By MIKE NORTON
Yikes. Festivals to the right of me, festivals to the left!
Hey, I like a party as much as the next guy -- especially if somebody else is buying the beer -- but when Traverse City starts feeling a little too full, I sometimes have to start channeling my inner Robinson Crusoe and get away from all those people! So one day in the middle of last week I got on my silver bicycle and headed out in search of the quietest and most restful landscape I could find.
Not the well-ridden roads of the Leelanau or Old Mission Peninsulas (much as I love them) and not any of the other shoreline trails where I usually ride. I needed to do some exploring, and since the air was cool and dry I thought I’d head for the wide-open skies and rolling fields of Wiliamsburg, in the drumlin country of northeastern Grand Traverse County.
What are drumlins, you ask? Well, they’re long parallel ridges of sand and gravel sculpted by ancient glaciers, and the area east of Grand Traverse Bay is full of them. And since they tend to run north/south (just like our lakes and peninsulas) all you have to do is start heading down an east/west road – especially on a bicycle – and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Roller-coaster! They’re really steep and dramatic a few miles farther north, in Antrim County -- especially around Atwood and Ellsworth -- but the countryside between Williamsburg and Elk Rapids presents them at their gentlest.
The start of my get-away-from-it-all bike trip wasn’t particularly bucolic, since it meant traveling across town and taking the east reach of the Tart Trail out past Acme, skirting East Grand Traverse Bay along Five Mile Road and taking the brief diversion along Bunker Hill and Lautner roads to the final trail stretch (which I’d never tried before) from Acme’s grass-strip airport all the way out to Bates Road.
Bates is the perfect country road, leading north past the paddocks and performance grounds of Flintfields Horse Park and up a steep hill, where you can either take a sharp right followed by a sharp left, or continue straight ahead (in which case you’re now on Sayler Road). Bates is all sharp corners and angles, but Sayler is a much more interesting beast. It tries valiantly to stay straight the way the surveyors intended it to be, but thanks to those pesky drumlins it ends up twisting, turning, climbing and descending in all directions.
It’s great riding, through a very pastoral kind of landscape: a place of wide cornfields, sun-drenched orchards filled with ripening apples, pears and a few late cherries, and pastures where beef cattle graze in happy ignorance of their impending second careers at Steak ‘n Shake. When you get to the road’s end, you can take a turn to the left on Yuba Road and down a lovely corkscrew hill to the Yuba Creek Natural Area, a wonderful spot to get down from the bicycle and hike.
Here, even though you’re just a few hundred yards from the traffic on US 31, a high wooded ridge screens out the ambient noise and you wander up a trail that follows the creek (mostly invisible and inaudible) through the bottom of a shallow valley filled with tall grasses that are alive with small birds. Across the valley, some decidedly large birds – a pair of eagles – keep watch in a tall pine for unwary prey. (Why do I always feel like prey when I’m around eagles?)
Just across the highway is another great little getaway, Acme Township’s own Sayler Park, right on East Bay, where people often schedule big family and office picnics. But I headed back inland to meet up with the original Bates Road and follow it to its northern end, near the Maple Bay Natural Area (a much wilder stretch of shoreline) where the hillsides were filled with sunflowers that were just raising their heads to the light.
By then it was time to turn around. A ride in the countryside is especially good when you’re on nobody’s schedule but your own and it doesn’t really matter how long you take to get where you’re going.
So I dawdled. I’m an excellent dawdler. I wandered up little dead-end side roads. I stopped to watch a vulture circling slowly in the sky above me (nothing personal, I hope) and found a lovely crystalline pool in the woods that would have tempted me for a swim if the water hadn’t been bone-chilling cold.
I said hello to a couple of other cyclists, some hikers and a farm animal or two, but for the most part I gave my social skills a much-needed rest. It was a good day. I recommend it.