Archives for the month of: June, 2013

We leave at 7 am for the St. Croix and we are positively thrilled to have the opportunity to canoe this river. There were so many potential last minute obstacles that frankly I am quite surprised that it is going to happen after all. A big thanks to Eric Faust of the Duluth Coffee Company who is singularly responsible for making this happen. Eric not just loaned us his canoe but also volunteered to drive us to the launch point which lies somewhere over in Wisconsin. And it will also be someone in his family who will connect up with us down in Stillwater so that we can return the canoe.

Sarah and I are really digging Duluth. Impossible as it may seem the last 15 miles on Highway 2 west into Duluth was all pretty much on a downhill grade and riding in the sunshine was a pleasure that we haven’t experienced much since we got here. The last couple of miles included the biking thrill of crossing the Interstate 635 bridge over the ship canal between Superior, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota. I still have no idea if what we did was legal or not but it was a plenty exciting long, high ride where we got to get a birds-eye view of some docked freighters. A couple of seamen on one ship waved and shouted ‘What’s happening man’? And we waved and shouted back.

Sarah skyped with one her friends so I went down to Fitgers by myself to drink a couple of pints. I really enjoyed their Starfire IPA (9/10) but not their Witch ESB (7/10) so much. They make a lager called Wildfire Lager which is infused with hot chilies that is truly one of the most exceptional brews I have ever tasted. It tastes like fresh Serrano’s and has that same Serrano spiciness too and in the spirit of Spinal Tap I give it a well deserved 11/10.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention our pie and coffee stop along the way at Mother’s Kitchen in tiny little Poplar, Wisconsin. Normally Banana Crème pie doesn’t do a thing for me because the couple of times that I’ve tried it there was mostly a weird banana flavored custard thing going on. Not so at Mother’s Kitchen. This pie had no discernable custard and was mostly chunky creamy pieces of banana; served up with a large scoop of vanilla ice cream and a cup of hot coffee it was truly an almost religious experience.

We stopped in yesterday morning at Duluth Coffee and we got the house brew of Guatemalan beans done in a medium roast and ordered our breakfast next door at the inappropriately named Coney Island. The coffee was excellent and served in big cups which we sipped on until our food arrived from next door. I like that gentlemen’s kind of reciprocity where one business supports the other and it seems like Eric has other kinds of similar things going on around the region. A waiter brought over 2 identical plates of eggs over medium, whole wheat toast, and hash browns. The eggs were cooked to perfection, the hash browns were neither greasy nor burned, and the coffee was the best in town.

We spent the afternoon hunting and gathering after our trip to Marine General on London Road. I bought a fishing rod, a Minnesota fishing license, and a big fat handful of artificial baits so I am more than ready for anything in size from the monster pike we might encounter right down to small mouth bass.

We stopped by the Whole Foods Co-Op up on 4th St. and 6th Ave. and picked up what I hope is 5 days worth of food. We got half a dozen big yams, the same number of big rutabagas and onions, a big bag of carrots, some potatoes, chili powder, olive oil, salt, peanut butter, 2 boxes of crackers, apples, aluminum foil, some paper platters, 2 rolls of paper towels, paper bowls, and a bunch of other stuff. We’d be packing different if we were backpacking but canoes were designed to haul weight.

Sarah downloaded the maps of the river from the National Parks Service so it appears that we’ll be wilderness camping the whole way. The NPS has designated the river a scenic waterway so we are very much looking forward to this little adventure. We bought head nets for the bugs and we are packing some serious deet spray which might be good for the mosquitoes although the locals joke that the dreaded blackfly is said to almost be impervious to it. I am hoping we’ll be alright although I am mindful that ‘hope is not a strategy’ as Sarah once pointed out earlier this trip.

The river is 170 miles total in length and we are doing 130 miles of it. If we make just 30 miles a day then we are looking at being out of the water as early as Saturday. The oldtimers thought nothing of doing 60-70 miles per day in the birch bark canoes that the natives taught them how to build even loaded up as they were with bundles of furs so I think that our expectations are reasonable. We will be traveling relatively light and fast in our borrowed Kevlar canoe which shares the distinction of also having been built in the region. Thanks again Eric. This wouldn’t have been possible without you.

