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Jay Wilker is one of 200 bicyclists in the Big Ride, a summer-long bike-a-thon sponsored by the American Lung Association to raise public awareness and funding for respiratory health. This is the sixth in a series of letters, which began in Washington State and will end in the nation's capitol. Writing for World Travelers of America, Jay offers a unique view of America across the handlebars. In his other life, Wilker, 56, is a litigation attorney with Oppenheimer, Wolff and Donnelly, LLP, in New York.

Bicycling Across America

Hi from Madison . . .

A great time was had by all in New Ulm, Minnesota. Twice attacked in the Sioux uprisings of the early 1860's, New Ulm continued an American tradition of taking its name from the European city where many of its settlers originated. (Ulm, Germany, also happens to be the birthplace of another American transplant, Albert Einstein.)

On Sunday, our last full day there, we visited the most prominent landmark in the city, the Hermann Monument. Atop the highest hill in town, it commemorates the Teutonic warrior who led his landsmen to victory against Caesar's legions in the 9th century, stopping the expansion of the Roman Empire near modern-day Hanover. Hermann has come to stand for liberty and unity among Germans, and his monument can be seen from all over New Ulm. Despite its immense size and prominence, however, I was told the original in Germany is even bigger. The Romans knew Hermann as Arminius, but it's unlikely he's as popular in Italy as in Minnesota.

That afternoon, I called my wife, Midge, by cell phone from my tent at Jefferson Elementary School. Needless to say, Midge is not staying home while I'm playing. She and a roommate from college, Maryjean Krackeler, are in Scotland hiking along the lochs and over the hills. It was a lot of fun exchanging stories about our adventures. If anything, Midge is more pumped about her trip than I am about mine. Alas, Midge wishes I would do more hiking, and of course I wish she would get more into bicycling.

Unless you're raised on German food and beer, regardless of how good it is, there's a limit to how much one can hold. Having reached that limit sometime earlier, on Sunday night our group assembled in the Ming Dynasty Restaurant, where the Chinese dinner was delicious even by the exacting standards of those among us from New York City.

On Monday morning, as Charlie and I rode out of New Ulm we found ourselves reflecting on our time there. The town is spotless, but both of us had the feeling that if we didn't mow our lawns every week or keep our cars clean, despite the liberty Hermann stands for, this might not be the most comfortable place on earth to live.

As we continued our ride east through the familiar, lush farmland, we were so caught up in our profound thoughts on choice and liberty, we failed to follow the route to the next campsite in Owatonna. Instead, we pedaled 15 miles in the wrong direction before it dawned on us that there was no one else from the Big Ride ahead or behind. We flagged down one of the few cars for directions back to Rt. 14. The detour turned a 70-mile ride into a near century, but we had a good time wandering along by ourselves on a day with probably the most pleasant weather we have had on the entire trip (northwest winds and temperature in the low 70s).

The next three days, to borrow from Dickens, turned out to be the worst of times and the best of times. Just when we thought that the tough riding was behind us, the weather turned cold and a drizzly wind sprung up out of the East. The 90 miles to Winona on the Mississippi, which forms the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin, became a bleak and tedious trek. Also, we didn't meet the open friendliness we had gotten used to in South Dakota, so the stops at coffee shops weren't as much fun.

Many of us had sent our warm clothes home after crossing the Rockies, and as the weather became more raw, we just couldn't get warm. I bought a pair of work gloves in a general store, which helped a bit. At a checkpoint in Rochester, home of the famed Mayo Clinic, we formed a pace line to do the remaining 55 miles into the wind. We all took turns pulling, and plodded miserably on. For the first time, I wondered why I was doing this ride.

But it was just the weather. The negative thoughts vanished when it turned, and the next two days were great. On Wednesday, we rode south out of Winona for about 30 miles along the Mississippi, through some of the best scenery of the entire trip. Here the mighty river cuts through mountains and cliffs similar to the Hudson around Bear Mountain - a big surprise, as I had always pictured the Mississippi as winding endlessly through dreary flatlands.

Much of the ride along the river was on a bike path separated from automobile traffic, so most of us just relaxed and pedaled at our own pace.

We crossed into Wisconsin at, appropriately, La Crosse - home of the world's largest six-pack at the Heilmann Brewery. From there we rode south for about 8 miles before turning east, climbing out of the river valley (past a ski area overlooking the Mississippi!) up onto a fertile plateau. The dairy farm country grew more picturesque as we crossed the plateau and continued upward into rolling hills.

We rode for several miles through Amish country where the farms were run with little or no technology. The hay stacks are the old fashioned kind, piled by hand, as opposed to the modern "eggs" spit out by combines that we had been seeing in various sizes all the across the country. We stopped at an Amish bakery stand in the front yard of a farmhouse where we were greeted by a flock of formally dressed and docile children and bought pastry that was ridiculously cheap and very tasty. The owner said this was the third year that he had sold his home baked cookies, cake and butter-pecan candy to the Big Riders, and he seemed to know more about us than we did. I doubt that he had been reading the Big Ride web site.

Yesterday, many of us started very early in order to complete the 110-mile leg to Madison in time for lunch. I left at 5:45 AM and got to the dorm at the University of Wisconsin (where Midge went to school for one day) by 1 PM. The ride was through idyllic, rolling hills, some of them very steep but short. As we rode along a spectacular plateau called English Ridge in Richland County, the dairy farms nestled in the green and golden landscape were right out of Thomas Hardy. The richness of the farmland, even the smell of the cows, reminded me once again of the vast wealth of our country.

Madison is the best town yet. This is also the first time I have been able to stay up as late as the Big Ride's younger crowd. A large group of us collected at a great bar that serves Guinness (a true sign of civilization), and after our mandatory viewing of the Tour de France highlights on TV, an amazing Latin blues band set the place rocking and rumba-ing. A rider named Sunny, with lots of colorful tattoos and a nose ring, said this kind of music is big in his home town of New Orleans, and for all I know it may be big everywhere.

After riding 110 miles our group of about 40 or so ended up closing the place after 1 AM. The combination of Guinness, good music and adrenalin works every time.

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Notice: This information is current as of Summer 2000. It is recommended that you contact the numbers, and/or visit the websites above to determine any changes to the information.