On September 12, 2012, a train engineer along the Illinois-Wisconsin border glimpsed a large black bear. The engineer knew bear have not roamed the Wisconsin-Illinois border area for over a century, so the roaming was a surprise to him, but not to the DNR--the engineer's sighting was one of 31 sightings recorded in the area during the summer of 2012.
On the third day of our trip, in which we would cross into Wisconsin, we planned on riding the last 45 miles on the Jane Addams and Badger Trails. Who knew the condition of those trails? If they were anything like the Hennepin, they'd be lonely, wild, and flowing through the middle of prime animal habitat. If I were a bear in Southern Wisconsin, it's where I'd live.
Bears were on our minds that second night because my brother discovered at the hotel a book on bears. He read aloud from a chapter entitled "Early Bear Lovers." Apparently Rugg, whose man-on-bear love I have documented elsewhere--is from a long line of bear lovers in American history. The chapter was about Grizzly Adams, who, far from loving bears as Disney portrayed him, actually killed them and/or then beat them into submission, whichever came first or whichever suited his sick fantasy.
This is often how memory, collective or individual, works, isn't it? We caricature men on one screen as demons, and on the other as saints.
My brothers and I caricatured the hell out of that hotel continental breakfast, again watching the rain through the window and wondering if we'd encounter any of the thunder, hail, or tornadoes that the radar showed coming in waves across the Midwest.
Exiting and entering a hotel with only your bike is a wonderful simplification. The feeling is like the feeling, when you're a kid, of simply falling into bed when your parents forget to tell you to brush your teeth and do all the other little chores.
When you travel by bike, there's no car to load or park. It's obvious but worth mentioning that there's no gas gauge and no need to stop for gas. Gas, in fact, is unwanted, an uncomfortable side effect of countless energy bars consumed.
By the time we finished our breakfasts and stood outside, ready to complete the last 99 miles, the rain had stopped. We'd only have to contend with the dirt, the traffic, and possibly the bears.
We rode several more miles on the Hennepin, then rode a narrow pedestrian and bike bridge across the Illinois River. It wasn't until we were nearly halfway across that we realized the water was much higher on our right than it was on our left, and that the tremendous sound we heard was that of water flowing through turbines and through what was clearly quite a large damn.
After crossing the Illinois, the farmland became more familiar to us, having grown up in Michigan: rolling, glaciated land with dairy farms. We flatted (our sixth of the trip) on a picturesque dirt road next to a sheep farm.
We stopped for coffee around mile 300. The sun shone on our tan lines; we were only 60 miles from home cooking.
We could have stayed on roads and shaved an hour off our trip time, but we decided on the safer and more scenic route--the dirt trail that stretched fifty miles and went directly to our destination.
It was a good decision. The Jane Addams portion of the trail traversed wetlands and farmlands, shaded and level riding, if it is a bit rough in spots.
Wildflowers seemed to stretch on endlessly around us. This was the kind of riding I do in my dreams: silent, cool, shaded, and with good people.
Since the path was made for railroads, its gradients are soft and steady. Some portions are cut through bedrock. On such a portion, a boulder lay directly in the path, brought down, we guessed, by the recent rains.
Around mile 88 a tunnel appeared, a slight and ominous mist seeping from the entrance. We could not see an end to it. It was simply an entrance to pure darkness. We put our lights on and advanced, suddenly chilled. Another rider happened to be stumbling through; he'd lost--or maybe never had--his voice, and rasped greetings to us. Finally, we saw the exit.
With ten miles left, we ran out of water and blew our last tube, simultaneously. The day grew hotter, but then the path became paved, and we did the last 10 miles in somewhere just over 15 minutes.
We'd seen no bears. We'd not had to be heroes or villains. We'd merely ridden through the land and breathed in the sweet air. We'd traveled 360 miles in 3 days using only our own energy. We'd seen several dozen herons pooping with fear and dozen or so turtles unconcerned with us.
I've ridden in the mountains of California, in Belgium, in the hills of upstate New York and the usual Mid-Atlantic spots. I never would have anticipated that the farmlands of Illinois and Wisconsin would equal or surpass the beauty of the other places, but it did.
I won't caricature the land or the ride as heroic or demonic, as is tempting, but I will recommend it as one more place for cyclists to explore; given the right weather, the right breeze, the right companions, and the right two wheels, it speaks to the soul.