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Archive for October, 2011

The glory of fall in Wisconsin

Well, we’ve made it to Dubuque, Iowa—829 miles on my odometer—but are about three weeks behind our original, very flexible schedule. We have had a wonderfully warm, dry Indian Summer but now it is goose weather; cold, cloudy and windy from the north. Perfect for flying south wrapped in goose down, aerodynamic shape slicing through gray skies. All along the Mississippi River Trail, from the Twin Cities to our present location we found towering sandstone and limestone bluffs. Sometimes we were riding at their feet, other times, more challenging, along their crowns. Surrounding us were blazing maples, more somber oaks and the sumac in its fiery autumn glory. With the tearing winds of late those trees have lost their color along with their leaves. Now exposed among the spiky twigs are the long-abandoned nests of robins, cardinals and jays. Now the steely gray river is laid bare to our gaze instead of glimpsed through a green and gold haze.

Holy cow, what is it??

We’ve seen some amazing sights along the river, and some amusing ones. Tom drove past a guy on a double-decker bike one day. This young man had welded another bike frame atop a regular bicycle, strung another chain from the top crankset to the bottom one and was touring with a full set of racks and panniers, plus a backpack. Tom did not get a chance to speak to him to find out the particulars, more’s the pity! I would dearly love to have heard his story.

Coming out of La Crosse I pedaled past an entire street corner dedicated to bicycle-themed windmills. I stood amazed by skeletons and witches, turtles and tigers all on two wheels, spinning merrily with the breeze. How I wished I could take them home to Alaska! We saw Big Indians, Big Muskies, Big Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, a pink elephant (I swear I was not tipsy!), murals and museums, pubs

This one’s especially for Rod!

and taverns and the Mr. Sippi Bar and Campground of Red Wing, Minnesota. The Mrs. Sippi Restaurant was found in Pepin, Wisconsin. Just a small, informal separation I guess.

We have eaten lots of bratwurst, one of my favorite reasons for traveling to the Midwest. The other favorite reasons are sweet corn and garden tomatoes, but our journey was just too late in the season for these to be at their prime. These menu items are perfect camp food; easy to transport, cook and eat with your fingers! I have to admit that I was getting rather sick of ramen or minute rice with tuna, but Tom bought catfish cheeks one evening at a Mississippi River state hatchery and combined it with chicken ramen, fresh green onions, ginger and water chestnuts, concocting a feast. He is by far the best, most inventive camp cook I have ever had the pleasure of being served by.

Despite my fears of cold and wet, we have been remarkably blessed by warm dry weather to camp and ride in. Our little 2 person home away from home has been perfectly adequate to our needs, since we have been able to cook outdoors whenever we chose to, or to find a pub or cafe if we wanted more complex fare. We have not met one grouchy person along the way, and in fact have been warmly greeted,  supplied with a beer or free apples, or invited into the pub to watch the Packers trounce their competition all along the way. What a great bunch of folks live along this mighty river!

Broken in three places, my brain bucket did its job!

This journey has been full of surprises and the unexpected clouds with silver linings. Our reasons for being behind schedule have all been health related: Tom’s health, the car’s health and now mine. Coming up the hills out of Dubuque along highway 52 on October 16 an inattentive driver hit me with his mirror, sending me sprawling on the sandstone gravel shoulder. Leading with my left elbow, I opened a gash in my forearm that required a thorough removal of the spiky stones forced into the wound and over 20 stitches, under general anesthesia. At the same time that I was flying off my bike, Tom was dealing with a blown head gasket on our little old Fiat. He would not arrive at the hospital until more than two hours after I did, and only then through the generosity of a Good Samaritan met at the gas station he managed to limp into. Wouldn’t you know that the recovery room nurse has a brother who is an honest mechanic, and will repair our car for a reasonable price. You can see what I mean about silver linings.

And so I think that for this year at least the journey of a lifetime, bicycling down the Mississippi River self-supported and self-contained will adjourn here in Dubuque Iowa. I purposely say adjourned and not ended. We will pick up where we left off, whether that day is next year, next decade or next lifetime.  In the meantime we are enjoying our aliveness for all it’s worth! I hope that you—like us—are counting your many blessings.

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This guy guards the confluence of the Mississippi, Black and La Crosse rivers

Having left off in St. Croix Falls, I now greet you from “Lovely, Lively La Crosse”, Wisconsin. This is my hometown where I lived from the time I was 10 until leaving for Alaska at age 22. Part of my large family still resides here, home of one of the oldest and largest Oktoberfests in the U.S.  It is home also to three colleges, two major health care centers, two microbreweries, fifteen Catholic parishes with schools, River Fest, Irish Fest, the La Crosse Queen paddle steamer and The Big Indian statue which was created in my old neighborhood. It is quite a place to come back to after all these years. And returning in this method, staying a week with my little sister, helps me to see it with very different eyes.

