A Walkabout in Wisconsin or… Tour de Franzia
For reasons I don’t quite understand there is a significant difference in the psychological value between an out-and-back ride (repetition: same way back), a loop ride (variation: different way back), and a point-to-point ride (progress: destination as a goal from the starting point.)
Out and back rides are generally to be avoided as the fruitlessness of your efforts are obvious and every pedal stroke out has a corresponding pedal stroke back that is completely demotivating unless there is some form of stellar scenery that makes it worthwhile. Wind really matters in an out and back – preference always being for a headwind on the way out. Case-in-point for a worthwhile out-and-back would be a ride along the seaside.
The loop ride is a staple of every cyclist and serves to pretend that ones’ pedaling efforts are not a zero sum game by avoiding the repetition of any portion of the ride. Loop rides are essential and satisfy a number of requirements: 1) they begin and end in a place that has storage for your bike (your house, your car etc.) 2) It provides varied scenery and a sense of progress 3) It requires no coordination with outside forces (transport).
A point-to-point ride entails starting and ending in a different place and is far more challenging to coordinate, usually requiring the agency of outside support to provide transport, creating a dependency typically exactly opposite the freedom riding nominally entails. These are rare, in fact, I suspect there are a number of cyclists who have never experienced one. That is sad because the value is exponential to the traditional ride in ways that can only be understood by doing one.
Yes, there is something irrationally compelling about a point-to-point ride when it can be arranged. It becomes a journey with measurable progress versus the zero sum game of an out-an-back or loop ride. With reasonable distance it transcends the notion of a “ride” to become an “adventure.” Checkpoints and stop-offs all become trade-offs against the final destination, while the clock and the required distance create intensity an arbitrary loop can never hold. For once, you have to ride, make progress, make tradeoffs vs. a timeline.
Maybe there is more it than that. Maybe we as a species were designed to wander, to “walkabout.” In Bruce Chatwin’s book, “The Songlines” he suggests the evolutionary notion that constant peripatetic movement is genetically programmed into us from our distant ancestors, and that for some of us, a “walkabout” or point-to-point journey is the only salve for our souls. In this same book Chatwin exposes the reader to the model of music-as-a-map: that ancestral aborigines, absent written language or maps, evolved a lyrical addition to the oral tradition that included music as a cognitive map – the one and only way someone could remember their way though someone else’s memory of places and spaces was through song; a score conducted to notes and lyrics representing a vast geography and topography.
True or not, I love this notion, I love it with all my being: that music was the math and the legend behind ancient travel. Places, spaces, and paces metered out in a rhythm, meter and rhyme through the red sands and lost spaces of the Australian outback. Lose the pace, lose the chorus and your life is forfeit. Sunrises and sunsets assume stanzas for the complex composition while the distance sets the meter. The terrain creates the melody with pastoral scenes setting contrast with the intensity of the obstacles of caverns, jungle, mountains and wind.
It makes sense. If you have ever taken a memory test, you may have discovered that contrary to conventional thinking, the more detail, the more color, the more descriptive details you can add to an arbitrary list of words to remember, the greater propensity one has to remember it. Is the Chatwin précis too farfetched that the aborigines of Australia managed journeys across a giant continent using “songlines” of these descriptions, colors and rhythms?
I personally find this instinctual. Since my very first international trip – to Morocco, when I was 17 years old, I imagined the places I’d be – the cracked alleys, arid heights, the humid valleys, the salty ocean-sides and sand strewn desert abysses. I instinctively created a rhythm for the march ahead by recording customized playlists – at first with cassette tapes, then CD’s and now easily with an iPod playlist.
I explored Middle Eastern music as I explored Casablanca and its environs. In Italy a few years back I had 9-hour playlists that waxed and waned in intensity with the terrain. In Albania 3 years ago, I predicted the incredible suffering of the long climbs in the heat that became burned into my brain by building a musical playlist anchored to Peter Gabriel’s masterpiece, “The Passion” while studying Google maps in preparation. I did not need, nor use, a map on that trip – I “remembered” my way across the country.
In July 2012 my friend Gary Goebel and I cleverly solved the point-to-point paradox by using an Amtrak train as our mule. We saddled up our bikes into boxes aboard a locomotive and traveled from Columbus, Wisconsin, to Winona, Minnesota 250 miles away with the simple plan: ride back over the next 3 days.
I can’t overestimate how much I began to anticipate this trip. From the start, this point-to-point traverse began to take on something larger than its logistics would suggest. As it happens it also began to take on the unpredictability that makes for an adventure.
Our train was late. Hours late. Stranded before our start in central Wisconsin and Gary, as always was chipper and gregarious. In our wait, we explored Columbus. We met people. We talked to them. We found a pub. Jenny was a waitress at a brewpub who was on her way to California to join her boyfriend in San Francisco while taking a job working in the movement building/charitable industry training canvassers. We were her last customers before her life was to change.
