Midwest journey: An overview

Farm scene by N-Sai
Farm scene, a photo by N-Sai on Flickr.

If you’ve never been to the midwest, or you’ve only been to Chicago, you’re missing out on something special.

The midwest is a colorful place dotted with patchwork farmland that symbolizes its cultural quilt. The region is full of oddities and small-town charm, as well as some of the most urbane places you’ll ever visit. Just about anywhere you go the cheese, beer and wine are legendary.

Thankfully, I’ve been getting plenty of chances to visit the area.

As of late, it seems all the people in my family who are around my age and still in Wisconsin are getting married at fairly regular intervals. These ceremonies occur approximately every other year and afford my family a nice opportunity to head out there to this lovely state. Everyone flies in and congregates together in Wisconsin for a week or so for a big ol’ family boogie. Never will I turn down a chance to go. My family is pretty awesome. I can’t think of a time when I haven’t had fun in Wisconsin.

My family and I started out our most recent journey in Minneapolis, which is the twin city to St. Paul, the capital of Minnesota. We were on our way to my cousin’s wedding in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and decided that we would make a circle route over and Door County and then down and around to southwestern Wisconsin (where the family lives) before heading back up to Minneapolis along the “river route.” Which is lovely, by the way.

My parents met at the University of Minnesota and married in the city, so we are a little attached to the area. Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is my family’s usual starting point for trips to Wisconsin, since my family lives near the Mississippi River and the trip is nice and scenic. It’s also nice to be near the Mall of America and all the travel amenities there. MSP is a big, busy airport that connects directly to the Hiawatha Line light rail bound for the mall or downtown, whichever you wish.

We did once go to Chicago, Illinois, first for a wedding in the Madison area, but that trip was a bit harrowing and featured lots of toll roads. I’ve never been through Milwaukee, but I’d love to visit there.

After a couple hours in the Mini Apple, one gets the sense that it’s a very grown-up city. Mature homes and neighborhoods, the wonderful University of Minnesota/Dinkytown area and manicured parks are all over the place. If NPR was a city, it would be Minneapolis. At least, that’s the way it’s always seemed to me. At the same time, there are some quirky and unusual things to be found: the oversized shopping mall complete with roller coasters, gigantic versions of big-box stores, indoor water parks and atrium gardens.

Venturing from Minnesota into Wisconsin is a treat no matter which way you go. From the northern part through Eau Claire, you head through Leinenkugel’s territory in Chippewa Falls and over to Wausau, home to Rib Mountain and an actual downhill skiing area. One would hardly believe it possible in this state, but it’s got some elevation here and there.

Coming in on the Mississippi River route, one experiences a spectacular drive with a bluff to one side and the river valley on the other. Each of the charming towns you pass along the way has something to boast, from shoe manufacturing to the birthplace of waterskiing to the setting of Grumpy Old Men. The National Eagle Center is also found at the river’s edge.

No matter which way you go, once you reach the Badger State, it’s hard not to fall under its spell. Wisconsin is truly one of the funkiest, most endearing states in the union. Its residents are passionate about cheese, beer, the farmer’s way of life (whether real or imagined), educational opportunities, and outdoorsmanship. “Farm to table” has always been in vogue, long before the trend caught on in other places. Unfortunately, over the years, many of the family farms that used to dominate Wisconsin’s pastoral landscapes have been eliminated due to the rise of factory farming. You used to see so many cows, and the smell would be overpowering.

When I was a kid, I would hold my nose in the backseat while gazing out on a sea of black-and-white spotted holsteins that seemed to stretch to the horizon. Those are just memories now. Today, I’m just as likely to see a Spotted Cow beer bottle from the New Glarus brewery in my hand.

While the typical image people have is of endless flatlands and farms, the actual state is home to precipitous bluffs, winding rivers and gorgeous lakes. There is something of a debate over whether Wisconsin or Minnesota has more lakes. And, what state in general has the most lakes. Suffice to say that both states have lots of lakes and ponds, regardless of how you define it. All that water is a refreshing sight for someone who grew up in the desert and now lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

During the trip, we ventured on to Green Bay, where we attended a picnic, the wedding itself in a park and then the reception at Lambeau Field. Green Bay is a pretty quirky place. Everything is green and yellow. The town more or less owns the team, so there are signs and motifs everywhere. Residents eat, sleep and breathe football. Visiting the stadium is an awe-inspiring experience that made a believer out of me, as if I wasn’t already. Lambeau Field seems like a cathedral of football to me, if sports could even be compared to a religion. In Green Bay, it can be. We partied and ate delicious, juicy bratwursts the night before the wedding at Reforestation Camp. The actual vows were exchanged in a beautiful gazebo at Pamprin Park, the city’s largest park, and it was very nicely done and touching to watch, which is how a wedding should be. The weather was hanging over us and taunting us, but we escaped the rain by the time the blessed event occurred. The reception in the upstairs mezzanine area of Lambeau Field was great and our seasoned crew of beer drinkers used up the whole keg of Leinenkugel’s Honey Weiss early in the evening. I drank so much of that beer during the trip that I never want to see it again. At least, not for a while. I started paying out of pocket for bottles of Spotted Cow after that.

