Even here at the windswept edge of the prairie, a patriot can find stubborn pockets of unassimilated immigrants.
This crude flag, seen today on an excursion southeast of my home town, speaks volumes about the recondite nature of the immigrants who dwell in the run-down compound of which this building is just one part.
Who knows what un-American spirits animate these immigrants. One can assume they’ve stubbornly retained the surnames they brought with them over the wide Atlantic – names full of ugly consonants and unlikely vowels that confound the American tongue.
Do these immigrants even know our Constitution, or recite our Pledge of Allegiance? Perhaps they – like their countrymen who never fled their rocky homeland – still follow the dictates of their king. Certainly, their farmstead suggests no interest in a Jeffersonian ideal of the citizen.
Whatever their political views, however, we can be sure that these immigrants adhere to the 16th century teachings of a raving Teutonic priest who sought to overturn the social order and who achieved decades of bloody religious warfare. As mute proof of their religiosity, a temple dedicated to this madman’s sect stands but a short distance from the compound, its minaret-like steeple looming over a think line of trees.
And what of more quotidian interests? Judging by the state of repair of the several motor vehicles in the compound, the immigrants can only with difficulty venture to the markets in town. Do they wear our clothes? Do they read our books? Do they eat our food? A patriot might reasonably wonder whether they have ever enjoyed the truest American delicacies such as hamburgers, pizza, or tacos. Until they do, that patriot should fear for the wholeness and unity of the Republic.
As a rule, I – like many cyclists – don’t enjoy encountering dogs on my rides. Some filthy cur bit me on the leg a few years ago, and while I didn’t contract rabies, this only heightened my concern.
Wednesday’s ride was no different. I had to squirt some water at one beast that ran at me from its driveway, and outsprint two other growling hounds that decided they needed to check me out.
Toward the end of my ride, approaching a stiff little climb, I heard a dog barking off in the distance. I figured that it was at the house at the top of the hill, but I took a wary look around anyhow, not wanting to get caught by some vicious mutt as I ground my way up the ascent.
Lo and behold, I discovered that I wasn’t hearing the barking of a dog far away, but the panting of one nearby – a shaggy but grinning golden retriever who was running right next to me. I reflexively veered away from him (her?), but he tracked my move and continued trotting along, glancing up at me and then slowing to cross behind me from one side to the other.
Figuring that I wasn’t after all in any danger, I finished the climb and, breathing easier, asked the pooch where he lived. Again he just looked at me, smiling, and I could see that he was a handsome old guy:
Recovering from the climb, I soft-pedaled for a bit, chatting with my new friend, who trotted alongside very easily. Finally he glanced back toward the hill, slowed, and peeled off, presumably to go back home for a well-deserved snack and drink and nap.
Bernd Heinrich’s Homing Instinct was a great book to read in the early fall, when Northfield’s skies are full of geese and ducks wending their way south – after long, leisurely stops in our ponds and creeks. The book’s subtitle – “meaning and mystery in animal migration” – suggests that Heinrich will explore animals’ instinctual seasonal movements, and indeed much of the book does deal with that topic. In the first section – “Homing” – Heinrich tells staggering stories about how various birds, insects, and mammals find their way over distances that are extraordinary on both their own scales (bees that thoroughly master acres and acres of forest and field) and on global ones (eels that breed in the Sargasso Sea but live most of their lives in coastal waters in North America and Europe).
The science that underlies human understanding of these animals’ movements is amazing, but the animals’ own comprehension of the world is far more so. Loggerhead turtles apparently navigate incredibly long distances by reading tiny changes in the earth’s magnetism. I was impressed by the Heinrich’s stories, by scientists’ efforts to comprehend animal migration, and by the animals’ own skills, but I was also depressed by the realization that by wrecking the planet, we humans are directly and indirectly destroying animals (and of course plants and other kinds of life) that are so much more complex and mysterious that we do or perhaps ever will know. (Here my wonderings ran to bison, which in their herds before the Great Slaughter may or may not have migrated seasonally or on another schedule across hundreds or thousands of miles of North America.)
