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Northbound in Mid-October—Part Three

Bound for the Mississippi and the Driftless Area

In the morning the rain had cleared, but threatening winds remained. The storm’s passing had brought cooler temperatures, and I left under cloudy skies in 56 degrees. All that was required was a long sleeve shirt under my jacket with all its vents closed, and I remained quite comfortable.

By mid-morning, the low clouds had lifted and dissipated into individual spots of cloud with intermittent sunshine returning in defiance of yesterday's weather. The sun slowly won the battle, and by the afternoon the temperature had risen into the mid-60s.

After twenty to thirty miles of Interstate, I turned left onto smaller state roads trending west and then north. Along the way, the highways ran through thick herds of giant windmills purring away in the prairie wind. Approaching the Mississippi, the land became more rolling, and pull offs often provided great views of the countryside. Eventually, I reached the Great River Road and followed the Mississippi River, the road sometimes close and sometimes wandering away, but always mimicking the big river's winding path north.

An Alternative to Pecking for Oil

The Approach to the Mississippi Was Beautiful

Passing through the small river town of Savanna, I was surprised enough to turn around and park for a photo when I spotted “Frank Fritz Finds” in the old downtown. I remember talking to Frank, well-known for his role on the American Pickers television show, at an AIMExpo motorcycle industry show about how he and Mike each had their own antique shops, despite how the show portrayed only one shop. And right there was Frank’s; and I'd just caught it out of the corner of my eye in a chance passing. I wanted to keep moving on to the Driftless Area of Wisconsin and its famed roads, so I didn’t take a peek inside Frank’s. Instead, I moved back out onto the road after my photo and soon was in Wisconsin.

I shot north on a minor country road to avoid Dubuque traffic, and at Cuba City, I took another west again to rejoin the Great River Road.

It was time for a gas stop, so I took the opportunity to ask about camping, as it was around five o’clock and I wanted to get a place earlier than I’d been doing and not sweat finding something as the sun went down. Luckily, twenty miles further down the River Road there was camping near Cassville. I first went into the little town to the small grocery store, bought snacks, a sandwich, and a massive single can of beer, then hauled it all back south to Sandy Bottoms Up Campground on the Mississippi, with only a slight delay and backtrack to find the turn off, as there had only been one camping sign on the road, which only faced south.

My Camp Site at Sandy Bottoms Up

II got everything set up in plenty of time to get my phone calls made, eat my dinner, and even take a short walk to the riverside. With the remaining light in the sky fading after my walk back to camp, I climbed into my tent and sleeping bag as the temperature started to fall and darkness set in.

The Mississippi River at Sandy Bottoms Up

As the night progressed, I realized I should have taken it as a warning when I crossed the train tracks as I entered Sunny Bottoms Up the previous afternoon. An hour into trying to sleep, and at least every hour after that, a cacophony erupted, signaled by the bell at the crossing rising to an ear-shattering crescendo of blaring horns, apparently on top of the tent, then the rattling and rumbling of cars rocking along the tracks, eventually roaring away into the night. It was hard not to wake in a panic, even knowing after the first time what was happening. I had been assured that it would be a quiet night, as the place was virtually empty, but between the crashing symphony of train music, my ears were assailed by the raucous sounds of laughing and cajoling voices somewhere in the campground. The train noise would dissipate, only to be instantly replaced by another cacophony of laughter. As one dissolved the other increased, making sleep an iffy prospect, although the human noise eventually left only the train to terrify me for the rest of the night. Eventually, I would fitfully fall asleep, until the next train came and started the cycle again.

By midnight, all I was left with was the night train terror. I was sleeping naked, as I usually do; a habit developed long ago. Of course, being sixty-four also meant multiple needs to pee in the night. I would grab my wadded-up jeans, just in case, and streak into the nearby bath house, hoping no one would be up to see my naked dash. Putting jeans on in the tiny tent, with about thirty-six inches of headroom, in the dark, was not something I wanted to attempt multiple times, so I took my chances. Luckily, I was never caught.

The morning was in the low-50s with rain. I packed all I could while inside the tent into my waterproof bags, trying to keep them dry, deposited them in the bath house along with my riding clothes, and then went back out to pack up the wet tent in the rain. Once each bag was closed and secure, they were packed onto the Tiger, and I took off north into the drizzling downpour.

A Rainy Ride on the Great River Road

I continued up the Great River Road to Prairie du Chien, where I stopped for some corned-beef hash, eggs, and coffee and to clear the water from the inside of my visor, which was making it almost impossible to see. By the time I left, the rain had stopped, and the temperature had increased a small amount, although not enough to convince me I didn’t need the heated grips on to warm my fingers inside water-soaked, perforated leather gloves. I had hoped to have found a winter replacement for these back at the Barber Vintage Festival, but none of the vendors there had what I needed.

I followed the Mississippi until I was through La Crosse, then peeled away from the river and toward Eau Claire on a scenic ride through the heart of the Driftless Area on Route 93. The fall colors I had been hoping to see still eluded me, and other than some reddish swamp maples, which always seem to turn color at the first blush of cold, the rest of the forest was still green and verdant.

Entering the Driftless Area

The Driftless Area is known for its motorcycle riding roads and beautiful scenery. It is an area of southwestern Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota that was never covered by ice during the last ice age, and because of that, it has no glacial deposits, also known as “drift.” The land retains its original topography, with rolling hills, elevation changes, forest, and deeply carved river valleys, not unlike the topography of Vermont or New Hampshire.

By mid-afternoon, I’d arrived at Ron’s place, the author of Shiny Side Up, which I had published. Ron and his wife graciously served a great meal, then I got a shower and did my laundry, which had been piling up since I’d left Florida. It was about time, as the jeans I’d been wearing had first put on seven days before.

My rough plan was that when stopping in Eau Claire I would make my mind up which direction my ride would take me from there. I had hoped to head to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the shores of Lake Superior. Just out of high school, my father and I had taken a road trip to the UP, but had driven the southern shoreline along Lake Michigan, eventually returning to Michigan via a ferry that ran from Milwaukee to Muskegon on the Michigan side. But we had missed the north shore completely, and I had ever since wanted to see that area. Going to the UP in the middle of October was a counter-intuitive goal, because at that time of year it could be in the 70s or snowing and there would be little advance knowledge of which would be when. Being close now, in Eau Claire, gave me the chance to check the weather forecast and determine if that direction was doable. If not, I thought, perhaps I’d turn southwest, cross the Mississippi, and head down in the direction of Texas and maybe take a look at Big Bend National Park, another place about which I had heard great things, and which would be definitely superior to sleeping in the snow. Besides, I had been missing my favorite breakfast fare that was so easy to find in the West, huevos rancheros, and I would be sure I’d be able to have that every morning in Texas. But as luck would have it, the Upper Peninsula had been having a run of warmer than usual weather previously. The weather reports for the UP for the upcoming week looked promising, with sun most days and temperatures mostly in the sixties. It would cool a little, but the trend would generally be holding, at least for the next week; and at the very least it would likely not be snowing when I would be passing through.

With laundry sorted, a decision was made to strike out for Upper Michigan and a new route roughly planned. I went to bed happily without the fear of being run down in the night by a locomotive.


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