I downshift on the outskirts of Fish Creek, Wis., and squeeze the front brake as I approach the main intersection, leaning my nimble Kawasaki W650 directly into 1965.
The town seems frozen in time with wood-framed buildings, rows of cottages and a couple dozen small shops. Welcome to Door County, the vacation land that time forgot.
Where's Door County? If you look at a map of Wisconsin, you'll see a small thumb sticking into Lake Michigan. The base of the thumb is Green Bay. That's the big city. Door County consists of a series of little towns along the water for a good 85 miles out to the tip. It's about 28,000 people, two state routes and a collection of narrow county roads.
Naturally cooled by the lake, Door County has long been a vacation destination for people seeking to escape the summer heat of Milwaukee and Chicago. Somehow, though, it's managed to survive several decades of those vacationers virtually unscathed. In fact, these days, it's practically a theme park celebrating the American vacation circa the LBJ administration.
Starting in Milwaukee on the W650 (which, with its retro look, great ergonomics and purring engine is perfect for this trip back through time) I exit Interstate 43 at Manitowoc and follow state Route 42 east. Moments later, I run smack into blue water stretching all the way to the horizon, marked by a helpful sign reading “Lake Michigan.” This is here in case, I suppose, you thought Wisconsin bordered the Atlantic Ocean.
From here, Route 42 turns north along the lake shore, through countryside that seems blissfully unaware of the 21st century. I pass dairy farms where the back 40 consists of the world's fifth-largest lake and small towns famous for ice cream sundaes.
I continue north, and, by the time I reach Sturgeon Bay—which, with a population of 9,500, is the largest city in Door County—the trip into the past is complete.
I pass one final Wal-Mart, and from that point on, there's not a single McDonald's or Holiday Inn or Domino's Pizza or chain anything. It's just a collection of little towns, none with more than 1,000 residents and, according to local claim, more waterfront than any other county in America.
Route 42 crosses the interior of the peninsula, rolling through farms with cows and cherry orchards, the two agricultural mainstays of the region. Eventually, it emerges on the northwestern shore at Egg Harbor, a town of 250 nestled around Harbor View Park, where we settle on a bench and watch sailboats on the sunlit water.
The run up to Fish Creek is only a handful of miles, and we get settled at the Main Street Motel in time for dinner, which, in this part of Wisconsin, means a couple of unique options.
The first is something known as a fish boil, which is kind of the Door County equivalent of dinner theater.
The star of the show is the boil master, who sets the outdoor stage by building a wood fire under an enormous cauldron of water (think of the “wabbit stew'” pot from an old “Bugs Bunny'” cartoon).
Once the water is hot, in goes salt, plus potatoes, onions and chunks of fresh-caught whitefish. Then everybody sits around watching the flames and smelling the wood smoke.
When the boil master determines that the fish is cooked, he approaches with a cup of kerosene. He throws this onto the wood fire at the base, which explodes like the finale of a fireworks show.
The idea, I'm told, is that during the cooking process, all of the oiliness of the whitefish floats to the top of the water. This final flare-up causes the cauldron to boil over, washing the oil over the top and away from what will go on your dinner plate.
It's a great show. But it has to contend with Wisconsin's other contribution to the culinary world: the supper club.
What's a supper club?
It's the kind of place where sophisticated grownups went for dinner and dancing 40 or more years ago. Here, in rustic northern Wisconsin, the interior is usually knotty pine, and the food is high-'60s style: steaks, chops or pan-fried walleyed pike, accompanied by a baked potato and a relish tray.
The other supper club tradition is the bar. It's usually enormous, and behind it is a guy who isn't there to help you select the perfect wine to accompany your meal. He's there to mix drinks: Manhattans, old-fashioneds, martinis without the cute accompaniments.
For this reason, location is everything at night in Door County. You want to base yourself within easy walking distance of a fish boil or a supper club, because, even if you haven't become the bartender's best friend, the other guy on the road might have.
Before or after dinner, depending on the season and your personal schedule, there's one more item on the agenda for a day in Door County: sunset.
The northwest edge of the Door Peninsula is known as the “sunset side'” because it has the open horizon of Green Bay to the west. The southeast edge, facing Lake Michigan, is the “sunrise side,” with an unobstructed view of each day beginning.
The two are only a few miles apart in places, so you can easily see both. But in what might be an answer to the longstanding “morning person or evening person” question, the sunsets always draw the bigger crowds.
As the light takes on an orange glow, people gather along Fish Creek's aptly named Sunset Beach to watch the sun sink low over Green Bay. The uninterrupted water view means that the yellows and reds and pinks of sunlight mix with the blues of lake and sky in a complex mosaic that rearranges itself with every movement of the water.
Like everybody else, I stand there, transfixed by the sight, until the sun turns into a hemisphere of glowing orange sherbet on the distant horizon and gradually melts into the water. It's a particularly good show, followed by impromptu applause.
It’s a great way to end a visit back in time.