The Perfect Getaway
It is somewhere near the top of the world that I begin to wonder about this place. Not the actual top of the world, of course—I mean the spot that is the namesake attraction on the official Top of the World Tour, a 23-mile ride created by the enthusiastic and intensely friendly organizers of a newly established riding hotbed in remote western Wisconsin.
This particular global zenith looms at the crest of a relatively gentle climb that I’m surprised to find rises only about 400 feet—an ascent on which I pushed a little harder than usual, eager to see what lay ahead. When I arrive near the front of our loosely organized group, I step off my bike and scan the horizon: It’s pretty, sure enough. For the past hour, we pedaled through a patriotic anthem’s worth of scenic cliches— spacious blue skies, amber waves of grain, even a fruited plain or two—and from this vista there is lots more of the same, bathed in late-afternoon sunlight.
But I really have no idea why this particular landmark might have gained such a lofty designation until I look down, and there it is: a bright globe painted on the surface of the road. On an earlier section of the climb, someone had helpfully sprayed “VIEW!” onto the pavement, along with an arrow. Now, Ron McKernan, president of the Bicycle Club of Trempealeau County (BCTC), looks around and smiles as he watches riders pop over the crest in twos and threes. “Well,” he says, “it’s the top of Trempealeau County, anyway.”
Ah. This moment of congenial hyperbole went to the heart of a question that had been clawing at me ever since I’d begun to hear, months earlier, of the discovery of a new cycling nirvana in the Midwest. Reports told of velvety-smooth empty roads and rolling hills that escaped bulldozing glaciers 10,000 years back. Apparently the place was so beguiling that some 19th-century traveling preacher had proclaimed it to be the literal Garden of Eden.
The whole thing sounded vaguely preposterous. But the buzz was intriguing enough for me to book a flight that would get me there in time for the three-day Trempealeau Invitational Ride Event, or TIRE, which takes place each September. It’s one of no less than six yearly bike rides in Trempealeau, most of which are dedicated to local delicacies such as catfish or broiler chickens.
And now here I stand, trying to muster a proper camera smile as I hoist my bike above my head for the obligatory Top of the World photo op—at a whopping 1,200 feet above sea level.
Cycling nirvana? Garden of Eden? Or just some kind of good old-fashioned Midwestern hucksterism that went viral? I have only the next four days to find out for myself.
He was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher who happened upon this landscape— perhaps even this very same vista—sometime in the 1880s. The Rev. David Van Slyke, it’s safe to say, might have bought the whole top-of-the-world gambit: He was so taken with the area that in 1886 he published his manifesto, to which he attached the modest title Found at Last: The Veritable Garden of Eden, or a Place that Answers the Bible Description of that Notable Spot Better Than Anything Yet Discovered.
The theory never really took, though in my research I heard that Van Slyke’s proclamation had inspired folks there to build a statue of him somewhere hereabouts. I resolved, on my way to Wisconsin, to try and find it, maybe to give the old reverend an update.
But first there is TIRE. Based out of the town of Whitehall—which the local tourism website says offers “a visit to the past through a calm view of the present”—we’ll do a different loop each day, complete with vistas, quaint villages and scenic back roads.
I vowed to keep an open mind about everything as I pulled up to the Oak Park Inn. The owner, Linda Mossman, greeted me with a warm hello and took care of the important business first—pointing me toward the coffeemaker—while taking in stride the chaos unfolding around her. There was a local TV crew setting up outside for a segment on the ride, not to mention a plumbing problem her son was striving to fix ahead of the arrival of 30 or so cyclists from more than six states, including Texas and Colorado. When I unpacked my Trek from its travel case, Linda’s husband, Steven Sendele, asked if the bike’s name was pronounced “Mad One,” which made me kind of wish it was. Still, I was taken aback. I would never have thought that just a few hours from the factory, I’d meet someone who didn’t recognize Lance’s bike. It reminded me that the region is still so barren of bicycling culture that I’d been told to stock up on tubes and gels before making the two-plushour drive from Minneapolis.
By 2 p.m., we had gathered in the driveway to hear the day’s route info. Most riders came in pairs, pedaling everything from tandems to tri bikes. One elderly but hardy-looking couple pitched a tent on the front lawn. Someone noticed my bicycling jersey and said she’d start reading the magazine “when you start covering recumbents.” I was beginning to wonder whether this trip would fall into the category of Very Bad Idea when Ron McKernan called us over. Today, he said, we’d be pedaling 35 miles, with a stop at the Top of the World.
