Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Trials and Tribulations on a Trail (Day 36-39)

I got up around 9am and strolled the 2-3 miles to downtown Mauston, arriving at the McDonald's just as the rain started coming down. The McDonald's there was one of the biggest and busiest ones I've ever seen. The parking lot alone was the size of a Walmart. By the time I was finished downing my three McDoubles and filling up my bottles with iced tea, rain had stopped and was replaced with glorious sunshine, so I headed back onto the road. Before leaving town, I passed the local Middle School where a long line of 13-15-year-olds were practicing their marching band routine. They were a bit muddled and out-of-tune, but provided a good soundtrack for my strut down State Road 82.

I spent the rest of the day walking along windy roads through the Wisconsin ranges, which is composed mostly of a metamorphic rock left behind from the Ice Age. As night swooped over the interlocking land of ridges and valleys, I reached the outskirts of the town of Elroy, WI. This was a significant milepost. From there on in, I'd be on nothing but off-road trails... all the way to the Minnesota border.

The next morning, I woke up to cold, heavy thunderstorms that swept over the land like a gigantic Eskimo car wash (if there is such a thing). I fortunately had the foresight to camp near a large gazebo, to which I quickly ran under to use as cover. Knowing that scattered showers were expected for the entire day, I dashed back into town during a short dry spell and hid in the Elroy library, waiting patiently for an opportune time to venture out onto the trail. According to the radar map, a big band of rain clouds were heading our way from the west, but it looked like they might skirt up to the north and miss us completely. I looked up into the questionable sky and decided to take a chance and head down the Elroy-Sparta Rail Trail.

It was 6 miles to the next town of Kendall and I figured I could walk it in about an hour and half to two hours. Unfortunately, it was around mile 4 that I got hit with a vicious downpour. Basically, every single part of my body got drenched. Slosh formed in my shoes, solid waterfalls emerged down the arch of my back, and every piece of clothing stuck to my skin so close, it felt like they were painted on. But as awful and unfortunate of a moment in hiking as it was, I still managed to keep my sense of humor and laugh it off. (Man, this walking is bringing out the best in me!)

By the time I reached Kendall, the precipitation had stopped, but the sun remained hidden behind the predominate clouds in the sky, so any attempt to dry out my soaked items was pretty much futile. So, resolved that I wouldn't be wearing any dry and comfortable wardrobe, I bought a fist-full of Tabasco-flavored Slim Jims at the local mart and hoped that their spicy boldness would warm my soul. (The Slim Jim is the number 1 brand of meat sticks in my book, and they got that intense flavor and snap that I love! Regrettably, they did not help dry out my shoes or clothing.)

The next day, more scattered showers were in the forecast, but luckily, they ended up skipping our particular area. However, that didn't stop me from constantly staring into the sky, scrutinizing every Cumulus cloud that entered my field of vision, and gasping with dreaded anticipation every time I thought I felt a raindrop. So, even though we had a dry day, it didn't stop me from being in constant panic-mode. However, I did still manage to find occasional moments of relaxation as I trotted down the serene trail.

The best thing about the E-S trail (besides giving me a break from the loud, speeding cars) is that it is on an old RR bed, so it has a nice low grade; never more than a 2-3 degree incline. Often, I was walking above the general lay of the land on these man-made ridges, or through hillsides that were blasted open, which made for a very picturesque hike. The trail also happens to have three old tunnels on it that shoot through various mountainsides (the last one being almost a mile long). Some friendly kids were at the opposite end of the first tunnel, and they were kind enough to help me find my way through the dark passageway by screaming and hooting and hollering as I stumbled along the path. Gee, kids in the Badger State sure are accommodating.

The next morning, it was only 4 and half miles to the town of Sparta, which not only had a surplus of fast food restaurants to choose from (something lacking in the small towns I was passing through the last three days), but also had the world's largest bicyclist. When I read about it the days leading up to my arrival, I thought the description was slightly off and what they really meant was the world's largest bicycle... but nope... sure enough, it was a gigantic man on top of a bike. And he talked, too! They had a corny 90-second message that kept repeating over and over, telling you all the wonderful sights and attractions you can see while staying in Sparta. The best part was the beginning when he blurted, "Hi there!" and then directed you to gaze up at his face by clarifying, "No, up here!"

