Door County, Wis., Sept. 25–28—One thing we’ve learned here at THUNDER PRESS, being the clever crew of thrill-seeking adventurers that we are, is that anytime one gets an invitation to tour an unusual location, one does not hesitate. Instead, our motley crew tends to jump on such offers like monkeys on a cupcake so when the daring and highly curious THUNDER PRESS crew got an invite to ride the back roads of Wisconsin out to a place called Death’s Door, we jumped at the chance. Mostly because, well, we’d never realized there was really was such a place. Then to discover it was actually possible to get there via motorcycle and without any nasty dealings with any otherworldly creatures, we started checking out the maps. It sounded like one of those kinds of experiences you can’t pass up. Since we were on the opposite side of the continent, we loaded up our gear and headed straight to the nearest airport.
Arriving about the same time as several other curious motojournalists, we met our hosts and bombed over to grab rental bikes from the House of Harley-Davidson dealership, where a line of shining bikes sat waiting, complete with each rider’s name taped to the windshield. Our gang of madcaps would include riders on a Sportster, a Heritage, a Street Glide, a Road King and a Tri Glide. After a brief tour of the facilities and a chance to meet all the extremely friendly folks who are part of Milwaukee’s legendary dealership, we discovered the helpful crew at the full-service facility will not only organize tours for riders and groups, but will also pick you up from the airport and deliver you to your rental bike. They even offer GPS routes to help you along your way, but we had Jeff Larson from the Landmark Resort aboard his Heritage as a guide to escort us on our sojourn into the mysterious recesses of the area of Wisconsin known as Door County, so we were set.
After a trip through the MotorClothes section, we blasted over to check into our night’s digs, which happened to be at the kitschy-cool Iron Horse Hotel, a converted old warehouse nestled next to the railroad tracks in the historic Tannery District of Milwaukee. Earplugs were thoughtfully provided bedside in case a rambling freight train interrupted a night’s sleep, but none of us found need of them since the building was well insulated and quite comfortable. The upscale, one-of-a-kind hotel, which includes a bar and restaurant options, is within walking distance from the Harley-Davidson Museum.
If you’ve never been to the Harley-Davidson Museum, you need to book yourself a trip to check it out immediately. No kidding. It’s an experience like no other if you’re at all interested in motorcycles or the colorful Harley-Davidson history. It’s an all-inclusive experience and one of those places that could take days to tour, as far as we’re concerned. Offering preferred motorcycle parking, there’s a great restaurant and bar right on site and you can never see everything the first time through, so be sure to plan more than one day when you make your arrangements. With an ever-changing roster of activities scheduled throughout the year, it’s best to research what exhibit feature is on display as well as what bonus fun might be going on during your visit. For us, it was the last night of Bike Night for the season so we got to hang out and party with our host, the museum’s restorer, Bill Rodencal, and all the locals who’d ridden their bikes in for the final farewell before the snow set in. It was a drag to have to leave early, but between jet lag and an early wake-up call, we headed back to get enough rest for the next day’s ride.
Our eye-opening adventure began the next morning as we played follow-the-leader out of the potholed and gnarly streets of Milwaukee. Hitting the freeway in search of smaller two-laned back roads included a few exchanges but for those of us accustomed to cruising congested California super slabs, it was a piece of cake. We were gliding along cornfields and rolling hills before we found ourselves awed by the sights of Lake Michigan’s shoreline and dropped our kickstands for the first stop.
Two Rivers, a little town with a population of 12,000 hale and hearty souls, is nestled on Lake Michigan’s shoreline between the East Twin and West Twin Rivers where they empty into the vast lake. The Van Lanens family, who has been operating the Lighthouse Inn since 1973, hosted lunch for our multifarious lot at their charming Water’s Edge restaurant. The great grub and warm hospitality kept us well fueled as we continued along in our quest, but first we took a walk along the Walkway of Remembrance at the Wisconsin Motorcycle Memorial, a memorial park established by the Northeastern Wisconsin Bikers Association to honor fallen bikers. With assorted sculptures, creative tables, engraved tribute stones and benches, the off-the-beaten-path memorial is well worth the visit. Next stop was the Door County Visitor’s Center, which is open 24 hours and offers a wealth of information on what is available in the county. By evening we rolled into our cushy digs at the Landmark Resort in Egg Harbor, where we would bivouac in style for two nights.
