Michigan: Traverse City to Grand Rapids

From Mackinac I cut over to the Traverse City area where I began what would be a week of local brewery visits and to experience all things cherry related. It was kind of overcast for most of my visit and it was supposed to rain off and on over the next few days, so it was nice to take advantage of the pre-rain sunshine on my way and visit some roadside attractions. Lucky for me there were many things to see in a small area! I stopped by a quiet church grounds where the biggest wooden crucifix stands overlooking the outdoor pews and glass wall of the church itself. Carving this out of one giant redwood much have been a task for sure. The church is also home to the largest collection of dolls dressed in religious outfits…. but that sounded super creepy so I passed.

Next stop was the Historic Barns Park botanic gardens and paths. The visitor center was closed (maybe for covid or maybe I was just after hours, not sure) and the barns themselves, which have been converted for event space, were being updated so off limits, but the grounds were open and free and provided some lovely sunny walking time. There’s a serene labyrinth, a section of woods filled with fairy villages, a pollinator garden, a vegetable garden, and lots of trails and nice views. The garden is on the former grounds of what was once a big state asylum, and by the entrance is a monument to a beloved cow the patients and staff loved who once grazed here. Weird but true.

A little further down the road behind a school there was also a trail to the hippie tree- a massive tree with branches spreading horizontally over a vast area which you can climb on and over. It’s been painted by generations of locals and has been said to be a spiritual gateway, some channeling mystical energy and others saying it’s haunted by the mad spiritis from the asylum or a gateway to hell, so you know, something in that very specific range. I didn’t get any weird vibes buy maybe the recent spray paint fumes got to me first.

The old asylum has been transformed into retail, dining, and apartment space. I walked around a little and spent some time on the patio of a brewery there and it seemed like a nice spot, though my favorite parts of Traverse City were along the water where I hung out doing computer stuff by a little town beach with some coffee on a drizzly morning before tracking down the pie tin from what was the world’s largest cherry pie! Fittingly on display just outside the Sara Lee factory.

A little loop north from town took me to the cutest little brewery in the woods by Suttons Bay where I treated myself to some tacos under the fairy lights before continuing on to the cutest fishing town of Leland, where a wedding party was just taking a little ride around the bay in some sort of amphibious vehicle that reminded me of the ridiculous moment the car starts flying at the end of Grease. That night I was staying in a campsite in the Sleeping Bear Dunes national lakeshore, another nice site which left me well positioned to spend a full day exploring the park trails and views.

I did a few nice little hikes through the trees and fields up to some overlooks, and later out to the dune trail. I always forget how strenuous walking over sand is, especially up! Ugh. Easier for sure than the massive dunes out in Colorado under the summer sun, but these were deceptive in that I kept telling myself I’d keep going to just the next ridge to spy the lake, but each one hid another dune until the water finally peeked through. Hooray! Going down was fun, though. The scenic drive loop through another area of the park was lovely and almost deservted, which was nice, then off toward Glen Arbor where I hung out for a bit and explored Cherry Republic, home of all things cherry. My favorite part was the olympic sized (what does that even mean??) cherry pit spitting lane. I was too late for fresh cherry time but came away from the shop having tasted some interesting cherry wine and with some dried cherries and chocolate covered cherries from the shop at the lady’s insistence. Yum!

I found what would end up being the last free woodsy campsite for the next stretch of my trip (womp womp, downside of returning to more populated areas) and headed into Grand Rapids with a detour to see the biggest wind vane along the way. I drove past the Gerald Ford presidential museum/library but was too lazy to park and search for the statue of him made of recycled junk my roadside attraction list said was in there somewhere. Instead I did another leg of the Michigan brewery tour and went to some place known for their Belgian style beers (real draw: good fries with dip), and an early morning swing through downtown sans traffic.

Not far down the road I stopped in Marshall where I went for a tiny walk along a boardwalk by some marsh and a reservoir or water treatment place or something, then hung out for the afternoon at Dark Horse brewery on their fabulous outdoor space where I caught up on recording my journey while having some excellent drinks and snacks. When it started to get crowded and I felt bad taking up a whole table by myself in prime business time, I took off reluctantly but had the world’s biggest lug nut to look forward to. While a lot of things traveling on this solo trip have changed with pandemic, one of the most inconvenient is ot being able to sneak into a single chair at a busy place now that every party needs a whole table many places. Oh well. Sorry restaurants for taking up space by myself! Onward into the hazy distance I go now that the western fire smoke has arrived.

Michigan: Mackinac Island

After crossing the bridge from the UP into Mackinac City, I spent the rest of the afternoon trying some super sweet and… interesting local wine in town, and chatting with folks at a local brewery in the drizzly evening. In a small boost to my self confidence I got hit on by a range of 23-57 year olds, so there’s that at least (or pickings are slim in pandemic- either way I’ll take a compliment and some free drinks and mozzarella sticks). Come morning I hopped in line to take the ferry to Mackinac Island after the wind and rain had calmed a little, which is great because it meant the ferry could take the route under the bridge along the way which I hear they’d been skipping due to high wind gusts. Woohoo!

