101 miles, part 2
Thursday, September 8. Day 5 of the Bike Tour:
I awoke damn early (6am) to take down camp before a park ranger or any other figure of authority who might bust me for not paying for a campsite would show up. Rather than hit the road right then and there, I opted to detour back into Sparta (about 2 miles back) to go to the same coffee shop and have breakfast. The morn was pretty cool (50s!) and a bit foggy, which I figured would make things easier. I finally got on the Elroy-Sparta trail at about 8:30 am.
The Elroy-Sparta is the "Granddaddy of the Nation's Bike Trails" being the first rails-to-trails project in the nation. The line was originally owned by the Chicago and Northwestern Railway but that railroad abandoned it in 1964. In a rare bout of forethought (unlike most governments) the state purchased the line and converted it for recreational use. What we have now is a 32 mile crushed limestone paved trail that passes through several small towns, rolling farmlands, and the most unique feature, three tunnels!
It was good going at the start. The world was still asleep and the fog added an ethereal element to the countryside. After awhile though, I started to notice how slow it was going and began to get frustrated. I compulsively checked my rear tire, but there was no noticeable loss of pressure. I was puzzled: I'm on a bike path, things should be going easier, right? Well no, and it was due to three elements:
1) even though the trail is generally level, there is still the gradual inclines the path must make. I was actually going uphill (yet very slowly) to get to the first tunnel. After awhile I was feeling it
2) my bike being just too heavy and
3) due to the rain the night before, the trail was wet, slowing down my wheels.
The consolation I could offer myself was at least the scenery was beautiful, the weather not bad, and I didn't have to figure out where I was going. After about 8 miles on the trail, I reached the first tunnel. This tunnel is 3/4 of a mile long, and not at all lighted. Signs at the portal warned, "WALK YOUR BIKE". Aah, screw it, I said. I attached my lantern to my handlebars and started to pedal. Not even 50 feet later the natural light stopped and all I had was a pinprick of light and the other end. The lantern wasn't doing much, and I became uncoordinated, weaving left to right instead of making a straight line. So much for that. Defeated, I got off and started walking. My eyes adjusted somewhat, meaning I could faintly make out the walls of the tube. My ears were entertained with the steady cacophony of dripping water in the tunnel. It must have taken a good 10 minutes to walk that tunnel!
After getting out, it was a nice downhill grade into the first town on the path, Norwalk. I took five minutes to explore the town (that's all you need). Most of the small towns along the trails you could find: a post office, library, "town hall", and possibly a remedial grocery store or convenience store. Bonus points if it had a hair salon. And no town was complete without a bar. Some of them even had four bars, the only real business in town! Norwalk also offered free camping in the town park along the trail, something I wish I did rather than the Sparta site. Most of the towns on the trail specifically cater to the trail users, that being the only real source of tourist dollars. This made things a lot easier for me, because at least I knew I would be able to find something every five miles or so if I needed to.
Off on the trail again. It was a little while until I reached the second tunnel, this one only about 1000 feet long. Still dark as fuck, though. As I exited the other side, I heard the sound of falling water. Unfortunately, it wasn't from seepage in the tunnel. It was rain. Urgh. Well, it seemed fairly light, and I'm from Portland, so I pressed on sans rain gear.
In a couple miles, right around the town of Wilton, the rain picked up. I waited under a tree for a bit to see if it would dissipate. No such luck. On with the rain jacket, and back into the rain.
The rain didn't die down until I reached the end of the trail at Elroy. And I was quite frustrated. It was almost 2:30pm, and I had been riding since 8:30, minus a couple stops. In that time I had only traveled 35 miles, something I had hoped would only take 3 1/2 hours. I had originally intended to complete not only this trail but the next one (the "400") this day, and then travel beyond Reedsburg to camp. But now that was impossible. And reaching Madison (a full 60 miles beyond Reedsbug) by Friday night seemed like a pipe dream. So I opted to take an extensive break in the town of Elroy.
Elroy was smaller than Sparta, though it did have a library, in which I hung out for a couple hours in, checking emails and writing blogs. And there was actually a movie theater in town, of all things! They were playing "The Wedding Crashers" at 9pm. While I had heard so-so things about the movie, it did have Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson. And at this point into the tour, seeing a movie was definitely something appealing. It wouldn't satisfy the same need as having a real conversation with another human being, but it would at least engage my mind for 90 minutes on something outside riding the bike. Alas, it would mean having to kill several hours in town and camping at the site up a big hill, and I really wanted to get some more biking done while there was still a chance.
I got out of town at 5pm and biked 10 miles on the "400" trail to the village of Wonewoc. At least by now it was dry and somewhat sunny, and I got to town at a little after 6. Wonewoc, with a population of 800, didn't offer much, but it did have two campsites. I scouted out the first one, which was supposed to offer showers, but the park was pretty sketch and the showers were closed for the season. So the other site in the town park right beside the trail was where I would sleep for the evening.
At the park was a somewhat older dude who was just hanging out with his bike. When he saw me he pointed out where the camping area was (is it that obvious looking that I'm bike touring? I guess it is.) And followed me over. When I started to set up the tent, he just hung out there. Oh great, I thought, some creepy guy that I'm going to have to deal with. After a bit, I realized that he was more lonely than creepy and wanted someone to talk to. Not surprising in small towns like this, and in the state that I was I didn't mind making small talk for a while. Turns out the guy was sort of the unofficial caretaker of the trail in town, and locked and unlocked the bathrooms each day ("I get paid $350 from the town for the season.") And he had actually done some bike touring himself around Wisconsin, so he had some good practical advice to share.
Night descended, and I retired to the tent. A little over 40 miles was traveled that day, not as far as I wanted to go. It was still about 80 miles to Madison, which isn't impossible to do in a day, but not at the rate I'm going.