Right away, the charms of the place were obvious. Fewer than 28,000 people live in the 734-square-mile county. Elsewhere, gravel or dirt roads would likely traverse areas this rural. But around World War II, area dairy farmers decided they couldn’t reliably transport glass bottles of milk to market on bumpy paths. As a consequence, Trempealeau County boasts 382 miles of pavement, with few cars—as few as three an hour, according to one published account. We pedaled past red barns and small churches and stopped for water in a farmer’s backyard. The climbs seemed friendlier, too: They were mostly gradual, over gentle grades, in contrast to the short, punchy hills I face back home in the farm country of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. They are just long and steep enough to make me feel I’ve earned seconds at the looming Friday-night fish fry.
I’ll admit to being a bit spoiled: Over the past decade, I’ve been lucky enough to ride all over the world. In Italy, I drank sale at rest stops with potbellied—yet impeccably stylish—European gentlemen. I’ve dodged Japanese pedestrians in Kyoto from the seat of a granny bicycle, and mountain biked everywhere from Moab to Spain’s Canary Islands, where a group ride ended at Carnevale.
But nowhere along the way did I have a moment like the one, late on our first day, when we’re forced to dismount in order to cross a four-lane state highway. There’s only one vehicle in sight—a pickup truck that approaches from the left. I watch as the driver slows to a stop, smiles and waves us on. “It’s like we’ve got our own private bike path,” McKernan says, “that we happen to let cars use, too.”
Back at the inn , a group photo taped to the registration table shows one of the area’s first organized rides, in 2001. Standing amid folks in helmets and kit is a shirtless man in a ball cap and tall black socks. I learn that he is Walter Ordway, an Iowa organic farmer who, in 1995, during the course of a multiyear excursion across the world by bike and sailboat, happened to stop in Trempealeau County.
“It was out-of-the-way, friendly, and oh, those roads!” Ordway later tells me. He had become familiar with the rural cycling outfit Vermont Cycle Tours and began to wonder if a similar concept could work in the Midwest. Ordway had the pluck to apply for (and get) a federal road-enhancement grant to create a bicycle-route booklet for Trempealeau County. During the summer of 1999, he began driving around, mapping out loops of 24 to 36 miles that could easily be combined to form longer rides. “I wanted to say to America, ‘There’s a whole world out here, and we want to share it with you,’” he says. “And I wanted to tell the rural people they’ve got something they don’t realize right under their feet.”
He illustrated his compilation with smiling stickfigure cyclists drawn by local schoolchildren, then began knocking on doors, enlisting more than 250 families to serve as trail stewards who could help wayward cyclists. “They’re friendly farmers, and bicyclists are nice people,” Ordway says. “I thought, wouldn’t it be nice for nice people to meet nice people?”
The first booklets went to bike shops and clubs throughout the Midwest in 2000, detailing seven loops; seven more routes followed the next year. That fall, members of the Twin Cities Bicycling Club in Minnesota chose Trempealeau County for their annual retreat, and their visit made the Whitehall Times.
On the second morning of TIRE, I give Ordway props for his visionary ways after mounting the first climb, to Montana Ridge. Up top, I’m toasty enough to peel off my arm warmers and bask in fall sunshine on the exposed hillside. After that comes a long, rolling stretch along the ridgeline, complete with 360-degree views, after which I discover another appealing aspect of riding here: Because the climbs are longer, the descents, in turn, seem to go on forever. After lunch at Hansen’s Hold-Up, a biker bar in neighboring Buffalo County, it’s time for the Alligator Slide, which drops 600 feet over 2 blissful, pedal-free miles. I slingshot through a tunnel of trees and slice across verdant farmland, striped with rows of corn, on gently curving pavement that’s almost impossibly clean.
As the pack regroups, a BCTC rider offers to team up with me. Like many locals I’ve met, Jen Johnson rides an American bike (a Trek Pilot) that’s modest but well cared for—right down to the matching pink bottle cages, which she had to special-order. “I want to get pink tires,” she says, and I know we’re going to get along.
Despite Jen’s penchant for full-throttle descents, I sense not a trace of the competitive edge I find in so many other places, where self-appointed group-ride lieutenants bark at you to hold your line and constantly shred the pack with attacks. Jen explains that the drivers here don’t mind waiting behind cyclists because they’re used to passing tractors. She grew up on a small dairy farm, where she milked cows by hand when the power went out; now she works in the accounting department at Gold’n Plump Chicken, which processes about three million pounds of chicken per week.
