Monday, April 16, 2007

The Woods of Wisconsin

Across Northern Minnesota, lakes are still frozen. This is Cass Lake, near Bemidji.

8:00 p.m.

Camped in Black River State Forest southeast of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. (This reminds me of the "campsite" in the woods of Michigan, near the Huron shore, in July 2005.)

The woods are incredibly quiet. Not a sound. No animals rustling about. No wind. But then I notice a low rumbling in the ground. Is it the blood pumping through my head? Only after concentrating on the sound did I realize it was that of trucks on the Interstate many miles away. It was almost constant, but even at this very low frequency, the sound of approaching and receding trucks was evident.

Then there were apparently military jets engaged in exercises over this wild area. A sudden sustained earthshaking thunder.

Couldn't sleep, so I read a bit.

The nearby “rustic campground” at Pigeon Creek costs $21. It's unfair for a motorcyclist tent camping to pay that price. So I didn't. Instead, I found a lonely stretch of road through the forest and searched for an area, relatively free of obstacles, where I could drive back into the forest far enough to avoid detection from the road.

This region of Wisconsin covered with waterways and marshes; not at all what I expected. I prefer solid, dry ground. Fortunately, I found this forest on a small mountain, rising above the marshlands, so it is well-drained and dry.

Wisconsin is so bucolic, neat and tidy. No messes. Manicured farms. Meticulous and fastidious. The highway corridors are left wooded. Signs warn of changing road conditions miles in advance, so you can prepare yourself. They even suggest alternatives routes well ahead of construction zones. So considerate!

About 12 hours on the road today (from Bemidji, Minnesota.) A stinging muscle pain in my upper back has nagged me since Washington. To alleviate it, when I’m aware, I try holding my head more erect and ease the grip on the handlebars. It appears to help.

Sunset, and I've just set up camp in the woods of Central Wisconsin


Up before 6:00, sky just lightening (thought it was 5:00, until I got into Bemidji and saw a clock – I crossed time zones.) Below freezing overnight, the tent rainfly stiff and icy. Packed in a hurry and vacated without paying. (“I’m not paying for this place!”) The "Bemidji commute" was already underway. I realized Bemidji Lake is essentially a suburban lake, surrounded by homes. Considerable traffic heading downtown.

From the giant lumberjack and blue ox statues along the civic center lakefront, I gather Bemidji must be the home of Paul Bunyan and "Babe". The head waters of the Mississippi River are also nearby.

Billboards across America’s mid-section proclaim a “pro-life” stance. Raise those unwanted off-spring to be good Christian soldiers and consumers, I guess is the point. (I hope the people who erect these signs are equally vehement in their opposition to militarism and war.)

I saw a number Conoco gas stations across the North have closed down. What's going on?

In Minnesota, forests of spindly black spruce remind me of Yukon and Alaska. It seems odd that they have ranged this far south in this region, yet not in Washington, Idaho, Montana and North Dakota. (At least, I did not notice them in those states.)

Many of Minnesota's famed "10,000" lakes (and ponds), are still frozen.

It’s impressive to come over the hill on U.S. 2 and see the Great Lakes port city of Duluth spreading below. (Though today, air pollution taints that view. The hills that back Duluth also serve to trap stagnant air.)

My first order of business in the city: visit Caribou Coffee for coffee and a bagel. Made my way down to the Canal Park business district along the waterfront. Lake Superior is still covered with ice, the air along the shoreline quite chilly. I noted that Caribou offers free wi-fi, so I took some time to "unbury" my computer and take it inside to check e-mail.

Back on duty, after my break, I drove toward South Duluth, seeing if I could find my way back to the Aerostich warehouse. (I stopped there during my visit two years ago.) I got close, but had to stop at a convenience store to ask directions. The clerk, a black fellow, escorted me outside and pointed to the building a block away. He welcomed a break from his job, and lingered outside. He complained of the long winter, (he was from Carson, California) and said he would leave Duluth soon, perhaps for Texas.

Outside Aerostich, employees on a smoke break enjoyed the sun, a stranger for too long. They too complained of the winter.

