Onward to the twin cities

Day 9: Saturday 30th July 2011 – Ironwood, Michigan to St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota (Click for route)

A big grin was becoming a prominent feature on my face. I’d had it all day on the ride up to Ironwood. I woke with it at the Classic Motor Inn and still had it as I crossed the car park to reception for a cup of complimentary weak coffee. I was really doing it. I was living the dream. The only thing that could have made it any better was if my partner in crime had been with me, but it was only 7 days before she flew into Montana, and that was certainly something worth waiting for.

The ride I had planned for the day shouldn’t have been too taxing. 270 miles to the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul, and then meeting Thomas in the evening. I’d already booked a room at the Days Inn in St Paul, so only had the ride to think of that day. After coffee and the load of the bike, I set off to see Lake Superior and call in at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center at Ashland.

Lake Superior viewed from Ashland, Wisconsin From ChicagoMilwaukee

The rest of my planned route for the day took me down Hwy-53 and then Hwy-35 all the way into the twin cities. Near Spooner, I stopped for fuel at a gas station, and was so glad that I was off-road as the heavens opened – lightning and vertical sheets of rain bouncing back feet in the air. I had no intention of riding in those conditions and decided to try to wait it out in the hope that it would stop before too long. It was time for an early lunch at the attached Subway. The only trouble was it seemed that all the boy scouts in Wisconsin had also decided it was time for lunch at Subway. The line of uniformed teenagers nearly snaked out the door and every table was full of scouts. I’m not sure what all these scouts were up to, perhaps there was a jamboree somewhere, but I had time to kill, and something that I would normally not bother with – queuing – now seemed an almost welcome distraction from the torrential rain outside.

Lunch took well over an hour, a long time for a Subway sandwich, but by then, the rain had petered out. I wasn’t going to take any chances, and decided to pull my waterproofs on anyway – and I was glad I did as a mile down the road I rode straight into the tail end of the shower. A few miles further and the shower had blown through and the temperature started to climb again.

I’d had one too many sodas in Subway waiting for the shower to pass, and I’d only gone maybe another 30 or 40 miles down the road when a comfort break was needed. I pulled into one of the infrequent rest areas to find 3 other bikers in residence.

One of the cool things about being a biker is the fraternity with other bikers – this goes double in the US, where bar room conversations can be struck up even easier than in Scotland – and Scotland tends to be head and shoulders above England in this respect.

Chuck, Cindy and Fred were local bikers just out for an afternoon ride. Cindy was the first girl I’d seen in the states riding her own bike – a late model Sportster Nightster – but she was far from the last I saw. They’d conveniently missed the earlier downpour having ridden up from the south. I advised against continuing north. Like everyone I’ve met in the states, they thought it was really awesome that I’d flown my bike over from Scotland and wanted to really see their country. They were envious that I was going to Sturgis, and said that one day they’d like to make it there. So far I hadn’t met a biker that had actually been to Sturgis, but everyone seemed to want to go sometime. We chatted some more over a couple of smokes, and then set off on our separate journeys, with me taking what I thought was I-35.

By now the day was really heating up. I’d taken my waterproofs off during my stop, but I was beginning to sweat buckets under my leather jacket even with the wind chill at 70 mph. My back was also starting to ache badly. I had a messenger bag in which I carried my important documents across my back, and it now had the added weight of the laptop. All the muscles around my right shoulder blade felt like they were on fire.

The approach to the twin cities from the north takes you passed field after field of sweetcorn. I’d had the impression that a lot of American agriculture was done by large corporations with mega fields, but there fields of sweetcorn weren’t that big – no bigger than some of the bigger fields I was familiar with in Worcestershire. And I doubted whether larger corporations would be putting hand-painted signs on the roadside advertising fresh sweetcorn for sale. There was also a lot of trees and woodland breaking up the fields. I commented on this later to Thomas and he said that the trees were necessary as wind breaks, so it still might have been big corporations doing some of the farming.

As I’d had so much trouble with the lack of American road signs, I’d planned and memorised my route to the hotel in St Paul. I knew I needed to take I-35, which should split into I-35E and I-35W. I had to take I-35E and then I-694 to join I-94.

When I got to the end of the road I was on (what I thought was I-34), I was puzzled. It hadn’t split into I-35E and I-35W, and there was no sign of the I-694. I was straight on the I-94. I knew this wasn’t right and managed to get myself heading the wrong way on the I-94. Some miles down the road I realised that it was taking me further away from St Paul. As you enter most states, at least on the interstate, you’ll find a visitor information centre which gives out free road maps for the state and other tourist information. I hadn’t come across a visitor centre for Minnesota yet, so I had no map to consult. My map of the whole of the USA didn’t have enough detail to navigate anything but major interstates and national highways. I carried on until I found the next gas station and then bought myself a map of Minnesota. My mistake was glaring evident – before getting to I-35, there was a state highway 35, which I turned down thinking it was the interstate. In my planning I hadn’t looked out for all the roads I shoudn’t take. I was further east than I expected to be, but not by a long way. I worked out what I needed to do to get back on course, but time was now getting short after the delays waiting out the rain. I was due to meet Thomas at the hotel within the hour. The ache in my back was becoming almost unbearable. What I really needed was to stop and rest up for a while, but I couldn’t and still have any hope of meeting Thomas on time. I gritted my teeth and pressed on.