This summer she started riding to work, 21 miles away. She leaves at 5:45 a.m. “The roads are so quiet, I feel like the only person in the world,” she says. I tell her that if I tried to bike the 30 miles of potholed pavement and blind curves to my office at rush hour, I’d probably end up bleeding underneath someone’s garden gnome. “You mean the roads aren’t like this in Pennsylvania?” she asks, without a trace of irony.
A few miles later, near the top of the Church Hill climb—which gets its name not only for its house of worship but because it’s so uncharacteristically tough, you’ll swear you’ve seen Jesus—Jen pulls over for some photos. The red-brick church at the bottom is Hollywood-set perfect, as is the cascade of rippling road we’ve just conquered. But, first, I point my camera toward my feet: There in the tar, unrecognizable to anyone not in the know, is the unmistakable imprint of a Look cleat.
It’s as if a cyclist intended to mark the territory as her own.
Every town has its storyteller, and in Whitehall, I learn, his name is Travis Mossman, the bespectacled and ponytailed son of the Oak Park innkeeper. After we eat our fill of pasta and salad, he holds court in the Oak Park’s backyard, where some cyclists have gathered to toast marshmallows.
Turns out I’m just in time for his didgeridoo concert. “Play something eerie,” one woman says. The request reminds Travis of a story the Rev. Van Slyke would have appreciated. A couple years back, the local high school asked his band to play in a talent show. “The guy who introduced us said, ‘I honestly have no idea what these guys are going to do,’” Travis recalls. “So my friend Jake starts playing his electric guitar, but with a bow, and I start playing like this…”
The 4-foot-long instrument emits a low gurgle that calls to mind the slow death of a bullfrog. “I look into the audience,” he says, “and all these ladies in the front row are gripping their seats, their eyes wide open, like, ‘IT’S THE MUSIC OF SATAN!’”
The next morning, on the last day of TIRE, the group decides to stay close together, and lets McKernan choose the route as we go. You’d never guess Ron’s occupation by looking at his lean frame. The unofficial mayor of Trempealeau cycling works in quality control at Whitehall Specialties, which calls itself a “world leader in custom analog and process cheese products.” Ron, now 55, started cycling seriously in 2000. “I had an epiphany—I saw a picture of myself,” he says. “I was 30 to 40 pounds heavier, working all the time, no fun.” He bought a hybrid, then a road bike, hoping to get fit enough to pedal across Iowa in RAGBRAI. Rarely did he see another cyclist. One day Ron was riding home from work when he spotted the Twin Cities folks unloading their bikes outside the Oak Park Inn. He immediately knew he had found his people.
Over the past 10 years, Ron has founded the local bike club and several rides, including the weekly Tuesday-nighter. He expanded Ordway’s brochure, and convinced other local ride directors to brand their events as part of a series. “Rising water floats all boats,” he explains. He marked his 50th birthday with a self-supported double century, and didn’t notice that his brake lever was rubbing until mile 120.
And for our group, Ron clearly knows how to ramp up the magic: At one point, we ride out of the trees onto an open hillside, then fly into a sprawling patchwork of green and gold. The only road in sight is the dark ribbon of pavement we’re currently following; a handful of goats are the sole audience to our humming tires. The horizon is void of farmhouses or McMansions. It occurs to me that there’s no one single thing about Trempealeau that is utterly spectacular. Instead it offers a more subtle form of cycling perfection—an intoxicating blend of ideal conditions and sublime scenery that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. I roll effortlessly along, certain that this is one of the best moments I’ve ever had on a bike.
Over lunch on his back porch, I ask Ron what the ride dynamics are like once the tourists go home. I know most of his crowd doesn’t race, but what about town-line sprints, rotating pacelines, king-of-the-mountain points? He smiles. “For the most part, we’re pretty mellow,” he says. “Every once in awhile someone will attack, and then we’ll regroup.”
I think about all the time I’ve spent on group rides, listening to people dissect the pack’s exploits—or, more often, faux pas. It’s not pointless chatter: On crowded streets, such etiquette exists for a reason. But when there’s no race culture to emulate, and room to ride four abreast, the breezy ways of this place start to make sense. It’s cycling stripped to the essentials: open roads and riders who love to share them. It makes for the kind of riding I think many people wish for more of—whether they admit it or not.
