Saturday, August 19, 2017

Iowa and Illinois

Goose Island County Park, just south of La Crosse, is one of our favorite campgrounds. We set up on grass next to a backwater of the Mississippi. We could do some bird watching right from the rig, how lazy can you get? One of our neighbors, a couple of sites down, had a sofa outside next to the fire ring (in which he made a huge blaze). This seems to be a place of comfort.
The sole of Jean’s tennis shoe started peeling off. This is something I can fix, but only at home. So we got directions to the big mall in La Crosse and set off. It was all the way on the other side of the city and there was plenty of traffic, but it was easy to find. Jean went in to Penny’s to look for shoes and I took refuge in Barnes and Noble. I convinced myself that I was doing research by browsing through travel magazines. I discovered a slick RV magazine aimed at Millennials, which I actually bought. I doubt that I can imitate a Millennial, but it is worth a little study.  It took Jean a long time to find a pair of shoes she liked, so I had lots of browsing.
On the way back, we stopped at Walmart for groceries, miscellaneous needs, and prescription refills. By the time all the shopping was finished, the day was almost over. So we went back to Goose Island and managed to get our same campsite for another night. I called my sister for her birthday and we got all caught up.
We stayed up late reading, slept in the next day. We are getting into the slowing-down process. We drove south a short distance, then crossed the river into Iowa. We had never been to Iowa before, so we didn’t know what to expect. Not surprisingly, this part of Iowa looks pretty much like Wisconsin, with bluffs along the river and small towns. Our first stop in Iowa was the Effigy Mounds park. The Indians built mounds all over the eastern part of the country. Some are simple, some are in the shape of birds or bears. Some of them contain burials, but not all. They seemed to be put on top of hills a lot, which is the case with this park. We started hiking up the path behind the Visitor Center, but ran out of steam before we got to the top. Disappointing, but maybe we will get another chance.
South of Effigy Mounds a few miles is Pike’s Peak State Park. This was named by Zebulon Pike before he ever got to Colorado. It is opposite the confluence of the Wisconsin River with the Mississippi and is one of the highest points on the river. It is also the place where Marquette and Joliet first encountered the Mississippi.

We took a short hike to Bridal Veil Falls. It is mostly down-hill on a boardwalk with 197 steps, almost like climbing to the top of a lighthouse. But these steps were spaced apart, a few steps then a short level stretch. Going down wasn’t bad, but we had to rest a couple of times coming back. The falls were attractive, but suffered from a dry spell. Still, worth the effort. We rewarded ourselves with ice cream while we watched the hummingbirds.

Bridal Veil Fall
Someone has put out three hummingbird feeders which have attracted 12-15 hummingbirds (they move too fast to count). They all appeared to be female ruby throats (or perhaps juveniles) since there was not a red throat in sight.
The rest of the afternoon we went in to McGregor to do laundry and get some dinner. The town had been hit by a tornado two weeks earlier. It has been mostly cleaned up and you wouldn’t know it unless you looked up to see the missing and damaged roofs. But that doesn’t explain the many empty stores on the main street. It seems to be struggling.

Next morning I took a picture of the river, and got into a conversation with a group of Amish (or perhaps Mennonites) that were visiting the park. Here the GRR is well-marked. The route takes you through several small towns, away from the interstates and big cities. Some are dying and appear to be falling apart; then once in a while you hit one that appears prosperous and attractive. Guttenburg was one of those. It is a lovely town, with a long downtown opposite a park on the bank of the river. It is a pleasure to drive through such a place.
We got to Dubuque in early afternoon and went to the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. This is a large, well done museum that is in two buildings. We went through the one devoted to rivers in general. It is a mixture of displays and large fish tanks replicating various types of rivers. About 4:30 we left, got some groceries, and camped in a county park. The campground was full of vehicles with racing canoes on top. Next morning we hung around to watch the beginning of the race which had a leg next to the campground. We talked for a while with a couple who were racers but not in this race. We also spotted a mink moving around in the rip rap.

The museum tickets were good for two days, so we went back and went through the building devoted to the Mississippi. It includes a wing for the classic Mississippi steamboats, which was very informative and interesting to Gene who likes anything having to do with boats. This building also had aquarium tanks, and some displays in a courtyard that included a small, sternwheel tug that we could go aboard. This tug was powered by diesel.
We wound around through downtown Dubuque and finally got on the River Road south. This part of Iowa is hilly and green, with big fields of corn. The road goes through many small towns. In Bellevue there is a state park with a butterfly garden. The garden is impressive, but nary a butterfly --- too cold? too overcast?