Pulling up to the island the first identifiable feature is the enormous Grand Hotel, which from afar looks like it could take up a whole city block, and then some small lighthouses and cottages began to emerge as we approached the dock. The island is car-free aside from a firetruck and a few police vehicles, so there was a mad rush to the bicycle rental stands and the horse-drawn carriage ride stalls along the front street as soon as each boat pulls in. Being a rare adult who still lacks the coordination or drive to ride a bike without training wheels (side note- riding a child’s bike with training wheels leads to bruised knees, take my word for it) I decided to just walk. I mean, the island is less than 5 sq. miles and 8 miles around and I had nowhere to be but back by the last ferry, so…

I gathered some info, and started off down the road when two people taking photos asked me to stage a little walk by the water for their island fall marketing because I was apparently in the right colors with my green jacket and orange backpack combo accidentally resembling a hunter or something, so that was something novel and I am 99% sure those photos will never see the light of day given the fact that I hadn’t showered for a few days and had ferry wind hair, but who knows. They did give me a tip to trek up some stairs that looked like part of someone’s sidewalk but led up to a perfect view over the harbor. So pretty!

A little uphill walk took me into the state park area where bike, horse and walking trails cover most of the interior territory of the island. I looked out over arch rock and got my first views of how clear and blue the water around the shoreline can be, then continued onwards through the woods and to an old fort model, a few cemeteries, the tiny island airport, and into the section where gorgeous Victorian homes line the streets.

I was snapping some pics of the colorful gardens and inviting porches overlooking the west side of the island and a man gardening came to give me a giant dahlia, so that was a nice surprise and made my little lakeside picnic more festive. There are a few hundred steps leading down to the path circumnavigating the island, and I found a picnic table at Pontiac’s Lookout and dipped my feet into the nice cool and totally clear water of Lake Huron. Then it was back up the many steep stairsand down the block to the Grand Hotel.

Its massive front porch area is filled with picturesque rockers and little tables where guests and visitors were being served drinks and snacks by fancy jacketed waitstaff, and inside the decadent hotel a champagne-filled afternoon tea was in full swing. While I might have enjoyed the treats, dropping my weekly budget on tiny tea sandwiches and macarons wasn’t in the cards for me and I just took some photos and took off. On my way out down the main drive where most people enter, the signage clearly states that guests must be in more formal attire after 6pm and visitors will be charged a little fee to come in, so I guess it’s good I escaped without paying and arrived around 4:30 and not later. I checked online later and that night I could have booked a room for a measly $850. Maybe next time when I win the lotto.

The rest of my visit included getting some famous fudge (super delicious but the smallest amount one could buy lasted me about 5 servings), taking in some of the many turtle statues around the town, and having a drink waiting for the ferry. Then back to the mainland around sunset and onward. Another place that would be very nice to one day return with people to enjoy more fully.

Michigan: UP north to the bridge

The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore has been on my radar for a while after seeing gorgeous photos of the sandstone cliffs, tunnels and caves in amazing blue water. Unfortunately for me, it was far too windy over pretty much the entirety of my time on the UP to explore by water on a boat tour or kayak, which would have been totally special. But hiking through and seeing the sights from the overlooks and beaches was pretty great, too!

Early in the morning the wind was pretty intense as I got my first glimpse of Miners Castle and the dramatic cliff drop offs. Luckily once I went back to the trailhead (which I had gone most of the way towards first thing in the morning, decided this couldn’t be right because it was so poorly marked and in garbage condition, but confirmed this was right at the map at this stop and kicked myself when by the time I got all the way back discovered the parking went at least a half mile up alongside the road from the full lot now. Note to self: always download the map because cell service will never be there when you need it) and started out the wind died down to nothing thanks to tree cover.

The trail to Chapel Falls, Chapel Rock and Chapel Beach (sense a theme?) is pretty easy and straightforward, winding through lovely forest until popping out on the cliffs by the lake. The water at the beach and along the rocks is a vivid blue, and I could spend hours watching the waves crash against the cliffs and boulders, and into the tunnels and caves eroding the rock face. Chapel Rock formation is visually stunning thanks to the colorful layers of rock visible, the view of course, but mainly for me thanks to a lone tree determined to make this rock its home. A tangle of roots reaches across the divide where the rock has crumbled away- it used to be connected with a little natural bridge- and a little window peeking through.

A gorgeous crescent of beach provides views of Chapel Rock to one side and the striated cliffs to the other, with a little campground above. It was hard to leave this spot, but back I went along the much less frequented path along the other side of the lake. I had my own beachside camping to get to! I’d booked a night at the twelve-mile beach campground in the park further along the water. I loved this campground! My site was at the end of the loop near a trail and while wooded was a minute’s walk to the beach. Perfect balance of protection and access. There’s nothing like falling asleep to the sound of waves.

