Cycling from the New Mexico Bootheel to Canada, Day Fifty-Three: Walker, Minnesota to Marcell, Minnesota

July 23rd, 2016: 89 miles. Total so far: 2,396 miles.

We broke camp and immediately returned to the Heartland Trail, having decided to postpone breakfast until we reached Cass Lake, about twenty miles away. The trail was initially pleasant this morning, but after a while we started encountering downed trees, and, worse, lots and lots of bugs. This section of the trail is next to a state highway with a wide, smooth shoulder, so after a while we abandoned the tree-lined, bug-infested trail and rode the rest of the way to Cass Lake on the highway, which was mostly bug-free, and carried little traffic this morning.

At Cass Lake (population 770) we stopped for a big, leisurely breakfast at a cafe, then visited a supermarket to resupply with snacks. Joy did the shopping while I talked to the young woman at the checkout, who was interested in our trip, and had lots of questions, the most amusing of which was “Are you on a special diet?”

We rode on the shoulder of US-2 for a few miles, then exited onto another bike path for a while. I made a disparaging comment about the green fishing shirt that Joy has worn for every day of riding on this tour, and which, despite multiple washings, never looks clean. “These stains tell a story!” she retorted.

After meeting a middle-aged couple who were doing a few days of the Mississippi River Trail on an odd-looking Bike Friday tandem, we exited the pavement and started on the first of a series of gravel and dirt forest roads that Joy had mapped out the other day. The road was lined with dense trees and vegetation, and the bugs immediately swarmed us. Worst of all were the deer flies, who buzzed around our heads. Amazingly, I was only bitten a few times, on my back, but the flies seemed attracted to Joy’s tight Lycra bike shorts, and she suffered several bites there.

I found that the flies could not keep up with me if I was riding at least 16.5 miles per hour, so for the next several miles I would race ahead of Joy, pedaling as hard as I could on the slow gravel, then wait for her to catch up as I stood next to the bike and killed as many flies as possible by clapping my hands. My kill ratio was low, but it was extremely satisfying when I succeeded in ending the life of one of those bastards.

The gravel and dirt forest roads were very, very low-traffic, and would have been perfect if not for the flies. The fast riding I was doing was starting to make me tired, but I continued to push as hard as I could, while neglecting to drink much from my water bottle, or eat anything. I was ignoring the warning signs that I’ve experienced on long, hard rides before, and after a snack stop in a slightly-less-buggy area, where I quickly ate a Hostess Zinger and nothing else, I began to feel sick.

We were now on a wider, better-maintained gravel road, after several miles of narrow dirt. The deer flies had mostly gone away. I went from 17 miles per hour to 12, then 8, then 6. Joy rode ahead of me, unaware that I was suffering from a classic case of “bonk.” At mile 52 for the day, I caught up, threw my bike down, and after some retching, lay down in the dusty gravel road. After fifteen minutes, I felt well enough to get back on the bike, and we slowly rode together for a while.

A guy in a pickup truck stopped and warned us of the storm that was coming, then scoffed when I told him our destination was Marcell. It was clear that he thought we would never make it there today. This, along with my recovery from the bonk, provided the motivation I needed to get my shit together, and soon we exited the gravel onto a quiet paved road. We stopped at the Cut Foot Sioux Visitor Center, where the National Forest employee working there was closing up early in anticipation of the storm. She took pity on me, however, and opened the place again for me to use the bathroom, fill our water bottles, and look at the live weather radar on their computer.

Joy thought that the storm might pass us, so we got back on the road. Several miles later, still worried about the storm, I stopped at one of the resorts to find that, as expected, they had no rooms available on a Saturday night. Later we tried again at another place, “Georgene’s Haven”, on Bowstring Lake, where we learned that they were full, and only rented cabins by the week in any case. We did have an enjoyable conversation with George, the owner of the place, who offered to let us camp, and use the pool, but we decided to keep going. Yesterday I had talked to the people at “Richie’s” in Marcell, who rented rooms above their bar. It didn’t sound very appealing, but having seen the results of the most recent storm, I didn’t want to camp tonight.

We finally reached Marcell (population 100), where we first stopped at the only store in town, then rode to Richie’s Marcell Inn, a nearly-empty bar. The only person working there, a young woman, gave us the key to our room, which was truly dismal. I’ve stayed in lots of cheap motels, but this was surely the worst. Dingy, musty, and lacking an air conditioner (!) By now the sky had cleared, it was obvious that the storm wasn’t going to happen, and I regretted getting the room, especially since the camping had been so enjoyable yesterday. Oh well.

We walked downstairs to the bar, where woman working there heated up a pizza for us, after she informed us that their cook was out sick. A group of college boys, on a fishing/drinking trip in the area, showed up, and provided some mild entertainment for us as they downed their drinks and ate their pizza. A creepy middled-aged guy had been hanging around, smoking and drinking, since we arrived, and he engaged me in some uncomfortable conversation for a while before I was able to escape. I’m sure he was harmless, but I got a very unpleasant vibe from him, especially once he asked how much our bikes cost. That question always raises alarms when I’m on a bike tour.

We retired to our room, the door of which was flimsy indeed, and went to bed after Joy covered up the inch-wide gap along the door with one of the threadbare towels. I felt bad for subjecting my wife to these terrible accommodations, and resolved to find something much better tomorrow.

Breaking camp.
One of the rare hearty breakfasts I’ve had on this tour.
One of the forest roads today. Pretty, but so, so buggy.
Towel in the bathroom at the motel in Marcell. Worst motel of the trip. Possibly the worst motel ever.