Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Triking with a tuba in tow, from delta to headwaters

A man sits on a tricycle with a yellow trailer in front of a lake.
Jon Hodkin is on his second tricycling tour through the Midwest as part of a musical journey up the Mississippi River. Early in his travels through Minnesota, a Lake City boat club helped ferry him across Lake Pepin.
Courtesy of Jon Hodkin

Anyone in marching band who carried a tuba around had a more physically demanding job than most. Now, imagine pulling a tuba behind you while traveling the length of the Mississippi River — by tricycle.

Jon Hodkin is a tuba player from Scotland and he’s in Minnesota nearing the end of just such a journey. He joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about why.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: Those of you who carried a tuba around had a more physically demanding job than most. All right, so now imagine pulling a tuba behind you while traveling the length of the Mississippi River by tricycle.

Our next guest can tell us what that's like. Jon Hodkin is a tuba player from Scotland. He's in Minnesota nearing the end of an interesting journey. He's on the line. Jon, welcome to the program.

JON HODKIN: Thanks for having me, Cathy. It's great to be with you on Minnesota Public Radio.

CATHY WURZER: That clip we heard was from a video about a 2019 tour of the Midwest, which you also made by tricycle. So you've toured via tricycle before with a tuba. Jon, clearly this is an odd combination. What's the story behind this?

JON HODKIN: Well, basically, it's all the four T's, as I call it, which are the four things that I love to have and do with my life. And the T's in my life are, number one, is my tuba, and number two is my tricycle. I have an ICE Trikes recumbent trike, behind which I tow a trailer.

And with my tuba, tricycle, and trailer, I love to-- guess what? Travel. So that's basically what it's all about. And I'm now in a position where for now I'm able to indulge my four loves to a very high extent.

CATHY WURZER: And tell me about your love of the tuba. Where did that start?

JON HODKIN: Well, I started playing a euphonium, as it was, when I was at school. And I started that when I was about 10. And then I went-- at the age of 16 you're allowed to join the British army, believe it or not. And I was a military musician for about five years.

And then subsequent to that, I changed from euphonium to tuba because it's more versatile. You can play with more groups and ensembles and so on. And because I actually adore music from the bass upwards, give me a 64-foot organ pipe or a bass clarinet or a tuba or a double bass, and I'm very happy. [LAUGHS] So I found my instrument.

CATHY WURZER: Tuba, tricycle, trailer, traveling. And you find yourself in the middle of the United States doing all of this. What led you here?

JON HODKIN: Back in 2019, I was able to do my first international tour. And it culminated in me being able to ride RAGBRAI, or the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, which half killed me, but it was great fun. And at the end of RAGBRAI, which always ends on the east side of Iowa, I had the chance to at a more moderate pace to cycle up the Mississippi River for about 150 miles.

And I just fell in love with the river. I was just completely obsessed with everything about it. And I thought, I know what my plans were, but they're slightly changed now because I now want to come back and ride the entire length of this magnificent monster of a river.

CATHY WURZER: It is beautiful. There's no two ways around it. I'm happy you chose that particular river. What's a typical day on the road like for you?

JON HODKIN: Oh, it's so varied it's untrue. I started the journey itself on the 19th of April from the southernmost point of Louisiana, a place called Boothville-Venice. But there's a schedule whereby over the course of the 150 days, 100 of those days are to take direction north in a purposeful way. And the other 50 days are what I call rest days when I can do, well, such as this, and visit assisted living centers for elderly people and go to centers for people with disabilities or libraries. I've done a lot of shows in libraries.

I've got a thing called house concerts. And I did a house concert a few days ago. So no two days are the same. And traveling all the way from 60 miles south of New Orleans to here in the Twin Cities, I've seen a bit of America.

Because I've traveled the back roads. And I've seen small-town America like you've no idea. Traveling at six miles an hour, you notice everything. [LAUGHS]

CATHY WURZER: Of course, of course, I can't imagine traveling six miles an hour. That's a lot of pedaling. But you do get to see some amazing, amazing country.

Now, as you were heading north-- you were in Davenport, Iowa, last month. You linked up with the big River Brass Band to play this song. We have to play this. It's called "For Emily."


Oh, that is so pretty. What's the story behind this piece?