First of all and unsurprisingly, it is not the town I left. Oh, it’s not as if I haven’t returned at all in the past 38 years. I’ve come back for parental anniversaries, sibling birthdays, high school reunions and the like. I knew it had changed and grown, adding a suburban mall, subtracting several downtown department stores, rebuilding the abandoned bank and grain merchant offices into toney condominiums along the river. But it’s where I grew up for heaven’s sake. I pedaled my “fixie” bicycle here long before it was a cool, retro thing to own. I rode the bus routes for Saturday entertainment, walked to both my grade school and my high school, swam in the municipal pool in the summer, played freeze tag in the long twilight with the neighbor kids. I KNEW this town. Wrong.

Arriving recently by bike I was directed by the cue sheet onto a path I never knew existed. Oh, it was there when I was a kid, it’s just that I never saw it. I got lost in the University district. Granted, the number of buildings has nearly doubled there in the years since I attended U.W. La Crosse. But it sent me onto Badger Street. Badger Street? I thought that was on the North Side! I got turned around on 15th street, pedaling confidently along until I realized I was going towards 12th, not 20th. In utter confidence that I knew my town better than the author, I made four wrong turns before I looked back to the cue sheet and followed it exactly.

This was mortifying and startling at the same time. I never would have made either the assumptions or the mistakes in an unfamiliar town. I would have trusted and followed the directions provided. It’s an unsettling thing to have a place feel so familiar yet be so utterly strange at the same time, like some anxiety dreams I have had.

And so what’s the point here? Well, it made me realize–once again, and not for the last time I’m sure–the pervasiveness of my self-involvement. La Crosse existed as a fixture in my childhood, as a set if you will in the drama of my formative years. Like my siblings, it was background to the Life of Mandy, a play in a zillion acts starring MeMeMe! It hadn’t occurred to me except on a very abstract level that the town has a life of its own, an existence not dependent on my awareness or engagement. Amazing! And what a revelation now, at 60 years old, that I don’t know everything!

All the sibs plus Tom

My family are great storytellers. And when one of us speaks of an event from the font of family lore, often the others will look at him or her incredulously and ask “what family did you grow up in? That is certainly not how I remember it!” If they remember the event at all. I especially experience this, because I am the oldest of the siblings, and there is a 15 year gap between me and my youngest sister. Who are you talking about? Our brother dated whom? Our sister nearly went to jail? Really? When did this all happen! What? It happened when I was still living at home? I guess when you are born at the top of the heap you blithely assume that all below you are simply minions. Hmmm…not a very flattering thing to learn about yourself so late.

That’s OK. I keep burying that picture of myself. After all, I have a self-image to maintain and that bit of insight just doesn’t fit comfortably. Like sand in an oyster it gets glossed over until it no longer irritates me, though it’s not quite so lustrous to my brothers and sisters, I’m sure.

A memorable story is behind this picture!

As we all get older, my siblings and I are acting more like friends to each other. We suffer the disadvantage of thinking that we know each other simply based on shared DNA. The fact is, we know each other far less after 45 years than strangers do after a short acquaintance. When you start with no relationship and end up friends there has been a willing investment of time, a voluntary reaching out and a curiosity about the other person that does not naturally occur as children growing up in the same household. I’m beginning to appreciate my siblings as the fine, funny people they are. I am trying to live down the well-deserved reputation as the mean older sister. If I were to meet any one of these folks in line at the grocery store I’d like to think we would naturally end up as friends.

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I'm soooo confused!

Like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz I’m hung up on the stick at the crossroads,  arms crossed and pointing down both possible roads. Which way do we go, which way do we go??? After Tom’s medical mishap there are too many choices and not enough information. Should we stop riding the river? Hop in the car and drive to see my parents in Florida abandoning this bucket list journey? Or should I continue to ride, feeling selfish about that choice? Do we go home to Alaska to await the cardiologist’s recommendation? We just have not decided yet, and so I have been reluctant to  update this blog, not having a clear direction.

A friend suggested that this tension of not knowing what our path is going to be is good for the audience even if it is uncomfortable for me, creating something of a cliff hanger. “Bluff hanger” I quipped. If you are familiar with the geography of this part of the river, you will groan.

