Monday, July 07, 2008

Up to the Northland

I write this from the deck of the cabin on Bass Lake ust north of Cohasset, Minnesota. Mrs Yam and I persevered and found our way up here yesterday evening, for a total of 214 miles. We ended the ride by coasting down to the lake and throwing ourselves in, causing much consternation for a woman and her children who seemed to think that we intruded on their beach. Sorry to harsh your mellow, sister.

The first day we declared our independence. Cliche, I know, but to mount the bikes and confound the in-laws by stating that we're biking and we'll meet you in Grand Rapids. No, we don't need a ride. No, it doesn't sound as bad as you think. In fact, we're looking forward to it.

It's a test. When my darlin' bride suggested that we bike there, I was apprehensive. Not that I doubt my ability -- self delusion is a very powerful protective measure -- but I feared that she wouldn't be able with the bike she rides to work. A visit to the fine folks at HCHQ and the addition of a LHT to the family assuaged my equipment fears. We've been riding daily to work and for errands, but these would be the longest days we've ever ridden together. Could we mount the bikes the second day? How would the weather behave? Technicals await? Would we even be speaking to one another? The bikes were built for the miles, but would our tender legs and marriage survive the ride. No amount of self-delusion would stay my nagging concern.


We mounted up and started our journey on an extraordinary day, cool morning, steady tailwind, and not a cloud in the sky. We fortified ourselves with iced mochas and bars from Urban Bean and amazed a legshaver with our plans to ride to Northern Minnesota. He seemed pretty surprised that a couple of Freds could ride that far. Through an abondoned downtown to Second and followed the bike lane until we hit a path I had never seen before, which led to a nature park along I-94 around 49th that was stunningly gorgeous. Wildflowers everywhere and some of the nicest people I've met in the Park System. We'll definately be going back.

From the park we followed the path along the river and crossed on 694. This was a mistake as we eventually lost the path I was trying to follow. We ended up in Coon Rapids and we ended up on a busy road into Anoka. We had lunch and met another of the many looks of disbelief when we told the waitress of our plans. Good wishes were offered and we left. Through suburban tracts and traffic and they thinned to farms and open fields. The weather was still nice and we were making pretty good time. We stopped in Nowthen for an iced mocha -- a convenience store creation from a machine -- and chatted with a couple out on their Harley, just riding around enjoying the day. Can't blame them, really. Well, except for the Harley, but more on those later.

A stop for Mr. Mistys, uh, Arctic blasts now I guess, in Princeton and a stop to marvel some tasteless inflatable yard ornements. We eventually pulled into Milaca and our hotel around 7 PM, showered and had dinner. We called our moms and went to bed, surprised and satisfied with our day. We wondered how we would do tomorrow, but there was hours of sleep between now and then and we'd come across that soon enough.

The next day found us feeling great and eager to go on. Continental breakfast and we were off. It was hazy and the promise of humidity was in the air and the sun was already warm. The course I had plotted has us parallel 169 on county roads until Onamia where we'd ride by Mille Lacs-Kathio State Park and onto 169 to get around Lake Mille Lacs. The problem is, the maps never tell you the surface of the road and the trip to Onamia was on gravel. This slowed us down a lot but we did see some beautiful things, fields, marshes and the beginings of the coniferous forests of Northern Minnesota. About two miles from Onamia, we turned west onto another gravel road, this one far more loosely packed than the previous 23 miles worth and on a loaded touring bike, loose-pack is treacherous. I almosed biffed it when I misjudged the condition of the side and sank into the sand, causing me to almose lose the bike as it slid out from underneath me. The consolation of this was the butterflies -- thousands of little black butterflies were on the side of the road and as I passed, they took flight delighting me darlin' Mrs who was riding through them.

We got a call from the in-laws asking us where we were and much to our surprise, we would be in Onamia at the same time for lunch. We crossed 169 on the Soo Line ATV bridge, washed up and met them as they pulled into the parking lot. We related tales from our journey thus far and our route plans, good wishes were wished and we parted company. We headed west out of Onamia and past the park, stopping for water and conversation with the rangers at the desk. We took the old 169 along the lake to avoid the traffic the best we could, but there were times when we had to ride on shoulder of the highway. Barely muffled trucks with headers pulling boats, packs of Harleys with straight pipes and general vacation traffic was bordering on nerve-wracking.