JON HODKIN: Well, the story behind it is that back in 2019 when I journeyed up from the end of RAGBRAI, which was in Keokuk in southeast Iowa, by invitation I went to play at an open rehearsal with the Big River Brass Band. It's a British-style brass band, and they're proliferating enormously in the United States. There's now hundreds of them.

And the Big River Brass Band are fantastically enthusiastic bunch. And they're accomplished players. And we vowed that when I had the opportunity to come back to America again, we would do something a bit more purposeful.

And of course, two things happened in the meantime. COVID meant that nobody was going anywhere for a few years. And the second thing was that a couple of the players in the Big River Brass Band, Joe and Stacy-- he's a trumpet player and she's a percussionist. And I heard wind that their daughter Emily had at the age of 18 had a very, very severe brain aneurysm, and she was hospitalized. They thought that it was unlikely she was going to live. They were preparing her for her funeral.

And then all of a sudden out of nowhere when she was on ventilators and respirators and tubed up as people are in intensive care hospital settings, she all of a sudden coughed. And all of a sudden, she started to make spontaneous improvements. And while she still has permanent and substantial disabilities, her progress has been enormous over the last two years.

And as a gesture of support to Joe and Stacy and Emily, I approached my friend Willie Gilmore, who's the composer and the pianist on that recording. And he lives in Scotland like me. And he said, yeah, we'll write a piece called "For Emily."

And so I've been playing that piece and explaining her story with her consent. She's a very brave young woman to go public with her story. And I've been telling her story right the way across my journey.

And part of the reason is that on my journey now, I'm raising money for children and young people with additional needs. And I want to support really small, grassroots, not-for-profit, tiny, little initiatives which support all kinds of young people.

And one of the musical highlights, going back to the Big River Brass Band, has been a concert that we put on the 23rd of July in Davenport in this huge, great, Lutheran Church in Davenport-- with Emily in the audience and her both her parents playing on the stage. It was really quite a moving occasion. And true to form with all their panache and enthusiasm and skill, the Big River Brass Band absolutely nailed it.

CATHY WURZER: And they're a great organization. I can see you traveling about with your tuba and your tricycle and your trailer. I'm terribly sorry that our weather has not been cooperating with you at this stage of the game. It's been really so hot. It must be difficult.

JON HODKIN: Yeah, heat is a problem. I had to bail out one day. I'd fallen behind because I'd had a mechanical problem, which meant I had to go into Red Wing to get my trike repaired. That put me about 10 hours behind. And then with that 10 hours behind, that threw me out into the middle of the massively humid and enormous heat.

And being English and living in the north of Scotland, we're not used to this kind of humidity. And generally speaking I've been OK, but this last [LAUGHS] week, it really-- it was pastingly hot.

And one night I had to pull in early, because I thought I was going to get heat stroke. And I pulled in at this beautiful, industrial farm-- huge, great tractors and huge, great lorries and silos and people welding things and making stuff and a hive of industry.

And I just said, help. And with typical Midwest hospitality, they were just beautifully kind to me and let me stay in the barn. And I just got myself back together again. [LAUGHS]

CATHY WURZER: Well, thank you for leaving joy along the way as you travel. Thank you so much. Best of luck and safe travels.

JON HODKIN: Thank you, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Today Jon Hodkin is on his way to Blaine, where he'll perform in an airplane hangar with an old friend of MPR's, Roger Gamal. Jon plans to reach the headwaters of the Mississippi in mid-September before ending his journey in Bemidji.

As you all know, Bemidji is on the shores of Lake Bemidji. Garrison, Minnesota on Lake Mille Lacs, Spicer on Green Lake, all nice in their own ways. But the winner of the most charming lake town in the country? It's a good one. Grand Marais on the biggest of the big leagues, Lake Superior.

"Travel Plus Leisure Magazine" says Grand Marais is lovely in the summer. That's true. Home to beautiful fall foliage-- also true. And Northern lights in the winter-- I wouldn't know. I've never seen them.

Most would agree that Grand Marais is a lovely little town. Congratulations, Grand Marais for being the most charming lake town in the country.

I appreciate you joining us here today on "Minnesota Now." Thank you for listening. I hope you have a good rest of the day.

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