The adventures of a middle-aged man and his belove Yamaha Majesty 400 Maxi-Scooter, Blu-B.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Scooters and Ukuleles: Flint to Lansing along Old M-78

When I’m not riding my scooter, chances are I am fiddling around with my ukulele. Imagine how wonderful and fortunate it is to combine both pleasures? That’s what I got the chance to do a few days ago when Blu-B and I took a trip out to the world famous Elderly Instruments in Lansing, Michigan. Along back roads, of course.

The trip from Flint to East Lansing is primarily along one main road – specifically M-78 or Lansing road, which begins as Miller road in Flint and ends, temporarily, at the 1-69 business loop just outside of East Lansing, Michigan, home of the MSU Spartans. This stretch of M 78 was established in 1931, but the road has a longer history and goes much further west—all the way to Michigan 66 (not to be confused with the more famous, kick-filled, Route 66). A complete history of the road can be found at Michigan Highways.

Leaving from downtown Flint, the first small town along the route is Swartz Creek, a small community of around 5,000. Named for its winding creek, the city’s main drag consists of some nice eateries, a locally popular ice cream shop, and Assenmacher’s Cycling Center, an upscale bike shop that sells brands like Trek and Specialized, to name just a few. They’ll also service any bike that’s ever been made.

Back when my bike of choice had pedals instead of floorboards, I practically lived at Assenmacher’s. Owner Matt Assenmacher, an expert bicycle builder and advid cyclist, has built his own line of racing and tandem bikes as well.

A few miles outside of Swartz Creek, the road becomes dotted with the small farms and rolling hills. At the Genesee-Shiawassee county line, Miller becomes Lansing road, but the scenery remains the same, making for a calm, relaxing ride. Within ten miles, I hit Durand, which at one time was an important Michigan railroad hub. The town still celebrates its glorious rail past with its Railroad Days event every May, but many other things commend Durand as a year-round destination, none the least of which being its historic railroad museum, the Durand Union Station.

While one can find all the fast food they want by staying on Lansing road, a left onto Saginaw street leads to Durand’s downtown and its honest-to-goodness Ben Franklins—what we used to call the “five and dime,” or, more simply, “the dime store.” Okay, things cost a little more than they used to, but it is far from over-priced; I picked up a package of Doritos cheese and crackers for thirty-five cents where the average stop-and-go prices them at around seventy-five. Much like the Flint Ben Franks of my youth, the Durand store sells craft items—from plastic doll parts to popsicle sticks to every shape and size of Styrofoam imaginable—fabrics, various sundries like buttons and zippers, and, of course, toys that, while primarily made in china, are packaged and displayed just like they were back in the 60s—on shelves and hooks. The civil war soldier and farm play sets particularly caught my eye.

My other favorite spot downtown Durand is Nick’s restaurant. Famous for its homemade hamburgers, it is a clean, family-friendly place with a seemingly limitless menu and very well-stocked salad bar. Nick’s wait staff is always courteous and the prices are quite reasonable as well.

Back on Lansing road, a little jog near the I-69 interchange quickly returns you to the routes’ bucolic self. Case in point, the next town west, Bancroft, has its welcome sign painted upon a big, bright red barn. According to Wikipedia, there are only 616 people in Bancroft, but the residents I encounter as I photograph the barn seem genuinely proud to have me take an interest in their community.

Just a bit west of the barn is a short little tunnel of trees shading the road; they certainly proved helpful on the hot, sunny day of my ride. I don’t know why, but I just love it when trees along the roadside reach across to one another in this way. The bend in the road makes the scene all the more beautiful and this is by far my favorite part of the ride.

Next up is the Village of Morrice. Founded in 1839, its welcome sign proclaims the town is both “A Community on the GROW” and “A NICE PLACE TO LIVE.” The 900 people who call Morrice home obviously agree. I did not have the time to explore their downtown, but hope to do so in the near future.

