Archive for August, 2007

Rose Goes Rustic

Monday, August 13th, 2007

Weather: Warm and partly cloudy… threatening rain.
Road Conditions: Dry and smooth.

Tractor-size Shredded Wheat?

Old Highway 61 is one of my favorite stretches of road. After a long week at work, there’s nothing better than getting out on that two-lane asphalt, and riding through the countryside on our way to Dad’s little trailer near McGregor, Minnesota.

But this trip was going to be different. This time, I wasn’t astride my big old KLR “Frogwing”. He was sitting this trip out in the garage, while I tested Vespa Rose on the long haul. We had just completed her 3,000-mile service, and I wanted to see how she handled the long, open roads heading north.

Old 61 is posted at 55 mph for most of its length. That drops to 30 through the little towns along the way. Most of this venerable highway is in great shape, even though it is not the thoroughfare it once was. I35 has supplanted it as the main route heading north, and we no longer get federal funds to maintain Highway 61. Counties have taken it over, but they all seem to be doing well by the old road.

That’s important on a scooter, because a bad pothole can cause some real damage, or even put you into the ditch.

Rednecks are not just a Southern phenomenon…

Then we have volunteers who participate in the “Adopt a Highway” program. These nice folks pick up trash alongside the road and keep the shoulders clear of debris. I enjoy the sometimes clever and creative names people come up with for their groups. After I photographed the sign above, we passed another one that said “Biker Buddies of Booger”. I didn’t stop for that one, since I already had this one in the can.

I wondered briefly who this “Booger” was. I’m thinking he is probably deceased, although he has found a strange brand of immortality as long as his friends continue to take care of their stretch of Highway 61.

The weather forecast for the day included a large storm system which was moving across the state in our direction of travel. As we approached North Branch, I could see the dark clouds and streaks of rain on the horizon ahead.

Turning left on Highway 95, we left our old friend 61 for lighter skies to the west, and another nice road: Highway 47. That one goes past Mille Lacs lake, and I have had many a good ride along that stretch of pavement.

This is why we ride North… Rose and Dad `round the campfire.

We stopped to visit my friend Jack, of “Jack’s on Mille Lacs” fame. I even let him take Rose for a little ride.

Jack is a hard-core rock-n-roller, with his long greying locks cut in a classic mullet. He rides without a helmet, and without apologies, eyes bared to the wind at 70 miles per hour.

I was a little nervous… but a man has to learn to trust his friends.

From Highway 47 we picked up 210 and rode the back way into Dad’s place, west of McGregor. He was waiting for us, and had a nice pile of firewood ready so I could build one of my pyrotechnic masterpieces.

He made dinner, while I stacked the logs. Then followed one of our traditional council fire sessions, where we dissected exactly what is wrong with the world, and figured out how to fix it, if only everyone else would listen to us.

Good Morning, Rose!

We stayed up late, but still woke up with the sun. The clean air and silence of the swamp make for good sleeping. Dad had the coffee ready by the time I came in from taking the photo above. Then he made blueberry pancakes, with sausage on the side, but I didn’t eat my usual tall stack.

This is because I was going to eat another breakfast only a few miles down the road.

You see, last time I was up to visit, I stopped by a place near McGregor called “Jack’s Shack”. Not to be confused with that other Jack’s, this place has been a local institution since at least the 1930s. It has had mixed fortunes, over the years, including a decade or so when it was closed and beginning to fall apart.

The place has changed hands a number of times, but now it belongs to a wonderful couple named Brian and Traci Neigum.

Jack’s Shack… now under new management.

Last time I stopped by, they had just opened. Brian was mopping the floor, and both of them were bursting with pride in their new enterprise. I had promised them that I would review the place, next time I came up. When I arrived on Sunday morning, they greeted me like an old friend.

Business has been good, Brian tells me. I’m sure the locals are happy to have Jack’s back up and running, and the tourist trade at that location should be pretty brisk.

The “Rice River Country Platter” is one heck of a breakfast!

As you can see from the photo, Traci is an incredible cook. Her choice of ingredients, combination of flavors and textures, and even the presentation are top-shelf. It pains me to tell you that I couldn’t finish this platter. Believe me, I tried.

How does a guy eat food like that, and stay as skinny as Brian? Just another one of life’s little mysteries, I guess…

“Jack’s Shack” is now in the capable hands of Brian and Traci Neigum.

Back on the road, Rose and I headed all the way home on Highway 61. We stopped here and there to poke around, taking photos and visiting some of the friends I’ve made over the years on this route.

It was a beautiful day, and Rose found a sweet spot at about 60 miles per hour. She turns just over 6,000 rpms at that speed, which may sound like a lot. But that little Italian powerplant just purrs right along, and the ride is Cadillac-smooth.

After my double breakfast, I didn’t eat another thing all day. By the time we arrived home, I was ready for bed. We put on just over 360 miles for the weekend, which isn’t exactly Iron Butt stuff. Racking up big miles for bragging rights has never been my thing, anyway.

