Day 46: Houston, MN to Elroy, WI
I woke up in the new bandshell built by the Lions Club of Houston, Minnesota. The city park in this tiny hamlet (pop. 1,000) is better than you’ll find in many towns of 50,000. It has a walk-in campground for people riding the Root River Trail. It has a nature center that specializes in owls. It has bathrooms that are new and sparkling clean, with the cleaning done by volunteers. It has the bandshell, which meant that I didn’t have to set up my tent. Best of all, it is surrounded by a protected wetland packed with birds that call and chatter at high volume as soon as the sun comes up. It was a real find.
We left about 8:30am and cycled east on a county road next to the Root River. Fog was hanging in the valley and on top of the corn, but overhead the sky was blue. We went past the Mound Valley State Wildlife Area (more chattering birds) and noticed that the landscape was flattening out, the marshes getting bigger. We were getting close to the Mississippi River. At the intersection with Route 16, we saw a puzzling display. A female mannequin was ironing, and a girl mannequin was hanging onto her leg. An American flag on a bent pole was planted nearby. On the other side of the display was a sign that read “See George at Kwik Fill Hokah.”
“Maybe George is looking for a wife,” said Jim.
“She’d better be patriotic,” I said.
We crossed the Mississippi on U.S. 16 at La Crescent, dodging traffic and broken pavement and tire-eating garbage. There were several miles of marshes and industrial sites before the actual bridge and shipping channel, which was lined with houseboats and barges. Then we were in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. All props to the cheese-heads: we saw our first party even before we got off the bridge. Lining a street next to the river were seven or eight marching bands tuning up. A big parade was about to start, and it was going right along our route! It was awfully nice of them to go to all this trouble, but how did they know we were coming?
We rode through the waiting Oktoberfest kick-off parade and then rode down the street in front of all the people who were waiting to see the marching bands. We saw men wearing leiderhosen and women in milkmaid dresses. We saw beauty queens primping and climbing onto thrones on gussied-up flatbed trucks. We waved, and some of them waved back. “We have to keep moving, or we will be here all weekend,” I told Jim. He didn’t want to go. He wanted to stop and chat and have a beer at ten in the morning, and I knew that if he did he might wake up thirty years later wondering what happened. We were missing a giant blow-out, but duty called. We rode on to a pretty riverside park and a giant statue of Hiawatha. Then the bike paths began.
Wisconsin turned out to be paradise for bicycle riders. LaCrosse’s Three Rivers Trail immediately took us out of city traffic and through linear parks all the way to the outskirts of town. We turned east on the LaCrosse River State Trail and rode it for 22 miles, then finished the day by riding the length of the 32-mile Elroy-Sparta State Trail. It was an 80-mile day that felt like a vacation. The LaCrosse Trail is strung between an active rail line and Interstate 90, and we were entertained by scary Amtrak trains and freights barreling past on the other side of the ditch. It was hot, and our water bottles were nearing empty when we pulled into Sparta.
Sparta advertises itself as the Bicycling Capital of America because back in 1967, the abandoned railbed from Elroy to Sparta became the first “rail-trail” for hikers and cyclists. There are now thousands of miles of rail-trails in America. Governments pay for their development because this is a cheap way to preserve transportation corridors while pumping tourist dollars into rural areas. But the whole idea started here, and we watched a charming promotional movie made by locals in the late 1960s that featured two children lumbering along on single-speed bikes that looked like small tractors. Great oaks from tiny acorns grow.
Sparta’s tourism center lured us into the town because of the “Deke Slayton Memorial Space and Bicycle Museum.” I grew up in Florida in the 1960s and the late Deke Slayton, an A-list astronaut, was one of my big heroes. It turns out that he was a Sparta native. Jim took my picture posing with a life-sized sculpture of Deke, and then I went upstairs. I asked the woman at the gift shop, “Did Deke Slayton like bicycles?”
“Not especially,” she said.
“So what is the connection between bicycles and space travel?” I asked, hopefully. “Is there some connection?”
She seemed puzzled by the question. “Just that they’re both here in Sparta,” she said.
Sparta is kind of eccentric, and the weirdest thing about it is the larger than life sized sculpture of “Ben Bikin” in the city park. Ben is a fictional 1900s character with a handlebar mustache. He is astride an old “boneshaker” big-wheeled bike. He is perhaps 25 feet tall. There is a hidden motion detector in the base of his statue, and when you approach he will suddenly shout “Hi! Welcome to Sparta!” and then tell you how great everything is here. It was startling, cheesy, and funny. It was the kind of moment you live for.