Right outside of Morrice is the larger city of Perry, which, like Morrice, was settled by Josiah Purdy, whose land helped establish the towns. According to the City of Perry website, many of the town’s first building were moved, around 1879, by one of its early residents, Dr. L. M. Marshall. The move allowd the town to be placed closer to the Grand Trunk railroad line which lay about a mile north of the old location.

Perry’s face to today’s interstate travelers at the corner of M-52 and I-69 has numerous fast-food stops for travelers, as well as an adult bookstore that is heavily advertised along east and westbound I-69. Never did stop by that particular business myself. Honest.

The ten minute ride from Perry to Lansing becomes a little less relaxing; where most of Lansing road before Perry is isolated from the expressway, it parallels the expressway up to the I-69 business loop just east of Marsh road. The southern half of that part of the route is still quite scenic, with farms, trees, and interesting looking intersecting dirt roads; the northern part, on the other hand, reveals the light-yet-steady truck and car traffic along 69. My favorite view of this last leg of Old 78 is of the old Pine Garden Chinese Restaurant sign that peeks out among the overgrown grass and trees. Apparently, there is a Pine Garden in nearby Haslett.

A couple of miles along the 69 business loop lead to East Lansing; a left turn on Hagadorn or Abbott will take you down to the same Grand River road noted in my Ypsi trip and onto the Michigan State campus, but having spent eight long years of grad school there, I’m happy to stay on stay on Saginaw and continue towards Elderly. As Saginaw, Grand River, and Oakland (which becomes the westbound leg of the now one-way Saginaw street) converge at the very busy I-127 interchange, East Lansing becomes Lansing proper. There is a decidedly 1950s / 1960s feel to this stretch or road, as evidenced by its Googie architecture and its cool old neon signs, such as the one for Baryames Cleaners that I stopped to photograph.

Heading eastbound on Oakland a few more miles, the scene moves from commercial to a mix of commercial and run-down residential. Two blocks after crossing the bridge over the Red Cedar River, I turn north onto Washington into Lansing’s revitalized Old Town district which houses a number of businesses, including Elderly.

If you play stringed instruments of any type, you most likely know of Elderly Instruments. Founded in 1972, it began as a vintage stringed instrument store (hence the name Elderly) that now sells new and used guitars, basses (upright and electric), fiddles, mandolins, banjos, amps, effects, tons of accessories, and one of the finest selections of ukuleles this side of Hawaii. You can spend anywhere from $30 for a beginning level Mahalo up to thousands for a custom Koolau or vintage Martin ukulele. Being this close to such great instruments is quite awe-inspiring. A week before I saw a rare Martin banjo ukulele featured on the History channel’s hit show Pawn Stars, I had held one in my own hands at Elderly.

The shop is indeed world famous. Its repair facilities are among the finest in the world, and several of its technicians have gone on to found their own boutique instrument businesses. People come to Elderly from all over the world. Last year I met a man there who was circumnavigating the globe on a dual purpose BMW. A few weeks ago I met a couple of ukulele players from Nova Scotia. If there is a heaven on earth for string-playing folks, Elderly is it. To live close enough to motor in on a regular basis is, indeed, a privilege. Those not so fortunate need not despair; Elderly has a thriving internet and phone business as well.

After spending a bliss-filled hour sampling the dozens of ukuleles, I pick up a banjo capo and a couple of felt picks for my ukulele before making my way home along eastbound Saginaw back onto Old M-78. An hour later, I’m home.

A couple of days after the trip, I find myself going for a short ride in Swartz Creek, where I see a man on a side street sitting astride a 250cc Vespa (the modern kind with CVT transmission and a four-stroke engine). I turn Blu-B around and fortunately found the man still stopped at the light. We start talking and he tells me that he knows how to do maintenance and repairs on CVT transmissions. Figuring I had a lot to learn from him, I ask for his name and number. As fantastic as this seems, I swear it is the absolute truth—he reaches into his wallet and hands me a business card; on it is a picture of the custom ukuleles that he builds for a living.

