down the steep slope, he tripped and almost landed on top of the tarp but he saved his footing and slowly climbed down. He looked up at the other two then down at the bag. He gave it a kick, hoping it would't thud. As his foot touched the trap, the rolled-up-bundled-up tarp moved. Turns out it was just an empty rolled up tent.
Pulling into Middleville with no regrets...
Do you ever feel people in a village retain the positive qualities of a life from a time past, while still offering opportunities for the future? That's what happened to us when we came to Middleville Michigan, the midpoint of “Good Intent”. Middleville served as a place for passengers to find hospitality and refreshments during the stagecoach era and is the middle point between today's ride destinations, and wouldn't you know it... hunger and thirst stuck us at that moment when we came into town. We stopped in the "Top 4" German restaurant in all of Michigan, Cherry Valley Hot Dawg: The Diner Scoops & Das Kirschtal Essenhaus, set and fused as a classic 50's diner. Today the citizens of Middleville continue their satisfaction of sharing with others the quality of life they enjoy such as Lee the Diner Man who served us our food and his hospitality. Hint: Lee may well be the next mayor of this town when you visit or if not mayor then the local historian in due time with his historical knowledge and his trivia.
What is the only CONTINENTAL state in america that has water surrounding its north, west, south, and east borders?
Answer: The Great state of Michigan Lee proclaimed! Most people don't view Michigan as water state but Michigan's U. P. (upper peninsula) and the main body all share a body of water.
Tap to reveal answer
Today, Middlevillve uses the stagecoach as a logo for the village to represent its good intent past and its future. So if you ever happen to come along this way be sure to check out this quaint charming town and receive an official German good-bye, by Lee himself. Onward to the next stop...
"Two decades ago, we dropped everything to chase our dreams. Some supported us. Some doubted us. Most didn’t even take notice. But by sticking to our instincts, rather than chasing trends, we were able to turn our dream into a reality. That mentality has been at the heart since the beginning, not only to make sure we live with no regret, but to encourage others to do the same." This is Grand Rapid's Founders Brewery and this is was our stop.
Finishing our drinks we head to our most peculiar tent camp spot yet.
Camp Steamboat and The Peculiar airport...
Night was approaching and an unexpected rain storm came through that neither the weatherman nor any phone app could have predicated. With only a few miles left, we rushed into camp and hurried down the plank as fast as we could. On the deck we pushed thickets of mosquitoes out of the way by the handful until we were greeted by a lovely young ginger woman, our camp host at Steamboat Campground. She told us the land used to be an old Steamboat Landing then turned quarry, then turned campground with a small airport and River Boat. (Now were talking modes of transportation!) We checked in on the Grand Old Lady Riverboat under the cover of night in the rain and started a fire. Dinner was made in tin foil packets of potatoes and onions with flank steak cooked directly over the fire on a stick next to the natural sand Grand River.
The Grand River extends from Somerset to Lake Michigan and is the longest river in the U.S. state of Michigan. It runs 252 miles (406 km) through the cities of Jackson, Eaton Rapids, Lansing, Grand Ledge, Portland, Ionia, Lowell, Grand Rapids, and Grand Haven. If you want you can take the Steamboat from here all the to the lake with party, music, and an old time feel. The river's original Native American name is called the O-wash-ta-nong, meaning "Far-away-water", because of its length.
On Sunday morning we checked out of Steamboat Campground in Grand Rapids and rode along the river and climbed out to some hilly views. It was a blast and a great transition into the next portion of the ride where we rode miles of flat path.
West we shall go to big lake. To become unruly...
Miles and miles of paved Trails through farm field and Maple Woods.
The Musketawa Trail is a slice of pure Americana. Set against the backdrop of rural America, your journey takes you through small country towns and wide expanses of farm fields, marshes and shady woodlands. It's a peaceful, comfortable ride or past quintessential farms with plenty of birds, butterflies and natural beauty to keep you entertained along the way. The entire length of the trail is paved with asphalt at 12 feet wide and 26 miles long. The Musketawa Trail earned its name in a contest; the winning entry combined the two counties through which it passes: Muskegon and Ottawa.
The snack decision was already made when we saw the mouth watering pizza in the window as we pulled up to a small town speedway. With 20 different flavors of Slurpee we had to try at least 4. In the shadow of a small tree we had our fill of snacks and we were off again. West we shall go to the big lake.
