It takes me around 5 hours to drive the 295 miles between our home in Minneapolis and our cottage outside of Watersmeet, Michigan. I’ve driven the route countless times. It’s a chore.
For years I’ve thought about making the trip in a different way. In a way that would turn that chore into a lasting memory.
On my bicycle.
This summer I finally did it. On Sunday, July 5th, as my family was packing up to head home after vacation, I waved goodbye and pedaled up the driveway on my loaded bicycle.* A bucket list trip was becoming reality.
Four days and 344 miles later, I rolled down my driveway in Minneapolis at around 9:45pm. Hot, exhausted and happy. It was a moment of pure joy that eludes most adults in their 50’s like me.
I almost chickened out. I’ve ridden a lot of miles on my bike, but my experience with self-contained bicycle touring—unsupported—is very limited. I did a three-day self-contained trip a few years ago with friends, but never a solo trip of this magnitude. As I packed up my bike panniers with gear, water and food, negative thoughts raced through my head. “I’m not in the greatest biking shape. What if I have a mechanical issue I can’t fix? Where am I even going to camp tonight?” Sometimes, it’s little things that push us forward. In this case, it was a little patch embroidered on the inside sleeve of the t-shirt I was wearing. It reads, “Day One or One Day?” I was sick of saying “one day.” Today would be Day One. I’m so glad I was wearing that shirt. The things that make us nervous, that push us, often result in the experiences that make a life well lived.
Choosing the best route home was easy. There is an organization called Adventure Cycling Association that publishes a network of bicycling routes that crisscross the country. And as luck would have it, their “North Lakes” route passes a few miles south of our cottage on its way to Minneapolis. The set of maps, which included turn by turn directions and identified grocery stores, restaurants and campgrounds, were a massive help. It would have been a far more difficult trip without them.
For several reasons, I needed to travel the 344 miles in four days—leaving on Sunday afternoon and sleeping in my bed in Minneapolis by Wednesday night. That’s 86 miles a day. As I settled into a strong pace my first twenty miles or so, that pace felt attainable. It was a very hot day, and I stopped a few times to dunk my head into one of the many beautiful lakes I passed.
Then the sky darkened. And I noticed that the cars coming towards me from the west had their lights on. Not a good sign. A few minutes later the deluge started. The next town, Boulder Junction, was about 8 miles away. I took shelter under a big oak tree and ate an energy bar, hoping it would pass quickly. It didn’t. My tree started to lose all of its water shedding properties. I realized that I was basically standing there in the rain, so I hopped back on my bike and rode in the steady rain into Boulder Junction, where I found a park shelter to hang out under and assess the state of my gear. The day was slipping away and I wasn’t yet sure where to camp for the night.
Around 7:15pm, 56 miles in, I limped into a public campground on Big Lake, outside Manitowish Waters. Although soggy, I took a nice swim after setting up camp and enjoyed ramen noodles while the full moon rose. Not bad. I did regret bringing a very small sleeping pad, as my tent site was gravel. But I fell asleep without effort.
Day Two—No Wolves
The bumper sticker posted on the tavern door said “No Wolves.” I like wolves. I think they belong in the northern forest. They make it feel alive and complete. The forest is more than a game farm for deer hunters.
If I was driving my car I would have turned around. I don’t want to support or interact with No Wolves folks. But I was on my bike. And Day 2 of my trip was about to include another huge storm.
The morning started out great. I cut through the mist on the paved bike trail outside of Mercer, WI, as the rising sun melted it away. Fully caffeinated, I felt alive and the miles flew by. A few hours in, I stopped at a market for Ibuprofen, two bananas and Gatorade. If my bike shorts didn’t give away my mode of travel that day, my purchase probably did.
On a long stretch of straight open highway west of Turtle Flambeau Flowage I noticed huge storms bubbling up in the western horizon. The storm closed in, and it dropped from 90 degrees to 70 degrees as the wind picked up. I started looking for trees with water shedding properties again. And then, The Midway Bar appeared out of nowhere. I tucked my bike into an open shed around the side of the tavern and headed in. My desire to shelter from the storm trumped the No Wolves greeting on the door.