Scooters and ukuleles. The connection is stronger than I realized.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Scooting Around Town: The Linden to Ypsilanti Jaunt

A couple of Saturdays ago, I forced myself out of my "sleep-in Saturday" mode to take my planned road trip to Scoot Around Town, a scooter shop in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I’m perfectly happy with Blu-B, my Yamaha Majesty, but I just felt like test driving a two-stroke Stella, a modern build of what is basically a 1970’s P-Series Vespa scooter made in India and distributed by the Genuine Scooter Company out of Chicago. I’d been there once before—Scoot Around Town, that is—but never on Blu-B and never via back roads.

I had lucked into a beautiful day, with a blue sky and just a slight nip in the mid-morning air. Being early April, the decaying, fallen leaves were competing with the new green growth and most everywhere I looked was either lake, wood, or farm. For those itching to go “Walden” and escape the commercial, this is a perfect route. Outside of a brief business strip in South Lyon and the very urban Ypsilanti itself—not to mention a slight glimpse of the GM Proving Grounds in Milford—this ride offers an escape from shopping, traffic and tension.

My starting point is Linden, a small town in Southern Lower Michigan with a quaint downtown complete with Victorian buildings and a mill that dates back to the 1840s. My route, courtesy of Mapquest’s “avoid highways” option, begins on Bridge Street, the local name for Linden road, which terminates about 30 miles north in Birch Run, famous for its outlet mall and proximity to the chicken dinners at Frankenmuth’s Zehnders and Bavarian Inn restaurants.

After passing Linden’s main drag, Broadway (aka Silver Lake Road), Bridge takes a wide, southeastern sweep of lake and trees before steering me due east along twisty Bennett Lake road. While that first part of the run is just short of three miles, I get another scenic four along the southeast stretch of White Lake, which snakes through a rather thick wood towards Fenton, Michigan.

The first long stretch south is the relatively straight but nonetheless spectacular Denton Hill road, also known as Fenton, Pleasant Valley, and Kensington at various points along the route. Fifteen miles north of where I join the road, it terminates in downtown Flint at one of my favorite eateries, the White Horse Tavern. A lot of lawyers go there; they say the best way to judge a restaurant is by the number of truckers it attracts, but I figure a place that keeps lawyers happy can’t be all that bad, either.

I’d been on Denton Hill before, taking it down to Michigan 59, a major highway that traverses about half of lower Michigan. Last time I was there was at the end of Fall when the colors, though slightly past their peak, still showed vivid orange, yellow and red. Although the route is quite straight, it has numerous hills and some mountain-like views. A little bit south of Fenton, I’m treated to a nine-percent grade that reveals a ribbon of road melting in to the horizon.

Nine miles later, the road becomes Pleasant Valley, where a “Pavement Ends” sign brings a sweeping, tree-lined dirt road that goes on for about a mile. Blu-B, a street bike by design, has always done well on tight-packed dirt and doing 40 is no problem. When the blacktop returns, the eastern side of the road is flanked by a rather high, seemingly endless run of fence. I wonder what someone is trying to keep out—or in—behind the chain-link. No prison in the area; wonder if it’s the Kensington Metro Park, which I have hiked it in the past.

Just as the fencing ends, near the jog at Stobart road, I see a very narrow, high-banked piece of concrete and realize I’ve been riding alongside the western edge of the GM Proving Grounds. Dating back to 1924, it was the first of its type for the industry.  According to Wikipedia, some 4,800 people work among the 107 buildings on the other side of that fence (although probably not on this fine Saturday, as the place seems eerily deserted). The Proving Grounds have eight or so specialty tracks that test performance and safety, including one that supposedly simulates Detroit’s 12 Mile road.

