April 24, 2017 (Part 2)
Southwest Minnesotans complain that their agricultural heartland is sometimes ignored by the rest of the state. Actually, it’s a claim that could be made by almost any region of a state dominated in terms of population by its major metropolitan area. The Twin Cities (Minneapolis, St. Paul and associated suburbs) contain nearly two-thirds of Minnesota residents. Elsewhere the population density is quite low, both in the forested vacation country of Northern Minnesota and in the agricultural regions of the southern and western portions of the state.
It’s obvious to me on a bicycle. So far I have been fortunate to have overnight towns spaced out every 30 to 40 miles, quite reasonable distances for an older tourist on a loaded bicycle. But between the overnight towns are frequently nothing but farms; the few tiny hamlets out there have pretty much closed up in terms of goods and services. It requires bringing snacks along with me, as I find my energy begins to sag after much more than 20 miles without stopping.
North of Worthington the next town of any size is Slayton, some 30 miles up the road. It’s a much smaller (population just over 2000), less prosperous place, but its residents are proud and concerned about protecting its future. The director of economic development, Amy Rucker, reached out with an offer to accompany me around town and introduce me to local people and places. I was a little late due to stiff headwinds, but she graciously accommodated me in the brief couple of hours we had before the end of the afternoon.
She cautioned me that Slayton’s mayor, Miron Carney (“the only Miron Carney in the world,” he claims) was something of a character. I found him delightful. Now in his early 40s, he enjoyed some notoriety in a heavy metal band in L.A. in the 1990s before returning to his Minnesota roots. “I just couldn’t see bringing up my kids out there,” he said.
He’s now more of a self-described “wonk,” but he still brings an artist’s sense of irony to his work as he described Slayton to me. While he mentioned that the most controversial subject dividing the town is the parking in the center of Main Street that is a relic of horse and buggy days, his mind is on more substantial issues. “We’re not failing here,” he said. “In fact, I like to say we’re victims of our own success.” As in all rural places, young people leave, but a sufficient number also return, better educated and with newly acquired skills. The challenge is to provide them with the kind of work that can utilize those skills. “Our raw unemployment rate is under both the national and state averages,” he said, “but there is a substantial mismatch between the jobs and the labor market. Applicants tend to be either under- or overqualified.” Another problem is decent housing. “The cost of lots is low, but it actually costs a little more per square foot to build a new house here than in the [Twin] Cities,” he explained.
I mentioned the complaints I heard in other towns about young millennials not taking sufficient interest and participating in their communities. Carney did not have a solution, but he did make an interesting observation. “You Baby Boomers are jealous, that’s all. They’re better hippies than you were. You grew up and couldn’t escape your parents’ work ethic. The millennials took what you said to heart and now they live by it. It just took an extra generation for it to come true.” The thought gave me pause on a windy spring afternoon in a rural Minnesota coffee shop.
The next day’s weather forecast gave a more immediate sense of concern. It was for rain—heavy rain, accompanied by the same stiff winds as the previous day and temperatures in the low to mid-40s. I debated canceling my riding altogether, spending an extra day in Slayton rather than proceeding to the next overnight town of Marshall, another 34 miles to the north. But a look at the forecast details and radar persuaded me I could remain dry for at least half of that time. There was one tiny town which the online map indicated had a bar. Perhaps I could wait out the worst of the rain there.
Indeed I made it that far just as the raindrops began to fall in earnest. But that was the end of my good fortune. While the bar’s Facebook page indicated they opened at 11:00 and had food, when I arrived they were locked up tight. The only other business in town, apart from the grain elevator, was a tax/accounting service. I entered, looking cold and wet, and asked the proprietor if I could occupy a chair long enough to warm up before going back out into the rain. He said he only had 15 minutes before he had to go home and pack for a planned vacation in Panama he and his wife were taking after the busy tax season (it was April 19). He added that the owner of the bar had decided not to open until 5:00 pm and was putting the business up for sale. I thanked him for the brief respite, and then climbed back onto my wet bicycle. At least the rain had let up a little.
