All week we coordinated what to bring, and we both made probably the most important investments in our well-being for this trip: cycling shorts and gloves. They may have saved our butts, literally and figuratively. Of course, we were overstocked with food and supplies, but that’s the way I do things.
We left Kenosha at a little after 2:00 on Friday, September 9th, on our way to Wilton, Wisconsin. I’d looked into campgrounds in the other towns along the trail and some were too touristy and expensive as just a place to crash, while others were too minimalist and we actually wanted things like a shower, fire pit, and shade. I returned to the campgrounds I used last year at the Village of Wilton Campgrounds because it had the best of both worlds. We arrived just before dark, set up camp, got firewood, made a fire, and drank margaritas in preparation for the long day ahead of us. It was my first fire made solely by myself, and I was quite proud.
We woke up around 8 when our neighbors (who’d been great in number but not in noise) all seemed to be rising at the same time. I made some oatmeal on my propane stove, which took forever, packed our snacks for the ride, suited up, and realized it was after 10:00 by the time we were leaving for Sparta. We had a shuttle to catch at 10:30, and it would be a race to get there on time. The directions were a little unclear from Google and I didn’t know the bike shop that was shuttling us was actually before town, so we went into town and had to turn back around, killing crucial time, and as we pulled into the parking lot, the shuttle was leaving. Sadness.
I cannot say enough nice things about Speed’s Bike Shop, in Sparta, Wisconsin. Let me tell you why. When we arrived 10 minutes late, we signed up immediately for the next shuttle at 12:30, but I was concerned we’d have trouble getting back to the shop before they closed at 6. I went over my time calculations with the kid who was running the counter. 32-mile trail, riding about 8 - 10 mph on average, that’s 4 hours to do the distance, plus an hour of walking through the tunnels, maybe some time to stop for a meal, and 6 hours sounded about right for time to go from one end to the other. He agreed. The 12:30 shuttle sounded okay if we parked our car out of the locked area of their parking lot and we wouldn’t have to be back before they closed. We, clearly, underestimated the time it would take to shuttle us to Elroy, though, but wouldn’t discover this until later. As we were making our way slowly out of the store, a man I thought of as Mr. Speed came out and asked if we wanted to leave right then. His wife (?) had returned with the other shuttle truck and could take us right away. He didn’t want to hold the 10:30 shuttle for us, but they’d take us on our own immediately instead of making us wait until 12:30. We didn’t hesitate, ran to the car, got our gear, loaded up onto the shuttle, and by 11 we were on our way to Elroy on our personal shuttle. Speed’s rocks! I love those people.
But, what we forgot to calculate was the time it would take to get to Elroy on the shuttle. At noon we arrived and my 6-hour estimate was going to be tight for us because we hadn’t moved the car, and when Speed’s closed at 6, they’d lock my car in their gated lot, so we were going to HAVE to make it in 6 hours. We got our trail passes and a flashlight in Elroy (because in the rush to load up, we left the lantern in the car), made one last potty stop, took bright-eyed and bushy-tailed pictures of our eager selves, and laughed heartily as the shuttle we missed arrived as we were about to hit the trail. We actually made it there faster, though we left a half-hour later. It all worked out in our favor after all.
And, we were off!
It’s amazing how chipper and happy we were at the beginning. We gleefully said hello to everyone we passed, stayed together on the trail all the time, chatted, enjoyed the weather (though the scenery isn’t as cool on that end), and were simple, happy cyclists on a Saturday morning ride. When I stopped to take pictures, Ann turned around and hung out while I snapped, looking pleased. Oh, look at the canopy of trees. So nice.
That didn’t last, I should warn.
It’s about 6 miles (seemingly all on a slight uphill grade) to Kendall from Elroy. We visited the train depot museum for a minute, took a potty and water break, and rode on.
Tunnel #1 was 3 miles from Kendall. The first one is always the most fun, just because it’s the first one.
At 1,694 feet, or roughly ⅓ of a mile, it’s a nice enough break from riding and a cool respite from the cloudless sunny sky, which was about 83º outside and probably 50º in the tunnel.
