John AKA Mulligan – Biking from Wisconsin to North Dakota

June 25, 2012 · 0 comments

in Guest Posts, John Killam aka Mulligan

The body of the article is completely John’s. I have entered headlines and photos. Hope they don’t distract too much.

This post  is a continuation of a previous article by John AKA Mulligan. If you missed it and want to read it click here

Hi Everybody!

Leaving Albany, Minnesota

Leaving Albany, Minnesota on May 28 I rode on the Lake Wobegon Regional Trail which is a paved, 46-mile bicycle trail through a countryside that is dotted with several towns such as Freeport and Sauk Center with populations from a few hundred up to 4000. Several of the towns have beautiful churches with impressive architecture. In Sauk Center is the boyhood home and museum of the noted author Sinclair Lewis. The Lake Wobegon Trail leads directly onto the Central Lakes Trail, providing the bicyclist another 50 miles of pleasant riding up to Fergus Falls. Along these trails the bicyclist can tent-camp at several city-owned campgrounds for a fee of about $10 per night. At Delagoon Park, located along the bike trail in Fergus Falls, I watched preparations of baseball fields for the evening’s local baseball games.

Into North Dakota

On May 31 I rode the 25 miles from Fergus Falls to Wahpeton, North Dakota, crossing the Red River which flows northward into Canada. Failing to see the sign for the Kidder Recreation Area where I planned to camp, I was given directions by the friendly Chief of Police at the police station. He also told me where I could find a good grocery store. I purchased a meal in the deli and sat eating it on a bench in front of the store. I was approached by a middle-aged man who happened to be a student at the North Dakota College of Science. Our conversation revealed he was majoring in business management and culinary arts. He wondered why I would want to ride across North Dakota since there would be miles and miles of nothingness and no shade from the sun. I found his description to be somewhat correct, and you can additionally say that there would be strong headwinds to face in a westward ride. I tried to explain that the vast openness of the land was exactly what I wanted to experience. That’s what I did as I rode the miles between the towns of Lisbon, Litchville, Gackle, and Napoleon, averaging about forty miles a day on the way to the capital city of Bismarck. The land is taken up with farming. I had conversations with several people along the way. One day while I was stopped along the highway to drink some water, a farmer surprised me when he drove his pickup over a hill, opened a wire gate (gap) in the fence and continued out to the highway where I waited. He stopped to talk, asking about my trip, and as he drove away he called out “Enjoy the country.” In Litchville I talked with a friendly man of about sixty who came pushing a wheelbarrow across the town park where I was camped.  He had been a teacher of both instrumental and vocal music in the public schools for many years, teaching kids from K-12 because the schools are very small with so few children in this sparsely settled state. This man was also a farmer, now growing corn and wheat, though in the past he had also grown barley and flax. In some towns the only place to buy gasoline is at the local farmer’s cooperative which may also serve as a convenience store. There are also cows and horses in the area. On one occasion I was startled to realize that that a herd of galloping horses had caught up with my bike, running parallel to the highway. They were in two groups, with about 20-25 in each group. I don’t know why they were running, but they continued up over a hill and out of sight. When I got to the top of the hill I could see them standing about a quarter of a mile away.  I’ve noticed that cows are often spooked by a bicyclist. I suppose the sight of a person moving quickly, but quietly, can be disturbing since it seldom occurs, whereas as noisy vehicles, including motorcycles, cause no disruption at all.

Bixmark, ND

Entering Bismarck, ND

In Bismarck, the capital city with a population of 60,000, I had to buy a new tire and chain for the bike. Just west of downtown Bismarck I crossed the Missouri River on a bridge with a walkway separated from vehicular traffic. Soon after that I commenced to ride on Interstate 94.  Riding bicycles on interstate highways is legal in many western states. Riding on an Interstate is not as bad as one might expect. One positive feature of Interstate riding is that the hills are graded and thus are not nearly as steep as hills on other roads. Further, the shoulders are wide and traffic seldom crosses onto the shoulder. One must, however, be aware that wide loads such as trucks carrying mobile homes and large tractors can be a hazard. The drivers of trucks pulling these large loads are usually very careful to avoid bicyclists regardless of road type.

North Dakota Badlands

In the western part of North Dakota is the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and an area known as the Badlands. At the Painted Canyon Visitor Center on I-94 the traveler can view the eroded terrain of the Badlands. It appears to be a difficult and hostile environment, but I did observe a group four or five horsemen making their way along a trail far below my vantage point at the visitors center.

