Archive for March, 2007

Spring Cleaning

Friday, March 30th, 2007

Weather: 45° (7°C) Showers and Thunderstorms
Road Conditions: Wet, with standing water in places.

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Frogwing and scooter on the old Main Street of Sandstone, Minnesota.

The rains came in the wee hours this morning. There was no flash of lightning, nor crash of thunder to announce their arrival. The clouds kind of crept in on the westerly wind and began rinsing us down quite gently. It was as if Mother Nature had decided to let us sleep, while she begins her Spring Cleaning ritual this year. She is not always so accomodating…

When this storm passes, it will be riding season for real. Unless it snows, of course. This IS Minnesota, after all.

Nope, I’m not even going to entertain that possibility. MNDOT, put the salt truck drivers into street sweepers, and let’s get this show on the road! (Pun intended.)

It is in the spirit of Spring Cleaning that I offer the photos here on this page. These are leftovers from our long ramble last weekend. Up top we have a shot of the old main street through Sandstone, Minnesota.

The old bank building on the left is now called “The Gaslight Tavern”, and it is a very classy joint indeed. I have spoken to the owners, and plan to do a review on the place, as soon as they open their steakhouse in the building on the right of the photo, later this year. Maybe I’ll get a small group together for the ride, and make it an Event.

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Frogwing calls in Close Air Support!

The second photo was taken at an airfield just outside of Moose Lake. For the purposes of RHR, I think it calls to mind my desire to be a bit more tactical in my ride planning during the coming months. This is becoming more of a challenge as traffic congestion increases on the freeways, and frustrated drivers resort to technical trickery to sniff out all the good sidestreets.

I want to get out beyond this I-94 loop which surrounds and defines our Twin Cities. The trouble is, there’s a whole layer of bedroom communities that have to be penetrated in order to get out to the Good Roads. That means dealing with horrible traffic in all directions.

MNDOT and the local governments do nothing to help this situation, but that is going to be a topic for an upcoming post. Suffice to say that I am going to spend more time over the maps this year, so I can spend less time in traffic.

The rain will continue throughout the weekend, if what I see on the radar is true. Time to put on my General’s hat and cook up some new Ramble Plans.

Ramble Plan Hotel: A High-Spot in the Swamp

Sunday, March 25th, 2007

Weather: 58°F (14°C) when we left, under partly-cloudy skies.
Road Conditions: Getting better every day…

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Meet “Spike”. He welcomes visitors and keeps the Evil Spirits away.
(Click on the image for another perspective.)

Existential Gravity weighs most heavily on Fridays, especially during early Springtime in Minnesota. Ramble Plan Hotel requires me to take Friday off, or at least half of Friday, because it involves a good bit of riding and an overnight stay. Still, it qualifies as a Ramble Plan, because I am technically riding home from work. I’m just taking a very roundabout way to get there.

Last Friday, I practically vibrated with anticipation as I sat there in my cubicle. I was finding it very hard to concentrate on the tasks at hand, while my faithful Frogwing waited for me out in the parking lot. The sun was shining, our saddlebags were packed, and the road was calling. What the hell was I waiting for?

Eleven o’clock.

That’s a half-day, and I had promised the boss I would stay until I had everything done for the week. The unchanging digits on the clock seemed to mock me, from the lower right corner of my computer screen. I took a piece of electrical tape out of my drawer, and covered them up so I wouldn’t lose my mind. Then I attacked my workload with a vengeance.

At 11:01 a.m., Frogwing and I were roaring out of the parking lot towards home. I had to write the last blog entry, announcing the Vespa deal, and run a few errands before we could head out on Highway 61 towards the North Country and McGregor, Minnesota.

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Winter clings tenaciously to Minnesota waterways.

Longtime readers will recall that my father has a rustic retreat up there, a trailer situated on a high-spot in the swamp. This is where he spends the bulk of his retirement, away from the “The Jungle”, as he refers to our fair Twin Cities. Last year, finally, he had electricity run back into the property from the lines strung along the road. Now he has all the modern conveniences… and I suppose that’s a good thing, if he’s going to spend so much time up there.

Life down here moves too fast for his tastes nowadays, and I can’t say as I blame him. He’s gathering sap for maple syrup, this time of year, and it’s a lonely business. My visit is a good excuse for building a campfire, and breaking out the ceremonial whiskey. We always find plenty to talk about, and the fire (along with the firewater) keeps the cold night air at bay.

Following the route of Old Highway 61, we rode through many small towns that were bypassed by progress, when Interstate 35 was completed. These days, U.S. Route 61 officially ends at Wyoming, Minnesota. The northern section was decommissioned in 1991.

Still, you can follow the old highway by visual cues, through the dogleg around Hinckley, along Pine County Highway 61, and stay with the same stretch of two-lane all the way to Duluth if you want. It’s a beautiful ride, any time of year, and so much better than the Interstate.

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During the “Golden Hour”, on Old Highway 61, near Willow River, MN.

Frogwing and I turned westward, just past Moose Lake, and headed over to Minnesota Highway 65 towards McGregor. We didn’t take the time to poke around the Automba area, like we did last year. Having only a half day to ramble, I wanted to get there before the sun went down.

Can somebody out there verify this phenomenon I’ve come to refer to as the “Minivan Commando”?

This will usually be a guy about my age who, upon seeing me happily riding along on one of my motorbikes, gets all pissed-off and aggressive, needing to pass me at all costs, and then cut me off. The Dodge Grand Caravan seems to be his weapon of choice, and some of those things have serious horsepower! I don’t know what kind of engine they use, but it’s kind of like a stealth hot-rod for the frustrated family man.

