Words by Warren Stoddard (@warrenstoddard
Photos by Liam Kennedy (@chopperchug)
Around this country, there are places where time has seemed to stand still, where people have refused to honor the passing of any torches or the changing of any tunes. Many stagnate. But others, a small few have found something worth holding on to, unattainable by any modern fascination with convenience, luxury, or mass-produced corporatized individualism.
Rockford, Illinois is one of those places. Or so Liam told me. I had wished him safe travels, and he told me to come with him “If I wasn’t soft.” They were going to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a far-off trip of a lifetime for a boy from Texas now living in Birmingham. It was hard to pass up. I packed my bags that afternoon when I got home from work and took off north on my ‘68 the next morning, stopping on the way to Nashville only for gas and a pre-dawn phone call to the office.
“I hope you don’t fire me, but I totally understand if you do. I just can’t miss this trip.” Either you can go and be talking about the trip forever, or work and spend the money in a week.
Once in Nashville, we loaded our bikes in the back of Liam’s pickup. I know, I know, trailer queen, yada yada… fuck you, it was comfortable, he drove while I napped, and we were bound for Indiana. In Lafayette we unloaded, drank perhaps a bit too much whiskey with our host, Chad, and left early the next morning under a foggy sky and heads clouded by hangovers.
The backroads through Indiana and Illinois tracked just about straight as the interstate wherever you were, either side dotted with flooded-out farm fields and grain silos. Some stereotypes exist for a reason, but there was something inherently American feeling about riding those roads and stopping at the crests of gently sloping hills seeing nothing but rows of the first sprouts of the year’s harvest stretching to the horizon line.
And the thunderous sound of some twenty Harley-Davidsons pulling up was no less American.
The Tramps MC are a club based in Rockford, Illinois. Their prerequisite to wear the Gaelic TRAMPS rocker over a winged wheel on your vest? “Ride a pre-1985 Harley, and don’t suck.” It is an ode to the early days of motorcycle clubs: the days before all pronouns were replaced with “brother,” skull bandanas were not the pinnacle of high fashion, and all that mattered was that you modified your motorcycle radically. Stretched and rigid frames, sissy bars reaching for the sky, and all manner of wildly bent handlebars were on display when they leaned their bikes on the kickstands, grinned, and cracked the first beers of many that would be shared uproariously around the fire that night.
Naturally, it could be expected that the start the next day was not an early one. We limped out of the gate. Everyone was hungover and two bikes couldn’t even make it out of the driveway, but there was no shortage of handy mechanics standing around the motorcycles that needed attention. Before long we were off east again, trotting gently along backroads until we hit the outskirts of Valparaiso, Indiana, where traffic moved at a motor-melting snail’s pace.
A few other Tramps met us along the route that day, including Rado and (my personal favorite bike on the trip) his jaw-dropping, fully molded burnt orange shovelhead. Once we were out of traffic, that thing was scorching down the highway with the fastest of the group. As usually happens on these sort of rides, where the pack reaches nearly from one horizon to the next, gas station parking lots turn into day-drunk bars, and the mileage goal you had set for the day soon becomes unattainable, and when the cold Michigan darkness began to creep in the Tramps did some satellite searching on Google Maps and found a nicely secluded grassy spot just behind a truck stop, which I’m sure was solely used for strolls through nature and peaceful peanut-butter-sandwich picnics when they were worn out from the road. We lit a fire and used it for a party.
In the morning, we had to borrow a welder’s torch from the shop next door to fix a springer, and in no time, she was road worthy again. We were working our way up the pinky finger of Michigan that day, making good progress through the pine trees which grew ever denser and taller as you travelled north, when somehow, we were separated into two groups. “Just go north, you’ll get there eventually.” The lake to our left sent hard breezes in from its waters when we saw it, but in the cover of the trees the air was placid. The sun even began to shine from behind the clouds and we got some t-shirt riding in across the crests of rolling hills up to Traverse City. All the bars in town were still closed, so we pressed on northward after clamping down a loose coil with a zip-tie.
