GALES OF NOVEMBER: 
MARQUETTE TO DETROIT

by BILL MELVIN aka DOC SPEED

In the fall of 1965, attending Northern Michigan University seemed ideal. Northern, one of the finer institutions of higher learning, is located in Marquette, Michigan, in one of the most remote and northern areas in the country. They had an excellent football team, where I hoped to win a spot as a walk-on. There was a ski hill where I could ski, and the wild terrain was excellent for hunting, fishing, and trail riding. Also, their entrance standards met with my strict personnel requirements. Northern was my school of choice! After a lengthy examination of my credentials, I had enrolled. Truly there never was any doubt, as it was the only school that would accept me with a 1.8 grade point.

Once the first semester was underway, I quickly adjusted to the new surroundings and campus life. Beyond football, gym class, and my fourth attempt at Algebra 1, there was little to distract me from my sports pursuits. I even had time for a part-time job at the local Yamaha shop, and bought a used Yamaha 80 trail bike. When my busy schedule permitted, I would attend an occasional class. It was fantastic for the first few weeks, then rather suddenly it became apparent to me that something was amiss. There were no women. Northern had one female student for every 12 males, and even if the selection was good, I have never had the patience to wait in long lines. It's only human nature. Tell anyone they can't have something and what do they want? I felt like a monk at a monastery, only I hadn't taken any vows.

Meanwhile, back in Detroit, I had left a beautiful, curvaceous girlfriend. I began to call her regularly, then obsessively. Today there has been a vulgar proliferation of phone sex ads everywhere you look. Truly the concept may have had it's origins in Marquette many years ago. My phone bill was astronomical! I decided to hitchhike home for a weekend. It's only 526 miles. Friday afternoon, I stuck out my thumb, and the first car to come along picked me up. The driver, a fellow student, was driving a shiny new GTO and asked only that I should be on the lookout for police. He was going all the way to Detroit, and dropped me off at my doorstep 7 hours and 52 minutes later. I had a wonderful weekend with my girl and returned to Marquette in the same GTO.

That worked pretty well, so in a couple of weeks, I tried again. I stuck out my thumb and the first semi truck to go by picked me up. The driver assured me he was going all the way to Detroit, a slow but sure ride. We traveled about 50 miles, when the driver informed me that he was going to take a short detour, to say hello to an aunt, and we would be quickly on our way again. He talked to the aunt, with whom, due to the nature of their embraces, I assumed he had an unusual relationship. Upon learning that the uncle was out of town, the driver informed me that he was spending the night and would deposit me at a busy intersection where I could easily continue my trip to Detroit.

At 10:00 p.m., he left me on a corner, in the middle of Nowhere. Ten hours later, the next vehicle went by and stopped to pick me up. I had stood in sub-zero weather, with no more on than white Levi's, a light tan jacket, and a madris hat. I nearly froze to death! The three Indians who saved me, loaded me into the back of their pickup, on top of a load of frozen fish. They threw a tarp over me, the fish, and an old pot belly stove and then drove me to the nearest town.

In town I got food and hot chocolate, but noticed everyone was looking at me strangely. When I went to the bathroom I realized why. I was covered with black soot from head to toe, and after a good scrubbing, I looked like a bit less like Al Jolson.

I resumed hitchhiking and a lot of vehicles passed by before a truck driver finally picked me up. I arrived at my parent's home in Detroit, Sunday morning with just enough time to make arrangements with another student for a ride back to Marquette. The one way trip had taken 41 hours, the return 10 hours, for a total of 51 hours, and I didn't even see my girlfriend. Time passed slowly, and in between those long distance phone calls, I planned my next trip to Detroit. Over the Thanksgiving break, I would ride my Yamaha 80 back to Detroit, spend three days with my girlfriend, and then ride back on my Honda CL-72. Sure, it might be very cold, but I would dress for it and at worst it would be warmer, quicker, and safer than the last truck ride.

I left late Wednesday, about 6:00 p.m. As with all rides, it started as an adventure. A clear evening, about 50 degrees and dropping. I let the engine warm slowly and cruised at an unrestrained 45 miles per hour. I was excited to ride home on my own, master of my own fate, and was enjoying the beautiful solitude of the night. I cruised across the upper peninsula of Michigan, and eventually pulled into a roadside gas station to purchase gas.

As was customary in the old days, an attendant ran out and filled my tank. I gave him a dollar, he gave me change, and with a quick look at my watch, I was on my way without ever getting off the bike. Up until that time I had made no calculations of the length of my trip, but as I motored on into the night, I realized that at the rate I was traveling, it would take forever. I increased my speed to 50 miles per hour. The engine was revving hard and the temperature dropped to about 38 degrees. I felt chilled and my mind wandered off to the warmth of a beautiful girl's arms. At 50 miles per hour it was an easy calculation for a fourth year Algebra student to determine that it would take over 10 hours to travel 500 miles. Of course, there would be numerous gas stops and I would have to slow down in some towns and for the first three hours I had only averaged 45 miles per hour.

