We left the campground at 8:30 am after an unpleasant, interrupted night. The campground was near a truck route and a highway intersection, so we heard air brakes and diesel throttles all night long. There were even dogs barking in the background. It was 25 miles on a state highway to Preston, where we would pick up the Root Valley Bike Trail, and I was hardly awake when we started. Within a mile, though, the familiar rhythm of pedaling had driven enough oxygenated blood to my brain to lift the clouds.
Jim and I had been having a small dispute about who was the better bowler. He said he was pretty good, and had even come close to bowling a perfect game once. I said it was impossible to beat me. We were both thinking this over when we rode into Preston, a small town where we planned to pick up the Root Valley Bike Trail. On one side of the highway was a large fiberglass trout. As I photographed it, I noticed that on the other side was a small bowling alley. Game on. We tried to settle it right then and there, but it was too early in the morning and they couldn’t open the lanes.
The Root River is a shallow, clear stream with a silt bottom. Its valley has carved small, pretty limestone bluffs that offer some elevation change, which is a big deal in Minnesota. The trail is over 40 miles long and is paved throughout, with handsome bridges every so often and occasional stops in small towns that range from completely tarted up to recently rebuilt. It was our first day of cycling through
deciduous woods, after weeks of ranchland and cultivated fields, and the weather was beautiful. The woods looked similar to the Finger Lakes, and it was surprising to see how fast the leaves had turned. It was warm and sunny, and we reveled in the smell and crunch of dry leaves under our tires. It was especially fine to have no cars in sight. It felt like a day off.
We met lots of attractive retired couples riding tandem recumbent bicycles they had rented in Lanesboro. The bikes took up almost the whole eight-foot strip of pavement. Jim and I zipped past them like bike-path pirates, pumping away. Golden light was reflected through the leaves. It felt like we were crashing a commercial for erectile disfunction pills. As I crept up on the unsuspecting 60-ish couples, I had this thought: when the moment arrives, will you be ready?
We stopped for lunch in Lanesboro. The counter man told us that in 1980 you could have bought the entire town for $25,000. Today it has been completely resuscitated, thanks to the bike path and the discretionary spending of southern Minnesota’s retirees. I found a German deli and had an excellent braunschweiger sandwich with onions, mayo, and homemade mustard on German rye, along with coleslaw and homemade root beer. Back on the road, we scattered a pack of blue-shirted retirees who were happily chugging away on mountain bikes. Their shirts identified them as the “health angels.” One of the guys almost rode into us before he veered to the side. “Sorry,” said an older woman. “I didn’t yell at him.”
“Only in Minnesota would people actually wear shirts like that,” said Jim.
After an hour, we stopped in Peterson so that Jim could get a milkshake at Judy’s Café. I didn’t need anything, so I hung out near the front door and read the items posted there. I saw this poem and photo:
“On the 6th of March in two thousand seven,
The table of knowledge met,
With Bertram, Percy, Allen and Joe,
The big problems were no sweat,
Of course we met at Judy’s café,
A super good place to eat,
We had coffee, cookies, a short stack and eggs,
The food here just can’t be beat.”
The photo of the Table of Knowledge was perfect. If you looked up “small town diner” in the dictionary, this photo would probably be next to the definition.
Jim and I needed to settle our dispute, so after another picturesque half-hour of riding we pulled into the gleaming new Nordic Lanes in Rushford to bowl one game. I went first, and neither of us did well. I got a spare in the fifth and nine on my first roll in the sixth, and it looked as if my boast would come true. At the end of six frames, I had a whopping 62 to Jim’s 41. But Jim came roaring back with a strike in the seventh, and in the eighth frame I fell apart with a gutter ball and just one pin on my second roll. In the ninth and tenth frames I put the ball solidly in the pocket, and each time all the pins went down but one, which wobbled but stood. Some days you just don’t get the breaks. Final score: Jim 116, Brad 99. Until we meet again, Kersting.
Jim Kitchens, the owner of Nordic Lanes, explained that the building was new because the entire town of Rushford was submerged in August 2007. The area received 17 inches of rain over a weekend, and a usually tiny side creek flooded the town. About 370 buildings were damaged; many were completely destroyed. The town has been more or less completely rebuilt, thanks to a state flood relief bill. Jim Kitchens got a new bowling alley and restaurant, and he says that when al is said and done he will need to pay the state about $50,000. “It’s a different place, but business is back to where it was before the flood,” he said. We congratulated him, gathered up our things, and pushed on.
We saw an eastern hog-nosed snake sunning itself on the asphalt. When it sensed us, it raised its head up like a cobra; very impressive. A few miles down the road, Jim said, “Hey, isn’t that the bowling alley guy?” It was. “This is going to sound crazy,” he said, “but I think one of you took my wallet.” It was my mistake. Jim Kitchen’s wallet and mine were exact look-alikes, and I had put both of them in my bike bag. I melted into a grease spot with embarrassment and was preparing to get yelled at or punched, but he was Minnesota Nice about it to the core. “I could tell you guys weren’t thieves,” he said. “Have a good ride.”
We rode into Houston and camped at a municipally owned nature nenter at the eastern terminus of the trail. It had a huge, spiffy bathroom with a shower like you’d find at the Hilton. It was unbelievable but true that the whole center was supported by donations from riders and volunteers in Houston, which has fewer than 1,000 residents. Sometimes Minnesotans are just too good to be believed. I slept in a large new bandshell that the Lions Club had just completed. There was a marsh nearby, and the rhythmic chants of frogs and cicadas quickly put me in a deep sleep. Tomorrow we cross the Mississippi.