The book’s subtitle is misleading though in that much of the second half of the book concerns animals’ homes, not their movements. Here, Heinrich deals with all kinds of birds’ and insects’ nesting behavior and structures as well as a few mammals (pointing out that very few “higher” mammals actually build homes!). The center of this second section – “Home-making and Maintaining” – is a long, engrossing description of Heinrich’s own efforts to understand the spiders that lived in his Maine cabin. Their web homes are both shelters and tools, which – as Heinrich shows – the spiders used in sophisticated and, frankly, terrifying ways. This chapter – like the “Sun, Stars, and Magnetic Compass” chapter in the first section – are standout natural-history essays.
In the book’s third and last section, Heinrich changes register dramatically, writing at length about his own “homing instincts” for what sounds like a gorgeous patch of Maine woods. I was at first put off by this change from animal to human life, but gradually, Heinrich shows how his drive to live there, and not somewhere else, is continuous with the instincts and drives of the animals he’d discussed earlier in the book. This section is a lovely way to bring the book home.
I traveled this week to Hamilton College in upstate New York for an annual conference of grant writers who work at liberal arts colleges like Carleton. This meeting rotates each year from one college to another, but it’s always both informative and fun, with good speakers and panels as well as tons of well-spent time with friends and colleagues.
Since the host is different each year, the program usually includes a campus tour, which I always enjoy. Colleges are almost by definition beautiful places, and I have a professional curiosity into what particular institutions emphasize in their infrastructure – and how they pay for their buildings and grounds.
Of all the tours I’ve taken, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed one more than Hamilton’s. The guide – a senior economics major – was knowledgeable, funny, and extremely adept at walking backwards, and the campus was stunningly beautiful, both on its own and thanks to the gorgeous autumn weather.
A beautiful footbridge over a beautiful ravine that separates one beautiful side of campus from the other.
The "Rock Swing," a weird but interesting contraption that supposedly can be manipulated in such a way that it carries people standing on the yellow ring up from this basement spot to the second floor of its building. Seems dangerous, which is probably why it’s bolted down now.
The cavernous and gorgeous concert hall.
A memorial (and former gate?) to Kirkland College, a short-lived women’s college that Hamilton spun off in 1968 and absorbed in 1978.
The street-facing side of the amazing new Kennedy Center for the arts.
A dam! Better than Carleton’s dams.
Everywhere you looked on campus, you saw amazing trees like these:
A cool dining hall styled, I think, to look like an Adirondack lodge.
An arresting mobile in a corner of the science building.
The college’s science building was updated recently with a gorgeous new facade, which houses a functional atrium and looked damn good at dusk.
Even the old buildings like this residence hall looked amazing.
A well-situated statue of the college’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, a real bastard who would’ve visited the campus if not for that whole deal with Aaron Burr.
The bell tower of the college chapel.
A neat sculptural map of campus (as of the 1990s) that by tradition Hamilton students should not walk over, lest they curse themselves to never graduating.
Today, November 1, is National Bison Day, a semi-official date that recognizes the historical and ecological importance of the North American bison.
I’ve been obsessed with buffalo for a couple years now, so I really like the idea of a day “for” them and for what they do or should represent to us as Americans: strength, freedom, wildness, beauty, but above all the value of nature.
As amazing as they are as symbols, bison are even more amazing as animals. They are huge and fast and strong and gorgeous, but almost as adaptable as humans to a variety of ecosystems and landscapes. Though the giant bulls get a of attention, a herd is actually led by its mature females, who collectively assure the group’s survival in the face of often incredible odds – from harsh winters on the Great Plains or the challenge of fording a spring river to eluding the killers who nearly exterminated Bison bison in the 19th century or simply finding good places to graze all summer long.
The U.S. probably contains more bison right now than at any time since the Great Slaughter. Though almost none of the American herds are truly wild right now, every year sees the establishment of new conservation herds (e.g., in Alaska, Illinois, or Minnesota) and the growth of existing ones, such as the already-massive but ever-expanding herd at the American Prairie Reserve in north-central Montana, which (as their new annual report describes) has grown from 16 buffs in 2005 to 600 this year – and looks to grow to 1,000 animals by 2018.