Door County is a mellow, down-home kind of artsy area consisting of 19 small communities that welcome tourists to taste their wines, try their local cuisine, and enjoy the folklore that’s unique to their small piece of the world. Surrounded by water, the county makes up the thumb of land that juts out from Wisconsin with Lake Michigan on one side and the sparkling Green Bay on the other. The county lays claim to 300 of Lake Michigan’s total 1,600 miles of shoreline and boasts of having the largest concentration of lighthouses in the country. Much of the county’s coast is rocky and rugged, with some 34 named islands within its borders, so a trip to visit some of its 11 historical lighthouses is certainly high on the to-do list for tourists, but that was not our objective. No, our quest involved knocking on the door of death itself. So off we went into the early morning mist to see what we could find along the way.
Although anytime is beautiful in Door County, some amenities are seasonal and riding is not a year-round option due to snow. We found fall to be the perfect time to visit since the brilliant colors of the foliage make for a fantastic backdrop while zipping along the narrow country roads. There were craft fairs, farmers’ markets and antique shops aplenty and the homemade cherry jam is worth drooling over. Places like the family-owned Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor in Ephraim offers homebrewed root beer and the Viking Grill in Ellison Bay serves up hearty homemade breakfasts while the owners banter between themselves, giving each other, and diners, a good-natured hard time. We cruised curvy roads and countryside, and noticed signage that informed us that the road we traveled doubles as a snowmobile route in the winter months. This was a first for us.
It’s impossible to not feel like part of the family at most of the establishments we rolled up to and Rowley’s Bay Resort was no exception. A comfortable, homey place to hang out and watch boats come and go in the bay while enjoying an adult beverage, the Adirondack chairs on the front lawn called to us. Many of the dinner houses along the coast offer an evening fish boil and Rowley’s comes with a storyteller to explain how the tradition came to be, so, needless to say, there was no way we could pass up an opportunity to soak up some of the local flavor. We sat mesmerized by the performance of octogenarian storyteller Don before the resort chef came out and tossed a mess of locally caught whitefish into a pot of boiling water that sat bubbling near the roadside. Chef threw a can of kerosene on the fire and the concoction exploded in flames. It was pretty cool. After an evening of bayside live theatre, a pyro-performance cooking show and bonfire, all topped off by the call of the dinner bell at a buffet of all things local, we meandered slowly back to the Landmark as the sun sank into the Green Bay. And still, no sight of anything resembling a door marked for death.
By dawn we scuttled out to our waiting beasts to find dew-soaked saddles and an eerie fog hanging over the bay. Heading out for breakfast at the Viking Grill, we fortified ourselves before arriving at the ferry that would take us to Washington Island, the largest of Door County’s 34 islands and the only year-round community among them. The island area is only 35 square miles, but offers over 100 miles of roadway to explore, most of it wooded. It is accessible only by ferry, and only by passing through Death’s Door. At last, we faced our final quest. We rode our bikes onto the ferry and settled in up top to figure out what the ominous moniker was all about, but all we saw was beautiful, smooth-as-glass water.
Legend has it that a lot of Native Americans lost their lives while paddling around in little wooden canoes at the top of the peninsula, so they named the navigational passage between Lake Michigan and the waters of Green Bay the Door of Death. In the early 1700s, along came French sailors and, apparently, they named the scary strait “Porte des Morts,” which means, “carry deaths” in modern translation. It was around that time that it began to be called Death’s Door. Make no mistake; though our voyage was blessed with a warm breeze and bright skies, the winds across the passage can kick up some pretty nasty tides. Legendary crossing tales are shrouded with spooky accounts of vessels being slammed into the rocky cliffs, claimed by swirling currents or high winds. Many a vessel and her unfortunate sailors from the 1700’s and 1800’s lie at the bottom of the strait, but with lighthouses, modern navigational aides and new technology, the 1900’s saw few shipwrecks.
Mooring at the Washington Island dock, we discovered the small island packs a lot of fun within its shores and the narrow, well-paved roads to get there are part of it. From the sweet scent of the lavender fields to zipping past Century Farms proudly displaying signage of their family-owned 100-year-old farms, the island is nothing if not charming. One of our favorite stops was historic Nelsen’s Hall. Built in 1899 by a Danish immigrant who happened to be a bitters freak, Nelsen’s is a local watering hole and eatery that fought Prohibition by selling bitters, a 44.7 percent alcohol-by-volume concoction considered a cure-all stomach tonic, the pub claims to be the only bar in the country that remained open throughout Prohibition by offering exclusive memberships. To this day, tradition dictates that each visitor swing by for a shot of the odd-tasting stuff and become a card-carrying member of the Bitters Club. We have our cards. Be sure to get yours. Just remember: you have to cross Death’s Door to get it. Safe travels. (www.doorcounty.com)