No bats, sadly. I did wish to see some since I had a flashlight with, but alas, a batless walk.
At the end of the tunnel, we had a brief snack. 9 miles down and 23 miles to go. A nice couple came out and I offered to take their picture together if they took ours, and they jumped at the opportunity. Here we are, still upbeat and happy, having survived the first tunnel.
Our next destination was Wilton, where we were camping, and we agreed we were going to skip stopping for lunch in one of the towns, but instead would stop in Wilton to use the flush toilets and break briefly at our campsite. Well...
Wilton is 6 more miles from the tunnel, and while it’s somewhat downhill, it’s not nearly enough. We rode into our camp, took a washroom break, and proceeded to collapse.
Ann lounged on top of the picnic table while I rearranged the awkward stuff I was hauling on my various carriers on the bike, filled the tires with air, and took a major risk by detatching the pump and leaving it behind at the camp. Once sitting, we had a hard time getting back up again to get going. It was 2:30 and we made good time, 2½ hours to the half-way point. We weren’t sure how long we lounged at camp, but later on we figured it was probably an hour, which cost us dearly.
I knew it was uphill to the next tunnel, but only 3 miles. Me being bigger than Ann, I flew downhill, having gravity and inertia on my side, and even in my top bike gear, I was barely pedaling and probably cruising at over 25 mph. Ann wasn’t too far behind, but she never got around me. However, size being what it is, I struggled a whole lot more going uphill, and in the beginning, Ann would slow down and ride with me. Once we took our luxurious break at Wilton, it was every man for himself.
The Every-Man-For-Himself philosophy was introduced to me by the person who named it, my friend Susy. She'd described this phenominon when talking about the hike she took with her friend and husband many years ago, descending into the Grand Canyon, and then ascending back out. They all started off together, keeping pace with one another, talking, having a good time. But at some point the physical challenge took over. Exhaustion gave way to isolation. Survival took priority over helping. They each found their own tolerable gait, could not go any faster or slower, and pretty much separated and were on their own for the entire remainder of the hike. From this I knew that each person had to carry their own supplies. One could not carry the water, while another carried the snacks and another carried whatever else you needed. If it's physically challenging, people will separate and it's every man for himself. (This, of course, is barring any real injury or problem.)
There were a lot of people on the trail that weekend, but we passed a whole lot more cows than cyclists.
Going uphill to Tunnel #2, Ann was way ahead of me. I stopped a few times for pictures, too, so that did not help reduce the distance between us.
We caught up at the tunnel and walked through. This tunnel is about the same length as the first, but it is bricked in and not as cave-like. Still no bats. Again, she was walking at a brisker pace than I was and she passed me and came out ahead at the end. We had a very quick snack, rejected the dry fig cookies and the dry cheese crackers, opting instead for peanut M&Ms and apples, which should have alerted us to the dehydration we were both facing, but we shrugged and went on.
Tunnel #2 to Norwalk is only 3 miles, and these are downhill, so it’s a breeze. I passed her with ease and she caught up when we were finally on level ground. There was a small underpass tunnel to ride through when I was in the front, and I yelled back to her that we had a small tunnel, and then that there was a big puddle. I slowed approaching the puddle and tried to swerve more to the right to avoid the deepest part, but Ann didn’t realize I was slowing for the puddle, so I ended up running her into the tunnel wall. She managed to get road rash (or is this tunnel rash?) on her right arm, and though at the time she claimed to be okay, she spent the rest of the trip pouting and whining about it to make me feel guiltier.
Despite her wound, we realized we began to live for downhill. I can’t speak for her, but for me it was because the uphill was getting to be so horrible that I could hardly convince my legs to continue.
