MIAMI, Man. -- You don't need to be a geography geek to know there are dramatic differences between Manitoba's Miami and its larger, flashier Florida counterpart.
For starters, there's very little sand in the south-central Manitoba town and no waterfront whatsoever. Our Miami has no art-deco architecture or palm trees.
And while Miami, Fla. is famous for Cuban coffee counters and an endless array of nightclubs, there's only one place in Miami, Man., where you can grab a coffee or an alcoholic beverage. That would be Chatterbox Cafe & Lounge, an establishment best known as the site of the most infamous radio-station prank in Winnipeg's recent history.
In 1995, former Power 97 DJ Scruff Connors sent a busload of radio-station contest winners to the Chatterbox to watch Super Bowl XXIX. Some of those NFL fans wound up irate because they believed they were bound for Florida. Connors was suspended for a spell, which in retrospect seems sort of harsh.
There's no reason to view a trip to Miami, Man., as a consolation prize. For cyclists, there's a legitimate reason to visit the town, above and beyond a cup of coffee or a rum and Coke.
Miami sits at the bottom of the Manitoba Escarpment, a long ridge of relief that divides the extremely flat Red River Valley -- the former bottom of glacial Lake Agassiz -- from the rolling plains that cover southwestern Manitoba.
The escarpment ranges in height from 344 metres on the east side of Riding Mountain to a gentle 190 metres just west of Miami. Of course, those 190 metres don't seem quite so gentle if you head due west from Miami on Highway 23 and ride straight up the Escarpment.
Happily for the lazy among us, railway engineers once plotted out the least difficult way to send a train up the escarpment from Miami to the town of Altamont. This 20-kilometre section of track has since been torn out, but the railbed remains, allowing cyclists of almost any fitness level to pedal up the escarpment with ease.
The Miami-to-Altamont track begins just west of the town of Miami, at the intersection of Highway 23 and Provincial Road 338. The unmarked path runs along the north side of Highway 23 for about 600 metres before it crosses South Tobacco Creek on an old railway bridge.
It then snakes up the Manitoba Escarpment in a long, gentle loop past the Miami Golf & Country Club, over Provincial Road 240 and up to the edge of the Deerwood Wildlife Management Area before it rolls up the top of the gentle grade. At the top of the escarpment, the final nine kilometres to Altamont are relatively flat and straight.
The scenery along both stretches is pastoral, especially at harvest time, and the views from the hills are among the best you'll find anywhere along the Manitoba Escarpment. It's no exaggeration to say anyone in remotely good shape can pedal up this grade. The continued existence of the rail bridges makes the ride especially easy -- albeit of little interest to adrenaline junkies who would rather have a more difficult ride.
The return trip from Altamont will take the route up to 40 kilometres. You can shave a couple of clicks off that total if you take Highway 23 back to Miami, which will allow you to sail down a steep section of the Escarpment. Just be warned this section of highway has an unpaved shoulder and motor-vehicle traffic can be heavy at times.
Another option is to ride back to Miami along Miami-Thompson section of the Trans-Canada Trail, a marked path that follows gravel mile roads, roughly parallel to the Miami-Altamont trail. This zig-zagging route will add about 10 kilometres to your trip, each way. One of the enduring mysteries of the Trans-Canada Trail routing in south-central Manitoba was the decision to follow gravel roads instead of natural features.
But the Miami-Altamont route along the old railbed is easy enough to follow, as long as you find the trailhead. If you prefer a navigational aid, the route is marked by a rail line on page five of the new edition of Backroad Mapbook: Manitoba. A Google Maps printout would also suffice.
And if you want to grab a coffee at the Chatterbox in Miami, it's open seven days a week. I'm sure Scruff Connors would be pleased, wherever he is right now.