Tuesday, August 20, 2013

There will be hills. Finding myself in the Driftless zone of Wisconsin

This is why I love the Driftless Zone!

Me on Valley Road near Wildcat Mountain State Park

"If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be." 
-Joseph Campbell 

Joseph Campbell spoke, and I listened.  This Spring I chucked my "bucket list" idea of touring around lake Superior and opted for a more hedonistic bike tour.  Sure, riding around Superior had a sense of adventure and grandeur, but the idea of dodging logging trucks began to take it's toll on me.  Instead, I chose an eight day, zig-zag trip throughout my favorite riding area--the Driftless zone.

Other than the gorgeous scenery (gorgeous being a word which was repeated no fewer than twenty times daily), my husband and I were drawn to the fact we could pedal straight from home--the Driftless zone begins roughly three miles West from our house.

With shiny new touring bikes purchased and dialed in--see my post on our bikes, lodging reserved, a loose idea of where we could get provisions and bags packed, we rolled out of our neighborhood and up our first of several hundred climbs, on August 10th.  Our first destination was Muscoda, home to the morel mushroom festival, on the Wisconsin river.

Because we chose to stay off major roads, our daily routes resembled a line made by a drunken sailor vs. a direct shot.  Our cue sheets read like novellas and many roads contained the words "hollow", "river", "coulee", "ridge" or "creek".  From previous rides in this area, we knew roads containing those words were bound to be jaw dropping (notice I abstained from using the word "gorgeous") and most certainly hilly.

After two days of relentless hills, we began to categorize these hills as: a) not too bad--we can still breathe and hold a conversation, b) still able to breathe but goddammit don't even think about talking to me, or c) "blackout hill"--we'd puke if we had the energy to do so.  There were two things that managed to get us up the blackout hills.  First, we knew there would always be a mind bending view and second, 90% of the time, the climb would be followed by a thrilling descent--some of these descents would find us flowing around 45 mph and banking turns.

An excerpt from my journal for day #1 read:
Surprisingly my legs didn't fail me.  I felt good once I found a rhythm up the hills and became one with my bike.  Hills I normally dance up on my carbon road bike, like Fessenfeld, made me cringe knowing there would be much harder ones to come, and yet, I found beauty in moving at a snail's pace--taking time to absorb the details of every leaf.  To my delight, we got to ride on sections of the Dairyland Dare course.  I had to skip out on it this year, due to the tour, so it was great seeing their route markers on the road!  As we reached our destination, Victorian Rose Bed and Breakfast, for the night, I was tired--but oh so happy!
One of the many Dairyland Dare markers we saw

Day #2 was was riding from Muscoda to Wilton.  This was to be our be one of the most beautiful rides I've ever done.  With a belly full of eggs florentine, berries, muffins and tons of coffee, we managed to motivate ourselves to leave our cozy room and head out in the rain.  Watching the radar, we were supposed to get rain on and off all day long.  Luckily, we only had a few showers to contend with.  That, three blackout hills, and our first bout of gravel.  The piece de la resistance was our lunch break in Wildcat Mountain State Park.  I'm not sure if it was the lack of oxygen in my brain after climbing into the park (this is a part of the Kickapoo Kicker ride), but I could have sworn I was in heaven.

The view from Wildcat State Park

After tearing down 131 into Ontario, and then winding our way next to the Kickapoo River into Wilton, we were treated to a hot shower, and sad to say a dinner from the convenience store since the Dorset Valley School Restaurant and Country Thyme were closed.   Let's just say I couldn't get enough produce the following day.  I actually made my husband stop at two grocery stores so I could gorge myself on fruit and veggies.

Horses outside of Wilton as the fog began to lift

Day #3 was to be an early start from Wilton to Stoddard.  We had several stops to make along the way and, of course, plenty of climbing.  We woke to a wall of fog.  Visibility couldn't have been more than 1/10th of a mile and I was pretty sketched out about leaving in it for safety sake.  The problem was we didn't know when it would break, and we had to hit the road.  With blinkies flashing and our neon jackets handy, we rolled out.  With getting off the main road within a mile and away from the trucks, I felt much more at ease.  Everything seems a bit more peaceful in the fog and as we climbed for several miles, my heart rate may have actually slowed down.  Pastures with horses and old barns shedding their boards like they were paper birch dotted the ridge.  As we came into Cashton, the fog began to lift and we were happy to stop at a local creamery to buy some goat cheese, as well as a butcher in Westby to get some lunch meat for lunch.

The Cashton/Westby area is known for two things:  Organic Valley Farms and Amish country.  Our route was strewn with horse manure and we often times passed Amish buggies on the climbs.  It seemed as if half the farms had signs selling local produce or Organic Valley signs out front.  They made me proud to be a part of Wisconsin.

Food seemed to be a big part of our conversation on day three.  We spent way too long discussing the placement of food weight on the bike.  Markham likes to believe by eating more, you essentially lighten the load--or at least find a better center of gravity.  I kept telling him it was just displacing the weight and since we'd have to buy more food, in the long run we'd be pulling more weight.  Either way, it was an amusing way to kill an hour and brush up on our physics.

Our local lunch
As we continued to ride West, towards the Mississippi, we came across an amazing little town called Chaseburg.  It kind of came out of nowhere and I would have never sought it out, but I look forward to visiting it again.  Around this time, the coulees began to grow and they began to remind me of the palis I lived near in Hawaii.  In fact, the town prior to Stoddard is Bergen.  It was settled by Norwegian immigrants and was, I'm assuming, named Bergen because it reminded them of their fjord lands.

