A Motorcycle Tour of Southern Minnesota's Mississippi River Bluff Country

The religion of the ride

At the wedding reception of a co-worker held in the southern Minnesota tourist town of Lanesboro, fellow Wisconsin native Tim Leary and I had parked ourselves next to the appetizer table and, armed with full plastic glasses of beer, were happily talking bikes. Almost simultaneously we arrived at the conclusion that riding motorcycles instead of driving a car from our Minneapolis-St. Paul digs would have been oh-so-much more fun.

Lanesboro is located in the heart of southeastern Minnesota, a bluff-lined corner of the state bordered on the north by Highway 90 and on the east by the Mississippi River. The gently undulating countryside is roughly bisected by Highway 16, which twists along the Root River Valley. With a mix of rolling pastures, heavily wooded valleys and hills and well-kept stretches of pavement snaking through it all, the area is a great place for a weekend ride.

Motorcycle tour of Minnesota's Mississippi River Bluff Country
Take a deep breath of the crisp countryside air and soak up the rays as you ride along the winding roads of Minnesota.Photography by Lee Klancher

After reminiscing about the bounty of the corners we witnessed on the drive down that morning, our conversation moved on to the pastor at the wedding ceremony. The priest, Father Russ Scepaniak, was a character, a barrel-chested man with an easy smile and a bright, outgoing demeanor.

“That guy’s really something,” Tim said. “Wouldn’t it be a gas to take him out for a beer and talk bikes? He’s the kind of guy you know would have something interesting to say. I bet we could even come up with some parallels between riding and religion.”

We had a good chuckle over that one. “Riding certainly gets you closer to nature, and,” Tim laughed, “you could call leather a vestment of sorts.” It wasn’t long before I made good on my vow to ride to Lanesboro. The day I set out, the sun was just coming up into a clear blue sky, and the fall air had a sharp, clean bite that tasted like you could drink it from a glass.

On Highway 25 from Barron south through Durand and down to Winona, we rolled past the weathered dairy barns of western Wisconsin. With blue sky above and the warm sun turning a cold morning into a crisp day, the morning air evoked September days spent hunting squirrels and cutting wood with my dad when I was a kid. For me, cool September breezes carry the smell of fallen oak leaves, gun oil and chainsaw exhaust.

Taking in the view as I reminisced, I mused that if God were going to take the time to visit the Midwest, he’d probably come in September. If he really wanted to take it in right, he’d ride.

Motorcycle tour of Minnesota's Mississippi River Bluff Country
"If God were going to take the time to visit the Midwest, he's probably come in September. If he really wanted to take it in right, he'd ride."Photography by Lee Klancher

My crew for the weekend included Dan Hanna and his girlfriend, Leah, Darrick Anderson and his wife, Amy, and Jason Dejoode, who had saved and scrimped for the past three years for his first motorcycle, a clean Suzuki GS750E.

Hanna is a barber who cuts hair to support his riding habit, which often includes spontaneous blasts halfway across the country on his Kawasaki KLR650. The KLR and Hanna have a knack for appearing when something interesting is happening, like, say, the Colorado 500, which Hanna spontaneously (and unofficially) joined. He also stumbled upon Travis Pastrana as he was preparing for his infamous cliff jump—and the crew borrowed Hanna’s tool kit to help assemble the ramp! If riding is a religion, Hanna is a disciple to the faith.

Hanna had spent more time than any of us wandering Minnesota Valley’s winding network of two-lane roads, and he was quickly designated as our tour guide. Situated along historic Highway 61 and just north of Highway 90 on the Mississippi River, Winona was our stepping-off point into Bluff Country. Hanna led us away from the four lanes of 61 and onto Highway 43 south to Rushford, Minnesota.

Rushford is a shambling little town sitting on the banks of the Root River, a popular canoeing, trout fishing and bicycling destination. The burg features historic limestone buildings and used to be home to the Ernie Tuff Museum, which is Ernie Tuff’s collection of everything from 1950s stock cars to dog-powered washing machines. The museum is now closed (“Shut down by the county,” Tuff said. “They said I can sue ’em, so I’m gonna.”), so our stop in Rushford was for nothing more than a tank of gas and a bottle of water.

Motorcycle tour of Minnesota's Mississippi River Bluff Country
Canoe riding may be a nice way to enjoy the water and the weather, but the best ride of choice would be on two wheels on the road, of course.Photography by Lee Klancher

Peak of Truth
"You know," Darrick said, "We are only about 10 miles from the hotel." Hanna, however, had a different vision for our ride. He wanted to make it to Pikes Peak, Iowa, to watch the sunset.

So off we went, chasing Hanna’s tail south to a lookout in Iowa. He’d come to roads and get a gleam in his eye, and off we would go. One of the routes passed through 20 miles of gravel, winding through tidy southern Minnesota farms and ranches tucked into river valleys.

At each stop, as the sun sank lower and lower, we’d ask Hanna how much farther to Pikes Peak.

“Fifteen miles,” he’d say.

The fourth time we asked, Darrick pointed out he’d put 81 miles on his odometer since Hanna’s first answer of 15 miles.

