Coming of Age on the Lake Wobegon Trail
Since they were toddlers, the grandchildren have ridden behind us, first in carts, then child seats, then on Trail-A-Bikes. Now, as we pedal through St. Joseph, Minnesota, to the Lake Wobegon Trailhead, fifteen-year-old Brandon takes the lead. His eleven-year-old sister, Nora, is on her own bike next to Linda and me on our tandem. Nora shifts gears and stands on her pedals to catch up to her brother. It strikes me that this year I’m seeing them ahead of me more often than looking back for them.
We’re on a four-day, out-and-back ride on the Lake Wobegon and Central Lakes Trails in west-central Minnesota. It’s a credit card tour, so we’re packed lightly, with rear panniers on the tandem and on Brandon’s bike. Nora still gets a load-free ride.
We turn north on the trail, a smooth strip of asphalt overlaying the former right-of-way of the Burlington Northern Railroad. The trail is named for the mythical town of Garrison Keiler’s A Prairie Home Companion show on National Public Radio. It’s “the little town that time forgot, where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all of the children are above average.”
We had only a light breakfast at the motel in St. Joseph, so we stop for serious fueling 10 miles up the trail in Avon. A harried waitress scrambles to cover both the cash register and the ten or so tables. Coming out of the restaurant, Nora says her bacon was too crispy. She puts two fingers into her mouth and pulls out a molar, the last of her baby teeth, and we all burst out laughing.
Lady slippers grow beside the trail north of Avon, the first the kids have ever seen. The trail is mostly straight and level, wooded on either side, opening now and then to views of farmlands and lakes.
After lunch at a cafe in Sauk Centre, Nora swaps bikes with Linda and rides stoker for me. I don’t even have to lower the seat; Nora’s as tall as her grandmother. Linda’s a small woman (her T-shirt proclaims: “I’m not short -- I’m fun-sized!”), but still, last year I had to duct-tape pieces of two-by-four to Nora’s pedals so she could reach them.
We’re at 35 miles leaving Avon, pushing into a light headwind now. Brandon and Linda, on the singles, take the lead, then stretch it. Nora’s about done in. She mostly lets our linked pedals turn her legs for the 16 miles to Osakis.
The Idlewild Resort is a mish-mash gathering of a two-story lodge, strung-together motel rooms, and an office/natatorium. A fish-cleaning house and boat docks clutter its Lake Osakis frontage. A swim would be nice, but the lake is murky and the indoor pool temperature is two degrees warmer than the air. We have a suite with kitchen in the lodge but have to beg bedclothes for the futon, and we’re out of luck for washcloths or towels. Fortunately, we brought camp towels with us.
I raise the stoker’s seat and Brandon and I hunt for a grocery store. We find a bar and attached liquor store and pick up canned lemonade and some snacks, but the hunt scares up no grocery. The only restaurant is so closed that there’s a sign offering a “Neon CAFE Sign” for sale. In a town this quiet, we’re amazed to find a hole-in-the-wall pizza place, and even more amazed that they deliver. The counter man tells me the grocery closed last winter.
The kids fool around on the playground in the waning hours of the evening. They take up the entire seat of the glider swing, uncomfortably so. I remember another glider, when Nora’s feet couldn’t touch the ground and Brandon kept trying to kick them higher despite her protests. Now Nora provides the propulsion while Brandon drags his feet despite her protests.
At the northern edge of Osakis, the Lake Wobegon Trail merges into the Central Lakes Trail, another smooth strip of asphalt on the same railroad right-of-way. We make an unsatisfying breakfast of pizza leftovers and get an early start under partly cloudy skies and room-temperature air. We’re famished by the time we reach Alexandria, where the old Burlington Northern depot now serves diners instead of rail passengers.
By the time we’re gorged, clouds have gathered. Errant, oversized raindrops nick us and we put the rain covers on the panniers. Within two miles, sprinkles turn to drizzle. We don rain gear just before the rain starts in earnest.
The trail is flat, but the wind is in our faces and it’s raining. We stop in Brandon, get a picture of the namesake under the town sign, then spend forty minutes at Bob’s Gas & Convenience Store (which calls for another picture) while the rain passes over.
Nora swaps bikes with Linda again, but I don’t let her loaf today. “Give me some kick,” I tell her, and get her pedaling in circles. We keep up with the others easily. As I feel Nora pushing harder on her pedals in response to a challenge from her brother, I remember pulling her Trail-A-Bike, the extra sixty pounds of drag. We accelerate now to an easy victory in a half-mile sprint.
