The Great Driftless Tour of 2014 was designed to be a 5-day, unsupported bike ride through the Driftless Region of NW Illinois and SW Wisconsin that would give Tom and I a chance to hone our touring skills under the sage tutelage of Runkle. From the beginning, however, things did not go according to plan. Tom had been nursing an injury in the weeks leading up to the trip; ultimately, despite an intensive schedule of PT, he wisely opted not to be a DASA and stay off his bike until he healed. Instead of staying in Indiana, though, he offered head north with us and drive a SAG wagon. When he came down first with a cold and then a toothache I was especially glad he wasn’t biking. Nonetheless, he was a generally cheerful camping companion and I was happy to see him at the end of every day. We arrived in Cherry Valley behind schedule due first to a personal grooming emergency (haircuts), then to an unanticipated road closure (SR 39), and finally to a rather serious owl infestation. Runkle’s battle with a giardia-like bug put him behind schedule, as well. Once in CV we sorted our gear, put a kickstand on my Trek 2200, loaded the BOBs, and headed out.
Our first stop was Vel Terra Ranch in Woodbine, IL. We found it without too much trouble, located at the end of a hilly gravel road. Gravel! I’d never ridden on gravel so after setting up our tents (full disclosure: only Runkle had a tent; Tom and I had a much-coveted palace) we went out for a quick spin. The hills were steep and so was my learning curve. I’m very happy with my Touring Plus Continentals. That night Tom and I learned that cooking pancakes on a Whisperlite is difficult and we should have brought headlamps. I learned that, when covered in almond butter and chocolate chips, warm pancake batter doesn’t taste too bad. Tom learned that the 13-year-old 20-degree Mountain Hardwear bag he borrowed (from me) couldn’t keep him warm enough on a frosty night and, while standing sleepless and shivering in the showerhouse wishing he had quarters for a warm shower, he resolved to acquire a warmer sleeping bag in the morning.
Day 1: Saturday, October 11
34 degrees when we woke up. Frost on the grass. We had a slow breakfast while we waited for the temps to rise and our bodies to thaw. Runkle suggested Tom meet me with my BOB at the end of the gravel road so I wouldn’t have to contend with trailing a BOB for the first time AS WELL AS riding on gravel. Despite the risk, Tom and I met in the parking lot of a church that advertised “Contagious Christianity.” Although the incubation period was not disclosed, it so far seems that neither one of us was affected.
Northwestern Illinois is beautiful with its rolling hills and gentle streams. The autumn colors were brilliant. Runkle showed his enthusiasm for the gorgeous morning by sharing some of his favorite puns. “Those cows are outstanding in that field, don’t you think?” he asked. We passed (and were passed by) more farm vehicles than cars in our first 15 or so miles. Of course, part of the reason we encountered such little traffic was that we had taken a wrong turn and ended up riding several miles out of our way on a gravel road – despite Runkle’s previous assurances that, after the ride out of the campground, we’d have no more gravel on the trip. I learned a few things very quickly: how to ride on gravel, how to handle a BOB, and how I should never trust Runkle’s assurances. The gravel route was beautiful, though, and I can’t complain about the views we enjoyed.
The gravel T’ed into a paved street. To the left: a road closed sign. To the right: several more miles added to what was already going to be longest day of the tour. We decided to chance the road closure, reasoning that unless a bridge was out, we’d be able to go around it. Down a hill we went… and down and down and down. At the bottom of the hill? A bridge was out. Fortunately, construction had just begun, so there was a path across which we could scurry. Also fortunately, no construction workers were there to tell us to stay off the obviously dangerous bridge.
We stopped for lunch about 20 miles in at Scales Mound, just south of the Wisconsin border. As we’d expected, this was the most nerve-wracking portion of the trip, since my passport was expired and Runkle is still wanted in Wisconsin on several outstanding warrants. Typically, we reasoned, the Wisconsin Border Patrol wouldn’t bother to staff their station at a backwater like County Road O, but with all the bad luck we’d had so far we weren’t sure what we’d find. Thankfully the border was deserted and we crossed into Wisconsin with no problem. The trick from that point on would be hoping no one recognized Runkle, which was unlikely, as he’d grown facial hair as a disguise.
A steep climb just north of the border about did me in. The hills, physically, were not too bad – no steeper than what we have in Southern Indiana, although most were longer – even though I was hauling a loaded BOB behind a go-fast bike rather than a touring rig. As long as I kept my pedals spinning, I did OK. Mentally, though, I was frustrated. I was putting in more effort than usual and going much, much slower. When we turned onto County W toward New Diggins I told Runkle I was struggling and he took the DAMN FLAG off my BOB. Suddenly, despite a headwind, we flew! DAMN FLAG. I was much, much happier about my skills as a cyclist and about touring in general from that point on.
