A Tiger in the U.P.
An adventure is an exciting experience that is typically a bold, sometimes risky, undertaking. Some people are prone to it, and some people are not. Adventure can mean many things. It could be skydiving, backpacking across Europe, or trekking to the grocery store during a blizzard. Generally, I feel it is doing something that could lead to disaster.
I have a friend. He shall remain nameless in this story, but I am sure many of you will suss it out by the end. This friend, while an extremely intelligent and intuitive individual, has built somewhat of a reputation for impulsiveness and occasional irresponsibility, and we all love him for it.
Early this past September, I was preparing to go to the Michigan Brewers Guild U.P. Fall Beer Festival in Marquette, MI. It was explained to me by my friend that “we are going to drive the thing to the UP.” My initial response was, “Who is we?” The “thing” mentioned is his 1973 VW Thing. It is in reasonably good shape for a 46 year old car, but not without its reliability issues. It has gone to other festivals, but always on a trailer. Even with that wise precaution, it doesn’t always go well, or at all. It is small, has no doors, stinks of gas, makes a lot of noise, but it always turns heads and makes an impression. The Tiger (because it is orange with black tiger stripes) is really a lot of fun, around town on short trips.
So when I heard that we are going to drive the thing to the UP, I was hesitant. My knee jerk reaction was to volunteer to drive the rescue vehicle up a day later to sweep up the mess that was sure to ensue. I thought of so many ways this could go sideways. This was going to be a disaster. My wife and I laughed about it, then I slept on it. The next day, both as his lawyer and as his friend, I informed my friend of all the pitfalls and potential hazards of his idea. He looked crushed by my reluctance so I said I would do it. I had decided earlier that morning while brushing my teeth, that if shit was to hit the fan, I wanted to be there to witness. Besides, some people should always travel with their lawyer and their mechanic. This friend is one of those people.
Thursday before the festival, we met up at the Tiger’s garage to find that my friend had removed the rear seats and convertible top, and replaced them with two shiny new jockey boxes and a large fiberglass box to hold 8 sixtels with ice. Beer and ice is heavy. Far heavier than this ancient VW was designed for. Not to mention the legal issues with driving around with taps and kegs in your car. Luckily, my friend’s mechanic got to it before I did. The keg box would hold only empty kegs and no ice for the journey north, and when we get on festival grounds we would support the car with jacks. The other issue was that we were expecting to leave by 10 am. My friend was, as usual, unprepared for that deadline. We still had to CIP the jockeys, pack the car, go to the store for some things, and my Friend had yet to pack his personal items and shower. He had been up all night building his new festival rig. Typical.
After a stop at the brewery that took far too long, we finally hit the road around 1 pm. It was a beautiful sunny day. My friend, full of vim and vigor, lead the procession north out of Ada. I remember the mechanic warning him to keep the car around 45 to 50 mph. While headed down Honey Creek at 65 mph, not but maybe 3 miles down the road, the Tiger hit its first of many stops. Just on the wrong side of a blind hill with no real shoulder, it appeared to run out of gas. No problem. That is why we had a chase car. The mechanic and I ran down to Cannonsburg to get some gas for the stranded little VW and its overeager driver. With the car now refueled, we had another snag. No starting fluid. Because it is an old and primitive design, the car has a mechanical fuel pump. The engine must run to pump fuel. Another trip to the station for starting fluid. We bought it all. Good to go, for now.
The Tiger seemed to be happy. It was a nice day and we were moving. Wait a minute, why is the car slowing down. Somewhere between 12 and 14 mile road on Myers Lake road, we stopped again. Perched atop a deep ditch next to a corn field, the car again appeared to be out of fuel. This was impossible. There was gas in the tank, but it wasn’t getting into the engine. We made my Friend suck gas to the rear of the car to be sure there was no obstruction in the fuel line from the tank up front. (VW Things are based on a Beetle design so the engine is in the rear.) The mechanic deduced it must be the fuel pump because even with starting fluid, nothing was coming through the pump. (We used a lot of Starting Fluid) The mechanic, by some miracle, or some secret network of mechanics new a guy around the corner that so happened to specialize in just these type of machines. He called the guy, and away we went to get a new fuel pump for a 1973 VW air-cooled 1600cc engine. While we were gone, my friend took a nap and his passenger, and bar manager, Haley, got lost in the cornfield.
