A Letter From the Road (Along the Mississippi) - Part 1
"Why are you doing this?" a woman in St. Paul asked me. I am less able to answer that question than the other I regularly get: "Are you retired?” I know how to handle that one and simply say, "My wife says I am." It always gets a laugh. Some ask why; others seem ready to ride along, like Chris Shaw, a young bicyclist I met on the outskirts of Fargo, my first morning on the road.
Sometimes, my journeys begin quirkily. None more so than my recent bus ride from Seattle to Fargo, North Dakota. I chose the bus for a good reason, because it had been a long time since I'd crossed our northern tier states and I wanted another look at them, the kind you don't get from 30,000 feet.
I wouldn't say that I had forgotten that a Greyhound bus is a good place to meet unconventional travelers, but my memory had lapsed on the institutional history possessed by so many of these bus line travelers.
You'll note right away that the tattoos worn by many of my fellow passengers are not the sort sported by aspiring hipsters or aging housewives. Nope, these looked like they had been earned, violently perhaps, and their purpose was to intimidate. Many had faded, but their origins in prisons, gangs, or perhaps on pirate ships seem clear.
Time is the thing I had in common with my fellow passengers; time to take the slow way to our destinations. Eventually, eastbound passengers reached their stops and got off the bus. Others, one or two at a time, took their places. By the time I reached my stop in Fargo, those still on board were bound for Minneapolis or beyond.
Fargo, let me tell you, is a splendid place to visit if you are ever nearby. At least it is during these early fall days with university students returning to classes and jobs aplenty. I won't speak to its winters, but Fargo is far more vibrant than a Coen Brothers cliche.
When I arrived at the Fargo station, I pulled my bicycle out of its box and went to work. I'm not much of a mechanic, so I feel pretty accomplished when I assemble it as promptly as I do. I was soon on my way, starting with a night getting to know my CouchSurfing hosts, Paul and Diane, and the amazing conversation, food, and comfort they offered. It was a perfect transition from the bus to the road.
The global hosting networks WarmShowers and CouchSurfing have enriched my touring in ways I never imagined. If you travel, give them a try. If you like travelers (and who doesn’t), consider being a host for one site or the other. WarmShowers is focused on bicyclists. Like any social media platform, you create a profile and can accept or decline according to your needs and preferences.
My trip on the Mississippi River Bike Trail began at Lake Itasca where the headwaters of the Mississippi River are located. To get there I made up a route on mostly county farm to market roads with little traffic and lots of agriculture. Long stretches eventually led to boredom, and I amused myself identifying road kill along the way: porcupine, skunk, water turtles, and lots of garter snakes. For one fifty mile stretch there were turnips scattered along the road shoulder, giving literal meaning to “falling off the truck.” A hundred-mile jaunt the first day is ambitious and I decided to stealth camp in some woods at about dusk after going eighty miles.
As you'd suspect, those who invite unknown travelers into their homes are a gregarious lot. These are people who like to hear and tell stories and they will help you if you have needs. The Lake Itasca hostel was closed the day I arrived; but with a phone call, Sarah, the manager, gave me the password and opened its doors for me. In Bemidji, Kent and Betsy hosted me and a couple pedaling much the same route as I, giving me a reflective triangle and flashing light to make my bicycle more visible.
Travelers are also a treat to meet. Sometimes we leap frog each other as we develop one- or two-day long friendships along the trail. Yena (Bulgarian) and her traveling partner Slav (Ukrainian) and I had a wonderful campfire party at the Charles Lindbergh State Park, then parted ways the following morning. (Yena and Slav began their trip on June 1 at the Arctic Circle and will finish it in Argentina.) Bicyclists in Minneapolis rode with me to their farmers market. A grocery checker today polled her coworkers about camping in the area, just to help me out. These daily and ongoing rich conversations are a large part of the answer to the question of why I do this.
From Fargo to Itasca to Bemidji I was on a northward route. Even the Mississippi River begins with a northerly flow until the Laurentian Divide Ridge Range and the St. Lawrence Divide put it on its path to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. I, too, am headed south. I took one short cut and rode the Paul Bunyan trail from Bemidji to Brainerd. Now, the river will keep me company until I near St. Louis and take the Katy trail across Missouri. That's my plan. Tomorrow, or the day after, I will see where the St. Croix joins the Mississippi. I suspect a much larger river will follow from there onwards.
St. Croix Bluffs
September 20, 2015