One Toke Over the Line

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.

Central Lakes Trail

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.

“Narcotics Anonymous.” 

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

Photo by Robert Downes.


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Mark October 12, 2016, 11:37 AM

The piece can be interpreted as myopic and dark, but I wouldn't call it poorly written. Traverse City might be deemed rural by some; I perceive it more as a tourist destination. So the comparison between Traverse City and Fergus Falls is unfair and unrealistic. That said, I've written about similar dark days on tour. I've felt a similar sense of hopelessness, poverty, hostility, and felt the presence of drug cultures in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Mississippi. It is real. It is there. The author is true to his art and to himself by reflecting what he felt and saw. It doesn't make him right. It doesn't make him wrong. How ironic that others judge him as being judgmental. You can take his perspective for what it is and consider it, or you can be reactionary. Your call.

Angela October 7, 2016, 3:12 AM

" young person cares to take advice, especially from anyone older" Wow, can you generalize any more? Yes, poor writing indeed.

Brink October 6, 2016, 8:56 PM

Charles, thank you for reading this, instead of jumping to conclusions. I believe the "plant a seed" theme here is very positive. The piece is dark, and real, and again, thank you for reading it carefully.

Charles Lynch October 6, 2016, 1:04 PM

Tim: If you read Mr. Downes' article more closely you'll see that he's not at all giving the impression that all of rural America has a "serious drug problem" or are "full of addicts". On the contrary. He cites that Minnesota is considered to be on the low end of states having a serious drug problem. He's simply stating that on his particular bicycle journey he happened to have two chance encounters with druggies and how that encounter parallels with the larger picture of rural areas in America where drugs and bleak economic prospects are closely related. Speaking from a senior citizen perspective, it is difficult to witness younger people who are actively engaged in serious drug use. We tend to think of our own children and wonder how we can help.

Charles Lynch October 6, 2016, 12:18 PM


In response to Robert Downes article of October 6th and your negative can this article be deemed "rubbish" or "judgemental" or full of "hatred"? Mr Downes seemed to be expressing his observations on the topic of drug use and its effect on young people more than expressing his opinion. I came of age in the late 60's and early 70's in California and am no stranger to recreational drug use. What most of us thought to be playful and fun back in those days turned out to be a dark and dangerous path of serious drug use for others. I know because I have friends (some living, some dead) who never succeeded in climbing out of that living hell. It's been my observation that people who turn toward hard drugs like heroin, cocaine and crystal meth do so because of deep and troubling issues in their personal lives. Giving advice, as Mr. Downes observes, would be the last thing serious drug users would want to hear Sometimes an image of someone doing what would seem to be the impossible, can serve as a powerful metaphor for hope and inspiration. What's wrong with allowing for the possibility of "planting a seed"? Can you offer a better solution?

Tim October 6, 2016, 11:13 AM

I'm also disappointed with the article as it gives the impression rural America has a serious drug problem and is full of addicts. Are there certain places or towns that have a drug problem? Yes. But there are also large cities that have drug, violence and economic issues. But is that a reason to make assumptions about all cities? Of course not.

I think it's irresponsible to state "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" and then citing FDA drug data. So the author hits one town where there is a drug problem and that is enough to make an assumption about rural America? Because the FDA says methamphetamine is the #1 drug issue? What's the #1 drug issue in large urban areas? Where's the blog post about this?

As someone that grew up in a rural area and has been all over the Midwest for work and on a bike (including western Minnesota) I've never encountered the situation the author describes. Do I think it exists? Yes, I do. But I'm not going to make broad assumptions like the author did.

Dave Thomson October 6, 2016, 10:13 AM

Some astute observations Robert. It must be very hard to have goals when you grow up in a depressed rural area. Without goals the future can only appear bleak. On the other hand bicycle touring is pretty much the epitome of setting goals and striving to reach them. I think this is one of the reasons outdoor schools are so successful in showing young people how to set and achieve goals in life.

Adolph October 6, 2016, 7:31 AM

What a poorly written article. I'm surprised and disappointed that Adventure Cycling would publish this type of complete rubbish. As for Mr.Downes; How do you pedal your bike around with a heart that's heavy with hatred and judgement? I feel sorry for you. As for your pontification "At best, I simply planted a seed in our little exchange by the road. I would love to hear someday that it took root" - Sir, you did no such thing. Except maybe in your own mind.

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