The coarse gravel road leads only into thin forest; there's no water in sight, but there's something in the air, a smell of backwater, of oozing river mud stirred and bubbling, an absence of sound as the cacophony of man is covered by the silence of wide waters. I'm pedaling down a shady sylvan road, carefully picking my path through gravel too rough for a touring bicycle. A few blocks behind me my wife, Judy is beginning the long drive back to Milwaukee. I have that "beginning of the trip" feeling, still not sure if I'm ready for this trip, wanting reassurance that doesn't come when you travel alone. I know that she's still close, but whatever happens, I'm completely on my own now. Ahead are two hundred and fifty miles of trails and roads, my path back to home.
A few miles ahead I enter Perrot State Park. The park is deserted, even though this is late in August, the day before Labor day. There's an observation deck to the south, so I prop up my bike on the railing and walk to the Mississippi. A wide panorama opens and I drink in the sights and smells of the river. This part of the river lies within the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. Here is marsh land, rough and earthy and teeming with life. Mallards glide, land and disappear behind clumps of reeds. The buzz of cicadas mixes with the occasional croak of a frog as my eyes scan the shore. Beyond the marsh is the wide expanse of the river, a distance not measured with the eye, but known by some sense that tells us our place in the grand scale of nature.
There's a young couple here, on a day trip from the city of La Crosse. We talk briefly about the beauty of this place and I explain my plan to ride across Wisconsin over the next five days. Wisconsin is a great state for bicycle touring, with a network of scenic trails that follow the routes of old railroad lines. All but seventy miles of my trip will be on these trails.
Leaving the river, I follow the road through the park. There are observation points here, with information on birds and plants that can be seen in this area. I'm relaxed now, falling into a steady peddling rhythm. The gravel is smooth, and I don't have to concentrate. Overhead, the August sun beats down, baking the tall grass in the wide open fields. Although I've just started, there's something familiar about this trip, something remembered from long ago that's following me down the road...
Long ago, in the village of Elm Grove, Wisconsin, my world was limited to the few back yards that made up our neighborhood. With my friend Steve Heine, hills and culverts, sand boxes and chipmunk holes were discovered and explored. Within a year or two, we knew the insides of any native nut that could be smashed with a hammer. We dammed and diverted all of the neighborhood drainage ditches, and climbed all of the trees that could be climbed. All types of insects were placed into jars. Soon it seemed that all places and things were known, nothing was left to chase the boredom away. But then, we became old enough to ride bicycles!
One day Steve told me about a place he had been to, a place shown to him by his brother Tom. It was far, far away, and we might have to take some water to drink if we went there. The plan was set and we pedaled off down Elmhurst Parkway, heading west into the afternoon sun. Block after block went by, until the land changed, We were no longer in our familiar suburban landscape. Here was a place of open spaces, farmland with odd machinery and mysterious buildings, smells of animals and rich earth and wide fields of grass baking in the sun. We headed toward a stand of hardwood trees that formed a large circle near the road. This, Steve told me was Witches Island!
Dropping our bikes near the trees, we carefully ducked under the canopy of branches that sagged to the ground. Inside was a world of wonder, a world of rocks, completely covered by the tall trees that surrounded and poked through the cracks between the boulders. There were thousands of rocks, some small, some half the size of an automobile! There were hundreds of cracks and holes to peer into, a thousand stones to inspect or throw or crack open. This was a place apart from the world, a place of mystery and excitement. We couldn't walk to this place, but with a bicycle, we could and did ride there often, sometimes just to sit among the rocks and watch the wind shake and rustle the tree tops around us. We knew nothing of farming then, or the backbreaking labor of clearing rocks from the land. We assumed that this was a natural place, known only to a few of the neighborhood kids, a special group that had the courage to enter.
On our many rides through Elm Grove, Steve and I found dozens of places like this. There were creeks full of minnows and toads. There were houses long abandoned, and new ones half constructed. There was always the excitement of the plan, the long bicycle ride, and the unpredictable discovery.
Maybe these memories were working when I started putting together panniers a year ago. Maybe a sense of boredom led me naturally to a plan that worked so well, so long ago. Now I ride again to discover, to find that place just down the path, perhaps just to sit and watch the wind blow in the trees above...