All is not rosy for American bison, however, even and especially for the herd that is most prominent in the American imagination: the animals of Yellowstone National Park. Though the bison there are justifiably famous as wily survivors of the Great Slaughter and as the denizens of a spectacular place, they are also subject to enormous, awful abuse. Montana law allows state officials to take brutal and often fatal steps to control the buffs that, seeking forage, migrate out of Yellowstone National Park. This control is supposedly necessary to keep the buffalo from infecting domestic cattle (as fragile a species as one can imagine!) with diseases that would harm the state’s beef industry.
I took the day off today to do a medium-length gravel ride, just letting the legs know that I’ve got big plans for them over the next four months – starting I hope with heavy training mileage over the next six weeks. Today, I just wanted to hit some of my favorite gravel roads east of town. To get a little more out of the ride, I rode all the hills twice, which turned out interestingly in that I rode each hill better the second time than the first. Getting a little descending practice was fun too. What wasn’t fun was a very achy back, but even that hardly detracted from the solid outing or the gorgeous autumn sights. I’m lucky to have enjoyed them.
Friday night – after stopping several times to put off the ending as long as possible – I finally finished Norman Maclean’s "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky," the third story in the collection that my friend Julia bestowed on me a couple weeks ago.
"USFS 1919" is shorter than but at least as good as the collection’s lead piece, "A River Runs through It," Maclean’s most famous story (which I blogged about when I finished it a few days ago). Where "River" was a meditation on familial bonds and loss, "USFS" is a funny slow-motion adventure story about the young Maclean’s service on a U.S. Forest Service crew in the high Rockies near Hamilton, Montana, in summer 1919. Like "River," this story includes some wonderful sketches by R. Williams:
I wish the book had more of this visual art, but I am glad that "USFS" is full of literary art, especially beautiful passages of writing in which Maclean vividly describes the mountains and the woods and makes me wish I could there right now:
To a boy, it is something new and beautiful to piss among the stars. Not under the starts but among them. Even at night great winds seem always to blow on great mountains, and tops of trees bend, but, as the boy stands there with nothing to do but to watch, seemingly the sky itself bends and the stars blow down through the trees until the Milky Way becomes lost in some distant forest.
After a surprising August (!) snowstorm during a short stint as a fire watcher:
When I looked, I knew I might never again see so much of the earth so beautiful, the beautiful being something you know added to something you see, in a whole that is different from the sum of its parts. What I saw might have been just another winter scene, though an impressive one. But what I knew was that the earth underneath was alive and that by tomorrow, certainly by the day after, it would be all green again. so what I saw because of what I knew was a kind of death with the marvelous promise of less than a three-day resurrection.
Even before I got back to camp it had begun to melt. Hundreds of shrubs had been bent over like set snares, and now they spring up in the air throwing small puffs of white as if hundreds of snowshoe rabbits were being caught at the same instant.
As he rests during a long walk back from camp to Hamilton, he muses in a way that I recognize from racing in the winter:
When you look back at where you have been, it often seems as if you have never been there or even as if there were no such place.
(Two things about these passages: Maclean writes a great deal about pissing in the woods, an activity to which I can personally relate, and he is a masterful user – or non-user – of commas. He saves his commas like scarce nails and pounds them into his sentences only where truly needed.)
Into these passages of superlative nature writing, Maclean offers some glimpses of how he came to understand his mountain adventures as key phases of life and, eventually, as the raw material for literature:
I had as yet no notion that life every now and then becomes literature—not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remember, and often enough so that what we eventually come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going sideways, backwards, forward, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense and inevitable, with a complication, climax, and, given some luck, a purgation, as if life had been made and not happened.