Norwalk is the black squirrel capital of the world. Did we care? No. We rode straight through without even glancing around because it was getting later and we were pressed for time. Also, we were heading uphill again for another 3 miles to the next tunnel. Neither of us cared so much about saying hello to other cyclists anymore. They were lucky to get a grunt or a nod. In fact our attitude was very much screw them. Those cyclists were all happy riding downhill, waving madly, all teethy with grins, and we were going uphill, fighting our own bodies just to continue on, and if we had any spare energy, we’d have whacked those jerks with something heavy. We rode together for a ways because she slowed down dramatically as she was texting friends, and this distraction had her going at my pace, which was disheartening. But when the texting stopped, she left me in the dust.
I caught up to her at Tunnel #3, the longest, darkest, wettest tunnel of them all. At 3,810 feet, which is just under ¾ of a mile, this tunnel was the only one I hadn’t done before, and since it was the last one, we were happy to get it over with. Plus, it was 5:00, and knowing we had to be back to the store by 6, we weren’t in a position to dawdle too long.
Inside it was as if we’d stepped into a raining cave. Water dripped down from the arch almost the entire time, and with the colder temperatures, it left us freezing. The dripping is from a spring that was tapped while building the tunnel, and this provides constant rainfall as you walk in the pitch blackness. Toward the end, Ann said she heard bats, but I could not find them with my flashlight.
About the last 20% of the tunnel the conditions changed and a dense fog added to the blackness. The greenery from the trees outside the tunnel and the moss growing on the walls inside added a green-ish hue to the fog, and it was such an eerie scene, I had to take this picture of Ann walking into it.
At the end of the tunnel, we were cold, wet, hungry, thirsty and so exhausted we just had to stop. The information we had was that the last three miles were downhill, which meant the five before it were a mystery. We were dreading it. More peanut M&Ms, more tries with the fig cookies but rejected due to dryness, an apple, trail mix and water were consumed. I kept staring at the crystal-clear water draining from the tunnel. It was so beautifully clear, so clean, so inviting -- I was so dehydrated.
As we munched, an older man and his wife emerged from the tunnel, eyed our snacks and said something jokingly about coming upon us at the right time to steal our food. I laughed and offered up some of whatever we had, listing our bounty, but he just laughed and said no thanks, that we passed the test and answered correctly. Then he imparted the best wisdom to us: the last 8 miles of the trail were downhill.
I thought I’d cry. Downhill? The whole way? He nodded, almost entirely downhill.
I shouted, “I LOVE THE END OF THIS TRAIL!” He laughed and said I gave the right answer again, and he and his wife rode off ahead of us.
And for a moment, I loved them too.
With hope in our hearts, we got on our bikes and rode. Downhill. And for once, we were the ridiculously happy downhill cyclists waving madly, all teeth, giggling and enjoying ourselves. It was bliss. And though it wasn’t 8 miles of downhill entirely, it was probably at least 6, with the last two being either even or only a slight uphill grade. It felt like we were flying! And it wasn’t just that our spirits soared with this downhill ending, it was truly the most beautiful part of the trail, forested and raised high above the surrounding area, cool and stunning.
The mile markers counted down for us. I remember being ahead of Ann and seeing the 5-mile marker, throwing my hand out to the side and yelling, “FIVE MILES!” which seemed to be nothing in the scheme of things. The next marker said four, three seemed to be missing, then two, then one. We knew we had to cross the interstate and that marked the end of our ride, but we also had to climb the steepest hill yet to get to the top of the overpass, and it seemed a cruel joke to place this at the end of a 32-mile trail. Ann rode ahead and waited for me at the top. I remembered yelling that my legs just didn’t want to do it, but I forced them. At the top we didn’t even pause but kept going, and on the other side was John Street, and I could see Speed’s Bike Shop.
We’d done it! We made it! I screamed in triumph, threw my hands in the air, and coasted into the parking lot right up to my car.
It was 5:56. We made it just in time!
Our bikes were loaded on my car and we slipped inside to crank the air conditioning. We’d discussed the idea of splurging on a big, meaty, celebratory meal when we finished, and a local steakhouse was just what we were in the mood for, despite being sweaty, filthy, and dressed like people who’d been out riding all day. Sparta, Wisconsin doesn’t have much in the way of celebratory fare, I’m afraid. And I wanted red meat!