‘Hope is not a strategy’. I am quoting my daughter here as she informed a couple of weeks ago after I said for the umpteenth time that I hoped that the tiny town coming up would have a motel, or food, or a place to get in out of the weather, or something. That sounds kind of mean and bitter doesn’t it? But it shouldn’t as Sarah is living proof that even the best and toughest of us can lose patience with the kind of seat of the pants operations that I am prone to run. She could have said ‘you should have planned better’ but not really because a) she was implicitly involved in the non-planning of this little adventure from the beginning and b) who would have know that we were going to switch from running our 1000 km. Minnesota – Dakotas loop to bicycling the Western Loop of Lake Superior?

Someone wisely once said that ‘Life is what happens when you are busy planning something else’. True enough I suppose but tangentially a physicist by the name of Wheeler said something to the effect that ‘Reality can best be understood by the questions we put to it’. Now granted Mr. Wheeler was talking about quantum mechanics but isn’t there perhaps just a tiny bit of applicability to day to day living? (or maybe not)

I am going to devote a separate post to the 10 Things We Learned From This Trip but for now I will say that one of the big learning take-aways for me this trip is that of constant improvisation and problem solving. Unlike Marshall Ulrich who had a large mobilized support staff including a massage therapist when he did his 53 day record breaking run across the United States as reported in his best selling book ‘Running on Empty’ we started out with just a tricked out baby jogging stroller, a state map of Minnesota, and a netbook.

Naïve you say. Perhaps. But sometimes, if you’re a bit like us anyway, you need to strip away all the stuff and find out what you truly capable of and discover what it is exactly that you truly need. And we wanted to see what we could do operating under mostly our own power. And this kind of thinking goes back to when we were living in downtown Washington, DC when I sometimes speculated on what we’d do should a local catastrophe happen and we were left to ‘shelter in place’; the rather tongue in cheek euphemism the US government would use rather than to just say that you were on your own. So if aliens invaded and did something like blow up the capital building then what we as DC residents could expect from our government would be nothing more  than to expect the rather unnourishing words of ‘shelter in place’.

So here we are, back in Duluth after completing the beautifully wonderful 500 mile bike ride around the western shores of Lake Superior only to discover that we are once again at the mercy of our own unplanning. We had conjured up the idea of canoeing the St. Croix back to Minneapolis around the time that we were just beginning to realize that completing the bike loop was in fact doable. We were looking at the map and saw that there was a river whose headwaters were a scant 50 miles or so from Duluth and extended down past Minneapolis where it merged into the mighty Mississippi and we thought, ‘Why not? Why don’t we donate the bikes in Duluth; beg, borrow or steal a canoe and paddle the remaining 150 miles’? Brilliant. (or not)

We now have a day remaining to pull the details together and forge a plan because we must be dipping our paddles no later than tomorrow if we are to complete our trip back to Minneapolis to make our flights home on July 1. Doable? Maybe. But ironically if there is a true deal killer it won’t be logistical or planning related; lessing of course we can do all that paddling in a scant 5 days. Nope, the deal killer will probably be something like black flies; a tiny vicious insect that emerges during tourist season (aka summer) and is reputed to be highly attracted to insect repellant. We have the canoe. We have a ride to the headwaters. We have a tent and sleeping bags. But what we lack is information.

We’ve read from the National Park Service website that the water on the St. Croix is very high, due to the recent storms, but ‘floatable’, and that several of the most northern ‘landings’ are closed; also due to the recent storms. We are making a trip this morning to the marine provisioning shop of Marine General to see if they have the answers to any of our questions. Because we can’t make a decision until we learn exactly what a landing is or what floatable exactly means or what the black fly situation can be expected to be like.

