Itasca to Bemidji: Paul Bunyan, Babe, and a great night’s sleep

Itasca State Park is so amazing – the pines, the lake, the bike paths, and, this night, the full moon. We woke on Monday – me earlier than Lisa – to yet another perfect day. I climbed out of the tent and started water for coffee and sat and listened to MPR from my phone and just relaxed and looked at the lake. I could have stayed right there for two more weeks (with a proper bed, that is.)

We didn’t have far to go on our last day so I felt fine not packing up and focusing on ‘making good time’ as my dad used to hope for on our family trips. Our breakfast was tortillas and crunchy peanut butter, and it was delicious. Our route was going to take us out of the park and back to Laporte, then north on the Paul Bunyan Trail to Bemidji and a hotel right on the lake

We packed up and rolled out – after one last visit to the Headwaters, where we saw a large topographical model of the Mississippi and we pointed out all the places we’d cycled to, from Itasca to New Orleans.

We left the park and got out on Highway 71 back to Laporte. We hooked up with the the Paul Bunyan Trail to ride north the last seventeen miles into Bemidji. As we entered town, I asked a couple of skateboarding boys where Paul and Babe were and they pointed and told me how to get there and it went quickly and then we were standing by these statues which have been there since the 30’s. I know have stood in that place many times. A nice couple helped us by taking some pictures and we did the same for them.

We checked into our hotel on the lake and our room had brilliant white sheets and big windows looking out at the lake. We showered up and walked to the restaurant nearby and sat on the patio as the sun set. We were tired, or at least I was, and after we got back to our room, it wasn’t long before we were deeply asleep in that great bed.

So, a couple of final thoughts and then Lisa has a post coming, too. These might seem random but here they are:

– We (Americans) drive big, fast, loud cars. After riding a bike in the woods in silence for hours it is jarring to be along a highway with hundreds of cars (actually, half of them are trucks) sometimes pulling trailers, speeding north for their lake experience. Trucks pulling trailers with three or four ATV’s or Jetskis. It seemed like conspicuous consumption to me. I completely understand that when you are in the car listening to All Things Considered on the way back from your cabin, it doesn’t seem that way, but when you are on the shoulder, it does. I say this not as a criticism – I drive more miles than I bike – but just to note how loud and fast our world is.

– We didn’t really see many Trump flags or signs, maybe a dozen on the whole trip. But they weren’t flying by the big, wealthy farms. They were flying by ramshackle dwellings, and it made me wonder how we’ve left those people behind and what we must do to pull them back into a healthy society. The urban/rural divide needs to be addressed, and I hope we can do it in the coming years.

– The US interstate highway system is really incredible and useful in a nation this size. It also left many rarely used highways out in the country that are fine for biking (or driving on at under 80.). US highways, in particular, have wide shoulders, and we bikers appreciate them.

– As we rode north, I increasingly felt the coming of fall. You know how you can kind of smell it? Like the leaves are drying out? There was one young tree in Itasca that was changing it’s colors, and our night there was quite chilly. I remembered starting this stay at home business in March when there was snow on the ground and everyday I had to turn up the heat in our home offices. Then the grass turned green and the garden exploded with flowers, then we had a few weeks of 90 degree days. To think that this continues as we move into fall, well, what is there to say.

So, that is it from me, for now. This was a fabulous trip, one of my favorites. Our total mileage was 336 miles, the weather was spectacular and it was a wonderful diversion from our worries. But we think the next month (we both work at a university) will be intense. I hope we can still get out on bikes again regularly, and I hope for the planning of our next adventure.

Pedaling and peregrinating: Walker to Itasca

Lisa wrote about the long day we had riding from the lovely Crow Wing State Park and our campsite at the confluence of the Crow Wing and Mississippi rivers. We had a fine night experiencing Walker’s delights and a meal on a patio with a stiff wind coming off the lake. The cheap hotel bed felt great and we lollygagged some this morning – we knew had a short day and we had some domestic things to take care of. We travel with only three changes of biking kit, so after day three, we need to find a washer and dryer.

The only laundry facility in town was a combination launderette and car wash, right on the lake. We started the clothes and then went to find coffee and pastries, and walked to the lake. It felt great to be doing something other than pedaling.

