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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

Chicago to Wisconsin

Indiana and New Jersey must be in cahoots because they’ve both got a pretty good racket going in the toll roads business. The ride from Toledo to Chicago ended up costing over $15 and that was far less than it would have been for a car. Indiana tolls were quickly replaced with Chicago parking fees. A few years ago, apparently Morgan Stanley bought the rights to run the meters and the rates have gone nowhere but up since that particular deal went down (and MS absolutely crushed it on the contract).

Fees aside, I really enjoy Chicago. It is almost exactly the same size as Houston by population but they couldn’t be more different. Chicago is like New York on the Great Lakes — great skyline, lots to do, and vibrant energy all around. It feels like, to me, a real city should. The quality of life there, when it’s not below-zero and windy, is pretty darn good. Houston, on the other hand, has achieved its population growth through expanding the boundaries of its sprawl and its downtown feels like an afterthought. Were it not for the soul-crushing winters, I could easily find an excuse to relocate to the Windy City.

The bike needed service so my girlfriend and I mostly spent time catching up with local friends. The Boiler Room pub near logan square has a great special, called the PB&J: A pizza slice, beer (a tall boy PBR can), and a shot of Jameson for $7. Nuff said.

From Chicago I headed north into Wisconsin. It took time to get away from the city sprawl (the worst part of every journey from civilization), and there hadn’t been any good open road by the time I rolled through Milwaukee. Milwaukee really is a beer town. When I originally looked up what to do there, almost every activity had either directly to do with beer or was branded by beer. Were I not on a bike, I think I could have effectively killed plenty of time (and brain cells) in that city.

I could have shot west on 94 but instead I just kept going north towards Green Bay. The countryside quickly lost the urban undertones and I finally returned to the kind of farmland I’d missed since Kentucky. The landscape did have some subtle differences; the spaces between farms tended towards fields, lakes and meadows as often as the forests that had been commonplace before.

I stopped off in Sheboygan, a nice little town about halfway up to Green Bay, and rode to the edge of the lake:

On the waiting list to host NFL franchises, I would have put Green Bay, WI somewhere between Hoboken, NJ and Wisteria, AK. There are some cities that gradually rise from the countryside around them and pull roads and people inwards. Green Bay just sort of appears in the midst of the farmland around it as a series of strip malls and small houses, marked by a sign that reads “Population: 106,241.”

Mystified by the tiny town (city?), I made my way to the storied Lambeau Field. One minute the tree-lined road passes tiny, tightly packed houses and the next, the stadium rises up like a temple to the mighty gods. I hadn’t planned on doing so, but I couldn’t help but take a tour. It’s a place where half of all men, women, and children would have to attend every Packers home game just to fill the stadium (or they’d have to travel many hours from all corners of the state). I’ve seen a lot of franchises with devoted fans, but Green Bay has earned my respect many times over in that regard.

The ride on rt. 10 west from Green Bay to Minneapolis, which will go down as one of my all time favorites, began inauspiciously to say the least. I’m starting to get pretty tired of this weather pattern, where I’m constantly forced to dodge patches of lightening and hail and I haven’t seen a real sunset in weeks. I am, however, becoming somewhat of a wiz with cloud formations. This time the storm was something new — it looked like one pressure wave, carrying dark wet clouds and angry lightening, was ever so slowly sliding below another. The sun shone fiercely through the narrow gap between the two and it looked like heaven itself had ripped at the seams amid the boiling fury of the storm.

A few crappy iPhone photos can hardly do justice to the moment:

The storm swept southeast from Canada at an impressive clip and my only option was to try and shoot out from under it before it consumed me. I opened the throttle and powered west at full speed, focused on the patch of lighter clouds that I knew meant safety. I almost made it too. I got out from under the worst stuff but was nonetheless subjected to a thorough drenching when the southernmost part of the front clipped the highway ahead of me. I endured near white-out conditions while looking for an exit but by the time one showed up, the worst was well over and I’d shot out the other side.

Thus began my ride into the dairyland of northern Wisconsin, where the gentlest of hills held a mix of pastures, farmhouses, and wheat fields. There are many variables that go into a great ride, and scenery is just one of them. The sun had begun its afternoon descent and it set the land alive as it shone through the thin haze that hung low in the air, giving the whole scene a subtle golden hue. The roads were buttery smooth and I rode alone for long stretches, lost in the warmth of the afternoon and the smells of rural America. I slowed down and enjoyed the ride while it lasted, taking deep breaths of country air and actually sighing when I rounded a bend to see yet another red barn atop a hill and surrounded by cattle.

The best of it only lasted for 30 or 40 miles but I milked those miles for all they were worth. By the time I’d pushed near to Minneapolis, the country charm had faded and it was time to race yet another thunderstorm. I gratefully rolled into the hotel with lightening striking furiously just miles down the road and the very first drops beginning to fall from the sky.