Next time I go north to visit Dad, I’m going to have a dilemma on my hands. Rose handled this trip magnificently, and it is going to be hard to choose between her and Frogwing for future road trips. I guess it will all depend on whether I want to get dirty or not.

Ramble Plan Oscar: Making Lemonade…

Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

Weather: Hot, humid and hazy.
Road Conditions: Still horrendous, due to the bridge collapse.

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Click on the image to see the best scooter parking spot ever.

“Conchscooter” said a very interesting thing in the Comments section the other day, regarding the 35W bridge collapse, and the effect it has had on our lives here in the Twin Cities, and my own commute in particular…

I have no doubt you will squeeze lemonade from this lemon handed to you by an uncaring Fate, and set us a fine example of how to cope with chaos. I look forward to your words.

Wow, what a burden to lay on a guy!

Not only am I supposed to make something positive come out of this, but I have to set an example too? Why can’t I wallow in self-pity and aggression like most of the other “motorists” out there?

But seriously, I have been working very hard at trying to find a reasonable “utility” route for my everyday commute. Work threw me a curveball by transferring me temporarily to our production facility, to “do some time in the trenches”, as it were. Their timing, as always, was impeccable…

This place is five miles further along the same roads, out on the edge of the suburban sprawl known as Plymouth. My commute is now at least 31 miles, each way. The fact that I have to use city streets to get there, now that the freeways are screwed, makes this much more interesting.

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Showing No Fear… Rose poses beneath the bridges of Saint Paul.

After battling the traffic rather aggressively on Frogwing for the first few days following the disaster, I decided that a different approach was needed.

Vespa Rose was fresh from her 3,000 mile service, and was wearing a new Kenda 413 sport tire on her rear wheel. It was time to get out there and see if we couldn’t scoot around all this trouble and strife.

Instead of confrontation and brute force, we would try a little finesse and false humility to get us through these bridge-collapse traffic hassles. Much easier on the blood pressure, and SO much better for my “driving record”.

Ramble Plan Oscar is a to-from route, much the same as Alpha was. Since I have photographed the ride home here, that is what I will describe.

Keep in mind that these roads are much more deserted in the early morning, and the going much easier. The ride TO work takes just over an hour, while the ride home takes almost three, with the necessary stops along the way.

These are the sacrifices I make, just to keep you all entertained…

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More priviledged parking, in front of Nye’s Polonaise. Traffic is envious…

Esquire Magazine did an exhaustive search last year, to find what they consider to be “The Best Bar in America”. Wouldn’t you know it? They picked a place that was right in the middle of Ramble Plan Oscar!

Nye’s serves food as well, and of course they offer all the usual soft drinks. This is the perfect refuge in which to wait for traffic to die down, if you happen along during gridlock.

The only problem for me was parking Rose out-of-sight around the corner. I couldn’t do it, for worrying that she might be vandalized by some of the characters who prowl this part of town.

So I asked one of the owners if I could park in that convenient little nook, next to the sidewalk at the front of the building. “A Vespa? One of those little scooters? No problem!”

Things would have been different had I been riding Frogwing. There’s just something about the sight of a scooter parked on the sidewalk, snuggled up close to a building, that just looks right

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A moment of silence, outside the Saint Paul Cathedral.

After our Nye’s interlude, Rose and I proceded along Hennepin to 15th Ave SE, where we turned right and headed for Como. This is the main thoroughfare featured on Ramble Plan Bravo, and it looks like a promising alternative to my preferred parkway routes.

Como isn’t as heavily travelled as some of the other main roads through the cities, like University and Lake Street/Marshall Avenue. Of course, it is also only one-lane in each direction for much of its length.

But on a scooter, you can make that one lane into one-and-a-half, when you need to… and the funny thing is, people don’t get very mad at you for doing so.

I respond to the honk of a horn with a wave, and that defuses the situation. “Hey, I’m just a clueless dummy on a cute little scooter. Sorry I got in your way.” (But I’m STILL ahead of you!)

This kind of subterfuge feels much better than the Urban Guerrilla tactics I am compelled to deploy on big, gnarly Frogwing. “Motorists” are too busy admiring Rose’s graceful lines to memorize her license plate number…

Eventually, we made our way into Saint Paul. We rambled up one street, and down another, stopping to take that photo of the Cathedral up above there. As a lapsed Catholic, I can never pass that place without at least stopping for a look. Then The Guilt takes hold, and I have to leave. Funny, how that works.

The River Boat Grill. Best restaurant location in the Twin Cities.

We crossed the Mississippi River on the Wabasha Bridge. Down below is Harriet Island, and a place that I have wanted to go to ever since I first heard of it.

The River Boat Grill is one of those places that you read about in the paper, and make a mental note to visit at the first opportunity.

But then daily life intrudes, and the place is just not on your regular circuit of travel.

Well, the 35W bridge-collapse has upset my regular circuit just enough that I remembered to take the left turn onto Water Street, which led us through a series of curves, under looming bridges, to the parking lot above the Showboat Landing on Harriet Island.

There, I parked Rose in a sea of cages, and wandered down the boardwalk/dock in search of The River Boat Grill.