Unlike "River," this piece has a big cast of more and less crazy characters, including Maclean himself – a 17-year-old kid with far more responsibility than he needs or merits but an excellent ability to make very poor decisions, like the choice to walk straight through from camp to town. The central characters though are the titular ranger and cook. Much of the story concerns how these two guys conceive of a scheme to end their season of work with a hell of a night on the town in Hamilton. I won’t ruin the story’s ending, which like the story’s landscape has several peaks (Maclean early on says he’s serving in an "ocean of mountains") but it’s amazing as prose, as story, and as life.
The only bad part about the ending of the story was that it came at the end. The good thing is that Julia has also sent me Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, his longest book and one that – she says – is as good as "River" and "USFS."
We’re eating dinner. I tell the girls that I put up their school pictures in my office and that I love them both. Each girl says she doesn’t really like her photo. I say that’s too bad because they’re great shots.
I ask whether they like the way they look in real life. They both say they do, and I add that I like the way I look too. Julia looks at me incredulously and says, “Well, you obviously have bad judgment there.”
At my friend Julia’s recommendation, I read Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs through It” today – a gorgeously warm fall day that seemed perfectly suited to the action of that incredible, indelible, devastating story.
I made sure to finish the “novella” with the girls in the room so that the ending – stupidly given away by my edition’s foreword – didn’t make me cry. I won’t spoil that ending here, except to say that MacLean knows exactly what he’s doing with and to his reader.
Even without knowing much about the story, I knew that fly fishing featured prominently in it. I’m no fisherman, with flies or live bait, but while reading the book, I had fixed in my head two scenes from my trips out west to race in the Fat Pursuit this and last winters. Rivers run through my experiences with those races.
Looking north up the Henry’s Fork in Island Park, ID. Supposedly the best fly-fishing river in the world.
Looking north up the Gallatin River from Greek Creek Campground along US 191, south of Bozeman, MT. If you had the full file you could see bighorn sheep on the left and fly fishermen downstream.
I’ve only been to these rivers a couple times, but I love them. If or when I see them again I’ll think of Maclean.
On Friday, I helped chaperone a field trip by Julia’s sixth-grade cohort to the amazing [River Bend Nature Center](http://www.rbnc.org/) in Faribault, a half-hour south of Northfield.
Across the girls’ years of preschool and elementary school, this was maybe the tenth field trip I’ve taken to RBNC, and it was fun – orienteering, hiking, “fun challenges” like firestarting, archery, and slack lining, and generally being outside on a beautiful fall day.
We even got to see some goats that the land managers are using to control buckthorn!
Walking around all day, I decided I wanted to come back asap to ride on the trails, all of which are open to bikes and free to all users. Lo and behold, Julia was into it too, so we headed down this afternoon with our bikes.
Saturday’s weather was somehow even better than Friday’s, heightening our enjoyment – 70°F, breezy, sunny. From the parking lot, we headed to the remote trails on the south side of the Center, which we reached after going through a tunnel *and* over a bridge across the Straight River.
Just on the south side of the river, we hit a long hill that Julia needed to work hard to climb. She made it up without stopping, though, and after a short break we tooled around on the flatter, easier trails that ran to the far edge of the Center’s boundary. The narrow trails and changing foliage were beautiful.
Descending back to the river, I was happy to see Julia rip a couple steep downhills with no worry and considerable ease: she’d push her weight back, level her pedals, and then just drop in. Amazing.
Back on the northern side of the river, we headed to the Center’s big and gorgeous restored prairie, an expanse of browns and yellows draped over a gentle rise to the northern edge of the property. Riding now mostly on grass trails, we worked our way up to the Center’s high point, where (after a stiff little rocky climb) we enjoyed a gorgeous vista to the south:
A herd of buffalo would have improved this view, but I was more than happy to have spent 90 minutes riding with my favorite sixth grader. In true cyclist fashion, she was even game to take a couple laps around the parking lot area to bump up our mileage to exactly 8 miles. Not a bad afternoon’s work. I’m eager to go back again soon.