We boarded the train and I dropped off the front wheel I was carrying in luggage bin by the doors. Amtrak, on this route, required bikes to be boxed to go into the hold and I had managed to seal up my bike box and forget to include my front wheel. So, lazily I just decided to carry it onboard. This, as it turned out, was a mistake.
There is something about a shared journey that creates permission for conversation. Amtrak’s Empire builder to Winona that evening found an odd cast and crew in the view car where we settled in at the tables on the second floor deck and the glass ceilings as the sun set lighting up the cornfields.
There were 8 of us congregated in two tables: John and Gary, cyclists preparing for the ride across Wisconsin. Nate a tattoed 19 year old & recovering meth addict heading to Minot, North Dakota to take a job in the power company that would keep him from temptation. Billy a 52 year old self acknowledged “black red-neck” with a twang matching his missing front teeth enroute to Seattle. Terry a lanky and suave 21 year old Irishman exploring the states w/ a thick Irish brogue that oddly seemed to come and go with plain old American English. Hank a 46 year old transient with a beard resplendent of a civil war lieutenant complete w/ the hat and the accent, and then Natalie, a chubby 26 year drama teacher in a pink pantsuit that accentuated her extraordinarily round and cherubic figure almost like a balloon animal. Natalie was from Portland taking a 3 month sabbatical to explore the country via train. Finally there was the “quiet dude” who said nothing, but smiled a lot.
After the 3 hour train journey where box wine flowed and tongues were loosened, we were in good spirits when we disembarked in the dark in Winona to claim our bikes by the side of the quay. We opened our boxes and assembled our bikes as the train sped off into the distance. Suddenly, giddiness quickly turned to gloom. Somewhere out in the dark, carefully balanced in the luggage compartment of the Amtrack Empire Builder was my front wheel, fading with the noise of the train enroute to Seattle. Damn!
Gary rode slowly beside me without judgment in the gloom of midnight as I wheeled and wheelied my preying mantis of a bike the two miles to our motel. Time to improvise.
Friday we awoke to mild temperatures and optimism: perhaps I could “borrow” a wheel from the local shop and then send it back to them after the trip. Sure enough, Brian Williams at Adventure Cycle was able to hook me up with a Bontrager wheel upon opening at 10am for a nominal fee and the purchase of a tire and tube. We were on our way by 10:15, only an hour off schedule for what became a very long day.
We wended our way through foothills and along the Great River Path to LaCrosse for lunch, Irish pub fare on a sunny street corner before taking a quick nap by the river and heading out for a series of climbs enroute to Viroqua.
I’ve written before about the agony and ecstasy of long climbs, how a rhythm develops that overrides the initial suffering and how happiness and a sense of progress emerges as elevation gains provide views and perspective of the land below.
Over the next 7 hours we did 4 of these large climbs up from the Mississippi and for the first 3 I was on my game, thriving in the heat and rhythm, pedaling while watching the patterns of the leaves, the shiny coins of the flattened stones on the well worn road in the reflection of the sunlight, a caterpillar crawling in the damp of the shade. However time passed, and hours and miles later during the 4th climb happenstance found me bonking – it was 7:30pm , 90 miles in, and over 7 hours on the bike. I crawled like a hopeless insect up that final climb, topping out at 3 and 4 miles per hour as Gary waited patiently. I recovered a bit for the final 25 miles into Viroqua, but we arrived well after dark at 9pm covering over 115 miles, the longest ride of my life.
We ordered Pizza Hut pizza – a foregone luxury from our youth and burned the roofs of our mouths shoveling it in before heading out for a brief visit to the town nightlife in the form of the local VFW Post which was an odd mix of bikers, travelers, and greying ex-military.
The next day fed our peripatetic souls as we descended a grand and graceful valley of ever narrowing bluffs and farmland until the first of several steep climbs. We were thwarted by a sudden transition to dirt roads on a steep downhill but eventually made our way through softening terrain to the Dells, Wisconsin where we heralded a cultural experience that an Aussie would only describe as a passel of Bogans. A dozen or so bachelor or bachelorette parties made for interesting people watching, but our check-in to the hotel was also worthy of note.
(Grizzled cheap motel owner). “Nice day for a ride – Viroqua is a long one though. “OK, your room is on the ground floor around the corner.” Great, we say, we won’t have to carry our bikes up. (Note we are both wearing spandex, shaved legs etc.).
“Oh no, we have a special parking lot for your bikes – safe and secure.”
“Um, well we rode bicycles and we want to put them in the room.”
“What?! You rode bicycles all the way from Viroqua?”
Our final day we had an easy 55 miles to Columbus and despite being very tired, I found myself depressed that the expedition was over – I was wishing we had followed my wheel to Seattle and were making our way across the country, without a map, navigating by sight, sound and song, like the ancients did.