The picture became very clear; a challenge, a test of endurance, could any mortal ride a Yamaha 80 for 526 miles, wide open, only allowing for gas and oil stops. The previous summer I had won a 6-hour marathon in a closed course Enduro. Certainly riding 10 hours on the highway would be easier than 6 hours in a swamp. A new surge of energy and purpose filled my body, and I held the throttle at a steady, vibrating 50 miles per hour.

The first major milestone of the trip appeared suddenly: a sign noting the upcoming Macinac Bridge (which crossed the Straits of Macinac) and warning of potential high winds. The Mackinac Bridge was the largest suspension bridge in the world at that time. It had been documented that two automobiles had been blown over the guard rails, taking their passengers to an icy grave. Over time, other drivers and cars have disappeared in this area, without a trace, and it is suspected that they suffered a similar fate.

The winds in this area are legendary. They're called the "Gales of November" and go from nothing to hurricane force in a matter of minutes. A song called "The Edmund Fitzgerald" tells of the fate of one of the world's largest ocean-going freighters, snapped in half and sent to the bottom with its crew by the "Gales of November." Around 1:00 a.m. on November 25, I pulled into the toll booth on the north side of the bridge. The attendant said that the winds at the center of the bridge were about 35 miles per hour and that if I wanted to cross tonight, I should hurry, as the winds were picking up and they would close the bridge to travelers when the wind reached 40 mph. Cool! I was just in time, so on I went.

By the time I had traveled a third of the way across, the wind was stronger than I had ever experienced. The wind kept increasing, and I slowed to a crawl and leaned the bike into the wind until the pegs dragged. The bridge is constructed with two pairs of large towers on each side of the center. There's one paved and one steel grated lane in each direction. In the center is a six-inch hump that acts as the dividing line and on the edge of each outside lane, a guard rail about 30" high. As I passed the first tower, it blocked the wind and my bike veered violently to the right. By the time I reacted I was past the tower and the wind blew me in the opposite direction across my two lanes, over the center median, and up to the guard rail on the opposite side.

Terror struck me to the bone. What could I do? I thought about hiding behind the next post, but the winds were getting stronger and stronger and I thought my only chance for survival was to get off the bridge. I continued on and the gusts of wind threw me around like a rag doll, constantly pushing me from one guard rail to the other and once slamming me violently into the rail, very close to going over the edge. Adrenaline shot through my body. I gassed the bike and my reactions became instantaneous and my focus intense. This had become a race for survival. I spoke to the wind "give it your best shot, I'm goiing home!” With determination replacing fear, the contest continued. The wind increased its speed and so did I. We darted and serpentined all over the bridge like two drunks in a bar room brawl. As I left the south side of the bridge, I turned and gave it the finger. The score: Doc Speed 1, Mackinac Bridge, 0.

My next gas stop was Grayling. The constant strain of high speed operation was taking its toll. The engine wanted to die every time I let the rpm's drop, so I kept it revved as I and the attendant filled it with gas and oil. With a lot clutch slipping, I disappeared into the night. There had to have been at least one more gas stop between Grayling and home, but honestly I don't remember anything. I believe I rode the last hundred and seventy-five miles slipping in and out of a deep sleep or trance.

The next thing I knew I had arrived at my parents home. It was 8:00 a.m., and I had been riding the bike for 14 hours. When I turned the engine off, it seized, never to run again. I staggered into my room, went to sleep, and awoke the following day. I had slept right through Thanksgiving. My parents and girlfriend said that I must have been having some type of a nightmare as I kept talking in my sleep about a bridge and the wind.

Bill Melvin

EDITOR NOTE—-We love these kinda stories, don’t you? Thanks and a tip o’ the Editorial Helmet Visor to Bill Melvin aka Doc Speed. Doc is a part-time resident of Mission Viejo, CA and Grand Rapids, MI. He has contributed other stuff to us including his great StepThrough Honda adventures published last September highlighting his teenaged years growing up the Motor City in a gearheaded family. He presently owns 34 motorcycles.

We did some research on the Mackinac Bridge...its center span is 3800 feet long suspended high above the often frigid water of Lake Michigan and the entire bridge spans 5 miles linking the Upper and Lower peninnsulas of Michigan making it the longest suspension bridge in the world.

An interesting adjunct to the bridge is the “Annual Ice Bridge Crossing” where towsfolk walk across Lake Michigan on the ice. The five mile span ices over every year and residents use discarded Christmas trees to mark the safe ice. The safe ice path meanders around making the journey from St Ignace to Mackinac Island and a loop around the town as long as 13 miles. The trees are marked with reflectors so that snowmobilers may findtheir way at night although motorized vehicle use is considered “less than sporting.” The safe ice period varies from year to year and may last anywhere from three days to two months. El Nino prevented the ice bridge from forming in the Winter of ‘97/’98. And they think Californians are wacky.

Joe Michaud

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