A 42-year-old Kawasaki is the best way to escape real life

Road trips don’t scare me. Half-prepared vintage cars on multi-day adventures are variables I’m used to. Fly out and drive back across the country, stop periodically for regular unleaded and a bouquet of Slim Jims—that’s familiar territory. Those trips, however, are all part and parcel of modern living. A cell phone in the cupholder. Using the highway system to network a route that minimizes risk and keeps me in range of rest stops.

I was itching to get out of multiple-bar 4G range and off the grid. Dirt roads and only the self-sustainment that could fit into a pair of saddlebags on my vintage motorcycle. The polar opposite of a wine-and-chateau tour with a support trailer. First, I’d need to lay out a plan.

Where to go

I didn’t have to look far on the map to find a large swath of land fit for exploring. Just two hours north from Hagerty’s home office in Traverse City, Michigan, is the Mackinac Bridge, built in 1957, which connects the relative bustle of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula to the unmolested forest and easy-going towns of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Most out-of-staters probably think it’s part of Canada or some strange appendage of Wisconsin, but the U.P. is in fact a huge mass of Michigan that represents 29 percent of our state’s total land area and just three percent of its population.

As a road trip destination, however, the U.P. poses limitations. The main issue? There are only four roads, more or less, which together create a gigantic rectangle. Fortunately, with my bike, I wasn’t chasing pavement. My focus was on a complex web of dirt roads and trails that would guide me through the tree-canopied heart of one of America’s most beautiful, untouched natural regions.

What to ride

My steed for this adventure had to be a trusty one: my 1977 Kawasaki KE175. It has done everything I have ever asked of it, from beer runs to trail rides with friends on much more modern bikes. The simple, air-cooled, rotary-valve single cylinder is mated up to a five-speed transmission with a wide enough spread that no matter what speed I’m going, there’s a gear that feels just right.

The only area in which my KE175 struggles is sustained high speed. Not serious high speed; but anything past 50 mph for an extended period of time. The 175cc displacement just isn’t meant to be a street-scorching superbike, but it excels at reliable, medium speed transportation. In the interest of keeping the connecting rod inside the engine (where it belongs), I swapped the final-drive sprockets. I took a handful of teeth off the rear sprocket and added a few to the countershaft. This reduced the engine rpm at cruise speed, at the cost of acceleration. The two-stroke still packs plenty of pep and will happily spin the rear tire if the terrain is a bit loose.

vintage kawasaki motorcycle rider
Adrian Meli

For my big adventure, I bolted on a factory rack, hung a set of borrowed saddlebags (thanks again, Clary!) and headed north. My intended route traversed a counter-clockwise loop of the peninsula, keeping off the highway as much as possible. I designed this approach to position me in the most beautiful parts of Michigan, while also keeping my speed of travel relatively low.

On the road 

Even with all the planning I’d done, going off the grid for a few days alone was rattling my nerves a little.

I hauled the bike in my pickup to Mackinaw City in preparation for crossing the Mighty Mac and its five miles of suspended highway above the Straits of Mackinac. I opted not to ride across the bridge for fear of getting stranded on the way back, in the event of high winds.

After crossing the Straits and parking the truck I unloaded the bike from the bed, pulling my bright red Bell Moto 3 on to help protect from the crisp fall air, and, strapping my gear on the rack, I topped off the gas tank and set out. It was the start of an adventure unlike I’d ever attempted. Even under the wind and rain-proof armored riding jacket I felt a bit of a shiver. Nerves.

I pointed the Kawasaki’s headlight out of Saint Ignace on US 123, settling in for an hour-long slog up the highway to my first campsite at Lower Tahquamenon Falls State Park. The single piston was putting in its work for the day, revving up to 5000 rpm for a 25-minute stretch before calmly idling through the campground with the soothing, light metallic slap that is all too familiar to vintage two-stroke owners.