Unruly Brewing is all about being unruly "it’s about being creative, and living life in high contrast with a punk-like attitude. It’s getting up in the morning and giving yourself a big high-five in the mirror. It’s diving into the frigid cold waters of Lake Michigan with your board beneath your chest to grab that last killer wave of the season, or opening the door on a single-prop airplane 10,000ft in the air and jumping out with only a nylon sheet the size of your living room strapped to your back. It’s starting that business when everyone told you not to. It’s about being real, bold, and kicking ass in all that you do."
I guess we couldn't have agreed more as we decided to have another beer as time was counting down for our ferry departure.
"What time is it?!" "Who cares! Keep riding!" Are we gonna make it? Just go faster!! Faster, faster, faster we rode all along Muskegon Bay's open waters towards the ferry, pedaling our hearts out to catch the boat on time. We pull up to the boat sitting on the dock as a gentlemen says "Welcome to the Lake Express Ferry, you just missed your boat." as the horn blows and we stand there with hands in pockets.
Maybe we were being disorderly and disruptive and not portraying discipline or control. Or maybe we were just having an unruly chill time, whatever the case may be we did what travelers do best, kick ass and make the most of an unexpected opportunity. We decided to go hit the beach and swim in the lake. We drank another beer on the Deck and had some eats, and watched a beautiful sunset at the lighthouse before boarding our moonlight trip across the great lake of Michigan at 11pm. We couldn't have asked for a better misfortune before boarding on our moonlight mile trip.
Moonlighting across Lake Michigan...
boarding ship of waves and moonlight
The Lake Express Ferry is not a steam boat nor fancy yacht, and its name only hints at what it's meant to do; fly upon the open water's of Lake Michigan. With wind on our bodies atop the upper deck we became giddier than a bunch of school children by stepping and leaning into wind. The Moonlight provided a calmness on the water to this highly anticipated ride. Down below the Smurfs movie was playing in our section while the VIP section viewed Ghost in a Shell and so, in tired eyed fashion I grabbed a cup of coffee and began to read a book given to me by a friend titled: Cottonwoods and The River of Time: On trees, evolution and society, as we all dozed off to bed on this smooth travelling water vessel. We awoke on the western shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin's Milwaukee and saddled up to meet our most interesting host yet.
We arrived to our Warm Showers host who is the head goof ball at Vulture Space bikes Co-op in Milwaukee. It was late at night as we trotted lightly from the backyard to some steps and into his homie attic. Nic-nacks were abundant on all the shelves and this gentleman's personality (whom I never met before) was shining through. I immediately felt at home and was looking forward to meeting our host as we settled in for the night next to a sprawled out impressive stamp collection. We met Evan in the morning brushing his teeth as he welcomed us into his home, his guest house, and his a warm and welcoming space over a cup of coffee with some good friends in the garden.
The Vulture Space is a do-it-yourself bike shop where you can make use of their work stands and tools to learn how to fix, maintain, and build bikes! If you ever have the chance to visit we highly recommend dropping in and meeting the man and concept behind this vibrant community. Check out their mini documentary above.
Community and the path shared -Chicago...
In the words of Ken Francis: "Most of us have experienced the wonderful generosity of others while we were on the road. These experiences, along with weather, terrain, mechanical and internal conflicts, shape the essence of the adventure. The journey becomes something much more meaningful than just the accumulation of miles." Right he is.
It is something how ambitions and dreams come together on the open road where we find ourselves in places we may find foreign yet share a resemblance of ourselves. Meeting Evan from vulture space, Lee the Diner man, The Steam boat camphost, The Founders Brewery worker, all the different cyclists on our path, and everyone we met, was and is an expression and extension of ourselves. That the journey does become something much more meaningful than just the miles accumulated, it becomes a realization of the community we already belong to and foster, a community of Unexpected Adventures.
As we passed the house with the waterfall along the Kenosha bluff trail system we took in the last remaining views of the lake from above and stopped in for one last burger near the North Kenosha Train Line before chooglin on the rail to Chicago in order to give back to a place we all call home.
When the wind blows, theres a face you know on the road and my dreams are rolling on down the railway line. I'm gonna warm my bones under strange new skies and I'm dreaming. I'm gonna go ridin' down your moonlight mile...
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"To immerse , educate, preserve & advance the history, culture, trails and native habitats of the Lower Lake Michigan Basin Area"