June 15: Afton to Osceola, Minnesota - The Great North American Sticky Bun Hunt - CycleBlaze

June 15: Afton to Osceola, Minnesota

Not much crime in Harris. The cell is still there inside, by the way.
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WE ARE CLOSE to Minneapolis. We've seen no more than road signs pointing there. There are radio stations that speak of the "Twin Cities", which I know to be Minneapolis and the older neighbour of St Paul, and there are headlines in the local papers.

Last night we were visited for half an hour by three girls - or young women, rather - two in their thirties and the other probably in her early twenties. They were camping because one of the older girls was from Brooklyn and, not having seen a tree in weeks, had demanded the friends she was visiting that she be taken camping.

Little of this would be extraordinary were their questions not more cerebral than the usual quizzing we get at stops and if they didn't go on until the subject was exhausted. How had we got to America? Could the journey be done in a freight ship? How would you find out about that? How much do you need to know about bicycles? How easy would it be for an inexperienced rider? How do we cook? Can we cook fish? What maps do we need?

By the end, they had the address of the Adventure Cycling Association and of Warm Showers, the woman from Minneapolis having decided it would be "pretty cool" to spend time with more touring cyclists. And it wasn't just idle inquiry: she asked for the addresses three times and made sure she got them.

She was taken by the idea and clearly the youngest of the three was inspired by the travelling. She said little but her eyes followed everything and she nodded in interest and agreement. The others asked the questions but I bet it's she who eventually tours the world on a bicycle. It was rewarding to explain a new world and be taken seriously.

Now, back in the darkness of time, we stopped the night in Medina, in upstate New York, in the grounds of an enormous model railway exhibition. On the edges of the museum were artefacts of all sorts but one caught my eye: it was a board from a Burma-Shave advertisement.

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Early in the 20th century two brothers called O'Dell started the Burma-Shave company in the Bryn Mawr district of Minneapolis. Having neither money nor sales, they hit on the idea in 1925 of spending their Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays on the road, staking advertisements on the verge. On Thursday and Friday they stopped off at shops and garages along their chosen road and asked how many orders they'd had.

The ads were calculated to raise interest. They ran in batches, each with one line of a rhyme. They were 100 feet apart, red with white letters. Many had safety appeals: "Drove too long... driver snoozing... what happened next... is not amusing... Use Burma-Shave."

Storekeepers couldn't deny there was interest because everyone who stopped asked what the rhymes were about. So it was easy to sell them a crate or two. What started as a backstreet concern was earning $900,000 a year by the end of the 1950s. A fortune, in other words.

The brothers had had their fun and they sold their company to Philip Morris, the tobacco company. The barons of business missed the point that it was the homeliness of the roadside ads and the fondness they created that was the heart of the business. Their own ads cost $150,000 a time, spending as much in 60 seconds during televised football games as the brothers had earned in 60 days. By the end of the season the game was over.

By 1963 the signs had gone, victim of business and of faster travel and, ironically, of concerns for road safety which the ads themselves had encouraged. Still many Americans remember them fondly, tokens of an era when life and travel were slow enough to enjoy. Like riding a bike. Fast enough to get somewhere, slow enough to enjoy.

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The countryside remains green and peaceful. We'd see more of it were the roads not so awful. And we'd have been out in it for longer had a thunderstorm not broken at lunch time and lasted until early evening. But life is good.

MOST NOVEL USE FOR AN AMERICAN FLAG: Over a sewage works. We scoop poop for America!


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