Much driving around, circling, scoffing and irritation left us pretty much with pizza in a bar, or a creature unknown to us called Ginny’s Cupboard. Well, we didn’t have much else to choose from, so we went inside.
The young man at the counter asked if we were there for ice cream and we both said in unison, “No, we need food!” He nodded and handed us menus as we wandered and looked for a table. I excused myself to the washroom while Ann rested at the table, then we traded.
The young man from the counter asked how far we’d ridden.
I said, “Is it that obvious we’ve been biking?”
He said we looked exhausted and apparently Ann already told him we did the trail. With that, he sat down in the empty chair at our table and said he felt exhausted too.
I said, “Oh, then join us!”
He shook his head sadly and said he wished he could, but no. We sighed and gave our order. It wasn’t steak and potatoes and vegetables like we wanted. It was a mozzarella, pesto, roast beef panini and soup, but he highly recommended the vegetable bread, and we both were too tired to think much, so we ordered his recommendation. It was good, too. And we ate every last crumb of food that was handed to us, and talked about margaritas and banana boats back at camp. I’m not sure how much water we drank at the table, but it must have been a good amount.
He engaged us in a little more conversation, and when I told him we did the entire 32-mile trail from Elroy to Sparta, he was amazed. This kid was impressed with us, which almost made me laugh. He mentioned the girls at the next table had said they did 17 miles on the trail and they were exhausted too, eating ice cream. I wanted to pshaw their accomplishment, but I decided they’d done an amazing distance too, and good for them. I know how tired we were at half-way and if we had stopped for ice cream at Ginny’s, we would’ve told everyone how exhausted and we were as well, and that we earned that ice cream. And they surely had. Just as we’d earned those sandwiches, chips and soup. It might not have been a steak, but we promised ourselves a steak Sunday night instead.
Back at camp I made another fire and attempted banana boats after we took long showers. It was a cool night, but not as cold as the night before, and we were too tired to stay up late talking again. Banana boats weren’t quite done, but we ate them anyway, and margaritas we just skipped altogether.
Ann said she was setting her alarm for 9:30 am, assuming that was enough time to get up, eat, and put a small dent in packing before she was going to be at church at 11, and I agreed. However, it was 10:30, which gave us 11 hours to sleep, and we both laughed and said we’d be up sooner.
Her alarm went off at 9:30 and it woke us both up. We slept 11 hours. Granted, we both woke up throughout the night, and she even went to the washroom and snacked at around 7:30, but it didn’t last and she was back asleep within a few minutes. 11 hours of sleep. Amazing. We earned that, too.
The odor of cow poop spurred us awake more than anything, as they were grazing in the pasture just behind our tent. Cows were losing their appeal quickly, and I was eyeing them with hungry stares as well. I wanted that steak.
I packed up the car while she was at church and we broke out of camp a bit after noon.
The next destination was Mirror Lake State Park. Ann had a brilliant idea to stop in town before canoeing and get that steak we promised ourselves the day before, have it for a late lunch, go canoeing, and then do margaritas and banana boats back at camp at the end of the night. This was, as I said, brilliant, and I drove down Main Street looking for somewhere good to eat. When I was at Mirror Lake earlier in the year, my friend David recommended The Cheese Factory for a meal, and I couldn’t remember why, but the recommendation stayed in my head, so as we drove down Main Street, Ann and I decided to give it a shot. Cheese is dairy, this was Wisconsin, it had to have some steak or similar fare on the menu, right? Wrong.
We sat at our tables and looked over the menu. Vegetable quesadillas. Hawaiian pizza with ham tofu. Pasta in meatless sauce. It took a few minutes but we both came to the realization that in our quest for steak, we’d picked probably the only strictly vegetarian restaurant in town, possibly in all of Wisconsin. Great! I’ve never walked out of a restaurant before, but I very nearly did here. We wanted steak, and instead we sat at the table laughing at all the soy and tofu and the very obvious lack of steak. Plans changed again, and we decided to stay. I had a veggie burger and Ann had the grilled vegetables. Dessert was fantastic, though, I have to say. Key lime pie for me and Ann had something called a princess cake, which looked exactly as it sounded like it should. We decided to postpone again and look for red meat for dinner.
