Monday, August 1, 2011

On to Wisconsin

After our 6-day visit in Chicago with Brian, Ardy and grandson Cedro, we hopped back on the tandem for the next leg of our trip, heading northwest and back to the Mississippi River. We're now in Wisconsin, over half-way to Winona MN, our next destination on the Big Muddy.

Rail trails made the escape from Chicago reasonably easy, although most of the surfaces of the trails were packed limestone. It's a surface that looks like a dirt road but is quite hard, and in fact feels similar to a clay tennis court, with good reason since the trail is made of a mix of crushed limestone and clay. Here's a view of the Sugar River Trail in Wisconsin to see what one looks like. Since packed limestone creates more surface friction, we tend to ride 1 to 3 mph slower than on good asphalt, though that disadvantage is often offset by three big advantages. First, any rail trail is either flat or gently graded, so no steep hills. Second, a rail trail keeps you out of traffic, and quite a few of the ones we rode out of Chicago passed under or over busy roads, saving us from having to stop for traffic lights. Unless the trail runs right next to a highway, it also makes for a quieter and more nature-filled experience.

Last and sometimes most important of all, rail trails tend to have a lot of vegetation next to them. Even the low bushes next to the trail above will help, and many are virtual tunnels of trees, as you've seen in photos in past blog entries and which you'll see much more of in the next few weeks as we ride many more rail trails here in Wisconsin. When the wind is blowing in your face on the highway, it's usually calmer and sometimes close to dead still on a nearby rail trail.
We reached the Fox River valley at the end of our first day, and enjoyed this beautiful bike bridge over the Fox with views down to kayakers. A short while later we hopped onto the River Bend Bike Trail, which as you can see was much pleasanter than riding down the edge of that busy highway.

Of the 70 miles we did in the first two days out of Chicago, 55 were on bike trails. Eventually we were back on roads, but they either had adequate shoulders or were fairly low-trafficked. They also brought us by a rather impressive grain storage facility near Rochelle IL and past this bucolic scene of hayfields, farmhouses and nuclear reactors.

We had booked two nights at yet another Illinois state park, White Pine S. P.  As at Pere Marquette and Starved Rock state parks, we had a cozy cabin and a restaurant that served us some good meals. We had not, however, booked temperatures and humidity both in the high-80's, but that's what we got. In fact, it's what we've had all but a few days since we left St. Louis. When you're moving at 15 mph on a bicycle, at least you're creating a cooling breeze. Even though biking sounds like the more intense and therefore hotter activity, hiking is actually less comfortable on a muggy day, especially in a breeze-free forest, and we didn't do as much of it as we would have liked to do here.  But what we did do, before the full heat of the day descended upon us, was enjoyable. You just wouldn't have wanted to give either of us a hug right after we were done, shall we say.

It has actually been a very hot and wet summer in these parts (we read recently that it's been 5 degrees above average), and while we've been sweating a lot during the day at least we haven't gotten far wetter still from rain.  And there have been some doozies either at night or nearby or both, including one that broke the all-time record for rainfall in 24 hours in a town 25 miles from us. On our last night in Illinois a powerful storm passed through and led us to skip most of the Jane Addams Trail that runs right into Wisconsin's Badger State Trail. We were mostly worried about flash flooding closing the trail but when we did try riding 5 miles of the Jane Addams, we had to stop four times to negotiate our way around downed trees. Thunder clouds continued to threaten, and a little further down the road we took shelter from a lighting-filled downpour for 1 1/2 hours in this barn. It smelled wonderfully of new hay, but our time there was a sort of dance fest as we kept in near constant motion trying to avoid being a landing site for the hundreds of flies also enjoying the new hay.

 At last we got onto the Badger Trail, which did not have any downed trees and which brought us to New Glarus and its attractive train station, now a trail headquarters and visitor center for the town.