Suddenly I'm shocked into full attention, I've already passed this part of the road! How could I be lost when I've only traveled a few miles? Thirty minutes of frustration later, I find a small sign that points to "trails." I've been circling a "nature loop" in Perrot park, the Great River State Trail hasn't started yet!. In a minute my frustration dies away and I chuckle at myself. What was I saying about unpredictable?
The Great River State Trail was opened in 1988 on the path of the old Chicago and Northwestern railroad. It follows the Mississippi river for about twenty four miles. There are eighteen bridges along the route, covered now with planks to accommodate cyclists. The weather is beautiful on this first day, and I pass many people riding on day trips from La Crosse
I stop on a bridge and watch as some fishermen wade in the river. These guys seem to be more concerned with whooping it up than with serious fishing. Soon the brush opens on my right and I again see the Mississippi. This widening of the river is lake Onalaska, and the view is terrific.
Just below the path I travel on is a railroad, the Burlington Northern. As I slowly travel along, a freight train thunders northward against the stillness of the river. In the distance is a small boat, more people enjoying this last long weekend at the end of the summer.
Now the city of Onalaska appears and I dig out the trail map that shows my connection to the La Crosse River State Trail. There's a short stretch of travel on the roads and a connecting trail through town. First things first. I spot a fast food restaurant and buy myself the largest soda they have. It's been a hot morning, and relaxing in the air conditioning feels mighty good. Since I'll be camping on this trip, I need to make it to Sparta today. I fill up my water bottles and hit the road. The bike feels heavier now, and I wonder how I'll be doing by the end of the day.
The path through town ends at a concrete yard. After a painfully steep hill, I'm at the beginning of the La Crosse River Trail. I meet some people here at the trail head. A worn out rider lies on a picnic table while his wife and I talk of the trail ahead. They've been to Governor Dodge State park, two and a half days down the road for me. I'm not sure if the park has a "back door", some way in from the northeast. I find out it doesn't - this information will save me half an hour of peddling at the end of a long day. There is mention of a long, long hill on the way to the park. I don't quite realize whether I will have to go down or up this hill, but I suppose I will find out.
On the La Crosse River Trail now, the afternoon sun is really beating down. There's usually a point in all non-motorized travel where your senses turn inward, rather than outward. It seems that the more you think, the more you think about being tired or sore, or too hot. I gradually put myself into an asleep-while-awake daze. It's nice that I'm riding where I don't have to worry about traffic, save for the occasional cyclist that passes me.
Late in the afternoon, I slowly come into Sparta, the "Bicycling Capital of America". This town really lives up to it's title - there are welcome signs out everywhere for cyclists. Feeling like a zombie, I drag myself into the trail headquarters building and splash some water on my face. A mile into town, I find a restaurant and shuffle into a booth. In a corner table, a rough old character relives the second world war while his companion dutifully nods in agreement at the appropriate moments. Perhaps there is a point in all war stories where the listener turns inward... It's not quite the dinner hour yet, and the restaurant is nearly empty. Outside, the small town traffic putters and squeals as old and young drivers make their way home.
The road south to the campground I'm staying at climbs through several steep hills. It's only five miles to the camp, but I ran out of gas before I pulled into Sparta. There's nothing worse in my mind than getting lost at the end of the day, so I check and re-check my map as I glide down and walk up the steep terrain. Finally I look down a hill and a sea of recreation vehicles appears.
I must not look so good - the lady at the Leon Valley campground immediately picks up on the fact that I'm looking for a shower. An hour later I'm clean and my tiny tent is up. This is the worst part of the trip for me. All around me are people with their families, drinking, talking, splashing in the pool and generally having the time of their lives on this labor day holiday. Meanwhile I sit, sans patio chair, on a picnic table near the tent. No beer, no snacks, no company. I really feel out of place amid this celebration, but I'm too tired to do anything about it. By nine o'clock I'm sacked out, and really wondering if this solo trip was the worst or second worst idea I've ever carried out.
Copyright 1998 by James Hegyi