Travelogue: A Solo Weekend With Paul and The Blue Ox

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a statement that recommended that motorists simply drive alone to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The Federal healthcare agency revised their original statement due to a growing criticism from public transit agencies and environmental groups. 

Still, being in a vehicle alone could yield various feelings. You could feel lonely, content, relaxed, and even excited. Still, it would be a good idea to take a solo adventure to avoid the pandemic for a few hours.

It’s a no brainer if you’re already solo. 

While the CDC was rewording their recommendation, I was again reminded by John Davis and Greg Carloss of the PBS automotive television show MotorWeek that driving is a form of social distancing. Their message is clear – travel by automobile is both healing and an escape from the reality of the negative energy pervading our society. 

In this context, I needed a getaway. 

For Minnesotans, one of our most popular destination is Bemidji and the nearby Itasca State Park. I’ve there just a few of times. So, what would be so special about this particular getaway northbound? 

It was all down to a few details. One, I have never stayed overnight up in that part of Minnesota. Secondly, I took a completely different route than the usual one Google Maps gave me.

My travel companion was a 2019 Volkswagen Tiguan S with the 4Motion system. Knowing how good this compact SUV is, I figured I would achieve great fuel economy while serving up great drivability over these miles. 

The Tiguan was not fully loaded for this road trip. I threw my backpack in with my new laptop and the next day’s clothes in the footwell behind me and headed westbound in Interstate 94 on that Saturday morning. 

Why Interstate 94 and not U.S. Highway 10? Not for the sake of time, but to try another route to Bemidji up U.S. Highway 71. It was a good idea when I planned this route.

The route actually worked out fine. I drove Interstate 94 to Sauk Centre, where I caught U.S. Highway 71. I did it on an empty stomach. Must've been my energy that carried me up those first 101 miles. Nonetheless, a quick breakfast got me going for the rest of the way – and a morning's adventure ahead. 

This route brought me through two different landscapes: Prairie farmlands and the north woods. The transition between these two landscapes is the town of Wadena. While a county seat in modern central Minnesota, there was a sense of the past in its downtown.

Continuing north of Wadena, farm co-ops were supplanted by resorts and cabins. The tall trees were welcoming, along with the added traffic of trucks towing boats and RVs finding their camping sites. The miles fell away as Bemidji grew closer.

Arrival into Bemidji was subtle. If not, through the city’s back door by Paul Bunyan Mall. I kept the Tiguan going on Minnesota Highway 197 until I saw Paul Bunyan and that big Blue Ox by the shores of Lake Bemidji. That is the primary landmark for the city where the Mississippi River flows from Lake Itasca through the city. 

Paul and the Blue Ox looked like they got a fresh coat of paint. They looked vibrant on a cloudy and drizzly Saturday. I was definitely in Bemidji. 

Another sign of my arrival in Bemidji was the shops bearing the name of its famous landmark. The legend of Paul Bunyan runs deep here in this part of Minnesota, just over 100 miles south of the Canadian border. 

The world has been opening up very cautiously. You can see that in downtown Bemidji, as most of its restaurants have taken over parts of the city’s streets for outdoor dining. Some even offered their dining rooms for limited capacity, power state guidelines. I like the fact that you do not have to hear an unwelcomed conversation from the next booth of table. Those conversations are now held over at another table over.

My overnight stay was at the Country Inn & Suites, right on the south shore of Lake Bemidji. I got lucky on staying in a first floor two-room mini-suite with a view of the lake. Meanwhile, I forgot my Radisson Rewards card…I wonder what added perks I would get from it?

Once I checked in, I began to explore Bemidji. I took a few photos around town and ended up driving around the lake to see what was on the other side. A state park is located on the north shore of the lake. Not to mention some really nice lakeshore homes that almost rivaled those along Lake Minnetonka back home. 

On my last run before settling in for the night, I noticed a little car meet not far from my hotel. The folks that were there remarked that they usually get 20 vehicles at this strip mall every Saturday evening. The weather was not promising, as the threat of rain kept away everyone else. Even with a few vehicles, there was some hearty folks that were friendly enough to let me photograph their rides and a few conversations with me. 

Why is it when I travel somewhere to get away from the usual trappings of home – such as the local car scene – that I find another car scene? Oh, the life of an automotive journalist catering to enthusiasts….

After a good night's sleep, the sun came out for a glorious Sunday morning. It was time to head home. After checking out of the hotel, I set the course to take the "usual" route between Bemidji and the Twin Cities – Minnesota Highway 371. 

This route is special. It is one of the most beautiful drives in our state. The road cuts through the Leech Lake Reservation, the Chippewa National Forest and the Brainerd Lakes. The town of Walker serves as a hub for all things recreational for the Leech Lake area. 

Getting there was easy with a run on U.S. Highway 2 eastbound from Bemidji to Cass Lake. A right turn onto Minnesota Highway 371 was all I needed. The trees lining up the road were majestic. It was exactly how define the lands north of The Cities. 

Once I got into the Brainerd area, I had to make an obligatory stop. It’s been years since I stopped at Brainerd International Raceway. I would be my first since the passing of Jed Copham, the track’s visionary owner. Little did I know that the Central Racing Association had their motorcycle runs this weekend and a friend of mine was there marshalling the course. However, the state’s guidelines of gatherings limited to 250 people prevented me from even asking for permission to enter the racecourse. So, I took a few photos at the gate, jumped back in the Tiguan, and headed back south on Highway 371. 

The rest of the journey was as enjoyable. I felt relaxed. Something we all needed during these times of societal stress and anxiety. The fear of catching this coronavirus, combined with the urgency of a national crisis, ached for a weekend getaway like this. As selfish as it may sound, we all need to take care of ourselves when the world is in pain. 

There was one thing that helped that weekend. It was the environment and the people around me at my destination. The people in Bemidji were extremely friendly. Even as a tourist, I was greeted with "hello" by the locals. I had a server at dinner talk about the weather with me. In my travels over the past year or so, it is refreshing to visit a place where people are actually kind and want to chit-chat. These places still exist – even in the face of the continuing pandemic!

As for the Tiguan, it provided great comfort and ease of operation during this trip. I never complained about this vehicle once. Not to mention that it turned some great fuel consumption figures. I achieved a high mark of 33.8 MPG, while averaging 29.9 MPG by the time I got home. All of this made for a great trip in a wonderful vehicle. It also confirmed my thoughts about how good the Volkswagen Tiguan is in this highly competitive vehicle segment.  

This summer, find those places that will help you get through these stressful times. And, find the right vehicle to do so. 

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle featured in this article was provided by Volkswagen of Inver Grove, Inver Grove Heights, MN. All other travel arrangements and expenses were paid by Victory & Reseda. 

All photos by Randy Stern

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