The next day I continued on to Tahquamenon State Park, perfect for an overcast chilly day of muddy hiking along the river between the upper and lower falls. The falls, easily reached from parking lots, were moderately busy but the trail itself between the two was blissfully empty. Plus it’s right by the town of Paradise, so I got to go say I’ve been to Paradise and it’s in Michigan 🙂

My last stop in the UP was Sault Ste. Marie on the northern tip where you can normally cross over into Canada. Womp womp. There’s a canal system between the two nations and connecting Lakes Huron and Superior for water traffic, so I did a boat tour of the Soo Locks and got to ride through a lock on the U.S. side and then back through the Canadian side. There was some repair and construction going on to revamp two older small locks into one larger one, so we got to see a water digger thing scooping up earth from the riverbed, so that was pretty cool, and also saw a ship being unloaded of some steel making stuff.

As with many things, the difference between the two sides was evident. Our side of the river was almost entirely fenced off and controlled by the coast guard, border control and inspection, and a private power company- pretty industrial and uninviting to a civilian. The Canadian side was almost entirely open public park and recreation area with green lawn, walking paths, benches, statues, and a few museums and restaurants. People there were fishing and waving and walking dogs and jogging, while the few people I could see from the Michigan side were peering through a chain link fence. Just a different approach to access and land use. All in all, a very informative little tour and a very cold one- it was extremely windy and the high that day was about 50 degrees. Shock to the system!

And with that, it was back in the van and off toward the mitten. I had my first glimpse of the Mackinac Bridge and crossed over with only minimal cringing from the windiness and the odd feeling of driving over the metal grates built to help with the engineering and rain and whatnot. Good times, UP north!

Michigan: the western Upper Peninsula

Having started out my day with some pretty spectacular roadside attractions leaving Wisconsin, Michigan was not about to be outdone and provided a few roght off the bat. First up: the world’s largest corkscrew! It’s part of a sign for a liquor store/gas station situation, and had it been open I would have bought some wine there just to say I did, but alas it was around 10am so a photo op with my creepy cat and some box wine had to make do. Next up: super tall Hiawatha statue! Okay, so when it was built and the plaque installed this was the “world’s tallest Indian” as they put it in the ’60s, but the internet tells me there is one technically a bit taller in Maine though less impressive looking. Whatever the technicalities, this guy was pretty big, and welcomes visitors to the Upper Peninsula. Hooray!

The rest of the day was spent exploring the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness, where I wish I’d planned and spent more time. It was just before Labor Day weekend so all the campsites here and even most of the backcountry spots were booked up, but if I even come back this area would be some primo backpacking territory. The waves were crazy along Lake Superior that afternoon and there was some rain predicted later on, but for the time being it looked clear and beautiful, so stopped by the Lake of the Clouds, then to another part of the park to check out some waterfalls. There may have been several occasions where I giggled about porcupines which made me think of Family Feud, and the nickname Porkies which made me think of piglets. I am children.

This trail up and down either side of a small river took me to Manido and Manabezho falls before reaching the outlet to the lake, where some rain was coming down in the distance. Instead of paying attention to that sign, I relied on my weather app radar and decided to go out the other direction to see the Nawadaha falls, too, which meant that halfway down the trail it began to rain just enough to get me pretty damp despite my nice umbrella layer of cedars. Pretty, though! And luckily fresh rain smell is the best. Anyway, I got just far enough to see the falls, turned back, and took off for my evening spot at a site down the road a ways.

This was a nice little spot where I stayed an extra day and contemplated staying even longer since I wasn’t sure it was wise to vacate an actual free established site on the holiday weekend. It was right by a stream where people came to fish, and I had taken the last open spot right by the entrance so people were trekking right behind me to access the trail, so leaving felt right after all.

So after dragging myself away from the cozy comfort of my little bed I continued onward and made my way to yet another excellent attraction, the Yoopers Tourist Trap. This place is hilarious and self effacing and made me feel like perhaps I, too, could someday create such a funky celebration of local quirkiness by raiding a Goodwill and doing some upcycling art. Watch out, DC metro area, give me some cheap land and wait for the Yuppie Tourist Trap to emerge as a beacon to busloads of visitors who get lost looking for the Air and Space Museum.

Alongside the many outhouse, fishing, and hunting jokes, there were a few gems like the world’s largest working rifle, world’s largest working chainsaw, a marker for the local snowfall record, and a shine to Vince Lombardi. All this and a rock shop! Way to be, Yoopers (note to my mother: Yooper=U.P.dweller).

That evening I settled in for a beautiful sunset in the Presque Isle Park in Marquette, which means ‘almost an island’, and checked out the Superior Dome (largest wooden dome!) and the university town before aiming toward the southern side of the peninsula.

My destination was the Kitch-iti-kipi spring, which means ‘big cold spring’ in Ojibwe, and is a gorgeous, stunningly blue natural spring in a state park. A crazy amount of water like 10,000 gallons per minute bubbles up here, and there’s a little raft boat takes people out about 20 feet into the center of the spring powered by a hand turned wheel and cable system. The raft has a centeral cutout where you can look down through the crystal clear water to see the water bubbling up and the giant trout (retired breeders from the fish farm) in the chilly water.

