The end – With FinalityPosted: July 18, 2013
I left Nauvoo for a sixty mile ride to meet up with my lovely girlfriend who rented a hotel in Le Claire, IA. We both thought the hotel was in Il. so that makes the second time on the trip I mistakenly ended up in IA (The first was due to flooding). We spent the next two days making up for lost time and enjoying each other’s company.
She headed back to Madison and I started down the rural path to Mississippi Palisades State Park. For the first time on the entire ride rain fell for more than a burst. Rain gear I had carried for over 800 miles finally was useful. This was also one the first times I was actually afraid of traffic. The shoulder had recently been grated and was far to sloppy to ride with any semblance of control. I also was desperately aware of lowered visibility and people’s ineptitude to drive normally in the rain. For twenty miles the anxiety mounted peaking when an eighteen-wheeler blasted his horn as he thundered by. Finally I reached the Mississippi River Trail. A long running bicycle trail. I was back in the north.
I made good time to the park and set up my tent. It had rained a lot in the area and the plague of bugs were of biblical proportions. I grew up in the Northwoods and can stand mosquitos, deer flies, and the like, not to mention at this point I had pretty thick skin, but the gnats. Unlike anything I had ever encountered. They were everywhere. In your mouth, nose, eyes, and ears. You slapped your head and pulled your hand with 60 of their little corpses dotted on your palm only to have another 100 take their place. Every breath you took you felt their little bodies hitting the back of your throat. Deet had no affect (in its defence it doesn’t claim to ward off gnats). I was utterly miserable. I wrapped my nose, mouth, and ears in an effort to alleviate the agitation. They still flew panicky into my eyes until they were red with irritation and wet from flushing the blights out.
I ate my meal by lifting handkerchief and taking fast greedy bites. I noticed from time to time the tide of pests stemmed momentarily. I quickly assessed it was the smoke of the fire trailing past the picnic table which was a good twenty feet away. My savior had presented itself. I quickly set to work moving the table, but it wouldn’t budge more than a foot or two with every heave and my desperation was mounting since the gnats took advantage of my hands being busy. I needed more leverage. I bent down and seized the table by its curving metal tubular leg and heaved. The table slid a few feet. Just a few more and I would be in the peace giving smoke. Another heave and another. One more. Strain… Crunch! With my last zealous pull I put the table into position and directly on the toes of my left foot.
I lifted it back up and careful slid my sandaled foot out. Examining it by the fire light two of my toes, next to the big toe, were bleeding and misshaped. I had undoubtedly broke them. Although they hurt, the respite from the gnats made the pain irrelevant by relief. Eventually my wood dwindled and the gnats returned so I sought the refuge of my tent in hopes to wake early enough to build a fire before the buzzing hoards awoke.
Waking at 7:30 AM I was hopeful for peace. My head hit the fly of my tent where all the little brutes and decided to rest. The jarring woke them and I was engulfed once more. I resolved to ride the 10 miles back into Savanna for a bug net or something like it.
I went to the Dollar Store and Shopko to no avail. They did not even carry a bug candle. I had noticed the gnats didn’t seem to plague the other campers they way they did me. Why is beyond me, but it might explain why these shops didn’t carry relief items.
I went to a place called Old Fogies for lunch. It was a run down biker bar. My kind of place. I walked in and was greeted by the sounds of children. I truly was back in the north. Not only was a bar open at 10:30 AM in a little river town, but there were young children playing with reckless abandon in it. Eventually the proprietor appeared and we made small talk while I hunted the menu. I asked if these were her kids knowing it was unlikely given the apparent age of the kids and her. She explained they were grandkids while instructing the eldest, a girl of ten or eleven, how to make my burger. Ah, child labor. I think its OK if they call you grandma.
The food was delicious and after a small debacle with the ATM sending me to a local gas station and back, I set off to the library to write a post (to my joy they did not limit my time).
After the library I bought some dry wood to ensure my fire upon return. People stopped and grinned as I strapped the large bundle to Ruckus. I made my way back the park, and another rapid meal and set off the ranger station to get a park map and see if he had any insights as to gnat defense. While he did have maps, he did not have a solution for the bugs.
