July 18th, 2014, early morning: the air still cool and the Sun not yet above the trees. Saddlebags packed, water-bottles filled, coffee drunk, and it’s time for me to roll out on my first multi-day bike adventure (not counting overnight camping trips) in 4 years.
The first stop is not a spectacular one: it’s the local laundromat, so I can lay in a stock of quarters. With those clinking in a pocket of my messenger bag, it’s off through still-dozing Madison. Lake Mendota reflects the rising Sun in red and orange, for the enjoyment of the stalwart runners and anglers who are already out, and for mine. It’s all well-trodden ground for the first hour, until I reach Airport Road in Middleton and start heading towards Cross Plains.
This is the first of a series of little towns on the way to the Wisconsin River, like a ghost outline of the old railway: Cross Plains, Black Earth, Mazomanie, Arena. Apart from a steep hill I go down towards Cross Plains, and a climb up to the junction with highway 14 in Mazomanie, the road is mostly level and, until I hit 14, almost entirely free of traffic; with the air temperature just about perfect, riding seems like no effort at all. It’s like being on a carousel.
It’s a little more work following 14 past Arena to Tower Hill State Park, particularly the last mile or so, which is, unsurprisingly, hilly. The main feature of Tower Hill is the old Helena Shot Tower, which was used, before technology overtook it, to create round lead shot by dropping molten lead from a considerable height into water. After it fell out of use, it was acquired by Unitarian preacher Jenkin Lloyd Jones – the architect’s uncle – and then on his death donated to the state. It’s still in good shape, and extremely popular with bats, whose chittering echoed from the dimly-lit rafters.
While it was still operating, the shot tower was visited by Captain Frederick Marryatt, author of Mr. Midshipman Easy, who writes:
Finding a shot-tower in such a lone wilderness as this, gives you some idea of the enterprise of the Americans; but the Galena, or lead district, commences here, on the south bank of the Wisconsin. The smelting is carried on about twelve miles inland, and the lead is brought here, made into shot, and then sent down the river to the Mississippi, by which, and its tributary streams, it is supplied to all America, west of the Alleghanies.
The short, forested path up the shallow side of the bluff to the tower is home to a great many unobtrusive but subtly attractive moths:
and on the way back down, I was lucky enough to see this splendid ebony jewelwing:
Rolling out of Tower Hill I pick up the road again, which winds past Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin to the bridge across the Wisconsin and into the town of Spring Green.
Once into Spring Green I pull into a Culver’s for lunch. I have to confess, that when I’m on a bike trip my tendency is to go for predictable, fast, plentiful food in lieu of culinary adventures. Over lunch I enjoy the contemplation that I’ve already done the bulk of my planned distance for the day – it’s only about ten more miles to the campground I’m booked into. And so, I head farther up the road to the Spring Green Preserve, confident that I have plenty of time for a relaxed wander there.
Part 2: The Wisconsin desert
Part 3: Mother of Waters
Part 4: True journey is return