If the history of Minnesota bike touring is ever told, a chapter best include the story of young Dick, Arland and Bill.
Richard Thorud was transported back to his Minneapolis youth after reading a Star Tribune story about a proposed U.S. Bicycle Route for Minnesota in a July 8 Outdoors Weekend section (“Aspirations, if not money, roll in for U.S. bike route.”)
Something was familiar about the proposed route from the metro area to the North Shore. More than 60 years earlier, Thorud and two neighborhood buddies covered the route on kids bikes. They rode essentially the same way, starting in Minneapolis and rolling north to Canada (they briefly entered owing to the kindness of border patrol), and then returned home. The trio pedaled more than 600 miles and slept every night under the stars.
Thorud’s reaction in a brief letter to Star Tribune Outdoors was poignant. Later, in phone conversation and through e-mail, the breadth and spontaneity of their trip came into focus, Thorud recounting vivid details. What took form is a timeless story of youthful wanderlust and adventure in early ’50s America.
“I don’t know where we got the idea from,” said Thorud, 82, of Bloomington. “We were young, inner-city kids.”
But there are hints.
Thorud recalled getting a bike — and mobility — after starting a paper route when he was 11. “My Schwinn was with me everywhere I went.”
A pal, Arland Olafson, liked bikes, too, and the pair took different trips around the area, sometimes getting as far as Hastings. The boys got the idea to try “something bigger,” Thorud said, “and Bill got involved.”
Bill is Bill Englund, who didn’t own a bike but found a frame for a dollar and a couple of tires. His sister even sewed canvas saddlebags for the trio, Thorud said.
Bikes packed and with a little bit of money, Thorud, 17, and Olafson and Englund, both 16, rolled away from Thorud’s home at Franklin and 21st avenues in Minneapolis on their single-speed steeds June 28, 1951. They’d be gone 18 days. “Our folks didn’t seem to object at all,” Thorud said.
Engaging and soft-spoken, Thorud was pencil-sharp with facts about their odyssey, which covered 640 miles — according to the odometer on his bike. “We calculated that to be 468,400 pedals.”
They camped their first night in North Branch, and continued through Rush City, Carlton and Duluth. They arrived on the North Shore on July 5 and reached Canada by July 7. Then it was time to pedal home.
“By the time we had returned to Duluth, we were almost broke, and anxious to get home, so we decided to do some night riding. We headed south out of Superior, and found the road to be very dark and devoid of traffic. The air was crystal clear, and the starry sky was more spectacular than anything we had ever seen in the Twin Cities. Our sense of awe, however, was soon replaced with a sense of dread when we realized that there were wolves in the woods around us (wolves were a lot more prevalent back then, and we had read Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” in school). Their constant howling sent us pedaling as fast as we could.
Thorud went on: “Fortunately, we came upon a farm, and after pounding on the door of the farmhouse, we were greeted by a farmer. He gave us permission to sleep in the hayloft of his barn that night. So, as fate would have it, our night of fear turned into the best night of our trip, as we found that burrowing into the sweet-smelling hay made for very comfortable beds. Fully rested, we pedaled 100 miles the next day (day 17), the only time in our lives we ever did that.”
Wearing down but focused on home, Thorud said the three pedaled on through Wisconsin for a change of scenery, crossing back into Minnesota in St. Croix Falls.
Up North was a mystery for three teenagers from the city. They’d never been. They were wowed by the beauty of the North Shore — and the many kindnesses and interest from locals. “Word quickly spread throughout the North Shore about these nearly broke kids having the sightseeing trip of their lives,” Thorud said, “after which people would stop their cars and offer us food and money.”
The three are forever bound by their youthful escapade, but their narrative largely ended there. Thorud went on to college (at Augsburg and then the University of Minnesota) before serving two years in the military. Olafson went into the service after high school, and Englund got a job.
“It just was kind of on to the next thing afterward,” Thorud said.