This year was the fourth time I’ve tackled the Heck of the North, Minnesota’s biggest last-season gravel race, and the most fun I’ve had riding this event. With my gravel bike now someone else’s gravel bike, I decided to ride the Buffalo again, and felt pretty sure that the fatbike would be a good machine for the race’s infamous no-road sections – miles and miles of super rough grass trails that are better suited to hiking, ATV riding, and (in winter) snowmobiles than to bikes.
Sunny and cool were the watchwords of the day: perfect riding conditions, after two consecutive years of tougher (or borderline awful) conditions. The rollout was fast and fun – a long loop out from and then – after a nice taste of some of the day’s trails – back through the start.
The fatbike was, as I hoped, wonderful on the roughest stuff. I didn’t have to dismount on any trail section (except for a creek crossing late in the race), and whenever we hit grass, caught and dropped riders who were riding lesser bikes – gravel machines, rigid MTB bikes, front-shock MTB bikes, even full-sus MTBs. The trouble, such as it was, came on the gravel and especially the pavement roads. I just had too much wheel to push! More than once I’d gap a group on a trail section, then have them sweep me up and drop me on next road. Oh well. I was having fun, feeling good, enjoying the day, and amassing some good training for my winter races.
I did get to ride, on and off, with my friend Minnesota Mark, rocketing along on his gorgeous titanium Salsa Warbird. A few hours in, after riding side by side for a while, Mark got away from me on the approach to another trail section. Just before we reached it, the leaders of the shorter “Half of the Heck” came blasting past us, then promptly took a wrong turn that put them onto the full-distance course instead of keeping them on the Half route. We laughed when we passed them back a bit later, standing in the middle of the trail and reading their cue sheets in confusion.
A little more yo-yo riding with Mark – and the always-humbling moment in the race when I encounter the leaders heading back north, a good ten miles and an hour ahead of me – brought us to a ruggedly fun singletrack trail down to the midway checkpoint in Lester Park at the north end of Duluth. Good bike citizens, we stopped at the start of this trail to stand up a race marker that had blown down in the easterly wind. This was, I didn’t know, the race’s way of telling me that things were gonna be different after the checkpoint.
I caught up with my friend Michael L. at the check. He’d had a brutal race in 2014, so I was happy to see him feeling and riding well this year. After several years in which many Northfielders came up for the race, he and I were the only racers from the 55057 at the Heck this year, so I had to take a photo of our bikes resting at halfway.
Michael and Mark left the checkpoint before me, so I set out a goal of catching them. I couldn’t hang with any of the gravel-bike riders (or the tandem riders) who came up on me after the checkpoint, so I assumed that my goal was out of reach. This assumption seemed well grounded when I started to hit some of the easterly stretches of the course, heading right into an increasingly strong headwind.
But the headwind was bad for everyone, and it helped me track Mark down again. He took some great pictures of me as we approached the hill where, last year, my bike literally fell apart.
This year: no problem. I breathed a sigh of relief when I crested that climb – after which Mark dropped me again for what I expected to be the last time, and we headed into the what seemed like at least 99 miles of easterly riding into the goddamn wind. The first and worst section was on a paved road. I watched Mark and some skinny-tired brethren head off up the road, steaming along in a unit. I could only aim the Buffalo into the wind and pedal, feeling slower and heavier as fractions of the miles ticked by on my computer. Oh god, I wanted some tailwind or just a crosswind.
Eventually the pavement gave way to the gravel of Fox Farm Road. Getting a bit foggy from the day’s effort, I’d misinterpreted the directional cues and thought that Fox Farm Road would get us out of the wind. Nope: it was just a “turn” off the easterly pavement and onto more easterly gravel.
I had had all I could take to that point. As soon as I hit the gravel, I stopped and laid the Buffalo down on the weedy shoulder. Take a leak. Down my Red Bull. Swallow some water. Stretch out my back, insanely tight. Pop a gel. Remind myself that riding bikes on a gorgeous fall day is a privilege and a mystery. Remind myself too that the Heck is a stepping stone to harder work this winter. Pick up the bike. Get back on the bike. Start pedaling in.