I’m glad I did. The couple running the bar were gracious, letting me hang out until the storm had passed and offering to top up my water bottles while my bike sat in their shed and my iPhone powered up. I enjoyed my lunch conversation with the owner behind the bar, even though I didn’t agree with everything he said. As I biked away after the storm passed, it struck me how easy it is to avoid interacting with people with whom we disagree. It’s a shame, because I’m never going to change someone’s mind or better understand their perspective that way. By categorizing them and dismissing them before I even say hello. My guess is that the bar owner probably would have avoided me too, especially in my smelly bike clothes, but I hope we both left the conversation with a little better understanding of the other. It wouldn’t have happened if I had been safely ensconced in my car, barreling home in a hurry.
That’s part of the beauty of bike travel. You become a traveler in the oldest sense of the word. You are vulnerable and may need to rely on the kindness of strangers. And for some reason, pedaling a bicycle is disarming—you are often viewed by people as a curiosity rather than a potential threat. Opportunities to have positive interactions with people abound. A ride can restore your faith in humanity, or at least give you a needed dose of empathy.
Back on the bike, I started to consider where to camp that night. It was hard to plan ahead of time, because I wasn’t sure how far I’d make it each day. This uncertainty caused daily anxiety, but it also made the trip flow in a serendipitous way. Day two ended that way. After deciding to push past camping options around Clam Lake, I found a sweet little private campground on Ghost Lake outside of the Hayward area vacation megalopolis. The camp owners didn’t answer their phone first time, but eventually I roused them and they pointed me to an empty field of campsites up the hill and a building where I could take a nice hot shower. Because of Covid, their restaurant was shut down, but I saw another food option on the Adventure Cycling map just down the road called Ghost Lake Lodge.
After setting up camp and taking a dip in the lake and hot shower, I headed over to the Lodge, a beautiful old log cabin surrounded by a ring of guest cabins strung out along the lake shore. It was hard to climb back onto my bike after 88 miles that day—my rear end was not happy—but it was worth the trip. I found the Lodge empty, and waited at the bar for someone to appear for 10 minutes or so. The owners, an older couple, eventually appeared. They were a delight. The husband poured himself an old fashioned, something I could tell he had done often. And the wife set about to getting me a beer, and then a pizza. Their kindness had a genuine, grandparent like nature to it. But as I sat out on the back deck watching the sun drop with a nice buzz and a full belly, the grumble of thunder broke in, again. The radar on my phone confirmed that another big storm had come calling.
As I hustled out the door to race back to my camp that was not ready for rain, the wife thanked me and told me that she would leave the lodge door open overnight, and that I was welcome to sleep inside if the storms got really bad. Yet another example of the magic interactions that happen when you are on a bike.
Day Three—Making Up the Miles
It was a rough start to the day. My body was not happy that I was contemplating getting back onto a bicycle, especially the parts that made contact with my bike seat. Swapping out my shorts on day two had quite literally rubbed me the wrong way. Even after a pot of coffee and a lot of oatmeal cooked up on my camp stove, I could tell it was going to be a hard start. And I had a lot of miles to make if I was going to be sleeping in my bed come Wednesday night.
Thankfully the energy returned to my body quickly once I rolled out of the campground around 9:15am. It might have been in part because of the beauty around me. A winding forest road. Mist rising again from the damp pavement in the morning sun. Stream crossings and the sound of rapids. A few deer, a brood of turkeys and ravens cawing from the woods. I took a deep breath and again felt so alive, and so lucky to be out here pedaling under my own power and feeling my body getting stronger. Every place except my butt, which was threatening to end the trip early.
As I rolled into the Hayward lakes area, the traffic picked up in volume and speed. The Adventure Cycling route was fantastic, but Hayward was my least favorite part. Especially as I cycled the narrow road around the Casino on the Lac Courte Oreille Indian Reservation, I found myself wondering whether the driver of the car about to overtake me was paying attention to me or their phone. I switched on my red blinking tail light, which always gives me a bit more comfort.
