We recently returned from vacationing in Wisconsin. When friends asked where we were headed, they’d shake their heads in perplexity. “Wisconsin in the summer? Don’t you know that their state bird is a mosquito?” I’d shrug and quip back, “Well, sure, so that’s why I’m bringing along my tennis racket.”
What people fail to realize is the relaxation value tallied up by going to an out-of-the-way vacation spot such as Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, population 1,021. It’s not glitzy like Florida, California or Europe; it’s plain old American mid-west heartland. Wisconsin is a place where one percent milk tastes like the whole variety. Overall, I think I counted a grand total of three mosquitos.
Our first day in town we decided to stretch our legs, or rather, our wheels, and give the roads a test ride. We’d rented road bikes in Milwaukee from a place called “Wheel & Sprocket.” You never know what to expect when you’re an out-of-towner and all you’ve got to rely on is the internet; we’ve been fitted with rattletraps and sleekly whirring machines in various locales, but this place took the cake. I apologize in advance to my own bike, my beautiful Orbea, a Spanish steed, but the Trek 5.2 Madones were the most incredible bikes I’ve ever straddled. It was a treat, to say the least. Along with the rentals came advice on various topics: ideas for ride circuits, the tendency for rainy, cool weather in Wisconsin, and most importantly, how to pronounce the tongue twister town names so the locals wouldn’t look at us sideways. Sounding stupid isn’t ever knowingly pursued, and somehow, Wisconsin folks know this. They go out of their way to make visitors feel at home.
The warm-up ride took us on smooth asphalt country roads, with a little stopover to play our favorite game, “Cemetery.” Yes, I’m serious: we reserve this for the old ones with smooth, worn stones, moss-grown and cracked. The person who finds the earliest “inhabitant’s” birth date wins.
This particular graveyard, with stones bearing the names of old German families who settled the area, hosted a 1784 winner. The slumbering nature of the hamlet began to waft over us. If I’d sat down under a tree, a case of Rip Van Winkle would have developed. But, as you know, Dr. K is ever on the move.
Back in Elkhart Lake, I wanted to check out the local grocery for breakfast odds and ends. Dr. K and Isabelle hung outside by the door, keeping a weather eye on the bikes, which is what attracted the attention of a stranger. We figured it wasn’t all that likely to run across a crew of road-bikers in a sleepy town of a thousand, but were we ever wrong.
As it turns out, this part of the country is primed for racing, and has been for over half a century. Back in the summer of 1950, engines began roaring with a little 3.35 mile circuit along county roads that attracted 5,000 people. This went on for a couple of summers, with the 1952 numbers bringing in over 100,000. It looked as if Elkhart Lake had latched on to a good thing, and by 1955 they’d built Road America, a track course which holds over 425 events annually. The NASCAR series is popular. There’s also a vintage racing event, the Kohler International Challenge with Brian Redman. These cars are fast, really fast, averaging 68 mph.
Which explains what we had been hearing as we’d circled country roads. There’d been the unmistakeable sound of race cars, just around the corner, or so it seemed. The truth was the sound bounced off the track, ricocheting over to us several miles away as we sedately pedaled up another hill only so we could zoom down. We were all racing, but it was a horse of another color.
We learned that there were many sorts of race “horses” from our new friend Brian, the stranger who had discovered my family lollygagging outside the quaint Feed Mill Market. Brian was yet another of the wonderful people of Wisconsin, and a racer, although not of the NASCAR sort; he was a professional biker on weekends, an alternative energy entrepreneur by day. It so happened that one of the biggest bike tours in the United States was set to begin in a day or so: the Tour of America’s Dairyland, an annual ten-day extravaganza with nine CRITs, a road race and a non-aero bar time trial. It sounded interesting, and we said we’d try to fit one criterium into our schedule. After all, how often does something like that stray across your path?
Brian regarded us with curiosity. We were an enigma in Elkhart Lake’s midst. “What,” he asked, are a bunch of Coloradoans doing biking in Wisconsin? Don’t you guys have enough hills in your neck of the woods?” This wasn’t a case of a local saying, “Coloradoans, go home!” He was just stumped.
Wisconsin countryside is beautiful, dotted with picturesque dairy barns and black-n-white cows, predominantly of the Holstein variety. It also has roller-coaster hills. Brian seemed to like our answer, and he proceeded to suggest ride routes. We’d made a new friend. He popped up again the next day as we were heading back to Elkhart Lake on the Old Plank Road Trail, a 33.6 mile paved bike path running along WI-23. It follows an old pioneer road and links up to the Ice Age Scenic Trail. As you see, Wisconsin likes bikers. We caught the trail on our 51 mile round-trip route back from Sheboygan, after a great lunch of crisp salads and handcrafted beers at Urbane. My favorite is “Spotted Cow”, by New Glarus Brewing Company.