The weather forced us to spend another night in Iron River. It was too bad that it was on a Sunday when half or more of the food related businesses were closed further narrowing the choices in this small Wisconsin village. We got coffee at 6 am at the convenience store and were on our way to the only known restaurant on the far side of town when the sky began to rumble ominously. We turned back to discover that the grocery store wouldn’t open for another two hours but surprisingly found a small café in the doing. Sarah had the two and two special; two eggs and two pancakes and I ordered the breakfast pasty. For you non-aficionados, pasties are a pocket meal consisting of lots of leftover stuff but mainly things like rutabaga, potatoes and meat that have been minced then wrapped in a pastry like blanket then baked and are the cultural legacy of the early Cornish miners who came to work in the ore mines of this area. Although I hadn’t had one in years I knew that this one was exceptional in a homemade kind of way because the pastry part was both flaky and chewy.

Food is an important part of any trip and not getting good and tasty things to eat is a problem for a good many of us. I’ve been a local resourcer (or whatever you want to call it) kind of guy my entire life. For example, when I am in Mexico where I live now it is all about the tacos, carnitas, and local fruits and vegetables. When I lived in Texas on the gulf coast it was all about the shrimp, oysters, and fish; and I harvested my own whenever I could. Now that I am back in the Great Lakes region I want to eat the same regional specialties that I grew up on as a kid and eat just those things that you can’t get anywhere else. And I will eat corn on the cob, fresh baked pie, rhubarb, pasties, whitefish and walleye, perch, and pike, and their smoked versions until they are coming out of my ears because somewhere down deep my subconscious knows that the ship is going to sail all to soon so I’d better get it while I can.

The locally sourced foods on this particular trip at times have been on the thin side. We landed in Minneapolis 23 days ago and the first walleye meal didn’t surface until day 4 or 5 when circumstances found us looking to the local Eagles Club for an evening meal.

We found the best pie in the version of Forest Berry (mixed fruit) in the little town of Cosby, Minnesota which we both ordered up with a scoop of ice cream and a cup of coffee. We found that St. Cloud had no real local food choices but the beer choices got better there with lots of regional tap options. In Duluth we found good coffee and great beer but unexceptional food except for the local co-op up on 4th Ave.

When we got up on the North Shore (of Lake Superior) we began to find smoked fish. It was in Tofte where we first found some excellent smoked whitefish which we had with thinly sliced onion and bread. We found that there were lots of good regional beers to drink and lots of whitefish, smoked and otherwise, to be had in the rest of our circumnavigation of the western part of Lake Superior. As we get ready to ride back into Duluth today completing the circle; we are both very pleased and privileged to have done this 500 mile loop on bicycles.

I awoke at 5:30 am to yet another dreary sullen dawn and knew that the impending bad coffee and equally lame continental breakfast fare were not going to give us any false hope that the day was going to get any better than it already was. We were still surrounded by an immense low pressure that was sucking up warm moist air from the southern United States and dumping rain from the Dakotas across the northern Great Lakes. We finally made our move at 10 am after getting a somewhat consensus from 4 different weather services that there would be a narrow window in the weather until 1 pm. That gave us 3 hours to possibly bike the entire 30 miles from Ashland rain free; all very doable of course unless Lake Superior threw us a curve ball and brought the storm system down on us early. We biked through a cold dense fog for 18 miles before we found a bar in which to unthaw and do a coffee refueling stop. The bar owner had dumped a big bucket full of ice in the men’s floor urinal so I got to joke with her that the guy preceding us must have been way colder. She laughed obligingly and made a pot of coffee.

We made the Iron River city limits but not before catching the very beginning of the rain so we arrived quite drenched from the waist down at the tiny Red Motel. We got assigned room #1 and upon opening the door realized that we’d entered a time portal and it was now 1970 or thereabouts. The room was paneled in 2 dark but opposing styles of cheap pressed panels from that era; the floor sloped in 3 directions, and the 7’ high ceiling sagged in sympathy. The walls were festooned with period art prints of mallards and Canadian geese on one wall and an autumn scene of hunting dogs on another. But things weren’t as bad as they seemed. We had a deck of playing cards and two books. And the small town was chock full of recreational possibilities with its 6 bars and taverns with pool tables and the nearly 6 lane bowling alley. Oh yeah.