The rest of the journey went good until I pulled off the interstate. I was sure I took the exit I’d intended to, but I’d pulled off straight into roadworks and there was no sign for the right turn I was supposed to take into University Avenue. It all looked wrong – this had warehouses and roadworks, not hotels. I was now late and out of time to dick around trying to ride around and work it out. In despair, I pulled up in front of a plumbing supplies warehouse, sat on the floor and called Thomas. “Thomas I’m lost!”

It turned out, I’d been spot on with my exit. The sign for University Avenue had either been removed or obscured by the roadworks. One left and one right and I was at the hotel. Thomas was waiting for me.

The American-made Trooper with British licence plates, next to Thomas’ British-made Lotus Elize with American licence plates, amused Thomas enough to take a photo which he posted on Facebook.

Thomas’ car next to the Trooper at the Days Inn, St Paul From Minnesota

The neighbourhood the Days Inn was in didn’t look great, and the burnt out car in the car park didn’t help to instil confidence in security around these parts. I decided to move the Trooper right outside my room. There’s definite advantages to motels.

Posted by Thomas on Facebook with the comment “Trevor’s accommodation” From Minnesota

Having sweated like a pig in my leather on the way down, I needed a shower and a change of clothes before an evening out with Thomas. While I was taking a shower, Thomas’ car was attracting admirers.

As we were setting off, a young guy staying at the Days Inn almost begged Thomas to take him for a spin in the Lotus. Thomas is a nice guy and obliged by taking him around the block. As we finally set off for downtown, I teased Thomas for owning such a guy magnet!

Thomas had a couple of options for places to eat and gave me the choice. One of them was called Hell’s Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis. With a name like that how could I resist.

Downtown Minneapolis From Minnesota

Before going to eat, Thomas gave me a short walking tour of downtown Minneapolis, including his old neighbourhood. Minneapolis looked like a clean, vibrant place to live. I could see why Thomas liked it.

Thomas the “tourist” From Minnesota

The evening was still sticky hot and the “dandelion” fountain near Thomas’ old neighbourhood was a welcome sight. We both tried to stand for a few minutes where we would catch some cold spray from it.

The “dandelion” fountain From Minnesota

As we walked back toward’s Hell’s Kitchen, we saw a couple of hen parties out on the town for the evening which was a sight very reminiscent of home. Edinburgh seems to be a popular destination with hen and stag parties, and the Grassmarket area in Edinburgh is best avoided on a Saturday night because of them. I hadn’t realised American’s did almost the exact same thing – the hens even decorated in condom packets.

Hen night Minnesota style From Minnesota

For my Edinburgh buddies, I could describe Hell’s Kitchen as being like an upmarket Jerkyll and Hyde. Where the Jerkyll and Hyde is decorated with murals from classic horror movies, and fitted out to look like a cross between a gothic church and Victorian laboratory; Hell’s Kitchen is more subtle, but still has that faintly sinister edge to it’s decor – which includes lots of framed paintings of off-centre and slightly disturbing images. Hell’s Kitchen, like most American bars, is also table-service and it had a good menu. I managed to get the Walleye that had alluded me in Ironwood – parmesan coated with fries and a homemade tartar sauce – good eating. Thomas also generously picked up the tab for dinner.

Hell’s Kitchen, Minneapolis From Minnesota

Over dinner, Thomas told me that Hell’s Kitchen also does good breakfasts – ideal for that 2nd date – and that during the breakfast service, the staff all wear pyjamas. He also mentioned the Brit Pub – a British “theme” pub not far away. I’ve seen so many plastic Irish “theme” pubs all over the world, that after he mentioned it, I just had to pop in for one to see how bad it was.

So what can I say about the Brit Pub? Well tt’s a big theme bar which bears very little resemblance to anything which is good about a traditional British pub, although they do seem to be catering to some extent to an ex-pat customer base. On the way in, they have a counter selling “home comforts” such as English Tea and the like – although I don’t recall them having Marmite. They also apparently show a lot of the English Premier League and Thomas assures me that they are popular with the ex-pats. The food menu certainly has some Britsh pub favourites – fish and chips, bangers and mash, steak and ale pie, shepherd’s pie, etc. The beer menu isn’t too bad, although mainly big commercial names – Boddington’s, Bass, Fuller’s, Newcastle Brown and the like. But with all the great beers in America, I can’t understand why you’d want to import British beer. Overall, the Brit Pub does a better job than most of the Irish “theme” bars I’ve seen, but it ain’t at all like my local and I doubt I would bother drinking there very often if I lived in Minneapolis.

While we were in the Brit Pub, Thomas noticed a weather warning about a major thunderstorm heading our way. We managed to get back to the car before it started, but not to the hotel. I haven’t seen many downpours as heavy as that one. The road was like a lake, and there was a real danger of aqua-planing (or hydro-planing in native speak). Thomas did a sterling job of keeping the low Elize under control, but decided to wait out the worst of it in the hotel bar (with soda rather than the Blue Moon I was drinking).

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