We hitched a ride with our son, Corey, over the border to Minnesota where the Harmony-Preston trail begins. This was our second time on this trail; having cycled on it two summers ago. It’s a winner; relaxing and right next to the Root River. Having forgotten to replenish our food supply while in Decorah, I suggested we stop in Lanesboro. Two summers earlier we had found an organic grocery in town. A lot can happen in two years; I opened the door of the store and found a sofa and a variety of cannabis products. “There’s no food here.” the owner said.
Eighteen miles later, we did find a grocery store in Rushford. From there, we cycled another 13 miles to the town of Houston’s primitive campsites. Two years ago, we arrived in time for their annual hoe down. This time, it was the beginning of hunting season.
Once the sun set, the chill of the evening arrived. By 3 a.m. it was 44 degrees, and yes, too cold to sleep well when one’s lightweight sleeping bags don’t cut it. And in the morning, we waited patiently for the fog to lift. The plan was to cycle into La Crosse, Wisconsin, because the Great River Trail offered a cycling path next to the Mississippi; much safer than riding on highway shoulders in Minnesota. What we had forgotten was the climb – it was a good 10 miles of uphill over the bluffs toward La Crosse.
GET Y0URSELVES A DRINK
The Great River Trail in Wisconsin was another winner. Once a railroad, most of the time the trail was right next to the Mississippi River. Around 4 p.m. we determined it might be best to stop for the night if we could find a spot in the town of Trempealeau. Otherwise, it would be another 16 miles until we could cross back into Minnesota. The Little Bluff Inn looked inviting and though the sign indicated they were full we went inside. “I just had a cancellation,” Julie, the owner, said. When we asked about places to eat, she suggested two. “Take our golf cart down by the river and get yourselves a drink. You’ll love it. And then, call Sullivan’s restaurant and make a reservation. It’s Manic Monday. They will pick you up and shuttle you there.” We took advantage of both.
In the morning, we walked to the local coffee shop and then hiked up to the bluff behind the inn, called “Little Bluff.” This bluff is famous because a tribe of Native Americans, the Mississippians, once lived there. It was also a sacred place for them, due to the commanding view down the river. Back on the Great River Trail, we rode through a wildlife refuge, then onto a highway, then onto a trail that took us over multiple railroad tracks and then onto the bridge back across the Mississippi into Winona, Minnesota. After splitting a salad and drinking lemonade, we cycled through Prairie Island on our way to Highway 61. “There’s no other way,” Pat said. We were nervous but the four-lane highway, with excellent shoulders, was right next to the Mississippi River and an active railroad. We zoomed along at an average speed of 17 miles per hour until we reached Wabasha.
BICYCLES AND BAGS
Once settled for the evening, we discovered that part of Highway 61 ahead of us was completely shut down for repaving. The detour was on a windy, narrow road filled with truck traffic. Our other choice was to cross back over to Wisconsin and ride on another highway. None of this sounded easy. Pat talked with the evening motel manager. “Might we post a sign that says we are looking for a short ride?” he asked. How about this?” the manger replied. “I’ll post it to our local online community forum. Thirty minutes later, Pat received a text from Brenda, asking us about our bicycles and bags. “I’ll take you up the road past the detour,” she said. Wow, that was amazing.
When Brenda arrived in the morning, we stacked our bicycles into the back of her Honda Pilot. As she drove, we learned that Brenda is the co-owner of the Hopping Girl Brewery, runs a bed and breakfast and has a travel agency. Definitely a go-getter with plenty of energy.
Brenda dropped us off in Hastings, Minnesota. Our destination that day was Minneapolis. The temperatures were in the mid 80s, the pavement hot and there was little shade for miles. Eventually we arrived on the outskirts of St. Paul, assuming that Minneapolis was only a few miles further. We were again mistaken. It took us two hours to maneuver through all of St. Paul, most of which, was on lovely trails and next to gorgeous neighborhoods. We were thirsty and light-headed when we arrived. We’d neglected to eat anything for hours.
A DAY OFF
“Let’s take a day off and explore Minneapolis before we cycle north,” Pat suggested. We did, walking several miles around the city through their sculpture garden, the flour mill ruins and the downtown main thoroughfares. It was downtown Thursdays, something the city has initiated to bring workers back to the city and out of their home offices. As in other cities, much of downtown was relatively empty of businesses and stores; the aftermath of the pandemic.
After a lovely meal and some brews at the Town Hall Brewery, we had to get back to the dreaded planning of the rest of our route. It was then that we accepted the fact we didn’t have enough days to get to Lake Itasca, the Mississippi headwaters, and then back to St. Cloud’s Amtrak station. We highlighted six different options and each one had challenges. And then we learned that we couldn’t put our bicycles on the train in St. Cloud, because it’s an unmanned station. More handwringing and finally what we thought was our solution.
PRIVATE CAR SERVICE
We hired a private car service to drive us 150 miles to Brainerd, Minnesota, the beginning of the Paul Bunyan Trail. We would ride 60 miles a day for six days to cycle the trail to the end in Bemidji, forgo Itasca and cycle back to St. Paul’s Amtrak station, which is manned.
“Do you want the bigger or smaller van for your bicycles?” the owner of the service asked. “We’ll take the smaller vehicle,” Pat said. In the morning, our driver, Bill, dressed in jacket and tie, greeted us and opened the hatchback of the SUV. The bicycles didn’t fit so we removed the front wheels. Pat was having trouble getting his axle to release and when it finally did, it broke. It was a bad sign, but we assumed he could finally a replacement piece on our way north.
That was when our planned trip came to a screeching halt. Not one bicycle shop on our way north either had the axle he needed or was open. The bicycle shop in Brainerd could order the part but it would take a few days which we didn’t have.
I texted my friend Kris, frantic. “Rent a U-Haul and drive back to your daughter’s home in Chicago,” she suggested. And we did. We located a bicycle dealership in Lisle, Illinois, who had the right Jamis bike axle.
And so, ends our Midwestern adventure a bit early. We are working through all those emotions. For the last few days, we will find trails around Chicago before heading home to Waitsfield.