Ride to Duluth Narrative

August, 2016.

Sometimes a bike tour has an agenda and it affects the flavor and outcome of the ride. That’s what happened with our ride to Duluth. I teamed up with two co-workers and each brought along his agenda. Mine was to get in a shakedown cruise before my Appalachian Mountain tour, and force some training into underprepared legs. Adam wanted to complete his first tour and Jay, who had just completed his first tour a month earlier, was training for a multi week, mega-mileage ride through the mountains of Japan. Duluth, and the route to get there, were merely a convenient choice. We could have gone in any direction from town and accomplished our goals. This would not be a tour. It would be a multi-day, goal-oriented bike ride.

We chose to meet at the Capitol building in St. Paul by 10:00 in the morning. For Adam, who came from Bloomington, the ride was nearly 20% complete by the time we rendezvoused. The other two of us had at least 10% of our rides complete. Logically, we had no more than four or five hours of riding ahead of us and 10 hours of daylight. We could take a very casual approach to the day with frequent stops to explore, meet local residents and relax at attractive rest stops. But the first day of your first tour isn’t about stretching out the journey. It’s about the destination. There were too many unknowns to let the mind drift or the ride lose focus. We arrived at Interstate State Park in Wisconsin by mid afternoon, set up camp, snacked, showered and napped. We crossed the St.Croix River to Taylor’s Falls for a burger and beer dinner, but we still had a couple of hours of sunlight left in the day when we returned to the campground. We had the option to explore the park and take a swim, but the pace of the ride had taken its toll. And, as it turned out, all three of us were introverts. Conversation didn’t come easily. We muddled our way to sunset and slipped into our tents with relief.

Day 2 started with some of the same anxiety, and exposed the tenuous cohesion of the group. Adam was up early and went to town for bakery goods. I was up early, but lingered over breakfast before breaking camp. Jay slept in and caught up to us in Taylor’s Falls. We left town together but soon Jay’s agenda kicked into gear. He started riding ahead, pushing himself physically. We re-connected at intersections to make sure we were all taking the same route, then spread out again. It wasn’t a bad way to tour, especially for three introverts who each valued time alone.

Our group stretched and snapped back together like a rubber band several times before lunch in Pine City. With the help of Yelp and the desire to avoid another greasy burger meal, we  quickly agreed on a Chinese restaurant, then followed Google Maps to the front door. It was too easy. I missed the opportunity to cruise Main Street and take in the flavor of the town under the guise of finding a good place to eat. It’s possible that I would have eaten a less satisfying meal, but it is equally possible that I would have had an encounter that turned a routine lunch break into a memorable story. As a traveler, I always prefer the memorable experience. The younger guys entered the restaurant with phone chargers in hand and scanned the walls for outlets before choosing a table. I got the message late and had to return to my bike for a charger.

Jay was out front again by the time we hit the gravel stretches. Adam and I could see his track as he weaved across the entire width of the road in search of the smoothest, most hard packed stretches of gravel. Our own tracks intersected, then veered from his as we sought out our own best routes. We made Hinckley by mid afternoon and, for the first time, kicked into travel mode. The Hinckley Fire Museum documents the firestorm of 1894, when a few sparks at that end of a hot and dry summer ignited a firestorm that created a wall of fire four and a half miles high and consumed a quarter of a million acres of forest and towns within four hours. We happily sat through the museum video of the storm, reluctantly stood up on tired legs, lingered over artifacts, studied the diorama and chatted up the museum volunteer. Starting again was tough, but the break was critical. This would be the longest day of the tour. The break made it manageable.

The mapped route took us off the Willard Munger Trail at Sandstone and directed us into Banning State Park for the second overnight. Adam, however, chose to stay on the trail. His agenda was to complete his first bike tour and the Willard Munger Trail offered him a direct, flat route to Duluth, our destination. His goal for the day was to add a few extra miles, get closer to Duluth, and finish off with a relatively easy day. By the end of the day he would ride nearly 100 miles.

Jay and I turned toward Sandstone. My agenda was to ride the hillier Highway 23, important preparation for the upcoming tour through the Appalachian Mountains. Jay decided that he would ride from Banning State Park to Duluth, then return to Banning in one day, a total distance exceeding 130 miles. Our differing agendas would split us up shortly into Day 3, but for now we were together and a farm stand near town caught our attention. We bought corn on the cob and peaches to supplement the evening meal. By the time we reached camp, a light rain had begun to fall. We set up our tents, showered and dozed through the soft drizzle. When the rain stopped, we cooked dinner.

Adam finished his ride in the rain and met a scout troop that was riding the trail. During the next 18 hours or so, he talked with the scout leader, a drunk and one or two other people. He’d read about the casual conversations that spring up so easily for a solo bicycle tourist, but hadn’t expected it for himself. Those conversations, in his mind, were for outgoing personalities who could talk to anyone, not introverts. He recalled those conversations with a little surprise and, I believe, some pride. He’d truly experienced solo bicycle touring.

Jay and I got an early start in the morning. His goal for the day was ambitious and it seemed best to give him as much daylight as practical. I was able to stay with him for 30 miles, but then I faded. We parted, and agreed to text each other when we reached our goals for the day.