Bicycling to Lake Wobegon

In central Minnesota, cyclists enter a storied land.

A church on the Lake Wobegon Trail.
In Melrose, St. Mary's Catholic Church has four onion domes.

To a bicyclist setting out on the Lake Wobegon Trail, there are few signs that this is a storied landscape.

There's a lake surrounded by cattails and frequented by fishermen and canoeists. There's another lake across the road, where teen-agers flirt and toddlers play in the sand.

Down the trail, a clump of showy lady slippers pops out of the weeds. A great blue heron rises from a slough with languid flaps. A painted turtle scrapes at the dirt next to the trail, making a nest for its eggs.

It's just a typical Minnesota landscape — but it made deep impressions on two young men who later immortalized it.

Harry Lewis grew up there but had little affection for his hometown till much later, after his 1920 novel "Main Street" made it a national symbol of small-minded provincialism.

Garrison Keillor — or Gary, until, like Harry, he recast his mold — moved there in 1970.

He steeped himself in the idiosyncrasies of Stearns County life until its characters sprang to life on the public-radio airwaves as citizens of Lake Wobegon, the mythical town where "the women are strong, the men are good-looking and the children are above average."

Though Keillor gave his blessing when the 35-mile bike trail was named, he didn't quite admit it was Wobegon until he returned to it and wrote "In Search of Lake Wobegon" for National Geographic magazine, the basis for a coffee-table book of the same name.

If they look, bicyclists can find Lake Wobegon in these towns and perhaps a bit of Sinclair Lewis' Gopher Prairie, too. But it may be best to take the trail on its own merits.

When a friend and I rode it one June, we got our first inkling that this was no ordinary trail when we came across those pink and white lady slippers.

It was the most I'd ever seen and may ever see — the showy lady slipper, an orchid that needs a tiny fungus to propagate and takes 10 to 20 years to bloom, now is rare in Minnesota, though it's the state flower.

Then we saw a big old snapping turtle, its back as rough as half-melted blacktop and its long claws hinting of malice. We rode on past marshes, reeds swaying in the breeze. It was a sunny Saturday, but we saw only a few other bicyclists and skaters.

Lead plant along the Wobegon Trail.
Near Avon, purple prairie clover lines the trail in August.

In Albany, we saw the first of the trail's distinctive churches, the red-brick Seven Dolors, with its clock tower and, next door, well-tended cemetery with Stations of the Cross. In front, teen-age boys in tuxedos were hanging around a pickup, waiting for the afternoon wedding.

This area is solidly German Catholic; Keillor had to add Norwegian Lutherans, he wrote, "for dramatic interest."

Riding on to Freeport, we were alongside I-94, which gave us the odd feeling that we were part of the hordes heading to the lakes, but in slow motion.

Freeport is bona-fide Wobegon country — the Pioneer Inn was the model for the Sidetrack Tap, and Charlie's Cafe for the Chatterbox — but we had a feeling things have changed a little in three decades. For one thing, there are tourists now.

Things had changed less down at the Romanesque yellow-brick Sacred Heart, where bridesmaids and flower girls in white satin stood at the door, waiting to begin a wedding procession. Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility? Maybe.

The freeway faded into the distance on the stretch to Melrose, where we were able to walk inside the Bavarian-baroque St. Mary's, which has four onion domes and a vaulted sky-blue ceiling edged in gold.

Across the street, the Jennie-O turkey plant has brought a little of the outside world into quiet Melrose, where the only people stirring seemed to be the fishermen below the mill-pond dam.

The trail crosses the Sauk River several times on its way to Sauk Centre, where Harry Sinclair Lewis, the son of a stern country doctor, was born in 1895 and grew up before leaving for Yale and New York.

His withering portrayals in "Main Street" infuriated townsfolk, but they've since forgiven him and celebrate Sinclair Lewis Days every July, as well as operate the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center just off the highway.

Lewis asked to be buried in the town, and in 1931, a year after he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature, he said of Sauk Centre, "It was a good time, a good place and a good preparation for life."

Oddly, said Juleen Trisko-Schneider, a native and occasional guide at the Boyhood Home of Sinclair Lewis, the smug chauvinism Lewis so effectively lampooned pops up now mainly in tourists.

"The only time I get tired of it is when they come in with attitude: 'Oh, these are the poor ignorant hicks,' " she said. "I've had people say, 'Oh, can you imagine someone from here went to Yale?' I just say, 'Tell me when you want some information.' "

The covered bridge in Holdingford.
Bicyclists pass through the covered bridge in Holdingford.

As we rode back, the weddings had ended and the churches were starting to celebrate Mass. In Avon, we celebrated our day of bicycling by jumping into Middle Spunk Lake and swimming to the raft.

A Saturday-evening crowd had started to congregate outside Fisher's, an old-fashioned bottle club on the edge of the beach, lined with windows to let in the breeze.

We went in and sat at the bar, watching children scamper around the wood floor and waitresses bring set-ups to chattering tables of 10. A man named Junior presided behind the bar, the son of ballplayer George Fisher, who returned home from the major leagues in 1935 and bought this place.

Junior seemed to know everyone; in fact, everyone seemed to know everyone.

Of all the places along the trail, this felt most Wobegonic. In fact, it felt like home — not mine, but definitely someone's; not even a Sinclair Lewis or Garrison Keillor could be truly lonely here.

I thought of something Juleen Trisko-Schneider had said about small towns, back in Sauk Centre.

"I think in any place, you need to get away for a while," she said. "Then you can come back."

Fisher's supper club in Avon.
In Avon, Fisher's is an old-fashioned bottle club.

Trip Tips: Lake Wobegon Trail

The trail: It's 35 miles between St. Joseph (just off I-94, west of St. Cloud) and Sauk Centre. In St. Joseph, the trailhead is next to the water tower. Bicyclists coming from St. Cloud now can get onto the trail in Rivers Edge Park in Waite Park, where a three-mile section of trail connects to St. Joseph.

Avon, eight miles west of St. Joseph, also is a good place to start, and the city beach on Middle Spunk Lake is a good place to take a dip after biking.

In the middle of the trail, there's a 9½-mile spur from Albany to Holdingford, and from there the trail heads 13½ miles north and across the Mississippi River to U.S. 10, where it connects to the gravel Soo Line Trail north of Royalton.

In Sauk Centre, the Lake Wobegon Trail connects to the 55-mile Central Lakes Trail, which heads west to Osakis, Alexandria and Fergus Falls.

For more, see Bicycling the Central Lakes.

Trail events: The annual Caramel Roll Ride is held the second Saturday in June, the Lady Slipper Nature Ride the third Saturday in June and the Caramel Apple Ride the first Saturday after Labor Day.

Town events: In Sauk Centre, Sinclair Lewis Days is the second full week of July.

Dining: Fisher's Club restaurant, which overlooks Middle Spunk Lake in Avon, still serves walleye dinners but now has a full-service bar and offers live music.

Last updated on August 28, 2018

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