The feeling of earth
drifting past your body is
to know one’s progress.
I didn’t think it would be like this. Surely, taking a month-long bike tour across several states is a daunting task if you’ve never done it before, but I didn’t expect the state of mind I experienced the morning of my departure. It’s a surreal thing to consider, that you’re about to live out of your bicycle for the next month, as you cram clothing into a bag and wonder where you left the tire pump. A moment of madness even struck where I thought the whole thing was crazy, that I should abandon this weird idea. And yes, it is, but the only thing crazier than going at this point would be to not go.
So a little after 10 a.m. on Monday, August 28, I set out from home with a bicycle full of gear to go on an adventure. I probably would’ve spent more time thinking about Bilbo Baggins running off to catch up to Gandolf at the beginning of “The Hobbit,” but I was more preoccupied with the season finale of “Game of Thrones.” Talk about a twist! And what’s worse, I can’t even talk about it, in case I spoil it for anyone. Seems like GoT is like fight club. The first rule is you can’t talk about it.
This was my preoccupation for the first 20 miles or so, but what truly surprised me by the first leg of the journey was how all the crazy thoughts and paranoia and anxiety that I had experienced moments before leaving had somehow melted away as soon as I left. I didn’t dwell on what I had forgotten, or whether or not it was insane to go on this trip. I was just riding, like any other day. And even when I reminded myself of the daunting task before me, it just seemed doable. There’s something about riding a bike that just seems to calm the mind. I heard a bicycle advocate in a TED Talk once say that you can’t not be smiling while riding a bicycle; I think there’s some truth to that. Such was my ability to think about the fate of Jon Snow as opposed to whether or not I was mad as I road from Grand Rapids to Jacobson.
Jacobson, as it turns out, doesn’t have much for the passer-thru to do. It does, though, have a rather odd park (public park?) full of various knick-knacks. There’s an old-school barn, an Indian sculpture, street lights, a tipi, etc. I didn’t know quite what to make of it, so I didn’t dwell. So I just stopped and had a little break in the shade of an abandoned business.
The significance of Jacobson for me though was that it was the first place where I actually saw the Mississippi River on the journey so far. Despite being the Mississippi River Trail, the route often takes you a good mile away from the river. And not only that, but in Jacobson is where I had my first accident of the trip: I failed to unclip from my pedals when stopping to take a picture, and crashed on my side. More embarrassed than injured, I took my damn picture and moved on.
The other significance of Jacobson was that as soon as I left, I heard a distinct “whiiish” sound coming from one of the tires. My first thought was that something got caught in the fender and was rubbing the tire, but when the sound persisted after stopping, I knew I had also gotten my first flat of the trip as well. So I pulled off into the nearest driveway to get off the road, which happened to be at a house with a locked-up dog that barked incessantly. The owners weren’t home, so the dog just barked at me from behind a fence while I repaired my tire. After a few minutes, I wished the dog adieu, and continued on my journey, happy to leave Jacobson behind me.
According to the map, I figured that I would stop for the night in Palisade. The road between Jacobson and Palisade was a straight shot, but turned out to be under construction. Given the track record of the ride so far, I was worried about more flats, but it ended up being quite pleasant. A perk of doing this so late in the summer is that construction crews have a lot of progress under their belts. The road was basically done, so the biggest obstacle was to just pass a steam roller as I rolled through the construction zone.
Palisade was far more inviting than Jacobson. Not only did I not have any accidents, but I had a delicious meal at the Palisade Café and a cheap beer at the municipal liquor store/bar. The town also had a campground right between the route and the river itself; an inviting stop if there ever was one.
The campground was nice, but I woke up wet. I don’t know if it was because of the close river or if it was just the weather of that night/morning, but everything was just damp when I started to pack up the next morning. C’est la vie, so they say. It’s always annoying when you have to tag along extra water in your tent because you couldn’t dry it entirely before packing it up, but sometimes that’s just how it goes.
If there were any complaints about the state of the morning, they easily vanished once on the road. The weather couldn’t have been better between the clear skies and lack of wind as I made way along the twisting route of a meandering river. I rode out of Palisade as I had in, content and ready for what lay ahead of me. So I took back to the open road with the same excitement and curiosity as day one, only with a little more experience behind me.
The next town along the route was Aitkin. I had already taken a little break a few miles before the town to have “second breakfast,” so I had no plans to explore it. Though once there, I realized that I had never approached the town from this particular road, so I was likely to see something I hadn’t before regardless. And so I did. By means of a little backstory, I was once involved with an organization called Grand Rapids Showboat, and was part of the creative team that developed the last show that happened on its river shore venue. The show, “Ziibi,” was a departure from the organization’s 60 year history, and we created it to help revive and save the venue from demolition. It was all too little, too late though. The city had already approved a land swap with a paper mill, so Grand Rapids Showboat closed for good at the end of that summer. But there was still a boat to deal with. As it turns out, the city of Aitkin had been looking for a river boat to call its own for some time, and when approached about purchasing it from us for practically the cost of moving it, they jumped at the opportunity.
And just as I rode into town, to my left I saw the Aitkin County Fairgrounds, complete with the old Showboat itself, still painted a starry night color of blue that we had done for “Ziibi.” It was fun seeing the ol’ seabird again, bringing back memories of the delightful and frustrating summer of two years ago. But I didn’t dwell. I wasn’t planning on stopping in Aitkin anyway, so I took a couple pictures to send to the other friends who worked on “Ziibi,” and I was on my way.
Another 20 miles down the road, I was in Crosby, right along the Cuyuna Trail. It’s a well-known biking community, what with the 25-odd miles of single-track mountain bike trails already developed, with another 50 in development. Apparently, the housing market in the town has been booming due to the small town’s bike culture, and there’s no sign that it’ll be slowing. Most of this I didn’t know before coming into town. I just thought it might be a nice place to stop for a beer, especially if there was a brewery, which I felt like I had heard about one. Sure enough, I found Cuyuna Brewing Co., a brand new brewery that has hardly been able to keep up with demand for their brew. I rolled up feeling excited from a day’s ride and pumped to have found a brewery, so I chatted the co-owner up while trying to decide what to drink. Turns out they have a fine IPA on tap, and have a few interesting brews in development. The bourbon barrel Belgian Quad caught my attention, so I may have to come back to try it.
But I was told of another place in Crosby I should check out, Red Raven. It’s a café/bar/bike shop owned by artists… It’s basically the exact business I would start if I were to ever become a small business owner. I had every intention of getting back on the road after Cuyuna Brewing Co., but this wasn’t something I could pass up. And sure enough, it was everything I imagined: art along the walls, bikes lined up for rental, a small selection of awesome craft beer, coffee, and a general laid back atmosphere. Anyone biking through Crosby definitely has to check this place out. And don’t forget to ask the owners how the business got its name (you can ask either of them, but Julie tells the story better than Patrick).
I still planned on riding another 15 miles to Brainerd, but as I was about to leave, one of the owners offered to let me camp in their yard for the night. When thinking about this trip the past few months, I decided that the kindness of strangers is not something to take for granted. Sure, I was about to short my day by a few miles, but this trip isn’t just about the odometer. I gladly took up the offer and ordered another beer before heading over to their place for the evening. So thank you, Patrick and Julie! Your hospitality has been generous and your business is amazing!
And so concluded day two of the journey. It has gone fast due to the new experiences, so I imagine it’ll slow down after I acclimate to a life on the road. And with luck, these first two days have set the tone for what the next few weeks will look like.