Inside their small factory store, I met "Judi". Duluth had a snow storm just last week, she said. She explained the process for having my riding suit repaired, and outlined costs for the various tasks (primarily replacing zippers and velcro.) She suggested I speak directly to "Scott", the fellow who will be doing the repair. But he would not arrive until 12:30. I decided it would be best to ship the suit back here after my trip.

Looked around the small, cluttered showroom inside this old brick factory building. Asked if I might use a phone. Without hesitation, Judi set me up with the phone at her desk. Called Jeff to see if he needed anything, but only reached his voicemail. (It took five attempts, dialing different numbers. I have to get used to technology again!)

The longer I hung around, the more the staff seemed to warm up. I purchased Neil Peart's book Ghost Rider. (Discounted as an in-store purchase.)

Judi at Aerostich in Duluth. Makers of my riding suit (and supplier of many others items packed on my bike), I stopped by to see what it would take to have my two-and-a-half-year-old suit overhauled. Not now, but after I finish this ride.

Then Scott arrived and said “I heard you needed some work on your suit.” He had me take off the suit and and indicate the zippers that were causing the most headaches.

He laid the suit on the showroom carpet and went to work. In less than ten minutes, he attached new sliders to four zippers, eliminating the most annoying little problems. (I didn't realize a worn slider can make a zipper inoperable!) With the new sliders, the zippers operated perfectly. One non-critical zipper assembly has a bad coil and will need to be replaced at a later date.

Scott demonstrates his off-road riding technique

Scott refused to charge for this. "It's just something we do." I gave him $20, which he declined. I insisted.

“Buy doughnuts for the staff!”

"Just what we need,” said Judi.

Scott disappeared, then returned a few minutes later. He had changed the $20. He handed me back $10, saying $20 was too much.


Finding a simple solution or repair to a nagging problem often delivers an unexpected and inordinate boost to my outlook. ("I feel like a new man!" And all it took was a few dollars worth of parts, and most importantly, someone's manual skill at replacing them.)

With my hearty thanks and praise for their customer service, I bid farewell to Judi and Scott.

Drove up to Enger Tower once again for a view of the ice-covered lake. (I also came here in 2005.) From the heights I could see the lake ice was confined to the immediate shoreline. Less than a mile from shore, Lake Superior was clear. (It's odd I didn't notice this when first viewing the city from highway 2.

From the Duluth, Minnesota waterfront, it appears Lake Superior is still completely frozen-over, but seen from Enger Tower high above the city, it's clear that just the western tip of the lake has ice. You can still see a channel cut through the ice by an icebreaker, allowing freighters access to Duluth's port.

Though the day was sunny and growing warmer, the cold wind has been fatiguing. To escape the "frozen lake effect", I decided to forgo Michigan's Upper Peninsula and instead head into the heart of Wisconsin. The strategy worked. At a rest stop south of Duluth, for the first time in many days, I was able to turn off the electric vest and heated grips, and remove my fleece jacket. I was actually too warm.

Gas across Minnesota and Wisconsin is commonly $2.799 per gallon. It's about the lowest I’ve seen on this trip. The rest stops I've seen in these states are nice, many of them new.

At Rice Lake, Wisconsin, I saw a billboard for Norske Nook Restaurant and Bakery. Being in the land of Scandinavian heritage, I decided to try something exotic-sounding. I ordered one of their “specialty” dishes: turkey with mashed potatoes. Within a few minutes, my plate arrived: a blonde gravy covering white meat turkey on white bread ("Wonder Bread"?) and fluffy white mashed potatoes on a stark white plate. What a dreary, colorless, meal. I should have taken a picture! (Not even a sprig of parsley!) It reminded me of that memorable meal at Salvage Harbor in Newfoundland. (Only that lunch was considerably more flavorful, I’m sure. This one was simply bland.) A pot of weak coffee was left on the table.

At the next booth sat two local seniors. Their conversation as they looked out on the highway traffic beyond the window, was as neatly clipped as the landscape.

“Sheet metal.”


“There goes Bob.”


“Harley Davidson.”


Wonderful economy of language.

Speaking of motorcycles, with the sunny weather, the Harleys (and other motorcycles) are out in force now. Harley showrooms are becoming almost as common as Wal-Marts, and considerably more upscale. Expensive Tonka Toys for the aging Boomers.

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