Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Study: Cycle Touring Through Southwestern Wisconsin, or Nine Days Driftless, or The Only Cool Thing I Did This Summer

Realized I never really made much mention of the tour Agatha and I went on this summer.  We spent nine days riding our heavy ass bikes up and down the hills of the Driftless Region in Southwestern Wisconsin. We passed through towns like La Crosse, Trempealeau, Richland Center, and Dodgeville.  Weather was basically perfect, aside from a hairy night at Perrot State Park featuring wind, rain, and hail, culminating in a flooded tent and the fun associated with such events.  The Driftless region itself is a place that resonates with history and intrigue for me.  If you live nearby, you owe it to yourself to go spend some time out there.  The roads and sights will blow you away.  Views up the Mississippi River Valley at sunset are certainly unmatched by anything else in the Midwest.   This wasn't really an "adventure" for us per se...  More of a bike vacation.  We had no set route, just a timeframe in which to operate.  This is a fun approach to touring, as you are sure to get tips from locals or find stuff you didn't know about before the trip that you are going to want to check out.  We took it easy, lingering where we wanted and moving on when we felt like it.  The long lazy days of summer are perfectly suited to the attitude of bike touring.  We ate delicious local produce whenever we could, and being the end of summer there were plentiful roadside fruit and vegetable stands selling squash, zucchini, onion, green beans, peas, etc...  I don't think we had any mechanicals at all on this trip.  It was just a plain old wonderful time living outdoors with someone I love and doing things that I love, and reflecting on it really makes me wonder what the hell I am doing with my life that it does not allow me to do things like this more often.  Bike touring is not expensive, it is not scary, you don't have to be an athlete. If it feels too hard, you are doing it wrong!  If fulfills all my ideals pertaining to simplicity.  It is the best way to travel and I hope everyone who has ever dreamed of taking a long bike trip gets to do it some day. Someday I will leave on one and never come back.

Nelson Dewey State Park

Dugway Rd., best road of the whole tour.

The mighty Casseroll, master of all terrains and tasks.

Amazing gravel hill, count 'em--1, 2, 3!

Navigation... Don't worry about it, you'll get there.


Yellowstone Lake State Park

I want to enter this picture in a llama photo contest

Yeah, that seems pretty good to me!

Nine days, 558 miles (according to web mapping, more like 600 by our count), 32,306 feet of climbing.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Brief: Rock Climbing in Shawnee National Forest, Southern Illinois

A few weekends ago, Agatha and I made a break for it to one of my favorite places in the whole world--The Shawnee National Forest.  At the southern tip of our long, long state lies a beautiful reserve of public land that bears no resemblance to the rest of our geologically infantile home.  Almost seven hours by car from DeKalb, it feels a world away and might as well be for how different and beautiful it is.  I have been going there with friends since high school to camp, climb, and generally fuck around out in the woods, and places like Giant City and Panther's Den are the places I learned to love the outdoors when I was younger. Agatha and I were feeling the grind of daily life and the and the cold onset of winter, so we set our sights south to Jackson Falls, a climbing area located in the National Forest.  Jackson offers no amenities aside from a pit toilet, which is a good thing. Camping is free and visitors are expected to practice Leave No Traces ethics.  We spent three days climbing, hiking, and relaxing out in the woods and had a spectacular time.  We definitely can't climb as hard as we used to, but we gave some old routes a try and survived to tell the tale. We did a lot of hiking around less traveled areas of the canyons and found some neat spots.  The Shawnee is an overlooked gem and the people who live in the area don't seem to mind one bit.  Very few published guides to the area exist, and I imagine "locals only" spots probably compose a lot of the potential climbing in the forest down there.  I love it, and if/when I make it out of the midwest, I will still come back to this place for the fun and memories it holds for me.

Agatha cleaning up after finishing a route

Bouldering the "Yosemite Slab"

Collapsed cliff overhang

Exploring under the collapsed boulders.  Pretty scary once we realized how precariously some of the house sized rocks were balanced.

I am the speck up top.  Climb known as Venom, 5.10a.  One of my favorites in the area.  Fun moves on small holds over the small overhang to delicate slab moves to gain the top.