The headline for today comes from our friend Nick Spitzer, host of the great public radio show American Routes, out of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. We have long admired Nick’s work and were lucky to spend an evening with him last fall. Nick wrote me today and said he’d tired of the digital world (as many of us have) and wished to go back to analog. “Nothing is as analog as pedaling and peregrinating,” he wrote.

His comment made me think of the hundreds of hours in the saddle playing songs in my head over and over – including Allen Touissaint’s “Tipitina and Me,” the intro to Nick’s show, or the Buddy Guy/Bonnie Raitt version of John Hiatt’s “It Feels Like Rain,” or Aaron Neville doing Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927.” Songs that go on repeat and become a kind of mantra as the wheels roll, silently.

We left Walker around noon and rode the Paul Bunyan Trail to the little town of LaPorte where we bought some frozen wild rice brats for dinner and some Pringle’s. (Hey, we don’t have a lot of capacity for making fine meals. If it packs well, it works.)

We had a sandwich at LaPorte’s roadhouse – Third Base. We walked in at about 1:00 – it is Sunday – and there were a dozen guys there drinking beer. We were in biking clothes and masked and we got some stares. After ordering sandwiches, we went outside to eat and remembered our favorite lunches in small town bars where you can always find at least a half dozen guys sitting and chatting over Buds. We’ve been stared at so many times in small towns, it really doesn’t bother us anymore.

Then we left the trail and rode US Highway 71 twenty miles west into Itasca. It was gradually uphill all the way, but absolutely beautiful under blue skies, and between classic northern Minnesota pines and fields.

After setting camp, we rode the remaining two miles to the Headwaters of the Mississippi. We walked our bikes into the water and a guy took our picture. We were both a little teary – I had this strong feeling of pride in our bikes which have carried us the entire length of this mighty river. The scene was spectacular, with people and kids of all kinds splashing in the crystal clear water and the aquatic grass green and the sky blue and Lake Itasca mirroring everything.

We now sit by a fire as the sun sets and a full moon rises, and we talk about what comes next.

Pedaling 90 miles from the yurt to Crow Wing State Park, and 78 to Walker, MN

We woke up to the first rooster at 4:15 am on Friday after a great but short night of sleep at the yurt, and slept intermittently as rooster two and three and four joined in and the sun started to rise. Packing up didn’t take too long and the resident peacocks saw us off as we headed back to Clearwater and the infamous Nelson Bros. truck stop for some breakfast outside at a table in the parking lot.

Much of the day was spent pedaling on roads near farms and fields and neighborhoods with lovely homes along the river and there was an unexpected trip through the campus of St. Cloud State University which was strangely quiet as is true of all college campuses now and then more river homes and farms and it was hot and sunny, and we had lots of stops for cold water along the way.

We finished our ride Friday with a white knuckled trip along highway 371 along with all of the weekend “up North” people hauling campers and boats and sometimes RVs pulling both cars AND boats, and we were relieved to get to Crow Wing State Park and to this lovely campsite on the river.

The next day we started our travels on the Paul Bunyan Trail, through the Brainerd Lakes area, with a stop for a late breakfast in Nisswa and miles of pedaling through lakes and pine trees and cattails and black eyed Susans. Made it to Walker where we pedaled into the wind along Leech Lake and settled in to our hotel, where the masked proprietor Mr. Mehta kindly let us store our bikes in the unused pool area and when we said “we may need them again to go for dinner” he said “you can easily walk to all of the delights of this town.”

St. Paul to Clearwater, MN via the Mississippi River Trail

This time we are riding upstream. Our goal is to reach the Headwaters of the Mississippi so that we can say we completed the entire length. Minnesota, fortunately, has done a great job of marking several bike trips , including this one, officially called the MRT as well as the US Bike Route (USBR) 45. We actually live about two blocks from the MRT, so that’s where we began today – riding down the hill to the river and crossing the Lake Street Bridge.

We rode out of Minneapolis, through many suburbs, into cornfields, and north on a county road that parallels Interstate 94. It was sunny, but beautiful, not too hot. It seemed like the river was never more than 100 yards to our right, with lots of nice houses on both sides. We pulled into Clearwater around 4:30, picked up some groceries and headed out to our Glampsite 6 miles out of town. Those 6 miles were the most hairaising of the day – on narrow roads with no shoulders, and the last 1/2 mile on gravel.

