We had decided some time ago to take a driving vacation in the Fall of 2000, which would include a visit to Madison, Wisconsin, where son Matt now resides. At first, the plan included a trip to Waverly, Iowa in early October for Larye's 35th college reunion at Wartburg College. However, after reflecting back on the disaster of the 20th reunion--being arrested on arrival in Bremer County, Iowa; realizing Larye's then profession as a Cold War mercenary computer systems engineer assured his status as a pariah among his pacifistic and digiphobic classmates, all made it seem too masochistic to further contemplate a return visit.
Then, as Judy realized she would need to maintain her Case Management certification, we changed our plans to include a side trip to New Orleans for the annual Medical Case Management Convention in late October. Just the difference in air fare alone by flying from Minneapolis on the way to Wisconsin would pay for most of the fuel and motel bills while traveling. Judy had been trying to get Larye to the Big Easy for years, having attended a number of conventions in the Crescent City, while he had never visited New Orleans.
The first leg of our trip wound through the middle of Montana, with a stop in Great Falls (quilt shop, of course) then detoured north from Lewistown to Malta, to avoid the press of hunters. This gave us an opportunity to visit the Fort Peck Dam near Glasgow. Larye had just finished reading Ivan Doig's novel Bucking the Sun, the tale of a fictional Scottish immigrant family displaced from their farm to work on the dam in the 1930s, so the images of the monumental earthmoving effort and the long-disappeared shanty town of Wheeler, built for and by the workers, was fresh in his mind.
Continuing straight across US2 as the Missouri curved southward, we spent the night in Devils Lake, North Dakota, at the home of Judy's cousin Fred Bingham and his wife, Ann. We noted that Fred and Ann now have waterfront property, since the lake continues to rise.
Realizing we didn't have to be in Minneapolis until Wednesday, we continued on US2 to Bemidji, Minnesota, where two of the once-ubiquitous concrete-and-chicken-wire roadside "attractions" of the 1930s still remain, carefully preserved: a 20-foot high statue of Paul Bunyan and his 12-foot high sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox, legends that celebrate the denuding of the American forests in the 19th century.
A short side trip to the Lake Itasca, the official headwaters of the Mississippi River, here a winding woodland stream flowing out of the marshes at the north end of the lake.
Then, a shortcut across the arcing bow of the mighty river, through Motley, Larye's mother's birthplace, and ending for the night along the river's shore at Little Falls, boyhood home of famed transatlantic aviator Charles Lindberg. As we pulled into Little Falls shortly before sunset, we were greeted by familiar haze, acrid air, and a deep red sunset, due to intense prairie fires burning in peat bogs farther east, claiming nearly 10,000 acres of wildlife preserve and several houses.
The next day took us to a quaint quilt shop on a sheep farm near St. Cloud, and a quick tour of Rice, Minnesota, Judy's mother's birthplace, before a short visit with Larye's uncle, Floyd Strube, and wife LaVonne in Anoka, and dinner with Larye's cousin Monette Johnson and husband Dayton in Coon Rapids.
With a detour to another quilt shop in Linden Hills, now a quiet Minneapolis neighborhood, we dropped our car at Wold-Chamberlain Field and continued our trip by air down the Mississippi to the Delta.
After checking Judy into the convention center, we finished off the day with the obligatory crawfish dish (Italian style rather than Cajun) and dessert was a Cafe Au Lait and Beignets at the famous for being famous Cafe du Monde in the Vieux Carre, otherwise known to the world as the French Quarter.
For the next two days, while Judy was attending the convention, Larye explored the city, first the French Quarter and Riverwalk on foot, then the Garden District, Cities of the Dead, and outlying areas by car. We also took an evening dash downriver to the end of the road, where the Mississippi diffuses into the Gulf, having now been at both ends of the Mississippi within four days.
With Judy having half-day sessions on the weekend, we explored the city and surrounding region by car, taking in the Botanical Gardens and getting trapped in the traffic for the Voodoo Music Festival, which kicks off the week-long New Orleans Voodoo celebration that culminates in Halloween. We also discovered the many old towns along the river that support the river shipping trade, and recognized everywhere the tenuous hold on dry land that the people along the river have, as the river has been hemmed in by levees so it is in continual flood stage; locks are necessary to raise barges up to the river level from the canals that crisscross the bayou country. A huge area has been set aside just north of the city, surrounded by levees and floodgates to absorb the flood crest if it threatens the city. City streets are well below the normal river level, and, in some cases, below sea level as well, as the land has subsided over the centuries of structural pressure on bottomless silt deposits.