The only downside was, thanks holiday weekend, all the humans in a line to the one boat thing, most of whom were all up in each others’ business, and the super douchey couple behind me with a mansplaining verbally abusive to his girlfriend dude who reminded me way too much of a friend’s terrible ex were a joy to be trapped near. Good times.

The town nearby, Manistique, had a pretty beach where I stationed myself to have some virtual Disney tour fun, by which I mean I facetimed with friends who were streaming an Epcot tour on their tv. Chatting and a cheese plate were not quite a substitute for a food and wine fest in Florida, but an excellent connection. Thanks, friends! Social time to get me through my next leg of adventure.

Repairs: More tire fun

Well it was bound to happen having driven over 30,000 miles in a year over a mix of smoothly paved and rutted dirt roads. This time I got another low tire pressure light just as I pulled into a space for the night- I measured the pressure and it was just a few pounds down, and figured I’d fill it up in the morning and be on my way. Nope.

Come morning that sucker was flat as a pancake, enough that I wondered why I felt off balance in bed when I awakened. Oops. Luckily I was parked in a Walmart lot in a small city and conveniently directly across from not one, but two tire shops that were open upon this discovery at 8am. No problem, thought I, I’lljust plop on the spare, drive across the street, see if I can get this one patched, and be off.

Ha. Ha. Ha. As those few of you (aka my parents) may recall from a previous post, the last low tire I had previously I run into the issue of oh so conveniently discovering that my spare was also flat after getting the low tire off while in Idaho. I got the tire patched, the spare refilled, and all was well. Or so I believed. Well, before touching the original tire this time I took the spare down from under the car and lo an behold, flat again. Like I sat on it and it squished under my weight (I’m hopeful this is less than the weight of a van, but one can’t be certain), and it registered no tire pressure on my little gauge thingy.

Fantastic. So, plan B- I grabbed a Walmart shopping cart, tossed the spare in, and wheeled it across the highway to tire shop number 1. They were very kind and refilled it for me, and upon my urging tested it for leaks using the tried and true spray bottle of soapy water method (thanks, Phelps aquaglide crew flor teaching me this) to identify an unpatchable hole, but one we thought would hole at least for as long as it would take to get this tire on the car and it over to see what gives with the super flat one on there now. Now, I live in a busted looking van, and am acclimated to looking mildly homeless as thus, but wheeling a shopping cart with a tire and being all gross and dirty as a result really added to my image.

Anyway, got back, spare temporarily refilled, and started changing out the tire on there. Started out by loosening the lug nuts, got one partially loose, but despite jumping up and down like a whacko on the bar thingy (technical term) most of them wouldn’t budge. After 20 minutes of me bouncing the van around, pulling, jumping some more like a kid avoiding taking the plunge off a diving board on the (I hope you’re taking notes on this technical manual) bar thingy, I broke down and called AAA because I hadn’t used it once this year since my lovely some kind of cousin gifted me a membership.

Which is, inevitably, right when a manager from Walmart’s auto division was heading to his car parked next to mine and asked if I needed help, and managed to get the lug nuts loose in a minute and called in the soon to be open Walmart crew to check out my tire, just as the AAA guy rolled in with his fancy high lift jack and made short work of the whole thing (I mean, I was a minute away from calling him off now that the nice man loosened the thingies but serendipity) so I gave him a stroopwaffle and took my tires to the now open and far less expensive than the place across the highway Walmart auto center, where I was told that I should probably get both tires replaced since the spare was leaking in a spot not able to be patched, and the original tire was patched for now but the puncture was so large and bendy that it could go out again any day. So two new tires it was and I was on my way once again. Phew!

Let’s hope that does me for this year on the tire front, and all I have to deal with when I get home is to fix up my bumper situation and decide whether to adjust the interior at all. Oh dear.

Wisconsin: Madison and northbound

After my brief foray into the Land of Lincoln it was back into Wisconsin kind of retracing my steps for a little bit as I went northward through the state towards Michigan’s upper penninsula. I spent a night in Lake Geneva, where I’d gone for a walk on my route south, then continued into Madison where I spent a nice but grey day exploring the sights. First up was the Mustard Museum- yes, a whole small museum deidcated to mustards. Glass shelves full of samples from all the states, countries of the world, medicinal uses, world records, silly artwork, the works. I take it that in normal times there’s a little ‘kitchen’ station where staff assemble tastes of dishes using odd mustard varieties, but alas. I made do with the self guided tour and managed not to buy anything because I still have one fun mustard sauce from Vermont I’ve yet to open.

Next was the Olbrich Botanic Garden where I spent a few hours walking through the many flowers, herbs, ponds, and walkways before hitting the obvious highlight for me, a Thai sala area which was serene just by stepping into its domain and glinted in the dimming bits of sunshine. What a special place! The indoor conservatory are was closed off and there were a lot of areas blocked off for maintenance and for Covid, but for a free garden it was a pretty amazing find to get some walking in before predicted rain.