I had some cell phone drama and spent a while on hold with my provider as we drove to the campground. She checked us in, and after a little teasing by the attendant, we got the campsite I wanted, picked up some firewood, and drove to our home for the night.
It was getting late, so we dropped the new bundle of firewood off at the fire pit, put up our ticket on the post showing that it was occupied, and drove straight to the lake to do our canoeing.
Ah, canoeing. A new joy in my life!
We got our canoe, our paddles, our PFDs, and despite a slow and awkward start, we were launched on the lake. I guided us down The Narrows, which is a super-scenic area leading to Mirror Lake.
It’s amazing, this area of the dells.
Our canoe wanted to bank right, and despite all the effort made to steer it left, it continued going right almost the entire time. My arms were so exhausted from going right while trying to paddle left that my fingers started to blister up right away. Not to mention that my paddle was way too long for me and that made rowing tough. The wind and current on Mirror Lake sent us back down The Narrows rather quickly, and instead of fighting it, we coasted.
Back out on the main part of the lake, we headed off in another direction for a while. We passed ducks, people fishing, and a cormorant sunning himself.
We continued until we reached the high-up overpass where 94 looms across the span of the dells and it was so sad that we decided to turn back. Such an ugly monstrosity.
Back at the pier we tried to cooly get out of the canoe, but that didn’t work. Fortunately the water wasn’t even a foot deep, because when I tipped us over, there was no chance of drowning. We laughed, but it was pretty embarrassing. On the brighter side, we were out of the canoe safely, if not wetly, and we were only charged another $6 by the attendant, who had to bail the water out. (Her bailing and charging us extra seems fishy to me, for I know how to dump the water on land and it would've been quite easy, so I'm not sure if she was jerking me around.)
When we got back to our campsite, we discovered our brand new bundle of firewood was missing. Someone took it. So, back I went to the boat rental lady, who now hated me, to buy more firewood. She was so offended that someone would steal our firewood she said we should go straight to the ranger and report it. I tried to do what she said but their building was closed. Oh well.
We managed to get our camp set up quickly, but I also noticed the rear tire on my bike was flat. It hadn’t been flat when I was riding the trail, so at some point while on the back of my car it went flat. Another sigh.
Despite the distractions, I was acutely aware of how remote we were all of a sudden. There were other campers at a site about 100 yards away, some on the other side of the shower building, up over the hill and beyond, and no one on the other side of us for a long, long way. And someone came along and took our wood?
We showered because we were stinky from the lake water and again decided to give going to town for a meal a try, hoping to find red meat. After much driving and searching, I leaned toward Cracker Barrel, knowing they at least had a country fried steak or pot roast, and Ann’s GPS lied to us about its location. Twice. But we found it anyway.
At the restaurant we ordered and then tried to laugh off all the mishaps of the day. Plus Ann made me feel extra guilty about the boo-boo on her arm. It worked.
Stuffed and ready for bed, we drove back to the campsite in the dark, started our fire, and Ann made us some banana boats as I tried to keep some flames going. The new bundle of firewood had only huge wedges of oak, which didn’t want to catch or stay lit, so I spent about an hour fanning the heck out of it just to get some small flames. When the banana boats were done, we scarfed them down and let the fire die out, then headed off to bed.
What I didn’t tell Ann was my growing unease about the situation. Firewood stolen; extreme seclusion; two women camping alone... it just suddenly made me feel really vulnerable. At our last campsite in Wilton, we were surrounded by other campers, and while it didn’t lend to much privacy, we were never really in any danger unless they all ganged up against us. Here: different story. Additionally, I kept smelling cigarette smoke, but there was no one around and it made me think someone was in the woods watching us and smoking. Waiting. Ugh. It scared the daylights out of me. I started carrying my Swiss Army knife with me, with the screwdriver pulled out so that I could grip the handle in my fist and the screwdriver protruded from between my fingers. It doubled as both a fist-strengthener, and a weapon to stab when I punched. I knew telling Ann would freak her out more than me, so I kept it to myself. We got into the tent, set up our sleeping bags, and said good night, but I was awake for a long time, knife at my side, listening to every noise in the woods. Much as I tried to not show it, I was afraid that she saw how tense I was. Acorns would drop and I’d hastily tell her it’s just an acorn, that we were surrounded by oaks and not to be afraid. She nonchalantly said okay and drifted off to sleep while I was startled by every acorn, every leaf, and every rustling sound I heard.
