A Man of Means, By No Means: Bicycle Touring in the Driftless

When the opportunity to farm sit a friend’s land is presented, Carmen Aiken’s response was a quick affirmative, but the getting there would take a little longer. On a loaded up Omnium Cargo Bike, Carmen enjoys the scenic route through the Driftless while sharing local encounters and reflections from the road. 

It comes together quickly, which is pretty nice sometimes. Working at A to Z Produce and Bakery (formerly, “The Pizza Farm” farm restaurant) came together quickly when I tumbled into its fields and dishpans in 2009. I bolt up to the Twin Cities in July after Robbi asks me to farmsit. I tell her I’d be much obliged.

Then, my buddy Brandon bends my ear about a Hodag Country Ramble and I think, well. I think: God, I need a break. I think: God, I don’t know how to bike adventure anymore. And I think: Those rivers and roads. My first instinct is to stuff my basket Trek 930. Then Brandon says, “Borrow a cargo bike? A ruby red number in the right size of small?” I think: perfect.

My Life Rolled Along Until: A 2016 Bike Tour

Like I said, it happened fast. Whereas the first time I did this in 2016, the first time I really EVER did a bike tour, I approached cautiously and deliberately for months. Afterwards I wrote:

It came together like much of my life rolled along: one day I realized I had become a person with an interest, and I engaged in that interest with a plaintive ardor. I didn’t find much value in calling myself a cyclist. People who were very interested in being “cyclists” were jags. I lived in a big city. I didn’t own a car. I was a person who rode a bike. The summer after I came out of a mental health crisis I visited my friends’ small farm.

We picked black caps and I said: I should ride my bike here. “You should!” My friends said. “You can come for pizza.”

“Okay,” I said. “I will. I’ll eat enough for ten men and a horse.”

The distance from Chicago to the farm was about 360 miles. I could say something like I wanted to ride the Driftless before the Driftless was cool. The farm is a place of utmost importance to me. It’s easy to say I worked there. I did, one of a vaunted crew who’ve gone on to work their own land, marry, have hardy children. I worked hard, ate well, and slept as good people must.

You can’t roll in to eat pizza at A to Z on any given Tuesday for BYO dinner in the fields like you used to. That’s COVID and years and years gone by for you. But the road leading up the Mississippi in its gentle snake between Minnesota and Wisconsin remains one of the finest.

In 2016, my tour split between road and some of the best rail trail in the country. The roads weren’t bad either, mostly paved through the Driftless to where Elroy-Sparta begins. Wisconsin blows so many places away with opportunities to adventure, to tour, or to enjoy its cities on a bike. I’d be a jerk if I didn’t shout out the Wisconsin Bike Federation and their maps. I still have my original, handwritten cuesheets.

The Same But Different

This time I have a farm to sit and a cargo bike to ride. A slow ramble from Trempeleau to Lacrosse to Wilton and back would do me just fine. WI-35, the Great River Road, and maybe MN 61 and I-90, the turns onto county roads and then the farm from either Chicago or the Cities. Some place I know, where if my limbic system went pearshaped, I’d still get there.

On the Bike4Trails Lacrosse River State Trail, that feeling of being 19 and seeing my friend’s family farm for the first time comes back. The prairies and farmland shift, redolent and heady in the first week of September, its wildflowers and dragonflies exhaling. The dark and deep and ubiquitous logging woods of Wisconsin slowly fill up your vision, the valleys and bluffs as you approach the river.

Perfect Gravel for the Low Price of $5

Along the way to Wilton, and eventually Elroy, are small towns and municipal campgrounds. The wayfinding is easy: point your bike and go, dismount in town, find a bathroom in the park, a campsite. Sparta’s the Bike Capital of America, where the trail starts. It’s the first rail trail in the country, from 1967.

Last time gives me no memory of how hard and startling it is to walk (or Flinstone slide) through the abandoned rail tunnels. I whistle “King of the Road” but stop when I hear voices behind me, because anyone whistling in a pitch black train tunnel is certainly a serial killer.

As I crunch through on the Omnium, I realize I’m on “perfect” gravel (whatever that means) for the low, low price of a $5 trail pass. I have most of it to myself. I think, wouldn’t it be nice for us to somehow siphon off off-road mega-event energy into bolstering the Rails to Trails Conservancy? Bring back real economic development and bike tourism, get people enjoying adventure on their own terms, in towns and around people they’ve not known before?

Along the way are signs encouraging trail bikers to camp, sleep, eat, explore. Small towns that probably get a bump from bike travel via the rail trail. Like other travelers enjoying a simple journey through tunnels elsewhere (like the C&O), this just makes me feel good.