Fox Farm was indeed more headwind, and some intermittent washboard surface, and a false flat that rose and rose and rose at 0.05%…
As they always do, the break, the self-pep talk, and the Red Bull paid off. My pain in my back disappeared and didn’t come back till Sunday morning. The weight in my legs dissipated. The “oh shiiiit” attitude vanished, too, replaced by thoughts of riding this bike in these northwoods in a couple months at the Arrowhead. I even started reconnecting with other riders, which was both pleasant (company!) and pleasing (caught you!). Seeing just what was left in my legs, I pushed as hard as I could up each of the remaining hills. Each time, I had to sit down at the crest, muscles and lungs burning. Then, just a few minutes later, the burning died away and I felt good again. My no means was I riding fast, but I was at least riding hard.
And lo and behold, after what looked – on the cue sheets – to be the second- or third-to-last trail section, I came up on both Mark and Michael. It felt great to have fought back to them, and even better to think we could ride together for the last 10 or 15 miles – much of which would be trail, out of the wind. Thank the goddess.
From the previous year’s race, I recalled that the last trail sections were mostly flat but also pretty wet – bogs here, creeks there. A small group including Mark and Michael and me hummed along nicely through these stretches, taking turns leading into this bit or that one, but mostly riding together. Feeling good, I took a couple digs but couldn’t get away. Others dug too, but mostly came back.
Then, weirdly, the group fell apart. One guy tried to get away, and I went after him. I caught him and went past him without feeling too bad, so I decided to just put my head down and go as hard as possible to the finish. It felt so good (as I had near the end of the Inspiration a month before) to just focus on putting every bit of energy into every single pedal stroke – again and again and again. I couldn’t quite bridge back to a fellow fatbiker who’d escaped from our group a few minutes before, but I felt good about not limping into the finish, about finding a meaningful level of effort after 105-some miles.
After one last road crossing, I made the turn into the finish area, bunny-hopped the finish line (because why not?), and then literally collapsed when I tried to get off the Buffalo. I had no legs left, which was just where I wanted to be.
Mark and Michael rolled in a few seconds later, looking equally happy with their efforts. Someone who remmebered me from the previous year’s race and who had read my stories on fatbiking brought me a Coke, knowing that I love that poisonous shit. I chatted a bit too with my friend Charlie Schad, whom I’d seen in the lead group. He said he’d finished on the podium and that our friend Ben Doom had won on a late breakaway. Somehow knowing that these guys had done so well made me feel even better about the day’s work. I know the Buffalo felt good – dirty from bars to hubs and carrying not a little bit of the trail on it.
Today was a perfectly ordinary day full of perfect ordinariness.
It was a Wednesday with nice fall weather – sunny, warm, and mild. The workday included three different meetings: one in the morning on a community project, one at dinnertime on an academic project, and one in the evening for our townhouse association. Being out late at those meetings, I didn’t get to see the girls till nearly bedtime.
I did plenty of miscellaneous work in between the meetings, some of which I did at the office, some of which I did at home or the coffee shop. Some of the work entailed finally finishing lingering projects, some nudged along current projects, some started new endeavors, and some was just answering emails. I ate a sandwich for each meal (though not the same sandwich). During my dinner at the downtown sandwich shop, a kid in the next booth started to melt down because he had onions in his sandwich. He stopped when his mom pointed out that the “onions” were actually peppers, and then had an actual meltdown when he didn’t get an “ice cream fudge” for dessert. I went to the gym and did poorly in a hard workout but bantered enjoyably with the other people in the session and our coach. I didn’t get to ride my bike much, though back and forth to work counts for something, and I was pleasantly cold in the way to work. I made some plans for winter racing. I heard the same REO Speedwagon song twice. I remembered to watch my favorite TV show at 9. And to have the last beer in the fridge.
As great a race as the Heck of the North was, even more great and memorable was getting to the race. Being a wholly unworthy but lucky son of a gun, I had the chance to fly – like, in an airplane! – up to the race, thanks to my friend Michael, whom I met a few years ago through the Northfield cycling scene.