We trudged on, the road hot from the sun and humidity and wind extracting and carrying off our life essence as we rode through the hell that is 169 in summer. A stop in Garrison for chocolate milk, fruit and candy bars brought back some life and we gamely soldiered on. After the Y in the road to Brainerd, traffic thinned noticeably and we continued on mostly unmolested by the loudest and most awful of the vehicles. I had originally planned to take some more country roads that paralleled 169, but since the worst had passed, we decided to take the direct route up 169 to Aitkin.

After an hour of pedalling, we made it to our hotel but decided that we would have a drink before checking in. A drink turned into another and soon we were ready to order dinner. Mrs Yam checked in, I ordered two prime rib dinners and a couple more drinks. Gosh, those gin and tonics were refreshing. The rib arrived and, well, left almost as promptly as they appeared. Biking does give one a bit of a hunger, doesn't it. We carried our bikes up the stairs to our room under the disbelieving eyes of the children in the entryway, unpacked, showered and slept. We needed to get ready for t
he worst ride yet.

As hot as Saturday was, we were nowhere near as prepared for Sunday's swelter. The tailwind that we had with us for the last two days turned on us. The hot, sticky wind would be our demon -- seemingly in our faces no matter which way we headed. The temperatures were as hot as the previous day, but the humidity was greater and the swamps that lie between us and Grand Rapids offered no shelter from the wind or sun. A long hard slog. When it was first suggested that we bike to the cabin, this was the ride I feared; bugs, sweltering heat, wind and scrub. Here, I realized my nightmare ride. After an hour, we stopped for some water and rest under a little shade and I could tell that we were going to have to ride the ride Mrs described as "the mental part." To quote me Mrs, "the first leg is easy because it's new, the second day would test our bodies after the first day but the third day would be the mental day." Yes, yes it was.

The heat and the boredom were starting to really get us, the water was almost gone and the squeaking from my chain from yesterday's ride through gravel was grinding at my psyche. We stopped speaking to one another and just kept going. There isn't much in the line of civilization up here and just about the time I was about to turn into a raving, gibbering idiot, we stumbled across a bar. Like an oasis, it was the only thing at the intesection of 169 and Nowhere, but it wasn't an illusion. It had water and air conditioning and Bloddy Marys and cold Coke and beer. We listened to the local drunk tell his stories to the regular patrons, got differing opinions on the distance we've yet to ride, but it was magnificent.

We filled our bottles, thanked everyone and pressed on. The heat and stickiness were still there, but it didn't seem as oppressive as it did an hour ago. We pedaled for an hour to Hill City, had lunch at a charmless roadside bar and pressed on. Along the way, I thought that it might be be better if we went around the west side of Pokegama and arrived at Cohasset from the south instead of riding through Grand Rapids to highway 2. Just before the turnoff, we found yet another roadside bar with a helpful bartender and a some drunk lady that kept offering to draw us a map, and would stop, slurring "Honest to God, I'd hate to see you get lost" and then look for a piece of paper and then tell us to go through Grand Rapids. Then the show would start over again, with another slurred request for piece of paper, the feeling of guilt at our potential dislocation, and the directions to Grand Rapids. After this occured several more times, we politely said good bye and ducked out in a hail of "Honest to Gods" and "lemme getcha a maps" and mounted our bikes. The bartender came out and commented on our "ten speeds." We thanked him and rode the last half dozen miles down 169 (his suggestion) to Grand Rapids.

We picked up some sodas and fruit at a grocery store and played "spot the local/tourist" as people came in from the parking lot. We also had a pleasant conversation with a fellow from Iowa who was a bicyclist also. We spoke to the Lake People and told them that were were on our way and that we were in Grand Rapids. They didn't bother to tell us that cabin was a full eight miles from Cohasset and that messed with our heads. We were under the impression that the lake was nearby Highway 2, but instead it felt that we kept riding and riding and that we would never get there. It was then that a search party made its first contact with us -- a brother and his daughter were on bike and told us we weren't far. We headed back with them as our escort and eventually a crowed cheered us into the resort. They directed us to the lake and glided to the water and we dismounted and dived right in. Beers and dinner and tales of the road followed and and head shakes and muttered lines of "you're nuts" and "I can't believe you did it." We fell asleep to the sound of loons happy in our successful conclusion.


Pete said...

Wow, epic! Nice job getting it done.

the old bag said...

Gotta love those out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere bars...although we'd love 'em even more if they had good food.