On the Trails Again

By Niles Schwartz

Not an hour from my launchpad of Hennepin and Franklin, I had already tied myself into a knot. The convoluted strands of mini-trails colluded with my iPhone’s GPS to send me in a pattern of wrong directions. Siri’s “turn left” corresponded to a very specific left that did not relate to the sort of left to which I was accustomed. Siri Left, especially on your bicycle, means shutting off all reason and adjusting the bike in relation to some nearby landmark. Siri Left could refer to going straight, a slight right, or even what’s really a hard right, as the “left” refers to little more than a minuscule cul-de-sac leading to the right that you are intended to take. The problem is this Siri Right can only happen after you’ve correctly taken the Siri Left, so if you take what you believe to be your idea of a left—that “left” that your senses inform you is, truly, left—you get a whole bunch of other Siri Lefts and Rights meant to put you on the correct track. Eventually, one hops off their bike and manually carries it over a grassy ledge and onto a paved side street, and you start from scratch. Soon you are on your way, and your GPS’s battery life has exhausted itself on the preliminary steps of a day’s journey that entails nine more hours. 

Meanwhile, I’m still in the shadows of downtown Minneapolis’ higher buildings. Months of planning and preparation, but an ineptness of scaling the most basic stage of the journey—navigating my way out of my home city—resulted in this possibly being the bike trip equivalent to the production of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. An hour from home, and I’m already on the precipice of ruin. 

In the spring of 2015 I had resolved to get on my bike and take it as far as the West Coast. The route would go north from Minneapolis to Fargo, straight west to Washington, and after hitting the ocean, over to Portland. From there I would catch a train back. 

In the abstract, this seemed like a fun challenge. I had been training by doing laps around the Uptown lakes and biking from my apartment in Lowry Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul, where I work. Given I could do twelve miles in an hour on average, I estimated 120 miles a day minimum could be doable, even mandatory, considering the route is about 1,800 miles and I only had four weeks vacation. (Ferocious determination had not yet figured out that it had been cancelled out by stupidity, but I digress). 

Throughout that summer I acquired necessary gear, watched YouTube videos on touring, sought advice from bike nerd friends and acquaintances, practiced tire tube changes, and attended an open class at Midwest Mountaineering. I did have cautious reservations about my bike, an old Sirrus (not at all a proper “touring” bicycle), but one bike nerd pal assured me it would be fine. The mantra before and during was “it’s only space.”

The abstract met the coarse pavement. I launched from Lowry Hill on a sunny and warm late September morning, my planned final destination for Day 1 being St. Cloud, hopefully a campsite. I had practiced with my panniers in tow, but upon launch I struggled to hold proper balance at the weight of my baggage, in addition to wearing a backpack and a tent bungeed on the rear rack. Crossing Hennepin Avenue toward the Walker gardens, the full backpack already aggravated me. Thirst and hunger, in addition to the precariousness of blood sugar meeting constant exercise (I’m a Type 1 diabetic), were nearly unquenchable. I’d spent hours of arduous motion debouching from a dense metropolis to the wide North and Nature, and I’m still in the Twin Cities. 

It didn’t help that one bumpier path in North Minneapolis, on which I was moving at imprudent velocity, led to a screw on my front rack falling off, making me asymmetrical and leaving a wobbly pannier. By the time I hit 50 miles, my legs began cramping unexpectedly. With the off-kilter front rack worrying me, I used my wind-breaking biking coat to tie it to my headboard. Reaching Monticello by midday, I stopped at Target and purchased duct tape to further brace the rack to my frame. 

Four years on and having made this trip from Minneapolis to St. Cloud again, my advice for Twin Cities bicyclists is this: drive your bike out of the Cities and start at St. Cloud (or more properly, St. Joseph, just down the road, the beginning of the Lake Woebegon Trail). There’s too much highway on the first leg, though it inures you to a hard point of bike touring: it’s not only exhausting, but it’s boring. Which of course leads to a second bit of advice: don’t do it alone. Not for safety’s sake, but even while listening to the best music and podcasts, you can only pass by so many beautiful trees and creeks before shrugging it off because you have to keep pedaling, plagued by a lust for rich food. 

