Day 2: Friday, August 20
Route: Madison, WI to Rochester, MN
Distance: 189 miles
Um, OK hang on a sec. That ain’t right, let’s try again.
Let’s see...scrap the interstate...screw US highways...stay away from state highways...ooh, check out all these little county roads. It’s like alphabet soup! Hey, WOW! Now we’re talking!!!! Here we go:Day 2: Friday, August 20
Route: Madison, WI to Rochester, MN
Distance: 378 miles
The alarm starts nagging me at 6:30. I was half awake anyway, since my body is still on Michigan time. First things first: assess the weather. I pull back the curtains to reveal heavy cloud cover outside, but no rain (yet)
, and the Women of Weather
are saying pretty much the same thing they said last night: 30% chance of severe thunderstorms throughout the area where I’m headed.
Breakfast? What else, but a continental breakfast. The offerings aren’t that impressive; I make my selections and head back to my room to munch on a toasted bagel w/cream cheese and a single bite of a truly awful blueberry muffin. After slurping down a cup of coffee, I finish packing the bike, check the tires and oil, and hit the road at 7:30.
The first order of business is a sedate-but-brief cruise up US14 to Cross Plains (AKA “Crotch Pains” )
. Decades ago when Madison was much smaller, this was an independent town, but in recent years it’s become a bedroom community for people who commute to work in Madison; housing developments are springing up in the area, albeit surrounded by farm fields and grain silos.
After reaching the far side of Cross Plains I turn off onto county road KP, the first of dozens
of obscure, lightly-traveled, and intensely fun back roads I will be hitting today. And so it begins: cows, barns, corn, curves, hills and cows. (”You said cows twice.” ”I like cows.”)
After 17 miles I’ve reached US12 at Sauk Center. When I was in grad school and needed to go home to Minneapolis for a weekend, US12 was my preferred route from Madison up to I-94 at Wisconsin Dells. It was a nice scenic 60-mile cruise, and although the speed was lower that it would have been on the interstate, it ended up taking about as much time as it would have taken to snake through downtown Madison to the far east side where I-94 went by. When I started grad school in ‘93, US12 was a two-lane country road, but there was movement afoot to turn it into a four-lane expressway all the way from Madison to where it joined I-94 in the Dells. A new casino there (along with more tourism development in the Dells)
was drawing a lot of traffic, and the accident rate was increasing. Nonetheless, property owners (mostly farmers)
along US12 were firmly against it, and a drive down that road in those days would take you past numerous large yard signs voicing their angry opposition. The whole issue didn’t really mean much to me until around 2005, when Masako and I drove from Madison up to Devil’s Lake, and discovered that they had finally done it: they had obliterated this wonderful two-lane country road with its sharp corners and blind hills and farm equipment and occasional cowshit stain, and built a sterile, four-lane divided highway with mild grades, long sight lines and gently sweeping curves. They took away my chewy bratwurst-bun and replaced it with goddam Wonderbread.
I wanted to cry the first time I saw it; it was like finding out that your favorite historical building, one you’ve admired for years and years, had been unceremoniously demolished to make room for a strip mall. It was gone, and there was no getting it back.
Needless to say, on today’s ride I would not be on The New and Improved US12 for any longer than it took to get through Sauk Center. I am gratified to find that at least the residents there still know how to have a good time:
A couple of miles later, I leave US12 behind as I head back to those obscure county roads. There’s a bit of sun coming through from the east, but ominously heavy cloud cover to the west; I still hope the odds will play out in my favor. Although the skies are questionable, the roads continue to deliver without fail. Twists, turns, slithering runs up and out of blind valleys and along bluffs, on and on. The topography here is amazing. I used to think it was glaciers that did this, until Eebie set me straight
. I stop for a break in White Mound County Park, a short distance away from my planned route. Across the street, a barn and machine shed serve to remind me that I am truly in the middle of nowhere:
20 miles later I’m in Sextonville, and the computer is showing just 20 miles left in tank. Gun-shy about running on empty after yesterday’s fiasco, I sneak up on a lone pedestrian out for a morning power-walk and ask her where the nearest gas station is; she says Richland Center, a mere five miles away. I start down the (boring)
main road toward Richland Center, then decide to return to my original circuitous route; I will definitely enough fuel to make it there. And I do, though I can only tank up with mid-grade fuel – for some reason, premium is hard to come by in many of these small towns. I opt to put in just a couple of gallons, enough to get me to a bigger town that is more likely to have what I want.