Anyway, at the intersection of 27 and 65, we were all set to turn right. Way down the road, I saw this minivan approaching. We had plenty of room, and Frogwing accelerates smartly, so we made the turn and I got on the gas. The speed limit here is 55 mph, and soon we were doing 60.

This just wasn’t enough for Mr. Minivan Commando. He roared up on our back tire, and pulled out to pass. My inner speed demon took over, and I whacked Frogwing’s throttle wide-open.

We stayed even up to 80, and the… I still can’t believe this… the freakin’ family truckster pulled away from us like we were dragging an anchor! Immediately the scene from a popular TV commercial popped into my head: “That thang gotta Hemi?”

Well, I threw him a half-assed salute with my left hand, and watched him dissappear over the horizon. Frogwing is not cut out for speed contests on the open road, and I have made a commitment to try and curb my enthusiasm for such antics this year. We throttled back to sixty, and rode on into town.

Dad had been waiting for us all afternoon. He has all the time in the world, these days, but when he heard I was coming up, he got a little impatient, waiting. That’s not supposed to happen when you are retired. He scolded me accordingly, when I finally showed up just before sundown.

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Fire in the swamp! Another night at Dad’s rustic retreat.

He fixed a simple dinner while I built the campfire you see in the image above. Once the sun had set, and we were comfortably situated around the fire, at one point I gazed straight up into the Northern Minnesota sky. I marvelled at how bright the moon and stars are up here, beyond the haze of the city lights.

We talked long into the night, and I fell asleep instantly as soon as my head hit the pillow on the couch in his trailer.

I awoke, well-rested, just before dawn. Time passes at a normal pace up here, away from the grinding oppression of our Existential Gravity.

Soon the sky began to brighten on the southeastern horizon. I walked outside and watched the sun rise with a cup of Dad’s strong coffee warming my hands. Yes, with electricity comes the wonder of an automatic coffee maker.

The weather forecast predicted another beautiful day, until early evening. Then strong thunderstorms were supposed to invade the area. So I decided to ride home on Saturday, and spend Sunday writing and hanging out with my girls. Frogwing and I beat the storms home by half an hour, riding the hated Interstate part of the way.

We stopped to take a couple of photos, which I will share at a later date. But now it’s time for me to go downstairs and initiate our Family Movie and Pizza Night. I’m surely not the crazy cat I used to be, but you know what? Life is good anyway.

Mission Creep

Friday, March 23rd, 2007

Weather: 51°F (10°C) Under partly cloudy skies
Road Conditions: Dry with salt and sand in places.

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Frogwing loiters in an unfamiliar environment: Saint Anthony Main.

When I started Rush Hour Rambling, I had intended to explore the urban commuter routes, inside the Interstate 94 Loop, on an economical modern scooter. For the longer range rambles, I was going to rely on my ever-faithful Kawasaki KLR-650, Frogwing.

This worked beautifully, last year.

However, since Scarlet O’Baron decided to give herself totally to the study of advanced corrosion in mobile metals, I have been left without that convenient, twist-n-go commuter option. So Frogwing has been pressed into service as my urban transport as well; a little bit of mission creep that doesn’t bother either of us too much. Especially in view of this latest bit of news…

The Announcement

Cooper Katz, the ad agency for Piaggio/Vespa, have agreed to lend me a Vespa 250 GTS i.e. for the riding season this year. I phoned Kathleen at C.K. in New York this morning, and she is going to get the ball rolling on this next week. Our local Vespa dealer, Motoprimo in Minneapolis, will handle delivery.

Not only will I be testing the scooter itself, but this will be a Ride to Work(tm) evaluation of the “Vespanomics” concept. I will be evaluating this scooter for practical suitability as an everyday commuter, as well as taking it on a few longer rambles to see how it fares in the touring role. Mileage and maintenance will be recorded, and I hope to be able to give my readers a comprehensive picture of what Vespa ownership is all about.

The Vespa GTS looks like this:

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Image of Red Vespa 250 GTS i.e. from the “Bikez” website.

I have been drooling over this scooter ever since I first became aware of it. In my humble opinion, it looks the way a scooter ought to look. Everything I’ve read and heard about it tells me that I am in for a real treat, and I’ve got to tell you, I can’t wait.

Now, back to Frogwing and our urban adventures…

I chose a modified Ramble Plan Bravo, formerly known as the “Como Cruise”, for our first urban commute of the season. Later in the year, when the roads are cleaner and the weather warm, we will range farther afield, but last night we explored Saint Anthony Main across the river from downtown Minneapolis.

This is a popular destination for upscale dining, as they have several very nice restaurants in the beautiful brick buildings lining the cobblestone street. I’ve toyed with the notion of reviewing one of these places, but the prices scare me away. There’s a Japanese restaurant called Kikugawa, a Euro-style place called Sophia, and several other fancy bistros along this scenic stretch of road.

Unfortunately, they are doing some major construction right now, and the noise level was horrendous, so Frogwing and I didn’t linger for long.

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Frogwing and his shadow, lounging on the cobblestones.

We stopped at the Sportsman, where I had that wonderful chili last year, and I talked with Lindsay for awhile, catching up. Then we headed on down the road towards home. Amy is feeling better these days, and she finally decided to try cooking again, so there was no dinner stop along the way.

Early Spring in Minnesota is not very picturesque. The foliage is brown, the trees still bare, and we have these piles of dirty snow scattered about everywhere. Still, it sure feels good to be back on two wheels.

Today, as soon as I finish typing this, Frogwing and I are headed up north to my Dad’s trailer in the swamp near McGregor. I should have some new stories to tell when I get back on Sunday. This is shaping up to be a wonderful riding season.