I hit St. Cloud by early evening. I would need to hit a bike shop to see if I could do anything with the rack. Instead of camping, I hit a Day’s Inn, and cleaned up (even laundering my sweat soaked clothes). Naked, the tan lines from ten hours outside made me look vaguely like Milla Jovovich emerging from her embryotic sac in The Fifth Element. The next morning I couldn’t find the power cord for my battery pack, which sent me to the nearby Target to get a replacement, along with bungee cords. If the mantra of “only space” would become congruent to “it’s only money,” I may be in trouble. Apocalypse Now, friends. 

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The motivations for the 2015 Tour are a cloudy matter, and it’s hard to articulate without embarrassment. It’s something about which I may whisper—if only to myself—or give a nod to a particular object or direction. I can disclose some ostensibly unrelated details, a few small disparate bones that are part of some dead fossil still in the ground. I had to be gone in late September and early October, I had to spend time in St. Cloud, and eventually see the ocean. The book I had in tow was the W.W. Norton copy of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, also of great significance, and maybe a cypher for the whole thing, given Quixote’s mystique and gnosis (like Hamlet, there is an enigma about his madness where we’re questioning if his brains have really “melted” at all), and also an auger, given how my clumsy first day on an inadequate (and in retrospect, ill-fitting) bicycle, heretofore renamed Rocinante, was in concord with the mad knight’s first sally. Recently, I’ve tried to communicate these murkier matters by piecing together videos from the trip, complemented with trademarked dream-poppy music (Still Corners, Beach House, Julee Cruise, Mogwai, School of Seven Bells, Soccer Mommy, Chromatics, and the bygone cherished local act LookBook). 

Beyond such romantic notions of long journeys, there was the pressing reality of getting older—which is no less Cervantean. Other than Midwest road trips or some solitary vacations in New York City, I was sort of stuck in my own La Mancha. Many years earlier, I’d foolishly skipped out on life and purchased a one-way ticket to London, took a train around the continent, and returned several weeks later, broke and pulverized, requiring a couple years to get back on my feet. I was full of “experience,” yes, but at a huge cost to my well-being. Fourteen years later in September 2015, I was gainfully employed with vacation pay, health insurance, a smart phone, credit cards, was in better control of my illness—and had my dire near-sightedness corrected with LASIK. It’s easy to be more confident about venturing out to the unknown with cozy buttresses.

I’ve taken two routes north from the Twin Cities, one west to Fargo and the other east to Duluth. They both evoke the sensation of going back in time, not generally but personally. My father’s family settled in villages surrounding Alexandria and my earliest childhood memories is ornamented with glossy impressions of the rural sprawl and the East Moe Lutheran Church in Garfield, itself a few miles off the Central Lakes Trail. Villages like Garfield and Brandon are scattered along the trail, as towns like Sauk Centre and Alexandria are, as Sinclair Lewis described them in “Main Street,” “merely an enlargement of all the hamlets” which one passes along the way. Passing through the pastoral lushness in the afternoon sun, pedaling to keep time, is like a return to where consciousness was first roused, before time had much meaning. 

As with Lewis’ heroine Carol Kennicott in “Main Street,”I’m sure my urban sensibilities would find this world stridently provincial. Yet finding my solitary way to the East Moe Church as I did, in the middle of the night, I had the same reverent thrill Sancho and Don Quixote have in coming to the church in the dark streets of El Toboso, the place where Quixote’s adored Dulcinea—in his self-manufactured mythos—dwells. Like a dark biblical portent, a snake lay on the walkway to the church, over which I stepped, transgressing whatever symbolic boundary and entered the church, amiably unlocked. It’s here where my long passed grandmother and aunt had their childhood confirmations, a wooden placard of Christ against the wall having been constructed by my great-great grandfather, who donated the land on which the church was built. Outside is the cemetery, with myriad names I recognize and faces that had crossed my gaze in blurriest adolescence. In the bell tower upstairs is where my father and his cousins caused mischief, transgressing their own boundaries by sitting out on the church roof. 