Onward I press, through Viola, Viroqua, Coon Valley, Barre. The roads are virtually deserted, and the scenery is sublime. I am utterly immersed in the visceral and mental pleasure of the ride, eager to power out of each curve and lean into the next one, and it’s extremely
difficult to make myself stop and take pictures. It’s...like making out with someone and having to stop to let the dog outside or start the dishwasher or something; I don’t want to do anything to interrupt the flow of pavement, wind, and scenery, especially when the best photo locations seem to be where a particularly sporting stretch of road comes into view. Still, I force myself to halt here and there, knowing that the pictures will be a welcome souvenir:(click on image to open full-size panoramic in a new browser window)
During my panoramic photo work, the cows have become very interested. The more distant cows approach for a closer look, but the nearest ones are more wary:
Further on, the scenery and roads continue to engage:(click on image to open full-size panoramic in a new browser window)
I’ve had the 1200RT for about a year and a half now, and although the styling will never move my soul the way my old opal-blue 1100RT did, the increased performance is most welcome. Passes are completed quickly and safely, and when accelerating out of corners, there never seems to be a shortage of power, even with fully loaded sidecases. In a place where the curves cover a tremendous range from long sweepers to tight hairpins, the 1200RT is shining; I like it.
On US33 a few miles east of La Crosse, I find a roadside historical marker:
That explains the awesome terrain.
It’s hard to perceive the nature of the terrain from the ground, but thanks to modern technology, you can survey it from your desktop:
- Fire up Google Earth. If you don’t have it, go get it and install it; it’s free. If you’ve never used it before, this is a program that provides you with an amazing model of the entire planet: satellite photos of the entire surface are overlaid on a 3-dimensional model of the terrain. You can use your mouse and keyboard to ‘fly’ to any part of the globe and examine any feature from any angle, often in astonishing detail.
- The top of the dolomite capstone and the bottom of the valleys are separated by only 500 feet of elevation. To better see the difference, find the preferences in the Google Earth menu, and set “altitude exaggeration” to its maximum of 3.
- In the search window (top left), search for “Coon Valley, WI”; Google Earth will then fly you there. Once there, it may take several seconds for the program to download fully detailed elevation and photo data for this region; be patient.
- While you’re waiting, use the navigation controls (top right corner of screen) to position your perspective just a couple thousand feet above the ground (altitude shown at bottom-center of screen), and select an angled view direction.
If you do all of this, you’ll end up with a view that looks something like this:(click on image to open a full-size view in another window)
A single static screenshot doesn’t present the same effect as flying around in Google Earth does, but you can kind of see that the tops of all the hills are at a common elevation. The flat capstone tops and valley floors are cultivated farmland, while the rugged slopes are left as wild forest. The topography prohibits straight roadways of any substantial length: the road either hugs a wavy hillside to move between valley and capstone, or it winds back and forth to stay at its current elevation.
A few miles after leaving Barre I arrive in West Salem, just east of La Crosse. This is a bigger town right next to I-90, and the gas stations have premium fuel, so the bike gets a complete fill-up this time. I need a fill-up too: it’s time for lunch, and this town probably has a fair selection of restaurants, or at least more than I’m likely to find in the next couple hundred miles. On the GPS I find a Mexican restaurant just five miles away from my route. It’s nothing I’ve ever heard of, so I’m hopeful it’s just a local place, rather than a chain. The GPS guides me there, only to find that it’s closed.
OK, try again: this time I opt for a chain restaurant, but at least it’s one that we don’t have in Ann Arbor: Culver’s
They’re closed too.