From Sparta, I started walking on the La Crosse River trail that took me further west and closer to the Minnesota border. My plan is: once I reach the end of Wisconsin and cross the Mississippi River, I will finally rent a car and complete the retracing of my 2001 walk at 65 MPH.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

It Sounded Like Baraboo... Whatever THAT Is (Day 33-35)

Day 33 started with a visit to the Foreverton -- the world's largest scrap-metal sculpture, which sits inside Dr. Evermor's park. However, calling it simply a sculpture is not doing it justice; it's a complex, magical assembly of salvaged machines, gears, cables and engines, welded and bolted together to create a fantastical Victorian apparatus from some Jules Vern or H.G. Wells novel. And the ham that he is, Tom Every, the 71-year-old artist behind the Forevertron, creates an elaborate fable behind each of his artistic inventions, often referring to himself in the third person, under the name of his alter-ego -- Dr. Evermor. "The Foreverton is designed and built in a time frame of around 1890," he explained, "whereas our dear doctor is a scholarly professor who thought he could perpetuate himself through the heavens on a magnetic lightning force beam inside a glass ball inside a copper egg!" (Quote from

Aside from these sci-fi devices, adorned with things like "lasers" and "decompression chambers," the massive park behind Delaney's Surplus Store was filled with other metal sculptures of all shapes and sizes... although his ex-wife Elenore told me, "Dr. Evermor keeps wanting to make them bigger and bigger." A lot of the pieces resemble odd-looking bugs or birds, including a menagerie of musical birds made out of old tubas, saxophones, banjos and trombones. There's also a huge Chinese dragon which can be played like a colossal xylophone... which Elenore demonstrated for me with great flare.

By the end of the day, I left the confines of Dr. Evermor's creations and reached the town of Baraboo, which is the birthplace of the Ringling Brothers Circus. I celebrated this historical tidbit by doing a series of tumbles and flips down the street. Then, after loading up with some Taco Bell food, I hiked another 4 miles north and ended up camping next to a cornfield across the road from the Ho-Chunk Casino. (I called the casino before setting up my tent to see if they had any inexpensive rooms, but according to the deadpan clerk on the phone, the cheapest they had was $135 plus tax.)

The next morning, it rained, rained, rained and... it rained. I hid in a Burger King in the Wisconsin Dells area for several hours as droves of tourists came and left, but the rain would not stop. Finally, unable to wait any longer, I threw on my rain gear and dove into the wet abyss. I knew I was in expensive tourist country (Wisconsin Dells is like a crappy Disney World in the hills), so I figured the chances of me finding cheap lodgings was slim to none. But on a whim, I decided to pop into the office of the locally-run Holiday Motel to see what the rate was. The rotund Spanish lady behind the desk looked at me, dripping all over the place, with reserved curiosity. When I asked her what the rate was, she said, "Forty Dollars."

This number I found quite pleasing... but to push the envelope, I asked, "Is that plus tax?"

She paused for a moment, then relinquished, "Well, you pay cash, it can be forty dollars even." I smiled and slapped down two sawbucks and she handed me a rusty room key.

The next day, with an end to the rain, I left the motel and traipsed through the heart of the tourist trap known as the Wisconsin Dells. Aside from the endless numbers of oddball motels, there were fun houses, water parks, roller coasters, waterski shows, monster truck rides, and of course, boat tours of "the dells" -- the small, secluded glen surrounded by unique sandstone rock formations that often resemble things like clouds, castles, or a grand piano. I approached many of these theme park attractions, considering buying a ticket, but the prices were all outrageously high and the quality seemed amazing low. But I had a ten dollar bill that needed to be spent, so I went to a Taco Bell and got the Volcano Combo Box for $6.09.

After my meal, I went to a gas station on the outskirts of town to pick up a few items for the next leg of my walk. I told the cashier about how my bike trip turned into a walking trip and she quickly offered up an abandoned bicycle they found a few months ago behind the store. As much as I appreciated her kind benefaction, I was now embracing the simplicity of walking again and declined the free, albeit rusty, bike.

I then marched along Highway 12 for another fifteen miles, traversing the rolling Wisconsin farmlands, and knowing quite well that the hills and bluffs will be getting bigger and tougher as I continue northwest. After passing through the small town of Lyndon Station, there wasn't very much to see in this farm country... except, I did find a pile of very odd picket signs on the side of the road. It appeared as though they were discarded signs from some farmer's market or something, but on their own, strewn along some stark, less-traveled road, they seemed singularly odd and whimsical. I couldn't resist picking up a random sign and picketing passing cars with stoic certainty. I firmly help up a sign that read "SAUSAGE," without a single indication of irony.

