November 13, 2019
Growing up there always seemed to be cousins around. We didn’t very often go anywhere alone, and when we were old enough our bicycles were the typical source of our mobility.
We rode to each other’s houses, the park and, during the summer, the Sparta municipal swimming pool. It wasn’t the summer retreat it is now, but it served as a gathering place for kids of all ages, economic backgrounds, religions, sizes and shapes. It offered the perfect setting for relaxation and, perhaps more importantly, a place to show off and try to outdo each other. We would measure the height of one another’s splashes from a bomb off the high dive. If the water rose higher than the diving board it was a successful one. Every once in a while, there would be a thunderous thump when a body entered the water, but the resulting splash would barely rise to the height of the lifeguard chair in the corner of the deep end. That always left us a little confused. I always thought my parent’s insisting we learn to swim was one of the best things they ever did for us. And as I look back now, we were a little bit like the crew from the movie “Sandlot”.
Then there was the ride home from the pool on our bicycles. There were a few routes we could take, but the most exciting involved very little pavement and narrow paths warn bare from two-wheelers. And hills!
There used to be a grassy field along Perch Lake near the dam. Before it was filled in and apartments built on it, it was a massive low spot with steep banks along three sides. There was a path that crossed it diagonally. It was narrow but smooth due to the amount of bike traffic that used it. Kids like us, who dared to challenge the hills, lining up the entry just right because diverting course left or right would take you into the tall grass on either side and an almost certain wreck.
On the opposite side of the field was another slope, much steeper than the one leading into the field. This one had trees on either side, so our aim had to be true. Making it to the top of the hill without losing speed and having to stop was difficult, so it was always important that the oldest take the lead.
Down the bank and into the grassy lowland we pedaled our single speed bikes. A line of five or more of us, picking up as much speed as we could along the narrow, dirt path. Across the field the path leveled off, but maintaining our speed was critical if we were to have any chance of making it up the other side. One by one we reached the climb on the other side.
When we were smaller there was always one of us who didn’t make it. If that person happened to be in the middle of the pack there was no hope of those trailing behind making it to the top. But we were getting older and stronger every year. I remember the first time all us made it to the top without losing a single rider to the hill. I think there was a big cheer of excitement. We had mastered the trail.
But there were other trails to conquer, and we didn’t shy away from any of them. Before it was a neatly kept park, the bank along the La Crosse River, where Beaver Creek empties into it, was an overgrown jungle of sorts. Thick brush, empty beer cans, and a lot of trees. Through the brush and huge trees there was a snowmobile trail that, in the summer months, was overgrown with weeds. There was just enough of a path to get through with our bikes, eventually coming to a primitive bridge with no railings. It was built for snowmobiles but bounced like a trampoline. Riding across the bridge was a challenge for a line of small boys on bicycles. It was one of those times when you didn’t look down. I don’t remember clearly if anyone ever fell off, but there is a foggy image of at least one of us, or a bicycle, dropping the four feet or so into the shallow, sandy, creek bed below.
We are all grown now, but the memories I have… the memories we made! It is like a movie. One that I could watch over and over again and never get tired of.