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North America: Lakes and States

Scorching May 19th marked best mate John and my long-awaited and loosely planned road trip to North America. This is where we rolled:

Chicago, Illinois

Propping up the southern shore of Lake Michigan, Chicago is the largest city in the Midwest, and a reasonably comfortable 8 hour hop with BA. Logan Square was our suburb of choice; cool and edgy like our aspiring personalities, and the ideal antidote to our tame Norfolk upbringings. We’d rented a spacious apartment through Airbnb, perfectly located two minutes to the diner; four to The Spilt Milk; and ten to the nearest Blue Line metro.

As per tradition, an IHOP stack of blueberry pancakes and bottomless filter coffee kicked off our first full day before heading downtown. Chicago’s 'L' is iconic; elevated in places with macho metallic trains that rattled us into The Loop within fifteen minutes. Overcast, we walked along the Chicago River which cuts between skyscrapers, TRUMP egotistically slapped across the tallest. The river then opens out into mighty Lake Michigan, its scale hard to comprehend. It would later take us 8 hours to drive to the northern shore.

Millennium Park stretches back from the waterfront and is home to the really cool Cloud Gate. The curvy, brightly polished steel Bean makes for a really awesome sculpture, reflecting every angle of the cityscape and great for photos, even in the pouring rain. For an alternative viewpoint, we then headed for the Chicago Athletics Association, the unremarkable hotel entrance hiding a real gem. Formerly an exclusive members club with 14 year waiting list, you can now waltz right in. Take the furthest elevator to the top floor and the doors open to a splendid glass roofed bar called Cindy’s, with outdoor terrace, fire pit and front row views over the Bean, park and lake.

American’s take a real pride in their beers and are habitually forthcoming about the ingredients and origins of their brews. They also tend to be a trifle stronger, so after putting the world to rights, we dined. Personally I’d never heard of Giordano’s World Famous Stuffed Pizza, but with blind faith in their neon sign, we headed in. Ordering the deep dish Chicago Classic between us, the cheesy, pepperoni colossus we were served weighed more than my checked luggage, and fattened me up for a further three days.

...we settled in for a couple of pints of Illinois’ Crystal Lake, Thin Lizzy growling in the background alongside the humid trickle from The Owl’s faux waterfall.

Don’t let the Windy City fool you, it rains hard too - day two was a wash out. Not ones for museums, we opted for bouldering instead. Effectively indoor rock climbing without ropes, there were several places across Chicago to try it. Turns out it's a furious workout, easily offsetting the pizza and hours of air travel. Satisfactorily panting on the crash mat, it goes to show there’s no need to rush around a city’s top attractions to enjoy yourselves; and not a selfie-stick in sight.

Back in the hood, Logan Square’s dive bars beckoned to soothe our aching muscles. We took a gamble on The Owl’s featureless frontage, entering into a dimly lit, empty bar. Committed by this point, we settled in for a couple of pints of Illinois’ Crystal Lake, Thin Lizzy growling in the background alongside the humid trickle from The Owl’s faux waterfall. Being the only punters, the barmaid told us all about the history of the place, formerly a Mexican cartel safe house used for running guns into Chicago. With the ambience, I expected nothing less. Next, we wandered down Milwaukee Avenue to Revolution Brewing – less atmospheric, but oh my word the best plate of food I’ve eaten for several years: slapped down on a prison tray, smoky barbecued chicken, spicy beans, beef brisket, cold-chivey mash and a wedge of cornbread. All this, plus a pint of home-brewed Office Supply for $15. This is why we love the US. The Spilt Milk was on our way back to the Airbnb, and similarly gave nothing away from the outside which was enough to lure us in. Completely different again, a 1920’s pharmacy where medical cabinets display a handsome array of shimmering spirits – the perfect setting for a sophisticated rum cocktail to round off the evening.

