I just returned from a great weekend of biking and camping, and I didn’t need to leave the state this time to do it! My friend and colleague Caitlin recently purchased a new bicycle, a cyclecross type, and she was eager to put some more long haul miles on it. She and her boyfriend Branden extended a cycling and camping trip invitation to me and some other friends of theirs; a 30 mile ride from Madison down to the New Glarus State Park. Despite living in Brodhead for almost a decade while growing up, a town literally connected to New Glarus by the Sugar River bike trail, I’d never actually been in the town before for any reason, and I was excited to hit the trail, the camp, and a town that’s known for the most famous beer in Wisconsin, Spotted Cow.

I started from work, taking a half day off on Friday afternoon, and met Caitlin on the Madison trail with serendipitously perfect timing coming from her house, and once again with perfect timing we met Branden coming out of his office building as well. We were all a little nervous about the dreary overcast sky, and the fact that Wisconsin weather has been deluging for the past month. However, as we hit the Capitol City Trail heading southwest out of the city, the cool breeze and shady sky was actually quite a blessing, both for temperature reasons and the fact that we had the trail almost entirely to ourselves. We were all wearing biking clothes, and thankfully we had friends in cars carrying our camping stuff down to New Glarus for us, otherwise it would have been a much more difficult and encumbered ride!

We stopped for lunch in Belleville, where we flipped a coin and picked one of the two restaurants listed on the Chamber of Commerce website for the town – we had just turned right off of the bike trail and down main street in the city, when Branden happened to look back behind us at the traffic – he shaded his eyes a bit and said “no way…” – it was their friends and our fellow campers Kate and Patxi, her Spanish boyfriend. What serendipitous timing, Branden exulted – what were the chances that we would detour through Belleville, and happen to meet them on the street mere moments before we would have gone into a bar and grill and missed them? The bar, J&M’s (no relation to Brodhead’s M&J’s, I think), served us some amazing swissburgers (lightly charred and crispy on the outside and tender on the inside), and the bartender, Barb, got out her book of “best Wisconsin small pubs” and showed us a few of her favorites since she heard we were heading to the brewery tour.

Conveniently enough, the clouds opened up and started pouring rain only a few minutes after we went inside, and stopped again right as we were finishing up our second or third pints. Across the street from our pub, a large group of older cyclists, fit men and women in polka-dotted outfits, were getting gear out of a van – our groups recognized each other as fellow spandex-wearers, and they hailed us from across the street and asked the best way to get back on the trail toward Madison – it turned out they were all from Des Moines and were doing a “capitol to capitol” bike ride. Something for us to aspire to, perhaps…

After another half hour of biking, we came to the New Glarus Tunnel – a massive train tunnel built in 1888 that was surrounded by blasted-out cliffsides that over the past century had become overgrown with beautiful moss, lichen, and low hanging trees. No fewer than two or three springs seemed to be bubbling out of the cliffside; I assume they were springs as they seemed to start in the middle of the rock, and weren’t coming down from the top of the cliff like a creek or stream might. Inside the tunnel, which stretches for almost 1,300 feet, it was pitch black and there were puddles of rainwater as deep as half a foot. Caitlin, on her small new bike, seemed a bit concerned by this, but Branden told us not to worry – just cycle as fast as possible to keep your forward momentum in the water and we should be able to keep our feet dry and the bikes from toppling over. With headlamps and bikelights glowing dimly and with water drips echoing around us, we went forward as fast as we dared – it took us about 2-3 minutes to get through. My bike had fenders – however, theirs did not, and I was the only one who made it to the campsite with an unsullied back.

Our site had three tents, the other had two. We jokingly referred to ourselves as “base camp zero” – the other was “site B”

The folks with cars (Danno, Dan, and Kate/Paxti) had already arrived, and it was nice to flop down in my chair (after I had unloaded it from Danno’s car) and relax in front of the fire that they had already started. There was a bit of bad news though – our last couple bikers, leaving a few hours after us on sleek road/racing bikes, had some rough luck on the muddy trails and one of them had gotten a flat. Thankfully, one person’s car had a rack on the back and and Hobbes and Jude were only a few miles away from the end, just after the tunnel. The car sped out there, rescued them, and we were all reunited.

One last bit of luck for the evening – because there were 9 of us, the park rangers had split our tents into two sites, but when Hobbes and Jude arrived, the rangers told us that because some other people had dropped out, our second site was moved from across the campground and inconveniently distant to being the one right next door. Branden, Dan, and Paxti grilled up some pork shoulder kebabs that Caitlin had marinated the previous night and we grilled them out on those classic campsite grillstands (the fire was roaring too cheerfully for us to trust it as a cooking source).

Branden and Paxti at the grill

Our luck continued into the next morning, although not in the way that most campers would hope – rain started to fall at around 5 in the morning, but for me, sprawled facedown on the floor of my tent because I had foolishly forgotten to pack a bedroll or sleeping bag in Danno’s car (only my pillow, hah), the white noise and cool temperatures that the rain brought allowed me to sleep in comfortably until 9am, instead of being awoken at 7 by the sun cooking me in my nylon oven. The rain made biking over to the brewery a nonstarter, but we were able to find some breakfast and bloody marys in New Glarus via those fortunate car-drivers, before getting to the tour.