After tossing the sausage sign aside, I walked into the night for a few hours more, finally camping in some trees just south of the town of Mauston, WI.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Walking Fool's Fool (Day 30-32)

On a regular basis, I often ask myself the poignant question, "What the hell am I doing?" And as I find myself tripping over my own footsteps from eight years before, I'm asking that question a whole lot more. "What the hell am I doing?"

Biking my 2001 walk seemed like a fun and sensible thing to do... I could revisit the places and people I saw nearly a decade ago, and I could do it in a fairly rapid pace, while still exercising and challenging my endurance. But when it ends up with me walking along the exact, same shoulder I walked in 2001, it feels ridiculously stupid and pointless... like watching a rerun of a game show you just got through watching. ("Wow, I can't wait until she picks case number 12! I can't wait to find out how much is inside... again!") And I've been shaking my head even more ruefully than usual after deciding to extend my walk beyond Madison, WI, and try to make it all the way to La Crescent, MN... adding an additional 150+ miles to my trip. "What the hell am I doing?"

After leaving the backyard of my newly acquired friend, Ty, I trotted along County Road A until hitting Stoughton, WI -- a small town south of Madison, whose streets are lined with Norwegian flags and is home to the term "coffee break." The best thing about the town, though, was that it had a bright and beautiful McDonald's restaurant. It had been a few days since experiencing cheap food, free refills, and unlimited, hassle-free seating time. McDonald's are wonderful for being able to sit and not worry about a waitress coming over to bother you or an uneasy local owner eying you suspiciously as you wear out your welcome. Most fast food joints have young, apathetic workers who couldn't care less how long you stayed at that corner booth.

After Stoughton, the rain started coming down and my feet started getting rather wet as I trudged along Highway 51. Eventually, I found refuge at the Rodeway Inn in South Madison. The rate was a fairly reasonable $49.95, which I was able to get reduced to $43.95 by just looking pathetic. However, a few hours earlier at a convenience store, I must have looked downright nefarious, because the big bearded dude behind the counter accusingly asked me as I walked through the door, "What do you want?" I stopped and looked at him oddly, and then he continued, "You're not supposed to have a backpack in here."

"Well, then, I don't have to stay," I plainly replied and walked out the door.

After a good night's rest at the Rodeway Inn (which, by the way, was huge! It took me literally 6 minutes to walk from the front desk to my room.), I got up the next morning and raced to Ella's Animatronic Deli on the north side of Madison. It's a deli/restaurant that is filled with hundreds of mechanical toys, robots and gadgets and has a full-scale merry-go-round out front. The place looked like the Choo-Choo Diner times one hundred... not only were there trains, planes and automobiles, but singing clocks, dancing cartoon characters and a plethora of trinkets I would had loved to snatch for my own. I was ready to go inside for lunch, but the wait for a table was over an hour, so I went to a nearby KFC instead.

By nightfall, I was on the west side of town and ready to do some serious walking... instead of sightseeing strolling. I found my way to Route 12, which was a heavy-duty 4-lane freeway that prohibited pedestrians. Fortunately, there was a nice bike trail that paralleled the highway, so I could walk through the dark night without fear of cars, trucks or cops. A few miles later, I hit a large stretch of farmlands and all was black, except for the occasional headlight or distant porch light. Needless to say, I was quite surprised when I walked around a bend and discovered a small bar called the Missouri Tavern‎, situated in the middle of nowhere. The converted farmhouse glowed in the dark like a majestic spaceship; a large beacon of cheap booze and loud music. Figuring it was a good time for a break, I sauntered into the honkytonk, to the sheer delight of the young bartender. "Let me guess," he beamed while waving his index finger at me, "you're a hiker!" I nodded and he proceeded to give me a free round of beer. "You look like you could use this," he shouted over the blaring country music, as he slid a frothy glass jar of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

After a couple more rounds of PBRs and finally realizing that the 23-year old ladies were not staring at me because of my masculine beauty but for my awkward, shabby appearance, I made my exit. But before I left, the still enthusiastic bartender plopped into my hand three wooden coins... each redeemable for a free drink. "In case you ever come by the Missouri Tavern‎ again." A few miles later I found a patch of pines next to a large farm and set up my tent for the night.

The next morning I walked 10 more miles to the Sauk City, a town of 12 thousand nestled along the grand Wisconsin River. Still a little hungover from the night before, I knew I needed some nice greasy food, so I bustled over to the town's McDonald's. While there, I spotted a rather curious old fellow who came in to buy a pair of 1-dollar chicken sandwiches. As he placed his tray on his table, he reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out a salvaged McDonald's cup he obviously had been saving from a past visit. He then took the dented paper cup over to the soda fountain and essentially stole a serving of Diet Coke. He didn't show a hint of guilt or nervousness as he boldly downed his pilfered beverage.

