One last fall weekend

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Fall is my favorite season, and I like to milk it for all it’s worth. I love the cool temperatures and fall colors and talking long walks without getting all sweaty.

This has been a really busy fall for me, with September trips to France and Colorado, and lots of projects going on at work. I didn’t get to do my usual trip to northern Minnesota, which pretty much breaks my heart (I literally had to block my Superior Hiking Trail Facebook group because it made me too sad to see what a spectacular fall they were having on the North Shore).

The last week of October was Homecoming at Iowa State, and it was going to be crazy-busy in my office. So, I decided the week BEFORE Homecoming that I would take a day off and go hiking in northeast Iowa.

I took off Friday morning for Decorah, to walk the Trout Run Trail. I’ve written about Decorah many times. It’s one of my favorite places in Iowa, but it takes a long time to get up there from Ames. I left early and got there just after 10 a.m., parked my car in the lot behind Water Street, the main commercial area, and took off walking.

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What a beautiful day for a long walk! I’ve walked at least part of this trail three times before, and I did the whole 11 miles once, in June 2016. I was there this past July and was disappointed that I didn’t have time to walk the complete trail, because it’s so much fun.

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Today’s walk was pretty wonderful, with subtle fall color, very little bike traffic, and temperatures in the mid-70s. Very warm for late October! I started at the beginning of the trail (near downtown) and worked my way around, stopping only a couple of times to eat a snack. My favorite section is from about mile markers 6 to 8, with beautiful scenery and challenging switch-backs (below).

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By the end of the walk, I was tired and wanted something more substantial to eat, so I walked through downtown and grabbed some food before heading to my next destination: Marquette.

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I had booked a room at the Cobblestone Inn & Suites in tiny Marquette (population 375). The town is situated right on the Mississippi River in northeast Iowa, across the bridge from Prairie du Chien, Wisc. I chose Marquette because it’s close to Effigy Mounds, and I wanted to hike there on Saturday.

I actually regret not staying in McGregor, the town less than a mile south of Marquette. There’s much more to do there – shops, antiques, restaurants – and there are a few small B&Bs and inns I probably could have stayed in. Marquette has the one hotel, a casino/riverboat (below), one restaurant, the Eagle’s Landing Winery, and a couple of antiques shops.

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I walked around the town and went to bed early. My room was comfortable and quiet – except when the huge, noisy train came by at all hours of the night. Turns out the railroad tracks are about 10 yards from the hotel. Yikes!

I survived the night, ate a quick breakfast at the hotel the next morning, and headed to Effigy Mounds. The National Park site officially opens at 8:30, and that’s when I pulled into the parking lot. Mine was one of three cars, and I think the other two may have been park service vehicles.

It was a chilly morning, and the forecast called for a chance of rain, but it turned out to be a glorious fall day. I’d been here a couple of times before but never hiked the full area (I limited myself to the north unit that’s accessible from the visitor center parking lot; there’s also a south unit with another 4+ miles of hiking trails).

Effigy Mounds is, of course, best known for its Native American mounds, created during the Late Woodland period about 1,400 years ago. The national monument features 206 mounds, 31 of which are in the form of animal effigies, mostly bears and birds. A typical mound is 2-4 feet high, 40 feet wide, and 80 feet long, but some are larger — the Great Bear Mound measures 137 feet long and 70 feet wide.

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It’s tough to get a feel for the shape of the mounds when you’re standing next to them – they really should be viewed from above. It’s harder still to get a decent picture of them, because in two dimensions they don’t look like much (see above).

But it’s very cool to walk among the mounds and imagine this area when the Woodland Indians were living here. It’s also just a gorgeous area, with towering trees and fabulous views of the Mississippi River. The fall color was at its peak when I was there.

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I started my hike early and had the whole place to myself – up, up the steep climb to Eagle Rock and Fire Point views, on to the Great Bear Mound Group, to “Twin Views” (of the river), the “Third Scenic View,” and up and around to Hanging Rock – a spectacular vantage point. The hike is challenging the further you go toward Hanging Rock (about three and a half miles from the visitor center), but the payoff is worth it.

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When I turned around and started back, I began to encounter other hikers, and by the time I got to the Little Bear Mound Group, there were dozens of visitors enjoying the site. When I got back to my car, the parking lot was completely full.

I ate lunch at Café McGregor and poked around the shops on Main Street, then headed home, my need for a fall color outing fully satisfied.

 

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Fall: Colorado

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When we drove to Colorado in late September to see our daughter Lauren, who lives in Denver, the forecast was iffy at best.

The weather had been extremely warm in Denver all week – in the lower 80s – but the Indian summer was about to be replaced by cooler, rainy weather over the weekend. And in Rocky Mountain National Park, where we hoped to see fall color and elk herds, the forecast was for snow.

Ah, weather. You fickle travel foe. You can never predict these things when you plan your trips months in advance.

We had scheduled our trip to Colorado for the last weekend in September primarily because it was Lauren’s birthday. And then we found out that Frozen the Musical was staging its pre-Broadway run in Denver, so we snagged tickets. We were locked in, weather forecast be damned.

Dave and I drove out on Friday, wearing shorts. We met Lauren for dinner near our hotel at the Denver Tech Center.

The next morning we ate breakfast at Snooze, the “a.m. eatery” Lauren and Katie and I enjoyed when we visited last spring. This time I was disappointed. The restaurant still had that fun Jetsons vibe, but I made the mistake of ordering sweet potato pancakes and they came drenched in so much syrup I couldn’t eat them. They were way too sweet. (In hindsight, why didn’t I just send them back?)

After breakfast, we drove toward Colorado Springs, keeping our fingers crossed that the rain would hold off. We decided to go to the Royal Gorge; I hadn’t been there since I was a kid and I didn’t really even remember it. It’s pretty touristy, but fun.

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We walked across the pedestrian bridge (very windy!), took the gondola across the gorge, walked around, and took a lot of photos (shown above and below).

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Afterwards, we were hungry so we drove back into Colorado Springs and ate lunch at Mod Pizza, then headed to the Garden of the Gods (below). By then it was raining. We hadn’t walked more than a few yards when it really started pouring, so we went back to the car.

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And that was it for our nice weather for the day. We drove back north toward Denver, and it just rained harder and got foggier the farther we drove. It was a mess. We really wanted to be outside, but instead we shopped at an outlet mall and then went to a movie.

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Sunday was Lauren’s birthday. We started the day with brunch at a fun restaurant called Linger (above). It’s in the old Olinger Funeral Home building downtown. I really liked that place – the food was tasty, the menu was creative, and the atmosphere was very cool. I have a special affinity for funeral homes since my dad was a funeral director; I actually lived in a funeral home for a short time when I was a little girl.

We spent the rest of the day in Denver, going to dispensaries (birthday freebies!), thrift stores, the Tattered Cover bookstore, and a big, loud sports bar. It was a fun day. By late afternoon, we decided we needed to get dressed up for our evening at the theatre.

It was a cold, rainy night. We had reservations at Maggiano’s, an Italian restaurant downtown, and then tickets to Frozen at the Buell Theater. We were surrounded by little girls dressed like Elsa at both places.

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I don’t have little kids, so I’ve only seen Frozen the movie a couple of times. The stage musical is similar but has added some new musical numbers and eliminated some of the goofy Disney-movie elements. Although the show definitely appeals to families with young children, I thought it was incredible. Our seats were fifth-row center, and I found the stagecraft absolutely mesmerizing. The stage turns to ice before your very eyes! And the cast – wow, I didn’t think anyone could sing “Let It Go” like Idina Menzel. But then I heard Caissie Levy’s version and she killed it. (It’s no surprise that Levy also followed Menzel’s role as Elphaba in Broadway’s Wicked.) And Patti Murin (who has played Glinda in Wicked) is adorable as Anna. Mattea Conforti, the young actress who played Anna as a child, was equally talented and adorable. I predict this show, which opens on Broadway in late February, will run for a very long time. Maybe forever.

We left Denver Monday morning at 8 a.m. and headed toward Estes Park. The day was gloomy but not actually raining. Just before we got to our destination around 10 a.m., the skies cleared. We had been reading forecasts of cold (as low as 19 degrees) and snow, so we were really thrilled to see the sun, and it stayed nice the whole day. We were amazed! We went right into Rocky Mountain National Park. Our goal was to see (and hear) the elk rut.

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We entered at the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station just outside Estes Park and headed for Moraine Park, where we were told the elk sightings would be best. We saw gorgeous scenery and several elk, including a couple of males battling it out over the females.

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We drove Trail Ridge Road as far as we could; it was closed at Many Parks Curve. (I just checked, and the road is now closed completely until summer 2018.) At that high altitude, we saw lots of snow still on the ground from the day before.

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We went into Estes Park town for lunch at a little pie café. It was actually warm enough to sit outside to eat.

Later, we went back into the park in search of more elk sightings, and we saw plenty:

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We also walked around Bear Lake (below) and visited Sprague Lake. It was just a beautiful afternoon.

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As we were heading out of the park, we saw the largest herd of elk we’d seen all day. They were near the Beaver Meadows Visitors Center. We stopped our car, got out, and started taking pictures.

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Before long, the line of cars was backed up as far as we could see, and the herd was walking among the cars and posing for pictures for visitors. One lone male elk was trying his best to keep control of the situation, but the females and young ones were just ambling about. A couple of national park rangers were there, trying to control the traffic. It was like rush hour, with elk.

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We finally left the park and headed to The Stanley, the historic resort hotel made famous by Stephen King’s book, The Shining. We walked around the exterior and then went inside, drawn first by the welcoming porch and then by the cozy bar.

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We pulled up three barstools and ordered from a drink menu that included Redrum Punch and Shining Ale. (Not that they’re capitalizing on book fame.) I ordered a Redrum Ale.

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By then, I was pretty tired and ready to head to our hotel, Mary’s Lake Lodge, but we had to stop one more time and take pictures of another herd of elk, this time right by the road. I’m sure if you lived here, this would get tiresome, but I loved it!

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We checked into our lodge, which is big and rambling and has gorgeous views of the mountains.

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The restaurant inside the lodge smelled mighty welcoming, so we ate dinner there and called it a night. We left the next morning for our long drive back to Ames.

Our next visit to Estes Park is coming up in November, and I’m already looking forward to it!

Provincial French Countryside: Part trois (Paris!)

