The news of the “DAMN” — the “Day Across Minnesota” — spread pretty quickly through the gravel riding world of the North. For me, it was momentarily intriguing and then I recall feeling relieved at some later point that I had missed the registration cut off and would not be doing this totally insane thing. The setup was a 240-mile gravel ride across the entire state of Minnesota (west to east, from South Dakota to Wisconsin) in 24 hours. All one shot, start-to-finish, with each rider receiving four sets of cue sheets containing 60-miles of directions to the next checkpoint — and if you don’t arrive by the cutoff time (six hours per section) you don’t get the cue sheets and you can decide to find your own way to Wisconsin or you can bag it and have your support car drive you home (or wherever they were willing to take you).
A day I don’t recall arrived when Craig Rittler sent me a text to let me know that there was an open spot from one of the sponsors (www.banjobrothers.com). He tells me I agreed to do it, and located one other crazy soul, Mike Pasdo to join us. We started to plan this thing out over a couple of breakfasts at the Uptown VFW, maybe a hundred text messages, and one long “training” ride of 160 miles.
So Friday we headed out around 2:30pm, with Deepak the Dedicated behind the wheel, a roof box on top loaded with spare wheels and tools and gear, a few bikes on the rack, and three jittery riders headed to Gary, South Dakota which is about 10 feet over the Minnesota state line. Rolling in there we see a bar, a general store, and then an American Legion — and after turning right on Cocteau Street we see the cyclists spreading out their gear on the street with some bikes up on racks, outside the complex of buildings known as the Buffalo Ridge Resort (https://www.buffaloridgeresort.com/about-us/). We learn that this small campus, which could house probably the entire town’s population of 225 residents, was the first school for blind and visually impaired dating back to 1872.
Now there’s a restaurant there, hotel rooms for rent, and meeting spaces. Rumors of it being haunted may not be rumors since I only hear heard them from Rittler and he may be haunted in which case it would be haunted since he was standing there when he mentioned it.
The tater tots were not haunted, although when they arrived at our patio table at the Rock Room restaurant, they looked like they may have recently survived a fiery trip through the upper atmosphere on their way to the waxed paper lined basket in front of Pasdo. I went venturing through the second and third floor above the restaurant looking for strangeness and found some antique furniture that had been held back from several purges over the years, replaced by wood laminate banquet tables and steel chairs with gold paint and black vinyl cushioning. There are pictures of the school blown up large and mounted on the brick walls at places, and artifacts attached or placed throughout. Amongst the pale brick exposed walls and the old woodwork, under the high ceilings, I found no sign of hauntedness but I liked the place just fine.
According to plan, we arrived and ate, then checked in. We ran into Trenton the Organizer sitting on some stone steps between a couple of the buildings writing something on a paper pad — turns out it wasn’t poetry but instructions for the volunteer crew (mostly his family members). Anyway, he didn’t need to write poetry because Ben Weaver (https://www.benweaver.net/) was riding and sometime around that time Trenton asked Ben to write something for the 11pm rider meeting — and then maybe, Trenton checked that off his long list of logistics that comprise sending off 150+ people that you know or don’t know, into the dark to ride on roads they’ve never been on, and what is most likely the longest day they’d ever even considered riding. We chatted with Trenton a bit and then checked in with the volunteers, received a t-shirt, a poster of Ben’s creation, and a sticker that says “240” on it (just to poke at athlete drivers who can’t read the other print on a vehicle while in traffic).
Fed and checked-in, it was time for a short nap before final pre-meeting preparation – and time for a post-nap visit to the Alibi Bar on 1st Avenue, where we sat and had a beer with the weather forecast on the news above the register.
A high voltage electric lineman down the bar and Mama Elby informed us they only served beer but the place next door has whiskey and other hard stuff too. We were there and already sitting at the bar so we ordered a round of beer and learned about her kids who are in the brewpub and mortgage business (separately) in Minneapolis.
It sounded like we were down the street from Nye’s but we were tucked in this place between a jukebox and the bar on the easternmost edge of South Dakota (https://goo.gl/maps/ayTJYafYEt62), about 100 miles north of Sioux Falls which may be the closest place to there that you’ve heard of (and 40 miles from the nearest Walmart).
So, why does someone drink beer before an endurance event like this? Because you can — because you will certainly vaporize that beverage and just about everything else you’ve consumed for the last three days. We’re not out there to “race” this thing — just out to start it and to finish it. The fast effers out there — the ones who were racing this thing and probably finishing in 13 hours — they weren’t at the bar yucking it up and laughing out their jitters. Like I said, it was us, Mama Elby, the other bartender who told us we missed the big rodeo last month, and the high voltage lineman. And the weather man on the news who let us know that the weather for the night was going to be calm and in the mid 50’s. Basically perfect. The Minnesota Twins won too.