In addition, see, to being a great gravel rider, a fatbiker, and an IT entrepreneur (and the parent of a kid the same age as my oldest), Michael is a private pilot. I’ve enjoyed learning from him about this avocation: his desire and efforts to learn to fly, his membership in a flying club based at an airfield near Northfield, his adventures flying to places near (the big Oshkosh air show) and far (the Black Hills in South Dakota).
We’d chatted casually a few times about going up together sometime, but never actually made time for it – until Michael discovered, last week, that the forecast for Heck weekend included perfect flying weather. I was more than game for flying to the race – what a great story, right? – so we made the requisite arrangements, planning to head up on Friday afternoon from tiny little Airlake Airport in Lakeville (a.k.a. KLVN, a half hour or less from Northfield) to big ol’ Duluth International (a.k.a. KDLH).
Interested though I was to go up in a little propeller plane, I was surprised to find myself pretty nervous about the flight. Not because I doubted that Michael was a perfectly capable pilot, but because, you know, scary news stories like this one or major tragedies like this one. My unconscious even served up a vivid nightmare about being in an airplane crash, just to make sure I was cognizant of my unfounded terror reasonable concern.
Friday morning, I literally and figuratively gritted my teeth and said to myself, “Self, nothing bad is going happen. Face your fear. The flights will be fine.” And not only was that very much the case, but both of the flights – Friday afternoon up to Duluth, Sunday morning back home – were marvelous, astounding, indelible experiences.
Michael selected his club’s Piper Archer as the best plane for our trip: roomy enough for our bikes, bags, and selves, and more than capable of the 90-minute flights between KLVN and KDLH.
Michael did a great job with the pre-flight prep, from doing the mandatory checklists and offering basic facts about the airplane to briefing me on in-air etiquette and answering my questions about being aloft in “Archer 8414 November,” which looked amazingly (and a little disturbingly) like a station wagon. Getting set to go dampened my lingering worries, and participating in some of the pre-flight activities was engaging: turns out, one person can roll the plane out of the hangar – just give it a yank and it follows you like a dog!
Once packed into Archer 8414 November’s front seats, I put on headphones/microphone that muffled the rather incredible engine noise, let me communicate with Michael in the air, and looked, frankly, a little bit cool. I wished I had a long red scarf like Snoopy.
We taxied over to the runway, did a few final checks of the airplane’s systems, and then started down the tarmac. I expected the abrupt upward sensation of a jetliner on liftoff, but nope: Archer 814 was just suddenly six, then sixty, then 600 feet off the ground, soaring over Lakeville and points east. I was literally slack jawed – and we weren’t even really flying yet.
We headed mostly east first, then turned north and followed the beautiful blue St. Croix River for a ways.
An easterly wind meant that we could not just head straight north to Duluth, but had to fly over a beautiful swath of western Wisconsin, which was first a patchwork of fields and small cities.
About halfway into the flight, though, the farms and towns disappeared and the forests and bogs asserted themselves. Gorgeous.
Michael saw Duluth in the distance far before I did, but when I finally did pick out the white-gray smudge of civilization against the green-brown of hills and, behind, the deep blue of the lake, I enjoyed watching the Zenith City approach. Going far slower and far lower than a jet heightened my impression that I was immobile and the ground was moving under me – an exhilarating and fascinating sensation.
A swing to the west brought us around to the runway at Duluth, where Michael touched down without any problem.
On the ground at KDLH, I was amazed to learn of the existence of a whole industry that serves private pilots: guiding their planes to their parking spots, tying the planes down, fueling the planes up, handling baggage (even our bikes – cargo I don’t think our guy had ever seen come out of a tiny little plane), even driving us over to the car-rental counter… This is somewhat how the 1% lives, I suspect.
An hour later, we had finished the first part of our trip with a quick drive up Highway 61 to Two Harbors. I would be lying if I said that I was then anticipating the race on Saturday more than the return flight on Sunday.