I want that for more people. I don’t want to keep people out of bike travel or getting rad or adventuring because it’s supposed to look like, or have the trappings of, something that I’m just probably never going to be personally interested in, despite thinking some of it looks neat. Somewhere in me is still this notion that there could be something to helping more people—people who just like biking—encounter the world at a speed where they can see it and take in what they haven’t lived before.

That includes the small towns and farmland of the Midwest, despite having dipped in and out of it for years. When I stop to eat the raspberries I snagged from the farm and poke around a town, someone stops to tell me the bike I’m on is cool, and happy travels. Nothing much else, really. It’s nice. Sometimes being on a bike and singing quietly is better than just having to talk about them all the time.

Wilton, WI

This year, I’m doing an out and back heading East. The last time, a one way tour from Chicago to the farm (and then the St. Paul Amtrak), I was in Wilton and I wrote this:

One day I want to return. There is a municipal campground, and in the morning I heard the shuffling of, at first, what I thought was a bear. I got dressed and the man patiently putzed, and then asked me for my five dollar fee. He said the town worried about keeping folks coming through the campground, and its upkeep. Then he brightened and said I’d catch the Lions Club Pancake Breakfast.

The night before I drank Spotted Cow and ate cheese curds. There was a beautiful bartender who told me she’d moved from North Dakota the week before.

“More to do in Wisconsin,” she said. “Where are you from?

“Chicago,” I said. “I rode my bike here.”

“Holy shit,” she said. I ordered a two dollar Old Fashioned then taught her how to make it.

There is a brick building in Wilton. “Eventually,” it says.

I wake in Wilton and grab a pork chop sandwich from the gas station. The woman wishes me happy riding; it’s a beautiful day. There’s a leftover slice of pizza a 22 year old made me (“It’s good, because I made it!”) at the Hitchin’ Post the night before and I can eat that later, too.

Getting Here

This morning I ride around one of the tunnels on some gravel, impressed with how the bike handles. I feel like a magician, or a wizard, or just dumb lucky. Brandon loaned me a giant waterproof bag I would have smushed my stuff in for a brief trip, but I wanted to SEE my little life before me, raspberries and camera sack and hi-tops and a neat little pillow I found at Savers.

A man of means by no means, snap snap, king of the road. There’s my sleeping bag and my tent and my shoes and some clothes. I also threw five books (for four days! Barely!) and my notebooks and a camera I was experimenting with. Wrapped it down with a grocery cargo net and ta-da.

No, it’s not no means, but the Omnium is a deal. I’ve been riding it around Chicago for a month or so, zipping about with various cargo: a CSA box, a cooler to CX, my friends, children, grown men. I rode it out into the fields to feed the pigs Sunday supper. I can get up to a neat clip on it, despite my almost total indifference to fitness. The 1x works perfectly, the bike comes in both an extra small AND a small frame, and it felt…. easy to just take off. It took very little thought to load it up.

I’ve had the sleeping bag since that first tour, but not the Field and Stream tent I bought off CraigstList for 30 bucks (because it fell off my bike on a city bus). I brought so many THINGS on that trip: tools, clothes, just stuff. There was a stove in my pile, somewhere, but instead I ate leftovers and granola bars and some electrolyte samples I found.

It took me a while to get here, knowing what a bike trip can look or feel like. Now it’s hard for me to think about doing anything else. I don’t KNOW when I’m going to get generous time off. I hate flying with a bike. But in the Midwest, there’s Amtrak Stations throughout the valleys that’ll ditch you in Chicago, or Red Wing, or St. Paul, or hell, Seattle, if you wanted.

But then I’m in LaCrosse, too soon, my short sojourn in the Rivery Valley done so quickly, it seems. So I change my mind: I want to explore the hiker biker sites on MN-61 I’ve always wondered about. It is an MRT route, but the traffic is fast. I’d pick 35 over 61, Bob Dylan be damned.

Still, there’s no one near. I take my pick and look out on the river, the lone boat out there, the trains rumbling through. At dawn I wake to what I’m sure is a thunderstorm. It’s just another train hauling oilseed and river grain. There’s a smoke-tinted sun over the Mississippi, bugs everywhere. There’s Winona and then Red Wing and then Minneapolis. Soon it’ll be rain for days, the knowledge of a shift ahead. Coffee to come, headed North to remember, friends, babies, bikes. Of means, no means.

To a lot of people in my life my mostly unpaved ride over a few days IS a long time. It’s actually a long time for me, because in this life of work and staying alive, I’ve never taken more than two weeks off at a time, which is pretty lucky. I say this because these few days are an adventure, something I could squeeze out. This is its own reward, even though there is still so, so much of life otherwise.

Remember: Why not now? says the sign in Wilton. Why not now? The cargo comes off the front easy when I dismount in LaCrosse and haul the bike back into the truck. I carry cast iron, dill, green beans, and pizza in the cab. It IS generous. It is enough. And I know I’ll come back these ways again.