Wishing someone would invite Blu-B and me to sample the high bank, which, if it were orange would look just like a Hot Wheels set I used to have, I press on south past the I-96 interchange where the road becomes Kensington. Another steep grade, this one eight-degrees, provides another amazing vista. To my east now lays the Kensington Metro Park, a popular Michigan recreation area known for its hiking and biking. After a brief eastward jog on Grand River--another famous Michigan road that runs across the state from downtown Detroit to Grand Rapids--I make my way south to my favorite part of the ride, Pontiac Trail.

I know riders are supposed to love nature and nothing beats a scenic view, but my city boy heart stirs at the sight of the strip mall I find about an hour into the ride at Pontiac Trail and 11 Mile.  While I’m not very hungry nor particularly tired, I decide to stop anyway at the Senate Coney Island. While this is not the famous Senate location that lays further south in Oakland county, it’s a clean, friendly place at which I sample the scrambled eggs and, because I have no will power, a cola. The waitresses are friendly to me, the new-comer, but they seem to have a more humorous rapport with the regulars. I considered trying one of their coney island hot dogs, but it’s too early. Being from Flint, I am of the impression that no one makes a better coney than us; the meat in a Flint coney is drier and holds well to the Flint-made Koegel franks. Whenever my best friend, a Flint native, comes home, the first thing he does is get a Flint coney. He’s not the only “Flintstone” that does so. Nevertheless, I remain open minded and am always willing to try a new taste.

Back on the bike, just a mile later, I am sorry I ate so soon. Not that my eggs were coming back up on me or anything like that, but because I have run into the heart of South Lyon, a beautiful community that I immediately fall in love with. Even the MacDonald’s here is cool – I’d never seen one built quite like it. But the place that catches my eye most is Brown’s Root Beer and Sandwich Shop, an old A&W stand from the sixties that I visit on the trip back (more on that later).

With South Lyon in the rearview, I’m back into rolling hills and farmland, the stuff of which Michigan rides are made. After taking a quick eastern jog on Seven Mile, I hit Angle road, the most appropriately named road of this route as it literally angles you towards Six Mile, which I take briefly before turning South on Curtis. At the “T” of Curtis and Six, by the way, is a stunning bright red barn, the focal point of  Three Cedars Farm, which, in the Fall, turns into a farm-based amusement park, complete with a life-size corn field maize and hay rides. Three Cedars is full of retro relics and is an example of what farms must do to survive these days.

I press southward past another five miles of farms, horses and a wonderful sign that thankfully warns,


History is everywhere, too. At Curtis and North Territorial, west of Plymouth, I find the Jarvis Stone School, which dates back to 1857. Now the home of the Salem Area Historical Association, it was in use as a school until 1967, which means I could have actually gone to kindergarten and first grade there. Judging by the names Plymouth and Salem, the area must have been settled by people from Massachusetts, but that’s just my slightly educated guess.

A jog west down Plymouth-Ann Arbor road takes me to Ford road and down the final leg of the trip, North Prospect street. For some reason, Mapquest chose to send me further west on Plymouth-Ann Arbor, back east on Ford Road, and then south down Prospect instead of having me take Prospect off Plymouth-Ann Arbor. I followed Mapquest’s advice, but avoid the Ford on the way back and find the bypassed section to be another lovely, broad sweeping curve. Ford road (also known as M-153), while not as beautiful, is not without history; it was named for Henry Ford’s father, William, for his civic work in Dearborn Township.  This honor was earned, by the way, in 1905, after his son Henry had started the Ford Motor Company, but well before his world reknown.

On North Prospect I find an interesting contrast. Over the course of its five miles, it goes from bucolic splendor to densely-populated urban area. Just past the Chick-Inn (a cool old 1953 drive-in that I regret I did not stop at), horses and trees give way to people milling about at the local stop-and-shop, kids playing basketball—the thriving city of Ypsilanti.

