Unlike most Shamrock tours, this one has a prequel. Instead of flying into the closest Wisconsin airport, I flew into Utah and then inaugurated the new 2012 Victory Cross Country Tour for a three day trip to Sturgis. There, I met up with Ken Engelman, and we enjoyed the Sturgis Bike Rally for a few days before riding 850 miles across endless plains to our home base: Rhinelander. It’s been a long, straight shot getting here, but now we’re in Shamrock mode and ready for some daily loops.
Ken and I each stride a new Victory CCT, his being white and mine red. We attract immediate attention as we roll into Rhinelander fully decked out in safety gear on our edgy touring machines. But it’s our eyes that soon become riveted: At the entrance to town, we spy an 8-foot-tall, 15-foot-long monster with huge fangs and claws as long and thick as the tires on my ride. While our first inclination is to flee, we push our survival instincts aside and courageously approach the creature for a closer look. This frightful beast, we learn, is a recreation of one “discovered” in the 1890s by local logger and prankster Eugene Shepard. The folkloric Hodag, as it’s called, has “the head of a frog, the grinning face of a giant elephant, thick short legs set off by huge claws, the back of a dinosaur, and a long tail with spears at the end.” It’s so closely associated with Rhinelander that it lends its name to the annual Hodag Country Festival, which draws about 40,000 attendees each year.
Ken and I tear ourselves away from the town’s historic mascot and head just a stone’s throw away to the AmericInn hotel, where we settle in for the night. As soon as we check in, the obligatory phone calls to the women we left at home ensue. I’ve been on the road for two weeks already, and Ken one. A quick update about our travels, reassurances that we’re safe, and most importantly, declarations of how much they’re missed satisfies them and allows us to focus on the upcoming days.
Motorcycle & Gear
2012 Victory Cross Country Tour
Gangsters, Shootouts, and Some Good Cream Ale
Early the next morning after filling our gas tanks, we huddle over a map. This ritualistic gesture always prompts conversation with riders and nonriders alike, and sure enough, within minutes we’re approached by a local who also happens to be a RoadRUNNER subscriber. He rides a 2011 Victory CCT, and he’s interested in the lowers on our 2012 models, as his doesn’t include them. He gives us great insight about the area roads and warns us about wildlife hazards. Deer, turkeys, and black bears are all very common here, but I’d rather come across these everyday critters in the road than the legendary Hodag!
We ride northwest on 47 through the Northern Highland–American State Forest. The road is mostly straight and lined by tall pines, so I’m thrilled for the iPod hookup on the Victory, which keeps me in the groove. Northern Wisconsin has many Indian reservations, which usually means a casino isn’t very far. But since it’s too early for gambling, we take 182 West to Park Falls. A huge paper factory overarches the town, yet the air is curiously absent of the acrid smell that typically accompanies a mill town.
The local clothing store is host to the nearest coffee shop. We find a couple of seats in a cozy corner and within moments we’re conversing with a young nurse, whose shift just ended, and her mother. Another couple in their mid-sixties or so joins in—apparently our motorcycle gear suggests we’re from out-of-town. These “strangers” make us feel right at home. And when they hear that we’re writing a travel story, they insist we ride to nearby Hurley. During Prohibition, notorious gangsters were known to have hidden out there.
Granted, there’s not too much going on in these parts, so stories about days past are great topics for conversations with visitors—particularly when those stories are rich with history and public appeal. Talking to locals is always my favorite part of traveling, as it often leads to discovering treasures too easily overlooked.
Ashland is about an hour north on 13. We ride through Glidden, which boasts the title of “Black Bear Capital of the World” and features all things black bear. There’s the Black Bear Bakery, Black Bear Pizza, Black Bear Forest Products; in fact, a world-record-setting, 665-pound, 15-foot stuffed black bear encased in glass greets visitors from the roadside. Thankfully, we avoid any sightings of the live creatures and remain unscathed as we make our way to 169, where the curves await. With our desire for twisties satisfied, Lake Superior provides the perfect backdrop for a quiet lunch.
Hurley sports one nightclub after another. Apparently, in its heyday there were strip clubs everywhere. Legend has it that Al Capone ran a profitable underground business here, using tunnels beneath town to transport booze. Nearby to the south in Manitowish Waters is the Little Bohemia Lodge, home of the highly publicized shootout between the FBI and Depression-era bank-robber John Dillinger. In 2009, the lodge was transported back in time to 1934, becoming the location for Michael Mann’s film, Public Enemies, with Johnny Depp portraying Dillinger. Current-day bartender Dave Karaffa gives us a tour of Little Bohemia and notes some of the historical liberties the movie took. The coolest thing, though, is seeing the original bullet holes inside the lounge and outside of the windows—historical reminders of dangerous times.