Last month I hosted a group of Iowa State alumni and friends, along with four couples from North Carolina State, on a two-week tour of the provincial French countryside. We spent two days in Toulouse in southern France, three days in the Dordogne region, three days in the Loire Valley, three days in Normandy, and two days in Paris. Here’s the last of three installments of my travelogue:

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PARIS

The focus of this tour was the French countryside, and we had seen some incredibly beautiful farmland, fields of sunflowers, adorable cows, and charming villages in the Loire Valley, Normandy, and the Dordogne region in our travels over the past two weeks. Paris seemed like an afterthought, and I’d been here twice before. Besides, we had only one full day here, and I was ready to go home.

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And then our motor coach entered the city, and I was surrounded by Parisian streets and the people and the historic architecture, and then I saw the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower and I remembered HOW MUCH I FREAKING LOVE PARIS.

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Our Paris lodging for two nights was the Hotel Chateau Frontenac. This elegant old hotel was located close to the Seine, close to the Eiffel Tower, and close to the Champs Elysées – so it was a GREAT location. My fourth-floor room had a balcony, which made me extremely happy in and of itself, and when I walked out on it and realized that I could see the Eiffel Tower, well, you should have seen my face. I was ridiculously excited about this. I couldn’t wait to start exploring.

It was already late afternoon, and our group went on a brief orientation tour, led by our tireless tour guide, Anita. Out the front door of our hotel, if you turned right you ended up on the Champs Elysées within minutes. Turn left from the hotel, then left again, and you were a few blocks from the river. Easy, right?

I tried to get a small group together to take a night cruise on the Seine. Everyone seemed tired. It had been a long two weeks, and a long day of travel. We sat together for a while at a sidewalk café, soaking in the sights and sounds of Paris, ordered some beer and wine, and talked it over. There was a restaurant nearby at which everyone wanted to eat. It was very meaty. And I didn’t want to take time to eat; I wanted to see the city. So I headed off on my own.

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It was a few short blocks to the closest bridge that crossed the Seine. I could already see the Eiffel Tower, so I just walked in that general direction.

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I love how that structure, huge as it is, can be hidden when you’re walking through the neighborhoods and then just BAM! There it is, big as life at the end of the cross-street. It’s almost like a game of hide-and-seek. I took a million pictures. And then, there it was in its full glory, surrounded by a thousand people (and a security fence). The sky was beginning to show its dusky color, and I was truly, madly happy to be there.

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After taking pictures of the Eiffel Tower from every conceivable angle, I walked back toward the river and viewed it again from the bridges, where it looked even more gorgeous in the distance, and watched the sun go down.

I was trying to decide if I really wanted to go on a river cruise; it was getting cold, and I’d be walking back to the hotel by myself in the dark. But what else was I going to do? Sit in the hotel? Go to a bar? NO, I was in Paris, by god, and I was going to do this.

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I walked down the entrance to where the boats were docked – how many are there, anyway? I think there were at least 20 cruising up and down this short stretch of river already, filled with hundreds if not thousands of people each – and asked for a ticket. I’ve forgotten now how much it was, but it was really reasonable (less than 20 euros), and the next one would leave in 45 minutes.

The whole time I was on the cruise – and, in fact, pretty much the whole time I was near the river today and tomorrow – I could NOT get the lyrics out of my head from the Audition Song from “La La Land”:

Leapt, without looking
and tumbled into the Seine
The water was freezing
she spent a month sneezing
but said she would do it again

Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make

 
Ah, if I had to have an ear worm stuck in my head, I’m glad it was this one, because I love it. Tomorrow I’d get a second one stuck in my brain, but tonight it was just this one.

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The boat was large, and it filled up quickly. I found a seat on the upper deck, outside, knowing it would be cold, but refusing to sit inside where the view would be restricted. By the time we launched, it was already pretty dark.

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I was not disappointed in the experience. In fact, it was pretty exhilarating. (Or maybe I was just freezing.) The “tour” itself is lame: a recorded voice, repeating the script in a number of languages, about what we were seeing on both sides of the canal. Many of the buildings were lit up; it was Saturday night, so there were party cruises and groups dancing to music on the shore line. Many of the tourists on the boat with me were frantically taking selfies in the dark with their annoying selfie sticks. The bridges were fabulous. We cruised past the Grand Palais, the Assemblee Nationale, Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, Ste-Chapelle, and Notre Dame (below).

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I tried valiantly to take pictures of all this, but it was very dark and we were moving and my camera only has so much capability. Most of my shots are pretty bad, but a few were decent.

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Eventually, the boat turned around, and we cruised back along the other side of Notre Dame and Ste-Chapelle. I thought we’d stop when we got back to where we started, but happily we continued on to get the most fabulous river-views of the Eiffel Tower, lit up with a gazillion watts of light against the night sky.

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I was a happy girl.

Once we finally docked, it took forever to get off the boat, and then I had the challenge of finding my hotel in the dark. A hotel I had been to only once, during the day. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the cross-street? But, happily, I found it without getting lost. And then realized that I never had dinner. By this time, it was really too late to eat. So I went to the café across from the hotel, sat at an outdoor table, and ordered a beer. Ahhhh! What a great night!

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The next day, the plan for our group was to take a bus tour of the city and then visit the Louvre. Much as I love the Louvre – I mean, it’s the Louvre!!! – I’ve been there twice before and really wanted to spend more time outside exploring.

So, I ate breakfast with the group and then went off on my own (as did a few others who had been to Paris before and wanted to spent time in the Musée d’Orsay or other museums). My goals were to walk the city, go to the top of Notre Dame, and eat a chocolate éclair. Pretty simple, really.

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It was raining when I started out. Umbrella up and camera tucked under my arm, I set out walking along the Seine. Even with the wet, chilly weather, the canal was filled with boat after boat of rowing teams – a lovely sight.

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I continued along the Left Bank of the river until I reached Blvd. Saint Germain, a street I’d walked along when I was here in 2008 with Dave. The street is filled with wonderful shops (all closed, since it was Sunday morning), cafés, restaurants, and historic architecture. And it goes for miles, so you don’t have to worry about inadvertently getting lost.

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The rain stopped. I walked past charming patisseries with windows filled with macarons and croissants. I wanted to get to Notre Dame before it got crowded (yeah, right), so I turned on Blvd. Saint Michel and headed to the cathedral.

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Boy, did I screw up Notre Dame. It makes me appreciate having a tour guide. Mistake #1: The line to get into the cathedral was very long. I stood in it, enjoying the view. It moved slowly, but soon I was inside. A church service was going on. This wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to go up the 400 steps to the tower. So I asked the woman in the gift shop, and she said I had to stand in a different line, on the side of the cathedral. Once I walked over there, it made sense. I had done this before with Dave. I got in line. That was mistake #2.

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A lot has changed in nine years. Now, instead of just standing in line, there’s an app to get a timed ticket for the tour. Who knew? Since I didn’t have a ticket, I was shown the line for the kiosk, which would assign you a time for your tour. My time was an hour and 15 minutes later. I had a lot of time to kill.

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I walked back the way I’d come, thinking, hmmmmm, those pastries would taste pretty good about now. I found one of the little shops, filled with the most amazing-looking goodies, and ordered a coffee with a chocolate éclair and ate it on the sidewalk. (Chocolate éclair: check!)

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Even with the leisurely coffee break, I got back to Notre Dame too soon and still had a ton of time before my tour (which, by the way, was free today for some reason. It’s usually 10 euros).

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Walking toward the cathedral, the bells began to play (do they do this each day? Or just on Sunday?) and I was overwhelmed with emotion. What is it about bells that does that to me? I freaked out in Venice a few years ago, crying happy tears. I began to think about Victor Hugo and Quasimodo, the lonely bell ringer in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Disney soundtrack became the second ear worm, with songs like “Out There” and “The Bells of Notre Dame” stuck in my head while I waited my turn.

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I also had time to gawk at the ornate Gothic architecture of this medieval building. Did you know it took nearly 200 years to complete?

The line moved slowly. My ticket time came and went. We were moved from one waiting line to another to another, then we were finally allowed to enter the building. This was sort of my moment of truth. In 2008, I was out of shape and had a really difficult time climbing the stairs. I thought I would A) never make it to the top and B) die trying. I exercise regularly now, but I’m also nine years older. Would I be able to climb 400 steep stairs to the top of the tower?

It turns out I can. In fact, I had absolutely no trouble making it to the top. It helps that you stop twice on the way up: once in the gift shop and once on a lower viewing area before getting to the very top of the tower.

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The first viewing area (officially called the Chimera gallery) is actually my favorite, because that’s where you are face-to-face with the gargoyles – fantastic birds, hybrid beasts, and mythical monsters perching on the towers. I don’t know what I love best about Notre Dame, the gargoyles or the view of the city. They are both all-time highlights of my travels. I love, love, love this place.

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I took a ridiculous number of photos. I wanted to share the experience with someone, but I was with a scattered group of strangers. The view was even more spectacular than I remembered. The gargoyles were so familiar! (Hello, Mr. Pelican! Hello, whatever you are, you gross thing – and what are you eating?) It was sort of like visiting old friends. My fellow tourists and I were allowed to walk up some steep stairs into one of the actual bell chambers.

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And then, up and up again to the very top of the tower. The view from here is so incredible; better than the view from the Eiffel Tower in my opinion. You can see the whole city, all the way to Sacré-Coeur in the Montmartre area.

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Then the bells began to play again. Thrilling! I was in utter bliss.

And then it’s down, down, down the skinny spiral staircase, so tight and corkscrewy that I got dizzy and had to hold on to the handrail. Then, once back on land and out into the sun, it was bright and disorienting. I sort of forgot where I was and just stumbled off.

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The rest of the day was dreamy: Walking around the Louvre and Tuileries garden (above). Stopping at the Musée d’Orsay and so very much wanting to go in, but seeing the line (and the time on my watch) and walking on. Stopping for a beer at Les Deux Magots café on Saint Germain. Window shopping in the fashionable stores that were, fortunately for my credit card, still closed.

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I meandered back to the Eiffel Tower, taking more unnecessary photos, because I just can’t help myself. And then the sky darkened and it looked like a big storm was coming my way, so I headed back to the hotel.

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By now it was about 4 o’clock. We had our farewell dinner tonight, so I needed to get dressed up for that, and I needed to pack my suitcases because tomorrow morning’s flight would be leaving early. But I was so happy. Today was an all-time Top 10 Day. I wanted to stay here forever. 