I had chosen my site poorly, unknowingly on the farthest side of the park from the trails. No matter I was out to hike. My toes ached in my boots at first but eventually I forgot the pain. The bugs were not bad at all if I continually moved. They seemed happy enough to trail behind and wait for me to stop to engage every orifice. Needless to say this kept me moving most of the time and when I stopped the handkerchief around my neck quickly covered my face like a bandit. I felt bad as this was peculiar if not threatening to other hikers, but they weren’t covered in gnat nip (cat/gnat. You get it).
The hike was intense up and downs on narrow trails built by the CCC in the 1930’s. A real hiker‘s hike. The trails wound around large dolomite rock formations and along precarious bluff ridges opening into expansive views of the Mississippi and all her glory. I hiked all 15 miles of the trails, partly pushed by the gnats and partly because I was going to leave even earlier the following day. I was exhausted and while on a rocky ledge off trail trying to get a better picture of Sentinel Rock I became lite headed and my balance failed. I immediately put my weight on my heels and fell back on a juniper tree. I sat down with my ankles hanging over the precipice. Enough. Time to head back.
I made my way back and immediately started a fire. The bugs wouldn’t have their fun tonight. Saving a few dry pieces of wood for the morning tear down I turned in.
I woke at 5:30 AM and got out of the tent very careful not to disturb the fly. To my utter relief the swarms had not yet begun their day. I put some tinder and paper on the coals and went for a shower. I kept a small smokey fire going while taking the camp down. I did it in parts moving each bag and its corresponding items next to the fire before packing it. Eventually Ruckus was set next to the fire and loaded. I left the park by 7:30 just as the little beasts started to buzz about.
I rode through the winding bluffs up and down hills spying more deer than I had seen on any one day before. I was about 110 miles from Madison and 70 miles from my next stop. The view was magnificent as I coursed along the bluff ridge roads. Rolling pastures and corn fields dotted with red barns and gray silos. I tried a few times to take a picture but they only resulted in close-ups of ten gnats and blurry background.
I needed to get away from the Mississippi to escape my tiny winged tormentors. I rode east from sometime resolving to camp when the bugs lessened. I rode highways and loose gravelled ATV trails. The bugs persisted. Finally I reached a small town at the base of the Badger State trail. It was three in the afternoon and the Badger State Trail went for about 40 miles straight into a suburb of Madison, Fitchburg. I had travelled 80 miles and decided what was another 40 to sleep in my own bed. I ate my final road meal and pointed Ruckus north up the trail. despite the ragged condition of the trail I made very good time driven by the prospect of getting home.
I cruised steadily until reaching a tunnel. I had heard about this tunnel. It is a fourth mile long and reputed as the darkest trail tunnel in WI. I pulled out my head lamp and headed in. My lamp was failing and the tunnel wasn’t straight so there was no light to direct your self by. Some of the walls were hallowed and crumbling. In the faint light of my head lamp one could easily imagine some Gollum character lurking in the rubble, its luminescent eyes shinning back at you. Since I had no idea if there were rocks on the trail or how sharply the tunnel curved I was reduced to kicking Ruckus along like a skate board. The tunnels air was cold and still. Water dripped at random in the darkness. Finally I rounded the bend exposing the light at the end of the tunnel. I was incredibly relieved to be out of it. Partly because my light was so poor, but at this point I have rode about 100 miles with 70 pounds of gear and my physical and mental condition had begun to diminish and crack.
With every pedal push the towns and landmarks became more familiar. Giving me hope. strengthening my back. Keeping my legs pushing. I willed myself forward. I thought of what I would do when I got home. What I would say. What I feel. Finally I saw it. The Fitchburg water tower. I shut off my GPS and a burst of energy coursed through me and I redoubled my efforts. I flew down the familiar trails like a train passing cyclists on race frames. One hooted and gave me a friendly fist pump. I could see the miles melting before me. 3, 2, 1, mere blocks now. On my street. On my drive way. On my porch! I had done it. I rode from Joshua, TX to Madison, WI. I had done it with little experience on a 20-year-old bicycle frame. I rode 1,500 miles through five states in exactly 31 days.
Drive fast. Take Chances. Thanks for reading
A huge thank you to everyone who supported me on this journey. There is no way it would have happened without you.