And that’s when I surrender. I’ve wasted enough time searching for phantom restaurants; I can see a Wendy’s just down the road, so I home in, park, and march inside for a spicy chicken sandwich. Ten minutes later, I’m back in the saddle, headed for the Mindoro Cut
. This is a narrow passage through a hard rock ridge, carved a century ago with hand tools. Despite being cut through the ridge (rather than passing over it)
, the road on either side still rises, twists and turns to meet it; if this stretch was a little longer, it might be as popular as Deals Gap.
North of Mindoro:
Somewhere near Galesville:(click on image to open full-size panoramic in a new browser window) (click on image to open full-size panoramic in a new browser window)
In Gilmanton I stop for a break in a city park. Along my route there have been a number of waysides and county parks that provide a pleasant place for a break, and most of them have bathrooms as well; even the city parks in these tiny towns and villages are well-equipped. It beats having to stop at a gas station or convenience store every time you need a break.
Passing through Modena a few miles later, the sheriff is parked in the middle of the street with his lights flashing, and there are a bunch of numbered joggers running along the side of the road. I’ve stumbled onto the Ragnar Great River Relay
: this is a 24-hour event in which teams of 12 runners convey a baton from Winona (MN) to Minneapolis, taking a roundabout route through Wisconsin. With so many runners in the road, I putter through town at parking-lot speeds until I’m back onto deserted country roads again.
20 miles later I arrive in Durand, where I spot this fine vehicle:
The GPS has been guiding me into town toward the bridge across the Chippewa River, but suddenly I find that the road (and bridge) no longer exist.
Turns out the old bridge was demolished
and replaced just last year with a new one a few hundred yards upriver. I make my way back through town to the new bridge, which routes traffic around the town instead of through it; the new bridge is stable, wide, safe – and like the modernization of US12 far to the south, it’s completely mundane and devoid of character.
43 miles later, the sporting portion of my day concludes in Ellsworth. I refuel the bike and call my host in Rochester to let them know I’m just an hour out. Miraculously, I have managed to dodge any rain. Over the past few hours the clouds have completely ceded control of the skies; the sun is out in full force, and my clear visor has been cooking my face. I swap it out for the tinted visor and head out to cover the last 60 miles straight south to Rochester.
An hour later I arrive and receive a warm welcome from my hosts, a retired couple whom I have not seen in six years. Wayne was one of the adult leaders in my Boy Scout troop 25 years ago; their son Chad was in the troop with me back then, and I haven’t seen him in over 20 years. Chad soon arrives to spend the evening with us, and Wayne’s wife Susan serves up a fantastic meal from the grill. We pass the time with conversation about things old and new before adjourning to the front yard for some entertainment.
Back in the old days, Chad was an expert unicyclist, able to perform a wide variety of tricks. Back then I had picked up enough skill with the unicycle to be able to ride in a parade with him and his club, but as of tonight, I hadn’t touched one in a couple of decades. That’s about to change: Chad pops open the trunk of his car and withdraws a unicycle. Paradoxically, this simple thing – a wheel, some pedals, and a seat – is more intimidating than my large, heavy, powerful motorcycle parked just up the driveway. It may be that once you’ve ridden a bicycle you never forget, but the same ain’t true for a uni: I find I’m unable to mount it without assistance, and my best ride takes me out just thirty feet before turning around and coming halfway back. Chad, OTOH, is still capable of a crazy repertoire of tricks, and he’s recently developed his skill with juggling. While riding his unicycle.
After some neat demonstrations of his newly developed skill, Chad takes a shot at teaching me the rudiments of juggling. Apart from his own physical talents, Chad has a knack for coaching; as I was struggling with the unicycle, he was able to quickly spot shortcomings in my technique and offer corrective advice, and now as I fumble the juggling balls repeatedly, he offers wise counsel on where to look, how to move my hands, when to toss a ball, when to catch it. Before long I find I’m able to juggle three balls for a good ten or fifteen seconds before falling apart:
Yeah, I know, there aren't actually any balls in the air in this photo, but trust me...I can juggle now.
A short time later Chad heads home, and I spend a couple more hours chatting with Wayne and Susan before calling it a night.