Provincial French Countryside: Part deux (Saumur to Crépon)

Last month I hosted a group of Iowa State alumni and friends, along with four couples from North Carolina State, on a two-week tour of the provincial French countryside. We spent two days in Toulouse in southern France, three days in the Dordogne region, three days in the Loire Valley, three days in Normandy, and two days in Paris. Here’s the second of three installments of my travelogue:

SAUMUR, IN THE HEART OF THE LOIRE VALLEY

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The first thing I noticed when we arrived in Saumur was a castle (the French call them “chateaux”) that looked a whole lot like Cinderella’s castle in Disney World.

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The second thing I noticed, upon checking in to the Hotel Anne d’Anjou (located within whistling distance of the Cinderella-worthy castle) was that my room had a view of the Loire River. Spectacular! I threw open my window and started taking pictures.

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Then I took a walk before meeting our group to have a toast in the hotel courtyard (below) with some local bubbly that we can’t call champagne but looks and tastes like champagne.

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It had been a long day on the motorcoach, and we were tired. After an orientation walk led by our wonderful tour director, Anita, a group of us slouched into a green-awning-ed brasserie and ordered a drink and some comfort food (i.e., pasta) and then called it a night.

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The next morning, we had a late start, so I slept in and then took a long walk after breakfast. Saumur is picturesque as hell…everywhere you look there’s something historic or colorful or fun to photograph. I walked across the bridge that I could see from my room, and looking back, the view of the Chateau de Saumur and its surroundings was spectacular, don’t you agree? I also loved the colorful umbrellas hanging in a couple of areas of town…just for fun.

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Our group gathered mid-morning to drive a short distance to the Bouvet Ladubay winery, where we took a tour of the sparkling-wine-making process inside a cool, damp cave. I’ve never been a huge fan of champagne-like drinks, but after our tour, we were able to taste five varietals, and I totally changed my mind. We tasted three dry and semi-dry whites, a delicate rose, and a fuller-bodied red. All were excellent. And, lucky for me, some of my fellow travelers purchased bottles that I would be able to share later on in the trip.

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After that, we had a free afternoon in Saumur. What to do? We had a lot of options, but a group of us decided to pool our resources and take a taxi out to the Fontevraud L’Abbaye Royale. But first, a smaller group of ladies grabbed a quick lunch at a creperie near our hotel. I ordered a galette (a buckwheat crepe) filled with all kinds of delicousness: mushrooms, emmentaler cheese, leeks, and tomatoes, with a balsamic-dressed side salad.

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Funny story about this lunch: Our group wanted separate checks, but we were having a hard time explaining this to our server, so a couple of French ladies at the table next to us tried to help explain it to her. Well, we didn’t get separate checks, but we did get four large mugs filled with boozy cider! We all had a good laugh, drank the cider, and got our checks split up at the cash register after all.

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Okay, so back to the Royal Abbey (pictured above and below). It’s located near Chinon, in Anjou, which is not terribly far from Saumur. It was founded in 1101 and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The history is all about Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart, and it was disabled as a monastery during the French Revolution. For some time, it was a prison. Now it’s just freaking beautiful, with tremendous architecture, hallways and rooms that go on forever, little nooks and crannies to peek into, gardens to stroll through, and benches to relax upon. It was a very fun and unstructured visit. There’s even a spooky crypt.

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After our taxi driver delivered us back at the Hotel Anne d’Anjou, I went for another walk, hoping to see The View with evening light (below), and then we had a gathering at the hotel before dinner. Our meal tonight was at the les Ménestrels restaurant located right behind our hotel; the food and wine was superb.

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The next day we headed to the Chateau de Chenonceau, the queen mother of all chateaux. Originally built as a fortress to keep intruders out, Chenonceau is a Renaissance masterpiece considered the most romantic of all the chateaux in this part of France. It’s actually built across the River Cher.

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Inside, I loved the furnishings and the floral decorations (above). But outside…wow! The views of the chateau from every angle! The gardens that out-gardened every garden I’d ever seen before! I was awe-struck. There’s also a maze that I didn’t have time to tour. Everything about this place was spectacular. I could have easily spent a whole day there.

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But we had to depart. We had lunch reservations at a restaurant called La Cave – actually located in a cave. Fun!

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As luck would have it, the weather was nice today, so we got a bonus visit to another garden at Chateau Villandry. These very formal gardens (above and below) were eye-popping from our initial overhead viewpoint, and then we were able to walk among them for an eye-level view. I don’t remember ever seeing such beautiful gardens before…and we got to see two in one day.

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NORMANDY

The next day it rained. And it was cold and windy. I was so looking forward to this day, because we were visiting Mont-St-Michel and then heading to our next overnight location in Normandy.

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Mont-St-Michel is a Gothic abbey that sits on top of a 264-foot rock formation at the edge of the sea. It was constructed between 1017 and 1521 of granite hauled stone by stone from Brittany. It is a sight to behold.

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I’m really glad I was able to see it, but this was by far my worst day of the trip. I was having tummy trouble (I will spare you the details), and coupled with steady rain and hordes of tourists, I spent most of my time hunkered down in a small restaurant drinking hot tea with lemon while others in our group toured the abbey. Sad!

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And then I walked back to the shuttle bus through the rain with wet tourists, most of whom were school children. Someday maybe I can go back and do it right.

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Tonight, we arrived at what might have been my favorite of all the wonderful places we stayed on this trip: the ferme de la Raconniere (“The Farm”) in Crépon. I was still sick upon our arrival, but it didn’t stop me from falling in love with this place. The rooms were adorable, the architecture and landscaping were lovely – flowers everywhere! — and we could see cows across the road. Everywhere you looked was another delightful view. I took pictures of this place for three days.

Thankfully, I felt better the next morning. After trying not to eat much of anything for 24 hours, I carefully ate a small amount of bread and yogurt for breakfast, and I drank a bit of coffee. It agreed with me!

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This morning our group headed to the Bayeaux Tapestry Museum, home to a famous 1,000-year-old tapestry depicting the exploits of William the Bastard who became William the Conqueror.  It’s really an artistic and historic masterpiece, but I also found it a bit amusing in places and wondered to myself if any of the Monty Python dudes drew inspiration from it. That William was quite a guy.

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Afterwards we had some time to explore medieval Bayeaux, with its elaborate cathedral (above), a poppy-themed shop, topiary knights (below), and cute sidewalk cafes. I drank another coffee to make up for my lost coffee-drinking time yesterday.

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This afternoon we went to the World War II Peace Memorial in Caen. I will have to admit I wasn’t looking forward to the WWII part of this trip, but this memorial was top-notch.

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If you can tour this museum and not become an emotional wreck, there’s something wrong with you. The museum, inside and out, is incredibly well done and very moving. I ate a muffin for lunch in the museum’s cafeteria, and drank more coffee.

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We also had our first look at a D-Day landing beach this afternoon. Juno is a Canadian landing beach (above), and we didn’t spend too much time there.

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We also stopped at Arromanches, a small town between Juno and Gold beaches, where I had yet another coffee with Anita and bought a few gifts at a little art shop.

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Riding “home” in the motor coach, we saw glorious Norman countryside.

Tonight, we drank some of that sparkling wine and ate dinner at The Farm (which looked even prettier than the day before). So I took more pictures.

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We woke the next morning to a forecast of rain, which threatened to spoil our day. Anita and our driver, George, quickly rearranged our itinerary for the day, allowing us to tour the outdoor sites in the morning and the indoor sites in the afternoon to try to thwart Mother Nature.

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We headed first to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, another moving visit (above and below).

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Later, we went to Omaha Beach, the setting for the loss of so many American lives on D-Day (below).

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Next, we visited Pointe du Hoc, with its preserved bombing sites:

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And, finally, we toured Utah Beach (below). Through all of these visits, I gained much more of an appreciation for what really went on during D-Day than I ever had before.

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We ate lunch at the WWII-themed Roosevelt Restaurant on Utah Beach …

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… and then visited the Airborne Museum in St Mére Eglise:

 

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For me, this was one WWII museum too many; I had sort of lost interest by this time and really wanted to amble through the Norman countryside and take pictures of cows. (Instead, I just took blurry pictures out the motor coach window.)

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When we got back to The Farm (more pictures!), I was ready to take a walk. I had a little time, so I walked into the little village of Crépon, with its small shops, pretty church, weird cemetery, and bar.

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Wait! There’s a bar? Like, a real French dive bar? Why, yes, there is. I availed myself of a beer (beer is pretty much beer in any language) and settled at the end of a table, watching the men of the village congregate to drink their own end-of-the-day brews. Unfortunately, nobody spoke a lick of English, and I don’t speak any French, so I was unable to have much of a conversation with anyone. They sort of looked at me like I was from Mars.

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I drank my beer, paid, and walked back to The Farm, only to be lured into the hotel bar by my travel mates for another glass of sparkling wine. And then dinner. And then back to my room to pack for our LAST transfer, because this trip is winding down.

Next morning: Today we go to Paris!!! But on the way, we get to do one of the highlights of the entire trip: Stop at Giverny and tour Monet’s home and garden. Yippee! I’ve wanted to do this for YEARS.

I enjoyed my last breakfast at The Farm. (Goodbye, old friend! You were wonderful!) It rained all morning on the motor coach.

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When we arrived in Giverny, it was still raining, and cold. Heading for Claude Monet’s home with our raincoats and umbrellas, I was thinking, man, give me a break. I want to see this garden in the sunshine.

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And then, as had been our stupendous good luck on this trip, the sun came out and it warmed up. As a group, we walked around the perimeter of the garden toward the house, and it was so hard not to stop a billion times to take photos of the flowers. But Anita wanted us to tour the house first before the crowd was too large, and then take our time in the gardens, have lunch on our own, and meet at the motor coach by 3 o’clock. Got it!

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I walked through the house, taking time to notice the Japanese prints and the other artwork on the walls. This is not a Monet art museum, however – the artwork is not his own; it was just his collection of art. The home is not fancy, but I loved it. Each room is more lovely than the next, decorated in brilliant colors like yellow and blue.

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But the main attraction for most visitors to this place – and there are about 500,000 visitors each year – are the gardens. There are two parts in Monet’s garden: a flower garden called Clos Normand in front of the house and a Japanese-inspired water garden on the other side of the road, via an underground passage. Both are spectacular, huge, amazing, and heart-breakingly lovely. Even filled with tourists taking selfies. I saw flowers there I’ve never seen before.

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The Japanese garden is lush with weeping willows and water lilies, and the little arched bridges look just like they do in Monet’s famous paints. I just kept saying WOW. I loved everything about it.

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Claude Monet and his family settled in Giverny in 1883. Monet died in 1926. The property was badly neglected, and the gardens had to be restored mid last century. The house and gardens were opened to the public in 1980. If you ever get a chance to see this wonderful place, just GO.

