Yet another day of US2 east. This one features carefully timed merging between two storm fronts to arrive in Duluth without needing to don raingear.
The 8:30am alarm went off and snoozed it for another few minutes of sleep… and then I got up anyway. The breakfast at my motel only lasted until 9:30am, so I wanted enough to time to catch a quick shower and still get some free food.
The breakfast offerings were typical, but with one interesting substitution. Instead of the traditional waffle maker, this place had a thing that looked like a desktop laster printer and spit out pancakes. I pushed the OK button and, just like magic, two medium sized pancakes appeared on the top plate on the output side of the device. I accompanied my insta-print pancakes with a tub of raspberry yogurt, and a bowl of things that looked like Fruit Loops but were probably generic knock-offs.
With shower and breakfast knocked off the checklist, I packed up and wandered out into the parking lot to reunite with the Nightowl.
The day was still unseasonably cool, barely 53º F at nearly 10am. The good news is that the cloud cover was thin and I could just barely see small patches of blue sky through the multiple layers of thin cloud cover. I switched back to the heated gear, fully knowing that I might not need to turn it on, but it was warmer than my purple flannel over a long-sleeve t-shirt.
I pulled out just before 10am.
After clearing the residual local traffic around Minot, the traffic volume on US2 was nearly non-existent. I set the cruise at a barely-below-pull-over level and kicked back.
Remember that US2 across North Dakota is nearly entirely four-lane unlimited access, so I could pass the rare eastbound slowpoke with a simple lane change. I was making good time, but…
I was still traveling into a headwind. It wasn’t as strong as yesterday, but it was there and molesting my gas mileage. Whether that would alter my gas stops would be determined later (foreshadowing?).
The scenery between Minot and Grand Forks is, well, consistent. Near never-ending farmer’s fields, but with some of them fallow and some of them full of cut wheat, sunflowers, or sugar beets. One thing I noticed was that wildlife sightings disappeared entirely. No deer munching in the open fields… not that there’s much forest cover for them to hide in anyway.
Fast-forwarded to Grand Forks, where I passed the Air Force base with nary a aircraft sighting. I did, however, sees a dozen different small aircraft doing touch-and-gos at Grand Forks International airport between town and the Air Force base.
I was in fairly desperate need for gas (I’d slowed down my customary 5 MPH about 30 miles before Grand Forks to ensure that I’d make it), so I pulled over near the I29 interchange. After filling up, I consulted the weather radar, knowing that I may be catching a significantly nasty storm front slowly walking across Minnesota.
I was catching it.
That storm front, mostly yellow in the radar image, was square in the middle of Minnesota, idly walking it’s way toward Duluth, which happened to be my penciled-in destination for the day.
If I left immediately, I’d almost certainly catch it before it cleared Duluth. Of course, after consulting the radar preview from the Weather Channel app, I could see that afternoon thunderstorms were going to blossom south of me over the afternoon and follow that same storm front into Duluth. How much time was going to separate these storm fronts was the big question. Two hours? Four hours? It was anybody’s guess.
I grabbed a sugar-free Vitamin water and a package of strawberry Pop Tarts and had myself a nice mid-day snack while I waited for the storm front nastiness to wander a bit further northeast.
By about 1:30pm, a re-consult with the weather radar saw the afternoon thunderstorms starting to form south and east of me, traveling northeast. If I was going to stay in front of them, it was time to leave.
There were several construction zones east of Grand Forks where the road was reduced to a bi-directional two-lane, usually in 15 mile stretches. This cut down my pace a bit, but I was fortunate enough to not get caught behind some Sunday driver slowpoke who insisted on traveling at 35 MPH.
The scenery in Minnesota changes as you head east. Western Minnesota is like much of North Dakota. As you travel east, the forests become more and more prevalent. By the time I was reached Bemidji, most of the scenery was forest.
