Time to get away. After touring New England and upstate New York last summer, our choice this summer was a week-long trip to the nation’s Heartland on a tour to Minnesota and Wisconsin. With tent stowed in back and bikes on the roof, we planned an early Saturday get away. Yea, right.
We decided to add satellite radio to our old Subaru Outback for the journey. We purchased what seemed to be a very simple unit that plugged into the cigarette lighter and used an iPhone as the tuner. This would allow us to move the unit from vehicle to vehicle as needed.
Setting up the account was easy and even included an internet option for only an additional dollar. The antenna mounted without a hitch, leaving only a needed signal from Sirius/XM to the unit to light up alternative music stations for me, country for Laura and a wealth of sports including Yankees’ baseball, Nebraska, Oklahoma and KU games in the fall and even Formula 1 racing from Europe. This sounded fantastic.
So why nearly two hours later did we finally leave Topeka with nothing booming through our radio? I wish we knew. Countless signals to a unit that would not remain powered properly left us completely frustrated. We checked connections, unplugged, replugged, turned the phone off and on ridiculously.
One technician after another, many whom we could barely understand, were of no help. Our American service, with product manufactured in Thailand and supported by a phone bank in India, never worked. Thankfully Laura was on the phone, or I would have launched the unit out the window at high speed as we finally motored north.
Fortunately, we quickly found our travel groove. I mentioned in the last blog that we blew right past the Bridges of Madison County exit in Iowa. As we approached Clear Lake, Iowa, thoughts of famed early rocker Buddy Holly made me think about “the day the music died” as Don McLean sang in American Pie. In 1959, Holly and others died in a plane crash just outside of Clear Lake. Apparently, there is a small memorial, but with the earlier delay, the decision was to save that Iowa landmark for another visit.
Ham Lake’s campground north of Minneapolis welcomed us with a tree-lined drive on a smooth dirt road completely covered by an arch of leaf-covered tree branches. At the camp store, a small kid goat happily greeted us on the porch and followed us inside. The older woman behind the counter told us not to worry, the kid was a favored pet.
When she told us how the young goat loved to eat the tobacco out of her cigarettes, but had no use for her filters, we knew we were in the right place. This was a true piece of Americana never found in any hotel room just off the interstate. Decompression had begun.
After a small breakfast outside our tent the next morning, we took off for a morning ride and the beginning of a series of pleasing discoveries. The first was a recurring note for our ventures the rest of the trip. America’s Heartland welcomes cyclists. Even along busy roads, shoulders were wide and cars gave us wide berths. Looking at a map revealed we easily could have ridden south to and through Minneapolis all in designated bike lanes. We rode east instead on quiet roads before returning for brunch at the Red Ox Cafe.
Brunch is used only as a time indicator. The Red Ox Inn is an old wood road house that prides itself on serving breakfast all day. There is one certainty when asking a local in a small town about a good place to eat, they are sure to mention portion sizes. Size does matter when it comes to portions. Our late breakfast was simple, delicious and bountiful. The home-made wheat toast was a highlight, but the waffle was very good as well.
Fueled, we rented a canoe for the afternoon and paddled around Ham Lake. We mingled with sailboats, small motor boats, kayakers and a pontoon boat where a young man was doing his very best to impress a pretty girl sunning herself on the deck. Young love is a beautiful sight, so we stowed our paddles and floated on the lake remembering that we both are still young at heart and very much in love.
The next morning we would trade the antiquated lake rental canoe for speedy kayaks from Midwest Mountaineering. This is one of the main reasons we chose to make this trip. We met the store’s kayak expert, Jerome Rausch, when KU men’s basketball played in the NCAA regional in the football home of the Minnesota Vikings in 2009. Our interest in kayaking had grown since we paddled a double for hours in the Atlantic Ocean off Miami Beach in 2008. Other trips have included kayaking. This trip, we wanted to really explore what sort of kayaks we might buy some day. Rausch had all the answers. Before we knew it, two sleek 17′ rental vessels rested on our roof rack. We were off.
The beauty of being in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” is that we did not have to go far. We did not even leave the city. The finger lakes of the city gave us the option of kayaking on four lakes all connected by picturesque waterways. However, there was one abandoned railroad bridge that had become home to a group of chipmunks. One dropped down onto a woman’s kayak just ahead of us. Unfortunately, none fell near us, so I had no chance to yell out, “Alvin!” Instead, over the course of three hours, we explored all the lakes before coming back to shore completely spent and a bit crisp of skin.
What we discovered during those hours is that we truly do love kayaking and both of us can crank it up and speed from one point to another. What we just cannot justify is the price needed to buy two at this point. Rentals is the way to go, and we certainly will be back to Midwest Mountaineering again soon. Why not, Midwest Mountaineering is our Mall of America. Just about anything we could want for our outdoor pursuits spreads throughout the massive store stretching nearly a block close by the University of Minnesota campus. Truly worth a visit if you ever find yourself in the area.