Shrimp, jerky , swiss cheese and four types of spicy sauces to mix into the Bloody Marys? (and a dozen other things) Yes please!

Now, I should clarify – my only experience with brewery tours thus far has been the Minhas Brewery in Monroe. I was a little bit disappointed with the New Glarus tour, because it was self-guided, and also because the rooms were completely sealed off from us behind shining glass and steel. They didn’t even have any signs on the doors, or next to the windows, explaining what the functions of each room were! The 9 of us meandered through, looking at stuff, but after coming from the guided tours at Minhas, I found nothing compelling about the “tour” except “well that’s a lot of shiny pipes”. We had some beers at the tasting room, and went outside under the dreary drizzle, exploring the odd little “ruins” that New Glarus had built on the side of the hill that their brewery crowns. They were done up like abbey ruins, or castles, and yet they still seemed to be building and expanding the area so it was hard to tell what was “half built” and what was “completely built, just designed to look half-built/half-destroyed.”

I thought it was a pretty unique addition to a brewery, although the liability of drunk people falling off of them seems like a bit of a risk!

At this point here, the group separated for awhile – Hobbes, Jude, and myself went back to Madison – me to pick up my sleeping bag and bedroll, and the others to drop off their unsuitable racing bikes at home (they’d just catch a ride with someone tomorrow instead of biking back up with Caitlin, Branden, and myself). The others all went down to Monroe to tour the Minhas brewery, which I had spoken enthusiastically about after the New Glarus brewery tour. But when we all got back together again, Branden in particular was vehemently disgusted with Minhas, calling it “the anti-tour, because now that I’ve seen the conditions that the brew in, I never want to drink anything from them again.” I was confused and a bit affronted, because although I won’t claim that any of their beers were anywhere near my favorites, I certainly didn’t mind their taste and I liked the value of their $5 six-packs of Berghoff at Woodmans (which, come to think of it, have only just increased to $7 a pack last week).

Everyone else at the campfire who had taken the tour was more or less in agreement – Minhas was a dirty mold-filled rathole (complete with cockroach and rat traps in the corner, someone said), and when they had gone down to the keg storage room (something that had not been accessible on my previous tours) there had been massive growths of mold all over the ceiling, simply whitewashed over. Danno solemnly said, “today, we saw two sides of brewing – the past, at Minhas, and the future, at New Glarus.” Me, I have nothing against New Glarus – I like that their beer has brought fame to Wisconsin (I’m sure I even saw Spotted Cow once in a duty-free store in the Middle East!) but I’ll be honest, I don’t like that most of their beers are more hop-focused instead of malt-focused. But my friends had a point – New Glarus did look a lot more clean and modern than Minhas, and they told me that Berghoff just stopped licensing their recipes to Minhas to produce (perhaps that was why the price went up $2 for a six-pack)…it’s likely that my days of drinking their brews are at an end, because now that their beer is the same price as everyone else’s, I might as well just keep trying new stuff every time I’m at the store!

After a dinner of brats (Caitlin had the novel idea of making pigs in blankets by wrapping crescent roll dough around the brats and cooking them over the fire, which was heavenly with a bit of brown mustard) and chips, I slept much more comfortably on my bedroll, and indeed we all must have because the next thing I remember was Jude standing outside our tents saying “I thought we were going to leave at 8, eh? What happened to that idea?”

Breakfast was quiche, made by Caitlin again, and some of my Turkish coffee that I had brought back from Jordan (Jude decided to speed things up anyway by driving into New Glarus and buying a round of coffee for everyone, too – you can never have too much of it, after all, especially before a 30 mile bike ride). But after the tents were packed and the three cars loaded again with everyone’s gear (once again, I was very grateful I wasn’t going to have to carry all this stuff on my back, especially with the additional stuff I had procured on Saturday), the bikers were ready to head out again.

Branden on the future cover of “Bike Wisconsin Magazine”

It was a beautiful morning, and for the first time, we spent the first 15 minutes on the road, using a shortcut to get us back to the Badger State Trail. The road had some sweet downhills, something that our railway-based bike trail certainly did not have, so that was a fun way to wake up the rest of the way. The trail was pretty empty, so we thought we might have another experience like Friday – but the closer we got to Madison, the more the trail filled up with people. By the time we were past Oregon and on the outskirts of Fitchburg, it was like being on a highway.

I’m already planning for our next bike trip, this one was so much fun. Caitlin and Branden talked about a previous trip on the Military Ridge trail to Mount Horeb that they took several weeks ago, I’m hoping to join them for a return to that one sometime soon. And who knows – maybe even a trip all the way down to Brodhead from Madison is in the works too – my brother did it several years ago, so there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to pull it off too. That will be 100 miles in 2 two days – I’d better start training!