Love letter to WI

If you ask why I live here, one answer could be “turn right off of hwy 33 outside of La Valle onto Schutte Road, follow it as it morphs into La Valle, turn right onto Twin Pine, left onto Old Ironton, and when you get back to hwy 33, look back and I think you’ll know.”

Mike Ferrentino wrote an essay called “Vehicle to Something Greater” describing the changes in his mental state as he rode home after work one day.

The town roads through these hills don’t go anywhere fast. Schutte Road may take you to the Schutte family farm, Enchanted Valley Road will take you through an enchanted valley. They may not be transportation TO anywhere but they are that “vehicle to something greater” that Ferrentino is talking about. Reedsburg may be farther away than it would be on the highway, but “something greater” is right around the next bend or up that next climb.

The ride today was to start on the Sparta to Elroy Trail, the first rails-to-trails conversion in the US. I was planning an alternate route. The trail is an experience not to be missed, with its multiple tunnels, but the crushed limestone surface means you need to clean the mouth of your water bottle before you take a drink and you will need to clean and lube your chain before you ride again. If it’s dry, it’s dusty. If it’s wet, it’s like riding in wet sand. I have ridden it both as part of this tour and as part of a loaded tour, carrying tent, stove, food, etc. I did’t feel the need to do it again.

At last night’s briefing, the alternate highway route was offered openly, and the second half of the ride, which was previously on the 400 Trail, was written as on roads with the trail as an orally described option.

State highway 71 started out with beautiful pavement with a clean and wide shoulder. After the town of Norwalk both deteriorated. There were about ½ dozen 1-2 mile 7% climbs. We had constant views of the heavily-wooded ridges. In the valleys we were in clouds and on the ridge tops the sky got light, almost as though we were going to see the sun.

At picnic the sun came out to stay and that is when the ride turned from very good to heavenly. The sense that the roads don’t go anywhere fast reminded me of this from Mose Allison.

Pictures were not the first thing on my mind and don’t convey the sense of riding these roads. I have written before of my hierarchy of roads (town roads with names preferred, county highways with letters if needed to get somewhere, state highways with numbers only as a last resort). Since this trip is partly about getting somewhere we have needed to ride bigger roads than I prefer. Today was one of the days that reminds me of why I ride. Today was like a Wednesday Night Bike Ride, when the destination is not important, the ride is.

The road not taken

The last turn toward Baraboo is onto Terry Town Road, one of my favorites. It meanders a bit and then turns up. Then it really turns up, but only for a very short distance, then just gradually climbs to an amazing ridge top vista, looking over the valley before a 40 mph descent and then a fast and gently rolling approach to West Baraboo. My face hurt from grinning.

Terry Town Road

Vehicle to Something Greater

Why do I (or you) ride a bike? There are answers aplenty, from the environmental to the physical to the metaphysical. I could be serious or snarky and write a column a day to answer that question. Maybe I will.

But I found one answer in 1994 and have held onto it ever since. This was from Mike Ferrentino in the magazine California Bicyclist. I tried to reach him for permission to reprint this. (I don’t think the term “reblog” existed back then.) With no reply this week, I’ll go ahead and run it.

The Bicycle, Vehicle to Something Greater

It has been a long week. The daily commute has been a hard grind, headwind going both ways kind of thing. You’ve been choking back diesel fumes and dodging dogs the whole time, only to arrive at work tired, and return home more so. It rained on Wednesday – hard, driving, sleety rain – and left you with a head full of snot for the weekend.

And your boss has been riding you like a worn out nag. The ride home serving only to process murderous thoughts and dreams of escape.

And your legs feel like they are filled with lead. Maybe you’re thinking about that upcoming race, that all too soon century, and dreading that you’ll feel then like you do now. Thinking that you aren’t really training, just wearing down, one day to become so much useless pulp. Thinking that younger, faster, hungrier bodies are everywhere, waiting for you to drop and be replaced. Fresher cogs in the same relentless machine.

And maybe things are not so hot at home. Maybe you are spinning home to something you’d rather be flying away from, if only you could fly.

And the whole world seems to be falling to fucking pieces all around you. All your friends are riveted by the latest scandal du jour, while the government continues to bleed your hard earned pay into a joke, and the planet is nothing more than a bloodstained cesspool in the eyes of TV cameras. Life seems to comprise moments strung together, moments of ironic anonymous tragedy, moments of lunatic humor, no common thread but nonetheless connected.

And it’s more than just your legs that are tired.

And you think a lot about how nothing seems to really mean anything, or everything means nothing, or nothing is everything. And What Is The Point Of This?

And so you are riding home and your head is filled with all this white noise. Thinking about everything and nothing at the same time. It’s the end of another week. There’s a bus that’s been alternately trying to asphyxiate you, run you over, and inadvertantly (sic) offering a sheltering draft from the bitter wind. You note kind of absently that one of your gloves is beginning to unravel around the cuff.

Then the bus turns off. And maybe you notice it’s that time of day just after the sun has set and the sky is all shot through with gold and red streaks. There’s a bank of clouds above the western horizon that looks cast in bronze. The air tastes like dusk.

And it’s very quiet. One of those moments in the rhythm of time when everything seems to pause at once, and all you can hear is the hum of your tires on the road and the steady tide of your breathing. There’s something like honeysuckle growing along the roadside, and off behind that fence someone’s fired up the coals for a barbecue. A dog, invisible and distant, barks at your passage. Above you, a flight of swallows dip and swerve their way home. Breathe. The air is clean from recent rain, laden with the scents of life. Warmth rises from the tar as the day’s stored heat flees into the growing night. You feel almost, sort of,..good. In spite of everything.

And you are winding out alone up this slight rise before turning off to your home. And you are three gears higher than usual, and the headwind just isn’t there. All the barriers have disappeared.

And all the fear and fatigue just wash away like you’ve been in some cosmic shower. All the dirt of the world has gone somewhere else for a minute, leaving you alone in a perfect instant. You grab another gear, feeling right here and now that there is no end to the strength in your legs, no limit to the depth of your lungs or your heart’s ability to pump.

And it seems, right here, right now, that there are no limits to anything, anywhere. That if you wanted to, By God, you could fly.

And you do.


Take this moment. Tuck it away somewhere safe where you won’t lose it. Never forget this feeling. This fleeting moment when there are no limits to anything, and everything is therefore possible. Hold onto it with all you have.

Know that this is the glue that keeps some of us together. That without this there’d be a whole lot more folks stealing automatic weapons and heading down to McDonald’s. Remember that there will always be too much to do, too little time, and that you can only take solace in what you know.

Savor the accidental, perfect beauty of life in whatever small portions are dished out to you. And never question why you ride. Question only why you don’t ride more.

Mike Ferrentino
(photos by half-fast cycling club)

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