Finally, after two years, we got to spend some time in our tiny house in the woods. We’re visiting relatives next door, as nephews, niece, and their families gather for Ben’s 89th birthday celebration. But, we also have enjoyed spending quiet evenings reading and listening to Montana Public Radio, and mornings getting the cabin ready to put on the market.
Ben’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren gathered, along with his niece and her family, with people arriving through the week, filling his house, tents in the yard, and vacation rentals in Polson. We were glad to have our own place to stay. We typically go into town early morning for breakfast and to catch up on email and social media, though the Safeway/Starbucks has fast WiFi but no electrical outlets. Our solar panel at the cabin will recharge phones and iPads, but not the big laptop, so “real” work requires seeking out places that have both power outlets and good WiFi. So far, the laundromat in Polson and coffee shop in Ronan are the only ones, though Judy still has issues with the iPad needing to be very close to the router and then not always connecting.
Meanwhile, we started preparing the cabin for sale. Our retirement plan involves getting our budget downsized so that one of us can live on one income when the inevitable occurs, which means either moving to a smaller house or refinancing the “big house,” both plans requiring the cash out of our Montana property. So, we are stripping down the cabin to leave it fully furnished for future trips or future owners, but keeping or passing on some personal items, so it can be listed “as-is, fully furnished.” Tools to relatives next door to share, decor to friends who have similar tastes, books…, well, recycle or add to our home library, at least until we downsize that as well. We had thought our property might be worth more if we knocked down the cabin, but, since tiny houses are all the rage now, and the cabin is suitable for temporary shelter while building a larger house, we listed it accordingly.
Before the heat wave came in, we drove downtown, parked at the Safeway, and rode our tandem up Polson Hill on the rail trail, then west on the new bike trail section to Skyline Drive, 140 meters (460 ft) above the city, which made for a fast and long downhill, and then a long, gentle uphill back to the car, a short ride of 14.2km (8.8 miles), but lots of climbing.
￼On Friday, eight weeks since leaving home, we took a drive west to St. Regis to meet a friend from Idaho, to whom we had promised some of our cabin decor, and handed off the goods, along with our camping gear, which we will pick up on the way home next week if we have room after repacking the car.
Aberdeen was a major rail hub in the 19th century, and birthplace in the late 20th century of the Super 8 motel chain. We stayed at the smallest of the three Super 8 motels now in the relatively small city, and went to the “original” to use the guest laundry services, so got to tour the city on the back streets on the way. In the morning, we backtracked to the east side of town for our morning coffee fix, then off toward Montana, crossing the Missouri at Mobridge, one of the few bridges across the river, and into the Mountain Time Zone.
We had early lunch/late breakfast, depending on which time zone you came from, in northwestern South Dakota, where a poster on the wall proclaimed this “Reagan Country,” a reminder that the Conservatives are determined to turn the clock back at least 40 years, and have succeeded in some parts of the country. For us, that would mean a world without Starbucks or the Internet, among the other more political issues, so we quickly moved on west in search of the 21st century again.
A brief passage through the corner of North Dakota and badlands reminiscent of the Badlands of South Dakota and the Teddy Roosevelt Park further north, and we were at last back in Montana. The first town we came to, Baker, had a coffee shop serving espresso and WiFi: we had successfully navigated the time warp and returned to our own time. However, we still have nostalgia for the “good old days,” i.e., the 50s and 60s, before the Interstate highway system isolated small towns and homogenized America, so we had been avoiding highways starting with “I-.” However, we did find ourselves on I-94 between Miles City and Forsyth, where US 12 has been absorbed by the newer road.
Leaving Forsyth, we realized we had 150km ahead with no guaranteed fuel stops, so turned back to fill up before moving on to Roundup, our destination for the evening. Our motel, booked through one of the newer Internet services, turned out to be another chain franchise enterprise that had succumbed to the recession and was now being slowly rehabilitated as a mom-and-pop operation. This one only had a few rooms ready for occupancy, but they were clean, with new carpet but nearly worn-out linens and towels stacked on the closet for lack of towel bars. The owner said they had started in April, with a huge mess, but were proceeding with a focus on quality before quantity. Now, this part of a “return to the past” we don’t mind–the Internet has equalized the marketplace so that we no longer have to depend on name recognition as a mark of quality and consistency: the very thing that gave rise to the Super 8 motel chain 40 years ago and that late-comers to the chain/franchise market had forgotten was the reason for their success. On-line reservation systems are now a free market, not the purview of large corporate mainframes, and online guest reviews provide a measure of quality. The upside for travellers is a variety of accommodation, rather than travelling hundreds of miles to stay in a room identical to the last one.