You enter a gangway on the stern of the boat, and the sign directs you up to the second deck. There, under the roof provided by the third deck, are typical weatherproof tables and chairs set up in rows. The bar is forward, as is the kitchen, restrooms, and the walk along the starboard rail which yields such a gorgeous view of Saint Paul from The River.

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The River Boat Burger with fries: a River Boat specialty.

My waiter, Ron, found me standing at the port rail, gazing anxiously up at the parking lot. I was looking for Rose, hoping I could keep an eye on her from one of the empty tables. When he asked, I told him what was troubling me, and he said “Oh, people park scooters and little bikes down here all the time. Go ahead and bring it on down!”

Music to my ears. (See the photo at the top of the page.)

Once seated, since he had been so accomodating, I asked for his recommendation for dinner. Without hesitation, he said, “River Boat Burger.” The menu listed it as: Bleu cheese and chopped onions blended into a ground beef patty, served with pickles and horseradish cheese on the side.

That was good enough for me.

So… did I fulfill my mission? Did I find a positive side to all the horrific events of the past couple weeks? No. I don’t think there really is one. This was a disaster, pure and simple.

You deal with it. You cope. My initial reaction was aggressive, and in hindsight I think that was wrong. The way I’m dealing with it now, riding Rose, seems much more copacetic.

The Horrible Death of Ramble Plan Alpha

Friday, August 3rd, 2007

Weather: Sunny skies, but gloomy outlook.
Road Conditions: FUBAR (Look it up…)

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This is what They do when they don’t know what else to do.

By now, everyone who reads this blog must know about the horrible tragedy of the I-35W bridge collapse. It has been on the national news almost 24/7 for the past couple of days.

Before I go any further, let me extend my heartfelt sympathy to the families of those who lost loved ones, or are anxiously visiting hospital patients, or are still waiting for news on somebody who is suddenly missing from their lives.

This was a horrible disaster, and it happened right here in my home town. So I have got to temper my frustration at losing my favorite route to and from work with an understanding that others have lost so much more.

Ramble Plan Alpha was my lifeline. It was the calm, slow route along beautiful parkways, down by the Mississippi River, that made commuting on a scooter during the Winter possible. The scenery was gorgeous, and the traffic moved along at speeds between 25 and 35 miles per hour.

It took me exactly one hour, plus or minus a couple of minutes, to complete Ramble Plan Alpha, almost every single time. On evenings when work had taken everything I had to give for that day, I welcomed the tranquility that this green corridor offered on the ride home.

But last Wednesday, something horrible happened. Now West River Road is buried under tons of concrete and steel, and the remains of who knows how many vehicles… and worse.

The City of Minneapolis put out a map of road closures, in response to this disaster. I faithfully downloaded it, and printed it out, to place under the clear cover of Frogwing’s tankbag. In these days of uncertain road conditions, I have elected to rely on the multi-surface capability of my old faithful companion to get me to and from work.

But that map doesn’t take into account the whims of civic so-called “leaders”, and their desire to keep any unauthorized imagery from getting into the public domain. Roads are blocked off far from the published locations, to block any possible sightlines to the collapsed bridge, and the activities going on there. Only those with corporate press-passes are allowed access, because their imagery will be carefully scrutinized before publication.

I’m seeing badges everywhere. Police reserves, and even retirees are being imported from the surrounding suburbs, to man roadblocks and deny access to as many people as possible. I’m sure I could get there on foot, or even on a mountain bike, but there is no way to infiltrate the Authorities’ battle lines on any kind of motor vehicle.

So tonight, Frogwing and I were funnelled into the worst traffic we have ever seen. Hennepin Avenue was an absolute nightmare. We had to resort to guerrilla tactics in order to get anywhere. Let’s put it this way: we only took to the sidewalks when there were no pedestrians present.

To that guy in the big 4×4 diesel pickup truck who tried to run me over… Be glad it was only your mirror I amputated! I’m on a motorbike, asshole! I’m GOING to get ahead of you! GET USED TO IT!!!

(Note to Ride to Work(tm): This might be good bumper-sticker material. Oh, motorbikes don’t have bumpers… never mind.)

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This is a sample of the scenery on our new main route home from work.

So, we are now defaulting to a modified Ramble Plan Bravo. This takes us past The Sportsman’s Pub, home of that wonderful chili that I reviewed last year.

The streets we use to get there are choked with the traffic overflow from I-35W, but so far I haven’t been able to figure out a way around them. It’s going to require an extra measure of patience, creativity, and maybe outright lawlessness to make my job worth the commute in the future.

I mean, we can’t move. Housing near work is WAY higher than where I live right now. Our house is not ready for sale anyway, and it would take several years of hated labor on my part to bring it up to spec.

So, I am going to have to discover new Ramble Plans to get around all this craziness. When the Repugnican National Convention comes here next year, I’m gonna have to leave. There’s no way I will grant Right of Way to Rich Bastards in Limosines… and they will have plenty of armed mercenaries willing to take me down.

Better to choose my battles….