The Invisible Distance

by Scott Jann

Long distance is a relative term. About five years ago I took my first long distance bicycle trip. The trip was to Duluth, which is approximately 150 miles from the Twin Cities, and back home again. The trip was with two friends with whom I’d frequently ridden shorter trips before. During one of these trips we had the desire for a larger challenge, this desire manifested itself in the plan to bike to Duluth.

It wasn’t the first time anyone has attempted this journey. I know several people, including one of the members of our group, who participated in the MS 150, a fund-raising event for Multiple Sclerosis in which the riders are sponsored to ride 150 miles, from Duluth to the Twin Cities. The path is lined with people to give the riders water and first aid, and people cheering them on. The 150 miles are split over two days of riding during a weekend. Knowing survivors of this event didn’t make us feel any more sane as we set out on our adventure. We ambitiously decided to ride up in one day, rest for a day, then ride back the third. Having no official roadside support meant that we had to carry everything necessary to survive for three days on our back.

I met Steve at shortly after 7 a.m., and after a quick breakfast, we were both eager to begin. Unfortunately there was no sign of our third travel-mate, Jake. Steve called his house, but there was no answer. He left a message saying that since he wasn’t there, we were going to leave without him. Since it was on the way, we decided to ride by his house in case there was a problem with the phone. Steve rang the doorbell, we waited, he rang it again, we waited, and finally a half asleep Jake surprised us by answering the door. “Are you coming to Duluth with us?”, Steve asked. A puzzled Jake replied by asking “Is that today?”

By the time we got everything ready for departure it was nearly 10:30. We mounted our bikes and set out on the road. A few minutes later, we cheered as we coasted past the end of the first mile. It was a bit less enjoyable to look ahead, to see the long straight road stretching from my tire to the horizon. On a bike, the road looks much more intimidating than in a car. We traveled along highway 65, slowly passing all the places we normally saw passed by car. As we emerged from the metro area, the signs of civilization along the road took longer to pass. Strip malls were replaced by flea markets and then by lonesome billboards.

The traffic withered as did the number of buildings. It was much more pleasant to ride without the constant wind and noise from cars buzzing by the edge of our shoulder. One of these occasional cars or trucks didn’t just make a quick gust of wind. I heard the semi-truck approaching, and also began to hear a pulsing sound getting louder as the truck approached. It sounded like a washing machine in its spin cycle that got off center. I looked back to see that it was a tire off center and wobbling beneath the trailer which was causing the noise. I didn’t know what to think as the truck flew past us, there wasn’t enough time to duck, and the only escape was a ditch which would be very unfriendly to our bikes. About fifteen feet ahead of us, the entire shell of the tire ripped itself away from the truck, and flew into the shoulder. The tire was left, heated by friction, smoldering like a worn out camp fire. Steel belts torn away leaving what looked like vicious claws, ready to pounce at one of our tires, or worse yet, one of our legs. One of us calmly said “So that’s where all that stuff comes from.”

The journey was making us hungry, and by now it was after noon. “Let’s stop for food in the next town”, Steve proposed. We passed a billboard which said “McDonalds 2 min on left”. After an incredibly long two minutes, we arrived in Cambridge. Rather than completely negating the exercise we’re undergoing, we decided to find somewhere healthier than McDonalds to eat. We found a small diner, locked our bikes to the railing near the entrance, and stumbled through the door. Everyone in the place stopped eating, stopped chatting, and began to stare at us. It must not be part of their weekday lunch ritual for three sweaty, long-haired, dirty guys to interrupt them. One of the waitresses finally agreed to seat us. We all ordered lasagna and a salad. When you are truly hungry, no matter what you eat can taste excellent. I am not sure if the lasagna was actually good, but nevertheless I inhaled it. We filled our water bottles with new cold water before leaving. Across the street we purchased a loaf of bread in the Tom Thumb. Food in our stomachs, we were ready to get back to the bikes.

Despite keeping a pace of just under fifteen miles per hour up to Cambridge, Jake began falling farther behind. The bike he borrowed for this trip was not well tuned, and was not making it easy for him to ride. About fifty miles into the trip he volunteered to turn back. I didn’t know what to say: I didn’t want to see him ride back alone, I didn’t want to turn back, and I realized we’d never make it before dark at the rate we were going. We let him go.

The land along highway 65 was flat grassland with sparse trees and buildings, all set back by grass from the road. The next stage of our voyage was along highway 117 between 65 and 23. Highway 117 was densely lined with trees, all very dry. It was late August, the trees were tired from the summer heat, and from the months of holding their leaves up. There hadn’t been much rain, the trees were thirsty, the road was dry, everything was dusty. The road was rundown, cracked by the years of weather, painful to bike on. The sun was working hard, baking us as we rolled across the cement. The area was desolate, no cars to be seen, no animals, no birds, just a long flat path between the edges cut into the fatigued forest.

