“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.” Ernest Hemmingway
Home is where the greenways, rivers and old railroads are. Because of these, there are those bicycle trails that make a street address a home; and my home is only a couple of blocks away from access to hundreds of miles of designated mixed-use trail systems.
In winter months, I have no real use for stationary bicycles and a diminishing tolerance for riding in single digit temperatures. So, in any given year my butt will not feel a bike seat for several weeks at a time; a fading muscle memory from the few unseasonably warm days in mid-December in which, with luck, I can count on to put my old 1972 Schwinn Varsity on the crushed limestone of the spurs, stems and tributary trail systems of the Illinois Prairie Path — America’s first mixed-use trail system — until about late February or March.
“The land offers us good reading, outdoors, from a lively, unfinished manuscript…. My hope is that you who read this book will close it, and go outdoors to read from the original.” May Theilgaard Watts, Reading the Landscape of America (Preface to the Collier Books Edition, 1975)
I used to ride quite alot as a younger person but drifted away from the pleasure for more than a decade coming out of college and trying to navigate adulthood. While my socioeconomic productivity proceeded in fits and starts, I was able to regain some control of life on two wheels after my wife and I settled into our home of now over a quarter century, so far. While all of my personal and professional endeavors have often been satisfying and sometimes rewarding, riding has offered the simplest means of control over destiny with the most immediate results, requiring only the will to go and the passion and stamina to keep pedaling.
Not that the course of my life has ever prohibited the coexistence of these endeavors. Indeed, for about a year I had published a tabloid newspaper serving the roller derby community. While wheels are a major part of the scenery, travel to bouts and tournaments within driving distance allowed me to bring along my bike to host cities from Minneapolis to St. Louis and Cleveland to Lebanon, Missouri. Enough to compile a list of memories from favored routes and trail systems, such as the Hank Aaron and Oak Leaf Trails in and around the Brew City Bruisers’ Milwaukee, the Kalamazoo River Trail in the KZoo Derby Darlins’ part of western Michigan, the St. James River Trail in the Fort Wayne Derby Girls’ part of northern Indiana and the Creve Coeur and Katy Trails in St. Chucks Derby Chix and Arch Rival’s greater St. Louis, Missouri, metropolitan area.
Once upon a time, on a damp and chilly springtime weekend of wheels in Madison, Wisconsin, while my soulmate Mortricia was officiating for the Udder Chaos tournament hosted by the Mad Rollin’ Dolls, I rode the Cap City Trails and tributaries as well as the street bike routes in and around local community radio WORT’s Block Party.
Madison is one of our favorite towns. But cities are ultimately their people and there are people in Madison with certain cultural, civic and social sensibilities that match their talent for creating institutions to reflect and sustain them. For examples, the progressively independent community supported radio station and a roller derby league that yells the talk and skates the walk of a sturdy ethical foundation and righteous competitive sport, wherein the pronouns and even the venue’s restrooms are gender neutral.
Mortricia told me about a woman at the tournament who expressed some confusion about the restroom policy. The woman was reportedly from Lexington, Kentucky, and felt it was important to have made it known that this was not how things were done back home. To which the tournament staff firmly and politely replied that this was Madison, Wisconsin, not Lexington, Kentucky.
It was the first time that the Mad Rollin’ Dolls hosted a non-playoff tournament for the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) and it created an exciting weekend of rank-shaking competition in the wide world of roller derby.
Back when we rolled into the Madison area, we tuned in to WORT in time for the Psychoacoustics radio show, featuring DJs Rev Velveteen and Bad Sister Heidi. While Rev Vel, also the station’s program manager, was off mic on station business, Bad Sister Heidi played tracks by artists booked for the station’s annual Block Party that Sunday in 2018. Tunes from VO5, The Congregation and November Criminals stood out for their passion and ingenuity. November Criminals’ particular genre bending talent spoke to me with their infectious blend of polka and hip-hop.
As alluded to above, I was not a complete stranger to the network of bike trails in and around Madison. On my first ride back, I thought I would head out of town to the south, perhaps to Verona where the Tuvalu Coffee House invites riders in from the Military Ridge Trail. So, I made my way under the Beltway overpass and on into Lake Farm County Park.
But as I pedaled my way through Lake Farm County Park, the winds seem to shift aggressively and arbitrarily as the increasingly rural and ecologically restored topography ascended and descended. In fact, this was the home turf of legendary environmentalist Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac and progenitor of the Land Ethic and largely responsible for mainstreaming the science of ecosystem restoration efforts.