The Elroy-Sparta line was the main rail route between St. Paul and Chicago in the early part of the 20th century. The nearby highway was also an old tourist route for automobiles, and the locals have carefully preserved a lot of the architecture and signs from 80 years ago. Western Wisconsin’s hills are glacial, meaning they are short but steep, so the line is distinguished by three tunnels so long that they require headlamps. Jim and I were as excited as children by the prospect of riding through these tunnels, which lived up to their spooky billing. Riding through them was an experience of total darkness on either side, the sound of dripping water, and a pinpoint of light in the far distance. We weren’t supposed to ride through them, but of course we did. We even made movies of each other riding through them. That is why we wear helmets. We’re idiots.
By the end of the third tunnel we were exhausted, and Jim had a slow leak in his front tire. My wife Tania had flown out for the weekend, cashing in the rest of her frequent flyer miles, and she had found a motel for us that was clean and comfy and quiet. Seeing her at the end of a day like this made it all feel just about perfect.
Jim and Sara stayed at a campground; Tania and I went into Elroy, a charming village that city people have not discovered yet. We found a diner along main street that was serving dinner. It was Friday, everyone was having the fish fry, and the place was packed. Then we went back to the room and watched Barack Obama debate John McCain. That doesn’t sound very romantic, I know, but we made it work.
Day 47: Elroy to Green Lake, WI
Tania and I met Sara and Jim at a coffee shop on Elroy’s main street. We set off around 9:30 am on Saturday, September 27. We were on county roads and were headed to Green Lake, where we had been told there was a “harvest festival” and a parade scheduled for 4pm. We had about 80 miles to go, but it remained warm and sunny, and there was a slight tailwind. This and the parade deadline kept us pumping along at top speed all day. We averaged more than 15 miles an hour and did the mileage in a bit over 5 hours in the saddle, with 90 minutes of rest. It was our fastest ride ever.
Wisconsin’s county roads are all paved, so there are dozens of low-traffic ways to get from one small town to another. We cycled through hills and dales that looked like the glaciers had missed them, pausing briefly when a bird or a snake or a notable barn caught someone’s attention. We spent several hours pedaling in a pleasant but uneventful way, until out of nowhere a handsome art deco stone-and-steel sign for the Oxford Federal Correctional Institute came up on our left. We stopped to admire the careful landscaping and big close-cropped lawn around the sign. Then we noticed two little girls who had come out of a house trailer across the street. They sat cross-legged on the lawn and faced us, while a man who looked like their father stood behind them on the stoop.
Jim fell into a conversation with the man, as he always does, and the girls lobbed questions at us simultaneously without waiting for the men to stop talking. Jim wanted to know about the prison. The man wanted to know about our route and what we’d seen. The girls wanted to know whether we always wore our helmets and whether either of us had been hit by a car yet. I told them yes and no, and that they should always wear their helmets too. Jim said entertaining things to the man, and in return he found out that it was a minimum security prison “for crooked judges and Congressmen.” This might be why we saw several European sports cars turning into the gate, and also why I heard a sound from behind the hedge that sounded an awful lot like people playing tennis.
“They got it real nice in there,” said the man. “They got sports and a swimming pool. On Memorial Day they even had a live band. They got it better than we do out here.”
Riding as hard as we were did not give us much time to stop and check things out, but I did hear and see evidence that Wisconsin is the undisputed alcohol and cholesterol capital of the country. “You have no idea,” said the woman who served us breakfast. “If you want to know, go down to the Sportsman’s Bar tomorrow, get an Old Style and some deep-fried cheese curds, and stay until kickoff. You’ll see some stuff, for sure.” I had to take her word for it, which pained me greatly. But I did see that every little hamlet had a beat-up plastic sign for Grain Belt or Old Style or Blatz or Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer hanging in front of an equally beat-up building, and there were usually lots of beat-up cars parked out in front. We also rode past two American Legion Brat Fry fundraisers. That’s bratwurst for the noviates, or mildly spicy German sausage on a roll. It tastes way too good for your own good. We ate a lot of brats on the ride. They were cheap, easy to cook, and very tasty. When I got back home, I found to my horror that my total cholesterol number had actually increased.