Around 6 o'clock, I headed north through town, weaving around schools, residential homes and laughing/mocking teen drivers. After I passed the municipal airport and a grungy hotel that advertised "10 stays, 1 free," I got back into sparse farmland. I ended up sleeping in an abandoned field, just south of the town Bluffview.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Giant Cows, Pumpkins and Kindness (Day 29-30)

I spent the night under a tree by some railroad tracks in the middle of nowhere. It rained through the night and I woke up the next day to a leaky tent and a wet sleeping bag. But the sun was peaking through the clouds by late-morning, so I hung out my items to dry while resting in the unincorporated town of Avalon (population: 387). I plopped down onto the sidewalk and feasted upon one of my soggy ham sandwich I had stowed away, while watching my tent and ground sheet flap in the wind from a pair of sign posts.

Nine miles later, I reached the heart of Janesville, a city of around 60,000 people and home to Bessie -- a 16-foot-tall, 20-foot-long, one-ton fiberglass cow. Apparently, she's been moved around a bit over the last couple years and her fate was uncertain, but when I came through, she was standing tall and looked just fine. After dancing in front of the gigantic heifer for a few minutes, I adjourned to the Motel 6 for a good night's rest. It was fabulous to be able to sleep indoors for a change! (God bless a/c.)

The next morning, I veered off the main highway again and took some back roads through the Rock River Valley. While cutting through some farmlands, I spotted a large orange mass hovering above the distant treeline. As far as I could make out, it appeared to be a huge pumpkin head, floating in the sky. The sight was both magnificent and frightening, as I feared that black magic might be involved in creating this apparition. However, as I got closer, I realized it wasn't some magical entity, but rather a farmer's grain silo, with the top painted orange to make it look like a big jack-o-lantern.

Relieved that the evil Saints of Hallow weren't trying exact revenge on me for some past inadvertent infraction, I did a quick dance in front of the farm and walked off to the next town of Edgerton, some 7-8 miles away.

In Edgerton, I revisited the A&W Restaurant that I went to on my 2001 walk, and it was just as delightful as I remembered. I got a juicy bacon cheeseburger, crispy onion rings and an ice-cold root beer that actually came in a frosted glass mug. The chilled mug and the scantily-dressed waitresses made the meal one of my favorites so far on this trip.

After a quick stop at a local C-store, I headed north towards the next town of Stoughton (which I've been foolishly mispronouncing for the last two days). Once again, I veered off the main highway and hopped on County Road A (all the county roads in Wisconsin are lettered instead of numbered) and started walking west as the sun slowly drifted below the horizon.

Just as things started getting really dark, a big burly guy came rolling by on a bike that looked a bit too small for him. His name was Ty, and he offered me an evening's greetings. He asked me why I happened to be walking in the middle of Wisconsin farmland in the dark and I ended up telling him the whole elaborate story of past walks, stolen bikes and my goal of reaching Madison, WI. It seemed as if my stories of ongoing travels moved him in a personal way... bringing back memories of when he was younger and free to roam the earth. Knowing that I'd be setting up camp fairly soon, Ty offered his property to sleep on. He told me that he had a large boat in his yard that I could sleep on if I wanted, and if not, I was more than welcome to pitch my tent on his lawn. Sensing my hesitation, Ty casually dropped the info that he had a wife and three kids, letting me know he wasn't some lone farmer who invites strangers to his home, only to eventually ask them to "put the lotion in the basket or it gets the hose again."

Still not fully committing to his offer, I walked along with Ty to his backyard to check out the accouterments. Sure enough, there was a big white schooner parked in the back of his house... but the thing seemed a bit confining and was a little stale smelling, so I decided to simply set up camp on the grass next to it. Even though it was quite dark by this point, I could tell Ty was beaming with joy with the fact that I decided to stay the night, and he quickly gave me the tour of all the amenities he had to offer. "I can set up some lights and give you electricity, if ya like," he announced, pointing to some extension cords he had in the barn. "And we got an outside faucet there. It's nice and cool and tastes good. Plus, we got the outside shitter, so you'll be all set."

It was nice being able to camp outdoors on a nice piece of flat, grassy land without worrying about being on private property or waking up to realize I was snoozing in a garden made-up of poison ivy and sumac. I slept a good, solid sleep that night.

