Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles written by Cheyenne’s Mark Junge as he and his wife, Ardath, ride their electric-assist bicycles along the Paul Bunyan Trail and Mississippi River Trails in northern Minnesota. Mark is 78 and oxygen dependent.
”Adventure is the respectful pursuit of trouble.” – As seen on an RV bumper
Nearly 40 years ago, when I was a Wyoming Tribune-Eagle freelance photographer, shooting the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo, I was warned to never take my eyes off the animal in the arena, especially during the bull riding events.
That was because, after flinging off his rider – which happened most of the time – a bull would sometimes run the fence line until arena hands were able to direct it back into its pen. Photographers stayed close to the fence, just in case they had to climb up and away from a rampaging bull.
Longtime Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo photographer Randy Wagner learned that lesson the hard way. A bull hooked the 6-foot, 7-inch Wagner and flipped him over a fence near the chutes, putting him into the hospital for his mistake.
So when Dr. Mike Herber, an arena physician who treated injured cowboys, would poke me in the back and blurt out, “BULL!”, it scared the bejesus out of me. He did it more than once, too, regardless of the fact that “Hub” and I had been teammates in the Cheyenne Recreational Basketball League. So much for the Hippocratic Oath.
All of the foregoing, Dear Reader, is to remind you of the adage: “It’s a small world, after all.” Last week, on our trip to northern Minnesota, Ardath and I met Dr. Herber’s cousin, Kevin, at the Lake Itasca State Park Visitors Center. He talked enthusiastically about his life in Cheyenne, even though he has been away from the capital city for years. He and his wife, Robin, are permanent RV-ers who live in their converted van. Their second home is a fifth-wheel trailer parked in Arizona for winter use. The nomadic life suits them just fine.
Kevin told us that he lived in Cheyenne in pre-Frontier Mall days, when Dell Range Boulevard was an unpaved road. He also talked about his father’s house getting ripped up by the tornado that hit the Buffalo Ridge area in 1979. Ardath could relate to Kevin’s tale of the tornado because she taught fifth grade at Buffalo Ridge School that year.
When you’re traveling in an RV, you can’t help meeting other people at stopping places along the road. Typically, they include gas stations/convenience stores, grocery store parking lots and RV campgrounds. At our last RV camp in Bemidji, we met a couple who live at Arlington, where Interstate 80 is known as the Snow Chi Minh Trail in winter. Others you meet are fellow bicyclists along the path, although people who are exercising their bodies and purging cobwebs from their brains usually don’t take much time to chit-chat.
The variety of RV vehicles one sees along the road or in campgrounds is mind-blowing – from a camper held onto the bed of a pickup truck with bright orange, tie-down straps to a gleaming bus with four slide-outs and enough square footage to house an extended family.
At the Bemidji visitors center, where a Brobdingnagian statue of Paul Bunyan stands next to Babe, his blimp-size blue ox, we met a middle-aged couple who had just descended from their similarly gargantuan, 4-wheel-drive vehicle. With tires the size of those used on cement trucks, it was a “black Hummer on steroids,” as Ardath put it. It resembles a combat-ready fighting machine as much as it does an RV. What confirms the fact that it is meant for recreational, not military, use is an attached bike rack large enough to carry a motorcycle and tandem bicycle, and an attached trailer for hauling a sinister-looking 4-wheeler.
Were the owners of this RV an ex-military couple? No, the man is a pilot, and the woman is the retired CFO of a major U.S. corporation. Seeing that small lady ascend to the cab of their humongous four-wheeler is like watching a rock wall-climbing contest. The couple admit that while sitting in the cab of their 30-foot-long, 14-foot-high machine, they have to look down in order to see semi-truck drivers.
The couple stood happily for a photo in front of their rig while hanging onto the leashes of two enormous sheep dogs. This was not your average American couple out for a little weekend fun. Our idea of fun was watching tourists coyly photographing their Road Warriors home-on-wheels from a respectful distance.
In the same Bemidji parking lot, we also met a local bicyclist, Ron, whose story is long. Suffice it to say that he is a retired airline pilot who once served as a bush pilot flying for a Christian organization in Africa. But that’s another story – one that neither he nor we had time to get into because it was late in the evening and, besides, the road warrior couple had mentioned that Fossies restaurant nearby had good BBQ.
Baby Boomers may recall a late-‘50s/early-’60s, semi-documentary TV series featuring tales from New York City police files. It was titled “The Naked City.” The deeply resonant voice of the narrator closed each program dramatically with: “There are 8 million stories in The Naked City. This has been one of them.” Well, there are also many stories along the Paul Bunyan Trail, but in a setting much less urban.
Last week, for the first time in our married lives, Ardath and I pedaled an entire bike trail together. Because we had to return to our starting point each day, the 120-mile Paul Bunyan Trail turned out to be 240 miles long, which we managed to do in eight days. The fatigue we felt by bedtime informed us that the human body doesn’t bounce back as easily as it did when we started these trips 17 years ago.
The trees along the Paul Bunyan are changing rapidly, shedding their leaves like large snowflakes floating quietly to the ground on a calm winter’s day. In one week, the great northern forest is transforming itself from dull green to lustrous yellow that morphs into an eye-popping, crimson red. Lake Itasca State Park, where we begin our trip down the Mississippi, is an enchanted forest. The autumnal process is in full sway.
Explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft traced the Mississippi to its headwaters at Lake Itasca, giving the lake its name by combining parts of two Latin words: veritas meaning “true” and caput or “head.”
Today, at the edge of the lake where the Ojibwe once lived, and where tourists now hop across the Mississippi River on stones, the river is not so mighty. It starts out a little wider than Crow Creek during spring runoff, but in less than 50 miles, it gathers enough water to fill an 11-square-mile Lake Bemidji. The river then drains the lake as it continues its 2,500-mile-long, 1,475-foot descent to the Gulf of Mexico.
If a person could eliminate all the towns and highways that clutter up the map, the northern Minnesota portion of America’s greatest river has the appearance of a question mark, its curved hook starting at Lake Itasca State Park and its long staff angling south toward the Twin Cities – the objective of this summer’s ride.