We then headed on to Door County for a few days to gaze at Green Bay and Lake Michigan, visit state parks and eat lots of wine and cheese. We had a nice time at Whitefish Dunes State Park, taking refuge from the heat of the day in the cool wind coming off the lake waters. There were, however, a shocking number of dead alewives on the beach (those pesky fish-out-of-their-kind-of-water) and a distressing number of bloodsucking flies to defend oneself from. As we drove out from the dunes to nearby Cliff Point, I noticed a small amount of blood oozing out of my mother’s arm and  a telltale fly firmly attached to her limb. Thus ensued a tense few moments as I had no choice but to try to grab the bloody fly, flinging a his soaked body onto the dash. We weren’t sure if he was going to make a move, so I held my sweater in hand, just in case. When we finally arrived at Cave Point, I was ecstatic not only about the amazing scenery and cool breeze, but about the chance to rinse my hands off. It’s quirks like these that remind you that you are smack-dab in the middle of farm country, even as you’re sunning yourself on a sandy beach. Cave Point was the highlight of my stay in the area, by the way. You should definitely go.

Bloodsucking flies aside, there’s lots of good times to be had. I’d recommend that anyone should check out at least one lighthouse. The Door Peninsula is named for its reputation as “death’s door.” Many shipwrecks have been found in the area, particularly in the passage from the peninsula to Washington Island. We went to the Cana Island Lighthouse, which is a fantastic experience from the breezy walk down the causeway to the 90-some-odd steps to the top. The sound of the waves off the bay is breathtaking, as is the view.

But … back to that food and wine. Door County is famous for its cherry and fruit harvests, and cherries can be found in everything from breads and vinegars to wines and pastries. Cherry this, cherry that. The Door Peninsula Winery is arguably the largest and best of the vino markets, and has a tasting room with unlimited samples. We also picked up a few bottles of regional cherry beer from the Hinterlands brewery. (The aptly named Shipwreck Brewery, affiliated with the Door Peninsula Winery, had an excellent version as well.) We had so much food from all the excellent farmers markets that it was hard to devour it all. Thankfully, all the hotels in our itinerary had refrigerators for all that bounty, and we carried a cooler.

Driving through Oshkosh and along highway 21 toward La Crosse was a nice trip through some very small towns. It was very quiet and peaceful. We stopped at a cheese factory along the way that was selling lots of cheese and cheese-related memorabilia including yellow foam hats and necklaces. We then got to West Salem and stayed in our customary AmericInn. We went out to grandma’s farm, took pictures of the massive eye statue at the F.A.S.T. Corp. boneyard (stands for fiberglass animals, signs and trademarks), munched at a local bakery and joined our family for a quick trip through the La Crosse Interstate Fair.

We also went into Sparta and admired its Mayberry-esque qualities. Many of the F.A.S.T. Corp. figures dot the town, but the most famous in Ben Biking, the town mascot. Sparta bills itself as America’s bicycling capital because of the Sparta-Elroy bicycle trail. True to form, bicycle motifs can be found everywhere and the downtown area is home to the Deke Slayton Memorial Space and Bicycle Museum. The museum is full of historic old bikes and space-related items from Deke Slayton’s astronaut career, and it all seems to make sense despite the fact that a clear link is never really established between these themes. Most of the bikes in the collection were donated by the community, and it’s interesting to see what people have gathered throughout the years. Everything from a very old bike that resembles a hobby horse to some vintage John Deere models can be found there.

And then, the trip was done and we headed back to MSP. While there, we had a little bit of time to kill, so we ate at Vescio’s in Dinkytown, which is the funky Italian restaurant where my Mom used to work. My parents showed me the various places they used to live and the McDonald’s near campus where they used to go. It was kind of neat to see all that stuff, and maybe a little weird.

We closed out the trip with a late-evening stop at the Mall of America’s movie theaters to see Harry Potter 7, Part 2, in 3-D. That was nice. I was surprised that the theater didn’t have stadium seating, but the view of the screen was just fine and I had no complaints about the overall moviewatching experience. It’s interesting to note that there is a VIP room at the theater, as well as a bar where you can buy alcoholic beverages. Everything at the Mall of America is just a little bigger, better or more fantastic than everywhere else.

Thus concluded a wonderful stay in the Midwest, one that I’d gladly repeat again. Just six days later, I was en route to Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, for a lovely trip in its own right. That was all gravy, and you’ll hear more about that later, but let me just say now that I’ll always treasure the trip to Wisconsin and Minnesota in my heart. That expedition was definitely the highlight of my summer.

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