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Wisconsin: An Off-Season Rumble Through Harley Country

Finding God on a Harley: If you’re riding the Kettle Moraine near Holy Hill, just look up.

Finding God on a Harley: If you’re riding the Kettle Moraine near Holy Hill, just look up.

Photo Credit: Lawrence Grodsky

Lawrence Grodsky
March 1, 2005
Filed under Features, Motorcycle Rides, Roads and Self-Guided Travel

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Oh, what I don’t know about Harleys! Like, um, where’s the toolkit on this thing? There isn’t one? Oh. Well maybe this guy sitting down at the booth next to mine can help. He’s wearing the colors—sporty black letterman’s jacket with the orange logo on the back. It’s 37 degrees outside and I’d really like to hook up my electric vest.

He tells me there’s a dealer down the road which opens at nine. Nice fella.

Looking across Ol’ Man River from downtown LaCrosse to Minnesota.

Looking across Ol’ Man River from downtown LaCrosse to Minnesota.

He looks over my maps and makes a few route suggestions. Gives me his business card. It’s Easter weekend and he’s with his wife and daughter, but he tells me to call him day or night if I have a problem. His name is Jerry Wilke, and (at this writing) he’s Harley’s vice president and general manager for Asia-Pacific & Latin America sales.

I’ll bet I’ve barely logged a thousand miles on Harleys over the years; lord, what I don’t know…. I do know some Harley people, however. My address book is filled with e-mails that end in “@harley-davidson.com.” Bill Crowe, an engineer at the Capital Road plant, says he’ll be out to meet me with some tools in an hour or so. Is the reason the Dyna T-Sport comes with no tools that you get a VP and an engineer with every bike?

Muscoda resident Tom Nelson poses with two local art patrons.

Muscoda resident Tom Nelson poses with two local art patrons.

And what am I doing here in April? Summer months are glorious here at 43 degrees north latitude, but the early spring landscape is an eerie, monochromatic brown. These northern races love to party, but it looks as though they’re in hibernation now. On a deserted back road in the Kettle Moraine (which is where Milwaukee motorcyclists go to get a curve fix), I park the T-Sport and watch a great blue heron (which looks not blue at all but the same mud brown as the flattened corn stalks and naked trees) lumber across a field. The heron is one of nature’s most graceful creatures, but this one thinks it’s a Wisconsin Hereford.

The Crowe boys—Bill and John—are practically inseparable. They live next door to each other and if one isn’t in the other’s garage, then they’re probably out riding on their nearly identical Electra Glides. They’re everything brothers should be, except that they never met until Johnny’s moving van unloaded and Bill discovered the new neighbor had the same last name.

At left is his father’s (sculptor, Ellis) signature work, “The Grim Reaper.”

At left is his father’s (sculptor, Ellis) signature work, “The Grim Reaper.”

Well, by the time the Crowes arrive, I’ve committed nearly every road in the Kettle Moraine to memory. It’s a delightful little place to ride bikes, this 226-square-mile “interlobate glacial deposit.” About 10,000 years ago it wandered down from Canada and dumped scores of 200-foot roller- coaster hills; the twisty asphalt would come later.

The gathering point for local motorcyclists is the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians in Hubertus—aka Holy Hill. A twin-spired neo-Romanesque cathedral set on southeast Wisconsin’s highest point, it has an observation tower another 178 steps high, from which you can see for over 50 miles…on a clear day.

It’s anything but, so we decide to make the wurst of it, downing brats in a roadside beer garden. After lunch we rumble through the rain (which, by the way, is getting pretty darn hard) for another hour before bidding fond farewells. It’s only half an hour as the Crowe flies back to Milwaukee, but I’m headed west to the other side of Madison, where most of the state’s better known motorcycling roads can be found.

Millions served. Cornish pasties are a staple in Mineral Point.

Millions served. Cornish pasties are a staple in Mineral Point.