Montana – wide open spaces 

Montana has wide open spaces

What can I say about Montana? For starters, it is filled with that vast emptiness that I sought on this ride. In a car the tendency is to zip through this land as quickly as possible. On the bike I traveled slowly, battling headwinds and crosswinds most of the time, and some days there was rain, as in cold rain. First, the wind stops you almost dead in your tracks, then it blows your momentum-impeded bike completely off the shoulder of the road. Re-mounting, you find the wind blowing you across the rumble strip into the lane of traffic. On consecutive days I was offered rides to town in pickup trucks to get me out of the wind. I was committed to the bike. so I declined the rides. I rode, and often pushed (walked) the bike through Glendive (where I left the Interstate), up to Circle and finally to Wolf Point, Montana. The wind had beaten me so badly I decided to terminate my trip and take the Amtrak train back to Wisconsin from whence I had started this trip. When I went to the Amtrak station the ticket agent explained that a bicycle could not be loaded onto the train at that location, for baggage service was not available. I would have to either go east 100 miles to Williston, North Dakota, or west 200 miles to Havre, Montana, to put the bike on the train. I opted to continue biking west, telling the agent I would take the lemons and make lemonade. I decided at this point that I would continue riding, not only to Havre, but all the way to Glacier National Park which is another 160 miles beyond Havre. This meant what? Headwinds!

The psyche of a biker … 

What does a person think about while riding? Sometimes the thoughts are silly, admittedly. For instance, how does a bicyclist know he has a headwind? Well, if he is riding on flat ground, is cranking the pedals as fast and as hard as he can, can only get his speed up to three mph, and can’t spit over the handlebars, then he probably has a headwind. The chances are good.

More silliness: If a bicylist was going to categorize catastrophes (did I spell that correctly?) how would he do it? Here goes…

Level One (Minor) Catastrophe: Falling off your bike while being recorded on video in front of spectators

Level Two (Mid-Level) Catastrophe: Unexpectedly hitting a rumble strip while going downhill at 25 mph

Level Three (Major) Catastrophe: French-kissing a Mack truck

Anyone care to guess which I’ve experienced???

US Hwy 2 across northern Montana

There are many small towns along my route, which was U.S. 2 across northern Montana. This route is often referred to as the “High Line“. I won’t go into a lot of details except to say that the distances are great and many of the towns are just small communities with no services for motorists or bicyclists. I encountered a couple of severe storms with lightning and one with hail.  I got off the bike, squatted down with my head between my knees and with my helmet on to wait out these storms. Another day I arrived in a town at noon after riding 24 miles in the rain and saw the temperature on a bank sign that said it was 49 degrees. The wind chill must have been in the 30’s. I stayed in motels several nights towards the end of my journey. I spent one night in a dormitory room on the campus of Montana State University-Northern. There were about 10 cyclists staying at the dorm that night, most of them, wisely, were eastbound to take advantage of the tailwinds. In the town of Harlem I camped with two former thru-hikers of the Appalachian Trail, “Moman” of 2006 and “Garlic” who hiked, if I remember correctly, in 2008. Out on the highway one day I met one additional thru-hiker, a man named “Pilot” who hiked in 2011. In East Glacier Park I spent two nights at the Backpackers Inn. There I met A.T. thru-hikers “Fuzzy Monkey” of 2007, “Swan” of 2004, plus “Bayou” and Jason whose years I have forgotten.  Several of these were either already hiking the Continental Divide Trail, or were going to start in a couple of days.

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

Rather than trying to ride the bike through Glacier National Park I opted to take the easy route and take a Red Bus Tour. Several tours are offered of varying lengths and prices. I chose to take the Big Sky Circle Tour which takes eight hours and is 142 miles in length. This tour starts in East Glacier Park, goes through Marias Pass, then West Glacier Park, ascends up the Going-to-the-Sun Road to Logan Pass where it crosses the Continental Divide at 6646 feet, and then down into the St. Mary Valley, and returns to East Glacier Park.

Ride back on Amtrak

On June 22 I took the Amtrak train eastbound (would you believe it was against the wind? I could see waves on the ponds blowing to the west). As a train passenger I took lots of photos of towns I had seen on my ride west. From the train I took pictures of several of the places I’d seen from the bike but had not stopped to photograph. I was especially interested in seeing the area of  Williston, North Dakota where the exploration and drilling for oil has caused such an increase in traffic that Adventure Cycling’s Northern Tier Bike Route (which I rode through parts of Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana) has been re-routed to avoid the increased number of large trucks and other vehicles. I did see several pumping oil wells and signs of on-going construction.

I was interested to observe a program on the train in which Amtrak partners with the National Park Service to provide both educational information and entertainment to passengers. In this program trained volunteers are present in the observation (or lounge) car to point out and describe interesting features in the terrain, history of the local areas, and varied cultural phenomena. This is a very informal program and the usual card games, conversations, and other activities occur even as the volunteers talk with interested passengers.

Back in Wisconsin, gets to stretch his legs …  it was all good!

I arrived in Columbus, Wisconsin on June 23, about two hours late, after some 28 hours on the train. This morning, June 25 as I took a 30-minute walk trying to maintain some of the physical conditioning I’ve attained, I was very much aware that the emotions of the bike trip are still with me. I have a peaceful feeling I’d like to maintain forever…and maybe I will. If not, I’ll go out riding or hiking…somewhere. Happy Trails, and find your space each day!

John (aka Mulligan, A.T. ’95, ’06)

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