Finally, I hit Michigan Avenue, part of historic US-12, one of the first near-transcontinental routes that went from Detroit to Washington State. Before it was established in the 1920s, the part of the road in Michigan and Illinois was known as the Sauk route, which itself may have been built on an old game trail. This is a road with a history. The heavy commercialism I encounter on this stretch conjures little of that past. No worry, though, as I’ve made it to Scoot Around Town.

Started by Dr. Mike Friedlander in 2004, Scoot has been at its current location at 1180 E. Michigan Avenue since 2005; the shop’s website boasts that it has one of the “largest selection of scooters in the Midwest.” Looks true enough to me. They have a healthy stock of numerous brands, as well as some vintage Vespas—I am particularly struck by a red, early-60s Allstate, which was made by Vespa for Sears.  At $2,500, which in this economy is probably somewhat negotiable, it seems well priced; my personal economic downturn—coupled with what would surely be a jealous Blu-B—prevent me from even thinking about buying it of course. Besides, I'm here to see Stella.

Scoot has quite a few Stellas in stock, including a used side-car model decorated in Maize and Blue (Ypsi is just east of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor). Jason, the incredibly nice salesman who spends a great deal of time with me, requires that I first ride the side-car version before testing the two-wheeler. “It’s really easy to pop a wheelie on them if you’re not careful,” he says. After signing the necessary legal waiver, I find myself wrestling with keeping the sidecar rig on all three tires. It’s different, I’ll admit, and not very enjoyable, so I’m glad when Jason graduates me to the light blue Stella.

Riding a Vespa, with its right-side, rear mounted engine and left-hand shift/cluch mechanism, is different from not only my mount but most motorcycles in general. Unlike Blu-B, with its even, low center of gravity, the Stella’s engine weight makes the bike want to fall to its right. A disconcerting feeling, but easy to counteract. 
My fear of popping a wheelie, coupled with the novelty of clutching and shifting with my left hand, finds me stalling the bike the first time out. No worries. Jason kicks it back to life (there is an electric starter, but the battery isn’t charged) and the smell of two-stroke oil fills the air as the exhaust whirls about my right leg. I finally get it in gear and take a few laps around the parking lot. Never going fast enough to get it beyond second, I’m loving this all the same. I definitely see a Stella in my future, but don’t worry, “Bloobs.” I’ll never leave you!

After the ride, I stop back to look around the shop, but feel guilty for not buying anything. I pick up a “Scoot About Town” license plate frame, offering to purchase it, but Jason tells me, “They’re free.”

Is there no end to Jason’s kindness and generosity? I eventually pick out a couple of license plate bolts capped with little blue reflectors. Very mod. Four bucks later, I’m headed west down Michigan, north up Prospect, past the Chick-Inn, and back into the country headed for home. But not before making one more along the way.

Brown’s Root Beer in South Lyon.

While common sense dictates I should try one of their award-winning coneys, I go with a tuna salad sandwich and a mug of Brown’s root beer, both of which are excellent. The homemade brew has a certain bite to it that is unlike anything I have tasted, and the experience at Brown’s has become the highlight of the ride.

A couple of weeks later, I did come back in the car with my kids and had a coney. Is it possible I’ve found a rival for my beloved Flint-style? My son, who is very hard to please when it comes to food, loved his hot dog, as well as the tuna melt my daughter reluctantly shared. Their favorite part of the meal, of course, were the root beer floats and the free cake celebrating owner Ed Brown’s birthday. Ed is the son of the original owner, Max, who founded the place in 1960. It’s hard to find a place both my kids love, but they are already begging me to take them back. Needless to say, I’m happy to oblige. Have to make it a Saturday though, because Brown’s is closed on Sunday.

As for the end of my Ypsi trip, I ride back a little more full and a little less rushed. I stop to take a few pictures along the way home, including one of the South Lyon hotel, an upscale restaurant I plan on visiting in the near future. This little jaunt, no more than three hours roudntrip, not counting Stella shopping and restaurant hopping, has proven to be one of my most rewarding back-road rides. I may have missed my "sleep-in Saturday," but this dream of a route proves one does not have to travel very far to find a little adventure, history, taste and beauty.


