Speaking of Rain - Part I
Timely that we ran with that thread on rain riding this week. I had eight
hours yesterday to put damn near all of it to work and the parts I wasn't
applying I was was sure 'nuff thinking about.
I hardly know where to start.
How 'bout with the highway patrolman?
It must have been midnight or so, in a truck stop in Mauston, Wisconsin,
when a cop walks in and sit in the booth behind me.
"You must have been blowin' around pretty good out there," says the
"Yah, we hit some pretty good gusts," I allow.
"I just had one blow me across two lanes of highway," he sez.
Turns out the worst of our suspicions was confirmed. This was part of winds
gusting up to 60 mph on the tail end of a storm front that had started
moving across Iowa and southern Minnesota early in the afternoon, and by 4
p.m. the first inklings of it were ominously apparent as we'd cruised the
high ridges and narrow winding roads deep in the valley of the Kickapoo
River, about 30 miles inland from the Mississippi and about halfway south between La Crosse and Prairie du Chien.
We'd noticed the clouds
gathering to our northwest and heard about it from a guy on a Buell who
pulled in behind us to gas up in the little hamlet of Gays Mills, apple orchard capital of southeast Wisconsin. The Buell
was missing a few parts, he said, but you couldn't prove it by us. It
looked plenty fast and mean. He was heading home, he said, trying to beat the
storm. He told me a shortcut I could take from state 131 over to state 27,
which would take me back down the west side of the valley into Prairie du
Chien, but save me about 20 miles.
We were coming in by way of a meandering 160-mile
route, with our primary destination being the Fur Traders Rendezvous on the
grounds of old Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien, or Prairie of the Dog as
it would be in English, or better yet, "Prairie Dog Town," as Bugsy calls it. The rendezvous was one of the largest in the
country, one of several in a series of summer encampments of a group of
reenactors who are deeply into the period of 1820-1850, when everything west of
the Ohio River was still Indian Country, vast, wild and adventurous. The
fur trade started with the French late in the 17th century, then the
English tried to move in which started a war that got the colonists
involved, and by 1820 the Americans were scrambling for their piece of it.
In a wilderness without roads the rivers were the highways and at several
strategic points where broad inland rivers flowed into the Mississippi, key
settlements were established as clearing houses for trading and shipping.
The reenactors emulate this life, traveling throughout the summer from camp
to camp, living in villages of tents and teepees and lean-to's with their
wives and kids and wares and household utensils, and when the rubes come
around to gawk they sell them leathers and axes and muskets and pelts, lots
of beads and jewelry, wood carvings, and a good sense of authenticity--that
is, if you can keep from noticing that an unusually large number of the fur
traders are portly middle-aged white men, long hair and beards with
enormous bellies hanging out over their breach-cloths. Indians are scarce.
By 5 pm, with me and the little woman in town ahead of the rain and seated
at the bar of Denny's Sawmill Inn on Blackhawk Avenue in Prairie du Chien,
the crowd started coming in from the rendezvous, which had just been closed
down. The sheriffs had driven through the encampment and evacuated the
customers, and back down at the river the reenactors were crawling into
their lean-to's and teepees, battening down the hatches, I presumed,
hunkering down for a spell. The wind was picking up, the sky was darkening,
and at Denny's you could see splatters of rain on the front window through the
neon beer signs. On the TV, in and around putts and tee shots from the U.S.
Open, the weather service was tracking the storm, showing which counties
were in for severe weather, which others had tornado-type winds. There was
kidding about it at Denny's, people asking Denny the owner if he was
selling tickets to the basement, which, we soon learned, was not just a
joke because two days before they had had a tornado touch down and people
all over town were ducking into basements and stand-up freezers and bath
tubs to ride out the blow. We had seen the damage it had wreaked, lots of it, while
Now, at this point if yer still with me, I must explain that we had a motel
room waiting in La Crosse. That's 60 miles to the north, up the eastern
bank of the Mississippi on what they call the Great River Road. I've
mentioned it before online. It's some of the best two-lane highway in
America, a great combination of wide curves and intermingling straights,
woods and towering bluffs on the Wisconsin side, and across the Mississippi, the
ridges and bluffs of Iowa and Minnesota on the other. We like to ride it so
much that our intention was to hit the rendezvous, then head up to La
Crosse and the motel in the early evening with the sun setting over the
river and bluffs.