Up and Over


Ferocious hills and a wild landscape mark a bicycle ride through coulee country

[Written by long-time Bombay Bicycle Club member Elizabeth McBride, this article originally appeared in the April 1994 issue of Wisconsin Trails,where she was an assistant editor. Reprinted with permission of the author.]
Outside the post office in Steuben
    Ready to roll, outside the post office in Steuben

Steuben is one of those Wisconsin villages that time just seemed to wear down. Settled in 1856, it bustled at the turn of the century with a sawmill, creamery, hotel, jail, axe-handle factory, general store, post office, even its own ferry across the Kickapoo River, and, of course, a few saloons. Today only a handful of boarded-up buildings and the saloons remain, a testament to humanity's enduring thirst, I suppose, as well as, I like to think, our fondness for community.

On a summer night, four friends and I huddled in the saloon on the edge of town-- if you can call something an edge when it's basically just across the street from the middle. We drank beer and ate pretzels, and a warm, gentle wind blew the ghosts of old Steuben right down Main Street and through the screen door. I could almost sense the spirits hovering around our table as we joked and laughed and scraped our chairs on the weathered floor. It was a fitting introduction, I realized later, to a bicycle trip that would take us through one of the most evocative landscapes I've ever pedaled.

Our route looked like a big inverted triangle: 50 miles northeast to Wildcat Mountain State Park, 50 miles west, and 50 miles south back to Steuben through the heart of coulee country. The region first saw white settlers in 1839, Ohioans, Yankees and Norwegians mostly who farmed whatever land they could amidst ridges so steep that they had to brake the rear wheels of their wagons with logs so they would not tumble down them. It was a wild land, pioneers said, roamed by bear, wolf and panther. Wandering the area's back roads, it seems wild still.

We camped in Steuben's town park that night, with the Kickapoo murmuring in our ears. When we awoke, fog cloaked the countryside, but as we rode north on Highway 131, it lifted, like a curtain on a grand stage. Before us wound a smooth valley road flanked by bright green, glistening hills, devoid of cars and bathed in sunlight streaming from an azure sky.

Our first destination was breakfast, bicycling being a great excuse for eating. And the Red Apple Cafe in Gays Mills was just the ticket: eggs, bacon, toast, and perfect American fries, topped off by thick slab of apple pie. We'll need it, we told ourselves, for those tough hills.

If you look at a map of Wisconsin that shows topographical relief, you'll understand. Crawford and Vernon counties are like jigsaw puzzles made of irregularly shaped green pieces with narrow white borders. The green things are the ridges the white bands valleys: preglacial topography in geologists' terms, a heck of a lot of work in bicyclists'.

But that came later. Outside of Gays Mills we veered onto River Road-- at least we thought it was River Road, there's no sign-- and followed the Kickapoo valley.  This mostly wooded, narrow byway sometimes gravel, sometimes paved, was slow going, loaded down as we were with camping gear. But with eight hours at our disposal to complete what would ordinarily be a four-hour ride, we easily adapted the appropriate bicycle-trip rhythm: periods of intense activity alternated with extreme idleness.

In Soldier's Grove, we dawdled under a white wooden picnic shelter near the spot where Civil War soldiers once camped; 10 miles later we lolled on the grass in the tiny park in Viola. Supper was at the K&S Drive-In in LaFarge, dessert at the town's other eatery-- the malt shop. In the midst of chaos-- the small place was filled with kids-- the proprietor, a wiry, energetic man, decided he must make me the smoothest chocolate shake I've ever had, watching over his blender like a French chef creating his most delicate sauce. Finally I had to tell him, it's good enough! Let me eat! And good it was.

One of the rules of bicycling is that the most memorable stretch of road is inevitably the hardest to pedal. So Highway 131 between LaFarge and Wildcat Mountain State Park proved a roller-coaster route alongside the tumbling, twisting Kickapoo, Highway 33 into the park was worse, a Iong, long ascent, but I tried to let the soft evening light and deep woods distract me from my aching thighs. Unbelievably, the last 100 yards to the campground was steeper still, and I jumped off my bike to push it the rest of the way, leaning hard into the grade. "Want a ride?" someone in a station wagon called jokingly to me at the apex. "Too late," I yelled back, "I'm here." And it felt like the top of the world, though surrounded by trees I could only sense it in the fatigue of the limbs that got me there. The night was pitch-black, cold and clear as we crawled into our tents. Sometime past midnight, the coyotes took up their lonely cry, and yipped and howled across the valleys.

The horse and buggy outside Sneakers Cafe in Ontario the next morning was our first clue that we were now in Amish country. Inside, men with long beards and broad hats were eating pancakes (as big as your plate-- 75 cents) chatting with their neighbors. After breakfast we turned off Highway 13 and onto Hoff Valley Road-and entered another world.

It took me a little while to realize why the fields looked different here: The hay was bundled in shocks, not machine-made bales. I coasted around a turn and suddenly I was before a grey, weathered barn. Two boys in suspendered pants stood in one doorway, two more boys and a small girl in a dress down to her calves were framed by another. They stared silently as I glided by. In my helmet and Lycra shorts I felt like an alien, a time traveler. For a few moments, it was as if one century gazed at another.

Then we began the climb up. And up. Sand Hill Road led to Sand Hill Church and a vista that took my breath away. Behind the white frame building lay the cemetery, and behind the cemetery unfolded a panorama of valleys so deep we could not see the bottom. On and on they went, like blue-green bumps in a crumpled up blanket.

The rest of the morning we pedaled the ridge top past tidy Amish farms. Teams of horses worked the fields, small boys in hats crouched next to the road playing games on the pavement. Highway P wound us through a valley to Westby, where we discovered the area's other ethnic group, Norwegians, and, specifically, Norwegian food. At Bergen's Cafe we stuffed ourselves with steaming chicken dumpling soup, tender meatballs, mashed pototoes and gravy, and fresh peach pie.

And a good thing we did, for the last hill of the day was the hardest I've ever climbed. Sweat poured into my eyes as it dragged on and on, malevolently holding me at the point between yes-I-can-make-it and no-I-can't. Just for a moment (well, maybe a few moments) I wondered why I was doing this. The answer, at the bottom of the other side, was Esofea County Park. Nestled among the bluffs, it was an oasis of soft, green grass with a picnic shelter, outhouses, and a stream dammed to create a small pond. We plunged into the cold water to wash off our sweat, squealing at the shock of it.

Our final day was a blur of scenery, maybe because, tired and slower than the others, I spent much of it alone. On gravel roads outside Viroqua everything was so quiet and still, I pedaled in a kind of reverie, as if I had wandered into a painting of rolling, open ridges, cornfields and pastures sprinkled with snug homesteads. My favorite stretch: County J and Turben Road south of the hamlet of Folsom. I swooped down a long, gentle hillside, shadowed by woods on my left, to my right an exquisite narrow valley, lush with crops.

When I reached Highway B north of Gays Mills, I finally slumped. Starting west, I hit only a slight rise when I realized my weary legs would not carry me over too many more Crawford County ridges. I felt as if I knew this coulee country in my sinew, muscle and bone, and it had worn me out. In empathy with those early settlers who tried to tame this land, I turned my bike around and retraced the route I had taken the first day, back down flat River Road and Highway 131 into Steuben. Ah well, I figured, that just left more of this beautiful, rugged country to discover another time.