There are many ways to bike Wisconsin. Kitt Healy enumerates an itinerary for biking the southwestern part of our state.
Get on the road before the sun has truly committed to rising. Listen to the mist lifting from the ditches, and the wind breathing through the holes in your helmet. Hear a towhee calling from the roadside tangle of reddening sumac and raspberry. Drink-your-teeeea! Drink-your-teeeea! Remember that you left your water bottle in the car. Go back.
Get on the road slightly later than expected. Pedal through slanted light. Let your body awaken to its primal purpose: movement. Unspool your brain. Leave it like falling yellow leaves behind you. Head northwest.
On the first big uphill, swerve slightly to avoid the bloated paddle-foot carcass of a dead mole. On the first big downhill, snort at least six gnats up your nose. Don’t fight it. The brain needs protein, you know.
Pass a small cemetery full of German names and Norwegian names and white pines. Notice that the names are also printed on the road signs, and the homestead markers, and the genomes of blonde teenagers who get into their first trouble out here under the pines.
Ride into Mt. Horeb. Go to Schubert’s diner. Sit on a swervy stool at the counter. Have a lefse burrito smothered in sausage gravy. Drink a chocolate phosphate. Regret neither. As Jerry tallies your bill with a calculator, ask him about the wooden trolls lurking around the town. If he’s in a talking mood, order another chocolate phosphate. And a donut to go.
Leave Mt. Horeb heading west. Pass a stretch of marsh bordering an almost dry cornfield. Remember that there are two seasons to avoid cycling in Wisconsin: winter and any time the redwing blackbirds are having a bad day. When you hear their warning click and trill, pedal faster, lest you be dive-bombed and head-pecked for daring to look predatory.
See the horizon dipping and rising, becoming proper hills as you skirt the glacial moraine. See an eastern bluebird, a big monarch butterfly, sandhill cranes stretching their prehistoric necks southward. See a barrel-chested red-tailed hawk with something in its talons. Allow a flicker of hope in your secret animal heart that it’s a baby redwing blackbird.
Get yelled at by a man on a motorcycle who thinks you can hear him over his motor. Wave and smile kindly. Assume he is complimenting your shapely calves.
Get caught in a rainstorm you never saw coming. Heck, make it a freak mid-autumn thunderstorm. Get soaked, drenched, diluted. Watch the road become a carpet of storm-loosed leaves. Watch every pothole become a headwater of the Mississippi. Give thanks for newly replaced brakes.
Stop to rest. Eat a damp donut under an umbellate oak tree. Touch the craggy bark and remember the glaciers retreating 12,000 years ago. Remember millions of these trees, filtering light on an endless savannah. Remember mastodon, and giant birds, and the first humans here, hunting, laughing, eating, fighting, falling in love, moving on. Remember the smell of wildfire. Remember it all back to life. Eons later, when you get back on your bike, headed for home, promise not to forget.
Kitt Healy is a writer and outreach specialist for the Urban and Regional Food Systems Program at UW-Madison.