We stopped in Benton at a city park to refill water. Every third building in Benton was a church. Between Benton Dickeyville I grew increasingly confused about the history of fashion as told by Runkle, believing that “henways” and “hamefores” were popular garments akin to the dickie turtleneck. Dickeyville is home to the Dickeyville Grotto, a strange-looking building that we didn’t have time to investigate. Instead, we followed Hwy 61 down a 1.5 mile hill (the easiest 1.5 miles of the day!), across the Platte River, and then up another long, grueling climb. Our destination that evening was the Grant River Recreation Area, a campground sandwiched between the Mississippi River and the most well-traveled railroad tracks in Wisconsin. The RV section of the campground was packed but we had the tent sites all to ourselves. I quickly determined that the Mississippi is about the same as Monroe Lake. Both are really huge bodies of water that have bald eagles. Not everyone agreed with my assessment. As we made dinner (in daylight, this time!) we watched a bald eagle fish for its own supper.
At the end of Day 1 I was very proud of myself. We’d ridden 54 miles and climbed 3,650 feet. I was ecstatic to see Tom, who had stopped at the WalMart in Galena for a warmer sleeping bag and two headlamps, and who had also researched how to cook pancakes on a Whisperlite while we’d been biking. Dinner was delicious.
That night we took the SAG wagon into nearby Potosi where the gluten-consuming members of our party sampled beers at the Potosi Brewery. They said the brews were mighty tasty, although I cannot corroborate that claim myself. After imbibing (or watching the imbibers) we headed back to camp where the train calls sung to us all night as we slept.
Day 2: Sunday, October 12
We had lucked out with the weather on the first day of the trip; although we had sun this morning the high wispy clouds (and the weather forecast) promised precipitation. Our route was supposed to be about 10 miles shorter than Saturday’s, but nonetheless we wanted to hustle to camp so we wouldn’t have to set up in the rain. The quixotic weather made it difficult to dress appropriately, especially as we warmed up on the climbs and chilled on the downhills. There were only four real climbs of note: one on Hwy 133, one on County N / Irish Ridge Road, one on County Vv just past Nelson Dewey State Park, and one on County X between Bagley and Wyalusing State Park. Tom got to take the Cassville Ferry across to Guttenberg, but Runkle and I opted to avoid any unnecessary detours on the way to camp. We also thought it would be next to impossible to get back into Wisconsin on the return trip, since the Cassville Ferry lets out at an official entry point.
Tom drove past us on Hwy 133 just past Far-Nuff Road. It was good to see him! I started bonking as we rode through Cassville – not enough breakfast. We held out until Nelson Dewey for lunch, around mile 20, and had a nice meal under a shelter at the group camp site. The wind was cold enough that neither of us could warm up, so we used the restrooms, filled our waterbottles, and headed out. Immediately after Nelson Dewey we came upon a remarkably dishonest hill. Not all my traveling companions agree that some hills lack moral fortitude. This hill was so dishonestly deceptive that I couldn’t figure out why I was pushing so hard to go 6 mph on the flats. Well, it became apparent over a mile later when I turned a bend and saw a steep climb to the summit. I was glad to put that hill behind me. We picked up sprinkles of rain here and there, but never enough to warrant using our raingear.
The prettiest part of this day, by far, was County X between Bagley and Wyalusing SP. There, our route re-joined the Mississippi and paralleled the train tracks, rolling beside some quiet Mississippi backwaters. The scenery was moist and green. Then, just past Wyalusing (the township), we were lucky enough to come upon a good, honest hill. 2.5 miles of climbing before we turned into the Wyalusing entrance. Tom was out driving around looking for us and went ahead to get a campsite while we registered. The park ranger on staff was kind and helpful and gave Runkle some plastic trash bags to put between his socks and shoes when it started raining. The site Tom picked looked out over the valley, across the Wisconsin River and over Prairie Du Chein. We couldn’t have asked for anything better! It was a short walk from the flush toilets and showers – also a plus. I dropped my chain RIGHT as we started up the hill to the site, so I walked the last few feet. All told we rode just shy of 47 miles and climbed just shy of 3,400 feet. When we arrived Tom had our palace already set up. Runkle and I took showers and changed clothes before the rain started coming down. We cooked dinner under a picnic shelter with electric lights and then headed into Prairie to do emergency laundry since the chamois I’d washed the night before hadn’t had any sun to dry in during the day. Tom had MASTERED pancakes.