About a half-hour later, I heard the distinct sound of movement around the campsite, grabbed my glasses and the knife, and saw a dark shadow moving around my car. The noise was familiar, though. It was a raccoon.
I said softly, “Are you still awake?”
She lied and said yes.
I asked if she had the flashlight, and she reached around for it without opening her eyes and handed it over. I shined it outside the tent and saw the tail of a raccoon scurry under my car.
She seemed to awaken with the noise and me shining the light outside. I told her it was just raccoons, and she got up on her elbows to look out the tent door with me. As we did, a really little raccoon started walking across the tarp I had at the door of the tent. I held my breath so as not to scare him, but he looked into the tent, saw us, and kept walking by but much faster. It had to have been a family because they made the most adorable noises, and this little one was too small to be out on his own. The one I saw by the car was much bigger, so clearly it was at least two, communicating with little noises, and probably related. Aw.
Ann promptly went back to sleep, and I relaxed a little thinking that if there were multiple raccoons investigating our campsite, the likelihood of a serial killer stalking us as well were pretty slim. I mean, wouldn’t the serial killer spook the raccoons? As long as we had raccoons, the serial killer was probably not out there.
Except that I was still smelling cigarette smoke on and off. In fact, I smelled it on and off until about 4 am, which is when I finally took some Benadryl and fell asleep. 8:00 came way too fast, then.
In the light of the morning I felt a little silly laying there with an open knife next to me. I may be projecting this onto her, but when I told Ann about the serial killer and standing vigil all night with my Swiss Army knife, she seemed a bit relieved I didn’t tell her the night before. Perhaps it would’ve been two of us up all night with knives. That would not have been fun.
We ate a quick breakfast, tore down the camp, packed up the car, and were out of Mirror Lake before noon, adieu to their firewood-stealing serial killers, tippy canoes, and friendly raccoons.
More phone drama had me on the line with my provider all the way to Mt. Horeb. In Mt. Horeb we went straight to the Cave of the Mounds for some afternoon spelunking. The problem was we were both completely worn out. 11 hours of sleep after a 32-mile bike ride wasn’t enough. A full night of sleep the following day, with much food eaten and an afternoon canoeing did little to replenish our energy. We were like the walking dead.
Cave of the Mounds is beautiful. The property above ground and the cave below are truly spectacular. I’ve been in other caves and it’s a lot of shapeless rock with some cave formations, but this cave seemed to have cavern after cavern of formations, more than you could take in all at once. It was fantastic.
When we were done with the tour, we both smiled that we were satisfied and quietly made our way back to the car. We were too tired for enthusiasm.
The drive back to town was quiet. We stopped at the chocolate shop in Mt. Horeb and I picked up a couple items, but there wasn’t much to choose from so we left rather quickly. From there we made our way past Madison and stopped for lunch in a Culver’s in Fort Atkinson. Again, we were pretty quiet.
As we continued south, the conversations were few, the yawns were many, and we slightly cheered on arrivals at locations that marked our nearness to home. Mentally, we’d already gone through the entire car and could unload her stuff in seconds flat, so when I pulled into her parking lot, we lept from the car, doors ajar, organized and methodical. She brought a load upstairs as I unloaded the bike. Then I helped her with the items for her storage. We were done in minutes flat.
We both wished the other a nice nap and a relaxing evening, and I headed home. I was in my driveway by 6, unloaded by 6:15, laying in my bed by 6:30.
It was marvelous.
Adventure vacations are fantastic, but coming home and laying in my comfy bed is the best part.