Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Wisconsin wanderings on two wheels
By John Greenfield
Last week I tried to squeeze the last juice out of the summer with a spontaneous bicycle camping trip around southeast Wisconsin. Each year my co-workers from Boulevard Bikes head up to Waterford, WI, home of Waterford Bikes, about 20 miles west of Racine, for the NAMI charity ride organized by our friend Peter, a former chef at the Handlebar. I decide to bring along camping gear and use this as a jumping-off point for my short tour.
Early Sunday morning eight of us drive up from Chicago with our bicycles to the Waterford high school. The ride is a benefit for adults fighting mental illness, and signs are posted outside the school with the names of famous people who battled depression and other challenges: Tchaikovsky, Darryl Strawberry, Buzz Aldrin, even Dolly Parton.
Photo by Ezra Hozinsky
We ride a 60-mile circular route that takes us on lovely back roads under the brilliant blue, smoke-free Wisconsin sky. We stumble into a parade in the tiny town of Lyons. An old farmer is driving a tractor pulling his nine grandchildren in brightly-colored cars made from oil cans. Clowns cruise by on dazzle-painted bicycles and scooters and a man in rolling along, soaking in a bathtub-mobile powered by a lawnmower engine.
In East Troy we savor roasted corn and root beer while brats sizzle on the grill at a bluegrass festival. On stage a band is playing gospel tunes while elsewhere on the grounds people are jamming secular tunes in song circles. Two parakeets are perched on the handlebars of someone’s mountain bike.
After the ride we enjoy Sprecher beers and a cheddar plate (the first of many samples of local cheese I will enjoy on this trip) at Peter’s parents’ house in Waterford while his brother Tim entertains us with acoustic blues songs on guitar. Then I take off solo 20 more miles west to the southern unit of Kettle Moraine state Forest, a popular mountain biking destination.
I’m using the Bike Federation of Wisconsin’s state bike map and I aim for a teepee icon on the map that suggests a campsite, but when I arrive at sundown, I find the location is only a trailhead. But there are picnic tables and a bathroom, which is all I need for comfortable camping, so I crash there anyway. Two college students from Morengo, IL, are returning to their truck from a bike ride and offer me a Heineken. They’re punk fans, so I try to impress them by mentioning I used to messenger and play shows with guys from the Alkaline Trio.
The next day I head northeast, since I eventually want to make it to Kohler-Andrae State Park, just South of Sheboygan on Lake Michigan. I pass through Wales, a village that was founded by Welsh setters in 1840, where the country’s dragon flag still flies.
I eat a lunch of landjaeger (a dry German sausage), cheese, crackers and apples alongside placid Lake Pewaukee and wind up camping a Pike Lake State Park, making it a leisurely 50-mile day. At the lake’s beach I enjoy that pleasantly existential feeling I get watching the sun go down over water after a day of solo riding.
In the morning, after re-stocking with horseradish cheddar, garlic sausage, stone-ground mustard and cashew brittle at the nearby Cheese Hut, I continue 60 miles northeast towers Kohler-Andrae along back roads. I stop to drink coffee and sun-dry my laundry in Kewaskum, a pleasant enough small town that a friend who grew up nearby calls “Scum Town.” It’s challenging, hilly riding for much of the rest of the trip to the coast, and after I reach the state park and take a quick dip in lake Michigan, I’m happy to lay out my ground pad on the quiet beach and relax.
Kohler-Andrae is a beautiful little park, with similar geography to the Indiana Dunes, but it seems to be a bit tranquil. The next day I take a stroll along the park’s miles of undulating boardwalk to the sound of cawing crows and lapping waves, then get back on my bike and head south along the lakefront. I pass through more European themed towns: Cedar Grove, where I get coffee at the Broken [wooden] Shoe, across the street from a windmill; and Belgium, which doesn’t seem to have a particularly Flemish vibe.
I roll a few more miles along the pleasant Ozaukee Interurban Trail into Port Washington, a delightful little lakeside town that’s the first freestanding city along the lake north of the Milwaukee suburbs. I pick up additional cheese and sausage, this time homemade garlic salami, from Bernie’s Fine Meats, a great old-fashioned butcher shop, as well as smoked trout at Ewig’s Smoked Fish and have another tasty lakeside picnic.
From there I make my way down Lakeshore Road, a popular bike route into Milwaukee where I encounter many folks in spandex on training rides. My friend Dave Schlabowske, the bike and pedestrian coordinator for the City of Milwaukee meets me on the north side of town. He’s coming from a rally on the south side of town where he’d dressed up in a chicken costume and crossed a road multiple times to remind drivers they need to stop for peds in the crosswalk. He’s done this a few times, once dressed like Evel Knievel, bearing a sign saying, “You shouldn’t have to be a daredevil to cross the street,” another time wearing a 12-foot-tall chorizo costume borrowed from the Klements Sausage Company.
Dave escorts me by bike to the Trocadero, a French café where we meet his wife for mussels and frites. I’d been intending to camp at Cliffside Park, 20 miles south of downtown Milwaukee but as the sun sinks and I sip a 9% Belgian beer, the Schlabowskes persuade me to sleep on their couch instead.
I tell them about a new theory I developed on this trip. Is it possible that I consider Wisconsin to be so much fun, that I get so stoked about the scenery and culture and food, because I’m only visiting? Would the excitement wear off if I actually lived here. Liz and Dave look at each other. “Nope,” says Dave dryly in his moderately heavy Badger accent. “Drinking beer and grilling brats – life is pretty good here.”
Schlabowske at sunrise
I need to get back to work at 3 pm the next day so I leave before sunrise with Dave, who always heads to work at an ungodly hour, and then I ride south along the familiar route towards Chicago. I need to get to Waukegan, IL, around noon to catch Metra commuter rail home, so I only stop once in Racine to pick up a kringle, a large ring-shaped Danish pastry that’s a local specialty, for the boys back at Boulevard. Due to a sweet tailwind I make it to Waukegan with enough time to have one last picnic by the marina before hopping the train back to the hustle-bustle of the big city.