I always used to say that if you’re bored, it is your own fault. It means that you aren’t looking hard enough because something interesting is always there. On Tuesday and Wednesday, September 23 and 24, Minnesota’s county roads tested this truism. Each day was a trek of more than 70 miles through flat fields of corn and soybeans, punctuated by well-kept farmhouses. Sometimes 10 or 12 miles would go by before I noticed something (anything) different. On Tuesday we did meet three interesting men, though, and we did beat the rain.
We started off from Jackson around 9am, expecting to get wet. It was humid with a strong wind from the south, and the forecast called for thunderstorms. Minnesota’s Transportation Department publishes bicycle maps that show traffic counts and shoulder widths for state and county roads; we used these to chart a course parallel to and just south of Interstate 90. We would happily have charted a less direct route for scenery or some other notable thing, but we just couldn’t find anything (except for a “Liver and Onion Feed” coming up at the Eagles Lodge, but we couldn’t stay). So we hit the flat road, leaned into the wind, and burned up the morning.
The first interesting man was Larry Vogel, who owns the bike shop in Fairmont. Larry doesn’t advertise, he isn’t on the Internet, and he doesn’t want to be photographed. His shop is the only one in the 200 or so miles between Sioux Falls and Albert Lea. He plays horns in a group called the Tarnished Brass, and used to teach school. His shop is a chaotic combination of 20th Century bicycles of all types, metal toys, model railroad cars, tiny buildings for model railroad layouts, band equipment, sheet music, and a few bikes and other things for sale. The bikes are clearly not the main items. Larry did have the replacement safety flag Jim needed, though, and he gave us excellent route advice.
Larry is heading off to Wyoming next week to ride the Wind River Range, and he and Jim had a pleasant chat the way two Midwestern men do: with not much eye contact, watching their own shoes, and being helpful while also practicing one-upmanship. By the way, Larry has some top-of-the-line Trek road bikes ($2,000 to $4,000 or so retail) that he’s selling for ridiculously deep discounts just to get rid of them. If you want one, he would be worth a call.
The second interesting fellow was in Blue Earth, and you also know him. The town keeps an 80-foot statue of the Jolly Green Giant next to Interstate 90, conveniently (for us) located next to the Dairy Queen. Jim climbed between the Giant’s legs and tried to grab his niblets, but he couldn’t reach high enough. I honestly don’t think the Giant has any, anyway.
The third interesting man was Paul More. Paul is the father of the young man who offered tea to Jim and Paul Kersting during a rainstorm outside of Yellowstone Park (for the complete story, see Jim’s post for Day 21). The tea-bringing Good Samaritan had said that his father owned an agricultural implement store in Blue Earth. We happened to ride by and Paul was outside, using an enormous wrench to bust a nut on a combine. He seemed pleased to hear that his son had made a kind and thoughtful gesture. We shared observations on what a small world it is. Then I heard thunder and we got back on the road.
We had ten miles to go and rain was building to the south and west. Scattered drops started to fall. They were big ones. I thought it was going to be another day of slogging through the last 45 minutes and arriving soaked. We pushed harder and managed to stay just on the fuzzy line where rain was imminent or maybe starting but not heavy. As we turned onto the gravel road that lead to Piehls County Campground, six miles south of Wells, a cold downdraft hit us and I was sure we were going to get it. We screamed into the campground and put our bikes under the camper, which Sara the Blessed had already set up. Within ten minutes, it was raining cats and dogs.
What intense pleasure and gratitude I felt, sitting in the dry camper with the rain pounding on the roof, knowing that my bike and shoes were dry and would be dry in the morning. Piehls had no wireless internet access, but the campground manager showed up later, refused to charge us when she learned we were riding for charity, and then offered to let me use her computer. The landscape may be boring, but the people in Minnesota are pretty great. The rain ended and there was a gorgeous sunset. As night fell, we watched a flock of turkeys calmly pecking at the edge of the cornfield next to the camper.
Day 44: Wells to Spring Lake, MN
We started early and had ridden perhaps 40 miles before Jim let out a whoop and circled back. “I found more money!”, he said. Looking closer, he found that it was only a spent, rolled up lottery ticket. That was about the most interesting thing that happened before noon. We rolled right through Albert Lea with only the briefest of bathroom breaks, and continued until we reached Austin, which as everyone knows is the home of Spam.
The Spam Museum is next to the Hormel Corporation’s headquarters. It’s free, and no expense has been spared. A wall of more than 3,000 cans of Spam encircling a spinning globe dominates the entrance. The Hormel people are well aware of their brand’s kitschy image and the many jokes that surround it, and the museum is a weird attempt to share in that self-deprecating humor while also shoveling vast quantities of corporate propaganda. I learned that Spam became a global product thanks to a massive procurement contract from the Defense Department during World War II, and I saw decades of print and television ads the company created to pound Spam into all of our heads. Spam has its own website now and yes, Hormel says, they are aware of the irony in this. The one true moment of genius in the museum is Monty Python’s sketch about ordering spam in the Green Midget Diner. This shows on demand in a scale model of the diner itself. Otherwise, the museum was kind of slick and creepy.
We spent an hour at the museum and another hour finding a milkshake, then rode off for another 30 miles through the cornfields. Wind turbines in cornfields are not surprising to us at this point, but this afternoon we saw hundreds of them. The fields were crowded with them, mile upon mile. Why? We saw an office for Horizon Wind Energy in Grand Meadow and stopped to ask. “This area has a lot of wind,” said Kevin Clark, a manager there. “It also has good access to transmission lines, and it is near Rochester and Minneapolis-St. Paul, which are reliable customers. You really need all three things to put up a lot of wind turbines.”
Horizon owns 61 turbines south of Highway 16 between Austin and Spring Lake. Two other companies also have large wind farms nearby. Wells said that Horizon’s turbines could power maybe 100,000 homes when they were running at peak capacity, but that they’d average enough power to supply about 35,000 homes.
The turbines are 400 feet high from the base to the tip of the blade. That is quite an intrusion in some landscapes, but out in Minnesota, where there isn’t anything else to see except corn, I think they’re beutiful. They look like good news.
We rode a few more miles to a campground outside of the small town of Spring Lake, about 30 miles south of Rochester. It wasn’t much of a campground, but we didn’t have much choice, either.