Back to the meeting where Trenton ran down the rules — lots of stuff about how you are not supported in this adventure, have fun and use good judgment – and the very important “urination” clause – not peeing in front of others (unless they are part of your crew and nobody else is around — my editorial).
This was official looking stuff — there was a powerpoint running in the background with images of each rider, their nickname and something about “why I ride” (mine was this: “Gerasimos G.” — “Because San Facundo tells me to. (Patron saint of high intensity distance cycling.)”). I saw it pass across the screen part way through Trenton’s chat along with Mike’s and Craig’s. I asked Deepak to help me out by writing the initials of all the folks that had made donations to Fresh Energy (www.fresh-energy.org) — even the ones who selected other options like “Make it Wonky” for $120 or “Breakfast Club” for $100, got their initials on the back of my calves.
As we were at a banquet table, it was tough to maneuver to give him a decent angle for writing and I got a bit nervous about cramping or pulling something — nothing like sustaining a race-ending injury while sitting in a chair.
Then Ben was called up to the front and handed the mic. He looked like somebody who had just written a poem for a group of cyclists — not sure what that means, but I know that whatever he looked like, he was not as concerned as most about the mileage of the DAMN. He’s ridden all over the country with a banjo and guitar attached to his bike, playing gigs from Minneapolis to New Orleans on one trip and around Chicago on another. The poem was brief and deep, with the riders bursting like sparrows from a barn into the night, with legs like scissors, and voices of the land ready to be heard in the night. It was a prayer that didn’t ask for safety or protection on the journey ahead — just a beckoning to the souls to be open and awake at that late hour to the meaning of motion and night.
At 11:45pm, white and red beams of light flowed and gathered on 1st Avenue outside the white garage doors labeled “GARY” “FIRE” “DEPARTMENT”.
At the stroke of midnight, a flash of fireworks went off ahead down the road and all the folks supporting the riders cheered – we rolled out of Gary and within 100 yards, we were in Minnesota and the DAMN was underway. Another 100 yards, we turned right to head south, then a fast left took us eastbound on gravel roads – as we would be for probably 200 of the next 240 miles.
The roads were narrow and dark — just barely big enough for a large tractor with corn growing up just a few feet on either side. It was a dark tunnel, we followed the flashing red lights and lighted curves of white on the scrolling dirt road ahead. The pack was moving out fast from the start — the road was packed firm and we were holding 20-23mph for solid stretches, joining a group of five riders here, 10 riders there, doing some “work” at the front of the pack and dropping back.
The cue sheets are quarter-cut paper with the name of the road, the mileage point at which you turn on that road, and a “tulip” indicator which shows the shape of the intersection and whether you will go to left-right-straight. In the dark you’d need a headlamp to read them. I didn’t have that setup, so I was in full trust-the-pack mode until sunrise.
Riding in the dark, on country backroads, you don’t see the road you are traveling. You see packs of lights floating against the blackness where the sky and the fields join. You feel the slightest changes in grade as your speed tapers or builds, and you sense the pressure building or easing in your legs. And you sense the immediacy of the trust and faith you have in the road and the riders in front of you. Riding in a group always involves trust since you can’t see all of the conditions or hazards ahead, but in the dark, this faith is greater since even the one at the front can’t see but a portion of what is coming. During your turns at the front, your shadow stretches out for fifty feet or more from the light behind creating a crisp movie of your legs’ pedaling, your handlebar and wheels projected onto the ground, shifting from left to right as you and the trailing riders bend the path, finding the best “line” in the road. Riding in the back, you can turn off your light and look up at the sky. You might see a shooting star, but there’s nothing to say — the grinding of the road and the passing wind would never let you be heard so you keep to yourself and place them into your soul’s memory.
I noticed the temperatures starting to drop, or perhaps it was my body temperature dropping at around two or three in the morning. We arrived at checkpoint #1 (mile 65) at 4:00am. This wasn’t a town, it was a set of GPS coordinates distributed by Trenton to the support cars. There was no town, and no facilities to mention, but the Banjo Brothers team was there doing their sponsorly thing, flipping flapjacks and pouring coffee (and whiskey, but not for me). We found Deepak in the dark up the road from their tent and reloaded some food and water and added some layers of clothing. Sounds fast, but I think we were there for maybe 30 minutes (or more), somewhere in a small valley area with forest on one side of the road and corn on the other.
We rolled out into the second and, for me, toughest leg of the journey. Still dark at 4:00am, and chilled a bit with two base layers, a jersey and a jacket. I hadn’t worn gloves since spring, so I didn’t even think of packing them but I needed them. I found a pair of yoga socks in Sarah’s car and pulled them on — with the little toe-holes sticking out at the ends they looked odd but it was dark and my hands felt better. Don’t tell her that I lost one in a porta-potty in some small town we crossed through a bit farther down the road.
The sun rose up as we rolled above the valley of the Minnesota River. Stretches of prairie and trees and the river hidden under a winding blanket of fog that lifted a couple hours later.