We’re in politically polarizing times, and given how East Moe now has a flagrant evangelical bent, I doubt I would feel as welcome with living company than with the shadows and silences that took me in on my late night detour. The rural countryside is littered with Trump signs, a reminder of one of Sinclair Lewis’ themes of how fascism—or more than that, as pertinent to that novel, the suppression of progressivism—takes root in America’s small towns. For someone acclimated to be wary of the provincialism of the sparsely populated part of the state, the golden arches made by trees and sunlight over the bike trail can have an ominous quality. 

But the recurrent motif of my bike travels has been the perfect kindness of strangers, strangers who I wonder if I was more forward about my opinions would be so friendly, but eluding that dimension of modern life—gifs and memes being the hallmarks of interior representation more than subjective wanderings—I seemed to stumble through miracles. Cycling into a chilly night, I was welcomed into the luxurious lakeside home of a family that opens their guest room up to cyclists on the Central Lakes Trail (they use the Warmshowers website: http://warmshowers.com, please do check it out). After concluding the Central Lakes Trail, shortly before you get to Fergus Falls, I had my first major bike accident. In Rothsay, MN, population about 10, I wiped out on a gravel road, 50 miles outside of Fargo. Two strangers came to my aid, one of them giving me a lift into Fargo where I was able to get my rack (and any other damage to the bike) fixed at the Great Northern Bike Shop. Elsewhere, in Washington State’s Olympia Forest a couple of travelers in a truck stopped and warned me of how the trail I was using closed up ahead, something that would have sent me backtracking for miles. They gave me a ride around Lake Crescent, and from there was able to find my way to the ocean. And near the end of my journey, about 110 miles from a final destination of Portland, several spokes gave out. Hopeless, thinking I’d used all my Miracle Credit, there was little I could do except walk with my bike. A tow truck driver saw me and and took me to the local bike shop. All was well. 

The eastern route north centers around the Munger Trail, which begins in Hinckley and runs to Duluth alongside Highway 61. Taking this route, with fewer associations with bittersweet childhood memories (and complemented by how, when I took it, I was besieged by either scorching hot weather, or incessant rain), I have to stress how an important lesson of bicycle touring is that it’s best to do it with other people. Not for safety’s sake at all, but for some relational company. Pedaling and sweating for hours on hours, aggravated by thirst and hunger, you don’t really have time for deep thoughts or even to appreciate the music or podcasts you’re listening to (or maybe I’m just not that smart to begin with). With or without company, food becomes the trophy of every ten to fifteen miles. While little gas stop oases harbor the meat, cheese, and bread one craves, you’re luckier to happen upon little independent restaurants, like Peggy Sue’s in Willow River, where again the staff knows how to be hospitable to bicyclists, providing water while carbing you up for the next few hours. 

I took this route last spring, getting no farther than Duluth. The Munger Trail doesn’t stagger one with beauty until you’re almost at the conclusion near Carlton, where bridges and rock formations suggest something prehistoric and sublime, climaxing with the engulfing grandeur of Lake Superior. Yet the meditative solitude in nature or in the flux of cycling doesn’t reward so much as human warmth, such as was received on the way back home, after the Munger Trail spat me back out into Hinckley (indeed, it was thunderstorming). The Sikkink Farm is another Warm Showers sanctuary for cyclists, with a stocked (air conditioned!) bunkhouse for travelers, and hosts Betty and Wes providing dinner and breakfast with their rich conversation. I cannot recommend their company enough. 

I’m a creature of habit, so while there are other trails to explore, my impulses are torn between new adventures and retreading where I’ve already gone, as if to rewrite history anew. At this writing, while several feet of snow and ice encompass the Twin Cities, cycling season looms. And so I wish earnestly to go back and do things over, on the Trails Woebegon, the Central Lakes, and Munger, hoping the weather and road escort me and any tolerable companions, while also preserving the amorphous and undefinable sentiments associated with these distant stretches of land, even as they become increasingly familiar. 

Caroline Royce