Before leaving the city I drove by the state capitol building en route to the Fromagination cheese shop. This is like the fancy cheese mecca. I loved it and would drop a hundred bucks here easy if I lived nearby. As it was, I escaped with a small bagful of cheese orphan bits, small cuts, a fancy cracker basket and some local wine. I did a whole post about the cheese but it was so so good. If I worked here I’d weigh 200 lb easy. On my way out of own I picked up some cheesy bread at a shop and in the parking lot lost my composure completely and spend a solid 5 min laughing at an ambulance turned donut deliver truck. I am a sucker for a terrible pun. Oh dear.

From Madison I pretty much booked it northward building my itinerary with roadside attractions and the state border in mind. I hit a stretch of highway construction from Madison which, super bummer, resulted in my tire picking up a giant metal bit and a great super flat tire in the morning. Womp womp. I’ll do a separate post about that fun, but regardless it was most of a day blown in central Wisconsin. After that was finally sorted I made it back up toward the Superior lakeshore and camped overnight by the Potato River Falls. It was a little rainy so I was glad to have chosen a spot not actually in the campground per say but rather kind of in the entry/picnic/parking area instead of down the muddy dirt road to the real sites. To be fair in the dark I couldn’t even see the road and only spotted it in the morning, but still. I did an early morning sunrise mini-hike to the upper and lower falls then continued on to locate some ridiculous sights like a mural of waterskiing Aquabats (aqua-acrobats), some super distrubing statues in someone’s yard that feature, among others, a George Washington in a bathtub, a baby smoking, and Abe Lincoln’s head on little legs?, the world’s largest penny, and the largest badger (fun fact- it’s popping over a fence with a little squirrel on a log in the background in what is now the lot of a strip club). Way to stay classy, Wisconsin! Don’t worry, I’ll remember you for the cheese and not the badger.

Illinois: Chicago

I’d been to Chicago before a few years back for a visit downtown for a few days and a couple of concerts, and it still remains the only part of Illinois I’ve been to. Again. This time it was because it was such a short jump across the state line and also to visit friends in the area. Most summers around this time I’m driving north from Green Bay to have a week of party on my friend’s family compound on Washington Island, Wisconsin, but with all the crazy this year not only can she not come home as usual from the Virgin Islands, but it’s just as infeasible to have anyone else congregate since the island has a strict lockdown going on like most places. In any case, this little mini-reunion was as close as I was going to get this year.

After a few weeks of very limited socialization it was so nice to spend a couple of days with my friend Inna at her place in the suburbs. En route I stopped by a farmer’s market that turned out to be in the town they filmed the movie Groundhog Day, which I would not have know but for a sign. I have a weird aversion to the actress in this movie so in my mind don’t like it and have not watched it in at least 20 years, but perhaps it’s time to gove it another shot. Anyway, when I reached Inna we went for a nice long walk to a neighborhood forest preserve, and I was treated to the amazing food fest that is the outlet for all the foods Inna likes that her husband doesn’t. Win for my belly! We had dinner feast of pierogis, salad, all the wine and dessert of figs with nuts and honey while sitting in her back patio on a beautiful late summer evening admiring the visiting skunk family (!) and bunnies, doing astrological insight readings, and generally breaking into a gigglefest and being ridiculous as usual. It was the best.

Unfortunately it didn’t work out to coordinate a visit with another friend Jackie because apparently having a baby kind of puts a wrench in spontaneous visiting and you know, pandemic, but I felt like I was close and sent some good vibes their way. The next day after even more delicious food (shashuka and greek coffee which I’ve been dreaming of ever since) we went for another nice walk at Fort Sheridan, highlights of which included beautiful blue lakeside shores, a giant hawk nest replica, a cemetery we couldn’t find a way through, and some cool condos and homes in the repurposed old fort buildings. Between all this fun, having a shower, doing laundry, refilling water, etc. it was an excellent stop and fueled me for another few upcoming weeks of uncharted territory and no expected meet ups until I reach home most likely.

After Inna’s, I ventured closer to the city for the night to walk through Oak Park in my perpetual Frank Lloyd Wright visitations. Conveniently for me, I was able to walk by about a dozen Wright designs, his studio/office, and two of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s homes in about an hour. Needless to say, it’s a pretty sweet neighborhood. If someone wants to gift me a few million dollars I’m ready to move in. No? Okay, maybe later. I also took the opportunity to have some deep dish for dinner in the neighborhood before finding a spot to park for the night. This adventure toward my inteded area took me through… some interesting parts of town it seemed. It was a little before 10pm and every few blocks the streets were being blocked off by police checkpoints and garbage trucks- is that a thing now? Based on some after the fact googling it seems that the city had been utilizing fleet vehicles like garbage and salt trucks to prevent access to areas where they expected crime/protests/looting/what have you… and it was right around the time there were issues in Kenosha but… seemed pretty quiet for the most part.