So to fill you in dear reader, we did manage to get through the Twin Cities unscathed. In fact it was a beautiful ride, both weather and scenery conspiring to make me think “I could live here.”( Of course, every time I leave Alaska I find myself thinking that way, so I never take it very seriously!) Over the course of the next two days we traveled from urban into rural again, though never so remote as we had been at first. We are now in the land of small charming towns, riding through Hastings, Prescott, Bay City and finding irresistible ice cream and coffee shops in each one. Sadly, we are mostly passing by the pubs–it depresses Tom too much having to forgo a sample of the local microbrews. He was SO looking forward to that particular  pleasure on this journey!

Main Street Hastings from the Mississippi River bridge

The river crossing at Hastings into Wisconsin was number 23, but will probably be the last for a good many miles as we travel down the “west coast” of Wisconsin. Riding into Prescott on Hwy. 10, I crossed the St. Croix River which forms the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin above its confluence with the Mississippi. Old Man River is much mightier now, shouldering barge traffic, ski boats, fishermen and flotillas of white pelicans. We are seeing many more dairy cows, and one of the chief benefits of this agrarian spectacle is the presence of small creameries. Cheese curds, a particularly iconic Wisconsin delicacy, still squeak between your teeth when you get them fresh from the makers!

We rode through the little villages of Bay City, Maiden Rock, Stockholm, each with their own small campground along the river, each with dozens of freight trains barreling through at all hours of the day and night. The towns have lumbering roots, and were convenient stopping points for the paddle wheel steamers that plied the river in the 1800s. Now they serve the needs of leaf peepers, duck hunters, antique seekers and cycling clubs, trading manufacturing or resource extraction for service industries, but maintaining their identity and sense of community nonetheless.

The view from Buena Vista

The sandstone and limestone bluffs rise as high as 500 feet along this stretch, forming what is called the Driftless Area, that which has not been glaciated and so still maintains a rugged topography. The villages perch on the hillsides, leaving the flat bits, if any, to the rail line and the old mill sites. In the coulees that run deep into the bluff formations there are still small dairy farms, hardwood forests and fields of ripe corn and soybeans. Cycling this region has its challenges, but having the car too means we can do things like drive up to Buena Vista above the village of Alma to drink in the three-state panorama.

I have been plagued with a series of broken spokes on my bicycle. The first one failed outside St. Cloud, and we happened to be lucky enough to run across Rod’s Bicycle Shop. There the owner replaced it and another, and installed a spoke guard on the wheel. Apparently I had over shifted at some point, the chain nicking a couple of spokes and that explaining the failure. I was disturbed when I found another broken spoke after our night in Bay City. The closest shop was across the river in Red Wing (that river crossing doesn’t count since I was not on the bike!) and it took most of the day to get it accomplished at that busy shop. The third and final straw was on a rainy morning coming out of the Stockholm village campground, puffing up a small hill to the coffee shop. Pop! Broken spoke, closed cafe, drizzly day–to hell with this. Back I pedaled to our camp which Tom was just striking. I loaded the bike on the rack and sat in the car pouting. On to La Crosse where I will have the entire wheel re-spoked.

Our Depot Museum raconteur

But the silver lining here was having an entire day with my spouse again, sight seeing, laughing together and enjoying what turned out to be a beautiful sunny day. We drove with the top down and stopped for ice cream at the Nelson Creamery. We were regaled with Depot history in Pepin by the local character who is in charge of the museum there. We had lunch and an O’Douls at the extremely Irish Monarch Pub in Fountain City, and stopped at every historical marker and view point along the river until we arrived at Polly and Denny’s in La Crosse. Seventy miles took us seven hours, but this is how Tom and I travel best together, with many detours.

Finding an Irish "hex" at the Monarch Pub

In La Crosse there is a very well respected medical community, and there Tom underwent another test to see how his atrial fibrillation was coming along. He was discouraged by the news that it had not abated, and in fact was probably precipitated by another finding–that his previous mitral valve repair had started to leak. This news sent him into a funk, which is rare for Tom. “I’m broke” he laments, though he agrees when I remind him of his blessings, and that it could always be worse. This is the source of the ambiguity in our plans now. Should we go, should we stay or should we return home? Waiting is never good for either of us (“Let’s leave tonight!”, remember?) and is particularly irksome now. He is trying to get a firm recommendation from the various doctors involved but has to wait on records transmission and consult time.

October in Wisconsin

In the meantime we have come north again to St. Croix Falls to visit Carrie and Milo. We are enjoying our stay in this charming little river town, wandering the streets and sampling the apple wine produced locally. Surprisingly there is an excellent Indian restaurant here where both the food and the service are warm. I bought good chocolate for dessert at the natural food store. The light and the leaves proclaim that it is October, but the temperature is all about September. Both we and the weather are trying to figure out which way to turn. We strive to live in the moment and to remember that it is all about the journey.

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