After setting up camp, I made a quick run back down the road to a roadside bar. Friday night in the U.P. can only mean one thing—fish fry. An iced long-neck Budweiser and stacks of fried walleye satiated my hunger, and I enjoyed hanging with the locals that filled the log-cabin styled joint. 

After the meal, it was time to turn in for the night. The KE thrummed back to life and carried me back to my campsite and a waiting sleeping bag. Not a second too soon, either—just after I’d settled in, a mellow rain pattered on the thin surface of my simple one-pole tent. Dreams of smooth trails wove in and out of my head all night before the sun broke, signaling the start of a fresh day of dirt-slinging.

Following one final check of the bungee cords (securing down to the KE’s rack what would be my entire life for a few days), I thumbed the choke over and gave the kick-starter a solid nudge with my right boot. The resulting cloud, small and blue, followed by a mellow brap, meant the trails were waiting. My path would take me from Paradise to Munising by way of Grand Marais. I prepared to travel roughly 80 miles without setting tire on pavement or concrete for more than a trail connection. 

map on vintage kawasaki motorcycle
Kyle Smith

The Kawasaki felt right at home on dirt trails, with the large 21-inch front wheel lending stability so long as I kept up my pace. The bike’s tires didn’t provide all the traction I would have wanted, but speed was hardly the point of this route. The trail wove right and left, as I dove deeper and deeper into the forest. The trail suddenly kicked left, ‘round a loosely-bermed corner, and I realized there was a highway within sight. Humans were nearby, should I need to flag one down. Bears make for ornery motorcycle mechanics.

The trails themselves were a nice surprise. The 207 inches of average snowfall during a given U.P. winter transform entire postal codes into snowmobile playgrounds. A network of trails, when properly groomed, allows the tracked beasts to navigate for pleasure trips and practical errands alike. In the summer, these snowmobile trails are sandy and well marked. The majority of intersections were labeled generously, complete with not only town names but distances and fuel availability, too.

vintage kawasaki motorcycle rider
Adrian Meli

Each mile got me deeper into the groove I needed to make my run successful. Talking up the attendants at the one-pump general stores earned me leads to good connector trails and even marked my paper atlas for reference. Each stop for fuel inspired conversation from locals around the humble KE175. Tales of “I had one just like that…” echoed every day but were often followed by such caveats as “but it was a Honda,” or “it wasn’t as nice as yours.”

My reality check came the fourth day, as I made my way back east. It was a sad realization that I couldn’t just play in the woods forever. This Lost Boy had to go home. Or at least to work on Monday. The route included a rails-to-trails conversion that rewarded with scenery what it gave up in technical difficulty. Wide and smooth, it made the miles click off far faster than I wanted. Before noon, my dusty helmet was on the bartop of one of the few restaurants in Manistique. A local perched atop a stool two down from my own regaled me with tales of the good ol’ days. I’d never have met him at a highway rest stop.

My strategy of re-gearing the clattering single-cylinder paid off when I had to quit the trail and hit the road. When the dirt path just north of Highway 2 proved too gnarly and overgrown for me to risk bodily harm, I admitted defeat and resigned myself to being the slowest thing on Highway 2 for a few hours as I returned to the truck at a teeth clenching 55 mph.

vintage kawasaki motorcycle rider
Adrian Meli

Riding into the woods, to live deliberately

Even with the engine out of its element, I fell more deeply in love with the KE175. The humble vintage ’smoker did everything I asked. I could have laid out five grand on a modern Honda with massive ground clearance and 650cc of four-stroke torque that would have carried me on this trip without breaking a sweat—but that wasn’t the point. Sure, a new bike would be great, but my KE was all I needed, and it made me appreciate the bike’s capability and versatility even more.

The best vehicle for adventuring is the one in your driveway. I didn’t need anything fancy to have the adventure I wanted and more. A $20 tent strapped to a $2000 motorcycle afforded me four days of freedom. If an escape is what you need, don’t overthink it. Put some gas in the tank and go ride.

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