We are riding north to Brainerd from Minneapolis through the northwestern part of the Midwest, where people are genuinely friendly, always have time for chitchat, and cherish beer and cheese as it was intended. My wife, Sarah, and I already feel right at home, at least in July (cold winter yikes!), in the state of 10,000 lakes. The scent of vacation and relaxation is in the air barely an hour outside of the Twin Cities. Minnesotans sure know how to have a good time, and Sarah and I are anxious to get into the same state of mind.
Although Brainerd is the home base for our next four days of touring, we’re staying about ten minutes outside the town at Cragun’s Resort, situated on the shore of Gull Lake. With so many lakes around, and the activities that come along with water and a vacation town, we plan half-day outings. That’s enough time to explore the roads and landscapes but also enough time to enjoy the lake as well as the plethora of world-class golf courses. Think: a morning ride appreciating the empty roads followed by kayaking or teeing off in the afternoon, and then out for ice cream and a turtle race. That’s the M.O. for the tour, and we’re sticking to it!
Mille Lacs Lake
It’s redundant—literally “Thousand Lakes Lake.”I can’t get it out of my mind. Was the reason government officials named this body of water to draw special emphasis on “lake?” Maybe it was more “lakey” than the others around? Or, maybe the French word “lac” was too confusing as it can also mean “tie.” I suspect I’ll never have closure with that one, but beside the superfluous “lake,” this one is worth a visit and a circumnavigation.
Motorcycle & Gear
2014 Honda Gold Wing
Helmet: SHOEI Neotec
Jacket: KLIM Latitude, Firstgear Women’s Contour Mesh
Pants: KLIM Latitude, Alpinestars Stella New Land GTX
Gloves: REV’IT! Sand Pro, Firstgear Women’s Ultra Mesh
Boots: TCX X-Rap, Sidi Jasmine Rain
We decide to tackle “the big one” clockwise, so we steer the Gold Wing left onto 18. The Wealthwood State Forest has some surprising elevation. We’re looking several feet down onto the lake, yet it gives us the impression we’re riding beside a cliff. The thin but plentiful trees create a tunnel with the sunrays barely penetrating them. The super fast changes in light make us feel like we’re in a time warp back to simpler times. Well, it’s actually just the Minnesotan vacation flair we’re sensing up here. And, did I mention how nice everybody is! We stop in the Village at Izatys for some photos, and a friendly local immediately stops to chat with us. He’s giving us valuable information about the lake, life on the lake, and life in the lake. The biggest epiphany comes when he explains all the huts we see stored in fields close by. Those are the famous ice huts. Once the ice is one and a half to two-feet thick, people drag out the ice huts to stay “warm” while fishing.
The western side of Mille Lacs is noticeably busier, and while we’re fluidly riding northbound, people heading south aren’t so lucky. It’s stop and go, bumper-to-bumper. A few minutes later we seem to locate the source of all this traffic. Garrison on the northwestern corner of Mille Lacs is the largest town on the shore and where two lanes become one. It appears Highway 169 is the route of choice and Sunday the preferred day to drive home.
On our way back to Cragun’s, we weave through the countless smaller lakes that fill the backdrop. We thought the area would serve us with straight roads, so we’re more than delighted to find enough bends to keep things interesting.
Being around water has a not-so-surprising effect. We want to go in the water! Back at the resort, we swap our GORE-TEX for spandex, rent two kayaks for /hour each, and paddle out on Gull Lake. It’s the perfect way to end a perfect first day as we watch the sun disappear behind the trees.Grand Rapids
No—not the one in Michigan beside the Grand River. Today we glide north to Grand Rapids, which is along the Mississippi River and is “Naturally Minnesota,” of course. Judy Garland, you know. This famous actress and singer was born there in 1922, and you might remember her better as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz film. “Somewhere over the rainbow … way up high.” Oh boy, this tune will be stuck in my head for the rest of the day. It doesn’t help that Highway 169 north is a straightaway letting my mind wander.
We leave Cragun’s without breakfast (where the breakfast buffet costs per person) with the plan to find a pleasant bakery or breakfast place in Grand Rapids. This way we don’t take long in the morning and it always tastes better after racking up some miles—being just hungry enough that we’re on the cusp of passing out. That is when the pancakes taste the sweetest!
Past several Judy Garland and Wizard of Oz murals, we find Brewed Awakenings on the corner of Highway 2 and 169. We’re almost shocked to find quite the selection of healthy menu options—something we don’t usually encounter. We order the Quiche Florentine with a rice crust, Harney & Sons tea, and a salubrious sandwich. And of course, the service is well-above friendly!
On the way south again, we opt for the “road less traveled.” The map looks promising a few miles outside of Grand Rapids—River Road throws us alternating left and right curves. The Mississippi is what the road is referencing, but we only see the river flowing further south on some stretches.