The other great discovery was how much we enjoy Minneapolis. Granted it is summer, and we want no part of their brutal winters, but my how glorious summer is up north. We paddled on a Monday yet there were hundreds upon hundreds taking part in some sort of physical activity on and around the lakes. Kayaks, sailboats and sail boards were everywhere. So many people were learning to stand up paddle on giant surfboards that the rental office at the main lake ran out of paddles.
Each lake had at least one, and up to three, swimming beaches filled with young people all enjoying the free beach scene. Runners and cyclists circled the lakes endlessly. There is something special about any city that suffers through long winters. Once spring has sprung, residents seem hellbent on enjoying every possible minute of the beautiful weather. It truly is a glorious sight to see such a vibrant outdoor scene and it carries over to dining and evening activities.
Back at our campsite, we enjoyed a final cool Minnesota evening. Our next stop was Trempealeau County, Wisconsin. Located east of Minneapolis near the west-central border of Wisconsin, this county is a cycling paradise for Midwesterners. What we found deserves its own space in the next chapter of this journey because what we experienced was that and much more.
The other bit of paradise was that we discovered a county filled with Norwegian pride. Home after home flew Norwegian flags along with their American flags stoking my distant Nordic heritage. However nothing came close to the Norske Nook in Osseo. This popular spot combines American classics all cooked with a Norwegian twist. Wraps are a major dining trend in many restaurants, but the Nook uses a paper-thin Lefse for its wrap. Made from potatoes and extremely soft, this Norwegian classic adds a lighter taste to the stuffed wrap. Laura enjoyed their grilled chicken Lefse. I chose a Reuben sandwich featuring crisp cranberry wild rice bread for a completely different taste.
However, what the Nook is all about is pies. Lots of pies. Starting at 4 a.m. the staff bake 70 pies a day. By the end of the day, few slices remain. Twenty three different pies are blue ribbon winners at the National Pie Championship. Just looking at the variety available during our dinner was hard to comprehend. Laura’s slice of Banana Creme pie is an award winner. My lingonberry and apple slice was very tasty. A lingonberry is another Norwegian and Scandinavian staple. Smaller and more juicy than their distant cranberry cousins, lingonberries are tart and balanced perfectly with the sweet apple in the tasty crust. Since it was also National Dairy Month, a scoop of ice cream went along with the pie. In America’s Dairyland, you do not say no to ice cream or risk banishment. Signs proudly boast of the fat content in the ice cream.
The wait staff, all dressed in old Norwegian garb, is proud of their pie reputation and have become true pie pushers. Throughout our dinner, our waitress reminded us to “save room for a slice of pie.” The next morning before a day of riding, we thought a hardy Norwegian breakfast would be perfect. So did at least 12 other cyclists fueling themselves for rides. Even early in the morning, another waitress reminded us often that fresh pie was coming out of the ovens as we ate and to “leave room.” Pie for breakfast? We could not go that far. Fortunately, we moved on before our stomachs could rest on our bike’s top tubes as it did for a few of the riders we saw that morning as they pedaled away.
The next morning, we headed to Madison, the state capital, to see friends. With every mile, the car’s outside temperature gauge climbed well into the 90s. That was nothing compared to what we left behind in sun-baked Kansas, but we had grown comfortable to waking in the morning and pulling on a sweatshirt. Throw in 60% humidity, and Madison was completely gross. Moisture hung in the air all afternoon.
Madison is one of the most liberal cities in the nation and often called the “Berkeley of the Midwest.” “Blasphemy,” Madison residents will respond. They proudly point out Madison’s liberal bent easily pre-dates Berkeley’s. In their minds, “Berkeley is the Madison of the West.”
The beautiful state capital building welcomes homeless to sleep in it hallways during the bitter cold winters. Protestors fill the statehouse grounds almost daily. State Street led us past more head shops than I can ever remember in Lawrence’s crazy, hazy days in the late 60’s and early 70’s to the gigantic University of Wisconsin campus. Marijuana laws are as liberal as it gets in the nation. Cynically, some call Madison “The People’s Republic of Madison,” but there was not a bit of conformist attitude that we could see.
Like China, though, Madison brims with bicycle riders. During our travels we spent time in what are two of the United States’ most bicycle progressive cities in Minneapolis and Madison. Both have worked diligently to provide safe routes throughout the city and great rides outside the city limits. Both Minneapolis and Madison are always listed as some of the most livable cities, noted for low unemployment rates, strong educational heritage and a wide world of outdoor activities.
Before we could leave, we had to become “cheese heads.” We were in Dairyland requiring a final exploration through the Cheese Chalet. The barn-like building, with so many types of cheese, once again made simple decisions impossible. These people know what they are doing. No one leaves the Chalet without more cheese than they really need. We were no different.
Our journey home had us skirting storms before a super intense thunderstorm forced us to use a rest stop to wait for its passing near Des Moines. Finally home to oven-baked Topeka, we unpacked the tent and the rest of our gear for a final cleaning in our back yard. We have already begun discussing our interest in making a trip back to the two states as early as next summer. America’s Heartland treated us so well that it is now firmly rooted in our hearts.