One of our goals on this trip after returning from New Orleans was a detour to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, headquarters of the Experimental Aircraft Association and site of one of the world's premier aviation museums. Larye has been a member of EAA for over 25 years, and was a charter contributor to the air museum, but had never been to Oshkosh before this. The trip was well worth while, as the museum contains exact replicas of the Wright brothers' 1903 flyer and Lindberg's Ryan NYP plane. There is also a large exhibit of restored World War II fighters and bombers, including a B-25, the type of aircraft in which Judy's brother Gerald was killed in the battle of New Guinea in 1943.
Arriving in Madison just after dark on Halloween, we used our computerized mapping system to locate the small rural suburb of Oregon, Wisconsin, where Matt, his fiance Patricia and her two children live. Matt and Tricia, both Operating Room Technicians, arranged their work schedules to have the next day off, so we got a lot of visiting and a guided tour of downtown Madison. It so happened that Ralph Nader was due for a stump speech on the capitol steps, just two blocks from where we parked, so we dragged the children to the rally as a target of opportunity to see real political campaigning in person, and a chance to see why Gore feared Nader in Wisconsin. Well, Wisconsin is definitely a strong family-farm state, so it wasn't hard to define the issues. Having heard most of Nader's platform in the media, we retreated before the crowds dispersed so we could keep on our own agenda.
Since Matt and Tricia announced their engagement while we were enroute, it was our turn to pass muster before Tricia's parents, ending the day with dinner at La Louisianne, creole-style cuisine that we missed this trip to New Orleans. I think we passed: we read all the right books, and have roots in the midwest.
Headed home at last, we cut directly west, crossing the Mississippi one last time, at Prairie du Chien and cutting across northeast Iowa. Throughout our trip, we have made a point of stopping for breakfast in towns of 2000 or less, at the cafe, or, if more than one, the cafe with the most pickup trucks in front. Where the Norwegian bachelor farmers eat, you find the best breakfast. The Italian sausage in Fennimore, Wisconsin was excellent.
Turning west just across the Minnesota border, we took time out at yet another quilt shop in tiny Hayward and picked up some local summer sausage, which was lunch the rest of the trip. The headwinds were fierce, and we struggled into Jackson, Larye's birthplace, on fumes, about 50 miles short of our usual range. In Jackson, we visited with Larye's uncle Norm Strube and wife Jo. then resumed our journey into a spectacular prairie sunset, arriving in Mitchell, South Dakota, well after dark. We left shortly before sunrise, as we were about 150 miles behind schedule, so you, dear reader, are spared photos of the famous Corn Palace. A pre-dawn driveby revealed that the 2000 version of the grain murals was indeed worth the diversion.
Our ambitious goals for this day were visits to both Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Devils Tower National Monument. Roads through the Black Hills were clear, despite a severe winter storm two days before.
Deadwood was still buried in snow, with snow piled up high enough to hide the store fronts as we drove through on our way to Devil's Tower. Once off the Interstate on Highway 14, we first threaded our way through a herd of cattle on the highway, then groups of hunters talking on radios in their trucks, then stopped just over the next hill to let a herd of at least 15 deer cross in front of us, away from the hunters.
The West Face, Devils Tower National Monument
Not your postcard view of Mount Rushmore
The other side issue on our trip was the dearth of espresso stands once east of Billings. We had a few shotless days, but found good espresso in downtown Devils Lake, North Dakota, at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport (Caribou Station), Rue de la Course in the Garden District of New Orleans, Charlie's of Wautoma, Wisconsin (Charlie is an Old English Sheepdog), and the Best Western in Silver City, South Dakota.
After an overnight in Gillette, Wyoming (yet another quilt shop stop), we found the rancher's breakfast stop in Buffalo, Wyoming, then into Montana and a tour of Custer Battlefield. We took in the film presentation of the successful defense of the Little Big Horn encampment by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, then paid our respects at Gerald Bingham's memorial in the national cemetery before touring the battlefield site.
With brief stops at Todd's Plantation in Billings for espresso and Wheat Montana in Three Forks for pastry, we raced the oncoming winter storm west, ploughing into the blue-black fury of blowing wet snow just past the Deer Lodge exit. Fortunately, we dropped out of the snow just past Drummond and made it back to Missoula as the last light faded, sixteen days and nearly 3500 miles later, not counting our six-day diversion to New Orleans by plane and rental car. We averaged over 500 miles per day the seven days we spent getting to and from Wisconsin, with about two to four hours of sight-seeing on each travel day. We concluded the purpose of the vacation was to make us content to sit at our desks for another year.
With our ambitious itinerary, we didn't have time to visit all the relatives and friends in Minnesota, but it looks like we will be back again next year to Wisconsin.