Weaving Community Connections On My Historic Bicycle

painting and Albert

A thousand words and emotions are embedded in this image. My wife’s painting spent a month in the city council chambers a while back, and I was just now able to retrieve it from the Duluth Art Institute (by the way, leave all of February open to enjoy her upcoming show there — the Depot). Albert Woolson holds court in the background. He died in Duluth in 1956, at the age of 109, as the last surviving Union veteran of the Civil War. Old Al was born nine years before my city was platted as a little village carved out of the wilderness. You can read more about him here, and even see a picture of him shoveling his walk at the age of 106! President Eisenhower, upon learning of his death, President Eisenhower issued the following remark:

“By the death of Albert Woolson, the American people have lost the last personal link with the union army. His passing brings sorrow to the hearts of all of us who cherished the memory of the brave men on both sides of the War Between the States.”

I had begrudgingly hitched up the trailer. It seemed excessive for the sake of delivering 10 copies of my memoir to the Duluth Grill for sale. I spent four hours on this journey through the city, enjoying a profit of $50 on the sale of the books, but this trip always proves to be far more rewarding than for merely the monetary considerations. On my return trip I thrilled in the 90 minute conversation I had enjoyed with the owner of the establishment, Tom Hanson, while pulling a load consisting of three gallons of milk (we make our own yogurt here), a couple dozen eggs (my chickens should begin laying next month), butter, and finally these paintings carefully placed on top and wrapped in a blanket.

I’ll share more about our conversation another time, but here’s a photo of Tom with his son Louie deep inside Duluth Grill’s kitchen:

Father and son

I’ve been floundering a bit, of late. Transitioning from the relatively mindless manual labor involved in completing a high-quality paint job to that of cultivating ideas into written words is really tough! Receiving that incredibly encouraging email requesting another 10 copies of my book is an amazing boost at such times. I dropped everything (which is to say nearly nothing) to fulfill the order. Even at times of great busyness, however, the ride along the Lake and then through the grittier part of town is always fantastic. It’s like a reset button for my soul.

These journeys have rekindled a love for the Trek 1200 bicycle you see in the photo. I’m so proud of this bike. I bought it used in 1990 at the age of 14 with $400 of my very own hard-earned dollars. It remains my primary vehicle of transportation to this day. This is the very same bike described in chapter 12 of my book. It was a portal into other worlds. An escape from a home mired in filth, struggle, and loneliness. A gateway to friendships and positive experiences across a wide geographical area.

All summer long I pedaled 40 miles roundtrip each day to hang out with my friend Andy and enjoyed extended glimpses into his family life. I returned home with reluctance each day, but paradoxically raced back as fast as my small muscles would carry me (both to beat the darkness and because exhaustion aided the transition). Some days found me riding 140 miles or more, because we occasionally enjoyed century rides that began and ended at Andy’s. I probably would have gone crazy if it weren’t for this particular bike that I will never sell. Here’s a passage from page 97 that describes the return from my first trip away with his family. This is emblematic of what it was like to return to reality after being out and about in a world of beauty:

The stench of dog (and unfortunately my own) urine, feces, rotting food, mold, and only God knows what else, immediately hit me upon entering the house. Opening the front door was like breaking the seal from a can of sardines. The saturated atmosphere within rushed to consume the fresh air outside. Quick shut the door before the whole world is contaminated! When Andy and his family drove off, crushing loneliness immediately overwhelmed me. My playful dog Curly eagerly licked my face as I wept by myself among all our junk that barely offered any place to sit. This was a can’t-catch-your-breath style of weeping, and one that required a full rehydrating glass of water along with a face washing afterward. It was a complete derailment.

This four-hour tour through the city provided the physical activity that brain and body need to thrive, a dose of culture and history for the soul, a stimulating conversation with one of our city’s most inspiring entrepreneurs (more on that later), and so much more. These ingredients are all necessary to establish and maintain a connection within your community.  Ironically, I returned home to discover that the local bookstore needed books as well. I had just passed within mere feet of the Bookstore at Fitgers, so I wasn’t pleased to hop back onto the saddle to be perfectly honest. Someone from out-of-town requested it, and they were fresh out. I fantasize that a band member from Cloud Cult (mentioned in the previous post) wanted it, and was grateful for the ride with a friend this time, as we pedaled to the Bridge Festival and an extraordinary performance from this band that I suddenly find myself a Superfan of. We biked home together in complete darkness on the Lakewalk at 11 pm, my fourth trip beside Superior that day. Legs ached. Spirits soared. Gratitude swelled like a big tick lodged ankle-deep within a large, warm mammal.

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