Saturday, September 19, 2009

Riding My Bike

Two weeks ago, after a short campaign, Steve convinced me that I should buy a better bike than the "clunker" (his word) I've been riding the past six years or so. And after we spent way more than I ever thought I'd spend on a bike, he announced, with confidence: "Biking is your sport!"

I hadn't ever thought about having a "sport," but I also have never considered riding a bike a sport, so the whole thing struck me as funny. But looking back, I have to admit that if I have indeed had a sport throughout my life, it would be cycling. And there's no time to ride a bike like the autumn.
Biking is going through a resurgence as all across America old railroad sidings have been turned into thousands of miles of bike trails. And what an amazing thing it is, to ride bikes where trains used to go, along straight, level, paved trails that meander through prairie and forest, along rivers and lakes and past farms, and stop periodically at parks and former train stations that now have charming pavilions.

In my part of the world, we have the Lake Wobegon Trail, 46 miles from St. Joseph, through Avon, Albany, Freeport, Sauk Centre and on to Osakis, with a spur to Holdingford, and another trail system beyond Sauk Centre. Now that I have a really good bike, I can ride much farther and longer for less effort, and it is indeed a pleasure to ride. On Thursday I had a day off, anticipating a weekend of work, and took my camera along on the ride. I'm posting some highlights here-- the former grain elevator in St. Joseph with its faded sign for "Vita-Pep Feeds" and the St. Joseph water tower with images of the monastery steeple and dome. Farther west, where the trail crosses Old Collegevile Road, there is a cluster of houses that must have sprung up around an old depot. There are still about 10 yards of tracks there, too. I love these houses, one of which belonged to Joseph O'Connell, a sculptor who did three important pieces for the monastery. There, I stopped and took too many photos of an apple tree in front of a dilapidated barn.

When you start to see wetlands and then finally a stretch of open water, you are almost at Avon, the first major stop on the trail. I only went that far on Thursday. The stretch between Avon and Albany is particularly beautiful, with lots of water and people riding to and from fishing spots with their tackle and rods on their backs.

Last Sunday Steve and I drove our bikes out to Albany to take the 20-mile round trip ride to Holdingford. I'd heard this was the most beautiful part of the trail, and that may very well be true. This part of the trail winds through farms and bluffs and passes a large lake. It is not as wide, and the forest canopy stretches overhead. Riding over popping acorn hulls and through crackling piles of leaves, you know fall has arrived. But on the day we rode, it was perfectly still and hot. The destination, Holdingford, is also known along the trail for having a covered bridge, and sure enough, we could see the red covered bridge as we came through the last stand of trees, and on a small hill the town, with the church the most dominant feature, a cluster of buildings belonging to businesses named after local families, Rammler Trucking and Opatz Metals.

What was more, we stumbled on the tail end of a picnic at the town park, a community picnic being put on by the Lion's Club for the residents of that town and a few others. We met a young woman from Opole at the bathrooms who invited us to join in and have something to eat. We weren't hungry enough for the meal, but there was watermelon and that was about the best thing I could think of after 10 miles on the bike. And they were just taking the stage for the raffle and to announce the winner of the "guess the weight" contest of Snowflake the cow. Two people split the $48 prize with guesses within one pound of the cow's actual weight. There were many trucks with dairy farmer bumper stickers in the parking lot.

I'm looking forward to many more seasons on the trail, where I sometimes think about other bike rides-- my long explorations as a kid through Park Forest, Olympia Fields, into Flossmoor or out to Park Forest South (now University Park) and its farms; at Grinnell, when I'd ride as far out as I could get, clicking off the county roads; in New York City, over the Brooklyn Bridge and through Manhattan on Saturdays, the other direction to Coney Island on Sundays; the intense rides in the hills of Northern California, with my elaborate dreams and research about riding a bike cross country; the urban commuting in Chicago and in Reno, the lovely rides between our house and the university, especially in the winter with snow in the mountains; the daily rides in Red Wing, Minnesota at an artist's colony there along the Cannon River to see the eagle's nest.
And I guess if this is a sport, it is indeed mine.

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