I stayed in the Ukrainian Village/Wicker Park area and walked around in the morning to a funky 80s themed coffee shop where I had a kind of good, kind of odd, too sweet fancy coffee with miso, sesame and caramel. As per the new usual, the inside was pretty off limits so I couldn’t view all the memorabilia and decor but the small glimpse I got was good stuff. From there I went in search of a fountain in the neighborhood dedicated to a dog who kept pooping in an unwanted location, and saw some cool murals and beautiful rowhouses (again, if anyone wants to donate some cash my way… still no? Okay fine…) before taking off into the city again.

My next stop was the University of Chicago area to walk through the desolate but beautiful, ivy-laden campus. In college for a course on teaching children’s books I read a series of semi-mystery middle-grades novels set in this neighborhood with the kids attending the University Lab School, and one centering on the Robie House just across from the campus. This was one of my first steps into this Wright architecture rabbit hole, I think, reading this book and looking up all the visuals to help fuel my mental picture for the plot. Touring the actual home was pretty surreal given my probably 15 years past memory of this (!!) and the fact that I had a solo tour on a random weekday morning.

From there I went over to Jackson Park and walked the wooded island paths and through the lovely Garden of the Phoenix Japanese garden with stunning views of the Museum of Arts and Industry. Next time I come I’ll spring for a ticket to the museum but for now, I opted to continue northward to some free sights like the Bahai Temple (the only one in North America) which some call the lace building for good reason, and spent a while by the fenced off beach nearby watching videos for an online teaching conference to which my access expired at midnight that night, but frequently distracted by a vert dedicated squirrel meticulously burying nuts in the sand. My Illinois journey concluded with what can only be described as a nostalgic highlight, a sketchy driveby of the Home Alone house. I wish it were Christmastime, aside from the fact that then I’d be freezing my butt off. In any case, back to the land of cheeses!

Wisconsin: All the cheese (thanks from my waistline)

Vermont may remain my favorite food and beverage state, but man does Wisconsin give it a run for its money in the dairy department. I’d been to the mecca of cheeseheads before but only to visit my friend’s family lake home on the eastern Lake Michigan coastline, so the rest of the state has been new for me and yum yum yummy. My first cheesy stop was Marieke Gouda in Thorpe, which was my favorite cheesemaking stop of the Badger State. I could peek in and see the cows being milked, visit the little sweet calves (I had to google whether the multiple of calf was calves or calfs and hope it didn’t lie to me), see into the cheesemaking workroom through a glass panel, and feel like I was right in the process of making these delicious treats. Plus the little barn kitten came to beg for food from every diner outside and snuggled with me hoping for breakfast crumbs. Such a cutie. I got a couple of little leftover ‘orphans’- the teensy bits cut off from larger packaging, and a regular sized gouda wedge of a blend of ‘stinging’ plants like nettles, which all were super good of what I’ve tasted. Way to go, rare award winning female cheesemaker!

My second stop was in the town of Colby, which is where Swiss cheese was invented- just kidding, obvi Colby cheese is from here. I attempted to go to the original Colby cheese factory, which I drove by, but didn’t see a storefront? Alas. In town, however, I stopped by a shop featuring local cheeses where I picked up a Colby, some fresh curds (squeaky happiness!), and wonderful ice cream. Every time I eat a large amount of ice cream it makes me so happy in the immediate moment and so yucky for hours after because I so rarely consume fresh milk. One day I’ll grow up enough to just avoid but….

A little further on another day I stopped by New Glarus, an adorable Swiss-heritage town, where I of course got some Swiss-style cheese, and then in Monroe picked up some award winning Emmi Roth cheeses, and had dinner at a little cafe where the specialty is a stinky Limburger sandwich on dark bread with mustard and onions. Perhaps this would be a good test for engaged couples- go eat the stinkiest meal and see if you’re still able to stand one another in the morning without plugging your nose. It even comes with a mint! All kidding aside, it tasted pretty decent. The shop, Baumgartner’s, claims to be the state’s oldest cheese store.

My final big cheese stop was in Madison, where I picked up some cheese bread from Carr Bros. along with a few orphan bits, but the main event was an upscale artisanal cheese shop called Fromagination where they offer an assortment of fancy, expensive cheeses of which I bought many teensy bits. This is really the way to go to sample a lot of nice cheese, invest in the smallest possible amount to get a half dozen crackers worth of a $30/lb selection for a price I don’t run away from! Plus some of these hipster cheeses have funny names, like Goat Malone (named after the animal and town, but reminds me of the face tattoo guy), and one made of a mix of sheep, goat and cow called Ewe Calf to be Kidding Me. I got some fun Mozzarella from Cave, and a bunch of recommended and award winning little bits of some bleu cheeses, hard cheeses, and randomness.

My cooler is still about 1/3 full of cheese packages despite me eating a lot already. I made some great feta salad, a few caprese-style sandwiches, and some stellar cheese plates, snacks and meals with what I’ve tasted so far. All super delicious! Lucky for me I don’t often have access to a scale because, yikes.