The next morning I was awoken at 7 o'clock (a bit early for a fool like me) by Ty baring gifts: toast, a hard-boiled egg, and hot chocolate. Even though I wished I was able to get a couple more hours of sleep, his generosity helped perk me up. Then, for the next hour or so, Ty kept returning with more items to donate to my walk, including: berries, Q-tips, twist-ties, a tiny book-light, cherries, and a chart of the evening stars. He regretted that he recently sold a bunch of his old bikes, or he would have given me one, but I told him I was actually enjoying being on foot again; you don't have to worry about mechanical failures, it getting stolen, and you can walk in places you can't bike. But I thanked him profusely for all his charity and finally managed to get packed and on my way.

Meeting a guy like Ty gives me hope that the world isn't such a crappy place after all, and I walked with a little more spring in my step. (However, let me be clear... those bike thieves in Chicago can still eat me!)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Back to My Walking Ways (Day 26-28)

After playing hide and seek in the dark with the Parks Department security car for an hour, I found a patch of trees in the Algonquin Woods Preserve to camp in... hidden from the eyes of any park dwellers and fairly unadorned of poison ivy. The next morning, I got up and hiked to the town of Niles, home of the Leaning Tower of Niles -- a replica of the famous Italian tower in Pisa. The structure stands at 94 feet, roughly half the size of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but it felt like the real thing to me. And besides, once you calculate the savings in overseas airfare to Italy, you'll be more than satisfied with this Chicago suburb's rendition.

From there, I walked to the next-door Target to buy some snacks and a new pair of shorts. I took my old, dirty, torn-up, poison-ivy-infected shorts and carefully placed them in the nearest trash receptacle, in hopes that science has found a way to destroy such a monstrosity in apparel. I then tightened my backpack straps and continued walking north-west.

By 4pm, I was in the next town of Des Plaines, where I rushed to the library to use their bathroom and use their computer lab. (I took a crap in one of them... try to guess which one.) Around 5 o'clock, I was ready for an early dinner, so I headed over to the Choo-Choo Diner, where I heard they serve your food from a moving, electrified, miniature train. I was very excited with the prospect of being served by a child's toy, but when I arrived... the place was closed. At first, I was afraid that some out-of-control urban renewal program was forcing the diner to be shut-down and destroyed, but then I realized... the diner simply closes at 3pm on Sundays. (Oops!)

To add to my woes of the closed Choo-Choo, I discovered that my newly-bought video camera was no longer working. I think I dropped the 800-dollar electronic item one time too many. The whole point of this trip was to film the people and places of my 2001 walk for my WALKING FOOL documentary... and now I was stuck in the tiny town of Des Plaines with no bike and no video camera. The closest electronic store was a Best Buy in the town of Crystal Lake, which was another 20 miles away, so I wasn't able to reach it until the next day. Thankfully, nothing hugely interesting happened in-between.

Once in Crystal Lake and armed with a (cheaper) video camera, it was back to walking. I headed north on Route 14 to the town of Harvard, and from there, it was seven short miles to the Wisconsin border, which I reached sometime around 10pm. After chewing on some leftover dough from my Chicago-style pizza slice I bought the day before, I walked another few miles to the next town of Walworth, WI, where I set up my tent in the field behind the Subway.

The next morning, I woke up to a few light rain showers, packed up my tent, and walked along 14 to the next town of Darien. I then stopped off at a gas station/convenience store to load up with some food and drink for my next leg of the walk. I wanted to be sure that I had enough stuff to last me to the next town of Janesville, which was over 20 miles away. (In the peak of my 2008 walk, 20 miles between towns would be a cakewalk, but since I'm out of practice, such a long gap got me a bit nervous.)

I grabbed a couple sandwiches, some beef jerky, a bag of chips and several bottles/cans of various liquids, and loaded them into my pack... adding an extra 8-9 pounds to my cargo. However, to my surprise, the one thing I didn't leave the convenience store with was napkins... that's because they didn't have any. Who ever heard of a gas station convenience store without napkins? They had a full deli, hot pizza, and a huge array of other snacks and treats... but nothing to wipe your face with. When I pointed out this depletion to the Asian man behind the counter (who spoke cliché broken-English), all he could do was offer me a few sheets of Kleenex from his private stock. He nodded with expected gratitude as he handed me these flimsy tissues, which practically fell apart as soon as they left his hand.

A few hours later, I found myself on a desolate farm road in southern Wisconsin. I wanted to get off of Route 14 (and the heavy traffic associated with it), so I decided to take some back roads for the next 12 miles or so. By 10pm, I reached a railroad bed and found a nice full tree to set my tent under.