Monday, October 3, 2011

Grand Forks, North Dakota

Friends: For the last 800 miles across Montana and North Dakota towards the end of each day as the sun approaches the horizon behind me my shadow begins to grow larger and larger in front of me and my legs spin a little bit easier with a cycling companion to draft.

As the sun dips lower and lower, my shadow creeps further and further ahead of me, eventually even outdistancing 18-wheelers as they roar by. But I am determined to not let it drop me. Sticking in its slipstream keeps my pace up and makes the end of the day cycling all the more glorious. No matter how far ahead of me he gets, I can still reach out and give him a pat on the back, letting him know I am doing just fine and to not let up.

The scenery all about takes on a golden luster. Its lines are drawn all the more sharper by the low-lying sun. When the pebbles on the road start having shadows I know I am about to lose my drafting partner. I ease up a bit in anticipation of being on my own and having to expend a little more energy.

When he is finally spent and falls off, disappearing at about the same time as the sun does, he has given me such a good lead out and respite for quite a few miles, I can continue the pace he has set, riding triumphantly and joyously for another 15 or 20 minutes until the light is nearly all snuffed out, reluctantly ending Another Great Day on the Bike. I'll pass up spots that would be ideal for camping, enjoying the riding too much to quit. Its just like with the messengering, always wanting to make one more delivery and then another before having to end my day on the bike.

Last night I camped ten miles from Grand Forks in a patch of forest that adjoined someone's property. I was lucky they didn't have a super sleuth of a dog. It was my fourth Sunday in my tent since leaving Telluride and the first one where I could pick up a sports station, thanks to the nearby metropolis of 80,000 people, including East Grand Forks in Minnesota on the other side of the Red River. For once I didn't have to wait until Monday to find out how the Bears fared. The night before I listened to the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota hockey team in an exhibition game against a Canadian team. College hockey is the most popular sport in these parts.

And then today I cycled through the University of North Dakota campus in search of its Carnegie library. It was on the fringe of the 14,000 student campus, a block behind the new megalith of a library. Though the old Carnegie still has "Library Building" chiseled into its front facade, it is now known as Carnegie Hall and arranges campus visits and enrollment. Its cornerstone was engraved with 1907.  The Carnegie Public Library in down town Grand Forks was torn down nearly 40 years ago, though its metal fence and limestone facade with "Library" etched into it have been relocated to the new large library on the outskirts of this now sprawling city. A large Air Force base with a population of 5,000 contributes to the town's size and economy. I passed it along Highway 2 last night. A sign warned of low-flying air craft.

I began yesterday too with a Carnegie visit in Devil's Lake, a library that is now in private ownership, "An Elegant Affair," hosting and arranging weddings and events. Its phone number is 66 BRIDE. It was another mini-Taj Mahal of a building with a plaque besides its entry, as should all Carnegies, stating, "This property has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior." "Carnegie Library" is chiseled into its front facade. Just below, above the double door entryway are the numbers 19 on one side and 09 on the other. The modern new Lake Region Public Library is around the corner and a huge Masonic Temple, also available for weddings, is across the street.

The first of the four Carnegies I paid homage to in North Dakota in Minot was the first I've encountered in these travels that had pillars out front, a pair, a more common accoutrement in the eastern Carnegies. It was now a community center holding local events. "Public Library" was chiseled on its front facade with 1911 just below. It was nearly six p.m., but there was no sign on its saying closed or with its hours. I tried the door. It was unlocked, though no one was in the building. There were two large rooms, one with long banquet tables and chairs and the other with chairs lining the wall, ready for the weekend square dance. When I exited I noticed a small sign on the door saying, "Just close the door, don't try to lock it."

When I returned to my bike a white-haired gentleman was awaiting me. He was another ultra-friendly North Dakotan. "Would you like a piece of cake?" he asked. " I just left the Catholic church buffet and they sent me home with three pieces, more than I need." I gladly accepted. Then he unwrapped another plate with tin foil around it and said, "Have some garlic bread too if you'd like."

I heartily thanked him. He said, "I'd stay and talk, but my wife just left me and I've got to meet a friend who is picking me up to go to his house."

The next day, about halfway across the state I was welcomed to the town of Rugby by a sign stating it was the geographical middle of North America. Even though it was mid-day on a Saturday the visitor center across from the obelisk marking the spot right on the highway was closed and I couldn't ask when and by whom it had been established that it was the center. Several towns in France lay claim to being its center, each using different criteria. I've been to them all and they each have a very official looking marker.

Rugby's librarian couldn't answer the question either nor could the town's two local cyclists. One entered the library just as it was closing at two p.m., drawn by my bike out front. He was riding a quality Peugeot, though he said it wasn't his best bike. He also had a Colnago. He was a former racer and a former hippie. When he learned I had passed though Missoula, he said he was very interested in moving there and wondered how easy it was to find pot there. That I couldn't tell him. He asked if I needed a shower. I don't know if he could tell I was in need of one or if he just understood that is something that touring cyclists are on the alert for. He said the County Fairgrounds had free hot showers. He had camped there for three months until recently. I eagerly accepted his offer to lead the way.

As we talked outside the library the town's other cyclist passed by, a guy he had mentioned who had eight bikes and had done a bit of touring himself and was a member of Warm Showers offering free lodging to touring cyclists. Like his friend, he spoke with an authentic North Dakota accent, as thick as that of William H. Macey in the Coen brother's movie "Fargo" from 1996. Even if these guys weren't such interesting characters, it would have been highly entertaining just listening to them talk.

The touring cyclist had most recently spent a month in New Zealand and before that Iceland. He admitted that he, like every other cyclist I met while in Iceland except one, a Japanese fellow who was on too tight of a budget, had buckled to the winds at one point and resorted to the bus that circles the Ring Road around the island.

We talked for nearly an hour. I had to restrain myself from sharing too much, wanting to learn of his experiences and hear him speak the lingo. When the ex-hippie and I finally set off for the shower, he asked his friend, "What are you doing tomorrow?"

"There's a gun show in Bismark I was thinking of going to."

"If you decide to go, let me know."

Later, George

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