I had split off from the rest of the group to go visit Paul and Angie on their farm in Logan Grove.
It was so nice hanging out there, the day just slipped by. It was late afternoon before I got going.
The Midwest sun set in waves of golden light as I rode. Finally it was dark. I had biked at night before, but this road was bad for it.
US 14 through southwest Wisconsin was a four-lane highway, but almost no shoulder. It would have been fine in the daylight. In the darkness I wasn’t sure how well cars in my lane could see me.
The land undulated. Cars coming towards me would break over little hills. I’d be blinded by their lights. In between, the dips were pools of inky darkness. It was hard to see. It was hard to stay on the road.
I pulled off under a street light. I was in the gravel parking lot of a log-frame restaurant. It was closed. I was hot from biking, and shitless in the summer night. I got out my map to see how far it still was to Madison.
As I was looking at the map, a station wagon drove up. “Hey, where you headed?” a friendly voice called.
I could make out a man in the driver’s seat. A woman vague beside him. Probably sleepy kids in back.
“Madison tonight,” I said, “I got a late start.”
“You need a place to camp?” he asked.
“You can sleep out in the yard at our farm.”
I was equipped. I had a tent and sleeping bag strapped above my full panniers. I thanked him.
He introduced himself, Tom, and his wife Sandy. One or two curious faces peered from the background.
He gave me directions, and they went on. It was only a few country miles through the warm summer darkness. I took a couple of turns, went over some low hills, and I was there.
“Hey, I forgot we pumped out the cellar this afternoon,” Tom detailed, “The yard is a swamp. You can sleep inside on the couch.”
He got out bread, and strawberry jam, and fed me. “When I saw you there under the light,” he said, “All wire and muscle, I had to find out your story.”
I had noticed this about bicycling. After years of hitchhiking, it was a surprise. I was the same kind of bum I would have been hitching, but people reacted totally differently.
A man on the road wearing a big backpack looks threatening. But a man with a packed-out bicycle, for some reason, has legitimacy. We’re both vagrants. We’re both probably just as broke. But somehow, in the eyes of the world, we’re different. As a cross-country bicyclist, even little old ladies on small town street corners would talk to me.
Tom’s wife went right off to bed, not a word to me. He and I stayed up talking. I asked him about the farm. I’d always liked farms.
Next thing I knew, we were in the pickup and he was giving me a night tour of the place. The moon was close to full, and I could make out fields, woods, and rock formations.
This was in the “driftless area” of Wisconsin, a little section of the state that, by the quirks of nature, had never been covered by glaciers. It’s very beautiful.
Most of Wisconsin is Midwest-pretty, but generally flat. The glaciers planed off the high ground and filled in the valleys.
But in the driftless area, the creeks twine beneath tall cliffs of layered white limestone. Like “crumbling ruins of ancient cities”, one guidebook described it. It’s charming country.
We bounced up a dirt track to the top of a plateau, and he killed the engine. We were in a magic little meadow, perched above the valleys below. We got out and sat in the bed of the pickup. We talked on and on.
It was so peaceful in the moonlight. I don’t know what we talked of. It was the way guys can hang out together, just spending time.
I felt so comfortable and relaxed. Finally I swung around and lay down in the truck bed. My head was in his lap. It just seemed a normal thing to do.
He was silent for a minute. Then he said, “We better get going on.” So we headed back to the house. Just as friendly, just as talking.
In the morning, it was milking time. The summer before, I had worked awhile on a farm in Iowa. That farm had had a dairy, so I knew some about it.
Mostly, I knew to stay out of the way, since they would have all the work choreographed. But I was used to how farmers like to show off their operation, and I was interested.
“Do you have a bull?” I asked, once the milking was done and things had quieted down.
The farm in Iowa had had a bull. Keeping a bull was kind of an issue. On the one hand, he was necessary to breed the cows to make more cows, and to keep them fresh with milk.
On the other, he could be trouble. He was in his own pen. It was obvious you didn’t want to get near him. I remember his frenzied look, putting his head down and rolling his eyes. Maybe he was crazy from having all those cows close by, but he could never get to them.
Answering my question about a bull, Tom said, “It’s on the back porch.”
He showed me. There was a flask of liquid nitrogen, a roundish metal thing like a small propane tank. I understood it held frozen bull semen.
“One of my cows is ready to be inseminated now,” he said, “I’ll show you.”
He ran a two-cup measure of warm water from the tap, testing the temperature with a thermometer. He took a semen aliquot from the flask. It was long and thin, like a soda straw. He stirred this briefly in the water to bring it up to temperature.
At one point Tom made me chuckle, joking “I’m a small farmer. Five six, a hundred thirty-five pounds.” Yes, he was a short man. He stood on an upside down bucket to be able to reach inside the cow.
I rode out into the summer morning. The whole thing had been one of those magical little episodes that happen when you’re on the road, carefree, and open to whatever may come along.
Years later, after I had come to understand that I was gay, I thought back on it all. Minor points I’d given no notice to at the time took on a certain — suggestion. Like an image coming slowly into focus. Or into different focus.
A man so interested in a wiry, bare-chested biker under a street lamp? So interested that he would turn around a station wagon, full of wife and tired kids, to check him out?
A man so solicitous, so excited about this biker he’s coaxed off the road? Maybe it was only the mystique of this exotic pedal-powered traveler from lands afar. Maybe more?
And his wife. So distant. Slightly miffed? Like she’s seen this all before. Her husband getting all het up over some guy he’s found and dragged home. Again?
I’ll never know.
But if you can believe it, my head in his lap was completely innocent. I would not have known how to take it farther.
I can imagine he was as I was at that time. A man who had no name for what he wanted from other men. But was ever led by its magnetic pull.