On day three the diversity of the Wisconsin landscape was on full display. I went by farm fields, deep forests, lake shores, and small towns, again and again. And I noticed all of it, every hill, every road surface, every change in the land, at my 14mph pace. Another steamy July day, I enjoyed a few stops to dunk my head in a lake or take a quick swim.
The day’s lunch stop was at the Chit Chat tavern in Edgewater, Wisconsin. The tavern was for sale. The owner/bartender had not had a day off in over two months, but you couldn’t tell it. My Coca-Cola and fish sandwich basket cost $9.15. I’m guessing there is not a lot of money to be made at the Chit Chat, but I’d recommend a stop.
Emerging from the dark, air-conditioned confines of the Chit Chat felt like entering a tropic rain forest. I love heat and humidity, but I could tell this mid-day heat was nothing to take lightly. I stopped at a little market in the tiny town (the only store) and bought two bananas, two Gatorades and a jar of Vaseline. All of them helped immensely.
I’ve done a lot of endurance type exercise, but it still amazes me how important food becomes to your body’s ability to carry on. I pulled into Edgewater dragging and worrying about whether I could make enough miles for the day, and I pedaled out feeling strong. But the heat was oppressive and the long open stretches around Haugen tested me. One stretch in particular is etched in my mind. It was a long straight country road without a tree in sight. Miles in the distance a huge hill rose up, waiting for me. That hill sucked, especially when a diesel truck passed me and put his accelerator to the floor to welcome me to the neighborhood.
Reaching Haugen felt like an accomplishment. I popped into a little village market that felt like a scene from the 1950’s, complete with a tin ceiling, checker floor and tiny shelves. There was a wonderful, old couple running the place. The Greatest Generation. She was stocking. He was behind the old cash register. I think they would still be talking to me if I had stayed to continue the conversation. Sadly, he struggled to make change from the $50 bill I gave him. I immediately felt bad for calling out the miscalculation, as I could tell he was disappointed in himself. I wish I would have just considered it a tip to them and what appeared to be many, many years of hard work in that little store that used to be a bigger part of the community. It was a bittersweet moment to see a disappearing glimpse of the past, and I turned it over in my head for many miles. I hope they are still there when I do this trip again.
A few more strategic head dunks in lakes and a few more Gatorades later, I made it all the way into Cumberland, Wisconsin, and found a sweet little public campground on a peninsula jutting out into the lake right in the middle of town. I was the only tent, again. I bought a couple of beers at a bar downtown and a sub sandwich and sat on the lake shore by my tent watching the sun set. There were loons calling and an osprey fishing. Serendipity. After Facetime calls to my Mom and Dad and Sarah, I turned in. 95 miles in the bag. It was a great day. I just might make it to Minneapolis tomorrow after all.
Day Four—Minivans and Heat Indexes
“What the hell is that guy doing?” I thought. I was on my second attempt to put some distance between me and the city of Cumberland—the first attempt earlier that morning resulted in my retreat back to town to hide under an awning on Cumberland’s main street from another huge, angry storm. I’m used to cars flying by, but in this case, I was gaining ground on a very old mini-van that was loaded with crap, hoarder style. The person driving said vehicle was creeping along around 10 mph in the left-hand lane of a two-lane highway with only the driver side tires slightly off the road. As I gained ground, the van started to climb up a very large hill—anyone coming over that hill from the opposite direction would meet this van head on. This was fast becoming a life or death scenario. Do I pedal like hell and catch up? Fall back and avoid being part of the carnage? I tried to catch up, but the car crested the hill before I did, and quickly took a right across the road and down a driveway. As I passed by, I think I saw a flat tire on the driver’s side. This idiot was driving on the opposite shoulder to save a tire rim. You blindly trust a lot of drivers when you are biking, so seeing this kind of calculus—I’ll save my tire rim and avoid having to get out of my car in exchange for the risk of a violent death—was not comforting. A few minutes later, a couple in a green pickup truck passed me. I saw the detail of their faces and thought about how lucky they were that morning that they hadn’t driven past a few minutes earlier. It’s easy to forget how fragile and seemingly random life can be.
