To begin is to
form a side that begs an end;
so our time concludes.
It was cold. The forecast called for rain, and even when it wasn’t raining, the air was thick with a mist that seemed to saturate anything that dared be outside. So when I was dropped off in Brainerd by my mistress farmer, my thought was that this Tuesday would be a short riding day. After all, on the ride south, I had a great time during my short stay in Crosby, which was only 20 miles away, so it seemed a good destination for the day. The weather was supposed to be drier tomorrow.
Crosby was the home of Cuyuna Brewery and Red Raven Café, both places at which I stopped when I rode through nearly a month earlier. The brewery, at the time, was out of a number of their regular beers, and were also waiting on a few specialty brews, so I looked forward to going back on my return trip. And the owners of Red Raven actually gave me a place to stay for the night; they were the first strangers to offer me hospitality, which set the stage for what would be a month of warm tidings by people who owed me the least. I had befriended a few people, so I hoped to have a few good beers, re-meet a few friendly faces, and generally stay out of the shit weather while I further experienced the small town of Crosby.
But as I passed Cuyuna Brewery, I noticed they were closed for the day. I knew I was early when I arrived around noon, but I hoped they would open by mid-afternoon. And just like that, my hopes of trying their bourbon barrel Belgian quad were dashed.
So I carried on down the street to Red Raven, which I figured would be my first stop regardless. I didn’t want to believe the “closed” sign in the window at first, feeling that, surely, this was an oversight by the employees. But the fall hours posted on the door confirmed it, closed on Tuesday. I had apparently showed up on the worst day of the week that Crosby had to offer. But yet, there were people inside. I spent a couple minutes in the parking lot wondering where to go next while I looked at the map on my iPhone before deciding to just go inside. One of the owners, Patrick, was behind the bar. He looked up from a conversation he was having with another man to give me a wave and a nod, but then I had to wait at the bar to find out what was happening and whether I could stay.
“Nathan, right,” he said. It felt good to be remembered. I told him I was, and he said I could hang out and dry off a bit.
The people there turned out to be Rockford, IL. They were in town as part of a group doing bike trail research for their city, so they met with Patrick to learn a bit more about how local businesses were affected by the creation of miles of single track mountain bike trails. A few of them seemed curious about me, what with the fully-loaded bicycle that I had pulled in from out of the rain. I was less interested in explaining myself to city planning researchers than I was in charging my phone over a beer though, so I got a pint from Patrick and found a table along the wall with an outlet nearby.
Once the Rockfordians moved on to the next business, Patrick joined me for a bit. We chatted over coffee and beer, and he explained how I came back on a lousy day, though he too was surprised that Cuyuna Brewery was closed for the day. And due to visiting in-laws, the previous accommodations he had offered to me weren’t available, so my options for keeping out of the cold and wet weather were drying up quickly. But he did recommend the Crosby Bar & Grill for a decent hot lunch, and added that if I felt like sticking around Crosby for the day, he’d likely be free to hang out that evening. As tempting as it was to still stay in town and call it a short day, the allure that Crosby once had in my mind had changed. I would have to come back another time to enjoy the town’s amenities, provided I call to find out business hours first.
I had resolved to keep going. By the time I reached Remer, I will have hit 65 miles, so it seemed a good destination. But then what? I had spent much of the trip figuring out where I was going to spend the night on the spur of the moment, but this was different. By Remer, I was less than 40 miles from home, and the choice of riding further vs. camping for the night took on a different relevance. Do I camp, get off the road to rest, but spend the night cold and damp? Or do I continue riding, forgo rest, but stay warm from continuous movement and eventually spend the night in my own bed? So I slowly added miles to the ride in the damp weather, and once again decided to play it by ear. Once in Remer, I would make the call.
The weather, over certain stretches, seemed to tease me with the hope of better times. I was preoccupied with each sliver of blue sky, but by and large, I thought back to all the miles I had put on this bicycle over the past month. It was only about a day short of a month since I left home, anxious for the journey ahead of me, paranoid that I had forgotten anything, then soothed by the opening few miles as I pedaled down the first stretch of the Mississippi River from Grand Rapids. My first night on the trail was the only other time I woke up damp, which was from a heavy dew where I camped by the bank of the river. There were other days along the route where I seriously wondered where I would spend the night, like when I rode through farm country just south of Minneapolis, stopped at a farm house to ask if I could camp in their yard but was turned away, then found the little party town of Welch, where I had a few beers with some locals before setting up camp along a bicycle trail that would take me right out of town. Another day, somewhere in the southern half of Iowa, I stopped at a campground with the intent of staying the night. I had only been on the road for about 40 miles, so I was a little short of my daily mile goal, but the map didn’t show any promising spots to rest for another 40 miles. The campground was lousy, with no running water, barely anything for a camp fire, and a lot of bugs. I pulled in just after 5 p.m., so I still had a few daylight hours. It was tempting to hit the road again and leave this crap spot behind me, but where would I go? I didn’t have an answer to that question, but I decided to leave anyway. Another 10 miles down the road, I watched the sun hover low over the horizon. The map didn’t show any place to camp, but there were some houses along the road; I could always try again to see if I could camp in someone’s yard for the night. But then that wasn’t necessary. A sign up the road said “public area,” and any public place is a place to camp. So I took a left at the sign, and descended a steep grade with a lake in view at the bottom. At the bottom of the hill, I was surprised to see a small community, with houses and cabins lining the shore of the lake, with a small restaurant called the Odessa Grill just to the left of the steep road that brought me to this place. It was open, so I went inside. I was quickly greeted by one of the owners, who told me that he saw me riding down the road out of Muscatine earlier that day. Before I knew it, he offered to let me camp in the yard of the restaurant, and to use the restroom to clean up in the morning before I left. When I woke, the other owner was already there getting ready for the day, and gave me a complimentary breakfast of eggs, bacon, potatoes, and coffee to prepare me for the next couple dozen miles of my trip.
The surprises of the road were many, so was there anything more in store these last few miles before home? Once I hit Remer, I didn’t hold my breath for someone to offer me a place to stay, but was open to the possibility. As I resolved before I left, I would accept the hospitality of strangers, but I had officially decided that I was going to keep riding the rest of the way home unless given a place to stay out of the cold and damp. So I kept riding.
From here on, things were more familiar. I had worked as a substitute teacher in Remer before. An old girlfriend lived in Hill City. And soon, I was on a stretch of Highway 169 that I’ve ridden before as part of a loop around the west end of Pokegama Lake. And glowing in the dark a short ways further, was one of my favorite Grand Rapids haunts, Zorbaz. So I stopped in for one last beer, and checked in on Facebook with a picture of Faraday Fox and I to formally announce that I had made it back home. And once I made it the last couple miles back to my bed, I had officially hit 100 miles; the longest single day of riding I’ve ever done.
I had done more than 1,200 official miles, and at least 100 more unlogged miles of city exploring, over the course of 30 days through five states, most of which followed the northern half of the longest river in North America. I had met dozens of people who showed me kindness and hospitality, the vast majority of whom were strangers who simply liked the idea of what I was doing. Through it all, I tried a new brewery on average every couple days.
For better or for worse, I was now home.