Wisconsin: Spring Green

Further south in the state I stumbled upon a small area packed with attractions and experiences ranging from classic to fantastical. Spring Green is home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, Taliesin, and his architectural school among other family sites. I’m not certain why I’ve developed this need to visit all the Wright sites I pass, but something about the Asian influence, nature ties, and the lines just gets to me I suppose. So here we go again! En route, though, I passed a rock that looks like an elephant while driving through lovely farmland. Totally surprisingly, it is called Elephant Trunk Rock.

Anyway, after a night in my van down by the river, I had a beautiful day for a tour of Taliesin with a small group of masked up folks. The tour I took (not the most extensive option) went through the architectural school, which was originally a school run by Wright’s two aunts, was later redesigned and transformed by the architect. The main drafting room was pretty cool with its sawtooth ceiling and rows of tables with triangular accents and great lighting. The building also has a dining room, music room, theater (under restoration) and I’m sure some things I’ve forgotten. Outside we viewed the windmill named the Romeo and Juliette windmill which powers the well, and seemed to fit perfectly channeling the silos on neighboring farms.

The home itself was really cool to tour since it was one of the spaces Wright was able to take all his ideas to full fruition without any pesky homeowner adding opinions. There were items from his extensive Japanese art collection, furniture he designed for the space, the typical long, running windows, and geometric lines everywhere. I think my favorite part was the surrounding gardens, but the whole place was memorable (not to mention the stories of multiple fires and a murder).

Down the road just a bit I stopped by the little Unity Chapel Wright designed early in his career. On the grounds are family graves, including one of Frank’s wives and was his original burial site per his wishes until the current wife dug him up and moved him. Take that, other wife. Also I guess not only is he not actually buried here anymore, but he lied about his age a lot so not even the dates are accurate. So… there’s that.

After that classy morning of art and architecture, I of course needed to get back to my own level and headed to a spot called the House on the Rock. I didn’t do the level of research this place warrants before touring because I was unprepared for how much crazy this place holds. I guess originally this was someone’s home they built on and around the rock face on a high outcropping, and this section of the site is super dark with a ’70s rec room vibe but filled with super random art and decor. From the original home additions came like a water wheel, a Japanese-inspired garden, a series of walkways leading up to the home and culminating in an Infinity Hall leading out over the cliff, and then a whole warehouse of crazy.

Now this huge additional warehouse area was insanity and was quite possibly even weirder given the limited numbers and distancing in the current time, because it added a semi-deserted, spooky feel to the whole place. A pathway leads visitors through a series of thematic areas beginning with an old-timey town filled with storefronts and homes you can peek into and are filled with kitchy antiques, a lot like a weirder version of Disney’s main street. My favorite was the apothecary for its old poster advertising the health benefits of tapeworms for slimming. Ha!

Further on are displays of creepy dolls, masks, dioramas of circuses with teensy figurines, dollhouses, windup toys, and all kinds of knickknacks. There are huge rooms filled with themes like air travel in history, sea-related items, trains, a working carousel (not open for rides I was sad to find), a creepy doll carousel with bizarre half-human figurines adorning the top, and all kinds of giant displays and creations. Scattered throughout were all these automated music scenes (think an orchestra made of mermaids and sea creatures) and little carnival game type things that you needed to buy tokens to operate. I was of course not about spending extra money for that, but lucky for me a few other groups ahead of me were into it so I caught glimpses of them in action. The whole thing was super weird, but totally entertaining and worth whatever bizarre nightmares might come in the aftermath.

The day of crazy sights was still not even close to over, though, because I decided after much internal debate and an Instagram poll to spring for a room in a funky hotel a few miles down the road called the Don Q Inn in Dodgeville. This place is a 2 star motel (accurate) but with the best ever theme room suites in addition to some regular rooms, though I can’t imagine why you’d stay here without getting one of the crazy rooms. The first thing that greets you upon arrival is an old plane in the yard, which has been a set in multiple movies but now is a rundown mess that looks like mice have taken over a plane crash. There’s a little tower that fits none of the rest of the exterior that I couldn’t identify the purpose of, but that’s just the beginning.

The lobby has a circle of old barber chairs around a fire pit kind of thing, and the motel has a pool that connects the indoor and outdoor sections with a swim-through canal and a sort of doggie door made of that carwash plastic draping. After a hot and humid few days the cool pool was great. The best part, though, was the room. Now I’d been tempted by the rooms with themes like a moon landing, an igloo, a jungle, a tipi, the list keeps going (seriously, check it out to see photos of these choices), but I am so pleased that I ultimately settled upon the hot air balloon room.

