On a beautiful late summer day last August, I took my seven-year-old son on a bike ride across town. A very exciting day for both of us. We were going to Olbrich Gardens to see the butterfly exhibit. Anticipating the delicious scent of tropical forest and the vibrant colors of the blooms and butterflies, we headed off on the bike trail toward downtown. A familiar route for us, we had conquered this distance several times already. And in my mind, Olbrich was just a wee bit past downtown. Shouldn’t be much trouble, right? Racing past the Monona Terrace, we felt the sweet coolness of the spray from the lake, and I uttered the tantalizingly tempting phrase “hey buddy, we’re almost there.” Fifteen minutes later, we crossed the Yahara River and I noticed my son’s brow had begun to furrow. It dawned on me that one cannot just label any location on the East Side as “just past the Capitol”.
On the ride home, after a stop at the Vilas Park playground, we cut through the Arboretum. As we were riding past coeds in brightly colored running gear, their long pony tails swaying with their steps, I glanced back over my left shoulder to make sure that my traveling companion had not stopped to chat one of these young ladies up. Pedaling with a delirious determination, my son gave me a pitiful look and a sigh that was audible despite the ten or so feet that separated us and the sound of the wind in my ear. He wanted to stop and rest, but I convinced him that the mosquitos dive bombing us would get worse as the afternoon wore on. He was fighting fatigue and so bravely, but I shook my head, thinking about what I was putting him through. Who takes a child on an impromptu 24 mile bike ride?
In my defense, I am hilariously bad at estimating time and distance, a fact to which my wife will gladly attest. Once, when our son was a baby, we decided to go to a Memorial Day parade in Monona, located on the other side of the city of Madison from our house. Excited by the novel idea that we could bike there, I approached my wife gesturing wildly, with stats about bike trails and ridership assailing her from all angles. There are hundreds of miles of bike trails throughout the city, I said, so getting around is easy! Her acquiescence received, surely out of momentary excitement, was all I needed to plan the great family bonding adventure. It was all going to be perfect. I did, however, fail to take into account the relative level of commitment of the participants.
My wife and I had been married for a couple of years and she was still getting accustomed to my propensity to underestimate. At this still innocent time, there lay ahead of her many disappointments, many schedules altered, and many late arrivals. Lacking the knowledge necessary to be sufficiently cautious, she cheerfully prepared for a leisurely day.
The day started out sunny, literally and metaphorically. It was hot, nearing 90 degrees, but the cool breeze on our faces kept us from noticing the increasing heat. With smiles on our faces, we pedaled on. In late May, the flowers still in bloom, the path laid out before us was inviting. But those blooms were soon to turn thorny and dark clouds filled with droplets of poor planning were forming before we even arrived to the parade.
The first evidence of the storm coming was in the form of a squirmy toddler in the seat behind me. For the first two or three miles, he kept quietly watching the terrain go by. Then around mile four I noticed a rhythmic tapping on my back as I rode along. I turned around to see that he had fallen asleep in his chair, and it was his helmet that I felt. Satisfied, I let my grin spread, turning to look at my wife. She … was not grinning. Nor was I a few minutes later, for my passenger had awoken. He appeared to be displeased with the circumstance in which he found himself, sharing his sentiments with me (or more specifically, with my hamstrings) with a few hard kicks. After this embarrassment, he regained his composure and nodded off, as if telling his father to “please proceed, kind sir”.
Those first few miles had lulled me into a false sense of comfort. However, even my own legs were heavy as we finally made it to Lake Monona. The realization that the hills on the other side of the lake represented our destination was not one that I wished to share with my wife. I didn’t think that that information would be received in her usual loving and understanding way.
The path along the lake is a lovely ride, and the despair among my fellow travelers dissipated in the intoxicating views of the boats circling in front of the glowing skyline. The bright modern buildings framing the nearly 100 year old State Capitol. All of them seemingly sparkling from the bright overhead sun. The cool breeze from the lake invigorated us and my thoughts wandered to how I was going to turn this triumphant moment into a reasonable expectation that we would, from then on, bike everywhere we wanted to go. No longer beholden to the industry of Big Auto, we would be free to enjoy a cyclist life. The Earth would benefit as we reduced our carbon footprint, and our bodies would be healthier and stronger.
Awash with visions of trailers and other accessories that I would need to purchase to complete the transition to our new bike-oriented lifestyle, my mind hardly registered that we had left the friendly security of the bike path and were now entering a residential street. This, in and of itself, was not an issue. But the hill in front of us was.
Many bike paths use old railroad lines, so they generally do not have steep inclines. This is true of intra-city paths and trails that extend outside of urban areas. It makes for a nice, leisurely ride without the hills. The rails to trails movement has been instrumental in securing these abandoned rail lines for conversion to biking/multi-use paths. And Wisconsin has been a leader in the movement. The oldest rail conversion in the country is the Elroy-Sparta Trail, located in the western part of the state.
Consequently, while on the bike path, hills were almost nonexistent, so what we were facing was new. It wasn’t a big hill, but it was enough to put a halt to our momentum. My legs were tired, but I was determined to conquer this hill. I pedaled hard, the bike rocking back and forth, producing a grunting sound from my passenger. I had nearly reached the top when I looked back down the hill to see how my lovely wife was faring. Alas, she was walking her bike, and not looking particularly happy about it.
Finally back on level ground, we coasted our way into Monona, nearing our destination. I checked the GPS app on my phone and it told me we had travelled 12 miles. A resounding success, I thought. We found a place to park the bikes just a short walk from an available curb from which we could enjoy the parade. And enjoy it we did. Pretty much your standard fare – marching bands, noisy fire trucks, and hand-grabbing politicians.
The Key to Our Return
After we got our fill of the spectacle, and a bag filled with candy, we walked back toward the bikes. Our bikes were locked up together on one chain, and as I approached the bikes I felt in my pocket for the key. Yeah, I think you know where this was going…
“What do you mean you don’t have the key? How does it just fall out of your pocket?”
The smell of hot asphalt burned my nostrils as the atmosphere suddenly felt extremely heavy. Suddenly aware of the daunting prospect of the ride back home, made even more challenging without being able to access our bikes, I knew I had to find that key. I began my search with very little optimism. We had walked about three blocks from the bikes so those were a lot of steps to retrace. Looking down on the sidewalk, I had no idea how I was going to find it.
How could I let this happen? After a few frantic minutes, I was about to give up when I had the original thought that maybe the key had fallen close to where we locked up the bikes. And miracle of miracles, it was lying in the grass not 20 feet from the bike. There was much rejoicing.
The three of us slowly made our way back to the West Side, following bike trails and taking frequent breaks. As you can imagine, the pain in my wife’s face was so hard to see. Because, well, I was in front of her. (You didn’t like that joke? Yeah, I don’t think she did that day either.)
We rode our bikes a total of 24 miles that day. Well, almost.
Things got so harrowing that less than a mile before we were to arrive safely at our house, my wife delicately threw her bike down on the grass and announced that she shall venture no further via bicycle. And there she stayed with our toddler, while I bravely rode on, retrieving our chariot to rescue my lady and our little boy. Chivalry, indeed.
Oddly, my wife has agreed to no more long bike rides as of this post. I think maybe she doesn’t believe me when I tell her it’ll be easy. As I get the map back out and start plotting, I think “baby steps, baby. Baby steps.”