Having passed through the timezone the day before, we awoke early and set off in search of breakfast and good coffee, which we found 100 km down the road, at Harlowton, a bit bigger town. We had been following the trace of an old rail line along US12 since Forsyth, the tracks long gone. At Harlowton, we learned that this had been a main switchyard for the Milwaukee railroad 100 years ago, where the coal-fired steam engines turned over their west-bound loads to electric engines, which provide pollution-free passage through the tunnels under the Rocky Mountains,to Idaho and later, the Cascade Range into Seattle. The electric engines were also powered by hydro-electric generators, so the savings in fuel cost offset the cost of electrifying the mountain crossings. Unfortunately, the smaller Milwaukee line was in competition with the older Great Northern railway, whose tracks ran parallel and which served more towns along the way, and the Milwaukee/Soo line eventually went broke, depending entirely on long-distance loads, and lower operating costs that never quite offset the capital investment in technology.
We stopped for fuel again in White Sulphur Springs, birthplace of the late novelist Ivan Doig, as the next town, Townsend, was again too far. Through Montana’s capital, Helena, we climbed over the continental divide and turned north at Avon, leaving US 12 to pick up MT 200, to avoid the merger ahead between US 12 and I-90 into Missoula. At Missoula, we stopped for late lunch at the Good Food Store, one of our favorite deli stops on trips to/through the “big city” when we had lived up the Bitterroot Valley in the early 2000s. One of the reasons we stop so often at Starbucks in our travels, despite our penchant to sample local lodging and eateries, is that we know what they serve and we like it. One of the pitfalls of frequent travel and frequent moves is that you become attached to certain places to eat and simply have to wait until you pass that way again, or try to duplicate your favorite items at home. However, the appeal of these places is that they come up with new items that must be sampled: now we have new dishes to try to replicate from memory when we get home.
Finally, seven weeks into our grand tour, we arrived at our little cabin on the side of the mountain and spent a restful night in a familiar bed, though we hadn’t slept there in nearly a year and a half, since before my surgery last year. Since we hadn’t cleaned up from fumigating the cabin before we set off for new Mexico six weeks ago, we went into town in the morning for coffee and breakfast, as well as Internet access. Our standard stop in Polson is the Safeway store, which has an in-store Starbucks and fast WiFi, but no electrical outlets in the customer cafe seating area, so we don’t stay too long. Of course, later in the day, we visit with Rick and Ben next door. where there is running water and electricity as well. Today we wait for more family to arrive from the East Coast for a week of celebration, before we head back to Washington.
Park Rapids is the western terminus (for now) of the Heartland Trail, a rail trail that extends east to Walker and north to Cass Lake. We rode the first 20km, to Dorset and Nevis and back, for a total of 38km.
Nevis had a nice coffee shop, and Dorset, a tiny village on the trail, seems to depend entirely on trail traffic for its existence. We were once again treated to sighting of a huge snapping turtle emerging from his/her burrow along the trail near Lake Belle Taine. On our return, we went to the Bella Caffe in Park Rapids for an excellent lunch and more espresso. We then celebrated our “long” ride with trail-logo T-shirts from the Zula T-shirt shop, a bit unusual for us, but we got long-sleeve shirts to augment our wardrobe for cool mornings and many biting bugs.
With rain predicted for afternoon on Tuesday, we headed early to Itasca State Park, where we rode the 9km bike trail from the visitor center to the Mississippi headwaters, at the north end of the lake. The trail was not a rail trail, so twisted and turned up and down hills above the lake, making for an unhappy trip in anticipation of walking mosquito-infested slopes or crashing on curvy downhill runs. But, we made it to the headwaters unscathed and relatively unbugged.
On the way back, we discovered that the hills weren’t as steep going up as we had thought coming down. However, heavy braking was needed to keep not too far over the 25km/hr speed limit. A tense moment ensued when a group of cyclists coming uphill fast and in a cluster instead of single file rounded a curve ahead, which resulted in some fancy steering and cross-trail maneuvering to avoid an oncoming bike in our lane. After a stop to retrieve a water bottle that was ejected from its holder, we continued on, a bit more cautiously, but the trail ahead was only shared with squirrels.