Beer. Handcrafted local beer. Great Lakes regional handcrafted local beers. I had been reading for a long time that there was a new brewing tradition emerging back home in places like Michigan and Wisconsin and I tasted the first products of it through Bells Brewery; a little brewery in southern Michigan that was beginning to get a national presence. My absolute favorite of theirs was their astounding ‘Chocolate Cherry Stout’ featuring local cherries from Traverse City, Michigan. I bought my first six-pack of it a few Christmas’s ago while I was living in Washington, DC. I’ve always loved Guinness for its creamy smoothness so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to try another stout that had cherries and chocolate in it. After all it was Christmas so why not?

We made it to Asland, Wisconsin yesterday after waiting all morning for a weather window which didn’t arrive until 11 am. We saddled up and blasted through the 35 miles in just under two and a half hours; a time which included 2 stops. We would have liked to have gone further but we were held back by the lack of infrastructure done the road as well as the threat of the big rain filled weather systems that were present all around us.

We wanted to experience Ashland anyway. I had been telling Sarah for the last ten days how Ashland was one of those regional great lake cities that seemed to get featured in every last magazine and newspaper article that spoke of the new brewmeisters and beers that were beginning to flow out of the region.

Our first stop was for a late lunch at the local Ashland Baking Company for some hummus and fresh baked bread. The neighborhood was recently renovated in that post ‘90s Oregon grunge makeover that happens to so many turn of the twentieth century buildings in the early throes of gentrification. Both the Chequamegon Food Co-op and the hipster hangout Black Cat Coffehouse were right across Chapple Ave.from the bakery and the South Shore Brewery and Deepwater Grille was one block over and two blocks down located in another recently renovated historic building from the same era.

From a first glance these businesses sit at the epicenter and represent the effort to revitalize this small city of 9000 people. Northland College appears to be the intellectual engine that drives the music and arts bringing exuberant and idealist young people who share in the same DIY values of making/buying local for both economic and environmental sustainability.

The South Shore Brewery offered up a couple of good beers. I tried the ever popular but ever boring Nut Brown Ale but deciding to stick with their ESB which was a great value at just 4 bucks a pint. Sarah had to try one of their 22 oz. bottles of [Bourbon Barrel] Coffee Mint Stout, which she said tasted just like Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies; ‘something that was very good for what it was’, she said. But also went on to say that she’d never order it again. Our opinion was that while the South Shore Brewery was a good standard microbrewery offering up some good products with great value, it still had a long way to go to become excellent export worthy with a national presence.

By comparison we felt the same way about Hougton’s Keweenaw Brewing Company. They offered up wonderfully priced pints for $2.50 but their Pick Axe Blond with its low alcohol and Budweiser like taste was a bit too thin to get anything remotely excited about. Their Widow Maker Black Ale was also on the thin side and too undifferentiating to be noteworthy. And somehow their stout ended up on the opposite side of rich and creamy. The KBC fills a great local need but needs a lot of improvement if it wants to go national.

The Brickside Brewery of Copper Harbor on the other hand offered up a truly rich and creamy stout and was everything a stout should be to which we both gave a 9/10. Their IPA was unimpressive but we felt that their porter was very good but not amazing so we gave it an 8/10.

I apologize if it seems that I am picky or that I am throwing rocks at these new start up breweries. The truth is that I applaud their efforts and wish them every success. I am very happy to see these David’s duking it out with the Anheiser Busch Goliaths who have presumed for too many years that they knew what beer drinkers wanted. But I also think it is fair to say that listening to a little healthy 3rd party evaluation of anyone’s products and services are necessary if a business wants to improve and grow. (But if I am wrong in anything I’ve just said or written – it’s not like it wouldn’t be the first time.) 

It was raining in Houghton when got up and not just a little rain either; it was pouring outside. Watching the local weather on TV the night before had kind of prepared us but still we were very disappointed with what we saw when we looked out the window. My disappointment was more palatable, bordering on depression. We had been fighting the weather for the past 19 days. And we’d only had 3 days of what I’d call good weather; the rest was either rainy, cold, or freezing cold. Every morning began just like every evening ended; all with military like planning sessions that were aimed at calculating strategy and reducing the impact of bad weather.

