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
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
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
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