Route-finding error resulted in some stupid climbing here.  Agatha laughed at me for looking like an idiot (which was deserved).

Beautiful cliff lines everywhere.  So much to explore.

Till next time...

Monday, September 23, 2013

Brief: Starved Rock S24O (actually more like 26 but who's counting...)

This past weekend Agatha and I ticked off a ride I've wanted to do for a while now; an overnighter down to Starved Rock.  Saturday we woke up late and were moving at a snails pace due to the previous evenings activities.  The revitalizing properties of black coffee and hot miso soup helped us get going, but still we did not manage to get on the road until a little before 2PM!  I wasn't worried one bit.  Our experiences touring together have taught me not to worry and just enjoy the ride.  I knew we would be able to cover the sixty miles to Utica in adequate time despite our late start.  Our ride south was nice.  Once into LaSalle county, you enter what I like to call "The Grid".  Roads are organized by number and laid out in a grid format in many central and southern Illinois county, making it impossible to get lost.  You just point your bike the direction you want to go and if you miss a turn, you just take the next one (there are exceptions to this generalization of course, but you brought a map right?).  I find this type of riding to be unique in the way it relaxes the mind.  Agatha commented on how riding "straight shot" roads like these channel your thoughts to ideas of forward momentum and the future.  Conversation flows easy and the miles cruise by.  Differences in terrain result in different cycling experiences, both physically and mentally.  These were the things rolling through my head as we rolled towards our destination.

Our night at Starved Rock was uneventful.  We had a big one-pot dinner of quinoa, diced tomatoes, artichoke hearts, and tuna fish, all paired with bottle of malbec.  I would advise if you ever decide to camp at Starved Rock that you reserve a campsite in advance, as some are much nicer than others (you most likely don't want to end up on a concrete pad surrounded by RVs).  If I do this trip again, I think I will do a little more research and just find a secluded spot along the I&M Trail to camp for the night.  We woke up early with the sun and packed up after tea and oatmeal.  Before leaving, we stopped to hike around one of the sandstone canyons in the park, enjoying the sights and morning sunshine.  Having delved in to some Edward Abbey books again as of late, I was left thinking a lot about what good our parks really do when we just pour asphalt all over them to accommodate hordes of RVers.  How much nicer would the places we are trying to "preserve" be if they were a little harder to get to?  Maybe St. Louis Canyon wouldn't be scarred with so much ugly graffiti if you couldn't drive your car right up to it.  Maybe I wouldn't have had to pick up a bag full of glass bottles, cigarette butts, and other assorted trash if there weren't paved roads for automobiles, electrical hookups, and resort lodges in every corner of these beautiful places.  Who knows? Not the state and national park system, that's for sure.

Not to cyclists.

How much more midwest could I cram into this photo?  Maybe a barn?

Thankfully we avoided drowning in all those deadly vortexes.

Stealing apples! Good thing no cops read this blog.

New dog friend we met while chilling in a shady ditch.  Airedale Terrier?  Really nice.

The ride home brought more gravel and bit of a headwind, and we made it back to DeKalb right around 4PM.  If and when logistics allow, spontaneous trips like this are a lot of fun. Get your bike camping system dialed, and you can do them off the cuff like we did here. Go ultralight, go for the Surly "maximalist" approach (in hindsight, it would have been fun to tow the Burley), use what ever style you like.  I probably cannot say anything new about the sub-24 hour-overnight trip.  However, I can say it is a great way to get away with minimal planning/preparation, and a great way to practice the cycling and camping skills I love to use.  Here's to pulling off a few more before winter arrives.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Brief: Allerton Park

     August has been a good month so far.  A few days ago, Agatha and I returned from a nine day tour of Southwestern Wisconsin and the Driftless Region.   I will get around to posting some photos and stories of that trip at some point, but for now I will just say we had an excellent time with nice weather and no mechanicals.  I could easily see myself living up in the La Crosse/Eau Claire/MPLS area someday.  

