Tuesday, October 12, 2010

“400” State Trail, Slight Return

"It was one of those perfect autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life." - P. D. James

I stoked up for the day’s journey with my favorite small-town-diner breakfast of wheat toast, bacon and hash browns at my favorite small-town diner, Greenwood’s CafĂ© in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, on Oct. 9, 2010.

Parked the car down the street at the old train depot, scene of an 1874 protest by the townspeople that prevented the deportation of a well-known and respected Native American, A-Ha-Cho-Ka, and his extended family. Reedsburgians like to think this “helped convince the U.S. government to abandon its inhuman policy of Indian relocation.” Perhaps they’re right.

The depot is a small museum and also the southern terminus of the “400” State Trail, so named for a Chicago & Northwestern train that operated until 1963. It took passengers the 400 miles from Chicago to Minneapolis in 400 minutes, which is actually a pretty good clip, especially for a steam loco. The “400” State Trail — always in quotes — runs for 22 miles between Reedsburg and the town of Elroy. Of course, that town’s name put the damn “Jetsons” cartoon theme song on constant-replay in my head all day … Meet George Jetson … His boy Elroy …

Hanna-Barbera always seemed to put more effort into their theme songs than their actual cartoons.

It was a glorious mid-October morning. Bright sunshine in a bright, high blue sky, with a very light breeze from the south.

Trees were just reaching peak color: the trail follows the Baraboo River valley, giving the maples, aspens and oaks a chance to display their colors along the hillsides.

The trail itself is packed limestone screenings in very good condition for most of the route. For long stretches, it’s packed down so hard it’s almost like pavement. The route is the usual rails-to-trails straight-and-level, and it crosses the meandering Baraboo River what seems like 20 times. Most of the wood-planked bridges are set between the riveted steel plates of the old railroad bridges. The bridge decks are a little chewed up from snowmobiles; apparently the trail sees heavy use in the winter (Speed limit for snowmobiles is 55 mph — at night? Really?)

Seven miles into the ride, I arrived in the familiar town of La Valle, the closest town to our cabin. There’s a water fountain and flush toilet for trail users, with signboards providing the history of the namesake rail line. There are a couple of good restaurants in town: River Mill, a very roomy, comfortable sit-down family restaurant and bar, and Trail Break, a fast-food/pizza place.

I had ridden the La Valle-to-Reedsburg stretch of the trail before, but now I was in Terra incognita. The trail soon led through a deep, shaded cut in the rolling sandstone hills; coming out the other side, fall colors exploded like fireworks under the bright sunlight. Canada geese massed in cutoff ponds on either side of the trail, awaiting whatever mysterious signal sends them south. It was so absurdly beautiful I laughed out loud. The miles flew past as I eagerly absorbed the views.

Soon I was in Wonewoc, searching for a fountain Diet Coke. None to be had. A longer stretch now, each mile more breathtaking than the last. I found a Kwik Trip gas station at Union Center, bought my fountain Coke and an apple and took a break in their trailside park. A great place to stop: clean flush toilet, water fountain and comfy benches. The one I rested on was a 1996 class project by a student named Brian, according to the plaque. Well done, Brian!

Just a few more miles brought me to the end of the “400” in Elroy. Daughter Judy … Jane, his wife …

The old train depot in Elroy (don’t start, brain) has been converted to a museum and Gift Shoppe where you can buy trail souvenirs and ice cream or rent a bike. I hadn’t been aware of it, but the “400” segues directly into the Elroy-Sparta State Trail, 32 miles of limestone famous for its trio of tunnels. But that’s another blog post.

After a short look around, I pointed Discovery 7 south and started back. The southerly breeze had kicked up a bit, to maybe 10 mph. Not a big deal on a relatively short ride of 22 miles, I thought.

I was wrong. The breeze and the limestone — as hard-packed as it is, it’s still not concrete — added up. My legs were complaining by the time I got to Wonewoc. I was getting seriously hungry, too. I had resolved to try the Trail Break restaurant in La Valle, based on my having noticed the words “cold beer” painted along its roof line on the way out in the morning, along with “pizza,” “burgers” and “salads.” But La Valle seemed a thousand miles away.

Finally, blessedly, I was ordering a Coors Light and a burger at the Trail Break. Both were delicious. The beer was cold, as advertised on the roof, and the burger was a generous, hand-formed patty cooked just right. The staff was friendly and attentive. Recommended.

Somewhat rejuvenated, I chugged the last stretch to the Reedsburg depot. Total for the day was 46.4 glorious, wonderful miles.

I spent the late afternoon fishing: I caught and released exactly one nice bluegill. I wasn’t trying very hard. I was very tired, I had cold beer in the boat with me, the water sparkled in the sunlight, and this late in the season I had the lake pretty much all to myself. It was more of a boat ride than a fishing trip.
Started feeling kind of nauseated and a bit shaky in the evening — in retrospect, I was probably dehydrated. I’m sure the beer (both at the Trail Break and two while fishing) didn’t help.

Next time, I’ll drive to … that town at the end of the “400” … and try the trail with all the tunnels on it, and remember to drink more water than I think I need to.

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dsj 101012