Ah, those alluring Wisconsin back roads

  • Article by: BILL HAMMOND , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 27, 2006 - 12:54 PM

Sometimes travel is a carefully scripted tour in a faraway land. Sometimes it's a few hours in your car with a really good map.

Topping my list of prized possessions are a 2002 Goodall guitar, a 2006 Nissan Altima and a 2004 Wisconsin Atlas & Gazetteer.

On a recent Saturday night, as I struggled with a new tune on the Goodall, my thoughts drifted to the Altima, the gazetteer and a totally free Sunday the next day. I put the Goodall back in its case, grabbed the map book and dug deep.

I am a Cheesehead by birth, proud of it, and there is little terrain between the Twin Cities and my homeland of Eau Claire-Chippewa Falls that I am unfamiliar with. At least that is my attitude until those delicious moments when I squint into the recesses of my topographical maps and find amazing new stuff: airstrips, marshes, boat landings, quarries, radio towers. And best of all, back roads. Some of them with no names (be still my beating heart). Before long, a sketchy flight plan was being formed by the practical side of my brain, while unfettered automotive fantasies caromed about the testosterone side.

Eventually, the two sides agreed: I'd hit the road shortly before dawn, escape to Wisconsin via the interstate, peel off onto empty two-lane roads east of Hudson and fly under the radar while probing the performance envelope of the still-new-to-me Nissan. After about an hour of back-roads merriment, I'd refuel with breakfast on the shores of Lake Wissota in exurban Chippewa Falls.

Then I'd follow the Chippewa River upstream as far as I wished, cross it and head back to Chippewa Falls and its famed Leinenkugel Brewery, where the Leinie Lodge gift shop would open at 11 a.m. There I'd buy a shirt or two with a gift certificate I'd been hoarding for too long, then scoot back to Minnesota via the boring four-lane route.

With any luck, I'd be on my living room couch in time for the second half of hot NFL action.

• • •

Eastbound 5 miles out of Hudson, I abandon I-94, hop on Hwy. 12 north and hang a right onto County UU (it's all about U), also known as Badlands Road. For miles, the speed limit stays pegged at 45, but the narrow road, abrupt inclines and an impressive variety of homesteads keep things interesting.

Badlands becomes 80th Avenue, then County TT before lazing into Hammond, Wis., home of the Hammond Hotel (where my family, the Eau Claire Hammonds, occasionally met up with the Twin Cities Hammonds for family reunions in the 1960s -- nope, we had no relatives in Hammond).

From Hammond, my due-east roadway becomes Hwy. 12 for 3 miles before reverting to 80th when Hwy. 12 heads south. Now I feel truly ruralized and nostalgic, as this is clearly a farm road, used mainly by farm folk, and I grew up with dairy farms on all sides of my community. The landscape is serene, genuine and beautiful. I roll down the window and take a big whiff -- ah, that would be Holstein, yes?

Reaching Hwy. 128, I head south to rejoin I-94 briefly and treat my eyes to the unbeatable vista of Knapp Hill. Thickly forested in hardwoods, it looks like a brightly lit bowl of Trix on this autumn weekend.

East of Menomonie, I lose the freeway for northbound County Hwy. B, swing east on 650th Avenue and once again I'm in the sticks, listening to polka songs on WCFW-FM. (HOO-hoo-hoo!)

Now the route makes a jog to 640th, then to 830th St., then to E, which becomes M, which leads to N (and that rhymes with zen). I'm having an absolute ball tossing the car around these corners, with the radio off now so I can just listen to the motor and the transmission and the tires and the wind rushing past my ears.

Way too soon, the water towers of Chippewa Falls appear in the distance, and I am back to civilization.

• • •

The rest of my road trip sent me idling down Memory Lane: Past Gutknecht's Market in Chippewa Falls, where we kids bought penny candy as our parents bought fresh bratwurst. Past the Chippewa River dam at Jim Falls, where Grandpa Joern took me fishing more than once. On to Scenic Hwy. 178, which we called "the river road," with its many supper clubs, all featuring lazy-Susan appetizer trays that seemed required by Wisconsin law to include green onions, radishes, cottage cheese, crinkle-cut carrots, Melba toast in cellophane, and -- of course -- Cheddar cheese spread.

Like a good car, a good route and a good map, it just don't get no better than that, folks.

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