Character Building, Part 3
So, I'm all fancy-like, typing this on a laptop in a wi-fi cafe in downtown Champaign, Illinois. But don't worry, the laptop is borrowed. And why does it matter when I'm one block away from the honorary REO Speedwagon Way? (They're from here, y'know.)
Now I shall begin the arduous task of "catching up" and transport my head back two weeks ago. Two weeks ago was Tuesday, September 6th, and I was leaving Frontenac State Park, 12 miles south of Red Wing on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River. It was 9:30am, Day Three of the bike tour, and despite the sucky previous two days I was in good spirits. I was cruising at a decent clip south on US 61, passing through Lake City (Birthplace of Water Skiing) and going up and down the li'l hills on the riverside. About 5 miles outside of Wabasha I stopped at a viewpoint overlooking the Rive and Lake Pepin (the only truly natural lake on the Miss, caused by the Chippewa River Delta slowing the water flow) and I ran into the dude who I also saw bike camping in the morn, but who blew out early before I had a chance to talk to him. (He must have had the same idea of leaving camp before the ranger showed up that I did.) And in typical Grantonesque fashion, I have forgotten what his name was, but I can safely tell you he was from Japan. He was in the midst of a full cross-country trip, Seattle to New York, one month down. We tried to exchange traveler small talk ("Where are you going today? How long do you think it will take? What route are you taking out of Chicago?") but it was difficult, he had a tenuous grasp on English and I have no handle on Japanese. After a few minutes, we parted ways. And that's when I noticed that the rear tire was getting soft. Again.
Now my worries were confirmed: the problem with the rear wheel wasn't going away and I was going to be stuck with continual flat tires, on a wheel with an impossible to remove and reapply tire. I had maybe gone 30 miles from Red Wing at this point, and the fear of having to change a flat every 30 miles gripped me. This was no way to begin a bike tour.
Luckily I did some Google-based research on bike shops along my planned route, and knew there was one in Wabasha. I pumped the tube, and it seemed to hold air, so I sped towards town, having to stop once to reinflate.
I got to the bike shop around 11:30am. It was a small affair owned by an affable gent. He found the leak but couldn't find what caused it (yet again) and replaced the tube. He also replaced my broken spoke and retensioned the other spokes. As for the chronic flats, he suggested stopping at the shop in Fountain City, WI, 25 miles south, and getting some "Slime" (a spray that's supposed to make the tire puncture resistant) put in the tube.
It took a li'l while to get things done, so we chatted for a bit. In between chiding me for doing a bike tour on the type of bike I had (which would be repeated at the next bike shop), he told me how the bike scene in Wabasha was expanding. There's group rides for every ability level now and some more organized tours that happen in the area. (The one that particularly interested me was a three-speed tour that made a 70 mile loop around the valley. They even made a full-color zine with information on the stops to go along with it!) Sure, it's not anything like the Portland scene, or Minneapolis, but Wabasha is a city of 2,500, and fuck, they're trying.
Wabasha became the first stop on this tour that I wish I could have spent more time in. The people were nice, and the downtown picture-postcard quaint. But I needed to get a move on, and it was already after 1pm. So I crossed the bridge over the Mississippi and entered Wisconsin.
Rather than ride 61 south to Winona on the MN side of the river, I had been advised by folks to use the WI side instead because WI Route 35 was quieter than 4-lane 61. In retrospect, I wished I had stayed with 61. 35 was indeed quieter, but had a pretty minimal shoulder most of the 40 miles I traveled on it (when there was a shoulder, it was littered with debris.) And the scenery on 35 was a tad boring, unlike the stuff I've seen taking the train on the other side of the river. To add more injury, parts of 35 were either in pretty bad shape, or otherwise freshly paved with blacktop. While that generally is a good thing, on an afternoon pushing 90 with abundant sunshine, it was the last thing I wanted. I sweated and struggled the ride south to Fountain City.
Right outside of Fountain City I ran into the roughest road yet. They were stripping the road for repaving, so it was a nightmarish couple miles of grooved pavement and shit on the roads. And then after that I got yet another flat, this time a fast one.
Luckily, I was practically in front of the aforementioned bike shop when it happened (with a half-hour until they closed, whew!) so I hobbled in. This shop was definitely of the "high-end road bike" variety, so you can imagine how they tut-tutted the shape of my bike. Yes, I should have a better bike for a long trip, I know. But fuck, why can't I do it on a measley late-90's Giant Rincon mountain bike? Other people have done bike tours on not-that-great to even shitty bikes, why couldn't I? Sure, I'd like a nice road bike with "top o' the line" components, versus the cheapest they come that usually goes on mine, but when the hell would I have the money for something like that, living as hand to mouth as I do? If I kept on waiting until things were "pefect", I might not do a bicycle tour at all.
Despite their attitude, they did a good job of fixing the wheel. They lined the rim with cloth tape, then a layer of rubber, then put in a thorn-resistant tube to make the wheel, as they termed it, "virtually indestructible". And it hasn't had a flat since.
Now the problem was where to camp for the night. It was 6pm already, with about another 2 hours of light at best. There was a campsite north of town which would have been closest, but it would have meant going back over that rough road again. My other option was Perrot State Park outside of Trempeleau, 20 miles south. But I was beat after riding 45 miles in hot weather. But push on I did, forcing my body to just deal with it. I made it into the campgrounds as the last light of day faded.
And gosh, it was dark at that campground. I rode around trying to find something resembling a "main entrance" (I came into the park via the backdoor trail from the bike path) to register for a site. When I found it, I saw there was no one there. Sweet, I thought, another night of free camping! I found an empty campsite (not hard to do two days after Labor Day) and set up camp. Unfortunately, the free didn't last long. While hanging out in the tent, I saw a truck pass the site, then stop and back up. Not good. I saw a flashlight and heard "Park Ranger", so the jig was up. She didn't really mind much ("Yeah, it is pretty confusing to find anything here when it's dark out!") but I was out of $10, my first paid campground. Hopefully I wouldn't have to shell out the dough every night.
All in all, during this day I managed to ride 65 miles, my longest day, through some punishingly hot weather, bad roads, two flat tires, and come out $50 poorer ($40 from the bike shops). I was also really lonely again. But I did it. And things got better from there...