You don’t have to ride a bicycle to feel an odd mix of uneasiness and wonderment watching a squadron of turkey vultures wheeling through their Immelmann turns above the St. Croix River.
You are moved to an obvious question, “why are those jackpine buzzards circling over my head?” Leaving the answer raptor scholars, you seize on a compensation. The bicycle does bring you closer to wild nature than you’ve been for awhile. So did the rest of the menagerie on our 450-mile odyssey through the firs and hamlets of the north country. Here above the bays of Lake Superior were armadas of gulls, scolding and squawking at anything that moved, deer hurdling through the first rays of the sun on our way to Stone Lake in Wisconsin and a porcupine mushing fearlessly through the grass.
I’ll tell you why he was fearless. Nobody riding barelegged on skinny tires freshly pumped with maximum air is going pick a fight with a porcupine.
These are the accepted sights and hazards of cross-country cycling. But a fully grown brown bear trundling solemnly through one of the main drags of Superior, Wis?
Well, yes. There he was, fur, paws and all. Please note that the latest certified population of Superior, Wis., is something over 27,000, not exactly a logging camp of sawdust piles and rusty beer signs. Yet at least two bikers in my troop of nearly 150 saw this bear in complete and uncluttered daylight, walking against a red light with large claws and evidently wet nose.
“Were the pedestrians terrified?” I asked.
“Not that you’d notice,” one of them said. “They did yield the right of way.”
Nobody lacks brains in Superior, Wis. Don’t ever again call these people Cheeseheads.
But when you’re riding in the country, you share the same breeze and sunlight and silence with its inscrutable wildlife. And because of this you find yourself lifted back into the years as a child when you first experienced discovery in the outdoors. The bonus here, of course, is that the vultures are probably harmless unless you bear a strong resemblance to road kill.
Years ago the film makers produced a movie that was a carol to the exhilaration of getting on a bicycle for a few days and letting the open road come surging back into the daily beat of life. When that happens it looses your adrenaline to flow unimpeded in the simple delight of this moment of freedom, scouring and washing out the routine of life. These are the times, also experienced by the mountain climber and the sailor, when the heart can race with the wind and reach for the sun.
The movie’s perfect title was “Breaking Away,” and almost nothing does it as intimately and spontaneously for you as the touring bicycle. Hiking a mountain trail or a path through the birches can be transporting. Motoring through the mountain west is a swift-playing theater documenting nature’s power and effortless size. But a week of cross-country bicycling somehow threads together the world in which we live and does it better, without making any judgments or drawing any morals. In 15 or 20 miles it carries us from the sounds and scenes of commerce, the places where we make or keep our money, to the explorer’s more private world of unmolested nature, or what will pass for unmolested. It’s the part of the world that stirs our hunger when the stresses pile up and television gets stale and the country is on the verge of going to hell.
The bicycle gives you enough movement to enjoy the landscape and its sounds but spares you the tyranny of speed. You can cover distance but you don’t overwhelm it. And each day spreads its montages of farm, village, forest, city, earth and sky, barking dogs and silence—all of that in a few hours on the road.
You should probably know that this was the 30th annual Jaunt with Jim, a bike ride I organized through the newspaper a few weeks after I rode around Lake Superior in the unnecessarily brief span of seven days. People began writing and calling, wanting to join me on the next biking adventure. I couldn’t think of a reason to say no, so it began. Hairy stories of rare feats and improbable events are now exchanged around the hearth by veteran riders and survivors. I say hearth respectfully. On our fourth night this year, in Drummond, Wis., our people were scraping frost from their tent roofs on the second day of summer. The story nobody forgets is the one from the early 1990s when we rode 97 miles from Monticello, Minn., to Osakis into a hot 25-mile an hour headwind. At 3 p.m. the thermometer read 97 degrees. When we got to Osakis we were pounded by a cloudburst. At 10 p.m. I heard my tent being flapped. A police officer asked if I was in charge of the bike ride.
“Why do you want to know?” I asked narrowly.
“There’s a guy on the phone who wants to talk to you,” the officer said. I took the call at the station. The caller said he was on my ride and couldn’t reach his wife by phone. He wanted me to tell her he was all right if she called. I asked why he was telephoning, since we were all in Osakis at the campground. “Not me,” he said. “It was still blowing 25 miles an hour in my face when we got to Rice going west. I was doing 4 miles an hour. I said the hell with this and I headed east. I’m in Grantsburg, Wis., more than 50 miles from you guys and I’m having a great time.”
This ride originated as a kind of village on wheels. We travel together, sip and sup together and camp together in the small towns where we take sanctuary each night during the week’s travel. At times we resemble a gaggle of in-laws who, remarkably, manage to get along. I discovered pretty quickly that if you’re going to orchestrate a bike ride as a community you have to brace yourself for spasms of guerrilla warfare. To rouse the troop at 5:30 a.m. I have to shatter the peace of the morning with a referee’s whistle. It’s merely a matter of time until somebody steals the whistle. I never protest too loudly. It’s either lose the whistle or lose my head. You’re headed for the asylum if you expect a loose clan of individualists to fit comfortably into a matrix that will assure round-the-clock contentment for all of them and peace and sanity for the organizer.
The ones who have insisted on free-lancing the highway, and said “nuts to community,” eventually left. And now here we are, children of the wind, most of us in our 50s, 60s and 70s, still enjoying a kind of brotherhood of the rack. We’re loyal to the friendships its fostered, to say nothing of the random relationships (about which I’ll say nothing). And we’re still startled by sights like the one in Askov, Minn. This is one of those quiet little Nordic outposts, bred in Denmark and said to be renowned worldwide for the quality of its rutabagas.
For breakfast the ladies of the community served us Aebleskivers, a pride of Danish cooking. These are pancakes with the general contours and diameter of tennis balls. We watched the cooking performance in total awe. They rolled the balled pancake mix in panholes sunk into cast iron trays. Each panhole was filled with a tiny sea of hot grease, and the cooks nursed and nudged each Aebleskiver (there is no other way to say it) to maturity with knitting needles fingered with the skill of a transplant surgeon.
If you didn’t ride a bicycle, and survive porcupines and 25 mile hour headwinds, you might never experience an Aebleskiver.
I say saddle up and get cracking.