Biking to Oregon: Day 1 - Backyard Camping

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I started the first day of the trip with a relaxed morning, setting an alarm clock just in case but otherwise planning to ease into the day and getting a full night of sleep. Abbey was planning to ride the start of the first day with me on the condition that she wouldn’t have to be woken up by an alarm clock either. My bike was almost all packed from the night before, so I only needed to go through the checklist I made on my phone to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything.

I also made the final additions to a box I packed that Abbey would later ship to Oregon when I was getting closer to my destination. Abbey made french toast and eggs for breakfast. Plenty of carbs and protein to start a day of biking on the right foot.

Shortly after breakfast, we headed out the door with our bikes to get a picture of me standing next to my bike on the sidewalk to be sent to my family. My destination that day was Wilton, Wisconsin: 108 miles from our east-side apartment in Madison. Wilton was on the Elroy-Sparta trail, which was the first rail-to-trail in the country. Commonly known as a rail-trail, the Elroy-Sparta trail used to serve as a railroad before it was converted to a multi-use pedestrian trail in 1967.

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My goal was to average 100 miles per day on my trip, which was a distance I was comfortable with riding when all I had to do each day was ride a bike without worrying about other major time commitments. With this being my first major biking trip, I tried to pack light to make my daily mileage goal more attainable. Having a lightweight backpacking tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad made this easy, but I also tried to limit other essentials. I only brought one t-shirt, one pair of underwear, and one pair of shorts that I would wear when I wasn’t biking. I didn’t bring an extra pair of shoes - only the ones I used for biking which have hard soles and clip into my pedals. I had two pairs of cycling shorts and two pairs of socks - one set I would wear while the other I would wash and then dry on the top of my seat pack.

I brought enough food and water to get me through the day, but I would be relying on towns to supply breakfast and dinner, as well as gas stations and convenience stores to refill on fluids and snacks along the way. The route I was planning to do, along with my daily mileage goal, made this possible since every day of riding included at least two towns with a restaurant and convenience store.

Abbey and I used Madison’s bike paths to get to the west side of town and then turned north to follow a bike path towards Sauk City. Abbey rode with me for 20 miles, which was still a good distance ride since she would be turning around to ride back home. At the 20 mile mark, we pulled over next to a corn field which felt like a fitting way to say goodbye in rural Wisconsin. She took another picture as I rode away with everything on my bike that I would be using for the next 23 days.

I made my first stop in Sauk City at a Kwik Trip. I’ve only heard good things about Kwik Trips from other cyclists in Wisconsin, and over the course of the year, I’ve grown to appreciate the combination gas station and convenience store for having a big selection of snacks as well as bike racks and picnic tables outside. I refueled on water, and bought a banana, chocolate milk, and a Snickers bar. I enjoyed my snack outside while looking at a map of COVID cases by state that my Dad sent me.

I continued north towards Reedsburg which is where the 400 State Trail started, another rail-trail that connected to the Elroy-Sparta trail. I followed back roads and county highways to get there, seeing minimal cars along the way. After living in Wisconsin for two years, I’ve come to love road biking around here. If you pick your route right, you can ride all day and only see a few cars on the road with you.

I was following a route that I had planned in the month leading up to my trip. Most of my trip followed the Adventure Cycling Association’s (ACA) Northern Tier Route, which goes from Bar Harbor, Maine to Anacortes, Washington. I would join the Northern Tier Route in La Crosse, WI, which sits on the western border of Wisconsin along the Mississippi river. To get there, I had to make my own route.

A few of the tools I use online, Ride With GPS and Strava, helped when I had to make my own route. Those tools make routes based on the roads that cyclists usually ride. I had considered using these tools to make my own route all the way to Corvallis, Oregon, but decided to use ACA to take advantage of an established route with the people along the way being familiar with seeing cyclists go through their towns. ACA also publishes a list of services along their routes which includes convenience stores, restaurants, hotels, campgrounds, hostels, and points of interest.

After stopping in Reedsburg to refill on water and get another chocolate milk at a grocery store, I started riding the 400 State Trail north towards the town of Elroy. The Elroy-Sparta trail had a few sections that were closed from storm damage a few years ago. I was expecting this and my route to Wilton considered the extra mileage of detours.

My first detour took me up a steep hill into an amish area, where the shoulder of the road had horse poop every 30 feet and I saw someone cultivating their field using one of those old-timey horse-drawn cultivators.

I eventually made it to Wilton and headed towards a city campground that I found on Google Maps a couple weeks earlier. It was closed, likely due to COVID. I biked by a group having a cookout and playing cornhole in their driving, asking about the campground, hoping they would tell me something like “Oh I know the person that runs that place, you can just stay there anyway!” They told me that the next town, Norwalk, had a city campground and it was an additional 6 miles.

I biked over to the city hall to sit on the bench so I could get on my phone and figure out my options. My first priority was to get some actual food, so I called the only open restaurant I found in town - the Hitchin’ Post - to put in an order for a pizza. I biked to the restaurant and came inside and found a seat at the bar, distancing myself from other people.

As I was eating my pizza, a person who was there with her boyfriend and parents, saw my helmet and started asking me about my trip. I told her it was my first day on a bike trip to Oregon. I mentioned that I was planning to camp in town but found out that the city campground was closed. Her boyfriend joined the conversation and she offered to let me camp in her backyard, and then her boyfriend followed up by offering to let me camp in his backyard.

I suddenly had two choices for camping, and even though Norwalk was only 6 more miles, I decided to accept their offer, finish my pizza, and do my first night of camping in a stranger’s backyard. I chose the boyfriend's yard, after looking up both houses on google maps and favoring the one with the bigger backyard. He even offered to run an extension cord to the backyard in case I wanted to charge my phone.

Backyard camping.