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After our visit, which left me exhausted because it was so exhilarating, some of our group ate lunch and then visited yet another garden in the village of Giverny: the flower garden at Musee des Impressionismes, just down the road from Monet’s home. Each garden was planted by color, and if I hadn’t already seen so many world-class gardens in the past 10 days, I would have found this one incredible. But my heart was still back at Monet’s masterpiece.

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Up next: Paris!

Provincial French Countryside: Part un (Toulouse to Sarlat)

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I really don’t even know where to begin to write about the fabulous time I had last month in France. I was fortunate to host a group of Iowa State alumni and friends, along with some great folks from North Carolina State, on a two-week Odysseys Unlimited tour called Provincial French Countryside. We spent two days in Toulouse in southern France, three days in the Dordogne region, three days in the Loire Valley, three days in Normandy, and two days in Paris. I’ve always loved Odysseys itineraries – this is the fifth tour I’ve been lucky enough to host with this travel company – and this one did not disappoint. Here’s the first part of the trip:

TOULOUSE AREA

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Bonjour! We survived our trans-Atlantic flight to Paris and another flight to Toulouse. We arrived around noon and immediately checked into our hotel, the Crowne Plaza, located on the vibrant Capitole Square. The first day is always tough – you’re really tired from the travel but you don’t want to lie down or you’ll never get up. I like to keep moving, so I walked all over the central part of Toulouse, which is laid out kind of like spokes on a wheel, with Capitole Square being the center of the wheel.

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Eventually I got tired of walking and wanted something to eat, so I stopped at one of the many sidewalk cafes on the square and ordered a cheese plate and a beer. (The cheese plate was yummy and would have easily served three people. I am not complaining.) Tonight our group of 20 got together for introductions and an orientation by our group leader, Anita, and then we had a welcome dinner with wine. Nighty-night!

Next morning: Toulouse is a big city; it’s France’s fourth-largest metro area, with about 1.3 million people. Besides being darn pretty, its claim to fame is being the center of the European aerospace industry with the headquarters of Airbus located there. It also has a tantalizing indoor food market with the most beautiful bread and cheese!

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We honestly didn’t spend that much time in Toulouse except for dinners and sleeping, because this morning we ventured southeast to Carcassonne, a French hilltop town with the longest city walls in Europe.

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Anita told us all about the history, with battlements and ramparts dating back to first-century Romans. Mostly built in the 13th century, the whole place is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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After our tour, we had some time to explore on our own and eat lunch, but I much prefer to walk and take pictures (above), so I ate a Nutella crepe from a street vendor and called it lunch. Delicious!

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This afternoon and evening I walked with a group to explore the lovely cathedral Basilique St-Sernin (above), followed by a walk through the city and dinner on Capitole Square.

DORDOGNE VALLEY

By our third full day in France, everyone finally seemed over the initial time difference and we were eager to venture to our next overnight location: Sarlat-la-Canéda, in the beautiful Dordogne Valley. En route, we spent several hours in the stunning town of Albi, home of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Here we visited his museum, and I gained a much greater appreciation of his life and art thanks to Anita. The museum is housed in a medieval fortress and has a tremendous formal garden that can be viewed from above.

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The whole town is breathtaking, especially when viewed from the Pont Vieux Bridge that crosses the River Tarn, which runs through the city. After our tour, a group of us gathered at a local eatery that specialized in pizza, despite Anita’s instruction to eat a local French delicacy, the name of which I’ve already forgotten. The pizza tasted wonderful. This area is famous for pastel – a yellow flower that produces a blue dye. Apparently it was very popular until indigo came along. You can still find pastel items in Toulouse, Albi, and Carcassonne, and they are really gorgeous.

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We arrived in Sarlat this afternoon and took a walking tour of the town center (above). I kept expecting Belle from Beauty and the Beast to come strolling out with her book. This was just the most picturesque village I’d ever seen up to this point, with its medieval-era golden limestone buildings. This town has more registered historic sites than anywhere else in Europe. The countryside surrounding the town is also gorgeous, and we traveled through it to reach our hotel, the Hotel Meysset, which overlooks a valley that reminded me of Tuscany (below).

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I loved this place: The food was extraordinary (we ate three breakfasts and three evening meals here), the wine was exceptional, the rooms were all unique and wonderful. The terrace just beckoned you to sit and drink wine and enjoy the view. So we did. Every night.

With the Meysset as our home base, we explored the Dordogne region. The first full day there was pretty amazing, with a visit to the caves at Lascaux II. I wasn’t familiar with this story, but apparently in the 1940s these caves were discovered by some teenage boys, and they contained extraordinary animal paintings by Stone Age hunters created some 17,000 years ago. Lascaux II is actually a carefully rendered replica of the original cave, which was in danger of being destroyed by the huge number of visitors who flocked to see it. I have a pretty bad case of claustrophobia, but I managed to make it through the cave tour unscathed, and I thought it was incredible. (No photos allowed, so here’s a link to see the paintings.)

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En route to lunch, we stopped and walked through a tiny village that I think was called Leon something; I can’t find it on the map, but it was just adorable. It looked like a picture postcard. I could have stayed there for a week. See below:

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After one of the best lunches on the whole tour (above), at Le Cro Magnon restaurant in Les Eyzies (yes, there’s a lot of cave man stuff in this area), we continued on to a boat cruise along the Dordogne. The cruise itself wasn’t anything special, but the area is really beautiful and historic, with cliff-top chateaux and medieval towns. See pictures below:

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And then we went back to our wonderful hotel, with its stunning views of the valley, and we decided to do a group photo.

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We woke to rain the next morning, which was a darn shame because we spent the whole morning outside at the coolest marketplace throughout the village of Sarlat. Anita gave us an orientation tour, pointing out the best (breads, cheeses, mushrooms, pastries) and worst (sausage, foi gras) of the food vendors selling their wares. I loved this place!

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I paid to take an elevator to the top of a tower in the center of town to view the rooftops and learn more about the city (unfortunately, I was with a group of local people so the entire explanation about what we were seeing was in French; I didn’t understand one word, but it was still awesome).

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Later I fell on wet cobblestones and had to be hoisted up off the pavement by my armpits by a kind Frenchman. No serious injury except to my ego and my shattered camera filter (the lens was fine); I had a bruised knee and hip the next day, but it could have been a lot worse.

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This afternoon we visited the medieval town of Rocamadour, perched on top of a cliff set in a canyon. The town is religiously significant, with a 12th-century Black Madonna in the Chapelle Notre Dame. I found the setting of the town pretty impressive.

The next day we left our beloved Hotel Meysset (Too soon! Too soon!) and headed toward the Loire Valley and the town of Saumur, where we would spend the next three nights.

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En route, we stopped for lunch in the small town of Le Dorat (above) at a cute and cozy little restaurant, then took a quick walk around the town — which had a mighty impressive cathedral and some lovely historic architecture — before getting back in the motorcoach for the rest of our journey.

Stay tuned for part deux!

An eclipse weekend adventure

When I bought tickets many months ago to see Lady Gaga in concert in Omaha, I didn’t notice that the concert was just two days before the North American total solar eclipse – the Aug. 21 mega-event that would delight (and frustrate) millions of people and lead to epic traffic jams.

But there you go: Concert on the 19th, eclipse on the 21st. An adventure in the making.

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We got to Omaha on Saturday afternoon and decided to visit the National Park Service’s Lewis & Clark Visitor Center and Trail Headquarters on Riverfront Drive. This place is worth visiting for several reasons: There’s a cool Lewis & Clark trail map on the wall, you can pick up a gazillion National Park brochures, and there’s a cool bridge nearby – the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge – that spans the Missouri River.

And then it was time for dinner and drinks in the super-crowded but always fun Old Market area. Then on to the concert at the CenturyLink Center, which is an easy walk from the Old Market. I have to say that I’m not a huge fan of big stadium-style concerts. I’d much prefer to go to a little arthouse concert or hear live blues in a dive bar. That’s more my style. But I think Lady Gaga is a formidable talent, and I thought it would be worth braving the crowds to see her.

I wasn’t disappointed. Even though the concert started an irritating hour-and-a-half late (seriously, if you’re not going to start the concert until 9 p.m., say it starts at 8:30 and then we all can sit on a sweet little patio somewhere sipping wine instead of being smooshed into uncomfortable seats with 15,000 of our closest friends at the CenturyLink Center.)

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Once she took the stage, Lady Gaga played every song you’d expect her to play, blazing through her playlist and wowing the crowd with eye-popping costumes and dazzling special effects. Our seats were decent but a long way from the stage, so we were pretty excited when bridges were lowered from the ceiling and mini-stages came up out of the floor, allowing Gaga to leave the main stage and move above the crowd gathered on the floor, dancing her way to a secondary stage set up right in front of us, where she danced and played several numbers on an elaborate translucent grand piano. That was cool.

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My cell phone photos are not good, sorry. Here’s a way better one from the Omaha World-Herald website:

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Anyway, the concert was pretty awesome and didn’t end until 11:30 p.m., so I guess we got our money’s worth.

We spent Saturday night in Omaha and got up the next morning and went to the Henry Doorly Zoo. I’ve been to this zoo many, many times, but it never disappoints. In fact, the zoo is getting better all the time. I thought it was at its peak when it finished building the Lied Jungle (below), Desert Dome/Kingdoms of the Night, and Scott Aquarium – these are three world-class indoor exhibits.

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Then they added the Hubbard Orangutan Forest, Gorilla Valley (above), and Expedition Madagascar, three more terrific animal habitats.

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Now there’s Scott African Grasslands, a $73 million, 28-acre section that opened last summer. It’s really spectacular. Here are a few photos of the indoor and open-air African Grasslands exhibits:

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Coming soon is the $20 million Asian Highlands project – eight acres said to “transport zoo guests on an immersive journey through Asia, ranging from the grasslands of Northern India, through the Himalayan Mountains, to the boreal forests of northeastern China.” Can’t wait to go back! I just think Henry Doorly Zoo is one of the best zoos in the country, and we’re so lucky to have it close to Iowa. Here are a few more zoo photos:

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After our day-long visit to the zoo, we drove to Kansas City to spend the night. We viewed the eclipse the next day on a cattle farm in Lathrop, a town said to be one of the better viewing locations in the path of totality. It might have been, had it not rained much of the morning and been overcast during the eclipse.

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We still had a great experience, as the sun peeked out every few minutes during the partial eclipse. We did get to view the total eclipse, albeit shrouded in cloud cover. The 360-degree “sunrise” was the best part.