Before heading off on my own, I stop to thank Linda and her family. “Everyone was so surprised when they found out a reporter from Pennsylvania would be here this weekend,” says Travis. “But I’ve known you were coming for 10 years.” I laugh, but a few months later, the Whitehall Times will run another article about visiting cyclists. This time, in a twist I’m not sure even Travis could have predicted, they’ll have come from New Zealand.
On my last night in Wisconsin, I stay at the historic Trempealeau Hotel. I know I’ve made a good choice when the clerk tells me that my room overlooking the Mississippi is $41 a night—and check-in is at the bar. At dinner, I dawdle over the menu while taking in the antics outside the porch, where two giggling female gardeners are trying to maneuver a John Deere four-wheeler off the sidewalk. I gamble and order the signature walnut balls, which turn out to be a delicious mix of nuts, bread crumbs, tamari, cheese and spices. As I sign the tab, the gardeners pass by again—on cruiser bikes this time.
Back home, we ride bikes in part to relieve stress. Here, it seems, bikes are part of the reason why no one gets stressed out in the first place. One cyclist I met rides so much he has all but stopped checking e-mail.
The next morning, I squeeze in one last ride, to Galesville, which is known for bounteous apple orchards. According to my map I’m on County Highway K, but the fog is so thick I have to go on faith. There’s corn growing to my right, soybeans to my left, and every now and then, a solitary, shadowy maple emerges from the mist. I pedal just hard enough to ward off the chill, my hands resting lightly on the bar tops while dew forms on my untouched brake levers. There’s no shoulder on this quiet, flat stretch, but by now I know that the few motorists that do pass by will leave me plenty of room. It feels like my own private bike path.
Finally, the sun breaks through to reveal the landscape. Dairy cows stare at me as they eat breakfast, ankle-deep in a muddy puddle, and I’m suddenly aware that this is the first time since I arrived that I’ve pedaled alone—a sensation that is accentuated when I reach Galesville and find the center square pretty much empty. In a month, thousands of people will descend on this spot to celebrate the annual Apple Affair, complete with a 10-foot pie. The woman behind the counter at Jackie O’s cafe doesn’t flinch when I clomp across her wooden floors and order a bowl of Snap-o-Lantern ice cream—pumpkin, with chunks of gingerbread. It’s only 9:30 a.m., but such things no longer seem to matter in the land that time forgot.
Back on my bike, I start pedaling along Beaver Creek, just south of the square, when I see the man. He’s about 9 feet tall, bronze corroded but triumphant, palms facing the sky, his cape flying behind him. In his right hand, he holds a book; in his left, an apple. I brush away weeds to read the plaque: “A Visionary: The Reverend D. O. Van Slyke, who believed Galesville to be the center of a beautiful and fruitful Garden of Eden.” The statue was erected in 1999, the same year Walter Ordway, another far-sighted itinerant, began his mapping project.
The sculptor respectfully declined to give Van Slyke the crazy eyes, but otherwise the preacher looks much like I’d pictured him. And although his contemporaries—and just about everyone else since—dismissed his overreaching credo, I can’t argue with him for seeing something special in this place. He just didn’t realize it would take a man on a bicycle to help the rest of the world discover it, too.
Plan Your Escape
The closest cities are Minneapolis (two hours) and Madison, Wisconsin (three). Download local maps—for biking and driving—from the Bicycle Club of Trempealeau County at ridebctc.com.
RIDE The BCTC rides Tuesday evenings from April to October (location varies). Off-road, the 24-mile Great River State Trail (dnr.state.wi.us) traverses the Upper Mississippi Valley. Riders 16 and older need a trail pass ($4/day).
EAT Hansen’s Hold-Up, on Highway 95 overlooking the Arcadia Valley, serves burgers, brats, beer and more. hansenshold-up. com. Friday is fish-fry night in Wisconsin: Try Whitehall’s Dodge Street Grill (715/538-1488).
SLEEP The Oak Park Inn (oakparkinn.com), in Whitehall, offers rooms with microwaves as well as a hearty continental breakfast. The Trempealeau Hotel (trempealeauhotel.com) offers lodging ranging from historic-themed rooms with shared baths to the hot tubequipped Pines Cottage. Try the famous walnut balls (walnutburger.com).
SHOP The area’s only bike shop is Brone’s (bronesbikeshop.com), in Fountain City. But resourceful locals will try to help you out of a jam, says the Oak Park Inn’s Linda Mossman: “We call people we know to see what parts they have in their garage.”