The morning of Day 20 in Houghton began with one of those sessions. The question on the table was where exactly we wanted to be stranded. The weather for the day (Thursday) was going to be 30% chance of rain; solid rain showers all morning, tapering to intermittent in the afternoon. Friday was forecast to be 40% chance with solid rain showers in the morning and on-off rain in the pm. So the question was whether to wait for the afternoon window and ride for the 40 mile away MassCity or explore other options like leapfrog through the weather using alternative means of transportation and get ourselves to Ironwood by any means necessary. The move on Ironwood would keep us on track schedule wise and Ironwood would have better travel infrastructure (craft beer, internet, and a chance for healthier food) and the Ironwood move would better position us logistically for our assault on Ashland (Wisconsin).

Like I said, our North Country visit was de-evolving to the point where we it seemed like we were spending more time planning and less time riding. And as a morning person the weather was especially frustrating. The first thing I want to do after a quick breakfast is to saddle up and ride; not wait to see what the damn weather might or might not do. 

I awoke to a beautiful sunrise over the entrance to Copper Harbor. I got up at 6 am to make coffee. I woke Sarah up at 6:30 and we were out the door by 7:30. The first 2 miles south out of Copper Harbor was all up hill. That and the next 10 miles were all twisty and turny and Hwy 41 had no shoulders and lots of blind corners so as we learned from our waiter last night it was imperative to leave early to beat any traffic.

We picked up a serious south wind and Sarah shouted, ‘Why can’t we ever get a break from this wind’? She was right. No matter where or which direction we happened to be cycling in the wind was continually against us. Using the glass half full approach, I replied, ‘At least it isn’t a cold wind’ as we weren’t catching a freezing breeze off Lake Superior or a howling wind out of the frigid Canadian wilderness.

In spite of the wind we were having a great ride down the Keweenaw Peninsula through the big tree countryside whose air was redolent with the ever present scents of evergreen, apple blossoms, and blossoming lilac bushes. Lilacs trigger strong childhood memories; I can neither see nor smell lilacs without thinking of my grandmother. The sun was out and the temperature rose to 72 degrees and biking was very pleasant. We stopped after a couple of hours to power up on ice cream at a mom and pop place that featured Mackinaw fudge based ice creams. The teenage girl who served us through the window greeted us with a radiant smile reminding us yet again how Michigan offered a much better visitor experience than dreary old Minnesota.

We stopped for lunch in beautiful little Calumet and ate at Nina’s Diner where we had a nice chat with our waitress. She asked us questions about biking and I in turn asked her questions about her family and her life in Calumet.

The town of Houghton was only a dozen more miles further to the south and was an easy mostly down hill ride from Calumet which was only fair as Calumet approached from the north was mostly an uphill affair for last 5-6 miles. We both enjoyed the final steep twisty 2 mile long plunge into Houghton which finally terminated onto main street after crossing a tall bridge across the river.

The boat crossing to the Michigan side from Isle Royale was big, heated, and as comfortable as a TGV train in Europe. We had a window table with comfortably padded seats and we spent the 3 and ½ hours alternating between reading, playing cribbage, and looking out the window.

We got in at 6:15 pm and dropped off our bikes and stuff at the closeby water-side motel and headed off to get sustenance. We got some salads and a couple of beers before walking a couple of more to the tiny Brickside Brewery where we had a couple of more delicious pints of handcrafted beer.

CopperHarbor is a pretty little village with only 80 year around residents. The beautiful harbor is a relatively large crescent shape inlet that is partially made up of small islets. The temperature has finally strayed out of the butt-numbing cold range and should trend into more summer friendly digits as we move further away from Lake Superior. Tomorrow we will ride fast and wild down the Keweenaw Peninsula where we will meet up with my old high school buddy, Garwood in Houghton.