And then we sat on I-35 in a massive traffic jam with people from Iowa and Minnesota heading home – even longer than we sat waiting for Lady Gaga to go onstage!

Sisters’ weekend in Nebraska City

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Nebraska City is so close to the Iowa border that you’d forget you’re not in Iowa if it weren’t for the name: NEBRASKA City. Kind of a constant reminder, isn’t it?

For a city with a population of just 7,289, Nebraska City has a lot to offer. My sisters and I decided to spend a late summer weekend there primarily because of the location (I’m in Ames; they’re in the Kansas City area) and because of the Lied Lodge, which I’d heard was cool.

We learned that there’s a lot of history in Nebraska City, plus museums, shops, antiques, orchards, and parks.

What we did:

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We stayed at the LIED LODGE & CONFERENCE CENTER on the western edge of town. This was our home base for the weekend, and it’s close to nearly everything we wanted to do.

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Lied Lodge was originally built by the Arbor Day Foundation as a place to meet to discuss trees and the environment. The lobby would attest to this, with soaring natural timber beams, massive fireplace, and outdoorsy décor. Today’s use for the lodge extends to family reunions, weddings, vacations, and conferences. It’s a pretty terrific place, with 140 rooms, 14,000 square feet of event space, and 260 wooded acres to explore. There’s also a spacious restaurant (the Timber Dining Room) with awesome views, plus a spa and an Olympic-sized pool with Jacuzzi. When we were there, they were also doing wine tasting each night.

Nearby (within fairly easy walking distance, as the crow flies) is the ARBOR LODGE MANSION. This is a memorably beautiful home (I was here just one time before, for a friend’s wedding, about 25 years ago, and I remember vividly how pretty it was) that’s been turned into a museum filled with furniture and artifacts from J. Sterling Morton, the founder of Arbor Day. Morton was also the Morton Salt guy, we found out. He established Arbor Day in 1872; the 52-room home is surrounded by hundreds of trees and shrubs in the 72-acre ARBOR LODGE STATE HISTORICAL PARK.

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We first visited the mansion Friday night after it was closed; we just walked around outside and marveled at it, despite its desperate need for a good scraping and painting. (Not to worry; signs assured us that this project would be commencing this fall.) The next morning, we took a self-guided tour of the home ($8 admission), with its never-ending rooms filled with period furnishings, plus a carriage house and tack room.

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Also in the area is the ARBOR DAY FARM TREE ADVENTURE, which looks like a great place for kids. It has forested trails, a treehouse, and a discovery ride. We did not go in.

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We did, however, go inside the adjacent APPLE HOUSE MARKET, hoping to find peach pie in the Pie Garden Café and bags of peaches to take home with us. Unfortunately, we found neither (the café was only serving apple pie, and the place smelled of hotdogs), but I bought a jar of pumpkin butter.

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Instead, we headed DOWNTOWN. Central Ave. is lined with shops – quilt shops, a dress shop, antiques stores, and more – plus murals painted on the sides of buildings and a series of artist-designed trees (this is Tree City, after all). We killed a couple of hours poking around the shops and taking pictures.

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Our favorite place by far was The Keeping Room – truly a destination if you enjoy shopping for home décor, holiday decorations, and Polish pottery. There’s a cafe there as well, and we vowed to return in the afternoon for a bite to eat.

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Meanwhile, we toured the MAYHEW CABIN WITH JOHN BROWN’S CAVE, an Underground Railroad site with an original 1850s cabin and a 1930s reconstructed cave and tunnel. This is a fascinating place and costs just $3 for a self-guided tour (they knock off a dollar from the admission price if you’re over 60).

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The cabin is tiny (above), and the cave and tunnel are a bit claustrophobia-inducing (below), but they’re a really fascinating and sobering look into what it must have been like for slaves who traveled north seeking freedom. We also walked through a nearby historic village, which includes one of the first African American churches west of the Missouri River.

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What else did we do? Oh, we went north to KIMMEL ORCHARD, where we finally found some peaches to buy. And we drove back into Iowa a few miles to the FINDERS KEEPERS ANTIQUE MALL at the intersection of I-29 and Hwy. 2.

After all of this shopping and driving, I was ready for a WALK. Late in the afternoon, I found a trail that would take me from Lied Lodge through the woods over to Arbor Day Farm and on to the Arbor Lodge Mansion and Arbor Lodge State Park. It was a nice hour-long walk and fun to visit all of these places on foot.

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Later, after dinner, one of my sisters and I sat in the Jacuzzi with many people we did not know. (Obviously this photo was taken earlier in the day, before all the swimmer descended.)

Where we ate:

On Friday night, we went downtown in search of food. We found Prairie City Chop House and shared an enormous veggie pizza. It was so big that the three of us could only eat half. It took two take-out containers to hold the rest.

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We ate breakfast at the restaurant at our lodge, in the Timber Dining Room. They offered a breakfast buffet for $12 but we opted for the menu. I ate a short stack of pancakes topped with fresh blueberries – again, the portion was so large I only finished half. The dining room has an outdoor terrace with great views (above).

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We finally got our peach pie – sort of – at The Keeping Room Café. This downtown shop/café is the best! They have a nice menu, including a number of regular dessert selections, but we were so lucky that Saturday’s dessert special was peach cobbler. We each ordered cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream and called it lunch. So yummy! The fact that they served the food (and my coffee) in Polish pottery made it even more delicious. This may have been the highlight of the whole weekend. (I wanted to buy this bowl and take it home with me.)

Not that we needed more food, but we ate a late dinner on the patio at The Depot Kitchen & Taproom, near the railroad tracks south of downtown. They didn’t have much in the way of vegetarian options, but I didn’t care at this point. They had a nice selection of local brews, and I ordered a (huge) appetizer, of which I (again) ate just half. (What is it with Big Food in Nebraska City?)

Before we headed our separate ways on Sunday morning, we stopped for breakfast at Jonny’s Café on Central Ave. downtown. I ordered eggs, hash browns and toast for just 4 bucks; it was really good, and the service was fast and friendly. Jonny’s also had a nice-looking breakfast buffet.

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Finally, I can’t post a blog about sisters’ weekend without showing you my sisters. That’s Donna Butler on the left, Judy Forth in the center (both of Independence, Mo.) and me on the right at The Keeping Room in downtown Nebraska City.

Isle Royale & Voyageurs National Park

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When Dave, my National Parks-obsessed husband, and I started planning our summer vacation, we originally planned to go to Isle Royale National Park, stay on the island, and do some hiking. Isle Royale is an island in Lake Superior that’s part of the state of Michigan but closer to Minnesota. It’s a big island – 45 miles long and 9 miles wide – and is actually part of an archipelago of more than 400 small islands, all part of the National Park. It’s one of the least-visited of all the national parks. And it’s so close to Iowa! We were excited to explore it for a few days.

But then we started doing research – and doing math – and when we hit $1,400 (not including food, gasoline, and miscellaneous stuff) for six days, we began to rethink our plan.

The ferry to the Rock Harbor (eastern) side of the island, where the one-and-only lodge is located, costs $85 per person each way (total: $340) and takes close to eight hours to get there from Grand Portage, Minn. That’s a long time on a ferry, and it only runs every couple of days. So, you could get there one night, spend the night, and go back the very next morning (meaning, you’d spend way more time on the ferry than exploring the island, which would be stupid), or stay three nights at the lodge at the low, low price of $256 per night for a total of $768. Add in a couple of nights in Minnesota coming and going, and you have a pretty expensive 6-day vacation.

We started to reconsider. We just weren’t sure we wanted to commit that much money to seeing a national park we knew so little about. So, we ended up taking a less-expensive ferry to the Windigo (west) side of the island for a quick day trip and added Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota to our itinerary – in just five days. Here is how it went:

DAY 1: THE DRIVE NORTH

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Driving north to Grand Portage is a familiar route. In fact, I’d just driven most of it a month earlier when I did some hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail. The drive from Iowa consists of going north on I-35 until it ends in Duluth, Minn., and then taking U.S. Hwy. 61 all the way northeast along the shore of Lake Superior to Canada. It’s a delightful drive; I never get tired of it no matter how many times I do it.

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We stopped in Two Harbors, about 20 miles north of Duluth. I wanted to go to the Superior Hiking Trail store to buy the latest version of the trail guide (my old one is about 12 years out of date); I ended up also buying a cute T-shirt and bandana. Then we decided to try to find the Two Harbors lighthouse. I’d seen signs for it for years but never bothered to go far enough off the main highway to find it. We not only found it in Two Harbors’ picturesque Agate Bay, but we learned it is now the Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast, and it’s just as cute as it can be. According to the website, the Two Harbors Light Station is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on Minnesota’s North Shore. We parked near the lighthouse and walked down a cool and windy pier for a terrific view of the lake and the town.

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IMG_7041And then we found something else I’d never seen in Two Harbors: A brewery! I have no idea how long the Castle Danger Brewery has been there, but I’d never heard of it. We tried a few tasters – I liked the Castle Cream Ale; Dave went with the seasonal Summer Crush – and settled out on the sunny patio to enjoy a pint. The cream ale is good enough that I went out of my way later on our drive to pick up a six-pack in a Minnesota liquor store. I don’t think it’s available in any other state, so of course that makes it taste even better – forbidden fruit and all.

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Moving on, we continued to drive north to Grand Marais for dinner at Sven & Ole’s Pizza, and then on to Grand Portage. The state park of the same name is directly on the border with Canada – you can literally see the border-guard station from the park entrance. We took a short walk to the high falls, and they were in spectacular form. We got drenched by the heavy spray!

We spent the night at the Grand Portage Lodge & Casino for one reason and one reason only: It’s very close to the dock where our ferry would leave the next morning. Besides, it’s pretty much the only game in town. It’s part of the Grand Portage Reservation and also close to the Grand Portage National Monument that tells the history of the native American culture in the area.

DAY 2: ISLE ROYALE NATIONAL PARK

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As it turns out, the Grand Portage Lodge & Casino is not a terrible place to stay, if you can ignore the casino part. We had a big breakfast in the morning and drove to the dock.

Our ferry, the Seahunter III, was very popular that morning with day-trippers like us as well as hearty backpackers who planned to camp on the island for multiple days. It was a warm day, so Dave and I decided to sit outside for the boat ride so we could enjoy views of the lake. I wasn’t at all prepared for the 40-degree water creating a very cold wind, so after about 45 minutes sitting outside without a coat, I fled the cold and moved inside for a cup of coffee and a warmer, much more crowded place to spend the rest of the time it took to travel to the island (about an hour and a half total).