We rolled into Pikes Peak State Park at about 5:30 p.m. with only an ounce of daylight to spare. The area was named by explorer Zebulon Pike in 1805 (a few years before he designated Pikes Peak in Colorado), and a fort was built across the river shortly after. What drew Pike to make note of the area was a 500-foot bluff overlooking the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers. Pike felt it would be a strategic site for a fort. The fort was later built across the river in Prairie du Chein, Wisconsin, and the bluff’s only strategic value is a great view of the river valley.

As the sun went down, we pondered questing farther still—maybe even to the other Pikes Peak, but then as darkness came, the edge of a Midwestern chill set us straight and we hightailed it toward a hotel. We stayed in Preston, an old bluff town nestled along the south branch of the Root River, which bills itself as America’s Trout Capital.

Motorcycle tour of Minnesota's Mississippi River Bluff Country
An old mill in Lanesboro was a neat backdrop for a photo.Photography by Lee Klancher

Our experience led us to declare the town a candidate for America’s Meat Capital, however, as we found prime rib slabs the size of your head at the local steakhouse. The Branding Iron is a wood-paneled roadhouse with a spacious dining room, 20-foot-long tables and several open kitchens where you can see the cooks hand-battering giant walleye fillets and cutting wedges of beef. The prime rib was advertised as 15 ounces, but that was about as accurate as Hanna’s 15 miles had been earlier that day. The meat was hanging off the plate on either side. A religious experience? Pretty close.

The next morning we took Highway 16 east to our destination, Lanesboro. A light mist clung to bucolic pastures and lightly wooded hillsides as we rode in the crisp morning air. Highway 16 dips and twists through the landscape, and church steeples and farm silos dot the horizon. The road’s 35-mph esses and fresh pavement seem made for cruisers, as the route is a nearly perfect venue for a relaxing ride through the countryside.

Lanesboro itself, founded in 1868, is a town of less than 1,000 residents. A dam was built to create a lake for sailing in ’68, and an old hotel, the Phoenix, was also built in ’68. The hotel burned down in ’85. Mills and breweries attempted to gain a foothold in Lanesboro, but none lasted. The Presbyterians and Catholics built limestone churches on the hills, and those were the only things that managed to put down roots and survive.

Motorcycle tour of Minnesota's Mississippi River Bluff Country
We stopped at a local Lanesboro winery and checked out some shops to absorb the local culture.Photography by Lee Klancher

Today, Lanesboro's mix of old limestone buildings on Main Street, a plethora of bed and breakfasts, a thriving local arts scene and canoeing and biking along the Root River have made the little town a popular destination. Outside magazine named Lanesboro one of the 20 best dream towns in America, and the city was dubbed one of the 50 best outdoor sports towns by Sports Afield magazine.

Motorcyclists are no strangers to Lanesboro. Rows of bikes lined Main Street during our afternoon in town. We stopped in at the local winery, checked out a few of the shops, caught a couple of guys playing polka songs on accordions at the Das Wurst Haus and took in some of the local art in the galleries on Main Street. From Lanesboro, we decided to take the long way home and run the Wisconsin side of the river north to the Twin Cities.

The east side has a different character than the Minnesota side. The road hugs the river a little tighter, and Highway 35 is mostly two-lane, whereas Minnesota’s Highway 61 is mostly four-lane. The towns have a different flavor, as well. The steeple-dominated bicyclist-filled small towns of Bluff Country are replaced by little rivertowns populated with tightly packed stores, restaurants and bars with Leinenkugel and Green Bay Packer signs.

One stop on the Wisconsin side that should not be missed is the Harbor View Café in Pepin. With a comfortable library motif and a great view of the harbor, this elegant, cozy café offers some of the finest food south of the Twin Cities. The meal was a perfect way to round off our weekend ride. We parted ways at Prescott, Wisconsin, after watching the sun go down over the Mississippi, and I was left to ponder faith once again.

Motorcycle tour of Minnesota's Mississippi River Bluff Country
The town of Wabasha lies along the Mississippi River, about an hour's drive south of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.Photography by Lee Klancher

Finding Faith
Riding helps us feel alive, which, I suppose, brings us closer to a state of religion. I think part of that is the smells and tastes of your environment blowing right through you, all around you. Motorcycling is a step outside the false security of being wrapped in two tons of ABS-equipped airbag-lined steel. You can still get killed in a car, but that fact is much more tangible when all that is between you and the pavement is a few millimeters of leather and a fiberglass bucket.

The question Tim and I stumbled onto while drinking beer in Lanesboro is a bit deeper than my usual concerns of whether or not Favre’s arm will hold up for another two years or if I can somehow scrape up enough money for that BMW 1200GS I’ve been lusting after.

Is riding a religion? I am aware the answer is no. It lacks the cultural history and the deeper moral and philosophical touch points of true religions, but nevertheless, the parallels are there, and for a few dedicated enthusiasts like Hanna, the sport has taken a role in their life similar to that of religion. For those of us who lack such singular dedication, riding puts the sights and smells of the world right in our face. When the world is tangible and sharp and alive, I do feel closer to God. It just seems to happen to me most often when I’m riding a motorcycle.