Upper Peninsula, Michigan

On Tuesday we picked up our Avis rental car – a comfortable Subaru Forester SUV – and nosed it north out of downtown.The Subaru came with intelligent cruise and futuristic lane control, effectively steering itself around the occasional freeway bend. The city bustle gave way to rolling fields and woodlands as we crossed into Wisconsin, lake houses poking out onto the water. Crossing State lines into Michigan, we entered the Hiawatha National Forest, a strip of woodland joining lakes Michigan and Superior. We rolled into Nahma early evening, a sleepy lakeshore community from a bygone era.

Our Airbnb was a cosy wooden house, one street back from the water. Profiting from the surrounding forests, Nahma was once site of the second largest sawmill in the US, yet today only 50 people live in the township. Turns out we’d missed the train by several decades judging by the fine steam engine sitting dormant on the village green, tracks long overgrown. "Whoaaa, what the heck are y’all doin’ here?" was the welcome from one old boy, who fell rather giddy at tracking down two young Brits in this peaceful backwater. Over 70 years ago, he rang the whistle on the loco number 5 as it plied the lakeshore rails.

Following our morning veranda coffee, soaking up the birdsong and distant lawnmower hum, we drove deeper into the forest, hoping to catch a glimpse of a moose or black bear. The road gave way to a gravel track, weaving its way between a mosaic of lakes and dense woodland, before reaching the shores of Lake Superior. The greatest of the Great Lakes, Superior is the world’s largest body of fresh water, its surface area just shy of 32,000 square miles. From Munising, we took a cruise along the multi-coloured Picture Rocks, the vibrant sandstone formations dappled in the evening sun. After such sophistication, we returned to Nahma and polished off a crate of Busch Light.

The following morning we tracked down a couple of kayaks via the village walkie-talkie, and paddled out across the Bay de Noc and up the idyllic Sturgeon River. Still as a millpond, we floated through the woodland, spotting a few deer and bald eagles, but no prized bears nor moose. As we wound our way out from the trees and back towards the lake, the wind had picked up. At the river’s mouth we faced a wall of rolling white horses – our flamingo coloured craft a poor match for the persistent chop, with black waves chomping at our bows. Wet but back on terra firma, we saddled up the Subaru for a scenic drive along US Highway 2, arching over the lake and down into the heart of Michigan, crossing the 45th Parallel which marks halfway between the North Pole and Equator. After hours on the road, we pulled in to a Holiday Inn just short of Detroit, dining on the best MacDonald’s of our lives.

Since we were so close we swung into Detroit the following morning, and left promptly thereafter. Downtown was a disconcerting array of open carparks and seedy bars. The towering General Motors HQ dominates the waterfront, with a decent collection of racing cars on display. Canada sits invitingly on the opposite bank of the Detroit River, but we were content to hit the road again, heading further south to Ohio. Somewhere between there and there, we ticked over the 1000 mile marker on our drive thus far.

Columbus, Ohio

Columbus Ohio has become my second home, this being my fourth visit in as many years. Not only is the beer good, scene artsy and downtown chilled, it’s also my wife’s hometown. Carly had flown out a few days previously to spend time with family, her parents now living in Columbus’s equivalent of the Savoy Hotel – the 21st floor of Leveque Tower offering splendid city views. Reunited, we all headed to Pins Mechanical, a hipster bar bowling alley, with questionable pints and retro pinball.

Having acquired a small army of nieces and nephews since the wedding, the weekend was spent with family, and John. Backyard basketball was interrupted by a classic Ohio storm, best enjoyed sitting on Grandma’s veranda with home baked cookies and full fat Coke. Temperatures here are wildly humid, making my early morning run along the meandering paths of the Scioto River a hot dripping mess. The riverside area is beautifully done, with a peppering of bronze sculptures, lazy swinging benches and water-fountain-fish.

Now at the halfway point, mine and John’s time together was drawing to a close. He was to continue his journey eastwards, eventually rolling into Boston; and Carly and I had tickets to francophone Canada. We spent our last evening watching basketball in the Short North Tavern, 2 pints, $4. Great friends since school, this was a truly awesome time to top them all.

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