Shifting gears and shifting cheeks, I was physically humbled and decided to turn back at the top of a climb near the exit from neighboring Nine Springs E-Way Park and headed back toward the urban landscape of Madison proper.
It is taking me too many visits to get used to the pattern of Madison, Wisconsin. The heart of the city is a slim isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Monona from which its metropolitan area and premier Big Ten university campus sprawl out along their shores. So, it was such that, as I rode from the Udder Chaos tournament at the Hartmeyer Ice Arena to Martin Luther King Boulevard near the Capitol Square, it took me a couple laps around the capitol dome to find the Party.
I timed my visit for the 3:00PM performance of November Criminals, that Hip-Hop-Polka fusion band out of Milwaukee that we had heard for the first time on WORT a few nights before. I still managed to park and circulate and find some dear old friends to hang out with before the band hit the stage for a delightfully rowdy set.
One warm National Bike to Work Day, I rode a 33-mile loop from the Illinois Prairie Path Elgin Spur to the Fox River Trail and back by way of the IPP Geneva Spur. It was the earliest in my typical season to ride what I call “the big loop,” so I was fairly gassed by the time I reached the West Chicago Prairie around mile 28. But it put me over my 50-mile weekly goal for the second week in a row in one of my strongest starts to a season since I became a born-again cyclist.
Mortricia and I had traveled to Kalamazoo, Michigan over the last weekend of April where she was officiating for K-Town Shaketown roller derby tournament and the Kalamazoo River Trail has become an old familiar ride with many intriguing sights along the trail. There is a nature preserve near the north end of the trail a couple of miles out of Kalamazoo proper at the community of Parchment with some fun curves and challenging typography that makes for a fine workout and I was pleased to find that the climbs took less out of me on this trip than they had on past rides. The route this time was up and back the same way, about 24 miles altogether, starting from River Oaks County Park east of Kalamazoo near Galesburg.
Thus, I figured it would not be too much of a struggle to ride about 30 miles of familiar trails on a gorgeous, sunny 75-degree day. There are two particular climbs on that route that I usually expect to endure more than enjoy. But my confidence was strong from the Kalamazoo River Trail experience still fresh in my mind and, at a point around the West Chicago Prairie, I’d had about enough with maybe five miles to go. But there were no more shortcuts and the old ’72 Varsity was the only way home.
“You never have the wind with you — either it is against you or you’re having a good day.” Daniel Behrman, The Man Who Loved Bicycles
There is something noble about using active transportation options to get to a thing called Veggie Fest. About the only thing nobler is the existence of the trail system itself.
The 2014 Veggie Fest was hosted at the grounds of the Church of Science of Spirituality on a hot and humid August weekend in Lisle, Illinois. There were excessive heat warnings issued and broadcast across all the local media platforms, warning of strenuous outdoor activity as I put my bike on the Illinois Prairie Path at Jewel Road and Electric Avenue in Wheaton and meandered south toward Herrick Lake Forest Preserve at Butterfield Road, kitty-corner from Wheaton Warrenville South High School. The West Branch DuPage Regional Trail system links with the Arboretum-Forest Preserve Trail Connector that parallels St. James Forest Preserve for a delightfully uninterrupted trail ride through Herrick Lake Forest Preserve. Exit the trail at the Naperville Road entrance of Danada Forest Preserve and it’s a short ride on the shoulder of Naperville Road to the Science of Spirituality, host of the annual Veggie Fest.
That route winds through some of the natural, cultural and historical gems of DuPage County, such as Lincoln Marsh, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County headquarters and the equestrian remnants of Dan and Ada Rice’s farm.
I do not ride with music in my ears anymore. I have long ago reached the age where I need all my attention and concentration to gain the necessary confidence in the saddle.
But there is live music at Veggie Fest. I mostly remember the Giving Tree Band, a rambling folkie jam band in the tradition of homegrown psychedelia emitted by the likes of Yonder Mountain String Band or Old Crow Medicine Show and owing plenty to the Grateful Dead.
I used to love riding with the music in my ears. But once, during The Cramps’ “Sunglasses After Dark,” I nearly rolled over a chipmunk that ran between my wheels and across the trail. I am uncertain if that was the moment of decision, found in a journal entry from around the Summer Solstice in 2014, but it had to have something to do with it.
Among them all, it was not a big lesson but it is still a good one. To keep moving, while treading as lightly as I can upon our Mother Earth, I needed to be less distracted and more aware of my navigation on the landscape.
“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving. Albert Einstein, in a letter to his son Eduard, 1930