5. Iowa & Minnesota Bicycling Across The USA

Days 43 & 44: Jackson to Spring Lake, MN

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.

5. Iowa & Minnesota Bicycling Across The USA

Day 45: Spring Lake to Houston, MN

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.