Cycling with Julie Nelson
While there’s nothing new about taking a car or bus trip through Amish country, those tourists don’t know what they’re missing with the windows rolled up and the motor on. When you roll through on a bicycle, you get close enough to greet the people in the buggy and actually smell the horse. You go more slowly and can get a better sense of the Amish life. It may even be easier to strike up a conversation with one of the farmers.
I grew up in Viroqu and – since my dad owned a feed mill and hardware store – I have encountered plenty of Amish folk in my day. Distinguished by their dark clothing, the men, women and children were always polite and were good customers, but they typically kept to themselves. Sometimes they would tie up their horse and buggy behind the store, sometimes they would get a ride to town with one of their “English” neighbors. But it wasn’t until I started bicycling the rural roads in Vernon County that I really got a sense of how the Amish live. That’s why the trip on “B-Y-O” is my favorite ride through Amish country.
Since I now live in La Crosse, I start out by heading south out of La Crosse on Highway 35. On Saturdays, my Amish experience begins when I reach the southern end of Stoddard; where a family is set up selling baked goods and jams. The extra fuel may not be critical for my ride, but that’s not the point.
After a brief stop there, I turn east on Highway 162 and start heading uphill. At County O, I turn right (south) and enjoy a quiet rural setting complete with pasturelands, a stream and a brief downhill. Next comes a long uphill sure to challenge your lungs and possibly your granny gear, but like any good climb, the payoff comes at the top as you roll past a breathtaking view of the valley below. No one would blame you if you stopped to take a picture of the Mississippi River and the surrounding bluffs.
Passing a wagon loaded with children is one of the joys of riding in Amish country. Julie Nelson photo
Now on to Amish territory. I won’t kid you; the continual rolling hills that are part of the driftless area aren’t for someone on their first ride. But if you’re up for the challenge, you’ll soon be going past farmland reminiscent of a bygone era. You’ll see plows and horses in the fields, lumber mills for handcrafted furniture and farm stands where you can purchase produce and eggs that were picked and gathered only an hour ago.
Sundays are special days in Amish country, when everyone – and I mean everyone – goes to church. Dressed in clothes that are a bit cleaner and a bit crisper than what they wear on weekdays, the Amish families all head to a neighbor’s farm for the worship service. While it’s always interesting to see all the children and adults walking to worship, there’s nothing like catching up to, and then passing, an Amish buggy. It’s an empowering feeling to realize you have more horsepower than, well, a horse. Since a bike has no motor, I sometimes wonder if a two-wheeler would be an acceptable mode of transportation for the Amish, but I suppose it would be considered unnecessary and frivolous.
Since my experience with the Amish has always been that they have kept to themselves, I like to respect their practice. I happily offer a greeting of “good morning” or “beautiful day” as I’m passing a buggy, but I never attempt to engage them in long conversations. A friend and I had a treat when we stopped for a drink of water outside the Rising Sun nursery. A young Amish man with a charming smile and a lot of enthusiasm came to the road and greeted us. He asked about our bikes and we chatted about our ride, the horse we had seen him riding earlier and little bit about his life on the farm. He was truly delightful and had he been part of another culture, we would have asked for a selfie.
A hodge-podge of signs point the way to Amish businesses in the country. Julie Nelson photo
One aspect of Amish transportation to be aware of is that horses do spook, and that can be dangerous for both you and the buggy driver. As you approach, speak in a moderate to soft voice – don’t shout – and give the horse plenty of room. Some have suggested the sound of a hub coasting can mimic that of a rattlesnake, so I always try to make sure I am pedaling when I approach and pass a buggy.
If you’re biking through the area on Sunday and don’t see any Amish on the roads, that means the worship service is underway. When you find the farm where the families have gathered, you’ll know it. Buggies are parked on every square inch of the host’s lawn and with all the people gathered, and the inevitable potluck that will follow, you’ll wish you could stop in for a piece of fresh homemade pie.
This left turn is no surprise since the yard is strewn with wagons and buggies. Julie Nelson photo
As Amish country comes to an end, I continue straight on County Highway O, and then take a right on County B. At that intersection is a country church, complete with a cemetery reminding the parishioners of those who have come before them. The church burned down a few years ago and the new building is a testament to the commitment of the members who brought it back to life.
After 35 miles, I’m ready for a pit stop, so at Highway 56, I turn left and head into Viroqua, where I may sit down with a sandwich at the Viroqua Food Co-op or I may grab something from one of the two Kwik Trips.
Your return trip to La Crosse offers a couple different options, my personal favorite is to take the paved trail along Highway 14 to Westby and then Spring Coulee road – downhill – into Coon Valley. From Coon Valley you can climb 162 to the north, then ride along the ridge on Hwy. 33 back to La Crosse, or you can go south on 162 all the way back to Stoddard and then La Crosse for a ride that is mostly downhill and flat. Any good map can help you make your choice.
I list this ride among my favorites because I like the quiet and beauty of the countryside, I enjoy the challenge of the hills, and I appreciate the reminder from the Amish that life can be lived much simpler and be just fine.
Julie Nelson is a former television news anchor and a freelance writer.