Here’s the part where I warn the kids not to do drugs. We were having a great time, a fucking blast, talking at the gas station, chopping it up like the best friends that the road makes you, when I thought it would be fun to hit the THC pen. Boy was I wrong. First off, kids, don’t hit it like you do your Juul, or your vape rig, or whatever the fuck those things are called, because you will be off your ass. Once we left the gas station I knew I had fucked up when (and I shit you not) this thought popped into my head listening to all our motors roll down the road beneath the pine trees and the pink-lit sky: “This is the power of the pack!” I said it in my head like Hulk Hogan or that weird voice from the Power Rangers would. All I needed was a skull bandana or a color-coded suit.
After we got to the most unbelievable little field camp spot behind the local VFW, things did not improve. At a certain point, I thought the pizza delivery guy was a hitman hired by the Turkish government to kill me and give my bike to the Tramps as a reward. I was straight up not having a good time. Only once everyone had finally caught up with us and laid out their sleeping arrangements did I finally lay down in my sleeping bag, fighting off sleep, fearing for my life, looking up at a sky scattered with the most brilliant salting of stars.
But in the morning I was not dead and the world was covered in golden light. We fixed a couple of bikes in the shade and had a couple more shit the bed when we first rolled out, but soon we were putting through the Trail of Trees, a 15 mile or so stretch of road enveloped in bright overhanging branches, a well-travelled scenic byway to the Mackinac Bridge. Unfortunately it was well-travelled enough to be riddled with potholes, but after dodging them for a while we were soon ripping down a four-lane highway under the sun and a blue sky, then across the Bridge. Over 26,000 feet long and 200 feet high, the Mackinac Bridge is effectively the equivalent of holding a piece of al-dente spaghetti at both ends between your hands. The bridge is known to sway and wobble, and several cars have been blown off it by the winds the Great Lakes whip up. As soon as you hit it you could feel the force, and keeping your bike steady was something to be paid very close attention. In the left lane, you could watch through the grid beneath your feet the water passing some 200 feet below.
On the other side we paid the toll and were in the UP. And though it was the destination, the reason for this whole Tramp Trip, the UP was the shortest leg of our journey. Highway 2 runs for maybe 100 miles between pine trees in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so we took our time, soaking in the sun and the crisp air rolling off the waves to our left.
We stopped in at a bar in a no-name town I couldn’t have remembered anyway. It was many of the guys on the trip’s first time back in a real life bar in months, and we all made good use of the opportunity to order pasties and pretzels and Pabst Blue Ribbons and pill-shaped mystery shots. We found a field nearby on the shores of the lake, rode our bikes out into it, made a fire, and kept the party going until very late in the night, though none of the other guys wanted to have 4 AM slow races. Cowards. All of them.
As it always does nearing the end of a trip, the beer stops in gas station parking lots get longer, the laughs are heartier, mistakes are forgiven, and wrong turns are entirely justifiable. Crossing the Wisconsin state line, we made one, and it led us down an incredible back road, filing through flooded-out fields, hairpin twists, and a lot of smiles dodging water that had spilled onto the asphalt on the way to the Wisco Speed Shop. For Liam and I, our Tramp Trip came to an end there, looking out of picturesque green hills dotted with red barns. After two or three of “one more beer,” we split off from our new friends, booked it for Milwaukee, stopped in for the night with Scott Johnson, who helped drag us off the side of the road following a three-mile-an-hour fuckup. But we won’t talk too much about that.
The next day we stopped for some quarantine rips around an empty Chicago with Bobby the Leg, made him eat the tourist’s deep dish, and took off for Indiana again. In the last fifteen miles of our perfect ride under beautiful skies, we got dumped on. You could see the raincloud coming for twenty miles. It rained hard, then it passed and the trip was over. And when it was gone you missed it, like something loathed and then lost. The sting of things an important piece of you.
If there is something to be taken from any of this, whatever any of this is, is that out “there” is where it’s all going to happen, “there” is the only place you’ll find it, so go. Fuck work, vacation forever. You won’t regret it, and you may find something you thought you might have forgot.