Interstate 94 is the most efficacious routing, but I choose State Routes 16 and 19, which pass through tidy hamlets full of warm and fuzzy Americana (“free coffee, free donuts, free checking”). In Watertown, I pause to admire one of a series of Main Street murals painted by artists Sherry Ertl and Vance Hull. The east-facing wall of Ann’s Uptown Bar commemorates town legend Turkey Gehrke, the Human Hibernator. Gehrke, as the moniker implies, would sleep away the entire winter, a feat chronicled by the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not radio program. Check out the rest of the town’s murals at www.cityofwatertown.com/murals.htm.

No time for the Mustard Museum in Mt. Horeb, the Norwegian town whose main street is known as the Trollway. I just crisscross the town and sample as many of the winding farm roads as I can before slipping into Mineral Point just ahead of darkness. There are ac­tually two Mineral Points in southern Wisconsin, and I’m relieved to confirm that this old Cornish mining town is indeed the one with my reservation for the evening. The Brewery Creek Inn is actually a little too romantic for a guy traveling solo, but they brew their own beer in the restored stone warehouse (they also have guest rooms up the hill in an 1843 miner’s cottage) and let you draw it for yourself when the bar is shut down.

Don’t drink and ride.Watertown’s “Turkey” Gehrke, the legendary figure enshrined on Watertown’s Uptown Bar, would down his nightcap and go to sleep…for the entire winter!

Don’t drink and ride.Watertown’s “Turkey” Gehrke, the legendary figure enshrined on Watertown’s Uptown Bar, would down his nightcap and go to sleep…for the entire winter!

“Used to be you had to show you could draw beer from the tap to get your drivers license here in Wisconsin,” quips innkeeper Jeff Donaghue. A Minnesota transplant, Donaghue and his wife Deborah lived in India for 10 years, where they each rode Jawas.

Reincarnated as a popular weekend getaway, Mineral Point still looks every inch an old-world mining town, with more than 500 buildings remaining from its 1830s heyday, when nearly 10,000 men worked the lead mines. Take a hike up Shake Rag Street (so named for the dishcloths the miner’s wives used to wave out their windows at lunch time) and you’ll find cafés and shops serving Cornish pasties on practically every block.

You can’t buy love at the Romance Store (Romance, Wisconsin)…unless, of course, you’re a Wisconsin beer lover.

You can’t buy love at the Romance Store (Romance, Wisconsin)…unless, of course, you’re a Wisconsin beer lover.

You’ll also find a bounty of interesting roads on either side of the Wisconsin River, some carving through the forests, most bounding haphazardly over farmland. Nearing the southwest corner of the state, one senses in the approaching prairie the dissolution of old-world order into restless American longing.

“I guess I’m just antisocial,” says Muscoda motorcyclist Tom Nelson, apologizing for his west-facing views on motorcycle touring. The burly Nelson, who looks like he might have H-D tattooed on his biceps but actually rides a Yamaha GTS1000 and FJR1300, is really very sociable; he just likes his space. It’s Easter Sunday, but Nelson is tidying up after his father, Ellis, a self-taught metal sculptor whose collected works spread across the front lawn…including his signature piece, The Grim Reaper, shown in The End is Near exhibit at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum. The elder Nelson became a sculptor the day he assembled auto body scraps to erect a dinosaur for the front of his Sinclair service station and has since been featured on Good Morning America and CNN.

Looking down Shake Rag Street in Mineral Point. The miners’ wives used to wave dishcloths out these windows, signaling their husbands that lunch was ready.

Looking down Shake Rag Street in Mineral Point. The miners’ wives used to wave dishcloths out these windows, signaling their husbands that lunch was ready.

Maybe there’s something in the Wisconsin River water (it can’t be the sky, which remains as grim as Nelson’s Reaper) that nurtures creativity. A few miles upriver I cruise through sleepy Richland Center, whose prodigal son, Frank Lloyd Wright, took the region’s abundant water and rock and reshaped the world’s view of buildings and nature.