I made my way the last 13 miles to Marshall in off and on rain, that is, until the last hour. Then the clouds thickened even more, and the precipitation poured from the sky like a bucket of dirty water being emptied. No clothing yet invented, apart from a diver’s dry suit, can protect you in that kind of downpour. It was miserable riding. Bolts of lightning appeared suddenly on both sides of the road, and the thunder was nearly immediate (the reasonably accurate rule of thumb is that it takes sound five seconds to travel one mile). I arrived at my motel chilled (at least the temperature was in the upper 40s), drenched and bedraggled. My fingers were numb and it took nearly five minutes to remove my helmet and gloves. Once in the room, I turned up the heat, stripped off my wet clothes, dried myself as best I could with a towel, and finally collapsed on the bed. I didn’t worry about lunch, instead sleeping for about three hours. When I dressed in dry clothes (thank goodness for oversize zippered plastic bags) and emerged back outside, it was still raining moderately. Fortunately, immediately next door was a Mexican restaurant with average food but generous portions.
Earlier in the week I had been invited to attend the 7:00 am meeting of Marshall’s Sunrise Rotary Club. It was hard enough to get out of bed at 5:30, then to find it still raining outside, although now more of a steady mist. At least the Rotary members were welcoming, if a little confused as to why someone would want to ride through their community in the uncertain weather of April. I considered exploring the town afterward, but the continuing damp weather prompted a return to the motel to catch up on the missed sleep. The promised sun never really appeared, but it did dry off enough to warrant a trip to the Brau Brothers Brewing Company, where I was enticed by decent craft beer and half-price appetizers. I continue to be surprised by the recent popularity of what are known as “kettle sours,” beers with intentionally added bacterial cultures prior to being boiled. They exhibit a tart sourness that can be refreshing, sometimes with the addition of various sweetened fruit syrups in the glass. The server said that this particular beer had used yogurt culture from a local dairy.
At least the next day’s ride was dry, flat and uneventful, with temperatures in the upper 50s and only a light headwind for the 40-mile trip to Montevideo, Minnesota. Rare, too, for this trip was to find craft breweries in two consecutive overnight towns. I arrived at the Talking Waters Brewing Company at about 3:30 on a Friday afternoon. It was already partially full of patrons who wanted to get an early start on a weekend that promised good weather. Only open since August 2016, the craft brewery already seemed an established part of the community. I had earlier agreed to meet Paul Raymo there and do an interview for a podcast he creates for KLQP radio in the area (see the earlier blog of April 23 for the link).
After the interview I had time to speak with brewery co-owner John Skoglund, who proudly gave me a tour. His story is a typical one for craft brewers: a love for good beer, spurred by a passion to learn to brew it at home and a desire to find a new career where you can take pride in something you make yourself. The brewing space is basic but well thought out and pleasant to work in. And the product is of high quality, overall a level above its competitor in Marshall. The certified beer judge in me noticed no flaws and that all the beers were to their intended styles. It’s that kind of attention to detail that will keep a brewery in business over the long term. That, and attention to serving its customers’ needs. One of Skoglund’s partners owns the pizza restaurant immediately next door, and they take orders for delivery directly to the bar or table. Good beer and good pizza are always a winning combination.
The coincidence of the day occurred during a brief letup of the rain on my wet ride into Marshall, Minnesota. A passing semi-truck coming the other way slowed and blew its horn. I heard a voice shout, “Bill! How are you doing?” As I stopped and wracked my brain, the driver emerged from the cab. The face was vaguely familiar. “Do you remember me?” he said. “It’s Dennis. We met in Shenandoah.” Then it all came into focus. On my way into Shenandoah, Iowa, two weeks earlier and 300 miles to the south, I had stopped to buy some personal items at Walmart. Dennis had noticed my bicycle and come over to investigate. He lived in Sioux City, Iowa, and was making a delivery for the pet food and pharmaceutical company for which he worked. He had been on several RAGBRAIs. This day he was picking up materials from a supplier in Granite Falls, Minnesota, about 25 miles north of Marshall.
The message is clear: be good to the folks you meet. You just might run into them again. You’re not a stranger for very long.
The appropriately named creek (the only one I have encountered so far on the trip) outside the rural hamlet of Clarkfield, Minnesota:
Posing with my friendly guide to Slayton, Minnesota, Amy Rucker:
The elegant carved wooden built-in breakfront in the formal dining room of the historic Dinehart-Holt House in Slayton, Minnesota:
Craft beers at the Brau Brothers Brewing Company in Marshall, Minnesota:
Co-owner John Skoglund in his comfortable brewing space at the relatively new (and very good) Talking Waters Brewing Company in Montevideo, Minnesota: