Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Scooters and Ukuleles: The Elderly Run

I had this post on my scooter Blog, but, since it deals with ukuleles, in part, I thought I'd copy it here, as well.  When I’m not riding my scooter, chances are I am fiddling around with my ukulele. Imagine how wonderful and fortunate it is to combine both pleasures? That’s what I got the chance to do a few days ago when Blu-B and I took a trip out to the world famous Elderly Instruments in Lansing, Michigan. Along back roads, of course.

The trip from Flint to East Lansing is primarily along one main road – specifically M-78 or Lansing road, which begins as Miller road in Flint and ends, temporarily, at the 1-69 business loop just outside of East Lansing, Michigan, home of the MSU Spartans. This stretch of M 78 was established in 1931, but the road has a longer history and goes much further west—all the way to Michigan 66 (not to be confused with the more famous, kick-filled, Route 66). A complete history of the road can be found at Michigan Highways.

Leaving from downtown Flint, the first small town along the route is Swartz Creek, a small community of around 5,000. Named for its winding creek, the city’s main drag consists of some nice eateries, a locally popular ice cream shop, and Assenmacher’s Cycling Center, an upscale bike shop that sells brands like Trek and Specialized, to name just a few. They’ll also service any bike that’s ever been made.

Back when my bike of choice had pedals instead of floorboards, I practically lived at Assenmacher’s. Owner Matt Assenmacher, an expert bicycle builder and advid cyclist, has built his own line of racing and tandem bikes as well. 

A few miles outside of Swartz Creek, the road becomes dotted with the small farms and rolling hills. At the Genesee-Shiawassee county line, Miller becomes Lansing road, but the scenery remains the same, making for a calm, relaxing ride. Within ten miles, I hit Durand, which at one time was an important Michigan railroad hub. The town still celebrates its glorious rail past with its Railroad Days event every May, but many other things commend Durand as a year-round destination, none the least of which being its historic railroad museum, the Durand Union Station.

While one can find all the fast food they want by staying on Lansing road, a left onto Saginaw street leads to Durand’s downtown and its honest-to-goodness Ben Franklins—what we used to call the “five and dime,” or, more simply, “the dime store.” Okay, things cost a little more than they used to, but it is far from over-priced; I picked up a package of Doritos cheese and crackers for thirty-five cents where the average stop-and-go prices them at around seventy-five. Much like the Flint Ben Franks of my youth, the Durand store sells craft items—from plastic doll parts to popsicle sticks to every shape and size of Styrofoam imaginable—fabrics, various sundries like buttons and zippers, and, of course, toys that, while primarily made in china, are packaged and displayed just like they were back in the 60s—on shelves and hooks. The civil war soldier and farm play sets particularly caught my eye.

My other favorite spot downtown Durand is Nick’s restaurant. Famous for its homemade hamburgers, it is a clean, family-friendly place with a seemingly limitless menu and very well-stocked salad bar. Nick’s wait staff is always courteous and the prices are quite reasonable as well.

Back on Lansing road, a little jog near the I-69 interchange quickly returns you to the routes’ bucolic self. Case in point, the next town west, Bancroft, has its welcome sign painted upon a big, bright red barn. According to Wikipedia, there are only 616 people in Bancroft, but the residents I encounter as I photograph the barn seem genuinely proud to have me take an interest in their community.

Just a bit west of the barn is a short little tunnel of trees shading the road; they certainly proved helpful on the hot, sunny day of my ride. I don’t know why, but I just love it when trees along the roadside reach across to one another in this way. The bend in the road makes the scene all the more beautiful and this is by far my favorite part of the ride.

Next up is the Village of Morrice. Founded in 1839, its welcome sign proclaims the town is both “A Community on the GROW” and “A NICE PLACE TO LIVE.” The 900 people who call Morrice home obviously agree. I did not have the time to explore their downtown, but hope to do so in the near future.