We’re staying in a yurt on a farm called Dancing the Land, a CAS run by a young couple (this was her family’s farm, though they moved back here from Mendocino County in California.) They offer this huge tent with a lovely bed and an insect free (mostly) cook tent to people like us, I guess.

We are listening to all kinds of birds – including owls, peacocks, roosters – and hoping they’ll calm down at some point. We picked up some groceries in Clearwater and will make a little supper after showers.

PS – we are now having breakfast – Friday AM – where we have a cellular signal again. We are going to be short on connections and probably power, too, on this trip, so our posts may be a little erratic. (Also, that yurt was incredible.)

2020 Confluences

We call this blog “Confluence” and even define it on our header: “a coming and flowing together, meeting or gathering.” So, so much has come together in the last few months – a global pandemic which sent many of us home to work, and, around Memorial Day, the killing of George Floyd, here in the Twin Cities, which has started an international conversation about racial justice and the urgently needed corrections to our society. Lisa and I have been very deeply affected by these events. Working in higher education (Lisa is in charge of online learning at our university) has lead to very long work days and weeks, though from our home offices now. And being able to clearly see Minneapolis’ Lake Street from our window placed us in the front row of observers of the unrest in our cities.

This particular confluence isn’t the kind we’d envisioned when we started this blog. We intended to bring together biking, music, nature, interesting people and adventure. We’ve documented several trips in the last few years which were more typical of what we wanted from the blog.

But this year has been, to use a terribly overused word, unprecedented. We hardly left our yard from March to mid-May. We watched the back yard go from brown, muddy and snowy, to green and exploding with plants and flowers, birds and butterflies. We established new habits – Dan walking nearly every day from 4 – 9 miles, first with the the dog, and then, when he got too tired (Finn is 13), alone. Lisa worked out on a spin cycle in the basement and ran every other day or so. But mostly we have been very, very preoccupied with work and other troubles.

In early May, we began to get out for some bike rides. We rode to Stillwater and back one day when there was an “Open the State” demonstration by our capital. Dan happened to be wearing his National Public Radio jersey and was accosted by a Trump supporter yelling something about “National Propaganda Radio.” Later in May, we drove up to the family cabin in northern Minnesota and did a 60 mile ride to the small town of Lake Park, where Dan’s father was born in 1920, and encountered a town graduation celebration parade where the graduates sat in cars, applauded by townspeople in their folding lawn chairs on the curb. In mid June, we drove down to Lake City, MN along the Mississippi, and rode the 72 mile “Tour de Pepin” route around Lake Pepin, on the Minnesota and Wisconsin sides of the river. Other miscellaneous rides took us around the Twin Cities.

On Thursday this week, we’ll start a real bike tour, finally getting ourselves away from work for a few days. We’ll be heading north along the Mississippi River Trail, with our goal being to make it to the Headwaters in Itasca State Park, about 300 miles from home. It feels good to be planning a long ride, and the gear is laid out on the living room floor, the bikes are tuned, and we have places to camp every night. We’ll try to document this shorter trip as well as we can, and that feels good, too.

Meanwhile, we include some pics from this spring’s rides around the region.

Brown’s Creek Trail out of Stillwater, MN
Swans on the way to Lake Park, MN
Awesome bargains in Lake Park
The Tour de Pepin, Minnesota/Wisconsin
Stockholm, WI
The Stockholm Pie Shop
On the river, downtown St. Paul

St. Paul to Chicago, Day 6: Racine to the Mag Mile

Short report is that it was a beautiful day for a ride straight south into the city. Most of the way was on a series of trails including the long Robert McClory trail.

I rode through the posh suburbs north of here, Lake Forest, Winnetka, and right by/through Ravinia. The recorded announcements at the train stations all mentioned special arrangements related to Lollapalooza.

I stopped in Evanston near the Northwestern campus for lunch and connected to the Lakefront Trail about 2:00 and looked longingly at the many beaches. I tried to get to one but heavy bikes in sand just don’t work.

I pulled into the hotel a little after 3:00 and was welcomed by two lovely Irish girls who were working here for the summer.

We have a nice room from which we can see the lake. And I’m cleaned up and waiting for Lisa to arrive.

I have to thank the states of Wisconsin and Illinois for developing all these trails that so many people use. I was especially impressed today by so many people and dogs out for walks and bike rides.

Lisa is here and I’m signing out. Thanks for following!