101 miles of continuous bike trails
Day Four of the bike tour (Wednesday September 7) found me waking up at Perrot State Park outside of Trempleau, Wisconsin, in the Mississippi River Valley. I was psyched to get the day started, since for the next 100 miles I was going to be not on the highway but on a bike path. Wisconsin is the national leader in converting abandoned rail lines into multi-use paths. While part of me wishes the tracks still existed (because I'm a train buff and we need more trains, not less), I'm glad they found a use for them other than selling them off for subdivisions. And rail-trails are generally nice to bike on, since the grade is pretty level. Pretty much every railroad in the US built their railroad to a 3% grade standard--meaning that the track never rose or dropped more than 3 feet in elevation for every 100 linear feet traveled. Anything steeper than that would have been very hard on long, heavy train consists. Biking on level grade means not having the constant ups-and-downs in a rolling terrain. While you don't have the fun of coasting down a big hill, at least you don't have to worry about going up hills!
The trail segment here in southwesten Wisconsin is known as the "Bike 4 Trails"--four interconnected trails (Great River, La Crosse River, Elroy-Sparta, "400") that total 101 miles!
While it all sounds wine and roses, there were two issues: first, the trails are not paved with asphalt, but crushed limestone. Essentially they're dirt paths, meaning not a good fast ride. The second issue was that all Wisconsin State Trails require a user fee (if you ride a bike): $4 per day, $15 per season. The payment was done on the honor system, and signs warned of repercussions if you were caught without a pass (a $5 surcharge, though one said I could even be arrested. Arrested? For not paying four bucks for riding a bike path?) After pissing out $60 in two days with my bike and the previous night's camping, I said fuck it and pushed on without paying. Hopefully there wouldn't be any Trail Nazis to stop me.
The first segment was the Great River, paralleling the mighty Mississippi south for 20 miles to La Crosse. This route went through all the backwater sloughs and marshes, making for a pleasant and quiet ride. Quiet, except for all the birds, which there was an abundance of. I had to stop several times to observe nature in all its splendor.
The weather seemed to be cooperating so far, a cloudy and cool morn. A couple miles north of Onalaska, I rode for a bit with another gent, and we talked about the weather. He mentioned that there was a chance of thunderstorms for the day. I thanked him for the info, and no sooner did he turn off the path did I turn around and the sky turned the darkest shade of blue. Oh shit. On cue, the wind picked up something fierce. I kicked into overdrive, hoping to get to shelter in Onalaska before the sky opened up. As Onalaska approached, something funny happened. Actually, it was that nothing happened. The sky was lightening up and the impending deluge from the skies didn't seem so impending anymore. I still pushed on, until I reached the junction of the Great River and La Crosse River Trails. There was a spur trail into La Crosse from there, and I opted to take a detour into town.
After what seemed like a lifetime of suburban styled industrial parks I made it to La Crosse. It was the first substantial city since Minneapolis (and would be the largest between there and Madison), with a population of 50,000 and a branch of the University of Wisconsin. As with school towns, I saw a good number of college kids riding bikes. I headed to the brick building downtown and found food, namely a pizza joint that had a "2 slices plus soda for $4" special that I couldn't resist. I should have resisted. Not that the pizza was bad, it was just a bit much for my system, and I felt the lead weight of the pizza in my gut for much of the day.
Inside the pizzeria I heard a radio report calling a "Severe Thunderstorm Warning" for counties east of La Crosse. Apparently the storms skirted north of here, thankfully. I looked for a library to get a quick email check, and then headed the four miles back out of town to get onto the La Crosse River Trail.
This trail was very significant for me. For its 25 miles it parallels the ex-Milwaukee Road, now-Canadian Pacific mainline that Amtrak's Empire Builder travels--the transcontinental line connecting Portland and Seattle with Chicago. A line that I have traveled many times in the past 5 years. It was looking out the window from the Builder on my first transcontinental train trip in June of 2000 that I saw the La Crosse River Trail, and started thinking about doing a bike tour of the upper Midwest. Upon further research I found out that Wisconsin was littered with rail-trails, making me more interested. Year after year passed, and I would pass this trail on the train, vowing each time that next year I would surely ride it. Finally that itch needed to be scratched, and here I am finally doing it. If you wanted the reason why the fuck I'm riding a bike through Wisconsin, in an area not traditionally considered for bike touring, this is it.
And as everything in life that is loaded with such great expectations, the trail was a bit underwhelming. It wasn't a bad trail, it's just that the scenery was always a bit off to the distance, not near the trail itself as it had been with Great River or would be with Elroy-Sparta. It was just flat and straight, passing through farm fields and an occasional small town. Very Midwestern.
I reached the end of the trail at about 6pm. I could have pressed on a bit further in the remaining daylight, but I was beat and didn't know where the next spot to camp was (while there was a campground nearby.) So I called it a day in the town of Sparta, self proclaimed "Bicycling Capital of America". To express that point, they have the "worlds largest bicycle" on display in the city park. Too bad it's fiberglass.
Oh, Sparta wasn't bad. I actually liked it. It's a small city of 8,000, and still had a fairly intact and compact downtown, augmented with a nice courthouse, post office, and Carnegie Library (yet the city hall was a modern looking piece of shit.) I chilled for a bit at a coffee shop (a sight I didn't see much on the road), writing postcards, and hit up the library (conveniently open til 9pm) to check email.
Unfortunately this meant I was going to ride to the campground in the dark on the trail, quite spooky. The campground was a "primitive" type (pit toilet and the likes) provided by the state Department of Natural Resources for the riders. I arrived to an empty park which I was expected to "self-register" and pay $10. Once again I decided not to, and got to work setting up camp in the dark, with only my Coleman lantern to guide me. It was pretty spooky doing that, but I did, and then went to bed. No crickets tonight, but the all-too-close drone of I-90 will have to fill in for them.