Right outside of Morrice is the larger city of Perry, which, like Morrice, was settled by Josiah Purdy, whose land helped establish the towns. According to the City of Perry website, many of the town’s first building were moved, around 1879, by one of its early residents, Dr. L. M. Marshall. The move allowd the town to be placed closer to the Grand Trunk railroad line which lay about a mile north of the old location.

Perry’s face to today’s interstate travelers at the corner of M-52 and I-69 has numerous fast-food stops for travelers, as well as an adult bookstore that is heavily advertised along east and westbound I-69. Never did stop by that particular business myself. Honest.

The ten minute ride from Perry to Lansing becomes a little less relaxing; where most of Lansing road before Perry is isolated from the expressway, it parallels the expressway up to the I-69 business loop just east of Marsh road. The southern half of that part of the route is still quite scenic, with farms, trees, and interesting looking intersecting dirt roads; the northern part, on the other hand, reveals the light-yet-steady truck and car traffic along 69. My favorite view of this last leg of Old 78 is of the old Pine Garden Chinese Restaurant sign that peeks out among the overgrown grass and trees. Apparently, there is a Pine Garden in nearby Haslett.

A couple of miles along the 69 business loop lead to East Lansing; a left turn on Hagadorn or Abbott will take you down to the same Grand River road noted in my Ypsi trip and onto the Michigan State campus, but having spent eight long years of grad school there, I’m happy to stay on stay on Saginaw and continue towards Elderly. As Saginaw, Grand River, and Oakland (which becomes the westbound leg of the now one-way Saginaw street) converge at the very busy I-127 interchange, East Lansing becomes Lansing proper. There is a decidedly 1950s / 1960s feel to this stretch or road, as evidenced by its Googie architecture and its cool old neon signs, such as the one for Baryames Cleaners that I stopped to photograph.

Heading eastbound on Oakland a few more miles, the scene moves from commercial to a mix of commercial and run-down residential. Two blocks after crossing the bridge over the Red Cedar River, I turn north onto Washington into Lansing’s revitalized Old Town district which houses a number of businesses, including Elderly.

If you play stringed instruments of any type, you most likely know of Elderly Instruments. Founded in 1972, it began as a vintage stringed instrument store (hence the name Elderly) that now sells new and used guitars, basses (upright and electric), fiddles, mandolins, banjos, amps, effects, tons of accessories, and one of the finest selections of ukuleles this side of Hawaii. You can spend anywhere from $30 for a beginning level Mahalo up to thousands for a custom Koolau or vintage Martin ukulele. Being this close to such great instruments is quite awe-inspiring. A week before I saw a rare Martin banjo ukulele featured on the History channel’s hit show Pawn Stars, I had held one in my own hands at Elderly.

The shop is indeed world famous. Its repair facilities are among the finest in the world, and several of its technicians have gone on to found their own boutique instrument businesses. People come to Elderly from all over the world. Last year I met a man there who was circumnavigating the globe on a dual purpose BMW. A few weeks ago I met a couple of ukulele players from Nova Scotia. If there is a heaven on earth for string-playing folks, Elderly is it. To live close enough to motor in on a regular basis is, indeed, a privilege. Those not so fortunate need not despair; Elderly has a thriving internet and phone business as well.

After spending a bliss-filled hour sampling the dozens of ukuleles, I pick up a banjo capo and a couple of felt picks for my ukulele before making my way home along eastbound Saginaw back onto Old M-78. An hour later, I’m home.

A couple of days after the trip, I find myself going for a short ride in Swartz Creek, where I see a man on a side street sitting astride a 250cc Vespa (the modern kind with CVT transmission and a four-stroke engine). I turn Blu-B around and fortunately found the man still stopped at the light. We start talking and he tells me that he knows how to do maintenance and repairs on CVT transmissions. Figuring I had a lot to learn from him, I ask for his name and number. As fantastic as this seems, I swear it is the absolute truth—he reaches into his wallet and hands me a business card; on it is a picture of the custom ukuleles that he builds for a living.

Scooters and ukuleles. The connection is stronger than I realized.

-Lamb Chop

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