Words by Christian Newman - Photos by Brandon Fischer
Unless you’ve ever visited Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, it’s difficult to convey the atmosphere: a combination of rural south mentality coupled with a flat, tree laden, northern landscape where surprisingly well-maintained roads wind beneath leafy canopies or blast straight in long stretches between rows of pines. Nine years ago, builder/fabricator Reece Zylstra and a handful of his close friends left Grand Rapids, Michigan and headed north on what was to become an annual tradition. That handful has since grown to just shy of 100. As it has been since it’s inception, “the U.P.” has been the final destination of the Apocalypse Run.
The night before the run, riders from all over the northeast arrive in Grand Rapids, ultimately converging at Reece’s home. As expected, several bikes limped in, in dire need of repair. No doubt dealing with the immense pressure of trying to organize a large group, Reece not only generously opened his garage up to the use of riders he’d just met, but actively aided in the repairs - welding up cracks on several pieces of tired iron. The following morning, the ground was littered with sleeping bags, and by midmorning more riders arrived, increasing the initial group from 25 to 40 before rolling out. Over the next 6 hours of ~66 mile blasts between gas stops, the group grew to nearly 70 strong, covering nearly 300 miles before tearing over the massive Mackinaw bridge and officially entering the U.P. Countless ribbed vintage tires seemingly found their own way over the metal-decked bridge.
The first stop in the U.P. was a tavern in Lake Trout: significant because it was the camping destination from several previous years’ runs. Before crossing into the U.P., Reece had laid down a few general ground rules: “No fighting the locals. No firing guns at the campground. Don’t shoot street signs. No dunking your balls in others’ beers. No [receiving oral sex] from [mentally challenged females]…” These few ground rules were consequences of alleged events that occurred previously, and as a result, the Apocalypse Run 9 was only allowed a brief stay here. An hour later they were on the road, the last leg, to Heather’s Tavern in Strongs, MI. After arriving, the group scattered a bit: some to the bar, others to set up camp, a handful got rooms at the adjacent motel, and a group or two simply took off on their own cruises. As the night wore on, the beer flowed freely, the jukebox got a workout, and the group attempted to best the madness of the previous year. Despite the chaos, there was a somber moment. Reece purchased and distributed shots to all and a toast was had for three friends that had recently passed: Nate Powers, Graham Hastings Gephart, and Jason “Merle” Merrel. After a moment of silence, the mayhem resumed.
When the sun rose the following morning an abandoned cell phone was discovered laying face-down in a pile of vomit, the lone reminder of what had transpired. As the morning wore on, groups trudged slowly across the road to Roxanne’s, the local greasy spoon diner, to enjoy a hearty breakfast buffet that was accurately described as “fucking perfect”. News spread through the group that a rider that morning had hit a black bear - escaping relatively unscathed. This is worth repeating: a rider hit a BEAR.
Various crews began setting out on their own adventures, but the core group of riders assembled and followed Reece on a relatively short ride north to Lake Superior. After a bit of milling around, a few bravehearts stripped down to their boxers and broke the ice, so to speak; wading into the chilly water. Nearly all followed. After the brief swim and the ensuing air-drying (except for those savvy enough to remember a towel), the crew rode east for a fuel stop. By this point several bikes needed some attention. In this culture it’s not uncommon, but no less remarkable, to see how riders will literally lay in the dirt to help repair total strangers’ rides. A fender was reattached with zip ties. A loose fourspeed gearbox was realigned and retightened. Requests for a piece of hardware or a specific tool passed through the group and all were successfully met. Once the bikes were roadworthy again, they rolled south back to Heather’s.
In short order, and in a similar fashion to the Lake Superior jaunt, another cruise formed and headed to an abandoned quarry. Already well-dried by the sweltering sun, people flung themselves, beer in hand, into the water from a small cliff. A fire was started. The chase truck arrived with hotdogs which were cooked on sticks alongside pizza rolls similarly skewered. In what could only be described as an olympic feat, a Wisconsin cheese curd was thrown clear across the swimming hole and caught by an open mouth with remarkable precision; generating a resounding cheer from all present.
While both swimming trips garnered a fair amount of support, they paled in comparison to the turnout for the final planned event: the vehicle testing grounds. Occurring at what was originally an air force base, it has been abandoned in the 70’s, and since repurposed. Covering 240 acres and generally reserved for winter vehicle proving, it is still somewhat occupied in the warm months. In true anarchistic fashion, a group of nearly 100 strong arrived at the entrance to the facility, found it somewhat guarded, then proceeded to U-turn, head a few miles west, then turned onto an off road vehicle trail. Beautiful panheads, a stock sportster or two, and choppers that the local DOT would hardly consider safe for the street swerved through trees and over sandy whoops before spilling maddeningly onto the rough pavement of the facility’s back straight. Like a scene from some post apocalyptic movie, bikes raced 30 wide down the mile-long legs of the triangularly arranged airstrips. Impromptu drag races occurred. Choppers soared into the sky from an uphill concrete bank. Unsurprisingly, the caretaker of the facility eventually arrived in a truck. Instead of demanding departure, he simply requested that we remain on the back straight. In the ultra-litigious landscape of the world today, this cemented the difference in the attitude prevalent in the U.P. compared to the rest of the country. Once the riders had their fill of full throttle blasts down the track, they returned to the road via the same rough trail.
By dark, Heather’s was once again clogged with bikes and riders. It came to light that a member of the group had misjudged a turn and left the road abruptly, requiring an ambulance ride, but with non life-threatening injuries. On the back table at the bar was a mountain of gear and parts that had been donated to Reece for the run. Biltwell, Mercy Supply, Zylstra Choppers, Fab Kevin, Chopper Supply Co, and Showclass (to name a few) donated items to be raffled off. Reece was met with cheers and groans as he read off ticket numbers. The money generated is generally used to pay for the campsite and the chase truck’s fuel. For his hard work, Reece could have kept what remained (and no one would have batted an eye), but he announced that any cash left over would be donated to the rider who was injured earlier that day. It’s genuine generosity and camaraderie that will keep people returning to this run. The rest of the night was slightly more reserved (with the exception of fireworks ringing all night long); many presumably anticipating long rides home.
Just west of the campground is the Clarke Motel, the final stop for those not immediately convinced that heading home on Sunday morning was the best choice. From the street it appears to be a typical drive-up motel. Behind, the expansive compound is apparent. Pages could be written about this place, but in brief, an unbelievable amount of American tchotchke adorned the walls, inside and out, of every structure on the site. A giant firetower had been erected with a chute to dispense bowling balls into the air 40 feet above buckets of flaming gasoline. Eerie underground tunnels stocked with ancient boxes of cornflakes and grey alien mannequins joined buildings, one exiting through a faux toilet. A replica of the original Harley-Davidson workshop existed inside a larger building. The billiard room was packed with thousands of vintage hats adorning every available inch of ceiling and wall space. The owner, Andy, was keen on showing and describing every square inch of the premises with wonderful enthusiasm.
While the phrase “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” does hold merit, the Apocalypse Run 9 was proof that both can be remarkable. Be sure to keep your eye out for Apocalypse Run 10. Reece hinted that it could be the last…
Words by Christian Newman
Photos by Brandon Fischer / @soulofire_