Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, Aug. 7, 2000

Mary Wiemiller: biking is a summer camp on wheels

By Jane Otto

What would compel someone to get on a bike, baggage on her back, and bear the elements for 500 miles throughout Minnesota during the month of June when the mosquito population is on the rise and thunderstorms are an imminent threat?

The reason is clear ­ people.

A conversation that began with the basics of biking turned into wonderful yarns about the people Mary has had the fortune to meet along the way in her 18 years of bike touring.

Step back about 19 years ago.

Mary was familiar with Jim Klobuchar's "Jaunt with Jim," a 500-mile bike trip in Minnesota, through advertisements in the Star Tribune. Klobuchar, who has published more than 14 books, was a columnist with the Star Tribune for 30 years.

Bike touring appealed immensely to Mary. That adventuresome spirit was hereditary, as her dad, too, definitely wanted to make the trip that year. However, he was very ill at the time.

"If there was any way he could, he would," said Mary.

Mary put the bike trip plans on hold, but her dad told her to do it. It wasn't until the first year after her father's death, that Mary, and her father in spirit, joined the Klobuchar troop for its 500-mile jaunt. She has done it every year since.

Over the years, she came to realize that, for some unknown reason, people react differently to touring cyclists than if you were traveling via a car. People can be so trusting of bicyclists, said Mary.

On the Klobuchar trip in June, Mary's friend, Colleen Johnson of St. Cloud, pulled an Achilles tendon. Mary said she knew it was serious when Colleen arrived at the bed and breakfast in Hackensack where they were staying for a layover night, on the back of a motorcycle.

Mary explained that on the 500-mile trip, there is a layover day ­ a day usually spent doing laundry or such. Layover days are also great for touring the area, she said.

"The girls are looking for a place to shave their legs and the guys are looking for a place to have a beer," Mary laughed.

For the past five years, Mary and a few friends typically deviate from the Klobuchar path and get a motel for the layover day. They make the arrangements prior to leaving for the bike trip.

"A swimming pool takes priority. If there's no pool in the layover town, then we look for a bed and breakfast," said Mary.

She pointed out that on that particular trip, the first three days were nothing but rain, so a warm shower and a cold beer would have appealed to most of the cyclists.

While at this particular B&B, Mary and the injured Colleen were discussing where to eat since they both knew Colleen couldn't make that four-mile bike trip to town. The owners overheard our conversation and offered us their car.

Before they left for dinner, Mary asked where they could hang up their wash. The proprietors told them not to worry and took their laundry. Upon their return, Mary said, there sat the laundry on their beds, washed, dried, and folded.

"They didn't know us from Adam. If we had checked into the B&B with a car, we never would have got that kind of treatment," Mary said.

Mary recalled another trip when the cycling group came upon a beautiful garden just south of Detroit Lakes. The proprietor was an old Swedish fellow, a son of immigrants.

Once a farmer, who couldn't continue for medical reasons, he plowed up his entire 40 acres and planted nothing but flowers.

The cost to tour the gardens was $3, but he was so thrilled to see the 120 or so cyclists waiting to visit his gardens that he said, "No charge.

Mary said it then became a free will offering and most put in more than the $3 admission price.

The man, she said, had three hip replacements, yet he is on his hands and knees daily to weed his lustrous garden. The garden is also filled with a variety of sculptures by local artists.

An oddity but favorite was the bottle tree. Stuffed onto tree branches was a menagerie of bottles, from Jack Daniels to Coca Cola.

A rock garden there, Mary said, kept the geologists in the group entertained for hours.

About 10 years ago, one trip took the Klobuchar group through Grand Rapids.

It was the start of a long day. Mary had seven flat tires before noon. She and biking buddies, Sandy Shirek of Minnetonka and Colleen, fell so far behind the group, they elected to see the the sights. So, they toured Grand Rapids, took in the Judy Garland museum and finally, went on their way.

When they reached one of the predetermined stops well behind schedule, there stood two, obviously distraught fellows ­ their rear ends in agony. Not from the United States and new to the Klobuchar tour, they just thought it would be a nice bike ride.