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Once we arrived on Isle Royale (pronounced “royal”), one of the National Park rangers gave us a quick orientation to the area, told us our options for activities for the four-hour duration of our visit, and pointed us in the direction of the bathrooms.

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We set out on the Feldtman Lake Trail, a 3.6-mile hike to the Grace Creek Overlook. I’m not sure what I expected – maybe a lot of pine trees and views of the lake? – but this hiking trail was lush and green, with more diversity than you can imagine. Yes, there were pines and lake views and a bit of mud, but also birches and wild flowers and a million other things and just incredibly beautiful.

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I was so intent on watching the trail so I didn’t trip on rocks or roots that I nearly missed seeing the lady slippers. Once I spotted one – I’ve never seen these flowers before; they’re part of the orchid family – I couldn’t STOP seeing them, or stopping to take pictures of them. Every one I spotted seemed to be more beautiful than the previous one, just crying out for a portrait to be taken.

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We got to the overlook and determined it was a good place to sit and eat the lunch we’d packed before leaving the hotel: cheese, almonds, and a protein bar. We hiked back along the same path to get back to the Windigo visitors area in time to use the bathroom again and buy Dave a hat in the gift shop. We also heard the tail end of a ranger-led talk about the moose and wolves on the island. There are something like 1,600 moose and only two wolves currently in residence. (We saw only squirrels.) The unique plants and animals on the island make it sort of a living laboratory, and it’s been studied by scientists for many years, even before it became a national park. It’s a place where the animals they’re studying can’t wander away!

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We boarded the Seahunter III for our return to the Minnesota mainland. Once again, I started with an outside seat because I wanted to get better views of the island (and the park rangers waving goodbye), but once we passed the picturesque Rock of Ages Lighthouse, I went back inside and perched on a piece of bench so narrow and precarious that I was afraid one random bump would toss me off into the trashcan that was pressed up against my right leg. Fun times.

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Dave and I enthusiastically agreed that Isle Royale was a place we’d like to return to again so we could spend more time exploring. Next time we’d like to take the three-hour-long ferry from Copper Harbor (in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) to Rock Harbor via Isla Royale Queen IV. The drive to Copper Harbor is a bit further from Ames than the other option, Houghton, Mich., but that ferry takes six hours to reach Rock Harbor. We’d like to spend three nights on the island. Bonus: We’ll get to explore the UP again!

After we got back to Grand Portage, we took Hwy. 61 southwest through Grand Marais and down to Hwy. 1, which took us to Ely, Minn. – about three hours total.  That was our overnight location. If you ever do this, be prepared for one hilly, curvy drive! We were happy to get into town and walk to a restaurant for dinner and a beer in Ely’s terrific downtown area.

DAY 3: ELY, MINN. AND VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK

We spent the night at the A Stay Inn Ely, a small inn that appeared to have been a converted house, right in the business district. This is a place that would be ideal for a large group of friends or a family reunion, but for just the two of us, our little wood-paneled room felt a bit cramped.

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The next morning we used a voucher for coffee and muffins at a nearby coffee shop (a nice surprise) and then headed to the International Wolf Center, an educational center with programs, exhibits, films, and actual wolves.

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We saw four of the five current ambassador wolves that hang out in the acre-and-a-half area surrounding the building. It was a warm morning, and the wolves were mostly sleeping. I think they’re probably more active in the cooler months – the photos inside the center show the wolves happily romping in the snow. We listened to one lecture, viewed all the exhibits (see one, below), and moved on.

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Ely is best known as the jumping-off spot for the Boundary Waters, but since we don’t canoe, we searched for hiking trails instead. There are a few in the area; we chose the Kawishiwi Falls Hiking Trail.

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It’s short but has a huge pay-off when you get to the falls. We were glad we took the time to find it before heading north to our next destination: Voyageurs National Park.

Like the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs is tailor made for people who like to boat, fish, canoe, and kayak. We do none of these things. So when we were planning our visit to this national park – another of the park system’s least visited parks – we looked for hiking trails. My goal was to find a lodge or cabin near good hiking, but I failed. I found lodges, but they were nowhere near trails. Some, like the historic Kettle Falls Hotel, were not even accessible by car.

Another thing about Voyageurs is that there are multiple access points with visitor centers (Rainy Lake, Kabetogama Lake, Ash River) or ranger stations (Crane Lake). We decided to hike the trails around Ash River on our first day there.

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We arrived at Ash River Visitor Center around noon and ate lunch in the small picnic area that overlooks the lake. We went inside the visitor center itself to pick up maps and see what other information we could find about the area, and when we told the ranger we were there to hike, she seemed surprised. I didn’t understand that at first because clearly there are hiking trails in the area. But the more I thought about it, I decided that the hiking trails are just an afterthought. This is definitely a water park.

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But we were determined to explore on foot, so we hiked the Blind Ash Bay Trail, a 2.5-mile loop with some views of the water and later some impressively tall pine trees.

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It was an OK hike. Toward the end, we noticed storm clouds gathering, so we walked faster and indeed it started to rain just as we got back to our car.  The rain didn’t last long, so we took one more short hike to a beaver pond overlook before leaving the park for the day.

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I wasn’t thrilled with our overnight choice of International Falls, located near the west end of Voyageurs National Park. International Falls is not a great town, and it doesn’t have any remotely interesting bars or restaurants. In fact, the restaurant at our hotel, the AmericInn, was voted the #2 place to eat by TripAdvisor. That’s really depressing. We ate at an average Mexican restaurant, then I took a long bath to wash away the multiple applications of bug spray and sunscreen, and called it a day.

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DAY 4: VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK

We started the next morning with breakfast at a restaurant called the Chocolate Moose. The coffee was decent, and the blueberry pancakes were delicious.

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The Rainy Lake entrance to Voyageurs National Park is just a few minutes from International Falls. On the way we stopped and hiked the Tilson Bay Trail, a short, wild-flower-infused trail that needed to be groomed a bit more. And it was raining lightly, so the trail was slippery. We enjoyed the views of the homes and boats in the bay.

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We moved on to the Rainy Lake Visitor Center, where we nosed around a bit and then took a hike on the nearby Oberholtzer Trail. This trail offered overlooks and plant diversity, and we were told there had been a number of animal sightings.

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We saw a grouse and two deer, but mostly mosquitoes and black flies, which made the hike a lot less fun. I think they were actually attracted to my brand of bug spray. They seemed to love me.

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After the walk, we watched a short film about the national park, had a picnic lunch on the visitor center patio, and gathered our things in preparation for an afternoon on the lake.

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We’d booked a boat tour months in advance: The Grand Tour of Rainy Lake aboard the aptly named Voyageur ($30 each). The two-and-a-half-hour tour took us to Little American Island for a quick walk to view the mining activity that historically took place. We viewed some of the park’s 500-plus islands and spotted eagles in their huge, high nests. I was disappointed that we didn’t see more loons. I think I only saw two during the entire boat tour.

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Voyageurs sprawls along the Canadian border, sharing much of its lake water with our northern neighbors. The park gets its name from the trapping, trading, and travel routes established by the early voyageurs: Europeans who came to North America in search of wealth. They were aided by the Ojibwe Indians, who served as guides and interpreters as well as supplying the Europeans with birch-bark canoes.

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I was overly prepared for this boat tour. Thinking about the ferry to Isle Royale, I brought along a sweatshirt and a jacket, neither of which I needed. The temperature on this boat tour was pretty much perfect, even though we sat outside for the view.

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After the tour, we went to a resort called Sha Sha, which we’d seen from the water during our tour. (Why didn’t we stay here? It would have been a great location.) After two beers and a light dinner, we headed back to International Falls, where I promptly fell asleep.

 

DAY 5: HOME!

Driving RAGBRAI XLV: The OC to Lansing on four wheels in three days

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Who’s ready to ride? Not me, that’s for sure. But last weekend I traversed the northern tier of the state in my little orange car, following the ever-inspiring RAGBRAI route. RAGBRAI – the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa – never ceases to put together a road trip that takes you places you’ve never been (and sometimes never knew you wanted to go).

This is the second time I’ve followed the complete route (the first time was in 2015), and this time I did it in sequential days, staying in hotels along the route.

And I will say this: For people who don’t think there’s anything interesting about Iowa, I spent three days driving across the state, to many places I’d already visited, and I ran out of time and didn’t get to do many of the things I’d hoped to do.

This year’s route is fairly flat – until you get to the last two days, and then all hell breaks loose. This is by far the prettiest part of the route, but it will be the most challenging on two wheels.

Even without the hoopla of the 10,000 riders, the pie, the pork chops, the beer, the music, and the wet-T-shirt contests, driving the carefully curated RAGBRAI route is a hell of a way to see this state. So, here’s a sneak peek for those of you who are biking across Iowa next week, or for folks like me who just want to experience small-town Iowa from the comfort of your car.

I present: RAGBRAI XLV.

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ORANGE CITY TO SPENCER

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I cheated and drove to Orange City Friday night so I could get a jump on my first full day’s drive. I wanted to get to Clear Lake (the fourth overnight town on the RAGBRAI route) by Saturday night.

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I took Hwy. 10, entering the town from the east, and immediately spotted my hotel for the night: Hampton Inn. I got checked in and then headed downtown. I encountered windmills and a park, a lovely courthouse and the postcard-pretty campus of Northwestern College. It’s not tulip time, but the town smelled like flowers, and gardens throughout the town were overflowing with colorful summer blooms.

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The OC is a seriously nice little town (population 6,179), with a tidy downtown area, colorful murals, and folks out taking an evening stroll or bike ride. One thing it is not – at least on a Friday night – is open for business. I didn’t spot one restaurant or shop in the downtown area that was actually open. I opted for dinner at The Nederlander out on the highway, about 50 yards from my hotel. It was OK, but not the cozy downtown mom & pop diner I’d hoped for.

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The next morning I ventured back downtown to see what was cooking at the Dutch Bakery (I peeked into the windows the night before, and it seemed tempting); alas, there was nothing remotely Dutch about this more-aptly named donut shop, so I didn’t partake.

I was super excited to be driving the entire route this year. Of course, the route itself is pre-planned, but I had a long list of things I wanted to do this first day between the OC and Clear Lake: take a historic walking tour of Alton, find the library cat in Spencer, go to the POW Museum in Algona, check out the Buddy Holly crash site outside of Clear Lake.

I didn’t do most of those things. My plans went awry: I couldn’t find the location, the attraction was closed, I ran out of time. Didn’t matter. I had a lot of fun and found other things to do.

