‘Merica, the Munger Trail, and Conor McGregor

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The past few weekends have been absolutely packed with patriotism, or at least what passes for it these days. It’s no secret that Americans love when entertainment and nationalism intertwine, and as of late, the two have been in jackbooted lockstep.

The festivities began in the final weekend of June. The Mankato Regional Airport played host to one of the biggest events to hit our region, in terms of sheer size and fossil fuel consumption: The Minnesota Air Spectacular. Lest you think this was just an excuse to perpetuate the unnecessary nouning of a verb, heavyweight sponsors / local pillars of goodwill Taylor Corp and the Tailwind Group (with additional support from….MONSANTO *gasp*) brought us a true spectacularity featuring the USAF Thunderbirds, which are basically the Burger King to the Blue Angels’ McDonalds.

Ideally, an air show is a kid-centric event. It’s an exploration of objects that are totally beyond their scope of comprehension, celebrating the marvels of engineering, speed, and sonics. When I was a tiny human, my dad took me to an airshow in Duluth, right at the peak of Top Gun‘s popularity.

(A phenomenon that, regrettably, compelled me to spend way too much time with this broken-ass NES game and a VHS dub of Cocktail.)

I was incredibly stoked, not only to see mechanical contraptions that were bigger than houses and could bomb the hell out of brown people, but also to score some killer merch: My dad bought me a rad “Airborne” pin with a sweet skull on it and an SR-71 Blackbird trucker hat that was twice the size of my pelvis.

These things were awesome. Because I was a kid.

Now that I’m an adult–with the wherewithal to read books not titled Daredevil, the Man Without Fear–I find it insulting that an attraction largely driven by American tax dollars costs $20+ for the privilege to attend. In fact, the entire enterprise is off-putting. When an AIR SPECTACULAR rolls into your town, it’s basically like the military-industrial complex is pulling its lobbyist-greased ballsack out of its Dockers, slapping it across our collective forehead, and then insisting that we jam fistfuls of cash into its puckered, festering asshole.

Okay, that’s kind of gross. If you’d prefer not to worry about the $400 billion we’re spending on fighter jets (remember those epic dogfights with Al Qaeda and whoever the hell we were actually fighting in Iraq?) instead of things like education, transit, and health care, by all means, watch the big things go fast. After all, this is the time of year that we should be eating hot dogs, slamming domestic macrobrews, and bitching about real problems, like the 1.3% of food stamps lost to underground trafficking.

This is what we do on our…Independence Day.

(I saw Independence Day–affectionately referred to as ID4 by absolutely no one–on the day of its release in 1996. My friend Nathan and I promptly sold it to his family BBQ as “the greatest movie of all time.” Looking back, it’s definitely on the cusp of the Top Ten Films Featuring Judd Hirsch Playing a Caricature of Judd Hirsch.)

But even the most cynical critics of American excess can’t resist the charms of the Fourth of July. The lure of relaxing on the Northland’s freshwater shores with family and friends is simply too strong. What are we if we cannot break whiskey and hops with our loved ones? Life is too short to deprive ourselves of the most humanizing experiences, is it not?

So, in the interest of being a human, I set out to visit my people in Duluth–aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters, moms, dads–on July 3rd. Mostly by bicycle. Because what’s more American than riding a bike 110 miles from Hinckley to Island Lake for the opportunity to sip scotch and spew anarcho-communist rhetoric?

(Besides, well, everything.)

Thus, my life partner Toyota Corolla’d me to the Willard Munger trailhead in Hinckley–which is a WAY shittier town than the Grand Casino and Tobies billboards would have you believe–and I set about my journey.

I had eyes on trekking up the Willard Munger Trail for some time now, less as a recreational expedition and more of a way to haul ass to D-town without straining on our single-car household. My Duluthian obligations are running unusually high this summer, and not only would I like to avoid leaving Mean Gene carless for an entire weekend, but I hate driving because it is bad and terrible.

Thanks for the ride to Parts Unknown, G.

Thanks for the ride into Parts Unknown, G.

Anyway, here’s the thing about the Munger Trail: as a recreational expedition, it ain’t much of a conquest.

It’s bookended by a pair of 15-mile-ish stretches that are gorgeous for different reasons. The Hinckley-to-Rutledge portion alternates between treelined canopies and wide-open, untouched prairie views, while the final stretch from Carlton to not-quite Duluth (more on that later) runs alongside / through Jay Cooke State Park, where the views range from breathtaking to intimidating.

But that 40+ mile midsection that runs parallel to Highway 61? It’s just a straight. goddamn. line. If you don’t have friends or whiskey to keep you occupied, it’s…well, let’s take a look at some of the riveting terrain…

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…from Finlayson…

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…to Groningen…

...to Willow River...

…to Willow River…

...to Moose Lake...

…to Moose Lake…

...through Carlton...

…through Carlton…

...and, finally, into the gates of Valhalla.

…and, finally, into the gates of Valhalla.

Getting a sense of the theme, here?

All of this banality makes the long-awaited, ever-so-slight descent from Jay Cooke into Duluth a hellacious reward. But once that rollercoaster of wilderness was complete, rather than being greeted with a warm welcome into my hometown–something like the beautiful crest into the harbor that glass-cagers are privileged when rolling in from Spirit Mountain–I was crushed by the encompassing maw of construction season.

The last 9 miles of the trail were closed. I had to hike up a staircase and plant myself on something called “Becks Road.”

On the wrong side of Spirit Mountain.

Next to a sign screaming, “DEMOLITION LANDFILL.”

Near 108th Avenue West.

In Gary / New Duluth.

Which any Duluthian knows isn’t actually Duluth, much less New Duluth. It’s the Pluto to Morgan Park’s Siberia.

Thus, after a maddening 75-mile trek, I was forced to cross the entire city. My only respite(s) were stopping at the mighty A & Dubs for replenishment…

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…and pausing for photos with Hairball fans…

…before finally touching down in East Duluth to settle down with family and crush Bent Paddle by the pint.

It was a good–if brief–weekend, but the return journey wasn’t much better than the ride northward. Again, it’s more of a lets-get-from-point-A-to-point-B ride, best split by a night in this shelter 20 miles from the Hinckley trailhead…

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…and best spent with other humans.

(Wannabe racers would hate this thing, too, because despite the straightaways, the asphalt is in relatively sketchy condition. My 32mm Panaracers roll over just about anything, but skinny-tire carbonites would torque their aerobars with impotent rage at having their taints battered by bumps.)

The lone oasis on this arduous trek was this country store in Mahtowa….

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…which transforms into something of a bratwurst-fueled flea market on Sundays.

Needless to say, it was nice to land back in Mankato, but the weekend following the 4th was filled with a bit of trepidation. There was an inkling that my town / glorified neighborhood of North Mankato, in the throes of the Fun Days parade and festivities, would succumb to the kind of backwoods racism that emerged from Facebook commenters in the wake of that Albert Lea Confederate’s dick-waving cluelessness.

I was half-afraid that the people that pissed all over this since-scrubbed KEYC comment section (including a City of Mankato employee that was posting blatantly-racist memes) would descend upon Benderz and resurrect the Klan while middle-aged women got falling-down-drunk in front of Scrambler-sick children.

So, I kept my never-been-to-Fun-Days streak alive, and retreated indoors to watch a cocky Irishman TKO an all-American boy in the main event of what was possibly the greatest card in UFC history.

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Keep up the good work, America.