Thursday, January 4, 2018

Wild hair: Cuyuna.

I don't generally spend time talking about the road part of roadtrips, I think because it's not that exciting to do, much less write about.

That said, when you drive ~5k miles in a short period of time, largely on ice or snow, it tends to leave a mark.  Roads were dry for all of Colorado and well into South Dakota.  We camped in a stubbly cornfield north of Valentine, noting the persistent wind and single-digit temps as we snuggled in for the night.

We woke to 6" of fresh that had drifted and settled in such a way that it looked like much more, and anxiously wondered if we'd need help getting out.  7000# of Clifford yawned, stretched, muttered "I got this" under his breath, then lumbered ponderously out to the highway.  

For the balance of South Dakota and deep into Minnesota we couldn't see much other than blowing and drifting snow.  White knuckle tunnel vision, just trying to keep it on the road.  For that matter we wouldn't see dry pavement for another 3000 miles.  Jeny settled in to the couch to get some work done, while I tuned in to a pile of podcasts and slowly unwound the miles.  I opted for a slightly longer route just to stay on interstate, because the surface roads were a vanilla frosted mess.

And then, somewhere near Bowlus I think, the snow stopped, the wind mellowed, the roads improved, and our speed climbed.  My secret hope -- that we'd make it to Lake Wobegon Lutheran in time for solstice services -- started to grow legs.

We did make it.  And although we missed most of the service, we arrived in time to share a plate of tuna hotdish while a visiting Pastor Ingqvist grappled with the subject of cultural anonymity in rural Minnesota.  I think there were veiled references to the Statue of the Unknown Norwegian, but I was distracted by the Jell-O mold and didn't catch the finer points.

And then, despite Jeny's plea to freshen up at the Curl Up and Dye, we hightailed it through Brainerd and up to Cuyuna.

The travel had been so slow, the roads so slick, that we didn't find our way to a trailhead until hours past dark, and we were both squishy headed from 9+ hours on the road.  Single digit temps greeted us along with blustery winds and snakes of spindrift crawling through the headlights.  I think Jeny would have happily agreed to skip the ride and head straight to the Sidetrack Tap to knock a few back, but damn -- we came here to ride and we'd heard so much about these trails!

We kept the heater cranking while donning riding kit, digging out (new) lights, warmer gloves, and additional layers.  Then we pulled bikes out, installed pogies, checked tire pressures, and generally fiddled so long that our fingers were wooden when we finally swung legs over saddles and rolled out.

Riding new-to-you trails in the dark isn't the ideal way to experience the big picture of the surrounding countryside.  That said, despite the fact that our vision was limited to a cone of light directly ahead, we could immediately sense that the trails here threaded through rolling hills studded with hardwoods, and along the edges of what the maps said were mines but that felt like lakes.  A big dark void with no trees and lots of wind could be lots of things, I guess.

The air was cold, the snow thin, our legs leaden.  "Be patient!" I kept telling myself.  I'm still not sure what I was waiting for, or wanting to happen.

I marveled at the fact that these trails -- relatively far from a big population center -- are groomed.  And narrow.  I envied the local folks that have this resource right out their door, such that they can get fresh air and a little exercise most days of the winter.  I was impressed by how many miles of trail were here, how many trailheads served them, and how many nearby communities could conveniently take advantage.  In all of those respects Cuyuna truly is a gem.

But the trails themselves just didn't inspire.  Imagine a trail network seemingly devoted to the theme of removing any/every obstacle that existed previously.  Not a rock, not a root, no undulations or off-cambers, all on very mellow grades.  Nothing caught you by surprise.

To better illustrate, consider that there was ~3 to 4" of snow on the ground, total, and there was corduroy.  In order to till 3" of snow into corduroy you effectively need verrrrrrrrry smooth, uniform dirt underneath.  Not unlike a sidewalk.  In fact very much like a sidewalk.

I think the root problem here was probably my expectations.  When a place has the words Mountain Bike Trail, capitalized, as part of it's name, I take that to mean there will be mountain bike trails present on the premises.  Virtually paved sidewalks through the woods don't meet that definition.  Either I am too literal of a person, or the definition of those three little words has been changed.

Minnesota is a natural wonderland of soil, roots, rocks, bogs, creeks, and lakes.  One would not necessarily conclude that if one only ever got to experience it through the lens of Cuyuna.

We were stoked to ride, to burn calories, to stretch legs and elevate heart rates.  We loved our new lights -- so powerful, so easy to install, so compact.  Jeny thanked me profusely for her new Powder Pony Pants, and I was stoked on my pair too.  Only much later -- while driving toward Duluth -- did either of us think to mention the bikes.  We hadn't really noticed them -- in any direction -- which is always a compliment, but might actually point more toward the unremarkable trails and manicured snow conditions.

This is already getting long.  And our next ride -- The Underdown -- was sorta short.  I'm gonna cut this one off here, but I'll go deep on gear geeking in the next post.

Thanks for checkin' in.


  1. Subscribed. Interested to read your MQT thoughts. Woulda been happy to put you two up for the night here!

  2. Have been up to Cuyuna once. Says 20 of the 40 miles of trails are groomed for winter fat biking. I did not make it back into the chunky stuff when I was there but as I understand it, there are "real" mountain biking trails in there. I expect the 20 miles groomed is as you found, the fast and flowing stuff that is more inclusive but not as exciting for the experienced mountain biker. Hope you enjoyed Duluth. The Piedmont trail area in Duluth is by far my favorite mountain biking in the state.

    1. We were pretty sure we missed out on the "good stuff", largely because it's hard to groom tech trail. May it ever be so!