We returned with a not-new-but-new-to-us fuel pump. The mechanic fitted the part on the side of the road and we were good to go. The mechanic said that he thought it may be something else but that replacing the pump was the easiest option. Haley informed us that she had picked us some fresh corn for dinner tonight. She was unaware that not all corn is sweet corn. We were moving again. It was now 4 o’clock-ish and we had gone maybe 10 miles.
As we got to 14 mile, we drove past the VW bone yard that had saved us once so far. Then about 2 miles past that, my friend once again pulled off the road. 14 mile is a busy road. We pushed the car to a driveway this time. The mechanic did mechanic things and decided that what he had feared could be the only reason for the current troubles. So, one more trip back to the savior. This time I opted to sit and wait and hopefully take a nap. This proved to be unlikely because of the traffic. We were all getting tired and hungry. Haley asked if this is what being stranded on a desert island was like. No Haley, this is not what being stranded on a desert island is like.
About an hour later, my friend and the mechanic returned with stories of digging through derelict VWs in the woods to finally find what we needed. There is a small pushrod that rides on a cam on the crankshaft of the engine. This rod actuates the fuel pump. Armed with a magnet, the mechanic extricated the rod that proved to be faulty. Apparently, in these engines, when pushed too hard, this pushrod can “float” and come out of time with crankshaft. This will cause catastrophic damage to the end of the pushrod and cause it to be too short to fully actuate the fuel pump. The one that was pulled from the Tiger was clearly broken, and must have broken back on that mad dash down Honey Creek Road. Well, problem solved, and we were back on the road.
We all decided to get dinner (what was originally supposed to be lunch) at Cedar Springs Brewing Co. Spirits we low as we walked in the door at CSBC. Taking 6 hours to get to Cedar Springs from Ada is exceptional. We were disappointed and impatient with both my friend, and his quest. Once we all got a beer and some food in our bellies, my friend posed the question. He asked each of us individually if we thought we should go on. The mechanic was clear to say that anything else could break, but the fuel system was good. We all basically thought why not go on. If we gave up and went home, the nay-sayers would win. Besides, we didn’t have anything else to do. So, with all of us infected with my friend’s enthusiasm, perpetual optimism, and sense of adventure, we decided to see where the Tiger would take us next. Mackinaw City, here we come!
We made sure not to let my friend lead in the tiger because he would go too fast. The prescribed speed limit was 45 mph set by the lead car. This lead car was the mechanic and I. As the light faded, we could see a storm on the horizon. The lightning was flashing across the tree tops, the temperature dropped, and the Tiger didn’t have doors or a roof. In Kalkaska after nightfall, and stopped for gas it had started to sprinkle. My friend finally decided to put the windshield back up. Yes, this entire ride had been with the windshield folded down on the front of the car. The question was asked, if we should find a hotel but was emphatically refused. We push on.
By this time, we had another car join our parade. It was another friend of GBCB. He took up the rear post, and kept close so as to obscure the VW’s expired tags. We were leading in a Jetta wagon and the heated seats on. Out of solidarity, we kept the windows down.
We managed Mackinaw City by midnight. Our friends at Beire de Mac put us up in their newly acquired, but unavailable to the public, motel. Literally a Northern Michigan drive up motel. Complete with knotty pine paneling and 60s era bathroom fixtures and furniture. They lived in the manager’s apartment and had some beers ready for us when we arrived. We resolved to be on the road by 6:30 am, fully expecting my friend’s habitual tardiness and foot dragging. We actually hoped to be on the road by 7 am.
The next morning, it was me up at 6:15 am, showered, kicking the figurative trashcan down the aisle. With several solid fists on the doors and an appropriate amount of bellowing, I managed to get everybody up by 6:45, and on the road by 7:15. Not bad. We crossed the bridge. Considering all that we had endured, it was quite the accomplishment. All along, it was my friend’s goal to drive his VW Thing across the Mackinaw Bridge. If we made it there, we would stop and wait for the truck and trailer coming up on Friday. Having accomplished the mission priority, we had breakfast in St. Ignace at The Galley. At breakfast, we all looked at each other and agreed there was no reason to stay here for 4 or 5 hours while the sag wagon came to get us. We go as far as the little thing that could would take us. Into the wilds we went!
Our new objective was Whitefish point. The mechanic had the honor of riding across the bridge and into the UP wilderness. It was still raining. I, being the navigator and weather man, opted to save my turn in the Tiger for when it looked like the weather would break. I thought Grand Marais looked like a good spot to take my turn. We headed to the point. Haley was very disappointed that no one else wanted to stop at Oswald’s Bear Ranch in Newberry. Maybe she would get another chance.