Next day, we got some rain in the morning. The land is beginning to flatten out; we’re heading into the prairie. We spent some time in Le Claire, a pretty town with active businesses. The main street has speakers with piped in music. We spent some time at the (misnamed?) Buffalo Bill Museum. It had a room full of Buffalo Bill memorabilia in cases, but the rest of the museum was devoted to Le Claire history. There is a building attached that contains a steamer under restoration. You can go aboard and crawl around. It is fascinating to actually be aboard one, albeit a small tug. The whole lower deck (above the hold) is devoted to machinery, with the boilers, propulsion engines, and several other steam-powered devices. The galley is here also, just a refrigerator, a sink, and some counters and cabinets among the machinery. Everything aboard is powered by steam, including a generator. Electricity was only used for lights (and the refrigerator). This boat was the longest-lived steamboat on the river, lasting 70+ years when the average life expectancy was about 10 years. It was also the last steamer to retire.
We stopped for the night at a Corps of Engineers campground. This is a Class A campground and is very well done, one of the best we have stayed in. We had a great view of the river. Next morning we spotted a tow that we had seen in Le Claire, heading in the other direction. He seemed to get stuck because he stopped, drifted back with the current a short ways, and then powered forward again, farther from the bank.

After breakfast in town, we crossed over into Illinois. We passed through many large corn fields. The river, in broad areas with quiet water by the shore, had acres of plants blooming that we took for water lilies. We found out that they are actually American lotus. They have a potato-like root that was used by the Indians.

American Lotus on the River
We went in to Nauvoo, a town where Gene’s great uncle lived and made blue cheese in the years before the first World War. The town is mostly known for its Mormon inhabitants in the 19th century. There is a big Mormon temple on the hill overlooking the river.

Next day we crossed into Missouri and drove to Hannibal. The day was overcast with occasional rain. The old downtown area is Mark Twain everything. We went into the museum, which has quotes and displays covering every aspect of Twain’s life. We spent a long time watching most of the Ken Burns documentary. The museum connects with several houses: Sam Clemens boyhood home, the “Becky Thatcher House,” Sam’s father’s law office, etc. Outdoors it even has the white fence that Tom Sawyer painted. You can take a selfie in front of a real fence painted by a fictional character.

We walked down by the river. This was the river as seen by young Sam Clemens, though in his time there was a lot more action than someone fishing.

Below Hannibal, the land becomes hilly, with farms in the broad valleys. The road mostly stays away from the river. We got tangled up in the edge of St. Louis, but broke free and found the Golden Eagle ferry. This is a tug-and-barge type of ferry that can handle about a dozen cars.

It uses an arrangement I haven’t seen before. The bow of the tug is attached to the barge by a pivot on an arm from the middle of the barge.

When they want to go in the other direction, the tug just pivots around to the other hip. There are no lines involved.

On the Illinois side we had lunch at Kinder’s Restaurant “On and Sometimes In the Mississippi River.” This side of the river has part of the Illinois River and several other streams and backwaters, so we had to make a wide detour to get back on the River Road. We  finally got to Pere Marquette State Park campground. We arrived after hours, and the camp host was “off duty” but there were several sites listed on the sign as first-come-first-served so we drove in and picked a spot.
Next morning the camp host came around and collected the fee. The section south of here reminded me of the Pacific Coast Highway north of Long Beach. The road is right up against the bank of the wide river, with bluffs close on the other side. There is not even the usual railroad track between. Perhaps the prettiest stretch so far.
But it can’t last. In a little while we approached St. Louis and all the industrial area on the Illinois side. We were headed for Cahokia Mounds, the biggest mound site in the country. But first we had to deal with the confusion and fast traffic of the city. Somehow we made it and got to the Mounds about 1:30. We spent most of the hot day in the large and well done Visitor Center.

