A Tour in Memory of Connie Barnes
June 25-28, 1999
Scott Ellington

This tour was conceived as a tribute to our friend Connie Barnes, a superb long-distance cyclist who in 1995 rode 403 miles in 24 hours. Just a year ago, she nearly equaled that effort, only months after surgery and chemotherapy. Connie died in April of this year.

Since we're just wimpy touring cyclists, we decided to spread the distance over four days, but to carry our camping gear on a hilly route. That was challenging enough for the three of us. We got up at 5 AM each day and tried to keep our stops short, but still needed most of the solstice daylight. One lesson learned is that on an unsupported ride of such length, you have to be very careful not to allow delays to accumulate while trying to keep your group together. That means, for one thing, that each person has to be quite self-sufficient. Even the three of us were often separated, in spite of being well matched in cycling speed as well as speed of getting started in the morning, etc. We agreed at the beginning that we were not going to try to stay together all the time, and that anyone who had a problem while alone would just have to deal with it. Fortunately, we didn't have to test that premise this time. The route worked out fine, but next time we'll take cooking gear.

Our route started in Madison. We rode southwest to Platteville, then looped to the west following the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers to Muscoda, then northwest nearly to La Crosse on the way to Wilton, and finally rather directly back to Madison. We were extremely fortunate not to encounter any severe headwinds and even had some nice tailwinds at times. There was plenty of heat and humidity the first three days, but nothing extreme.

Jerry and I left Madison at 7 Friday morning. After 12 miles, we met Kelly in Paoli. John, Connie's husband, also joined us there for part of the first day. Observatory Hill was just a hint of things to come. The rest of the familiar ride to Blanchardville was very comfortable in the coolness of the morning. We stopped at the park there for water and rest, and John left us there to return home. After a few of the infamous hills of Lafayette County, we had lunch in Darlington. On the way north, we found our first road construction: A mile of fresh asphalt. When I arrived, one of the crew was trying to smooth out Jerry's tracks. Pushing our bikes through the grass along the road was really hard work, making a big dent in our water supply. We found more in Mineral Point, before starting the final stretch southwest to Platteville. The temperature reached 94 degrees, probably just about the time we were doing our last climbs over the "mounds". The humidity was unusually low for around here, so it really wasn't too uncomfortable. The temperature of the water bottles was a clue to the real air temperature. We rolled into town ready for dinner, only to find our favorite restaurant had gone out of business. None of us felt like riding up the hill to the sprawl zone by the highway, so we settled for a bad fish fry. The odometer read 110 miles when we got back to the park. We set up our tents just before dark and had a very comfortable night.

Early Saturday morning, it was apparent that the usual summer humidity had returned. It would be more uncomfortable today, close to 90 degrees, though some cloud cover helped. The "Owl Cafe" downtown served a fine breakfast. I was on the road at 6:30, when it was cool, and there was little traffic leaving Platteville. Heading almost straight west, with a few miles of easy gravel along the Big Platte River, the first water stop was just east of Potosi. Kelly and Jerry arrived just as I was leaving the park, and that was the last I saw of them until the end of the day. Through Potosi, the road descends to the Mississippi River, then follows the river north. There is another climb and descent before highway 133 reaches Cassville. I stopped at the grocery store, then rode north to Nelson Dewey State park to wait for the others. Alas, the mosquitoes were ferocious, so I pushed on before my companions arrived. The route north tries to follow the river, but still climbs up to the ridgetop once before descending to Glenhaven. From Glenhaven, there's a wonderful gravel road right by the river for about 3 miles, through a very isolated stretch of forest. At Bagley, the route turns inland, and climbs about 600 feet up county P, but at a modest grade. As luck would have it, some dark clouds rolled in just as I rode into town, and it even sprinkled a bit. I climbed the hill under that welcome cloud, and had lunch at the "Dew Drop Inn" at the top. Down the hill again to the east, the route follows the Wisconsin River on county C for about 10 miles, then turns inland to avoid the busy highways along the river. The cloud had vanished, making the climbs really hot and sweaty now. The water pump on the ridge at the highway 61 wayside is one of those deep wells that makes you wonder whether pumping costs you more in sweat than you gain in drinking water. But from there it's mostly down the valleys to Muscoda on the Wisconsin River, where I arrived about 5 PM with 107 miles registered. Forgetting that neither Kelly nor Jerry were familiar with the town, I relaxed in the shade at the park until they arrived a couple hours later. It turned out that they had arrived just a half hour behind me, but stopped downtown for dinner. While they were setting up camp, I rode across the bridge to the restaurant I had had in mind all along. We often wade across to a sand bar on the river to camp, but no one seemed to have the energy for that tonight. There was quite a crowd in the campground, so it was pretty noisy for a while. It seemed like that noise had just died down when the robins woke up. A short, but comfortable night.