Click here for the map for this route .

Monday, April 26, 2010

Meeting Heroes: Ray Michrina and the Lil Indian

It's rare that one gets to meet their heroes, let alone walk away from them without being disillusioned, but having met Ray Michrina now for the second time, I am pleased to report that my great admiration for the man remains intact.

Of course, back in the day when Ray first impressed me, I had no idea who he was. It was not until years later that I connected him with the man who, along with his brothers, built and marketed the Lil Indian mini bikes I so lusted after back in the mid-sixities and early seventies. To make a long and interesting story short - a story you can read at Ray's Allied Leisure Corp site - Michrina Enterprises began manufacturing Lil Indian minbikes in 1959 (two years before I was born). By the end of 1970, they had sold 9,261 of them.

I first came to know of Lil Indians through my brother's friend Mark, who lived across the street. Mark was an interesting kid; a year older than my brother and six years older than me, he seemingly could do anything mechanical. Like many kids of that era, Mark was always fiddling with something, whether it was helping my brother make a go-cart out of a plywood board, metal roller skates, and a self-propelled lawn mower (lift the handle to make the mower pull the "cart" as the blade throws back road debris) or building a small hydroplane (don't think that one actually worked out too well, but at least Mark survived to tell the tale). One of Mark's best toys was a red Lil Indian with four-inch wheels and what was probably a two-and-a-half horse Briggs and Stratton. It was so much fun to see Mark tearing out of his driveway and illegally down the street, and while I would soon discover Honda Mini Trails, Benelli Dyanamos, Speedway Shrieks, Rupp Roadsters, and Indian Enduros, the Lil Indian would, for me, remain the prototypical mini.

By the time Mark sold his bike (to finance his hydroplane, if I recall correctly), I was still looking and dreaming for hours on end at the Lil Indian brochure - the closest I ever got to "owning" that or any other mini bike. Every now and then I got the chance to see the newer models at Ace's Hardware, which sold Lil Indians and Schwinns among its vast selection of drill bits, screws, nails, and pipe fittings. One year I spent many a visit marveling at the lime green Lil Indian 6000 featured in Ace's display window, convinced that would be the spring that I would get my own mini (after all, my birthday was in April and my first two initials, M.B., could just as easily stand for Mini Bike as it could Michael Bruce).

But it was not to be. The mini bike craze ended by the mid-seventies and I finally got the message that no matter how hard I begged, my dad neither had the money nor the interest in seeing me get hurt to actually follow through with buying me one. Of course, he never totally destoryed my dream; when asked if I could get one, he'd simply reply, "We'll see, we'll see."

In the early 80s, my brother, a mini bike and motorcycle fan himself, went out and bought a couple of Honda 50cc Spree scooters - one for each of us. I soon bought my own used 1978 Honda CB125 and then later graduated to a Yamaha Virago 500. My brother eventually moved from a Honda Nighthawk to a V45 Magna to a Goldwing to a Harley Ultra Classic Electra Glide, but he has since stopped riding. I, however, continued with a series of classic Japanese bikes, a Honda Elite 250 scooter, a Suzuki 650 single, and, as of today, my trusty mount Blu-B, a 2005 Yamaha Majesty maxi-scooter.

While I might have made that long road from mini desire to motorcycle ownership without the Lil Indian, there is something endearing and classic about the bike's simple design that captured my heart. There is also something endearing and classic and very real about Ray. He loved his product, as he loved his work (still does), and I have no doubt that his enthusiam for it was a big part of its charm. This is the second time I met Ray (I met him about eight years ago after doing some research about Lil Indians) and I am just as impressed as I was back then. Ray gave me something to dream about, and my dad - my true hero - was sentitive enough to let me keep that dream alive while doing what he thought necessary to keep me alive.