It might sound improbable that a milkshake is the best thing to order for lunch while you’re on a long ride, but we had been told this by several athletes and we were happy to believe it. In fact, I became convinced that this was the real reason Jim rode across the country. Tipped off by Tania, who was buzzing around us all day in an electric blue rental car, we stopped in Westfield and got two excellent shakes at a candy store that also sold wooden replicas of guns and swords for the kids to play with. These were the kind of things that get kids shot by cops in the Bronx, but in Wisconsin they’re just cute. Lawn signs for John McCain outnumbered Obama signs in this town by about three to one.
A milkshake hits a touring cyclist’s system like a tank of high-octane fuel. It and the tailwind and the 4pm parade deadline juiced our legs and we screamed through the last 20 miles of the trip in an hour. The nice motel room Tania had picked out might have had something to do with it, too.
Green Lake is an affluent resort town that still retains its Wisconsin party flavor. We got to town just as the parade was starting. It was a sublime and wonderful spectacle, and totally free of irony. A tractor pulled small children who were piloting hollowed-out barrels that had been painted to look like airplanes. A delighted boy rode a real camel that announced the first contingent of Fez-topped Shriners on tiny motorcycles. A float for John McCain floated by and everyone ignored it. Tania got her picture taken with a walking ice cream cone advertising Culvers’ famous “butter burgers.” The young woman inside the cone explained that these are, indeed, buttered hamburgers (see cholesterol comment above). There were also lots of fire trucks with flashing lights and dump trucks that blasted their air horns, scaring everybody. But the highlight of the parade, for me at least, was the second contingent of Shriners, who sped around in circles inside tiny cars.
What a mystery Shriners are. Why do they wear hats from Morocco? They have so many different symbols on their hats. What do they all mean? And who got the idea of stuffing these huge men into go-carts? After I made the blog post, Diane Ihle answered these questions by writing, “What’s the mystery? Men never grow up!”
Tania and I retired to the Bay View Motel after the parade. It was also a find. It seemed to be built in the early 1960s and it retained the original Swedish blond wood paneling, pink and green tiled bathroom, and oversized shower. It also had a lawn next to the lake, where Jim and Sara joined us for happy hour. We went to a jammed restaurant and made to bed by 10 pm, which was about an hour too late for us old folks.
Day 48: Green Lake to Manitowoc
We set off for Manitowoc on Sunday around 10:00 am after saying goodbye to Tania, who had to get back to Ithaca. We had another 80 miles to go before our destination. Manitowoc is about 90 miles north of Milwaukee on Lake Michigan. It is where you board the S.S. Badger, the ferryboat we used to get to the next state while avoiding Chicago’s sprawl.
The weather had turned overnight, so we set off under gray skies, a north wind, and temperatures struggling to hit 60 degrees. We pushed to reach 13 miles an hour against crosswinds and headwinds, and had a lot less fun. The first 20 miles were on busy highways with bad pavement and no shoulder. Then Jim, whose route planning skills never fail to amaze me, found a bike path that would take us through Fond Du Lac. This got us off the roads for several hours. He couldn’t get rid of the wind, however.
The traffic thinned out north of Fond Du Lac, and the last 50 miles of the ride was an uneventful slog through county roads that would have been beautiful had we not been cold and exhausted. I only collected a few things to report. First, this was Amish country. Several times we met or rode past black horse-drawn carts heading home from church, or to
Sunday supper. Hands waved back to us from behind tinted glass, and then they were gone. Second, in the tiny hamlet of St. Anna we rode past the Scrubs Tavern. The parking lot was full of cars, so many of them that it seemed everybody from miles around had to have been there. A roar came from inside the bar. The Packers were playing.
We rode east to the Manitowoc County line through big dairy farms that smelled like poop. One farmer made a joke about it (see photos). We crossed Interstate 43 and suddenly there was Lake Michigan, and it was impossible not to think that it looked exactly like the sea. We turned north on the lakeshore and started on the last leg to Manitowoc. We almost made it, but in the overcast the light started fading around 6pm and Jim called Sara for relief. The truck showed up about ten miles south of our destination. We drove to the home of Bill Yust’s brother-in-law Michael Retzinger, his wife Amy Tiesol, and their daughter Ceci. Michael and Amy made us more than welcome, and nothing could have kept me awake after 10pm. It had been six hard days in a row. Tomorrow is a day for rest and adventure, including a four-hour ferry ride across the lake.