Paul Bunyan’s Shadow

I’m sharing some excerpts from my in-progress manuscript about Rich’s Ride. You can check out previous posts here.

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Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox greeted us at the shore of Lake Bemidji. Nothing like an eighteen-foot-tall pipe-smoking lumberjack and a colossal blue ox to put things in perspective. We munched sandwiches between Paul’s gigantic work boots and speculated about whether the spread of Babe’s horns matched the legendary claim of “42 axe handles and a plug of chewing tobacco.”

A woman approached, greeted us, and introduced herself. “Hi, I’m Lori, and I’m president of the Bemidji Chamber of Commerce.” She wanted to know our story, apparently curious about bike jerseys, dog, trailer, and handcycle. As our unofficial spokesperson, Becky quickly fished out a business card and explained our mission. Out of nowhere this complete stranger became an instant, enthusiastic project member. She made phone calls, and a reporter/photographer appeared. Becky’s phone rang during our interview, and we had an appointment with a television crew the following morning.

We also found out about the Paul Bunyan Trail.

The newspaper reporter was a cyclist, so he had a special interest in our project. As we chatted he asked, “Are you looking forward to the Paul Bunyan Trail?” His matter-of-fact question implied that everyone knew about the Paul Bunyan Trail and of course that was my intended route out of town. My ignorance clearly astonished him. “You HAVE to take the Paul Bunyan Trail!”

So we completed the interview and headed off to check out the Paul Bunyan Trail.

At first sight, I wasn’t impressed. This supposedly major bikeway was so obscure that we drove past it twice without spotting the trail. I guess I expected some kind of important-looking marker at the beginning of a trail named after a larger-than-life legend. Instead we discovered a nondescript blacktop path that followed a side street for a block or so before disappearing into the dense woods. Paul Bunyan’s trail couldn’t possibly accommodate those “42 axe handles and a plug of chewing tobacco” horns.

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I’ll confess that my confidence wasn’t exactly bolstered when Becky called the TV reporter later that evening. “Paul Bunyan Trail? Yeah, I’ve heard about it, but I’m not exactly sure where it is. No worries, though. I’ll find it.”

No worries. The morning of Day 2 would begin with an early-morning television interview, and then Monte and I would follow that skinny blacktop ribbon into the woods. I imagined being hopelessly lost as bears chased me down a dead-end path to nowhere. I recalled my friend (and pastor) Rob joking that if a bear chased me I should be sure to get a picture…at least I thought he was joking.

Jamil appeared bright and early and unloaded her camera gear while Becky and I (well, mostly Becky) wrestled the handcycle from the trailer. We completed our interview and learned that Jamil planned to follow us for a few miles to get some “action” shots. Since the bike trail was a converted railroad route that didn’t follow roads, she and Becky had to figure out where they could drive to intersect the trail. So with some small bit of confidence that we’d meet again somewhere, I called, “See you in Hackensack!” Then Monte and I headed off into the forest.

The Paul Bunyan Trail is a rails-to-trail program. A state  government & nonprofit partnership bought an abandoned railroad line, ripped up the tracks, and paved the trail. The result is a beautiful pathway through small towns and pristine woods, no traffic except where the tracks crossed a road. Much of the trail is literally a tunnel through overhanging trees which were just assuming their autumn colors. Since railroads avoided steep grades, inclines were negligible. As a way of getting my journey off to a positive, inspiring beginning The Paul Bunyan Trail was perfect.

Monte trotted beside me in this forest wonderland, so I cruised easily so he wouldn’t tire too quickly. Since we didn’t know where we’d cross a road, or whether Becky and TV lady Jamil would find us there, I decided it was best to take it easy.

About a half hour later the trail approached a crossing. Monte’s ears perked up and he broke into a full run as he spotted Becky and Jamil waiting on the road. If I didn’t know better I’d swear he was showing off for the TV camera and making sure everyone knew he was the true star of the show.

We shot more interview footage and Jamil took a few more action shots. Monte’s running was done for the day, so he jumped into the car. Another goodbye, and I cranked slowly away from the crossing. The early morning’s somber uncertainty dissipated as bright, sunny skies appeared. I attached my Go-Pro helmet camera and captured some of the glorious surroundings as I cruised around lakes past picturesque fishing resorts. For the next few hours I encountered Becky and Monte occasionally when the trail crossed a road, but mostly I just cranked along steadily.

Two days and eighty-nine miles on The Paul Bunyan Trail helped me get mentally centered. I knew the rest of the ride wouldn’t be quite so pristine, but for now it was a great opportunity to settle into the rhythm of the long daily rides.

The second day on Paul’s trail did present one significant obstacle. About halfway through the morning I rounded a bend and had to jump on the brake. I’d wondered about bears and other critters, but I suddenly confronted an odd question. “If a tree falls in the woods and completely blocks the trail, does it make a sound?”

Okay, so I didn’t really care about the sound, but I was stymied by the large tree in my path. No way to move it, nobody in sight, no cell coverage. No u-turn—the path was much too narrow for my bike’s eighteen-foot turning radius. I was stuck with a single less-than-attractive solution.

I had to back up. Since there’s no “reverse” gear, that meant pushing myself backward with my hands on the pavement. I tried to recall when I last crossed a road, but I’d sort of gotten into a rhythm of cranking along without really attending to details. The distance didn’t matter anyway, because there wasn’t another alternative. I had to just back up until I reached a crossing.

About a half mile of this awkward technique finally backed me onto a street, and I discovered that a gravel road paralleled the bike path. So I cranked past the fallen tree to the next intersection and rejoined the trail. Minor diversion, problem solved, valuable lesson learned.

This sort of journey rarely follows the script. Obstacles appear, but mostly they’re diversions. It’s best to accept them as part of the adventure. Then you can concentrate on finding a way back to the trail and moving forward.

Here’s the helmet-cam video from that amazing day.

Can’t see the video? Click here.

Please leave a comment here.

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If you’ve enjoyed the updates from Rich’s Ride, please check out my blog at BOUNCING BACK.

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