New Glarus was settled in the 1840's by 108 emigrants from Glarus Switzerland.  Despite the scarcity of tall mountains within the surrounding thousand miles of this place, they thought it looked kinda sorta like Switzerland. If you're searching for the look of a Swiss village, though, you'll be disappointed. There are a half-dozen Swiss-style buildings such as the so-called Chalet of the Golden Fleece, built in 1937, but Leavenworth Washington looks way more like an alpine community than New Glarus, even though it's a totally manufactured look. Surprisingly, a whole lot of tourists come to New Glarus, by the bus-load, to see this "Swiss village" in Wisconsin. Other than higher prices than in other towns nearby, we're not quite sure what they think they're finding here. Yes, we did have some good "bratwurst mit sauerkraut," but hey, this is Wisconsin, you can get brats & kraut almost anywhere in this state, thanks to the millions of Germans who settled all over the place.

After spending a rest day in our fruitless search for a New Switzerland, we headed back to the Badger Trail with its unusual picnic benches designed for those who feel compelled to read while they eat, and for its famous Stewart Tunnel.  The tunnel's claim to fame is that it is the darkest rail trail tunnel in America because it has a curve in the center, and you can never see "the light at the end of the tunnel" until you've rounded that curve -- at which point you're half-way into its 1200' length.  So that light you see below is not the other end of the tunnel, it's just a person walking through with a flashlight, which is pretty much mandatory if you don't want to examine the tunnel walls with your face.  It was built in 1887 and was actively used for 95 years, mostly of course by coal-burning steam engines but also by diesels in it's later years of service. Now of course it's a giant magnet drawing cyclists into its dark bowels. We can report, however, that some of them do emerge triumphantly at the other end.

Two days later we were 80+ miles to the west (well, indirect miles -- the proverbial crow could have done it in a little over half that), in Mineral Point.  Thanks to the Badger Trail and the Military Ridge Trail, only 7 of those miles were on roadways.  Mineral Point was everything New Glarus wasn't.  It was low-key, un-hyped, genuine, and fascinating.  It is in an area where first lead and later zinc were discovered in the early 1800s.  Many of the first miners dug small burrows in the ground to sleep in which were called "badger holes," leading to Wisconsin's nickname as the "Badger State."

While the very first miners were mostly from the southern states, by the early 1830s they were largely from Cornwall England.  The miners' wives used to shake a dish rag at the front door of the solid limestone cottages they built to signal that lunch was ready, and today the street with the largest number of these old homes is named Shake Rag Street.  We stayed in a wooden building that was built about 1840 as a stagecoach house and is now part of an arts community called Shake Rag Alley.  It's the one Louise is entering below.  Just down the street is a group of buildings saved in the 1940s by a local with a sense of history, when they were in danger of being pulled down.  It's now owned by the Wisconsin Historical Association, and our guide Nancy brought us into several of the buildings, including so-called Polperro House, then Pendarvis House, and finally a group of row houses.  She also showed us a great diagram showing how the miners were lowered into the mine in what looks like an oversized water well bucket.  That was one tough way to earn a living!

For dinner we walked downtown, and this was another experience in itself.  We've seen pictures of places that look like this in England, but we've never seen a downtown like this in the U.S.  Building after building made of solid limestone, with just a few others thrown in for variety.  There was even a 5 and 10 cent store, though we suspect there's not much there anymore for 5 or even 10 cents.  Our supper repast included a Cornish pasty, which is pronounced "pass-tee" not "pace-tee," as we've thought for years.  It was served open, and consisted of pastry dough, meat, potatoes and rutabagas in a dollop of gravy.  We can see how it would keep a miner going for a while.  For dessert we tried our first ever figgyhobbin, a confection with raisins, nuts, cinnamon and brown sugar wrapped in pastry dough and covered with caramel and whipped cream.  The promise of one of those as a reward could almost convince a lad to go back down the well on that bucket to do a bit more mining.

We're now on our way back to the Elroy-Sparta Rail Trail, which we wrote about in this blog in September 2009 when we rode it with our Victoria BC friends Don and Ericka.  Today we spent part of the day on back roads like this beauty, then on the Pine River Rail Trail past a pair of sandhill cranes that were astonishingly loud as they told us to bug off.  We'll write next from the Mississippi valley.

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