At Cass Lake, the road narrows from four-lane to two-lane. Of course, there wasn’t enough traffic volume to prevent me from passing the slow-poke traffic at will, so it wasn’t the detriment I originally anticipated.
One new factor on today’s ride was the smoke. A quick look at the MyRadar map, which includes active wildfires as a layer with the default Doppler radar, showed several active wildfires in the area. None of them are large enough to gain the attention of my readers out west, but they still cast a localized smokey pall over the forests and lakes that I was riding through.
On that note, MyRadar was showing the growing storm front to the south reaching it’s fingers eastward toward my path. I certainly couldn’t lose much more time if I was going to stay ahead of the emerging storm front.
At Grand Rapids, there was a construction zone where US2 was closed to through traffic. The detour took me 13 miles south to state highway 200 (which I traveled east to west back in 1997), and then east to intersect back with US2 east. It didn’t cost me much in time, but I was now concerned that I wouldn’t get all the way to Duluth on the remaining gas I had in the tank.
Back on the post-detour US2, I quickly re-consulted the MyRadar image. The eastern-most cell of rain was about 10 miles south of me and heading northeast towards Duluth, albeit at a much slower pace than I was traveling. I had no doubt that I could beat it to Duluth. I was just concerned about my dining options once I arrived, and whether I could get to dinner and back to the hotel before the heavens opened.
The other inconvenience from the detour was that I was now about 15 miles short of reaching downtown Duluth on the gas that I had in the Nightowl’s tank.
The best laid plans of mice and men…
Alas, I would surely find gas before the 30+ miles ran out… and there was the town of Floodwood appearing on the horizon. I’m saved. I remember stopping for gas here several years ago and getting caught by a freight train that I’d passed earlier.
I pull into the Floodwood Speedway… and the only gas they have is premium.
I can certainly afford to pay for premium gas… but I don’t have to. I’ve still got 26 miles in the tank and I’ll surely find another gas station as I get closer to the greater Duluth metropolitan area.
Famous last words…
If I’d been able to pull up a proper map at that moment in time, I would have been able to see that there was a hot lot of nothing between Floodwood and the town of Proctor just outside of Duluth. I would have decided to bit the bullet, pay the extra cash, and put the available premium gasoline in the Nightowl’s tank, even though the Nightowl’s motor doesn’t require the top-level grade.
Alas, that kind of map inspection is hard to do from voice commands to a smartphone on a rolling motorcycle.
I rode east and watched the distance-to-empty and distance-to-Duluth numbers on my dashboard count down, without getting any closer to each other. I began to wonder what strategy I would use to ask to purchase gasoline from the front door of whomever I happened to run dry in front of. Ugh!
With the Nightowl’s distance-to-empty readout showing 3 miles, I spotted signs for the intersection with MN33.
A moment of hope floated across my consciousness.
MN33 was the four-lane connector that would eventually join up with US53 north of there. It was a major conduit to the northernmost portions of Minnesota. Surely there would be a gas station near this important intersection…
I stopped for gas with two (2) miles left in the tank and thanked my lucky stars that this gas station existed. Note that this gas-supply drama was taking place a mere 15 miles from downtown Duluth, which speaks to just how quickly leaving the cities up here puts you out in the middle of Butt-Fuck Nowhere.
Continuing on US2, I joined up with I35 north into Duluth, which (by the way) means I rode the last five miles on I35 because it ends in Duluth. The path into Duluth is all downhill; the surrounding landscape, especially to the west, is significantly higher than the surface of Lake Superior, upon which Duluth is located. Rolling down this hill, you have a commanding view of the lake and the Duluth harbor, with it’s multitude of ore docks and grain elevators (some active, several dormant).
I rolled a bit past the bridge to Superior, Wisconsin and towards downtown Duluth, where my lodgings for the evening were located. I exited, found the parking lot, and parked the Nightowl at 6:55pm. I checked the weather radar and saw that I’d somehow managed to merge into the open space between the two storm fronts.