Day 3: Monday, October 13
The main restrooms on the Wisconsin Ridge at Wyalusing State Park broadcast a weather radio 24/7. It was the first time I’ve come across that feature at a campsite and thought it was a really good, though slightly creepy, idea. As I’d walk up toward the Women’s Room I’d hear the low rumblings of a male voice from behind the door and approach with caution until I remembered it was the voice of SE Wisconsin’s weather. Monday morning the forecast was: RAIN. Days and days of rain. They predicted between 1 and 2 inches of precipitation by the end of the day, with rain continuing through the rest of the week. Runkle gave me plenty of opportunities to call off the tour, but I wanted to give riding in the rain a a try. We were up early, since the rain was supposed to start in earnest toward mid-afternoon, but delayed our departure due to heavy fog. When we finally did head out I needed to stop for a few gear and wardrobe adjustments (moving rear light from bike frame to BOB; removing glasses, etc.) before we were really on our way.
The ride started by finishing the climb we’d started the day before on County X, which took us past the iconic Dew Drop Inn. The rain was steady but light. At about the 4-mile mark, when we turned onto County P, I traded my rain cape for a rain jacket and gaiters. Although the cape will be nice to keep in my bag when commuting, I didn’t like how it flapped in the wind on the downhills. I fulfilled my lifelong dream to visit Patch Grove before we flew down Hwy 35 into Other Bloomington, where we decided to press on to Lancaster for lunch. The rain was still light and steady. The route between Bloomington and Lancaster was dense with dairy cows, all of whom were curious about the strange-looking cows who talked to them as they rode past. My favorite part of Day 3’s ride was University Hill and then Cemetery Roads. Both had rolling grasslands and ancient streams. Cemetery had a few good, honest hills that were fun to climb, under the ever watchful eyes of dairy cows.
After we rejoined County A the rain started pelting in earnest. We went down an enormous hill and up an enormous hill on the other side of a creek, just to go down another huge hill and up another one on the other side. Somewhere on that second ascent I decided we didn’t *need* to continue all the way to Platteville. The rain was heavy and was not going to let up; my bike’s gearing was not well-suited for hauling a BOB up and down those hills; I’d learned everything I knew I was going to be able to learn on that tour about how to improve my touring skills. To be clear: it wasn’t that I COULDN’T have kept riding into Platteville. I definitely could have. We were only 25 miles in and I was feeling strong. I was dressed for the rain and doing fine. It just didn’t seem NECESSARY to keep going. Especially when, as we rolled into Lancaster, Runkle wasn’t able to complete a sentence without quacking… We found a pub in the town square (Doolittle’s) and phoned our SAG wagon for a pickup. We’d ridden almost 29 miles and climbed 2,050 feet. While we waited for Tom, our server loaned us some bar towels to dry off, and Runkle gleefully ordered an enormous plate of food. After lunch, we loaded our gear into the SAG wagon and headed back to CV, with a detour in South Beloit to meet our newest cousin, Aspen.
It’s always difficult for me to come back from a trip. Beforehand, I ride high on anticipation, and afterwards all the excitement is over. Mostly, though, I feel irritated and overwhelmed that suddenly I have responsibilities other than riding, eating, and sleeping. The transition this time was especially difficult for me since it was my first time back in Rockford without either Grandma or Grampaw. I miss them.
Monday evening Runkle and I unloaded our bikes and lubed their chains. We had dinner with Q.A.W. and watched The Big Lebowski. I found a delicious beer at Woodman’s that I enjoyed drinking with dinner and during the movie. Unfortunately, Demon Cat was far from well-behaved while we were in CV. While Q.A.W. and I sorted through jewelry and Christmas decorations from G&G’s, LDG BIT THE MIDDLE TOE ON MY LEFT FOOT without provocation! Tuesday morning, we let him into the downstairs bedroom, and when I came back from the bathroom he perched on the edge of the bed and BIT MY THIGH – also unprovoked. Clearly his hunger has turned from mice to human flesh. What will be next?
Tuesday we drove back home via Schaumberg (REI!) and Shelbyville (Jarrard!). Impressively, Jarrard made it all the way home without throwing up. Mona was so happy to see me that she cuddled with me all night, and Shilo woke me up several times making very persistent biscuits on my chest and back. I spent some time on Wednesday reorganizing our gear lists for our next tour, based on what we learned from this one. While it’s too bad we weren’t able to finish what Runkle had planned for the Driftless Tour, I’m happy I got a taste of riding in that part of the country and am looking forward to going back sometime with a differently-geared bike, a healthy husband, and better weather!