It was such a darned wonderful, visionary thing the Legislature did in 1967 when it created the Casey Jones State Trail on the prairie in Minnesota’s southwest corner. It was, 52 years ago, the state’s first such designated paved trail for bicycles and also hikers and anyone else who wanted to enjoy the outdoors in a beautiful part of our state.
Since creating that shining model, our leaders have funded and constructed more than 500 miles of paved trails. The Munger State Trail is 76 miles long; the Paul Bunyan is 100 miles, and the Heartland is 49 miles. The Casey Jones was established as a 100-mile tour of the prairie from Redwood Falls to Luverne, with intermediate stops in the city of Pipestone; the Shetek, Split Rock Creek and Blue Mounds state parks; and even a Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Walnut Grove.
And the news this fall is that Minnesota is just now completing 3 more miles of its 100-mile plan.
Which means, as of today, 52 years into the Casey Jones project, the state’s 100-mile-long founding paved trail is, you guessed it, 8 miles long. Or 10 miles if you include 2 gravel miles toward the town of Woodstock. Or 12 miles if you (like the Department of Natural Resources) include two more unconnected, nonpaved miles in nearby Lake Wilson. Or even 16 miles, maybe, if you (like the DNR) include a distant, unconnected 6-mile loop in Shetek State Park.
So this, then, is the story of the bike path that Minnesota forgot. While the Legislature and DNR went on to create grand, uninterrupted, paved trails elsewhere, the Casey Jones has for most of its existence been a 5-mile paved path that ran east from Pipestone and ended, unceremoniously, at Pipestone County Road 16.
“It’s kind of a shame,” said state Sen. Bill Weber, a Republican from Luverne. “It is the oldest, but the state kind of forgot it ever since.”
The Casey Jones also has the distinction as Minnesota’s shortest and perhaps least-rewarding paved state trail. Other trails are currently at the same scale as the Casey Jones — say, the Goodhue Pioneer, the Brown’s Creek, the Blazing Star — but the DNR’s official description of these routes always includes the phrase “When complete …” with a description of miles to be added in the years ahead. Or these short paths are directly connected to far longer paved trails.
The DNR does not use the phrase, “When complete …” in its description of the Casey Jones State Trail, and the trail is not connected to anything. The 3 miles of just-completed paved path were funded largely through a special allocation from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources. The Casey Jones has been included in several recent state bonding bills, but has never been included in the final bill.
“They’ve kind of forgotten about us,” said Mick Myers of Pipestone. “We’ve been included in three or more bonding bills, but they keep kicking us out in the end.”
Myers is the president of a stalwart organization called the Friends of the Casey Jones Trail Association. If Minnesota has forgotten the Casey Jones, the Friends certainly have not. Myers said the group has about 35 members, 10 of whom are the most active, and they meet every month to keep alive the trail’s 52-year-old vision.
Is the Casey Jones’ new mileage a sign of better things to come for a part of the state that has the fewest miles of paved paths? Weber pointed out that the bonding process remains highly competitive and, “I don’t like to make those kinds of predictions.”
When Myers was asked if he is more optimistic that Minnesota, finally, is remembering its vision of the Casey Jones, he said, “Yes. Kind of. But we’ll have to keep working.”
Wildlife questions. Many of us have at some point addressed the squirrel question. After swerving wildly on a bike to avoid the darting vermin, and almost crashing into a tree, oncoming traffic, or a fire hydrant, we’ve made the decision that, hence forth, it’s the squirrel’s responsibility to get out of our way. No more swerving. Some of us have also in recent years faced a similar but more nuanced question about encounters with wild turkeys.
Then there was last week in the Cedar Lake Trail’s construction zone of the Southwest light-rail line project, heading south toward 21st Street, cruising, hands on the top of the handlebars, a 4-foot orange plastic construction fence running along the left side. Then surreal: Out of my left periphery vision I see a doe — a deer, a female deer — airborne over the fence. A world in sudden slow motion. The doe landed elegantly on the path 5 feet in front of me, looked me in the eye, and bounded off. No time to react, just scream.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. His column appears twice a month. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read archived columns at startribune.com/bikeguy.