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From the Woodlot
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From the Woodlot

From the Woodlot

I’m not sure why I waited as long as I did. But I was busy with travel, busy with gardening and busy hosting cabin guests – busy, busy, busy. There was always an excuse.

So I cast all my busy excuses aside and made an August resolution this year. I’m going to hop on that saddle and ride as often as I can. I’m not talking Pintos or Palominos. I’m talking about my bicycle.

I’m going to experience the wind in my face and the hum of life along the country roadsides, peddling along the gravel shoulders lined with yellow trefoil flowers between rural mailboxes. That’s where the country ditches grow profuse with mullein, dogbane and evening primrose – and where wild-apple branches droop, laden with bounty. Beyond the roadside ditches are pastures with grazing cattle and cornfields that rustle under high cumulus clouds.

A friend once shared a simple epigram with me – “You can tell a lot about a man by what makes him giddy.” When I’m riding my bike I confess to experiencing a bit of childlike giddiness. Perhaps my giddiness is rooted in the memory of my first bike as a kid, a red Schwinn Speedster. I used it for fun and work; I had a stint delivering the morning paper to residents of the subdivision I lived in northwest of Chicago.

I remember catching my pinstripe bell bottoms in the chain guard on my first day of launching newspapers onto the front steps of the ranch homes in my neighborhood. Of course my dilemma occurred right in front of the home of the cutest girl in the 6th grade. I could feel her eyes fixed on me as I did a delicate balancing act, trying to remove my pant leg wrapped in the chain while keeping the back rack upright so as not to lose the rolled and rubber-banded newspapers. I eventually succeeded – and may have unintentionally started the “frayed-edge trend” that eventually swept the jean-wearing nation.

I’ve had a half-dozen bikes in my lifetime. I had a nice 10-speed in college that was stolen from the front porch where I rented a room in a huge Victorian home. Shockingly it was returned to me a year later by the police, in a stripped-down version and sporting a coat of blue spray paint over its former metallic-red color.

In the middle of my farming career I went through a fitness phase that had me taking daily 30-mile summer rides with an aluminum-framed teal-blue Trek road bike. I once topped out at 41 miles per hour on a downhill stretch along County Road N in eastern Marathon County. Yes I wore a helmet.

I eventually competed in the Mt. Horeb biathlon. The competition included two 3-mile runs divided by a 20-mile bike race through the hilly countryside. I finished in the middle of the pack. My post-race visit to the famous Mt. Horeb Mustard Museum was a highlight; it’s since relocated to Middleton, Wisconsin.

Whether my biking tights still fit or not, my days of competitive riding are long ended. My current ride is a cruiser-type bicycle. I highly recommend that style of ride for anyone considering the joy of casual bike riding. The seat is comfortable and the handle bars put the rider in a stress-free upright posture. The modern one-click shifting mechanism is thumb-operated and ergonomic. With 21 gears I can granny my way up the steepest of hills. The tires are wide enough that I cap off my daily rides by checking my gardens while low-gearing it through my mown raised-bed paths. A simple rear-view mirror is a recommended accessory.

I bought my cruiser-type bike when I was still on the farm. It was a joy to ride the roads surrounding my farm in the evening after a long hot summer day. There was a particular stretch of road I recall where the laws of physics seemed not to apply. I called it the uphill road. It was flanked by a hayfield on the east and a woodlot to the west. No matter which direction I approached it from – and I did so daily – it seemed I was always going slightly uphill. Yet I could glide effortlessly without peddling. It was a mirage of sorts – magical if you will.

The bike leaned on the north wall of my shack beneath my grandfather’s old syrup pan. I topped off the tires with a shot of compressed air, not bothering to knock off the cobwebs. I reset the rear-view mirror and headed west out of my woodlot driveway, where the red crushed granite transitioned to blacktop. There a stretch of maples and oaks overhung the road. I was wrapped in a micro-climate of cooler air as I peddled effortlessly in mid-range gear.

I left the tree line and felt the perfect August warmth. Grasshoppers bounded off into the roadside grasses. A kestrel and kingbird vied for my attention. I eased into a perfect glide when it happened, like a kid on a bright-red Schwinn Speedster heading for the ballpark with the wind in his hair. Once again I was giddy.

Until next week, friend …

Greg Galbraith, a former dairy farmer who owns woodlot property in eastern Marathon County, Wisconsin, writes about the rapidly changing nature of the agricultural landscape. He has built a lifetime connection to the land and those who farm it.

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