When Doug Hauser and Matthew Christen look back on 2012, they’ll remember it as the year of the big bike ride on the Big Muddy.
The biking buddies, both of them retired teachers and Onalaska residents, rode the Mississippi River Trail from the Quad Cities to New Orleans together this year. When they arrived in the Big Easy, that meant Hauser had pedaled his bike the length of North America’s largest river system, which flows through 10 states from northern Minnesota’s Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. Hauser figured he put on well north of 2,000 miles, all told.
Hauser rode the 340-mile stretch solo from Lake Itasca to Red Wing, Minn., in five days in late April and early May. It was 28 degrees with snow on the ground when he began the journey south, but that didn’t bother Hauser. He’s a hard-core biker.
He had previously covered stretches of the river between Red Wing and the Quad Cities in multiple rides over the past couple years.
After riding the Lake Itasca to Red Wing leg, Hauser hatched a plan to ride the rest of the Mississippi. “I mentioned it to Matthew, and he said, ‘Let’s do it together.’”
They covered the 343 miles from St. Louis, Mo., to the Quad Cities over the course of five rainy days last spring. The first day out of St. Louis they just missed getting pelted with 3.5-inch hail. One day they ate their lunch standing up, their bodies pressed against the wall of an abandoned garage, seeking shelter under the overhang.
“That’s the fun part of a bike experience. You just deal with the elements,” Hauser said, noting that after the first couple days of trying to dodge the rain, they just decided to ride no matter what. “It was just like, ‘Strap it on, let’s go.’ ... If you want to go a long distance, you’ve got to keep it moving.”
Hauser and Christen had pretty good rain gear so the only parts of them that go really wet were their feet and hands. After the rainy spring leg of the journey, they went out and bought extra gear to keep their feet and hands dry for the St. Louis to New Orleans leg.
“Never got a drop of rain,” Christen said.
Hauser and Christen put about 950 miles on their bikes for the last leg in late fall, pedaling 12 days over the 17-day trip (they took a couple days off in Memphis, Tenn., and spent some time in New Orleans).
Christen calculated his pedals went around 28,575 times during their last leg. They rode on the Mississippi River Trail, which is not like it sounds. “We were never on any trails,” Hauser said.
The closest they got to riding a bike trail was going through the Natchez Trace National Park, which featured low-speed traffic and did not allow commercial traffic. The rest of the way was along highways, which could be pretty busy at times.
Christen and Hauser arranged for their lodging on the trip ahead of time, booking hotels so they would have a definite destination each day. They never knew exactly what they were going to get when they got to the end of a day, though.
One day, they got to the motel, which was a six-room block building with no windows and no apparent office. Then they remembered that this was the place where they had to call the manager on the phone to come over and check them in.
“I was surprised he didn’t give us a skeleton key,” Christen said.
Considering that their route paralleled the Mississippi River, they saw very little of it. Other than the last 30 miles in Louisiana where they rode on top of a levee, the only times they saw the river from St. Louis south was when they had to cross it.
Crossing the river was the most dangerous part, with little room for bicyclists on most bridges. “When you’re faced with that, you hitch a ride in a truck if you can or get a police escort,” Hauser said.
One of the big issues for Hauser and Christen was finding sources of compressed air to fill up their tires. Around here people can find free compressed air at every Kwik Trip, but down south almost all the air sources were coin operated and a lot of them didn’t even work.
If they didn’t keep their air pressure up, they would be susceptible to flats. Even with their vigilance, they each had four flat tires, with Hauser getting two in a day.
They eventually figured out that if they could find a Walmart with an automotive department, they could get their fill of air every time.
For all the history and cultural touchstones along the Mississippi River, they didn’t really have time to take in a lot of the sites. In a car it might work to take a 10 or 20 mile detour to go see a historic plantation or Civil War battle site, but they were on bikes and had a lot of miles to cover in a limited time.
Hauser, 66, and Christen, 57, both said the best part of the trip was meeting people. The run through the South was especially enjoyable. They both had some preconceived notions about the South left over from the 1960s. They thought it might still have a darker side from the racist Jim Crow and Ku Klux Klan days.
“There was some evidence of some of that still around, but the people were so generous and generally hospitable it really just dispelled a lot of that,” Christen said. “We just got to meet a lot of nice people. That was the highlight.”
“We didn’t know what to expect. We found the people were wonderful, but then two guys in Spandex aren’t too threatening,” Hauser said.
People were especially drawn to Hauser, a wiry 6-foot-2 who is a low-rider nonetheless because he pedals a recumbent bike, a pretty unusual beast anywhere you go. “I was a nonentity,” Christen said. “He was a rockstar.”
When the pair arrived at their hotel in the New Orleans’ French Quarter, the room wasn’t ready. Tired, hungry and ready for a fantastic meal as a just reward for their hard work, they went to the Palace Cafe for dinner, Spandex and all.
“We were a little underdressed,” Hauser said. “We sat down in a very nice restaurant and had a very nice meal in our bike clothes and we didn’t care.”
After spending a few days in New Orleans, which they enjoyed a great deal, they got on the train to come back to La Crosse. The train was due to arrive at the La Crosse depot at 7:15 p.m. on Election Day. The plan was to go straight from the depot to the polls.
“I had never missed a vote,” said Hauser, who taught world history and English at Onalaska Middle School.
They got off the train 12 minutes before the polls closed and still made it to the Onalaska National Guard Armory, where they were the last two people to vote.
Both Christen and Hauser kept journals documenting their journey, with Christen ready to submit an article about it to Bicycle Times magazine. Hauser isn’t sure what he’s going to do with his account of his river riding exploits. A book maybe?
Hauser isn’t sure he wants to take on any more epic bike treks, but Christen said his goal is to go on a long-distance bike ride on every continent. OK, not Antarctica, but he does plan to bicycle the only road that goes into the Arctic Circle.
If Hauser changes his mind, Christen said he’d welcome his company. “We’re very compatible. I wouldn’t hesitate to take another ride with him,” Christen said. “You can’t ride with just anybody.”