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Three minutes outside the OC I encountered Alton (“Love Where You Live”), population 1,271. You can literally see Orange City from the Alton main street. It’s a pretty little town, with big houses and a golf course, and you can’t miss the huge, double-spired St. Mary’s Catholic church.

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It occurred to me that Alton might have been settled by Catholics who weren’t welcome in the Dutch-Reformed-majority Orange City. But anyway, it’s a cute little town, with a park and a pub (which was not open on Saturday morning) and antiques shop. You can walk right down the middle of the street and not worry about getting hit by a car, a theme that would play out many times in the next couple of days.

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Eight miles later I arrived in Granville, home of black soil, Spartans baseball, another pretty Catholic church, and a ginormous grain elevator (this, too, would become a pattern throughout the route).

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It was already 80 degrees and humid when I arrived in Paullina (“Gem of the Prairie”). The local RAGBRAI committee was hard at work, with a July 18 meeting scheduled according to a sign in town. I had to make a U-Turn – that’s another thing I did over and over during this drive – to find a suitable place to park to take a picture of this beautiful Victorian inn:

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The next town is Primghar, population 909. Here there’s a nice downtown square, an average-looking courthouse, a golf course, and some good-looking houses.

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The route so far was pretty flat and easy. The surrounding land is mainly made up of farm fields dotted with wind turbines. Heading out of Primghar, I found myself leap-frogging a cyclist who seemed to be riding the RAGBRAI route. I’d pass him, then stop to take pictures and he’d get ahead of me. Then I’d pass him again. This went on for quite some time.

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After Primghar I took the optional gravel loop for one reason only: It’s close to the Glacial Trail Byway and I thought the scenery might be pretty. It really wasn’t anything special, except for some nice wind turbines and corn fields; I guess the road is just a little too far removed from those glacial land forms. Too bad, because they’re really interesting. Anyway, I just ended up getting my car really filthy on that gravel road. I’ve driven a lot of gravel, and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen my back window so dirty. I had to stop to clean it off so I could see out.

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I got confused somewhere between Sutherland (population 649) and Hartley (population 1,672) and had to bring out the big guns: my brand-new Iowa Atlas & Gazetteer, with more detail than you can imagine. I’ve wanted one of these bad boys for a while now, and I knew that driving this route by myself this year I’d need one. I pre-highlighted the route before I left, and it was extremely helpful in cases where I took a wrong turn or when there was no road signage that matched up with the Register’s maps of the route. (Actually, I give high praise to the Register’s daily route maps. They’re pretty darn accurate. I didn’t have much trouble following the route the first day, even though sometimes the road names are different. I don’t know if I’m good or just lucky.)

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So, Hartley (“The City with a Heart”) isn’t a bad little town. I was hoping to find coffee and a bathroom, but no. I did run across a cool bridge, called the Bob Howe Thunder Bridge, below, and then I headed into Spencer.

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I like Spencer (population 11,233). I’ve been in this town a number of times. Today I was happy to find Carroll’s Bakery and Coffee Shop that had good coffee, a bathroom, and friendly employees who told me about the plans for RAGBRAI’s overnight stay. Apparently all camping and services – including a big spaghetti feed – will be located in the Clay County Fairgrounds. (Loyal readers may remember I attended the Clay County Fair just last year.)

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Spencer is the county seat, has a pretty courthouse, is famous for its library cat (Dewey Readmore Books), and has an awesome main boulevard with hanging flower baskets and an art deco bridge, below. Spencer was definitely getting ready for RAGBRAI; murals were already up, ready to greet cyclists in the downtown corridor.

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Before I left town, I stopped at a small farmers’ market and chatted with some young women from Iowa State’s Clay County Extension serving a crunchy cabbage salad. It tasted great; I even picked up the recipe.

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SPENCER TO ALGONA

Since Spencer is an overnight town, I was officially finished with the first day’s route around noon. Heading out of town, I looked for the towns of Dickens (population 185) and Gillett Grove (population 49) – both on the RAGBRAI map – but saw absolutely no sign of either one. I swear I was on the right road, too.

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I encountered my first hill on B53 before coming to Ayrshire (population 143), Curlew (population 58), and Mallard (population 274). Honestly, I can’t think of anything to say about any of these towns. Just outside Mallard, riders will have an opportunity to take the optional Karras Loop, but I opted to NOT do that.

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Instead, I headed straight to West Bend (population 785) and its world-famous (and famously weird) Grotto of the Redemption. I visited the Grotto once before, and I found it creepy, even though I am well aware that other people think it’s the coolest thing ever.

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The Grotto takes up a whole city block and is series of grotto-ish things constructed of minerals and gems by a Catholic priest, Father Paul Dobberstein. He worked on it from 1912 to 1942, and I totally believe it took that long because this thing is massive.

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Apparently each of the grotto clusters depict a scene in the life of Jesus of Nazareth but was “built to be for people of all religions to enjoy.” So check it out for yourself. (Creepy or cool? You decide.)

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Whittemore (“Proud of our past…excited for our future”), just down the road from West Bend (population 504) has a community center with a veteran’s display… and then you’re in Algona, the next overnight town. Wow, this section (Monday, if you’re doing RAGBRAI) went really fast. Algona’s RAGBRAI theme is “Discover Our Oasis.”

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I want to like Algona (population 5,560). I’ve often thought it would be interesting to visit the POW Museum. I didn’t find it, but even if I had, it probably would have been closed.

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Everything always seems to be closed in these small Iowa towns when I try to visit. I actually started taking pictures of the “closed” signs on doors. I understand that businesses aren’t open 24/7, but, seriously, Saturday afternoon? This is Prime Time. I stopped at a coffee shop in downtown Algona, hoping to grab a sandwich or something. The helpful barista there told me they stopped serving lunch at 2 p.m. I checked my watch. It was 2:01. (Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up.)

Oh, well. At least they had coffee, which is more than I can say about many small towns.

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Algona has a pretty Methodist Episcopal church, a cute downtown with a display of a children’s RAGBRAI artwork competition, and a decent park in which I ate a sad peanut butter sandwich since the coffee shop would not accommodate my lunch-time needs.

ALGONA TO CLEAR LAKE

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Leaving Algona and heading to Clear Lake will be Day 3 (Tuesday) for riders, and it would be the last section for me to drive on Saturday. I headed out of town at 2:30 p.m. and almost immediately encountered a series of blue porta-potties in a farm field – I assume this in preparation for RAGBRAI?

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The town of Wesley (population 390) has a pretty white church and not much else. I drove through Hutchins (an unincorporated town of 28) without stopping.

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And then I came to Britt, population 2,069. Britt, with its very cool mural. Britt, with its awesome banners and motorcycles parked on the main drag. Britt, with its National Hobo Museum.

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Wait – what? A national hobo museum? Why did I not know about this? I got very excited. And then…of course…the damn thing was closed. I peeked in the windows and saw a sign for the 117th annual National Hobo Convention, which includes a Hobo Memorial Service at a local cemetery and a parade and a king and queen and everything. It’s in August…maybe I’ll just go back up there. It sounds awesome.

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Garner, Iowa, feels like it should be bigger than its population (3,129) would indicate. Probably because it’s at the crossroads of U.S. Highways 18 and 69. So, there’s a Casey’s and a bunch of other stuff where the two roads meet. In town, there’s a nice farmers co-op and railroad tracks and a central park.

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Leaving Garner, the next town to the east is Ventura, population 717 (“Sportsman’s Paradise”), and Ventura feels pretty much like part of Clear Lake. It’s technically in Ventura where you hop on North Shore Drive, and it hugs the shoreline of the lake all the way in.

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If I was at all bored with the farm fields and sleepy little towns I was driving through (I swear I was not!), Clear Lake was a huge change of scenery. This town (population 7,777) was by far the most happening place on the route up to this point. By my rough estimate, there were about 100,000 people there, with their cars and their boats and their kids and their dogs, all living it up at the lake on a sweltering July afternoon. I had a hard time imagining how another 10,000 MORE people were going to fit on this town’s roadways – not to mention all the support vehicles and hangers-on – but the riders will be coming into town on a Tuesday, and I was there on a Saturday, so maybe it will be less crazy.

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At any rate. Clear Lake has a lot to offer its two-wheeled visitors: There’s the lake, of course, for boating and swimming and skiing and a boat cruise on the Lady of the Lake. And a vibrant downtown area, a pretty central garden, the famous Surf Ballroom (which had a show the night I was there), and several restaurants from which to choose. Just north of town is the Buddy Holly crash site.

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Clear Lake is the fourth overnight town, if you count Orange City, but it was my second. I tried my best to secure a place to stay on the lake, but everywhere I called was either booked or required a multiple-night stay or was way out of my price range. I stayed at the sad-looking Super 8 motel out on the highway. My room was actually so close to the on-ramp for I-35 that the entrance sign was right outside my window.

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After I checked in to the Ritz, I drove back down to the downtown area, parked, and began walking. I explored the main street, went to the public lakefront area, took a lot of pictures, and remembered that this was the place I nearly died one time from choking on a garbanzo bean. I decided to get some dinner, so I went to GE-Jo’s Italian restaurant and sat outside. It was a terribly hot day, but the patio had nice shade. I was thinking pasta when I chose this restaurant, but I was so hot that I decided to go for a refreshing salad with strawberries, feta cheese, and almonds with a very light dressing – and it really hit the spot. So did the beer and the multiple glasses of water I downed while sitting there.

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After dinner I set off walking again. I found a pretty white church, the central garden (above), nice-looking older homes, and the aforementioned Surf Ballroom. The Surf is a concert venue built in 1948 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011. It’s best known for being the last place that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper played a concert. The night I was there, Dennis DeYoung of Styx was performing. (The only time I ever saw a concert at the Surf Ballroom was many years ago when Dave and I went to see George Thorogood and the Destroyers, and I thought I was going to get killed by a guy with a tattoo on his scalp. Also, Thorogood is one ugly dude, but I love his music.)

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Speaking of music, walking back to my car (sweating in a most unladylike manner, clear through my T-shirt) I stumbled upon a municipal band playing a concert in the band shell of the city park. Heck, yes! I love a good municipal band. This one played some marching tunes, some Gershwin, and so forth, and I stayed there listening until I got tired of swatting the bugs. And then I went back to my room on the interstate ramp.

CLEAR LAKE TO CHARLES CITY

This was the start of my second full day of driving. I thought about going back into Clear Lake’s downtown area for coffee, but instead I just grabbed a cup at the motel and called it good. I was on the road by 7:30 a.m.