The clouds left a slot for the sun to peek through, sizzling the edges in bright orange and pink. It was good to have emerged from the dark and still be moving, but where my legs were still awake and moving my head was foggy and my energy was lowering.
I was fading back from Craig and Mike at many points on the rolling swells in the road, tucking into their draft for long stretches and watching my heart rate to be sure I was not burning up too much.
Arriving at mile 120, a crossing of two gravel roads, three corn fields and one soybean field, there was a tent and a pack of cars waiting. Val the Valiant had taken over from Deepak during the night and we reloaded, relaxed, and re-lubed. Laid a thermarest on the road and got out the massage balls (nouns, people, nouns) and worked on some sore spots in my back and neck. I thought about the podcast we listen to (mostly) on the way down about hookworm (https://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/podcasts/hookworms.htm) and decided to make a contribution to the problem if only a human could be found to assist.
Speaking of humans, and of animals in general, one of the most striking things from the ride was the lack of non-plant life. Endless miles of corn and soybean fields, occasional farmhouses and farm buildings, but so few people and only a few deer. No vultures, no hawks, no roadkill. Some bunnies, no snakes. Crows and blackbirds, and songbirds in the valley, and some horses and cattle, but strikingly little overall. Mostly just fields of corn and soy. Roads of dirt and gravel.
We rolled into Henderson past the town ball field and to the gas station that I know well from road race events and recent ride down there. A woman approached us at Wagar’s grocery with a question: “What’s with all the lycra today?!” — then proceeded to ask more questions, then disappeared inside the gas station for paper and pen, returning to re-ask the questions and take notes.
Turns out there has been a lot happening in Henderson, including the family of the Ace Hardware’s daughter getting married and a few hundred classy cars and motorcycles every Wednesday (or was it Tuesday?). She said she was going to write it up on the Henderson Facebook page — and when we rolled out of town, she was there on the front steps with her laptop, clicking away.
Overall, the sections from mile 120-180, and the final one from 180-240 went much better for me. I had woken up and felt sharper, able to contribute more to the group effort. When we got to the checkpoint at mile 180 we were overlooking a view that was fields and trees with the sun shining bright but not hot. Laid down and nearly fell asleep — I think Pasdo may have, sitting in a chair.
Val told us about one rider (who clearly could crush the miles of this event) who met a cat along the way and traveled several miles with the cat sitting on her back as she rode —- until she abandoned the race at mile 60 so she could keep it. So there’s one animal sighting I missed — in fact, I didn’t mention that I didn’t see any cats (okay maybe, but I paid attention to the handful of dogs that gave chase as we passed their driveways).
The final 60 miles were the most hilly, but it started out really fast so we were building cushion. Traveling for miles (and miles) of flat road in a singular heading (east) without so much as a bend, holding speeds around 18-20mph, tucked down and determined to pull things into the finish around 8pm.
Eventually, the roads turned to pavement, and we crossed familiar highways like US-52 which we knew to be close to Red Wing. Then we came up one last gravel climb and at the top the road changed over for good — paved streets into Red Wing and then a hairy trip across the bridge to Wisconsin (or an island in the Mississippi where the Harbor Bar is located).
We rolled across the line around 8pm, greeted by a small group of volunteers and other support drivers. Total mileage was 242 in 20 hours clock time. We had taken nearly four hours of breaks along the way — in fact we passed so many people multiple times as we would pass them, then take a long break later only to pass them again (in tortoise and hare fashion). All said, it was well played and a great day.
What does someone gain from this? It’s more than just ego food, but I think it’s more than soul food too. There’s something about testing the depths of one’s resilience and finding grit — and gravel is grit, and grit is about grinding it out. Then there’s belonging and uniqueness — being part of something and apart from something. You ride together and alone. You experience the same thing and something totally different as the rider who’s just a foot away from you in nearly the same moment. About 160 riders experienced the same roads at nearly the same time, but each in their own very unique way. This is a small tribe and a narrow slice of space and time.
Mama Elby remembers the name of the Twin’s pitcher that is the oldest one to ever pitch a full game. The Henderson booster whose hair matches the bricks of Wagar’s store, tells the owner of a magenta ’32 Ford about the trail of lycra that passed through town just a few days before. A rider gets to know her new cat, and a cat gets to know life in the city. Joel Raygor reflects on his son’s ability to bring people together. Ben Weaver unwraps his instruments for his next show. A little girl recalls how so many years ago, one August day in 2017, a trail of riders passed their house and then she went to the store with her mom to get water and cookies for them — maybe she remembers it as the first time.
SPECIAL THANKS to EVERYONE who donated to FRESH ENERGY (www.fresh-energy.org) as part of this adventure. Total was around $2,600!! Your support of a cleaner energy future for Minnesota and the world is something I value deeply. In the photos you will see your initials or other abbreviations safely made it across the state — and some of you will be receiving muesli from our friends at Seven Sundays too!!