We stopped for gas in Paradise, MI. Remember how we ran out of gas in the beginning? We made sure that would not happen again and stopped every hour to refuel the thing and stretch legs. Every time we stopped, the Tiger drew a crowd. In Paradise a group of muddy jeeps stopped in and it turned out it was a Gravel Bottom regular. He knew me, but I still don’t know who he was.
We made it up to Whitefish point. It is a light house. It is on a point in Lake Superior. A lot of ships sink there. There is a museum about it. Not much else to say about that.
Our next stop was Tahquamenon Falls. It was still rainy and cold. We opted for lunch at Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub. Don’t. There were 3 beers on tap and none of them were any good, the food was tasteless, and the staff clearly didn’t want to be there. It is a destination but a pretty underwhelming one at that. As per usual, in the parking lot, a crowd had gathered around the Tiger. It usually took 30 to 40 minutes to get my friend back in the car and on the road. He never seemed to tire of the question, “What is that thing?” and always answered, “It’s a Thing!” We would take photos of people sitting in it, and posing with the crazy steam punk goggles from the glovebox. We got tired of it, he didn’t.
From the falls we went on to Grand Marais, by way of back tracking by the bear ranch. Sorry Haley, no bears for you. This stretch of road is pretty isolated. No more gas stations, and eventually no more pavement. We were a good hour down the path when the pavement ran out. We were dodging VW Thing sized puddles and seriously second guessing the route we had chosen. But there was no way were turning back. The whole trip was an exercise is pushing on and persevering. Besides, I was still riding in the car that had doors, roof, windows, and heated seats.
Finally, the pavement returned and with it normal houses in normal civilization. Grand Marais had arrived. We refueled and walked across the street to the Dunes Saloon at Lake Superior Brewing Co. When we walked in the door, a group of people cheered and shook our hands. They were from our very own Creston Brewing Co. Small world. The IPAs and the ESB here were great. The place oozed that Yooper charisma. Since it was my turn in the Tiger, I thought I should bundle up. I went into the men’s room, but found that it was less a room and more a closet. Literally, the door only opened half way because the urinal was in the way behind the door. There was a 2 foot wall separating the urinal from the toilet, and you could sit on the toilet and wash your hands in the sink at the same time. It was like an airline bathroom but there were two holes to use. This wouldn’t do for a man of my impressive stature, especially if anyone else wanted to poop and wash their hands while I was changing my clothes. I walked across the street to change in the relative luxury of the gas station toilet.
Finally, I got my turn to ride the Tiger. As we rolled out of Grand Marais, the sun came out and paved roads wound along the Lake Superior shoreline. We got the stereo cranked and I donned the horns. From here to Munising was pretty chill. Once we got onto the main road out of Munising, traffic picked up. We would drive for a ways until we saw a line of traffic building behind us, then pull off and let people pass. Remember we are doing 50 mph tops, and only on the downhill stretches. My friend and I would flap our arms up the hills to help the obsolete vehicle. Many times people would come up on us and be upset till they saw what the holdup was as they went around. We would wave and hit the custom horn on the Tiger. AHOOGA! As this was the only road into Marquette, many of these people were friends from downstate and brewery people headed to the fest.
That drive in the sunshine was amazing. We stopped to get a pic of us in the thing on the lakeshore. When we stopped we dropped the windshield again. That changed the experience. The wind was very loud. Even though we would stay back from the lead car, we still got peppered with unseen road grit. When we wanted to say something to each other, you had to cover your mouth or you would get stuff pinging your teeth. Temporary hearing loss was an issue. Next time, we are getting headsets to protect our hearing and so we can talk.
Finally we rolled into Marquette. I am sure we were quite the spectacle with our wind-burned and windblown grins in a tiger striped VW Thing with no doors, roof, or windshield. Oh yeah, and the kegs and taps on the back. It was time to celebrate dodging some bullets and the unstoppable spirit of adventure.
Yes, it took us 6 hours to get to Cedar Springs from Ada, but it never had another problem. We didn’t think about it until we had a minute to have a beer and decompress in Marquette that night, but of all the places for the Thing to break down, it did it within miles of the only place that had the parts we needed. All the while we had the safety net of the truck and trailer coming behind us at some point. But what would we have done if the Tiger broke again while we were on some dirt road in a blank spot on the map with no cell service?
It could have easily become a disaster, but instead it was an adventure.--DT