We finally made Stoddard and enjoyed a wonderful late lunch as well as an artisan well at the River's Edge motel, right on the bank of the Mississippi.

Crossing into Iowa from Prairie du Chien
Day #4 had a few snafus.  I won't complain at all since they brought a few magnificent things, but they did change our itinerary a bit.  We were planning on heading West into the coulees, drop down to the river in DeSoto, head across the Lansing, Iowa bridge to see all the limestone buildings, head south along the river to the Effigy Mound park and then onto Marquette and McGreggor, Iowa before heading back into Wisconsin to Prairie du Chien.  Instead, when we hit DeSoto, we found out the Lansing bridge was down to one lane--only nine feet wide.  Since the river is so wide at this point, we didn't risk crossing on our slow moving vehicles.  Instead, we rode down river on 35 for a bit, until the road became unrideable, and then headed back up another coulee and along a rolling ridge top until we could safely come down into Prairie du Chien.

A wonderful dinner!
When we finally got into town, we dropped our bags, didn't even bother showering, and rode across the river into Marquette and McGreggor to stock up for the evening meal.  Wine tasting at Eagles Landing Winery?  Sure!  Smoked Carp and Catfish?  You bet!  We even wound our way through the residential area of Prairie du Chien and finally understood why people would want to live there.

Day #5's mottos were:  "No matter what the weatherman says, you will always have a headwind" and "A bit of gravel a day keeps the doctor away".

A park in Gays Mills was full of these old hand hewn buildings
As we began our journey to the area between Gays Mills and Soldier's Grove, we couldn't help but laugh at the wind forecast.  All week it had been wrong, and now, in mid August, we were getting Northerlies.  WTF?!  No time to worry about that, however, since we also got a solid ten miles of crushed asphalt and fresh, deep gravel.  We were setting a trend, each day, except for the first, we had at least a couple miles of gravel, and today was no exception.  Most was quite fun, but riding crushed asphalt with washboard underneath made my kidneys shaken and not stirred.

Our relief came in Steuben as we hit the Kickapoo once again.  It was to be our shortest day, and I think we both appreciated it.  We also appreciated the wonderful food co-op in Gays Mills as well as our home base we would be in for the following two days--Red Clover Ranch.  We knew this place would be special the moment we turned off County Road X and onto their long, gravel driveway.  The second I saw it, I never wanted to leave.  Peaceful, secluded, a wood burning sauna, fantastic decorations, a record player with all my favorites and horses.  Yes.  I could live there.

Red Clover Ranch

A cool old tandem at Red Clover Ranch

Day #6 was supposed to be a "rest day".  It was, in a way.  We unloaded our bags and road up to Viroqua, the long way, to restock on supplies and stop by Bluedog Bicycles.  I've always loved the co-op in Viroqua and we took our time, eating and wandering around before heading back "home" a different way.  Our way home included Norwegian Hollow Road.  This is the third Norwegian Hollow I've seen in Wisconsin--all are very much worthy of biking to and on.

Norwegian Hollow Road
We capped the evening with a stroll up to the apple orchards on the ridge and a much needed sauna, as well as some carb loading via a mix of Wisconsin beer.  At no point did I miss watching the news, doing yard work, having a phone/computer or car or listening to one of my neighbor's dogs bark it's stupid little head off.  Yes, this was the good life!

The apples were just about ready!

Day #7 journal entry:
Today's ride brings a pang of sadness.  We can smell the barn from here and I know "reality" is only a two day ride away.  Tomorrow our journey will end and although my seat is a bit sore, and I could probably use a day off of long miles, I don't want this adventure to end.  The visual beauty, the simple way of living (biking, eating, reading, sleeping), and spending most of each day outside makes me feel healthier mind, body and soul.  
Rock Bridge on the Pine River
We said goodbye to our cabin in the heart of apple and solar country (Soldier's Grove is the first solar village in the United States) today.  Our route from Soldier's Grove to Reedsburg made us feel more like sailors tacking upwind than cyclists.   Although our end point was essentially due Northeast, we seemed to turn North, South, East and sometimes West and the wind seemed to always be a slight headwind.  We made jokes that cycling in this area is somewhat like banking.  We would eat (put money into the bank), go up a huge hill (withdraw funds), recover from the hill (put some more money in) and so forth.  The problem comes up when the banker takes a surcharge for each hill--eventually you run out of money.  Thank goodness, views like those we found at Rock Bridge and on Z Scott Hill Road also put a bit into our savings account.  We were also treated to a plethora of funny road signs--this one had me laughing for miles:

Our last night was spent at Parkview Bed and Breakfast in downtown Reedsburg.  We spent the afternoon wandering around looking at all the old mansions as well as eating and eating some more.

Day #8 and our final roll out.  We packed in silence and then enjoyed a final breakfast before pointing our steeds home.  We climbed over the Baraboo "mountains", crossed the Wisconsin river and hit roads we ride weekly.  It was such an odd feeling to be so close to home, although we were always "close" to home, we felt so far away.  I ended feeling strong and can honestly say this was one of the best vacations I've ever had!

I end with words from Bob Dylan:
I am still runnin' I guess
but my roads has seen many changes
for I've served time as a refugee
in mental terms and in physical terms
and many a fear has vanished
and many an attitude has fallen
and many a dream has faded 


  1. Wow Kiersten! What an amazing adventure and so well written it was such a pleasure to read. Thank you! I have ridden some of those areas recently and just relived some of it thanks to you. Can't wait to take it to the next level though on a multi-day self-sustained trip.

    1. Thanks so much Norm! I'd be more than happy to share a list of my favorite hills/roads from this trip--I couldn't help but write the road names down. You should definitely do a tour!