Voices :: All aboard!

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January 4, 2010 // UPDATED 8:54 am - January 4, 2010
By: Carl and LuAnn Johnson
Carl and LuAnn Johnson
We had not planned a moonlight bicycle ride. An earlier train would have ensured an arrival at our St. Cloud motel by 5 p.m. Despite a hiccup with the schedule, my husband and I boarded the Northstar train for the 3:50 p.m. departure from the Target Field Station and headed toward Big Lake.

We were off on an overnight bicycling odyssey to test the user-friendliness of the new Northstar Line. What a boon a commuter train is for cyclists who want to begin a ride far out in the country!

The helpful conductor explained that BNSF owns the tracks and trains, and provides the crew under a 10-year contract with Metro Transit.

Our first concern was, “Where do we put the bikes?” Bicycle symbols near the doors indicate two designated bike spaces inside each car. A diagram shows how to use the yellow straps to tie one wheel of each bike into a slot. Not as quick and easy as the Hiawatha LRT, the system is still effective.

Fifty minutes later, we arrived at the Big Lake Station in rapidly fading light.

Once on the road, our senses worked overtime interpreting the smells and sounds of the night as we rolled toward St. Cloud. True, the nearly 10 miles of heavy U.S. Highway 10 traffic, which connects with Sherburne County Highway 8 in Becker, were less than fun. However, it was efficiently direct and had a wide shoulder.

Riding quiet Sherburne County 8, with a three-quarter moon and a slight tailwind, was bicycling Nirvana. The four-foot shoulder was comforting, since with poor night vision, our Cat Eye headlights were barely adequate in the dark.

We were not alone. The unique smell of freshly harvested corn filled the air, as farmers worked feverishly under the bright lights of their combines. A spooked herd of Holsteins galloped with us along a barnyard fence; I could only see the white of their coats. Christmas lights and merry Santas brightened many rural yards.

My pathfinder, despite his outdated map, easily found the bike-friendly 10th Street Bridge across the Mississippi and through the St. Cloud State campus.

When we arrived at our motel at 7:40, we had ridden 32 miles. Dinner at the Granite City Brewery was especially sweet that night, as we celebrated our ride and our 42nd wedding anniversary.

Our return trip to Big Lake on Saturday was in warm sunshine on lightly traveled roads with no shoulders. Taking County Highway 3 through Santiago allowed a lunch stop at Bailey Ray’s Roadhouse, as well as a trip through the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge on Highway 11. County Highways 4 and 5 led us back to Big Lake for a 42-mile day.

The station was crowded with holiday travelers who were curious about the new Northstar.

Seeing our bicycles, other passengers expressed interest in riding the train with bikes. For those contemplating a bicycle adventure via the Northstar, these tips may be helpful:

— Get detailed information on schedules and fares from Metrotransit.org by checking the Northstar Line (Route 888) link.

— Arrive at the station at least 20 minutes before departure to buy your tickets — lines can be long.

— Obtain a detailed map of Sherburne County to find other route options.

— There are additional dining choices near Duelm and at Orrock.

It was by train, Carl remembered, that we returned from Chicago after our maiden, self-supported bicycle tour 30 years ago. Imagine the possibilities with the new Northstar Commuter Line, when warm weather returns!

Carl and LuAnn Johnson live in Loring Park.