I checked in and made my way to my room for the night. The room was fine, but the air conditioner set to 60º was definitely unwanted on such a cool day. I adjusted the climate control settings so I wouldn’t turn into an ice cube overnight.
I immediately consulted Yelp for local eating establishments. Aside from national chains, which I avoid on such trips, I found the OCM Smokehouse less than a mile away towards downtown Duluth. BBQ, full bar, 4.5 stars…
I ride over, around a quick detour because the ramps to the I535 bridge are all torn up, and find a parking spot on the street two doors down from OCM Smokehouse. The parking meters aren’t enforced after 5:30pm, so I’m golden.
Looking around, I’m surprised to see a multitude of brew pubs, food joints, and other trendy businesses housed in the old brick facades of industrial Duluth. I had no idea that such a district exists in Duluth. Go figure.
I walk into the OCM Smokehouse and the waiting area is full of groups waiting for a table. As I wait to be acknowledged, I see that even the outdoor tables and fire pit are surrounded by people, even on this unseasonably cool day with gusty winds. I meet with the hostess and she warns me about 40 minute wait. I ask about bar seating for one; she says about a 20 minute wait. I give her my name and cell number for the bar seating.
Back outside, I sit near the fire pit and pull out my phone. On the restaurant WiFi, I’m able to quickly upload the day’s photos and get them captioned.
Switching to the iPad, I start to compose the day’s trip report when my phone buzzes to indicate that the hostess has a seat for me… for only the next five minutes. I guess I’d better move my ass.
I’m seated at the bar and I’m immediately greeted by a tall, slender woman with a 2,000 candle-watt smile. Her name is Katrina and she wants to know what I would like to drink. I ask for water and use the delay to inspect the drinks on the menu. They do their own version of an Old Fashioned, so I order that when the water arrives. Katrina provides a small plate of pork rinds and the four available BBQ sauces for my sampling.
The dinner menu offers the normal fare you’d expect from a BBQ joint. For me, a good barometer test is to order the pulled pork and see how it stands up. For my two sides, I order the baked beans and the… whoa… is that bacon and blue cheese potato salad? Jesus, Mary, mother of Christ… yes, please!
I sip my Old Fashioned (very good, by the way; they just need the monster ice cube instead of the normal small ice), and start to craft today’s trip report. That effort is derailed almost immediately because my food arrives about 90 seconds after I order it.
Fine, so it’s time to eat, with the bustling bartending crew as a background.
The food is, in a word, wonderful. The pulled pork has a nice flavor of it’s own, but that doesn’t prevent me from sampling all four sauces on it. I ordered the small 5 oz portion; I found myself wishing I’d ordered the 8 oz. The beans were nice, but not better than what I do on the smoker at home. The potato salad, however, was out of this world. I mentioned my love for the potato salad to Katrina, who disappeared for a moment to produce the following recipe.
For those of your who are downloading that image to grab that potato salad recipe, that’ll be eight bucks.
OCM Smokehouse was going to close in about 20 minutes (9:00pm), but the bar staff ensured me that I’d be able to hang out and bang away at me keyboard until the last customer departed from the surrounding tables. They’re a good crew, and I appreciated them for their company and service.
As the clock neared 9:30pm, I elected to depart, even though I could have probably stayed longer. The rain was due to arrive at 10pm and I wanted to be back at the motel by then.
The ride back, complete with the reverse course of the aforementioned detour, was short. I parked, walked inside, and got back to writing.
Another map and another altitude overlay. This time we see a long (mostly) downhill run from Minot to the top of the Great Lakes at Duluth.
I kinda-sorta have a day to waste and still get home on Saturday (day after tomorrow). That means I can ride into Michigan and weave around a bit, knowing that I can get home from anywhere in Michigan in a single day’s ride. I may venture up into the Keweenaw to my old college stomping grounds, assuming that the weather cooperates and the rain moves out of the way.