Sunday morning, we got our heavy legs to KDLH relatively early. In getting us to the terminal where Archer 8414 November had been waiting, I got to drive our rental car on the tarmac – yet another strange feeling, and impossible to separate from about a hundred action-movie scenes. Reality was far quieter: Michael took care of the pre-flight checks while I loaded the plane and returned the car.
As on Friday, takeoff was seemingly effortless, but Michael had the brilliant idea of flying further east, over Duluth and above the lake, before turning south toward home. The views were incredible. I’ve spent hundreds of hours on the shores of Lake Superior, and some dozens of hours on the water, but I don’t think I’d ever been above the Big Lake. It was worth the wait – especially with the bonus of seeing Duluth from the air.
Heading back south, we retraced some of Friday’s flight path, flying over the St. Louis River south of Duluth, the massive forests and bogs on both sides of the state line, and finally the St. Croix again.
At one point somewhere over Wisconsin, Michael let me operate Archer 8414 November’s controls, which I did very, very, very gingerly. Again: astounding. Turn the yoke to the right, and the plane turns right! To the left, it goes left. Pull back on the yoke and the goddamn plane goes up. Push the yoke in, and ohmygod there’s the ground in front of us! I didn’t have the stomach to do much more of this “flying” and happily let Michael take the plane back.
As we approached home, Michael asked for permission to fly through the restricted “Class Bravo” airspace over Minneapolis. Since it was a quiet Sunday morning in the sky, ground control granted this request, and we flew right over Minneapolis, just to the east of downtown – you know, for the views. Which were amazing.
Just a few minutes later, we were back over Airlake, and then back on the ground, and then back in the car, headed home. I think I’m still a little high from the incredible experiences of those flights – and very grateful to have a generous and skilled friend like Michael. Should I even mention that I can’t wait for next time?
Today’s The Heck of the North was my nineteenth century-length gravel or snow bike race. Somewhere toward the end of the event, I passed my 2,000th mile of century racing. A few thoughts that worked their way through my neurons during the event:
Compared to other great gravel races, I find the Heck especially appealing because the terrain and the sights are so reminiscent of the U.P. – the reddish gravel, the jagged rocks, the endless forests of mixed leafy and evergreen trees, and of course the glimpses of the Big Lake.
It hurts a lot to ride into a headwind, but headwinds hurt even more, somehow, when you get out of them and discover that your legs are dead.
I think my girls would love to ride big parts of this course, especially the two-track trails through the woods.
Being more diligent with my nutrition (200 calories an hour, every hour!) has paid off very well at the Inspiration and now the Heck, both in terms of maintaining good output throughout the race and being able to push hard in the last hour.
It’s also great to have a kit that just works right – shoes, socks, base layers, tights, jersey, hat, gloves. No fussing, no mussing. Comfortable all day.
I don’t think any other gravel race requires less use of the brakes. Maybe I’ll take mine off next year to save some weight.
Red Bull, properly administered, is a hell of a PED.
Fatbikes are good on dirt and great on snow, but they’re pretty damn awesome on grass, too. The softer the better.
Relatedly, I wish I had a dollar for everyone who told me, “You sound like a car!” when I rolled up on them during the race. 4-inch tires at 30psi are no joke. (The cash would have defrayed the costs of my post-race beers, for sure.)
Gravel racers are, as a group, pretty friendly and chatty folks, but Heck racers are especially so. I’ve never had so many good conversations with old friends and new acquaintances. (But it was still nice to ride my fatbike faster than some of them!)
At the end of the school year, Julia decided to take up a big challenge put on by the public school’s basketball coaches for the summer: to take 10,000 shots and amass 24 hours of ball handling.
She had to really work at it, but last week she finished the ball handling and this afternoon she took her ten-thousandth shot, making a basket in our weathered hoop:
I was impressed all summer long with her commitment to this challenge. She went out there and dribbled and shot on hot days and cool days, in mornings and in evenings, in the sun and in the rain, when she was rested and when she was tired, when she felt like doing it and when she didn’t. I’m proud of her for finishing in style.