HUSTLER — The lettuce and tomatoes on the bacon cheeseburger were grown out back in Cheri Hopper’s small garden.
The stew held chunks of prime rib, but we were too early for the homemade pizzas and three days late for the $4 Sunday breakfast that can draw more than 100 customers.
The lunch at the Hustle Inn was unexpected but a welcome detour from the rain.
Hopper, who has owned the bar and restaurant here for 22 of her 64 years, gave us a brief history lesson of the Juneau County village by showing off the black and white framed photos hanging in an upper room that also holds electronic dart boards and a pool table.
This was a booming community fueled by the railroad, a pickle factory and local farms. Now the elementary school is a bowling alley, the bank is about to close, and the cafe across the street has been shuttered for years.
The Chicago & Northwestern Railroad tracks are gone, replaced by the 13-mile Omaha Bike Trail that stretches from Camp Douglas to Elroy. ATV and UTV riders also have found Hustler — its population at 201 people — to be a convenient pit stop.
“It used to be way much bigger,” said Hopper, who grew up here and knows most of her weekday customers by name. “On Sundays we don’t know hardly anybody because of the Facebook thing. You might know 20 people.”
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It turns out, exploring the state’s Rustic Roads can bring more than just fall colors, rolling hills and winding, narrow lanes that force us to slow down.
And that’s the beauty of the program that counts 123 roads on its map, each designated by a brown and yellow road sign. Most are only a few miles long and oftentimes off the beaten path. A Wisconsin Gazetteer or the GPS in your phone or vehicle are requisites.
But once you’ve completed your drive of a Rustic Road, taken selfies with a cow or snapped a photo of falling leaves, a panoramic valley or a quirky mailbox, realize that it’s only part of the journey. The idea of the Rustic Road program is to not only showcase 743 miles of picturesque scenery in 61 counties but to encourage exploration of other nearby roadways, parks, eateries, museums, shops and trails.
That’s how we wound up in Hustler on Wednesday. We had traveled to Juneau County to take in Rustic Road 121, a 2.9-mile undulating stretch of Lee Road between highways 80 and S a few miles north of Elroy. But with a steady rain falling, we took a detour thanks to the suggestion of Dan May, who we had spotted standing in his garage at the northern terminus of the road. It didn’t take long for him to suggest a trip to the historic Fountain Lutheran Church down the road and the Hustle Inn a few more miles to the north.
“In the summertime you have an increase of motorcycles and ATVs. In the wintertime it’s pretty quiet here,” May said of the Rustic Road. “It’s a very pretty stretch.”
The Rustic Road program, operated by the state Department of Transportation, was created in 1973 by the state Legislature “to preserve what remains of Wisconsin’s scenic, lightly traveled back roads.” To be approved by the 10-member Rustic Road board, a road needs to meet criteria that include natural features, native vegetation, vistas, speed limits of 45 mph or lower and limited development or improvements.
Roads in the program range from under a mile long to 37 miles in length and are nominated by citizens but need the support of local governments, which also maintain control of the roads. A Rustic Road designation does not prohibit development, according to DOT guidelines.
The first road to receive Rustic Road status came in 1975 and went to Berry Avenue, a 5-mile gravel road off Highway 102 in Taylor County a few miles north of Rib Lake. The most recent came earlier this year when a 3.2-mile stretch of Medina Junction Road and a portion of Pioneer Road in Winnebago County became Rustic Road 123. The roadway takes visitors past the remnants of Medina Junction, a once bustling train depot, and offers views of the Rat River Wildlife Area.
The state typically adds one or two roads to the list each year, but so far none have been nominated for this spring’s Rustic Road board meeting, said Liat Bonneville, the program’s coordinator.
In the midst of a pandemic, however, the state’s scores of Rustic Roads have provided the ultimate combination of social distancing, fresh air and scenic views.
“It was no less popular,” Bonneville said. “There were lots of inquires.”
The program is also unique to Wisconsin. Minnesota is considering a similar program, while Montgomery County in Maryland has a network of more than three dozen roads that are mapped; however, they’re not numbered.
Here in Wisconsin, the roads can vary in features and location, but the fall and changing colors make them go-to places.
In western Racine County, home to six Rustic Roads, one of the largest concentrations in the state, Rustic Road 2 takes motorists past farmland and marshes dotted with muskrat huts. Rustic Road 9 in Door County hugs 6.7 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. In La Crosse County, Rustic Road 31 includes the Palmer-Gullickson Octagon House and the Hamlin Garland Homestead, where the late Pulitzer prize-winning author did much of his writing.
Rustic Road 90 in Green County is 3.2 miles of unpaved roadway through some of the most fertile farmland in the country and includes a 300-year-old oak tree. Up North, Florence, Forest and Sawyer counties are populated with a series of Rustic Roads largely void of dairy farming but lined with forestland and lakes. And in Dane County, Rustic Road 20 includes tobacco barns and an iron bridge over the Yahara River.
Sauk County has three Rustic Roads, so we hit Rustic Road 112 north of La Valle. That’s where we found free tomatoes and gourds and a herd of goats grazing on a hillside.
But our first stop of the day was in Juneau County on Rustic Road 121, which is Lee Road, named after the family whose farm sits on a ridge about halfway between highways 80 and S. Cows grazed nearby, a new house was under construction and the leaves were in transition. Further north on the road we found neat stacks of freshly felled logs and another surprise in the form of Healthy Prelude. The therapeutic massage business is housed in a 3,000-square-foot building constructed in 2006 by Anna Smart and her mother, Suzanne Swan, who just recently retired from the business.
Smart, who is in her 24th year of massage, has five treatment rooms, a sauna and is building a commercial kitchen so she can produce her own healing balms. A yoga room has enough space for 15 people. Clients come from throughout southern and western Wisconsin and beyond.
“People say they start to relax on their drive out,” Smart said when asked about her remote location. “We’re pretty lucky to be where we’re at. We have some of the best views.”
Photos: The Rustic Roads of Wisconsin