06.20.11 – Best of the (Upper) Midwest Pt. 1

I left Madison on Sunday, June 12th and had some pretty nice riding all the way up to the ferry. Yep, I took a ferry! The Merrimac ferry crosses the Wisconsin River in the town of Merrimac and is Wisconsin’s only free ferry. Even though the ferry was only 7 minutes long, it was still cool to be able to incorporate that into the day’s ride. From the ferry I visited Devil’s Lake where I saw my first real bluffs. For those of you who don’t know (though don’t quote me on this), a bluff is a large and steep embankment usually next to water though apparent it doesn’t always have to be. I now wish I had hiked around the bluffs but I was only planning to visit the lake for lunch and wasn’t actually aware of the hiking opportunities there.

While ordering my food, Joe approached me and asked about my travels. Joe invited me to sit with his wife and three children while we ate our lunches. We traded stories, honey and apples for a bit and I learned that he and his wife were very active outdoor athletes. I believe he told me they hiked 300+ miles in Colorado (Denver to Durango). I can barely carry everything on my bike. How do you do it on your back?!

Continuing on, I planned on stopping in Reedsburg, which is where the 101 miles of bicycle path begin. I thought to myself that if I travel any further than Reedsburg, they’d be bonus miles. Bonus miles are pretty much self-explanatory. If you complete your day’s planned mileage and then do more, whatever more you do is miles you don’t “have” to do tomorrow! I decided that since the town of Reedsburg was pretty much completely closed on Sundays, I would knock out some (rare) bonus miles along the trail until dusk at which point I’d pull off and set up camp. I also noticed that the small towns along the trail have nice parks right on the trail (perhaps to entice people on the trail to come into town) so if I stopped in a town, I could probably set up camp in a nice grassy park perhaps with a drinking fountain and/or restrooms. Anyway, you may have seen the video where I go through the tunnel along the bicycle path. That’s what I did during these bonus miles. It was close to dusk and I could tell I wouldn’t be riding much longer.

I went through Elroy, took the wrong path because I didn’t know there were two options. Going through this tunnel, I was sure I was headed the right way because I was told in Madison about the tunnels! Plus, how do you get lost on a bicycle path with only one option (or so I thought there was only one). So since I was on a bicycle path I thought that it’d be silly to use my GPS. I knew the general heading of the path and that from this northern heading it would eventually bend west. About five miles after Elroy, I realized the sun was still to my left. Confused and concerned, I looked at my GPS and it told me I had travelled the distance I needed to get to my planned camping spot…but in the wrong direction! I turned around, annoyed and realizing I wouldn’t get that beer I wanted in Kendall (the town I decided I’d stop in for the night). At this point, I wasn’t riding much faster than 10mph so 5 miles was a half hour. A half hour at dusk is a big difference. Riding back to the trail, I ran into Heather, her husband and their children. I stopped to ask for a shortcut along the roads to Kendall and they were very helpful. They were excited to help and even offered space in their backyard but I wanted to head in the other direction from where they lived. I continued riding and a few miles down the road, here they came again! They knew I could probably make it to Kendall but wanted to know if I wanted a lift since it was getting dark. I was blown away that they would go out of their way (remember they lived in the other direction) to help me with something really not that major. I gladly accepted since it was kind of hilly on the roads. I’m glad I did because Kendall was further than I thought and the sunset was more enjoyable without burning legs. If you guys are reading this, thank you again for that little boost to Kendall. It means a lot to know how quickly strangers can become friends.

The next day I biked ten miles to the next town along the trail, Wilton. While I wasn’t extremely hungry, I decided I should probably eat more than cup-o-noodles to get to La Crosse. I headed into the town to Riley’s and standing outside, rustling in his panniers, was Geoff. Geoff is my age and touring from Iowa to Washington D.C. to discuss climate change with different politicians. It was really cool to see another solo tourist my age and that we happened to be able to have breakfast together! We talked about our travels and swapped advice on what to expect further down the road (remember we’re travelling opposite directions). It’s really interesting to see and hear about how other people decide to do bike touring. We all have different bikes, bags, lodging ideas, clothes, etc. I really think that none of us are doing it right, but none of us are doing it wrong.

It was really nice not having to deal with cars the rest of the day and the packed limestone trail was epically beautiful! Old bridges, long tunnels and riding alongside trains were just amazing. Getting into La Crosse, I grabbed a bite to eat (cheese curds, of course, were my appetizer) and some New Glarus beers. Patrick, my couchsurfing host, met me at the pub and we cruised back to his place. Patrick is an energy consultant, helping to improve company’s use of energy in their buildings and practices. A very nice guy, he included me in a small dinner party that evening where I got to meet more fellow La Crossians. From what it sounds like, La Crosse is becoming another popular Wisconsin town like Madison and Milwaukee. Being on the Mississippi and in the middle of this long bicycle trail, it definitely has the foundations for growth.

The next day we had a proper send-off where Patrick rode with me a little bit out of town (on his way to work) and I was on my way to crossing the Mississippi River! I took the Great River Trail (one of the trails that make up the 101 mile path) north toward Winona, MN. I ended up catching up to four women who were cycling from Madison to Red Wing outside of Minneapolis. It was nice to ride with some people for a bit and they ended up getting me through a confusing section just after the trail ended. While riding with them, two guys on loaded bikes passed us on the other side of the road and for a moment I was beginning to think that every touring cyclist is in Wisconsin!

I pedaled on ahead of the women and stopped to take a picture of the Mississippi at an overlook. Going up the stairs to the overlook I noticed a sign that read “Beware of Timber Rattlesnakes” and I kind of wanted to see one but kind of didn’t. After taking the picture (it was crappy, you won’t see it in the album) I walked back down the stairs. As I reached the same stair at which the sign was posted, I nearly leapt out of my skin as I noticed a rattlesnake sunbathing on the other end of the very same step! Had I just walked in between a rattlesnake sign and an actual rattlesnake?! Perhaps they should put the sign on the same side as the snake or paint some coiled lines under the sign for rattlesnake parking. I immediately backed away, crouched, and then stuck my camera arm out as close to the snake as I dared to get the picture you see in the album. His tail was definitely rattling though it was very light and I think its eyes were closed. Perhaps this snake’s rattle was simply idling. As I left the overlook, the women on bikes passed me again and I told them about the encounter. Apparently I’m very lucky to have seen a snake as not many people do.

I crossed the river into Minnesota over an unexciting bridge and grabbed some lunch while considering whether or not to head to Rochester. I called Nathan (the gentleman I mentioned in my last post) and he was okay with my arriving that day. It was another 50 miles but the elevation map said it was only climbing in the beginning and then slightly downhill the rest of the way. The uphill was gravel (thanks again, Google!) but on the downhill section I got an amazing tailwind! I averaged about 20mph on that section and even found myself going 20+ mph up some small hills! The road surface was perfect and the clouds in the sky helped to keep things cool. Arriving in Rochester, Nathan and his family had an extra room for me, a towel, and even included me in on their family dinner. Denise, Nathan’s wife, wrote a book (and is currently writing another) to address the literacy crisis in America. Her first book focuses on understanding the patterns in the English language, many of which people (including myself) are unaware. She told me about how very well educated people have found her research helpful. I read only a bit of the book but ended up finding the perfect home for it in Montevideo with another family. I really recommend reading about her research and the improved methods she’s developed for teaching English in the classroom (The Logic of English). After Rochester I would make one more stop before Minneapolis.

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