This suite is 2 levels combined and features 3 tvs, multiple crazy rainbow light features, an alpine scene painted on the walls, an in-room jacuzzi bathtub deal with a waterfall feature as the faucet, and of course a hot air balloon spanning a floor and a half made of rainbow fabric and with the bed in the basket and a mirror above the bed. And the basket rocks a little because it’s on a platform and seems to actually use the ropes to help support it? In any case I was for sure not the intended audience as a solo person, but it was hilarious and so much fun to just hang out, eat dinner, drink some box wine in the jacuzzi, and sleep in this crazy bed. Did I manage to drop my pajama shorts down the gap between the basket and wall? Sure did. So I added rock climbing to the list of features this room has to offer and climbed down the 6′ or so to retrieve them and then back up the faux-rocks (maybe made at the FAST factory??). What an experience. Everyone should go and see this fun if ever you’re passing through this area.

All this one one day!!! Woah. It’s going to be hard to go back to my usual level of mild craziness.

Wisconsin: Apostle Islands to La Crosse

Crossing into Wisconsin from Duluth was exciting for a number of reasons: 1) only minutes into the state I came across a museum dedicated to accordions, 2) the grey dreary weather was clearing, and 3) it meant I was so close to all the cheese. Sadly the accordion museum seemed to be closed so I didn’t get to see whether Nancy 3 of the umbrella cover museum was in there nor could I tag Weird Al in a photo or something. The clear weather stayed, though, which was very nice as I took the afternoon to explore the northern lakeside. Along the way I stopped at a cluster of old homestead buildings, a little bridge, and the Davidson Windmill, which was built by a Finnish homesteader and still works (mainly for demos, but hey that’s good for a wooden structure built in 1900).

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the coastline around the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. As has been the case for a while in these parts, I’d have been able to see and do a lot more here with a boat, but alas it was just walking the beach for me. I did, however, come across many cute marina-centric little towns and a park with all sorts of old broken fishing boats on display, so I imagined myself in a weird apocalyptic end of days… oh wait… Never mind that dark loop of crazy, look there’s pie for dinner! And again for breakfast! Okay, things are looking up.

And boy did the next day of roadside attractions deliver on that pastry-fuelled positive start. Stop 1: the world’s heaviest ball of twine! And yes, this is different than the largest ball of twine- there is one in Minnesota and one (on my radar for the future) in Kansas that vie to be called the largest but I guess one is made by a single person and one by a group? Anyway, this one was giant and weighs in at over 23,000 pounds, as described by the fact sheet maintained by the man behind this landmark- JFK, the self-proclaimed “only twine man JFK- having a ball with twine!” Quite the… interesting soul. What is it with the correlation between Unibomber childlike handwriting and these odd men? JFK twine man should hang out with the Porter Sculpture Park man- I think they’d be kindred spirits.

Next up was the town of Hayward where I drove by the sad, forlorn, closed up lumberjack games site, but just next door pulled up at the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame. This is, to say the least, a site that would not have been on my radar aside from the fact that it is home to a gimormous Muskie sculpture you can climb up and stand in its mouth. Oh yeah, that’s more my speed. The museum itself was full of boats, motors, record catch trophies and mountings, types of rods, reels, flys, you name it. Things I learned here: there were even more photos of old white guys that I’d predicted; I only know the brand of one kind of boat motor thanks to fun naming choices in Disney’s The Rescuers movie; the best name of a fish is the crappie; some fly fishing lures are quite amazing, artsy, and hilarious.

In town I also stopped to do laundry and found that the laundromat was next to the best dive bar of the state, the Moccasin Bar, home of ridiculous taxidermy scenes not limited to chipmunk picnic, woodland card game, animal courtroom, and much more. They’re the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question but no one knew which version I should aim to track down. So. Funny. Best way to spend my wash and dry waiting time by far.

From here I continued south to Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire, where I passed an evening sampling at the Leinenkugel brewery before a fun zoom birthday happy hour for my friend Amanda. Much needed influx of socialization! The next day before arriving in La Crosse, I did a few cheese-related stops (to be covered in a later delicious post) and later walked through the yard of the FAST fiberglass mold factory. FAST makes all sorts of statues for companies, pool slides, ads and signage, etc. and each one requires a mold, which once the contract is done gets tossed into the field of relics. Pretty weird stuff to walk through, like a graveyard of odd animals, devils, Big Boys, cars, donuts, Cats in Hats, corn cobs (perhaps from the Corn Palace???), traffic cones, knights, anything imaginable. I kind of imagined I was in (Harry Potter semi-spoiler alert) the room of requirement with all the hidden stuff in Hogwarts and I should have my eyes peeled for a horcrux. It was primo Creepy Cat photo territory (#creepycatroadtrip on Insta), like odd meets even odder.

My final attraction of the day was the world’s largest six-pack, which are 6 can-shaped tanks at a factory that makes beverages including beer, so I guess some days it really IS like a giant six-pack. After this into to La Crosse, I had dinner in a lovely and expansive park on the Mississippi, and the next day found a great spot on the river to rent a kayak for the morning for a few hours of peaceful time on the water. So nice and a little exercise before even more cheese stops. In the words of That ’70s Show, hello Wisconsin!