We were all up at 5 Sunday, and soon off to "Lila's Cafe" for breakfast. By 6:30, we were across the river on our way north. After that big breakfast, it's fortunate our route followed the valleys for the first hour. Finally, though, we had to climb over the ridge and descend into the Kickapoo River valley just south of Viola. The day turned out to be humid again, but with lots of clouds and not quite as warm as Saturday. County S took us to the northwest up the West Fork of the Kickapoo to Avalanche, where there's a mandatory ice cream stop. Then we crossed the high ridge north of Viroqua, descended, climbed, and finally descended again to the town of Coon Valley for lunch in the park. We were only about 20 miles from La Crosse, our furthest point from Madison. Turning to the northeast, we followed a typical Driftless Area route up valleys, along rolling ridges, and down more valleys to arrive in Norwalk, on the famous Elroy-Sparta trail. The climb up to Portland on county X was the hardest so far. At a break in the Norwalk park, even Kelly admitted that she was finally a wee bit tired. Instead of climbing over the ridge one last time, we all agreed to just take the bike trail the last 6 miles to Wilton. Only 99.5 miles today, but close enough. Sunday night isn't a good time to be looking for food in Wilton. We had to settle for a pizza at a noisy bar, and granola bars for desert. At least, with the weekend crowds long gone, it was a quiet night for camping in the park. Too bad they hadn't left us some food.

Norwalk Water Stop

Approaching Wilton

Wilton Campsite

We were up again at 5 Monday, well aware of how far we were from home. It was cool and cloudy when we climbed the first ridge on the road route east to Kendall, another town on the bike trail. There we found a bar serving incredibly cheap breakfasts. (We seemed to have a lot better luck finding food in the morning.) Then we were off down the bike trail to the southeast. The weather turned mild, humid, and cloudy. Once again, the winds were light, though from the east in the morning. I always find riding on bike trails to be pretty boring, but we didn't have time for an alternative route, and soon enough we arrived in Reedsburg. There's a grocery store downtown, and a park nearby. Jerry managed to purchase some moldy bread sticks, and had to make a trip back to the store. We should have been getting used to food disasters by now. There were just a few steep hills east to North Freedom, where a brief shower finally caught up with us. The sun was beating down again, though, when we started the long climb over the Baraboo Hills. It's always a fun descent down the south side, and the rest of the ride into Sauk City is easy. This time it was also wet, as a thunderstorm caught us about 10 miles out of town. We waited out the worst of it in someone's garage, then pushed on. There's no place to get any food on the way to the park in Sauk City, and none of us felt the need for any additional mileage, so we munched more granola bars while waiting out the next thunderstorm under a roof. The temperature dropped quickly and the wind picked up from the northwest while we were waiting. When the rain finally tapered off, we left on a nice tailwind with only 25 miles to go. It was a dry and cool ride the rest of the way.

Tired but intact, we coasted back to our starting point just after 7 PM. We had ridden 105 miles for the day and a total of 423 for the trip. Not a single flat tire the whole way. We do, however, have a new appreciation for Connie's tremendous endurance.

Home at Last!