A smile, when it comes, is a gift. That flicker of delight seems to arrive most often when I greet people I value: partner, family and friends. It also tiptoes up to me upon waking, where memory acts as a kind of randomly spinning Rolodex. It’s nice to daydream before morning coffee ignites lazy brain cells. Then a plan can be hatched for later in the day to travel the Munger Trail.

Bike riding has always been part of my life. Friends in grade school had indestructible Schwinn Cruisers with sturdy balloon tires, chrome fenders and headlights. Those with deeper pockets got ones that could shift gears. I had a cheaper Raleigh three speed with thin tires that, after a time, lost its fenders but thankfully kept the brakes. I could ride it with no hands, including taking corners, to the Hamline-Midway Library eight blocks from home. (I never told mom about that trick!) In high school that bike was transportation to my girlfriend’s house.

The kids left home; the dog died; my knees weren’t going to take running. Cycling was the next option. Long rides on county roads around Bemidji, Minnesota, became the best choice for burning off workday stresses.

Moving to Duluth has presented biking challenges — let’s say hills. What goes down has to go back up. The first year or two, I was determined to make it pedaling to the top of Tower Hill up 11th Avenue West to Observation Road. It didn’t happen; I always had to walk. Then my cardiologist said, “What? Are you nuts? Better have the EMTs follow you.” So I have retreated to a gradual climb up the Munger. It never disappoints.

There are many access points to choose from; mood and impulse usually drive my picks. Depending on the time of day, a start in back of the Willard Munger Inn is easy to get to. If it’s too crowded there, the Riverside parking lot provides an alternative. The Beck Road parking lot is good, too, chock-full of potholes, but a reliable place to go. I recently found that the Buffalo House connection to the trail is a good jumping-off point to Carlton, which at my speed, is accomplished after a 25-minute pedal. The best part of the ride is catching the water rushing under the bridge just before getting to the town and then maybe — just maybe — sitting down and catching a beer down the hill back at the Buffalo before going home.

The trail up the hill always has surprises. Some of the nicest are the young families initiating offspring into the joys of cycling. When they figure it out, there’s nothing like watching a kid blast by with a dragon or dinosaur bike helmet on, pedaling furiously, meeting their "need for speed" and seeing parental ambivalence about the kid’s newfound independence. During “home-schooling” earlier this spring, newly minted educators could be found with their charges enjoying “P.E.” when the academics became too much — for everyone.

Recently, during a pedal up the hill from Riverside, I scared up a pair of grouse and was welcomed by a yearling bear crossing the trail ahead of me. I shouted a greeting of sorts at him and he headed back into the woods. I was just glad it wasn’t a momma with this year’s cubs. I smiled.

Doug Lewandowski is a retired counselor, educator and licensed psychologist. Write to him at lewandowskidoug@gmail.com.