Tom Nelson says just about any road between Muscoda and La Crosse, on the Mississippi River, is a good one. Because the milkman takes his appointed rounds at least as seriously as the mailman, Wisconsin’s dairy industry begot a great network of paved “county tracks”…albeit one with a bewildering alphabetical code. So if you’re following Grant County T it could turn into Richland County X…but don’t expect it to connect to Crawford County X 10 miles to the west. If you forsake your map (I do), the chances of ending up on an unpaved road are relatively slim (I do, discovering the T-Sport handles mud better than you’d expect from a 600-pound streetbike). Wisconsin also maintains a 500-mile network of lightly traveled Rustic Roads, 95 paved and unpaved lanes especially chosen for their scenic and historical value. Travel 10 of these roads and you’ll be eligible for a Rustic Roads Motorcycle Tour patch (www.dot.wisconsin.gov/safety/vehicle/motor cycle/rusticroads.htm).

Color comes to the capitol: Clouds part on the author’s final evening in Wisconsin, affording a memorable “Harley moment” in front of Madison’s architectural focal point.

Color comes to the capitol: Clouds part on the author’s final evening in Wisconsin, affording a memorable “Harley moment” in front of Madison’s architectural focal point.

State Route 33 through Wildcat Mountain State Park is Wisconsin’s Deals Gap, a short but thrilling spiral of banked turns and steep hairpins. Three miles and it’s over but you can always rerun it…or stop at the top for an impressive view of the 600-foot bluffs, which give the local motorcycling map its texture.

Descending into the Mississippi Valley is like riding down to the Pacific, except that you can see all the way across, and it’s Minnesota, not Japan, on the other side. The river this far north is much wider than I imagined, and the towering cliffs on both sides easily vanquish notions of interminable Midwestern flatness. The juncture of Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota is the putative nexus of Midwest motorcycling, though I get to sample only a few county tracks before darkness closes in and I seek shelter in La Crosse.

Minimalism in black and gray: The Dyna T-Sport against an early spring farmscape.

Minimalism in black and gray: The Dyna T-Sport against an early spring farmscape.

Downtown La Crosse boasts more bistros, book stores and tattoo parlors than some cities with 10 times its population (52,000). Pity that it’s a holiday night and the only food option is Rocky’s Pizza. There’s a dance hall packed with youthful revelers, but I settle instead into a coffee shop, where I’m eyed by a bohemian-looking gentleman with a long white beard and bright green eyes, which surely hold the secrets of the ages. I skim the Times, munch a biscotti and pay my check before he finally approaches. What sage words will he inscribe on my journey?

“Excuse me sir,” he whispers softly, “you couldn’t, by any chance, spare a dollar?”

Three hundred and fifty more miles of county tracks and Rustic Roads deposit me in Madison—“Mad City”—under suddenly clearing skies. Before settling in for the night I cruise the city center on the Hog and meet a few of the 208,000 interesting folk who populate this university and government town, Wisconsin’s second largest.

“What sort of ambiance are you looking for?” asks a friendly bereted gentleman out for an evening stroll past the famous state capitol building. Ambiance?

“Two blocks over that way, and three blocks down,” he points, “is a very historical area.” Interesting! “Yes—it’s a trip back to 1968.”

MAP BY BILL TIPTON/COMPARTMAPS.COM

MAP BY BILL TIPTON/COMPARTMAPS.COM

Groovy! I think, peace and love!, but there’s always a downer in every crowd, and at this late date I don’t want to learn that it was me, so I finish snapping my photo of the magnificent white granite edifice and head for Motel Sleaze (having blown my budget the previous night on a river-front room in downtown La Crosse).

Early the next morning, frost gleaming on the bare earth, another H-D buddy, Leon Winfrey, guides me back to Juneau Avenue via his favorite roads in the southern Kettle Moraine. Magic light bathes the pine trees along azure lakes—in a meadow there are bluebells, the first flowers of spring. In three days, I doubled my lifetime Harley mileage but had failed to find the color locked in the bike’s heartland roots.

I guess I needed glasses, not a toolkit.

(This article Mono-Chrome: An Off-Season Rumble Through Harley Country was published in the March 2005 issue of Rider magazine.)

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