By Gary Charpentier
Memorial Day has always been a very special holiday for me. As a veteran, I’m touched by the displays of gratitude and respect shown towards past and present members of our armed forces, and the honors bestowed upon dead heroes. As a motorcyclist, however, I am always dismayed by the seemingly inevitable rain that falls on our many parades during this time of year. In Minnesota, April showers bring May showers, which almost always extend deep into June. Just as our law makers try to eliminate any semblance of real fun from our lives, it seems Mother Nature wants to piss on our parties as well. Why, oh why do I live here? Most of my subject matter centers around the weather!
During the week before Memorial Day this year, I spent hours watching the weather channel and calling up Intellicast on my computer, trying in vain to find a hole in the vast storms which swirled around the entire area. As Friday approached, I watched the national weather radar and concluded that I might be able to make an end-run around the storms if I first headed east into Wisconsin, then looped around to the southwest into the bluff country of northeast Iowa. By Sunday, the worst would have passed, and I might be able to sneak home up the backside of the storms. That was the plan, anyway…
It worked quite well in practice. On Friday, we left early heading for a couple of roads I had found on the Motorcycle Roads US website. The first of these was Wisconsin State Route 108, which sports a 5-mile series of curves that rival Deal’s Gap for intensity between Melrose and West Salem. Getting there was half the fun, as they say.
At Stevenstown, I finally stopped for lunch at a little place called the Hilltop Bar and Grill. Owner Lisa Jenkins tells me that her place is very popular with bikers because of all the great roads in the area. I can certainly believe that. I ordered my usual cheeseburger, which was excellent, and we chatted about the history of the place. Newly remodeled, the Hilltop has been in this same location for many years, possibly even back into the 19th century. I wanted to learn more, but Highway 108 was calling, and I asked Lisa for detailed directions to what the locals call “The 108 Cut”. They call it this because it is actually cut into the hillsides to reduce the grades for early farm trucks and horse-drawn wagons. This makes for a scenic and very challenging ride, as I found out shortly…
As it turned out, to ride the entire route listed on the website, I had to turn left at 108 and follow that up to Melrose, then turn around and go back south to West Salem. I didn’t mind this a bit, as 108 entertains you the whole way. Where there aren’t challenging curves, you get beautiful scenery. Though Frogwing was fully loaded, we were still scraping pegs on both sides in the twisty bits, and the pavement quality was wonderful. I highly recommend this road, if you are ever in that area. I can’t say the same, however, for Vernon County Road P.
Beginning near the little town of Westby, County Road P winds as much as Highway 108, but for a longer distance. This should have been a Good Thing, right? Unfortunately, the local highway department has seen fit to patch the unusual concrete/aggregate surface with those horrible slippery “tar snakes”! While certainly more economical than patching them properly, and probably not as much of an issue with the majority four-wheeled traffic, these damned things are a nightmare on a motorcycle when leaned hard into a corner. After the first dozen or so curves, sliding a foot or so offline with each despicable tar snake we ran over, I had to slow down to a less challenging speed and just hoon along like a freaking tourist. Hmmmm… maybe that was their objective all along. The Man just HAS to control EVERYTHING! I can’t understand why this road was so highly rated by the folks on the Motorcycle Roads US site. Maybe they rode it before the tar snake infestation…
We found a home for the night at the Spring Green Motel. Nothing noteworthy about this place except the price: Forty bucks for a Friday night on a holiday weekend. The only good restaurant in town was packed, so I contented myself with Subway and Spotted Cow Ale. After that, I dropped exhausted into bed and fell asleep to the soothing sounds and bright blue glow of the Weather Channel.
The ride to Guttenberg, Iowa wasn’t nearly as intense as the previous day. Typical country two-lanes, ridden mostly at the speed limit, led me all the way to Prairie du Chien where I crossed the river into Iowa. At Marquette, I chose to ride the Great River Road down to Guttenberg, as that would take me right along the Mississippi all the way. I had reservations at the North Overlook Lodge, and from the description I had heard, I couldn’t wait to see it. However, there were so many cool little roads leading down to the waterside that it took me hours to get there. At one point, I stopped in at Bill’s Marina, in Clayton. This place is famous with boaters for it’s excellent food and great view of the river. I ordered the Cajun Shrimp appetizer and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Darkness and rain were closing in as I checked into the North Overlook Lodge. I asked them, on a whim, if there were any Mexican restaurants in the area, and to my surprise they directed me to a little place called Morteo’s Sopapia! I pulled in just as they were closing, but I gave them the big puppy dog eyes and scratched at the door and they let me in. Since I was the only customer, my Burrito Colorado came quickly, but not until I had sampled their excellent homemade salsa with a basket of chips. If you ever get down Guttenberg way, I highly recommend this place. The burrito was wonderful, and it made me sleepy enough that I fell into dreamland as soon as my head hit the pillow.
The following morning, I toured Guttenberg. Riding along the river drive, I witnessed a well-preserved old town preparing for their Memorial Day festivities. At the Kanndle Lounge and Supper Club, I enjoyed breakfast in the company of veterans from World War II all the way to Gulf War I. We swapped war stories and they told me not to miss the beautiful Veterans Memorial down along the river. So I visited that afterwards and took some photos of the elegant granite slabs engraved with the names of all the local veterans who had made the ultimate sacrifice in our nation’s many wars. Set amongst all the armed forces banners surrounded by a forest of American flags, it is crowned by a tall pedestal with a bald eagle, wings spread, at the top. Photography done, I stood for a moment, contemplating… Then I slowly came to attention and snapped a salute. It seemed like the thing to do at the time, and as I stood there an old gentleman who was riding a man-sized tricycle down the street stopped, stood to attention, and saluted them with me. It was a powerful moment, not a word was uttered, but as he passed me afterward we shared a look that said it all.
My ride home along the Great River Road was uneventful, except for the achingly beautiful scenery. We got a little wet passing Rochester, but dried out completely by the time I arrived at Ton-Up Hill. It was a wonderful weekend, overall, and on Monday I relaxed in front of the tube and flipped through the channels watching Memorial Day ceremonies from all over the country. Freedom isn’t free, as you well know, but we should be thankful that there are always men and women willing to pay the price.