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Markusen: When a newly paved road is a gift

Clear, mild, sunny summer mornings are a joy. Clouds float, peach-colored on top and blue-gray below. Bird families singing away. Coffee on the front steps. On mornings like these, I tuck my gravel road bike into our aging van and head for South Finn Road.

Several summers ago, before Minnesota Highway 73 was closed for weeks while a crew rebuilt a bridge, our highway workers resurfaced Finn Road as an alternative. They did a beautiful job. The surface is solid, a slight arc in it to drain properly, good visibility into the distance.

I park my car at the Lakeside Clubhouse, once the primary school for an area diligently farmed by Finn immigrant families. It's lovingly preserved by area residents who seasonally confront challenges like bats in the belfry. I've dined on many wonderful mojakka suppers there, and once celebrated a twins' birthday party for several sets in the Walli and Lake families.

Twins are common among Finns. My husband, Rod, and his twin sister, Pat, share a birthday, the Ides of March, with second-generation cousins — a girl/boy pair born on the same day 30 years later in Finland.

Heading south, you pass a half-dozen farmsteads, some still making hay and tending beef cattle. Sturdy old two-story houses, built for large families, and sturdy barns to match, dot the hillsides. Smaller, newer homes have been added since then by families who just love living in the country, as buggy and marshy as it is.

On a bike, though, mosquitos can't impale you.

On these early morning rides of an hour or more, I rarely encounter a moving vehicle. I have the road to myself, the freedom to ride without holding the handles, leaning back in the wind, surveying the fields and bogs.

And the birds! Everywhere, mating families are bursting out of nests, calling instructions to fledglings and, I'm imagining, glorying in the day just as I am. I love the call of the shy yellowthroat, reliably nesting in thick alders, and of the sedge wren, always shy and low in the marshes.

Birds and bikes have long gone together for my cousin Martha Markusen and me. In April and May, we roam the nearby roads, looking for migrants and nesting birds newly arrived.

Every year, we have some great finds. This year, it was a pair of eagles standing side by side on Swede Lake ice, as if posing for a photo. Though probably they were discussing nesting sites.

Another year, I spotted a kingfisher couple sitting side by side on a Dahlman Road power line.

Hiking a gravel pit another day, I spotted a frenetic ruby-crowned kinglet jittering around the high branches of hardwoods, looking for insects to swallow.

Sometimes, we drive to Rice Lake Wildlife Refuge, unload our bikes and cruise around the gravel roads. One year, we enjoyed a close look at what our Grandpa Renus called a "swamp pumper:" a bittern, which posed patiently for us. Another year, a view of the elusive sora, a plump little shore bird of the marshes. Or even farther afield, sometimes with our Bee-Nay-She birding friends, to the old rice paddies near Aitkin, thick with swans and other migrating waterfowl.

My solo rides are rituals that make me feel light and strong and durable. You can feel vulnerable on a bike, dodging a snapping turtle lumbering across the road. Or wondering if a large vehicle coming from behind will blow you off the road. But mostly, on the gorgeous blacktop that the refurbished South Finn Road is, I enjoy a rare kind of freedom and speed, without the whine of an engine or an encasing cage of steel.

Every time I ride this morning road, I thank the construction workers who created it, the public sector decision makers who planned for it, and our elected officials who appropriated the funds for it.

And now, isn't it time for that longed overdue redo of Minnesota Highway 73?

Writer Ann Markusen is a Carlton County freelance writer, columnist and retired economist and professor emerita at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. She lives in Red Clover Township near Cromwell with her husband, Rod Walli.