The clouds began to roll in as we headed back to town for lunch at the 3rd Street Market, next to Bella Caffe, then to the public library so Judy could get connected to the Internet with her iPad, which has not been working in most motels and a few coffee shops the entire trip. This is a common complaint among iOS users, but Apple seems content with promoting magical incantations as a fix rather than seriously investigating wifi driver issues. Few of the Hogwarts solutions have worked, and those that have have been temporary. My iPad Air fell victim to one of the spells that affect Apple products, as it suddenly refused to wake up. Press all of the buttons at once with crossed fingers, as directed in one counter-spell, woke it up, but who knows for how long.
And so it goes. The rains came as we hunted for dinner with non-meat choices. After checking the menus as several restaurants, none of which served all-day breakfast, the default choice for ovo-lacto vegetarians, but we were directed to the local Mexican choice, a relatively new venue in the old armory building, which had a fairly complete vegetarian combo menu.
The rains ended overnight, in time for us to pack up and head westward toward our next appointment in Montana, a transition that will take several days. We decided to follow US12 this time, a route we haven’t travelled through the Dakotas, which means heading back south before heading west into South Dakota. The rain came and went on the way south, and the terrain became less wooded and more farmland.
South Dakota was dotted with shallow ponds and lakes, much like the parts of North Dakota we have travelled through. We stopped fairly early, in Aberdeen, the third largest city in South Dakota, as the road ahead is largely empty except for the more expensive recreation area around Mobridge, on the Missouri River.
Our first morning in Staples, we rode the Legacy Trail, which follows the west side of town from near our motel to Legacy Gardens, a short ride of 12.3 km, but plenty long enough to be attacked by hordes of mosquitoes whenever we stopped. We stopped in the downtown at Stomping Grounds coffee, then cleaned up and went to Baxter, for a little shopping–used books, more coffee (Starbucks!), and to check out the town of Brainerd, across the Mississippi River.
Driving by a bike shop in Brainerd, we noticed an ELF, an enclosed electric-assist tricycle, parked outside. The owner, a woman about our age, was on a two-year exploration of the upper mid-West and had stopped to get a tune-up. What a neat idea–the machine is heavy, so electric assist is necessary, and the company does make a two-seat version, but the back seat is for a passenger, without any power input, and the payload is 160kg, limiting the machine to two skinnier people and no baggage onboard.
On our second day, we set out for the trailhead for the Paul Bunyan Trail, following signs off Highway 371 just north of Highway 210. However, the road was closed for reconstruction, and the detour signs were cryptic and misleading. Finally, we found the path through the construction zone to the Arboretum parking lot, which was also the trailhead.
We headed north to Merrifield through a pine forest on a nearly level railbed, meeting a number of cyclists and runners along the way, and a very large turtle. On our return, we stretched the ride to make exactly 30km, about the limit for saddle time and power output for our current state of training. Lunch at Starbucks and back to Staples to change clothes for our late afternoon appointment.
We met my cousin in Motley, where our mutual great grandparents are buried, and visited the family plot. We also visited my grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s gravesites nearby, Then, we drove north between Motley and Pillager to where the Pietz brothers had their farms. None of the original buildings has survived, but we stopped near where great-grandfather Adolph had his farm and where I remember visiting in the 1940s and early 1950s (he passed away in 1953).
On the third day, we left Staples and drove back to Baxter, then north to Bemidji for lunch, passing Cass Lake on the way. Cass Lake is the eastern end of the Heartland Trail and Bemidji is the northern end of the Paul Bunyan Trail. We drove southwest in rain to Park Rapids, the western end of the Heartland Trail, where we will be based for the next couple of days.
Wednesday, we broke camp early, with a bit of dew still on the tent fly, and headed for town: the pastry shop, closed Monday/Tuesday, was open, with the sticky buns worth the wait. Then, off to check out the Amish country around Harmony, near the Iowa border. We saw one buggy on the way in to town, but the town wasn’t much–a few furniture outlets on the edge of town, yet another small midwest town.