Wisconsin likes people. This affinity is demonstrated by the willingness of complete strangers to walk up, introduce themselves, ask you what beer you’re drinking and then launch into the full history of their existence. You see it when a dairy farmer idles his truck, waiting for four bikers to pass by, with a wave and a smile. You see it in Kohler, home to the world-renowned plumbing manufacturer, and the Mid-West’s only five diamond AAA resort. It’s a resort with a history, one of immigrants, welcome, education and citizenship. The imposing Tudor architecture of The American Club, situated directly across the street from the main Kohler factory, is a contradiction in terms. An edifice which once nurtured those isolated from their homeland now caters to the wealthy. But the halls are replete with reminders of a common past. We were all immigrants once, new to America, and the intention of the Kohler family was to foster loyalty and grow citizens. In that sense it is similar to the DREAM Act of today.
Back at the Osthoff after another day of cycling, I am more than happy to sit on the balcony and read a book until I really get hungry. That’s another thing: the food anywhere in town is incredible, and you’ll still be able to afford fuel to get back to Milwaukee. It’s tranquil, sitting on the balcony overlooking the rainy lake. The fog drifts in, mysterious as it ought to be, expected at this time of day. Even the reggae band one resort over recedes into my subconscious.
And then, around 8 o’clock, the band segued into a morph of elevator and cheesy smoke bar. A tune with a bit of salsa, tango intertwined, sounding like canned sex in recorded format, the leering saxophone making fun of our intelligence. And still, I never remember its title. I dialed my friend Diane back in Colorado, because she’s a jazz whiz, and hummed a couple of bars over the phone with the hope of identification; she recognized it immediately. “The Girl From Ipanema,” Diane said, and launched into the lyrics before I had a chance to stop her:
Tall and tan and young and lovely;
The girl from Ipanema goes walking;
And when she passes, each one she passes goes – aaahhhh.
“Oh, please,” I begged her. “I’ve been trying to get that tune out of my head, ever since I heard it again tonight.” She chuckled. The song will fade, as will it’s subject.
I said goodbye to my friend, and then, the band switched back to soft reggae, a steel drum subtly alluring with its lullaby, the music relegated to my semiconscious. I returned to my book, and the watercolor version of the lake as it entered sunset mode.
Like this blog post? Subscribe to my newsletter so you won’t miss out on future blog posts!
I came across this article because I am a twitter follower of Elkhart Lake and they posted it today. Also I was born, raised, and still live in Sheboygan County. It's funny because while I sat with family this past weekend at the Barefoot Tiki Bar at Victorian Village, (The resort next to the Osthoff you mentioned). We were talking about how lucky we were to have such a place right in our "backyard". While sitting on the beach with our toes in the water, listening to a Dylan tribute band, and drinking Rum Runners, it hit us….. People travel hundreds of miles, and pay even more to experience what we were.
It was nice to hear what you had to say about the area, and the people! Very recently my interest in our local tourism has grown, and even though I know better than to think that all the locals are as nice as the ones you met, it is nice to know that there are stories out there like yours.
I found this link very interesting. It seems that you guys know how to have a great vacation.
Fantastic article, sounds like a nice trip!
Makes me wish that I could ride a bike for more than two blocks (on a very good day.)
Even without your great photos one gets a visual picture of the places and experiences that you take us on. Your imagery is superb.
Thanks again for another reading treat
After spending 4 years in Wisconsin, the article also has brought back many things. The people and food are great, and their pride in the State is natural.
They too have a strong spirit and belief. For years I would see a man who worked as an attendant in the Chemistry builing, who on his day off would go down to Lake Mendota and fish for many hours, always with the tackle for large Muskie. Everyone would always wonder when he returned empty handed, " why doesn't he fish for bass or some other smaller, but more possible catch. He never minded, kept to his ways. One day, I saw him early in the morning carrying a five foot long Muskie up State Street, and at the end of classes as I returned home at 4PM he was still parading up and down the street to prove that he carried out his "impossible" dream.
I'm FINALLY reading one of your articles, Emily! I love Wisconsin and as a person who has lived there, I can tell you the people, food, beauty of the country are exactly as you describe! I have never, ever lived with such generous, kind, welcoming people. I left with a heavy heart in spite of the fact it was to get married and move to (gasp) OHIO with my husband. I loved reading your article and your beautiful writing. I'm homesick, but I am so grateful for your wonderful writing and the memories it stirred.