Cahokia developed into the largest and most complex city north of Mexico. By AD ll00 it had a bigger population than London. At its height, the city covered about 4,000 acres and had 120 mounds. The population was about 20,000. The largest mound, called “Monk’s Mound,’ is an earthen pyramid more than 100 feet high and covering about 14 acres. The illustrations make the town look similar to Aztec or Mayan towns, but the raised structures were made of earth rather than stone. 
The city included a circle of poles constituting a solar calendar, now called “Woodhenge.”
Woodhenge on the model
We did get outside and it is truly an impressive sight. I took some pictures, but in one of those horrible moments when you push the wrong button too quickly, I lost all but one fairly puny mound.

However, it is a place that deserves a second visit.
Fleeing south from Cahokia, we were two days from the eclipse and entering the Zone of Totality. We have a paid reservation a few miles ahead for Sunday night, but it was now Friday and we were having a difficult time finding space anywhere. Panic time, everything was full and overpriced. We finally scored a site in a park called Devil’s Backbone. We had to rent for an entire week, of which we may use three days. But that was the best we could do. The park is kind of rough-and-ready, but it has power so we can run the air conditioner (it has gotten very hot) and it is right along the river. The people are nice, too. So tomorrow we head into the Zone of Totality; pray for sunshine.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Minnesota and Wisconsin

The Mississippi River begins at Lake Itaska in northern Minnesota. So on a Saturday morning we found ourselves at the Headwaters Center at the northern end of the lake. One of the first things you see is a large relief map of the whole Mississippi. This includes all sorts of information, such as the fact that the river loses half of its total elevation within the state of Minnesota.
There is a bridge over the little stream that flows out of the lake. There are also steps down to the stream, and several people waded the couple of yards across the river at that point. We elected to stay dry. This picture is from the other side of the bridge.
The Mighty Mississippi

 On the way back to the car, Jean spotted a bird running across the path and into the weeds. It was eventually followed by up to three chicks. We think it was a quail. As the day went on, we spotted eighteen deer and a small snake in the road. A good day for wildlife.
The road crosses the river several times. The first two times it looked narrower than where it issues from the lake; but after that it gets progressively wider. It’s hard to tell how deep it is, but there was a band of mud along the edge, implying that the water was low.

While there are occasional fields of corn or soybeans, for the most part the land is wooded. Prominent in the woods are stands of thin birch trees (paper birch?) and tall, pointy pines. Sunny areas were covered with yellow wildflowers.
Sign in Wisconsin

The road is generally well-marked, but we managed to lose it a couple of times. The worst was approaching Bemidji, where we may have been thrown off by some construction. We connected back with it several miles down the road. It mainly follows back-country farm roads — in one instance gravel. This makes for pleasant driving and more chances to see the river. But it also means that you should make sure you have plenty of fuel when you start, because you can drive for hours and never see a town or a service station.
We stopped in Grand Rapids and visited the Judy Garland Home and Museum. Grand Rapids used to be a place where the river ran among a lot of rocks. We were told that you could hear the river inside the hospital where Judy Garland was born. Since then, the river has been tamed by industrialization.
Judy Garland house
After a long day’s run, we got the last campsite in the Aitkin town park. So we spent the night next to the river. We hope we will be able to do that some more.
In Aitkin we had breakfast in a popular local café/bakery. We try to eat in local places, rather than franchises. That usually turns out to be good food and we get a sense of the local culture.
This part of Minnesota is flat, with huge fields of corn and soybeans. The road follows the river closely and you get lots of views when the trees aren’t too thick. You can be 100 yards from the river and the view will be completely blocked by heavy vegetation.
We spotted our first dam at Sartell, just north of St. Cloud. It was put in for a paper mill, which may or may not still be operating (there was no smell).

We decided that, being Sunday, this was our best time to get through the Twin Cities; so we shortly got on I-94. Before we got to the cities, we were trapped in a major traffic jam caused by a wreck several miles ahead. It eventually broke up and the trip through the cities was easy. We got to Wisconsin later than we expected, but managed to luck into a good, riverside campground — where we again got the last available spot.

The view from the campsite (in light fog)
In the morning we took a short walk on the beach. Jean brought her binoculars and spent some time watching a large raft of snow geese along the opposite shore of the bay.

We took care of several necessary jobs, and got away just after noon. The road runs between a series of bluffs and the river. We have arrived at the Driftless Region, an area that somehow was missed by the great glaciers of the Ice Age. What few fields we saw had corn and soybeans together.