We were stuck in Grand Portage for another night as the first boat to Isle Royale didn’t leave until Monday morning. We were once again the reluctant guests of The Tribal Council who in all of its infinite wisdom (or possible disdain for all others) decided that a casino with a tiny attached hotel and single restaurant was sufficient for the entirety of Grand Portage’s immense area; an expanse of territory that included Thunder Bay down to Grand Marais, a distance of some 100 miles, and the only Minnesota portal to Isle Royale. This part of north eastern Minnesota is a large Native American reservation and is controlled by the local Tribal Council and they have the say over everything. Their greedy, could give a shit attitude for providing infrastructure in conjunction with their could give a shit totally undiversified line of thinking made that this singular hotel and its single restaurant would exist only to service the casino; not the poor tired travelers or hungry families or sports minded travelers destined for Isle Royale. No, the restaurant and hotel were put there to serve only the needs of the casino. And really, at only 95 rooms the hotel lacked in the capacity to do even that. And you might wonder what the needs a casino might have? To make truckloads and truckloads of money is what. The profit of a single hotel and a single restaurant in comparison was so minuscule to the Tribal council that the management of which was almost unnecessary. As in who on the council cared which guest services were or weren’t offered? Nada; only the casino mattered. And besides, those who needed a hotel room or a meal would have to take any hotel or restaurant amenity, no matter how small, and like it. And if they didn’t well, tough; they could go somewhere else. Oh wait, they couldn’t go anywhere else because the Tribal Council controlled everything in the Grand Portage gateway.

To add insult to injury, the casino consists only of slot machines; almost 300 in fact. And which Tribal council evil genius thought of that?  The solitary slot machine only solution was disingenuous inasmuch as the crude user-interfaces and pull arms were there to rob the patrons not only of their money but of their dignity and intellect as well. And by using only slot machines the tribal casino effectively removed every last vestige of glamour that a casino might associatively have had from its glamorous yesteryear back in the day when there were the gaming tables where once elegantly dressed patrons stood around sipping highballs.

The single restaurant was obviously not its own profit and loss center as the food was reasonably priced and the bottles of wine were sold at cost. The restaurant hours and menu offerings were such as to not serve the hotel patrons but only the operation of the casino and all its employees. The restaurant began serving its $19.99 Father’s Day Buffet at 10 am which continued until 8 pm. If you had the buffet for lunch then you’d better like it enough to have for dinner too because that was the only option the restaurant served for the entire day. If you wanted something else then you’d better like snacks as the Snack Bar or snack machines were your only two options; lessing of course you didn’t mind the 35 mile drive back down to Grand Marais.

So after 2 days of witnessing the casino’s take-no-prisoners approach to their hotel/restaurant management operations we began to speculate that the Tribal Council was putting something in the employee’s food and water to get such an anti-patron ‘sorry don’t know/can’t help you’ attitude. We concluded that the entire place should have been surrounded by barbed wire and signs posted with the warning that you were entering a ‘Common Sense Free Zone’.

We were out the door and mounted up by 6:30 am. The sky was only partly cloudy and the temperature had warmed up to a respectable 50 degrees. We stopped at the Tribal Council’s other cash cow, the inappropriately named ‘Trading Post’ to buy some food for the seven and a half hour trip to Rock Harbor on Isle Royale. The Trading Post is a huge convenience store/gas station that specializes in food of the frozen and junk varieties. Still out of all that 3000 square feet stocked with mostly unhealthy detritus we still managed to hunt and gather up some nuts, 4 bananas, a jar of peanut butter, and a box of Triscuits.

We got to the boat dock only to have the young boat captain loudly inform us in front of all the other passengers that ‘you can’t take those bikes’. I asked, ‘Why not’? He replied, ‘The island doesn’t allow bikes’. I could see from his expression that he thought that was end of the matter. I said, ‘No’, and then paused, ‘They allow bikes. But don’t allow bike riding’. I carefully broke my reply into easily digestable bites. I could sense that most of the other passengers immediately got onboard with my reply. He then asked why we were taking them if we couldn’t ride them. I replied that we were going on to Michigan. The young boat captain hesitated realizing that there was more to the situation than met the eye so he then went over to confer with an older man before finally taking the bikes on board.

The 22 mile journey across to Isle Royale took an hour and a half. We then made a 25 minute stop on the west side of the island to get our park orientation delivered by a National Park Ranger and also to drop off a handful of passengers. The 60 foot long boat was unheated so Sarah and I played cribbage to try and forget just how cold we were dressed in shorts and sandals. We had on some light fleece uppers, raincoats and army surplus hats but it wasn’t near enough surrounded as we were by all that cold steel gliding on top of all that extremely cold water. The trip up the 40 mile long north side of the island took another 6 cold hours. The temperature out on Lake Superior dropped to where the thermometer had pegged a daytime high of 47 degrees so we were both thankful when the boat finally docked at Rock Harbor.