The day got much better. After I passed the big storm and Mr. Minivan, the winds shifted around to provide a very strong tailwind. The first noticeable tailwind of the trip. The wind pushed me and my wide panniers along the open country road and I powered up to my biggest gear. The speed became almost effortless. It was a gift on what I knew was going to be a very long and hot day. I’m pretty sure I might have spontaneously yelled “yes!” a few times on that stretch of road. When was the last time you shouted out in joy? Another example of the wonders of biking.
The speed induced joy didn’t last. The effects of the storm moved on, the wind shifted back around, and the sun returned to deliver the heat index warnings that were forecast. I started to search the map for lakes and temporary relief. But instead of heatstroke, I discovered something else on day four—our human bodies are amazing. We can beat them up, push them to failure, exhaust our reserves, but they eventually respond. I had pushed through the dead legs and sore butt of the first few days and now my body was starting to toughen up. My legs felt strong and capable. Blisters turned to callouses. What a blessing it is to push yourself and find enough toughness to meet the challenge. What a feeling! Those moments provide a whiff of invincibility and confidence that I have used to plug into so many other parts of my life. And you can too. I’m not a great athlete or a natural on the bike—my calves are so skinny that my family makes fun of them. But on day four, I felt strong and the well inside of me felt deep. The dance between mind and body that plays out in endurance activities has been life changing for me.
Strong legs or not, it was hot. The hottest day of July, in fact. I stopped at few gas stations to slug Gatorade in the icy AC, and the miles ticked by. I had over 100 to make, and as I reached the St. Croix river valley and the border into Minnesota, I became confident that, heat or not, I would finish the trip that day.
Maybe I got a little too confident, because not long after the cycling gods brought me back to reality with my only crash of the trip. I was biking through a highway underpass tunnel that had stagnant, standing water on the far end of it. I hit the water, and in an instant the slimy pavement turned as slippery as ice and I was down in a heap, struggling to unclip and crawl out from under my bike. Thankfully the damage was cosmetic, and off I went, with the benefit of having soaked half my shorts and shirt in stinky, but cooling, water.
Crossing Highway 35 south of St. Croix Falls, I started my descent into the river valley on, you guessed it, River Road. It was the greatest segment of the trip. Starting on a ridge line high above the river, I felt like I was dropping into a ski run. With big descents and sweeping turns, the road winds beautifully through the forest and seems to go on forever. It was shaded, it was cool, it was exhilarating. If it was an amusement park ride, I would have paid to do it again, and again. But it wasn’t a ride, and all of that descent had to be clawed back in less than a mile on the other side of the Hwy 243 bridge into Minnesota.
The invincibility I felt earlier in the day was fading, but crossing into Minnesota helped. Especially after I reached the town of Scandia and joined up with a route I’ve done on long weekend rides. I was back on home territory and no longer needed a map. Thankfully, this home stretch was made easier when my friend Pat Dockry joined me to bike the last 25 miles or so to my house. Pat provided a huge mental lift and it was great to have him along.
And then it was almost over. We crossed the Mississippi River as the sun set over the city. I couldn’t stop smiling. In the darkness I rolled onto my street and then into my driveway; Sarah and the dogs were outside waiting for us. 107 miles. A state of joyful exhaustion washed over me. A feeling you can’t get without a lot of hard effort.
After pizza, beer and a shower, I lay in my bed that night drifting off to sleep. In my mind’s eye, I rolled back across the distance. It was amazing to actually feel all of those roads and towns and lakes and forests and fields and people in between here and there. The opportunity to earn that distance under my own power, and really experience it on a human scale and at a human pace was a gift. Unlike my car trips, I’ll never forget it.
I can’t wait to do it again next year.
*I’d love to to answer any questions you may have about the route, gear, bike or other logistics.