My wife Jen and I have long had a dream of a ski trip to one of Minnesota's wonderful state parks.
We have visions of this happy place in the woods where two smiling people wearing red coats glide through the forest, effortlessly, on tracks pressed into freshly fallen, sparkling snow. They laugh as they duck around the bending branches and every so often they stop, reach into their backpacks, pull out a thermos and pour piping hot coffee into mugs.
They huddle together, look into each other's eyes through the steam and think about how lucky they are to be there with each other.
That was our dream. It hasn't happened, yet, but we're getting close, I think.
We didn't have any snow at Bear Head Lake State Park by Ely when we first chased our winter dream a couple of years ago. We tried again this January, but what was supposed to be a ski trip to New Ulm's Flandrau State Park, turned into a sub-zero bike trip.
It wasn't that ski dream come true, but it turned into a great way to ring in the New Year.
"We have a bike trail that goes all the way around the city", said Sarah Warmka at the Visitor's Bureau, and in our minds a plan began to gel.
Armed with brochures we sat at a small table at Lola Bistro on Minnesota Street. The place was packed for the lunch rush on a cold and sunny Monday. We had some time to kill before checking into our camper cabin and started making plans.
We were wide open to suggestions.
In the afternoon we moved into our pine-paneled camper cabin at Flandrau State Park, or rather, our gear exploded from our tightly packed car into the cabin and ended up filling two bunk beds, the table, and most of the floor. Every pine bedpost was occupied and all of the wall hooks groaned under the weight of coats, sweaters, and bags.
This happened in only a fraction of the time it took to load.
We cleared enough of the wooden benches to finally sit and watch the sun go down behind the rim of the frozen river valley. Nobody else was in the park. The snow turned from orange to red to black. Inside the cabin all you could hear was the occasional little tings of the electric heater. Outside, in the dark, owls were calling.
There is nothing better than french press coffee to start a day of exploring. We spread the map on the table between us and over a fresh, hot cup Jen and I hatched our plan for the day: Ride the bikes into New Ulm and connect with the city bike trail. Besides, Jen was ready to try out her new fat bike, Guido.
The New Ulm bike trail is about 13 miles long and loops the town in a roughly rectangular pattern. About half of it is a dedicated bike trail, the rest is a signed route on city streets and you're never more than a few blocks away from downtown.
My iphone said it was -6 degrees outside, but that's just a number until you step out of your cozy cabin and feel the cold rasp your face. "Pucker up, we've skied in colder weather than this." said Jen and we crunched our way up the steep road to the park entrance, and then shot down an equally steep 10th Avenue into downtown New Ulm. On a hot summer day, a downhill ride is a welcome cool-down. That day the breeze sliced through me like a frozen knife. The tears streaming from my eyes instantly turned into icicles, and all I could do to keep them open was blink, because I was not about to take my hands off the handlebars and scrape a glove across my face.
We ducked into the Bäckerei bakery to regroup and figure out exactly what to do that day.
I was chatting with a local about the weather and why we were out biking in it, when he nodded towards a man in a parka standing by the register. "That's our mayor, you should talk to him."
Mayor Robert Beussman was just in for some donuts and joined Willard, the local man, and I in conversation about New Ulm's history. Willard volunteers at the Brown County Historical Society Museum and turned out to have a wealth of information.
We stepped back out into the cold and made it the block or so to the Brown County Museum, a beautiful, brick building built in the German Renaissance style.
Besides being warm and cozy inside, we learned about area history and took in the award-winning exhibit about the US-Dakota war of 1862, which nearly wiped out a young New Ulm. Eventually we finished all three floors of exhibits and had no choice but to go back outside, pry the frozen locks off the bikes and ride the bike trail back to the park. We plopped into bed early, exhausted, but glowing with accomplishment.
Day Three: New Year's Eve
It was still well below zero, a strong wind was rattling the screens of our cabin's porch and it sounded like distant thunder. Even coffee couldn't help this situation. It was just too dangerous to bike, and we decided to explore the area by car.
Carl's Corner in Essig, a hamlet northwest of New Ulm, is famous for fried chicken. The new year and it's resolutions were still a day away, so we paid them a visit for lunch. Unfortunately, the chicken is for dinner only, so we had the lunch plate of sausage, mashed potatoes, and an enormous heap of sauerkraut.
In conversation with our waiter we found out that the small towns around New Ulm have kept a very strong, local baseball tradition and the Essig Bluejays draw a crowd in the Tomahawk East League.
And, yes, on the way back to New Ulm we noticed that for a town with only a handful of homes, the stadium was very well equipped. It was frozen and bare, but I could just about see the locals leaning on the fences, watching the game on a summer evening, the field a brightly lit, grassy spot carved out of the cornfields.
Back in New Ulm we swung by Schell's Brewery and were greeted by a resident peacock sunning itself in front of one of the century-old brick buildings of the fifth generation family-owned brewery. There were no tours that day, but it was worth the trip just to see the grounds.
We made one last stop at Domeier's gift shop fifteen minutes before they closed for the season. The narrow aisles of the small store were crammed with everything German and Christmas imaginable, the low ceiling was dripping with glass ornaments.
I shuffled through the place and finally found what I didn't know I was looking for: Katjes hard licorice, a childhood favorite of mine. I tore into that bag as soon as we were back in the car. Yes, they were just like I remembered: rock-hard and vaguely cat-shaped.
The wind had died down and temperatures were improving. Back at the park, we bundled up in our Carhartt suits, started a fire and cooked a gourmet camping meal of savory buttermilk pancakes with cheese and bacon in our cast iron skillet.
We also had neighbors for the first time in days. Mary and Lynn Hoffman are outdoor enthusiasts who have taken their three sons Andrew, Joseph, and James to the same cabin at Flandrau State Park for the last three New Year's Eves. "We go on night hikes and skis and usually have a bonfire" said Andrew, a student in the ninth grade and young entrepreneur who started his own bike repair shop last September.
The Hoffmanns take their sons to hike, bike, canoe and ski at state parks, trails, and in natural areas anywhere from the Boundary Waters to the Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail.
They left for the trails in the dark, and we continued to feed the fire until our three bundles of wood were gone.
It was just eleven o'clock when we turned in. The Hoffmanns were walking in the woods and the new year came quietly while we were sleeping.
At dawn I climbed down from my bunk and peeked out of the door. The huge pile of wood was reduced to nothing but ashes, but it was still sending little ribbons of smoke into the brittle air. The heat of the fire had melted the snow back a few feet from the fire ring. I closed the door and started making some extra strong coffee.
Later, caffeinated, we said goodbye to Hermann the German.
He's been looking eastward with his sword drawn since 1897, and keeping a watchful eye on New Ulm, ready to fend of Romans from his pillared perch above the city.
The staircase to the top of the monument -where his feet are- is closed in the winter, but we still got one last look at a frozen and hazy New Ulm down in the valley.
On the long way home, my thoughts drifted. I thought about that magical place with the sparkling snow, the bending branches and the people grinning ear to ear, silently gliding on perfect tracks in their red coats, happy, and drinking hot coffee out of thermoses.
It's out there somewhere.