The clouds dissipate, releasing sunshine over the prettiest country we’ve seen, and we ride past small lakes reflecting a brilliantly blue sky. The land is fertile and green with mid-summer corn and hay, its swells and rolls broken by hardwood forests.
We miss the turnoff to the Ashby Resort -- the resort’s sign across the road isn’t visible from the trail -- and pedal two extra uphill miles into Ashby. There’s a grocery store, so we pick up supplies and directions to the resort. Ashby also has a restaurant with a good Saturday night special.
The Ashby Resort and Campground is cheery, filled with summer trailers and RVs tucked into a reed-lined cove of Pelican Lake. We’re in the line of two-room efficiency units, and there are plenty of linens.
Today’s 40 miles were gentle enough that we still have energy, and Brandon challenges me to tetherball. I’m a head taller and still remember how to arc the ball so he can’t reach it. Nora joins him, and the contest dissolves into laughter. It will only be one or two more summers, I think, before the boy is tall enough to win on his own.
Riding back to Ruby’s restaurant for the crab leg special adds some more miles to our day. The trail back to the resort in the twilight, downhill and downwind, is glorious.
We breakfast well in our suite and are on our way while the air is at rest, the sun still stretching our shadows out behind us. At the first town, Brandon asks to ride the tandem. I let him push the pace for awhile: It’s my turn to loaf.
The trail is as smooth and the countryside as pretty in this direction as it was riding out. We make good time to Alexandria and get to The Depot before their Sunday brunch closes. Alexandria, Minnesota, claims to be the final settling place of the first Viking explorers to land in America, and has a giant Viking statue to prove it.
It’s also the last town with a grocery before Osakis, where even the pizzeria is liable to be closed on Sunday night. We pick up dinner fixings and Linda and Brandon swap bikes again. Nora’s decided to ride her single the whole distance today.
Brandon and Nora lead the way through city streets back to the trail. They ride single file, adjusting their lane position, signaling their turns, staying out of the door zone. I watch them, remembering the times I bade them stay right in my track and do what I do. Now they’re more competent in traffic than most adult cyclists I know.
Nothing’s changed at the Idlewild Resort. Rain showers have blown in and we collapse and turn on a movie on the TV. When the showers pass, Nora and I take a short tandem ride past the summer homes and cottages on the lakeshore road. She admits she almost asked to ride the tandem after brunch. She pedaled 45 miles today, mostly against a headwind, at an average speed of about 12 mph. Not bad for a pre-teen, I tell her.
Thunder roils the night but morning breaks fair. We breakfast on orange juice and coffee cake and make another early start. The wind joins us quickly, first crossing our path, then shifting behind us. It feels like the trail is going downhill and we cruise comfortably, a bit bored by the terrain.
We take a break in West Union, where Brandon switches to the tandem, then sail downwind to Sauk Centre. We leave the trail there and make our way through town to find a second breakfast at Jitters, a comfortable coffee shop with pastries and quiche.
More bike swapping after breakfast and now Nora’s my stoker. A ride past the Sinclair Lewis home in Sauk Centre is mandatory. The author of Babbit and Main Street grew up in a modest, but attractive house.
Brandon and Linda set a blistering pace on the single bikes; I think Linda’s a horse smelling the barn today. Nora and I don’t even try to keep up. The weather is perfect: Warm, but not too hot; sunny, with a few fluffy clouds to make the sky interesting. And, of course, there’s that nice tailwind.
We stop at Avon Lake’s public beach and use the bathing suits we’ve carried all this way. We packed perfectly: We’ve used everything we had in the panniers and have lacked for nothing. In town, we have lunch with the same waitress we met at breakfast on our first day. She’s not as harried at lunch hour, and Nora doesn’t lose any more teeth.
Linda’s back on the tandem for the final few miles, the grandchildren ahead of us again. We recall other tours with them: The Elroy Sparta Trail in Wisconsin, when they rode a tandem Trail-A-Bike behind us; Ohio’s Simon Kenton Trail and Little Miami Scenic Trail, the boy’s first tour on a single. Every year, when we ask what they’d like to do during their summer visit, they both say, “Go for a bike ride.”
Nora’s laughter dances in the air and Brandon’s words carry a bass note as their voices drift back to us. They’re no longer children on bicycles. They’re bike tourists.