     Currently I am home visiting my family before things get busy with school again.  My younger brother heads off to college next week and my parents will finally have succeeded in getting both kids out of the house, so I'm just spending some time helping pack things up and move stuff around.  I brought my bike with me as I knew I'd be home for a few days and at this point in life I find it difficult to function without the conveniences of a bicycle even for short periods.  Yesterday I headed out to Allerton Park, a location I have mentioned before.  The park is only about four miles from my front door, and this time I went there with extra time to spare and rode just about all the trails in the park, close to fifteen miles in total.  They were a little rough on the Casseroll with it's 700x35 tires but still fun, and I imagine with an actual mountain bike they'd be a blast.  The trails are intended for hiking so they are nice and wide but full of rocks, bumps, and roots.  Allerton Park is a wonderful piece of natural history tucked away in the middle of nowhere, Piatt County IL.  It contains undisturbed river bottoms, flood plains, upland forests, and even some tall grass prairie remnants.  The Sangamon river, which lazily flows through my parents backyard, also passes through Allerton.  It is a beautiful snapshot of what the landscape where I grew up would have once looked like.

Prairie restoration project

Big Bluestem, a now rare native prairie grass.  

Double track and big trees in the bottoms

Spotted some vibrant orange shelf fungus not far off the trail... Could not ID it, but I think this stuff is close to what some people call Chicken/Hen of the Woods?  I did not take my chances by trying any.

Allerton is also home to some pretty eclectic art collections.  The story is that the original owner and namesake of the park, Robert Allerton, made his fortune carpet-bagging in the south following the Civil War.  He then returned to Illinois and bought the property on which the park now stands.  Aside from the natural beauty that has been preserved in the park, he built a huge mansion, many formal gardens, and filled the park with various statues and sculptures.  It is kind of eerie when you are just riding through the woods and come up on a clearing with some pagoda or life size centaur.  Very cool place.

Fu Dog

Cool cut banks and small bluffs along the Sangamon.

Once a paved road, now abandoned and nature easily begins the process of reclamation.  Water in soil freezes and expands, cracks form, plants grow... The cycle continues.

The Sun Singer

All the trail maps in Allerton are oriented north.  That seems like a really smart idea, but one I don't think I've noticed in other locations.

     Riding around Allerton was a good use of the beautiful weather we've been having.  Riding offroad like that just always reminds me how much use I think I'd get out of a mountain bike.  Hopefully a nearby shop will build up an XL Surly ECR for me to test out sometime soon.  That bike gets me really excited.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Study: My Journey to the Black Hills of South Dakota

It has been a long time since my last post, as usual.  Up until two weeks ago I wouldn't have had anything to post anyway.  Grad school is keeping me quite busy.  Studying, writing, grading, teaching... Yeah.  Now that I've made it through midterms intact, I have found some time to make an entry.  I had an excellent get away over spring break.  Agatha happens to have an aunt who lives in Rapid City, South Dakota so Saturday, March 9th at about 6AM we left DeKalb making tracks west with the Black Hills in our sights.

It is very easy to get to Rapid City, in fact we only had to make two turns--one north onto I39 and then one west onto I90.  Unfortunately our trip was complicated by some pretty awful winter weather.  It got so bad while in the central part of SD we were going as slow as 30 mph on a snow packed interstate, unable to take any exits as they were all packed with feet of snow.  Without any other options, we kept driving until we made it through the storm.  By this point, Agatha had been behind the wheel for a long time and it was getting dark.  We decided it would be best to call it a day, and stayed at a Super 8 in Murdo.  It was at this point I found one of my tire sidewalls had mysteriously been slashed open by something on the road.  This was a frustrating development, but we knew there were bike shops in Rapid City where I could get new tires.  Sunday morning we got up and set out for Rapid City again, with a plan to stop in Badlands National Park.  Badlands was spectacular, like a science fiction movie set.  No signs of life--just gullies and ravines, erosion exemplified.  The colors and strata of the landscape especially caught my eye.  We ran around exploring for a few hours, but the wind was howling (which would become a theme of the trip) and we still had to get to Rapid.

