Cycle touring is like a box of chocolates ... you never know quite what you're gonna get! And so it was with Minnesota. I didn't have any preconceptions about Minnesota but we certainly opened up a box of delights.
It all started with our film-shoot for American TV back in the San Francisco-esque small town of Stillwater. The town sits on the banks of the St Croix River, a major
tributary of the Mississippi, and paddle boats pottered up and down in the evening sunshine. The steep streets are lined by attractive red brick warehouse buildings, now hosting trendy cafes and delis. A few days earlier we'd visited Afton to see the 4th of July parade and by chance bumped into Brian, a TV producer who was keen to do a feature on us for his Life to the Max programme. We had a brilliant afternoon with the film crew, doing interviews and being filmed cycling around Stillwater as Brian and his camera hung precariously out of the boot of his car! A news guy for Channel 4 showed up later to shoot a piece for the 10 o'clock news. Although the piece was disappointing, we were still recognised out on the road a few days later! The main feature will air in October.
In the heart of Minnesota we had our first "was that a bear?" moment. With permission from the local police, we'd camped beside the baseball fields in the town park at North Branch. Although it was a town park, it was way out on the edge and backed onto deep woods. In the early hours of the morning I was drifting off back to sleep after popping out for a pee when something large brushed against the side of my tent and twanged a guyline. I unzipped the tent, poked my head out and scanned the area with my torch but there was nothing to be seen. It was probably just a deer. We see a lot of them, especially when we're cycling out early in the mornings. The rising sun bathes their rich summer coats in golden light as they bound off into the woods or long grass.
However, the nuisances causing us most problems are not bears but the millions of mosquitoes and the regular, violent thunderstorms. When the last big storm struck we were about to pitch our tents on the lawn of the Rum Shack country bar but the owner, John, suggested we use a wooden hut around the back. We swept it out, rolled out our sleeping mats and enjoyed the spectacular storm in safety. The deep rumbles of thunder shook the hut to its very foundations. At least, I think it was the thunder ... as Graham has certainly been eating a lot of chilli on the trip!
We've met a lot of interesting people in Minnesota and one of the most remarkable was Donn Olson. Donn has used his own time, money and inclination to convert an old barn on his farm into a bunkhouse for touring cyclists complete with well-stocked kitchen, wifi, TV and a solar shower. He won't accept any payment for a bed - he says the pleasure of meeting people from all over the world is payment enough! In the evening Donn took us on a tour of his farm -the huge log pile in the woods that becomes laced with animal tracks in the winter snows and where he hopes a bear might den one day; the toboggan slide that he's built on the hill for the local kids; the pumpkin patch that supplies everybody in the village with a free pumpkin at Halloween; and the vast fields of corn. I asked Donn if the deer damage the corn and he said " yes ... but they have to eat too". I loved staying in Donn's bunkhouse and felt privileged to have spent time with him.
After we left Donn's farm, we cycled west crossing the mighty Mississippi and picking up a fabulous bike trail on a disused railway line called the Lake Wobegon Trail. It passed through sleepy railway towns with trailside cafes and traditional diners as it skirted some of the 10,000 lakes that Minnesota is famous for. None of those is Lake Wobegon - it's a fictional place from a radio series! As we pedalled along, flocks of pelicans flapped lazily overhead in a blue sky or came into land on the water, looking like fat-bellied float planes. On the last couple of days of cycling in Minnesota we picked up a terrific tailwind and flew the remaining miles to North Dakota.
North Dakota is our seventh state in the US and its biggest town, Fargo, is our halfway point - we're taking a few days off to celebrate. Imagine a classical American town of the 1930s - broad streets of red brick buildings; art deco frontages; huge freight trains that trundle right across Main Street in the centre of town; a traditional picture house complete with Wurlitzer organ; and a lingering atmosphere of the wild west. That's Fargo!
Ahead of us now is the most challenging section of the ride across the States - the vast, mosquito-infested, sun-baked, wind-blasted prairies of North Dakota and Montana. And it's still tornado season! I'm sure, like a box of chocolates, there'll be some yummy strawberry creams and a few unwelcome chocolate-coated raisins!
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