43 degrees and a southeasterly breeze off Lake Superior would be fine if it were October and a person had a proper coat and hat. However it is only 5 days to June 21st, which if memory serves is the official first day of summer; making it fair to say that the weather royally sucks for anyone at this time biking their way through the refrigerated wasteland of northern Minnesota. Someone very wise once said that there was no such thing as bad weather, only bad preparation. I didn’t need to be reminded of the climate by the dead mink roadkill, the numerous beaver lodges, or the fact that moose and timber wolves wander freely to know that I was guilty of bad preparation. Earlier on back in Duluth we tried to make up for our shortfall by augmenting our bike shorts and sandals with some thrift store fleece and some army surplus hats not to mention the bargain store gardening gloves; but even so we were cold. (Where was the bike store?)

We were cold even before we got on our bikes but got colder still with each mile. By mile five our feet were numb. The hands went numb at mile ten. Fifteen miles out of Grand Marais we gratefully stopped at the first opportunity for coffee and a chance to unthaw. Sarah in a very serious way asked about the possibility of frostbite. The two young women minding the store were amused at these two underdressed and obviously ill prepared foreigners that had the temerity to wander recklessly through their territory. So introductions started with, ‘Don’t you have long pants’? ‘No’, I croaked, ‘Do you have hot coffee’?

I learned that the only possible upside to the frigid weather and abysmally late spring was that the morel mushrooms weren’t out yet (and it’s June 15th!). At that knowledge my cold, trembling heart leapt with joy and I imagined for that moment my face had that same rapturous gaze as Zhivago’s when he learned that Laura was still alive. Morels! The oldest of the two knew her mushrooms although I couldn’t fathom why she preferred giant puffballs and oyster mushrooms to morels; both excellent tasting but neither being anything as remotely flavorful as the morel with its fine chateaubriand like taste and chewiness.

The big screen TV was on and yet another someone was commenting on the NSA whistleblower case. I asked if they were following the story and both shrugged and shook their heads ‘no’ eying me with the same sardonic humor one reserves for those that ask truly stupid questions. And their point of view was well taken, living off the grid as they did – truly off the grid – in every sense of the word. They didn’t have televisions, computers, electricity or even running water. The oldest was married and she and her husband had sled dogs. Blundering on and expecting to be immediately pounced upon, I meekly asked what they did for entertainment and the answer short and simple was they didn’t; keeping things alive and fed was hard work and consumed most of the day. When the work was over they used the rest of the long summer days to hunt for antlers or mushrooms.

I heard a voice coming from the bed, ‘There is no formal difference between the inability to define and stupidity’. I went ‘what’?, as she had just interrupted my train of thought. Sarah held up ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. And I went ‘Oh’ before responding with the Chinese axiom ‘To define something is to limit it’. And while that might just sound like some of the stupidly arcane dialog from the ‘Big Bang Theory’ it got me thinking about some of the more feckless conversations that I’d had in the last 24 hours. Like last night I asked the bartender if the Fat Tire beer he had on tap was a lager. He said he didn’t know because he didn’t drink. Or this morning I asked the front desk if they had a complimentary shuttle to the ferry dock. He said he didn’t know. I then asked who would know. He said he didn’t know. Or at breakfast I asked about getting some new coffee; some coffee that wasn’t burned. He returned with a new carafe but both of our cups were still full of the old coffee. As he mutely stood by I scanned the room for a bus stand or somewhere dump them before asking for his help. He went ‘yeah right’ before wandering off to the kitchen to return a couple of minutes later with an empty water pitcher saying it was the only thing he could find. I said that new cups would have worked just as well and he went ‘yeah right’ but dumped the cups into the pitcher anyway which he then returned to the kitchen. When he came back I told him the coffee was still burned and he replied that was how their coffee was. The old guy at the next table chimed in with his grumble about the awful coffee and impossible as it may seem, the subsequent conversation about bad coffee just death spiraled from there.