Upon arriving in Rapid City, we stopped at a bike shop called Cranky Jeff's.  It was a Sunday, but the owner was in the store and after explaining our situation he allowed us to come in and talked to us for a while.  I bought new tires, and we got a little bit of local advice.  It turned out we had come at the perfect time of year--early enough to avoid the tourists who show up and clog all the roads with RV's and mini-vans, but late enough that the snow was beginning to melt and the higher elevation roads were accessible.  Excited for the week to come, Agatha and I headed to her Aunt's house, unpacked, and settled in.

Monday morning we awoke and after breakfast of oatmeal, fruit, and coffee, packed up the car and headed into the hills.  We parked in Hill City near a trailhead of the Mickelson Trail, a rail trail and the Black Hills version of the Great Western.  We started off riding the Mickelson but soon found it to still be snowy/icy in some areas, and super soft and sandy everywhere, which combined with a headwind made progress feel really slow.  We soon hopped off onto a gravel road and got our first taste of the real riding potential of the Black Hills.  Perfectly textured, long, winding, wide, steep... The gravel was excellent.  Monday we also got a taste of how fast mountain weather can change, as a snow storm blew up on us in the middle of what was supposed to be a sunny day.  We were prepared for the cold, but it was still an eye opener.  We ended the day by crusing back to the car on pavement and making a detour for some single track (which ended up being too snowy) at Sheridan Lake.  With a little over 50 miles down, we felt pretty good for the first day.

Tuesday, we decided we wanted to climb.  Fortunately, it is not difficult to find long and steep roads in the Black Hills.  We started from the Sylvan Lake Trail Head in Custer State Park.  We began the day by riding Needles Highway, which we were amazed to find was still closed to car traffic.  We had the road to ourselves.  I will not soon forget the experience of riding my bicycle on a road with such a combination of quality and scenery without having to worry about vehicles once!  After descending Needles Highway, we turned off the pavement and onto some gravel, which eventually lead us to a trail taking us into the Black Elk Wilderness where bicycle riding is prohibited.  We hiked our bikes about two miles through the woods until emerging on Iron Mountain Road, which would take us to Mt. Rushmore.  Iron Mountain Road is known for its pigtail/corkscrew features, where the road traverses terrain so steep it must loop over itself.  This was another fantastic road and I'm more than a little glad we went down it as opposed to up.  Once up the climb to Rushmore, we did not linger long with the tour groups and bus loads of people.  We kept riding, back up a punishing seven mile climb to Sylvan Lake.  We had made it back to the car, but there was still a lot of day light left, so we hiked some trails to the top of a formation called Little Devils Tower, one of the tallest things east of the Rockies at about 7,000 feet.  It was a real beautiful hike with fun scrambling to gain the summit.  While up there, we saw a small group of wild mountain goats who could not be bothered to pay any attention to us.  Agatha and I both agreed this was one of the single greatest days we had ever spent outdoors.  We covered about 32 miles with 4,600 feet of climbing on the bikes and including the hike at the end of the day, we were cooked.

Wednesday we headed north to Spearfish Canyon.  I have heard about the amazing mountain biking and rock climbing to be had in and around Spearfish, but we had to ignore all that on this trip.  We had decided to do an out and back--thirty miles straight up the canyon, and then thirty miles back down.  Wednesday was the day the weather started to take a change for the better on our trip.  At the beginning of the day while we were climbing and at lower elevation we were in summer jerseys and just soaking up the sunshine.  We climbed and climbed the up the gentle grade of the road, and also into the wind.  The last ten miles of the climb really started to break me down.  I was in my granny gear, struggling to keep moving forward.  It was a great relief when we reached the halfway point and turned our bikes around.  Going down made up for the suffering it took to get up.  If I remember correctly it took us about 2hrs45min to ascend, and only 1hr15min to descend.  It was a laugh to speed down the perfect canyon road, effortlessly maintaining speeds around 20mph.  We were just cruising, joking, and taking in all the beauty around us.  Spearfish Canyon might have had some of the most beautiful sights of the whole trip.  This area is host to the annual Dakota 5-0 mountain bike race, and I bet that thing is no joke.  Some day I would love to come back and participate.  We ended the day with 60 miles and huge burritos in town before heading back to Rapid.