It took nearly an hour to get to highway 23, but it seemed far longer. The miles are gnawing at my legs, getting them to rebel, they screamed against pushing the pedals any further. We’re not even half way to Duluth. When we finally got to highway 23 we stopped at the edge of a bridge, and rested for a few minutes. The afternoon sun makes the bridge feel like a fire surrounding me. I can’t imagine this being any worse than being in a desert. We both ate slabs of bread that had been crushed in Steve’s bag, and drank the rest of the hot water in the water bottles. That was the best bread and water I’d ever tasted.

Our numb bodies finally rolled Hinkley, numb from exhaustion. We stopped at Dairy Queen for some cool ice cream. It made me sick to my stomach. We could tell we were in no shape to continue. I needed to eat a real meal, and it was almost time for dinner. We went to Toby’s. Inside it was air-conditioned, it felt almost frigid to my sweaty skin. We both ate a sandwich, drank a lot of ice water, and enjoyed sitting on a soft actual chair, with our legs motionless. When we were finished, I no longer felt so exhausted, I was capable of continuing.

From Hinkley, we continued on the “fire trail”. This is a trail built in an old railroad bed named after a huge fire which destroyed Hinkley. The advantage of being in a railroad bed is that the grade is less than 15 degrees, which means we have no hills to fight. Since it was restricted to pedestrians and bicycles, there haven’t been years of tires to wreak havoc on the smooth concrete surface. The air was filled with the sounds of birds chirping mixed the songs of the other forest creatures, a melodious silence in contrast to the din of the highway traffic.

To the side of the trail there was a waterfall, and there was an old-fashioned wood bridge to cross the stream. The plants enjoyed the water, they were all green and full of life. The trees were full of green leaves which shaded us from the sun. The trees encroached on either side of the smooth pavement to form what seemed like a tunnel. As the evening approached, the temperature became even more pleasant, and dew began to sweeten the air. I was submerged in nature, no car around me to hold it out.

“One hundred miles!” I screamed to Steve, “We made it a hundred miles.” But somehow I wasn’t enthusiastic. At the first mile, it was still morning, we had the day to ride. Now, I could feel the day slipping away. The shade of the trees added to the darkness, but the fact is, the sun was sinking. Despite the distance we had covered, the trail stretching in front of us was no shorter now than when we first set out on it.

In a car you never realize what you’re hauling on a trip. It takes up space, but as long as it fits, there is nothing to worry about. I packed only what I thought I needed: two shirts, a pair of jeans, a pair of shorts, a brush, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, about three maps and a book. I began to realize how foolish that was. My back was becoming very sore from the weight of my bag. Packing light means I should have been much more restrictive. Since I was staying at a friend’s house, I could have borrowed soap, toothpaste, and a brush. I could have survived with one set of clothes, namely the ones I was wearing. Every ounce counts, I wish I had left all this stuff at home.

We decided to stop for a minute to stretch when we reached Moose Lake. We ate some fruit snacks that I found hiding in my bag, and we refilled our water. Unfortunately it was a little after 9 p.m. We realized that, not only were there mere minutes of sunlight left, but despite all the things we’ve carried in our bags, the only sort of light we had was a pocket MagLite flashlight. Considering that a large part of the rest of the way was downhill, we knew it would be too dangerous to continue in the dark. Also, the only paths to follow, including I-35, have no overhead lights this far out of the city.

If this was all that was against us, we probably would have continued. By this time, the dew had grown into a dense fog. Not only could we see nothing in the dark, with the fog, no cars would be able to see us. It would be suicidal to continue, we had no choice but to give up. I gave my friend in Duluth a call, to ask for a ride. In the fog, even in a pickup truck the rest of the trip to Duluth was not easy. We could hardly see past the edge of the hood.

You don’t realize your limits until you push yourself. Moreover, you don’t improve yourself until you push those limits. After pushing them all the way to Duluth, the return home, biking the entire way, was much easier. The next time I drove to Duluth after this trip, I felt so lazy. I was just sitting in the car, letting 100 horsepower drive me, when I know a single human-power is capable of driving the same distance. I got a sense of emptiness, like I was missing something. I knew there was much more to take time to see beyond what I saw rushing past the window. It is far too easy to not realize how vast the land you are crossing truly is. Never observing each tree along the roadside, nor taking time to observe each town, much less each building.