October 4, 2016 - Guest blogger Robert Downes is the author of Biking Northern Michigan and two books about backpacking around the world: Planet Backpacker and Travels With My Wife. www.planetbackpacker.net.
Crossing the state line from North Dakota to Minnesota while on my cross-country bike tour, I hoped to see a moose or two in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” Instead, I rolled into the hinterlands of the rural drug epidemic.
Soon after crossing the border, a carful of teens and 20-ish millennials in a crumpled Pontiac sedan waved my bike to a stop by the side of the road. At the wheel was a young guy with sparkling blue eyes and a headful of blond curls. Beyond him were four kids sucking on colas and cigarettes, a bit giddy with the novelty of talking with an aging dude on a bicycle loaded with camping gear.
“Really? You’re riding your bicycle across the country?” the driver gushed. “That’s fantastic! You can just do that?”
“Sure can,” I said. “You could do it yourself. Just get a bike and go wherever you want.”
“And you just camp out?”
“Yeah, sure, wherever I end up that day.”
Beyond his eyes, I could see the wheels of his imagination churning with the possibilities: Go wherever you want on a bike? Anywhere at all? Camp out? Wow!
I assured him that life as a touring bicyclist was an unfettered blast of freedom and adventure, leaving out the parts about the wind, hills, heat, bugs, traffic, crappy food, and days without a shower.
“Start out with a backpack and a short trip,” I advised. As an afterthought, I asked where he and his tattooed friends were off to.
”Oh, we’re going to our NA meeting,” he said.
“What’s NA?” I asked.
There didn’t seem to be much more to say after that. I wished him good luck and the kids sped off while I labored on into the town to connect with the Northern Tier route of the Adventure Cycling Association.
It was Friday afternoon and after a day of a relentless wind in my face I was looking forward to a cup of coffee in downtown Fergus Falls, a small city of 13,138 in western Minnesota. I arrived around 5:00 PM to find every store downtown was locked up tighter than a bug’s butt and the main street was a quiet as a mime’s graveyard.
Now, in my hometown of Traverse City, MI (pop. 14,572), a Friday night would mean hundreds, sometimes thousands of people milling around downtown with a line out the door in more than two dozen restaurants and bars. But Fergus Falls seemed to be “Deadsville” incarnate. It was clearly not a very happening place for bored young people, or folks of any age, come to think of it.
All was not lost, however; just outside town lies the start of the Central Lakes Trail, which together with the Lake Woebegone Trail runs for 117 miles almost all the way to the Twin Cities — this, and a lovely town park with campsites gathered around a lake.
Rolling on, I pitched my tent at the park and settled in for a feast of Ramen noodles when up drove the occupants of the neighboring tent. Out of an old, low-slung Plymouth sedan popped a couple of pit bulls and two heavily-tattooed young guys, as thin as razors, shirtless in skin tight jeans and cowboy boots. Accompanied by a plump young woman dressed in black, they looked like extras from “Breaking Bad.”
As I expected, later on there was a party with other young people showing up around their camp fire. As I drifted off to sleep I overheard them talking about how they liked to get high before they attended their court-ordered Narcotics Anonymous meetings. One of the bunch opined that he liked to smoke weed, while others vouched that they preferred to endure the meetings high on crystal meth.
Really? I thought. Within a couple of hours of entering Minnesota I had encountered two bands of druggies? What were the odds? Pretty good, as it turns out. According to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, methamphetamine use is the number one drug problem in rural America. It’s easy to conceal meth labs in abandoned homes and farms out in the country, or else in some shack down the end of a two-track road. Although Minnesota is low on the list of states cited for rural meth abuse, I’d somehow managed to rub elbows with some of its devotees just over the state line. But owing to past encounters with the tweaker tribe, I knew that meth users tend to avoid calling attention to themselves and thus, weren’t worried that they’d “meth” with me.
Sometime after midnight, I awoke to the metallic fumes of crystal meth being smoked just a hat-toss away, followed by hysterical giggling that went on for some time. As I drifted back to sleep it was almost as if I could hear that manic giggling in my dreams.
Whatever. I was up by six, packed my gear, drank my coffee and hit the Central Lakes Trail south out of the park, well before the druggies arose. But as I rode this glorious trail through a tunnel of trees, I thought back to the young driver who was so geeked about the idea of cycling across the country. It occurred to me that he had such sparkling eyes because he and his jolly companions were as high as Cheech and Chong. Just a carful of small town druggies out driving impaired on their way to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting that probably wasn’t offering the kind of direction they really needed.
It made me wish that I had urged him to get addicted to something else — like bicycling, maybe. He could start out riding an old junker bike down the Central Lakes Trail to Minneapolis and get a job in a coffee shop, away from stultifying Fergus Falls and the dead-end life of drugs and the criminal justice system.
But of course, no young person cares to take advice, especially from anyone older. At best, I simply planted a seed in our little exchange by the road. I would love to hear someday that it took root.
Guest blogger Robert (Bob) Downes is the author of Biking Northern Michigan and two books about backpacking around the world: Planet Backpacker and Travels With My Wife. Check out his website at www.planetbackpacker.net.
Photo by Robert Downes.
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