Thursday and Friday will be covered together in this report, as we chose the last two days of our trip to attempt one long ride with the plan to camp overnight.  Earlier in the week when we had stopped at Cranky Jeff's, we were given a piece of information about a man who lived south of Rapid and told he welcomed all touring cyclists to camp on his land free of charge.  Agatha and I thought this sounded like something not to be missed, so we made his location our halfway point for the overnighter.  We orginally planned to ride about 70 miles the first day, but due to a bit of a late start and some route-finding issues we only completed around 40.  Forest service roads are much harder to navigate than our wide open farm roads, and we ended up getting quite lost for about two hours on Thursday.  I lost my temper while trying to find the way, and I regret that.  Our whole trip was in the spirit of adventure and exploration, and I failed to remember that while we were pushing our bikes around out there.  One thing I must work on is my patience and ability to see beyond small mistakes.  It would make my own and others experiences more pleasant I'm sure.  Anyway, we ended up back tracking and taking more easily navigable to reach our destination.  When we arrived, our host John was incredibly welcoming.  He showed us around his property, insisted that we sleep in a camper instead of outside, fed us, gave us beer, told us stories, showed us his bike collection (which included at least three Rivendells, Bridstone XO-1 and XO-2, Eddy Merckx, and Holdsworth) invited friends over...  It was unbelieveable!  I don't think I'll truly be able to do justice to our experience, but I must emphasize how nice John was to us and how inspiring I found the lifestyle he had established.  Also, he drank Templeton Rye, which probably says enough right there.

The next morning, we woke up to a breakfast of freshly baked bread, eggs laid not more than one hundred feet away from the stovetop, and coffee prepared by John.  He then took us out on ride of some gravel roads and the Wildlife Loop in Custer.  This area was mostly off of the national forest land and was comprised of open pastures and ranches.  The hills were more rolling, and overall I was reminded a bit of some of my favorite areas out in Jo Daviess County.  We saw a few wild buffalo roaming unrestricted not far off the road, and Agatha found a tuft of buffalo hair which is supposedly rather rare and pleased John quite a bit.  We finished the loop and made our way back to John's residence.  It was not easy to say goodbye.  We wanted to stay and it seemed like John wanted us to as well.  There was lots of chatting about this and that and shuffling about, but we could not avoid it forever, so Agatha and I set off for Rapid City with the very sincere intentions to return again someday.  It was only about 20 miles back to town, but we faced 25mph head winds the whole way, with gusts up to 40mph.  I have never ridden in stronger wind than on that day.  It seemed as if we would never make it, and once again I started to lose my temper.  To make matters worse, we were on a large highway which was essentially the same as riding on an interstate shoulder.  When we made it back to Rapid, I was rather happy to know I was going to be off my bike for a while. 

This trip to South Dakota far exceeded my expectations.  The Black Hills are a place of overwhelming beauty, amplified by the feeling of isolation, wildness, and relative obscurity they exude.  For many reasons, I can understand why such a place stands seemingly undiscovered by outdoor enthusiasts.  It is not a place to make a fashion statement.  There is no one to show off to.  The city of Chicago is home to 2,707,120 humans, while the state of South Dakota as a whole is inhabited by just 833,354. I did not see any fake suburban REI outdoorsmen parading around in fresh shiny new Patagucci and North Face ensembles with a brand new space age material layer for every temperature interval and condition.  I don't think talk amounts to much out west, people actually get stuff done.  And if you are all talk, I think people figure you out real quick.  It was great to spend five days in a row riding hard after a slow winter of school and laziness.  It was great to spend that time with Agatha, a partner who I love, and is way tougher than I'll ever be--on and off the bike.  It was inspiring to meet John, another individual who has shown a complete stranger like me great kindness just because of a shared love of bicycling.  And most of all, it was great to be outside exploring a new place from the saddle of my bike, which by this point I am quite sure is the best way to explore.  If you managed to read this whole thing, thanks.  Now go ride!