So, we headed north, hoping to find espresso in Rochester. The GPS took us downtown to a Starbucks, across the street from the main entrance to the world-famous Mayo Clinic, with no parking for blocks, so we ended up at a Caribou Coffee out in the ‘burbs: no joy here for Judy’s wifi-cranky iPad, so westward ho toward Mankato for lunch out of the grocery bag in front of a HyVee grocery, a midwest chain we had first discovered in Iowa. On the way, we followed the GPS, which directed us to a torn-up and closed county road, totally missing the fact that MN 14 had been rerouted as a freeway. After wandering gravel roads for nearly an hour, running into dead ends and coming back to the missing highway at several points, we finally arrived at an overpass over the new freeway and spotted an interchange only a short way behind us. The GPS kept guessing which dirt lane we were on, while zooming toward Mankato on the new freeway.
The growth in the Midwest is astounding, as if the recession never happened. Huge swaths of former marsh, woodland, and farmland are being transformed into freeways, industrial parks, shopping centers, and residential complexes. We bypassed the old river city of Mankato entirely, then across the prairie and back down into the Minnesota River Valley to New Ulm, which we had passed through last week.
This time, we stopped long enough to climb to the top of the Herrmann Monument, which celebrates the 9th-century victory over the Roman Empire that created the 1000-year German state, broken briefly after the fall of Hitler’s 3rd Reich by the Iron Curtain division of Germany into two countries. The ultimate downfall that precipitated Hitler’s violent attempt to establish another 1000-year hegemony was engendered by the Prussian expansionism that gave rise to the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s and the Great War of 1914-1918. The latter resulting in the economic destruction of Germany on the eve of the world-wide depression of the 1920s and 1930s.
European instability during the latter third of the 19th century prompted many Germans to emigrate to the United States, with New Ulm as the center of German culture in central Minnesota. This cultural connection was strong enough to resist the suppression of Germanic influence during the 1914-1918 war, when German language and customs disappeared from daily life in less homogeneous towns and cities across America.
We stopped behind the public library to plan our next leg, and were engaged in conversation by a J. Hesse, local resident who was attracted to our Bike Friday tandem mounted on our rather brightly colored Jeep. It is difficult for us to tour unobtrusively with such distinctive livery. But, then, Midwesterners are a friendly and curious bunch: we have had more casual conversations with strangers here than anywhere else we’ve been.
In between stories, we managed to find affordable lodging ahead, hopefully on the edge of the coming storm that would bring torrential rains to most of southern Minnesota. Litchfield became our goal for the evening, a town of no particular significance other than travel economy. We checked in, walked next door to an all-day breakfast café, and retired, as the rain began.
In the morning, we headed west, in light rain, to check out Spicer and Green Lake, where we used to meet periodically for reunions of my grandmother’s and great uncle’s families, until my grandmother’s passing in the mid-1960s. Road work once again sent us off-course onto quiet country roads, and foiled our plan to circumnavigate Green Lake. The once-quiet country lake is now completely ringed with expensive homes, and the road was closed on the north side of the lake for repairs. We pressed on toward St. Cloud and Rice, where Judy’s mother was born, in hopes of locating any of her distant relatives in the local cemeteries. The GPS was again of little use on the way, as the roads had been moved and businesses in small towns are too ephemeral to persist long enough for the relatively static databases shipped with GPS units to find them. Rice was once again a lost quest: we had searched briefly in 2000, the last time we had been through this part of Minnesota, and a more thorough search of several cemeteries in the area did not turn up any familiar names. Half-remembered facts we thought we heard when we were children don’t always translate to actual places when we go to look for them, 60 years later.
Although the inclement weather had not reached this far north, most of the fabled 10,000 lakes (actually, once counted at nearly 30,000) are concentrated in northern Minnesota, and the recent late spring rains and heat had hatched out the first wave of mosquitoes, making camping less desirable. Also, the start of the short summer vacation and weekend water play season meant crowded camps and full motels, with high-season pricing. Our search for affordable lodging led us somewhat off our target zone of the major bike trails–Heartland and Paul Bunyan, Trails–so we ended up at Staples, an Amtrak whistle stop 50 km west of the PBT. Our frequent-traveler plan points had accumulated enough to get us a deep discount on motel rooms, at not much more than campground rates, without the mosquito battle, so we are done camping for a while, at least until we head west next week. Meanwhile, we plan to get in some more bicycling and also hunt down my ancestral home and place names, with the help of my second cousin, whose family remained in the area.