In the afternoon, we came to our first locks, Dam and Lock #4 in the tiny town of Alma., WI. Somehow we missed the first three. We stopped and watched a huge towboat work through with a long tow. The tugs on the Mississippi are called “towboats” even though they never tow; they only push.

The raft of big barges was long enough that they had to break it in half and lock through in two pieces. This took quite some time.

Afterwards we had some lunch in a bar across the street. After the rush to get through the Twin Cities, we are consciously slowing down. So we often stop for the overlooks and to read some of the historical markers. But we still got frustrated going through La Crosse. Jean wanted to find a Wells Fargo bank, and she located the only one on her phone. But both the map and directions were impossible to follow, so that didn’t work out.
We got another campsite next to the water on a backwater of the river in a county park where we had stayed before. So far we are lucking out on campsites. Tomorrow we need to do some shopping, then hope to finish the Wisconsin portion and go into Iowa. That will allow us to color one more state on our little map.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Off to Minnesota

Our adventure this year is to follow the Great River Road, down the Mississippi from the source almost to the mouth. But first we have to get to northern Minnesota.
We left on Friday, 28 July. That was one day after our scheduled departure due to a problem that developed with the house. A busy day put us on track to getting the problem taken care of so next day we went to MacDonald’s for a late breakfast, then to Kroger’s to stock up on food basics. That put us on the road about 2:00 o’clock. No sense scheduling a long stretch for the first day. We ran into and out of showers and a little fog. We also kept getting a warning light for oil from time to time. At first I thought that we might be low, despite recently having the oil changed. But after buying two quarts of fancy synthetic oil (it is a Mercedes after all) I found that the oil light was for too much oil!  Oh well, by 6:15 we were settled in at Tamarack, our usual first stop.
Next day was much nicer. After waiting in a line for fuel, we made a short, relatively uneventful run to Vic Cardi’s place in southern Ohio. It is out in the woods, on a quiet road. He has a place for us to park that is almost dead level. It doesn’t take much to make you happy when you are on the road. Vic took us on a tour of the neighborhood, which has a lot of Amish farms. Pretty country. Then we went in to Portsmouth, OH. They have a big flood wall there which has been covered with many panels of a very good mural. It illustrates the history of the town from before the arrival of the first English explorers to the present.

Next stop was a short distance away in Cincinnati. We stopped there because it was free (a perk of the club we belong to) and we figured we would need shore power to run the air conditioner. Right on both counts, it was very hot. The campground rules said that there was absolutely no fishing in the lake. Much looking failed to reveal any kind of lake; though we occasionally heard geese
When we travel we prefer to avoid the interstates. However, this first stretch is not really part of the adventure. We just need to get to northern Minnesota, where our real trip will start. So, much of the week it took us to get there was on interstates, playing moto-polo with the trucks.
This part of the trip took us across the prairie, where the corn and soybean fields are measured by the square mile. In Illinois, we saw lots of crop dusting, including a plane that crossed the interstate ahead of us and almost left tire tracks on the top of a truck. We even saw one field being dusted by a helicopter.
We had lunch in Evansville, a pretty town just south of Madison, WI. This is a bedroom community for Madison and Janesville.
Downtown Evansville
Gene is from Wisconsin so we connected with Bill, a cousin who sells spring water. We had hoped to visit with another cousin, but was never able to make connections. After some searching, we were able to find an old German meat market and got our hit of kupwurst, a treat from my childhood which I introduced to Jean. Wednesday we filled our water tank from Bill’s spring and headed north. 
 Out on the plains you can watch the thunderstorms building.

Wednesday night we spent in the parking lot of an Indian casino, our first time for that particular venue. They even had three power stations for RVs, but these were all in use by the time we got there. We never gamble and this one didn’t include a restaurant, so we just settled in for the night and read until bed time.
Thursday we set a goal that turned out to be a little too ambitious. We had been out almost a week and it was time to do laundry. So we aimed for Bemidji, MN, near the start of the Road. There we could lay over a day and catch up on household tasks. It started raining as we left the casino. It rained off and on all day, but never when we needed to be outside. Then the clouds cleared just in time for the sun to be in our faces as we approached Bemidji. It rained again that night. A long and often dreary day.
So here we are, a week after we started, set to launch unto the Great River Road. It’s just another 30 miles to Lake Itaska, the source of the Mississippi. Let the adventure begin!