Roads Scholar

by Gary Charpentier

This has been an especially tough winter at Ton-Up Manor. Probably because it’s the first “real” winter we’ve had for several years. I haven’t even touched my motorcycles since mothballing them in the garage last November. Since then, I’ve lived what I call a Minnesota Half Life, or MHL. What is this MHL? It is the hellish existence endured for six months of the year by those of us who have no outdoor winter hobbies. Since I stopped riding in the winter, I’ve become trapped in my own humble abode, and I don’t like it one little bit!

I’ve survived this harsh, snowbound season by staying inside and upgrading to a cable modem for high-speed Internet access. To keep my reflexes sharp, I’ve joined an online gaming community who enjoy chasing each other around the virtual skies of World War II Europe and shooting each other with cannons and machine guns. Great sport, considering defeat only means you have to hit the reset button. . .

But the Internet also offers many options for planning the trips we want to take during the riding season to come. In 2004, I plan to take a more scholarly approach to my travels. Here in Minnesota, we have a famous highway which stretches from Thunder Bay, Ontario all the way south to the Gulf of Mexico, following the mighty Mississippi for most of its length. My recent travels have taken me over much of this beautiful old highway, and this year I plan to become better acquainted with it.

Often overshadowed by its more famous brother road, the Route 66 of American legend, Highway 61 has had its share of attention recently. Music aficionados on the trail of Blues history have traveled its full length, noting the birthplaces and stomping grounds of everyone from Bob Dylan to Robert Johnson. But most of their attention was spent on the stretch from Memphis on down through the Mississippi Delta. I want to spend some time with the road north of there, taking the time to talk to regular folks who live there, day in and day out, and who have seen the road in it’s glory days.

In my brief travels last year, I found a couple of places which piqued my journalistic curiosity, and may provide a jumping off point for new adventures in the spring. I found one such place last summer while enroute to ride the trails up north. In the little town of Beroun, there’s a bar and grill called Leudtke’s. Undistinguishable from many such places along the old highway, Leudtke’s used to be a general store and hotel, back before this little town was bypassed by Interstate 35. I was just passing through one Sunday evening and decided to stop in for dinner, but I ended up spending hours talking to owner and chief bottle washer Lyn Anderson. She broke out an old photo album and kept me spellbound with tales of the glory days of Highway 61, while husband Bryant grilled me a sublime cheeseburger in the kitchen. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my tape recorder with me, so I vowed to return sometime this spring and capture some of that first hand history for my readers.

Sandstone is another historic treasure on this old north-south artery. The Gaslight Tavern started life as a bank in the center of town. Bullet holes in the old pressed-tin ceiling are reputed to have originated during a robbery by the infamous James Gang. I questioned them at some length, and the locals all swear to it, but I think I will return sometime this coming season to spend some time at the local library and historical center.

These are only a couple of the subjects I want to cover in a season of investigative motorcycle tourism. Of course, everybody knows about the northern section of Highway 61, with Duluth and Lake Superior’s beautiful North Shore. If I can save up enough vacation time this summer, I plan to organize a small group and ride that route as well. I’m sure adequate lodging can be found in Grand Marais. I may even venture all the way to Thunder Bay if precious time permits.

I’m not really sure what attractions lie south of the Twin Cities on 61, but I can probably investigate that on any long weekend. Wisconsin 35 offers a lot of possibilities as well. I’ve ridden that any number of times as a jumping-off point into the alphabet roads, but I’ve never explored it as a destination in its own right. All those little river towns have a certain charm that one can appreciate best from the back of a motorcycle. Really, when you think about it, we live in one of the best places to ride in the entire country. It’s just a shame that our season is so short. Would it be any less precious to us if we could ride year `round?

These are the thoughts and dreams that sustain me as I sit here and watch the endless snow falling outside my window. The cold snap of last week, which reached temperatures of minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit, almost pushed me over the edge. Our little Beetle blew a water pump, which was driven by the timing belt, which broke and caused all 16 little valves to be crushed by rampaging pistons. We were stranded at home and depressed for an entire week while the VW technicians rebuilt Leibchen’s cylinder head. (Yes, we name our cars too.) If Punxsutawney Phil was right, we still have six more weeks of winter. I hope that’s all there is. My adventures on the Internet are rapidly growing stale.



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