The 20 miles to the day's final stop didn't seem at all possible for them. Mary said they managed to convince the fellows otherwise and the group continued, taking slow and easy.

Heading up an old logging trail, a moose came lumbering out of the woods just in front of them. A heart thumper for everyone, it was especially unnerving for two fellows who had never seen such an animal.

"These two guys were wondering 'What next?'" Mary said.

Later at dinner, she heard the two fellows they had befriended excitedly telling tales of seeing a moose and those at the table saying, "No, it must have been a deer."

Those guys finished the trip, said Mary. One of the two, Dr. Anan Triparti, formerly of India and now lives in St. Paul, is a professor at the University of Minnesota and still calls her today.

That same trip was witness to another example of overwhelming generosity. When they reached their destination for the day ­ one that began with numerous flat tires and ended with coercing two weary riders to carry on ­ they learned there were only cold showers.

Mary and Colleen saw a few kids operating a lemonade stand. Colleen asked where they lived and said she would pay them $10 if they could use their shower. The kids ran into the house directly behind them and came out minutes later with their mother.

She told them to come right in and wouldn't hear of any money. Mary said it was obvious they didn't have much, but were willing to share what they did have.

That memory sparked another.

Riding through Ashby on another Klobuchar trip, the highway patrol advised them to get off the road due to a bad storm.

"It was a terrifying rain. You couldn't see at all. Lightning was crashing all around us. I thought this was it," Mary said. "You just head for the nearest home."

They knocked on the door of a home belonging to a Swedish immigrant who spoke little English. The 80-year-old man looked somewhat disjointed when he saw 12 drenched bikers at his front door.

He telephoned his daughter and they spoke in Swedish. As luck would have it, she was familiar with the Klobuchar rides and told her dad it was okay to let them in.

Mary said they learned that he and his wife, a mail-order bride from Germany, were married for 56 years.

A teacher with the group spoke German. The wife was so excited to be able to converse in her native tongue, that soon, the two were engrossed in a heart-to-heart talk.

In the three-hour stay, Mary said they came to know this Swedish immigrant and his mail-order bride and they knew them.

The man, who was terrified to initially let them into his home, had tears in his eyes when it came time for the group to leave it.

It was later learned that the group of cyclists ahead of Mary's was urged into a barn by a woman who, in minutes, had pots of hot coffee brewing and insisted that they spend the evening.

Memories flowed. Though some names have faded away over the years, the people have still left an imprint.

Mary told of Burt Carlson of Wayzata, a man near 80 years of age and a cancer survivor, who ran Grandma's marathon, a 26-mile foot race, in Duluth, shortly before joining the Klobuchar bike trip.

There was a cancer patient whose wife and a nurse followed in a motor home so they could administer his chemotherapy treatments.

There was the Hungarian whose lack of command of the English language resulted in a terrible sunburn. He understood that you put the sunscreen on after being in the sun.

A blind man who rode tandem.

And a couple who were married on the trip.

Colleen, Sandy, and Mary have been together on the Klobuchar rides for more than 10 years. How the threesome met is also a story unto itself.

About four weeks after giving birth to her second child, Sandy saddled up for another Klobuchar bike ride. After checking with her doctor, of course, said Mary. She and Sandy shared a tent since Sandy would only be riding for four days.

A night in Grand Rapids brought a horrific downpour. Colleen, in the tent next to theirs, said she might be joining them if her tent flooded.

Lo and behold, it was a threesome in what was barely a two-person tent, said Mary. Rolling over had to be done in unison. Needless to say, they became fast friends.

People who go on these rides are anything but middle of the road, said Mary.

"They're not going for any reason other than to see the country from the seat of their bike. We're a summer camp on wheels for big people," she said.

Aside from storms, the heat, or an occasional mean dog, Mary can't recall ever having a bad bike trip. She's always felt safe on the trips. That safe feeling can only be attributed to the people she's with and the people she has met.

Of course, most important is that bike touring these past 18 years has given Mary an incredible collection of close friends.

"It's just nice to know I have about 100 people who I can call just about anytime ­ if I need help, to talk, or just to whine."

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