Since taking ownership of my ZR-1, I’ve created a habit of taking at least one extended cruise a year, designed to drive on interesting roads and explore this new continent I now inhabit and also just to glory in driving around in this incredibly rare and special ‘vette so that all can see. (Actually, I don’t think anyone much notices or cares, but it helps feed my starved ego to think they do.)
Traveling this way is a little bit like royalty trying to slip the paparazzi and move around incognito. King he may be, but to most people he is sadly just a generically labelled “Corvette” judged on the quality of his paint (and current state of cleanliness) rather than the unique Lotus-designed heart that beats beneath the hood.
While no Corvette is ‘ordinary,’ Dave McClelland et al. made a very deliberate decision to run the King of the Hill in discrete clothing. Some ZR-1 owners I believe find this a source of frustration and bemoan the fact that the ZR-1 wasn’t given more distinctive features. I certainly sympathise with this when I find myself at Corvette shows and even other Corvette owners seem to not understand what they are looking at; but for the most part I actually find the relative ignorance amusing.
The first of these extended cruises was a drive around New England two years ago to take in the coastal sights. For this year’s trip (we skipped last year as my wife and I had an important wedding to attend – our own!) we decided to do a coastal trip of a different variety – the ‘Circle Tour’ around Lake Superior. This involves following the roads that skirt around the lake and had all the hallmarks of one of the most memorable journeys “on our doorstep”. The tour is 2100 km (1300 miles) around and the quickest recorded circumnavigation is 18 hours on a motorbike (driven at legal speeds).
In our case we planned to spend the first night in Paradise, MI, and then go around the southern coast of the lake, up to Duluth, cross back into Canada and stay at Thunder Bay, before curling back down the eastern coast to hit Wawa and finally Sault Ste. Marie.
The first day was the usual mix of rush and relaxation. This was our first real vacation of the year and with the world economy in full-on meltdown we were more than ready to leave work behind. Highway 17 over to “The Soo” is mostly flat with occasional pools of interest in the form of craggy rocky formations and little towns that dot the highway periodically. Our goal this night was to get to Paradise before dusk where we would overnight at the Best Western Lakefront Inn, before moving on. The choice of Paradise was entirely whimsical; before and after our wedding we had been inundated with family visitors from England and so this trip represented our first time away together and so, by definition, our honeymoon. What better way than to spend it in Paradise! (As I also joked at the time – it was likely to be as close as I would ever get.)
Paradise is a very small town with a permanent population of just a few hundred, but what was most memorable was the incredible sense of it being closed. Although you expect small things from small towns, at the relative height of tourist season this was something of a shock. The hotel itself was good, though a little lacking in dining facilities for my vegetarian wife and me.
The next day we followed the coastal route to Marquette. The road was nice and twisty, though never demanding and a little uninteresting in some ways. We stopped off at Whitefish Point and later Tahqaumenon Falls State Park which is a very pretty tourist stop off before lunching at the Great Lakes Brewery Company in Grand Marais, MI. This is prime cottage country, yet we drove down roads where almost every cottage entrance displayed a prominent ‘for sale’ sign and we left with a sad memory of this part of the U.S. as being for sale, closed or both.
Marquette was more thriving but even here we saw the tell-tale signs of an economy in tatters with far too many businesses (and especially tourist-based ones) closed in what should have been prime selling season. Marquette was famously the site where much of the James Stewart movie “Anatomy of a Murder” was filmed and also the location where many of the real-life events that inspired the film took place.
We also made a point of visiting the Thunder Bay Inn in Big Bay, once owned by Henry Ford, which was also the scene of many of the events in both the film and in real life. Seeing the actual location and bar where the classic movie had been filmed was an amazing experience for me, being a big James Stewart fan.
After Marquette we moved on to Duluth in the kind of circuitous route I think only my wife could come up with, all very picturesque and included a stop over at Houghton, MI. This was cruising at its best. At least ‘best’ if you mean wettest. Often we were driving the ZR-1 in torrential downpours and at other times dodging ghostly deer in fog-laden curvy highways through tumbling hills. As I have become accustomed to though, The Dragon took it all in his stride, always willing to go just that little bit faster and yet sure-footed in the worst of it. It sometimes feels as if we really are accompanied by a caring spirit that uses its power to protect us, willing at a moment’s notice to fly headstrong into the unknown. We even managed to fit in a stop in Laurium, in honour of the Gipper (and WB9MCW who explained the origin of the well known phrase on the forum!).
Duluth represented a stop-over for us and we spent a few days here sampling the local area. Duluth at one time had a higher percentage of millionaires than anywhere in the US and you can still see that reflected in the impressive classical architecture that still exists. Sadly again much of the downtown area was closed and a lot of the traditional industry has been lost or operates on a limited production schedule.
While we were staying at Duluth, we also took the time to run out to the Casino at Hinckley. My wife and I aren’t really gamblers, but it was an opportunity to meet up with Bob (Bobbyhi) and his wife Emma. Bob was a great help when I was looking to find my ZR-1 and really is one of those completely genuine people that represent the best in the “Brotherhood of the Beast”.
From Duluth we headed north and here we discovered an undiscovered secret: MN-1/National Forest Hwy 9 to Ely. I have always had a soft spot for wolves and the International Wolf Center is based in Ely – our intention was to drive there, see the wolves and become members to support their efforts before moving on.
What we found was a road that was curvy enough to bring a smile to any Corvette owner’s face. Tight doglegs, S-bends, 180 degree U-turns, elevation changes; everything you could ever wish for. It was so good that we drove some parts twice, just for fun. Traffic was sparse and what there was just added a frisson of excitement to the straights.
Ely itself, to our surprise, was one the most animated places we visited on the whole trip and the Wolf Center was a delight. Wolves are like ZR-1s: mostly misunderstood and yet magnificent. The Wolf inhabits a world that is a strange unbalanced mix of fact and complete fiction, again much like the ZR-1. They are the original beasts: proud, strong, agile and enduring – fearing nothing except man who has persecuted them unjustly for millennia.
After this we continued north and crossed back in to Canada to stay in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Thunder Bay is a large city of over 150,000 people and sits at the feet of the ‘Sleeping Giant’ – an island rock formation that rises majestically out of Lake Superior and is alive with tales of submerged ancient silver mines and other mysticism.
From here we also visited the beauty of Kakabeka Falls, the highest waterfall in Ontario apart from Niagara. By now the weather had picked up again and we were cruising in sunshine. Those of you who understand the unique pain that is a black Corvette will understand just how much this means!
After all the relaxation, it was a somewhat weary trip home. We had seen some of the best sights on offer and marveled at some of the most wondrous scenery in the world (sorry guys, the northern, Canadian side is definitely the best!) and the ZR-1 had been not only flawless but pulled in admiring glances everywhere – even when it was covered in road grime from rain-soaked roads. There is so much I haven’t included here for space reasons; I recommend you try it for yourself!
Note: This piece was originally written in 2009 but I forgot to publish it.