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Twenty minutes later I was in Thornton (population 422). Thornton has a gas station, a park, a grain elevator, and a small downtown. Do I need to mention that nothing was open? I’m not too clear how many of these businesses are open EVER, and it was early Sunday morning.

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Swaledale (population 165) had a lot of American flags but not much else.

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I continued on to Rockwell, which I found surprisingly agreeable for a town of 1,039 people. There’s the very nice Linn Grove Park, with its restored prairie, a bridge over Beaver Creek, and an area where folks were camping in RVs. In fact, when I was there, families were outside cooking their Sunday breakfast, and it was very pleasant. The town also has a golf course and an aquatic center.

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Leaving Rockwell behind, I headed east on B60 but inadvertently turned north on S56 instead of S66 (I know, call me crazy) so I missed Cartersville. Ugh. I backtracked, but there really was no reason to. Cartersville is unincorporated and only has a few homes/farms and a grain elevator. You don’t even have to reduce your speed to drive through it. So, moving on.

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When I got up Sunday morning, I was already looking forward to this next town: Rockford. Not to be confused with Rockwell. I knew Rockford would have one place that could NOT be closed: The Floyd County Fossil and Prairie Park, which is right on the RAGBRAI route. I spent some time here last year when I was doing a story on Iowa’s geologic history. The education center itself was closed, of course, since it was still pretty early on Sunday morning (it’s open from 1-4 p.m. daily), and mine was the only car in the parking lot when I got there. But the prairie and rock quarry are just THERE, so they can’t really be closed. Yay!

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I took off through the prairie on carefully mown paths and just walked and walked until I thought, hey, why didn’t I bring my bottle of water? I’m gonna die out here! I walked for about 25 minutes in the heat and very much enjoyed the colorful blooming prairie plants, ponds, birds, bees, and other insects.

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By the time I got back to the parking lot there were a couple of trucks there, and some guys from the local Lions Club setting up a blue-and-white-striped tent for what appeared to be an event later in the day. Or maybe it was being set up early for RAGBRAI? Who knows – I didn’t ask. I grabbed my water and headed off walking to the gorge where you can find fossil marine species from the Devonian period.

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Apparently the abundance of brachiopods is unique to this area, because the ocean-bottom sediment that was deposited here 400 million years ago (when Iowa was covered with a shallow sea) never turned to hard stone as it did almost everywhere else in the region. Fossils are plentiful, and visitors are allowed to collect them. I didn’t do any actual fossil hunting, but I walked around the edge of the old quarry, which was originally a clay pit for the now-closed Rockford Brick and Tile Company. I met a chatty man who talked at some length about what was blooming in the prairie and what was not.

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Fossil and Prairie Park is one of the coolest thing about Rockford (population 860), and it’s just outside the city limits. Driving into town, I saw some cyclists and a bridge spanning an attractive river, and couple of spotted baby deer on the side of the road. There’s a downtown area with historic buildings and a park.

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At this point I started heading toward Charles City, dutifully following my map, and just outside the town, Hwy. 14 abruptly ended. This was the first of many times during the remainder of the route that road work was being performed, I assume, for the upcoming onslaught of bikers. Most of the construction work was merely a nuisance for me on my four-wheeled drive, but a couple of times it prevented me from enjoying an area, which I will tell you about later. At this point, I found a different way into Charles City (population 7,652), the next overnight town.

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I was so looking forward to Charles City! In my pre-planning notes, I’d listed a whitewater rafting course, the Charles Theatre, an art collection in the public library, historic homes, and an art center. I assumed the downtown area would be terrific. And I was hoping to have enough time to try to find the girlhood home of Carrie Chapman Catt.

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Well, Charles City totally confounded me at every turn. I easily found my way downtown and was immediately wowed. I walked the length of the area, from the courthouse to the central park. Although it looked great – especially the bridge and dam area on the Cedar River – I found no coffee shop, no diner, nothing in the way of food.

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There were nice-looking store fronts, but nothing was open. I found the Charles Theatre, a classic car show in the park, and the Charles City Art Center, whose sign said it was open even though it was closed.

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I left the downtown area thinking what a missed opportunity I’d just had. I drove around town, noting a couple of chain restaurants (open) and the public library, which is supposed to have a great art collection (closed).

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I found what I assumed to be the area used for recreational white-water rafting (above). At 11:45, desperate for a bathroom break and not finding anything to eat for lunch (for the second day in a row), I stopped at Hy-Vee. After I used the facilities, I was nosing around in the deli section, thinking I might be able to find something for a picnic, when I did something I’ve never done before: I ate lunch in the Hy-Vee restaurant. I am not proud to admit this. I try to avoid chain restaurants; I was so looking forward to eating at a little independent diner or coffee shop. But I have to say, the food was darn good. They were still serving breakfast because it was Sunday, so I ordered a cheese omelet, hash browns, and toast for $8.50 – and it was enough for two people. It was delicious, and the coffee was even good.

At this point, with a full belly and an optimistic outlook, I set out to either A) get back on the RAGBRAI route or B) find the road that would lead to the Catt home – whichever I found first. But I was all turned around and ended up heading out of town going east on Hwy. 18. Wrong on both counts. I stopped and consulted the Big Map. Went back into town. Found T64 and followed the brochure directions and helpful signage to the Carrie Lane Chapman Catt Girlhood Home. (Warning: It’s down a couple of travel roads.)

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I was so glad I found this place. The historic brick house and red barn are in impeccable shape, and the modern visitor center is quite thorough. The home is a museum; it’s filled with displays rather than the period furniture you find in most “childhood home” sites.

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Catt is familiar to most people who have a connection to Iowa State University, as she’s one of the school’s most famous grads. But in case the name doesn’t ring a bell, here’s her story in a nutshell: She grew up on the farm south of Charles City, attended Iowa State, and became a prominent leader of the woman suffrage movement. Her efforts led to the passage of the 19th amendment that allowed women the vote, and she was the founder of the League of Women Voters. Iowa State has a building on its campus named in her honor.

Here’s a 1924 Catt quote I liked from the museum: “The struggle for the vote was an effort to bring men to feel less superior and women to feel less inferior.” Amen, sister.

CHARLES CITY TO CRESCO

I spent only about 20 minutes at the historic site and very much enjoyed it, but I needed to get back on the road. I headed back to Charles City. Took a road that I thought might be the right one to get back on the RAGBRAI route. It was not. Doubled back. Cut my losses. Went out on east Hwy. 18 – the very road I’d been on more than an hour before! I took that highway until I came to a cut-through road that would take me to the road I was supposed to be on. I was finally back on the RAGBRAI route. Whew!

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So, I finally made it to Ionia, “The little town with the big welcome,” population 291.

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Next up: New Hampton. This town (population 3,751) had a decent downtown area, some beautiful older homes, a park with a band shell, and a community pool. Residents have done a good job of decorating with bicycles throughout the town, and I really liked their banners.

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In the next town, Lawler (population 439), there wasn’t much to photograph; it’s mostly residential. Heading out of town I encountered some picturesque — but still flat — farmland.

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The next town was Protivin – the last town before Thursday’s overnight stop – and for a little town with just 278 people, I spent a fair amount of time there.

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I was fascinated by the Czech names in the cemetery, names like Kostohryz, Vsetecka, Slifka, and Kovarik. Protivin celebrates its Czech heritage each August with Czech Days. The Bohemian Savings Bank, Holy Trinity Church, and the adjacent cemetery all felt really sweet and special for some reason. I liked this place a lot.

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IMG_8424I headed to Cresco, population 3,868. Cresco’s chamber of commerce website calls the town “Iowa’s Year-Round Playground.” The welcome sign as you drive into town proclaims it “Home of Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame.” And it’s known for being the boyhood home of Norman Borlaug – a Nobel Peace Prize, Medal of Freedom, and Congressional Gold Medal recipient for his scientific and humanitarian contributions to solving world hunger.

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Cresco’s RAGBRAI theme is “Pedal to the Paranormal,” which I don’t understand at all. But I enjoyed walking around the downtown area, with its historic buildings, court house, theatre/opera house, funky vintage gas station display, and public art.

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This town also has truly fabulous old homes. I walked for blocks, just drooling over them. Cresco is also home to the wrestling hall of fame and Prairie’s Edge Nature Center, and it hosts an annual Norman Borlaug Harvest Fest the third weekend in September.

CRESCO TO WAUKON

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OK, so Cresco may be the overnight town for RAGBRAI, but I had one more town to go before my own overnight stop. I headed for Decorah. And here is where I say…Welcome to the Driftless Area, RAGBRAI-ers! Because this part of the route is spectacular, but also will be spectacularly challenging for anyone on two wheels. I just kept saying, Oh my god, there are hills and hills and hills and curves and hills and curves! And then bluffs! This is an amazing section of road that I’m not sure I’ve ever been on before (A34). I’ve probably only come into Decorah on Hwy. 52 and Hwy. 9 before. This way is better. My only regret is that there is literally no place to pull over to take a picture – the hills and curves and lack of shoulder would make it too dangerous to stop. (The picture above was taken the next morning, heading out of town on a different road.) My, oh, my, what a ride. The section between Cresco and Decorah was definitely my favorite section of the entire route. Whee!

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I had a whole list of things to do in Decorah, but there were not enough hours in the day to do everything. My plan was to check into my hotel (the Country Inn & Suites on Hwy. 9) and jump onto the Trout Run Trail for an 11-mile walk. I’ve done it before, and I know I can do it (you can read details here). I had it in my head that I would walk on the trail until I got near the downtown area, then I’d get off the trail, have some dinner and a beer, and walk the rest of the way back to the hotel.

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I headed off, quite prepared to do this. I brought a change of shirt and shoes, extra water bottles (it was still very hot), and money. I started walking… and then I started doing the math: At the pace I would be walking on this very hilly trail in high heat and humidity (certainly no more than 3 miles an hour), it would probably be dark before I finished the 11 miles, and most of the trail appeared to be without lights. I definitely would not be able to stop for dinner and make it back before dark.

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So, I walked about three miles, turned around, walked back to the hotel, changed clothes, and drove into town for dinner. This was a good decision, and the 6 miles I walked in the heat were plenty. It’s such a beautiful trail!

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I love Decorah. It’s chock full of culture and nature and shopping and dining options. But…you know where this is going, right?…it was Sunday, and my first choice of restaurants was closed. As was my second choice. Happy Joe’s was open, as was another uninspiring pizza place, but that was not what I wanted. It would have been too depressing. I ended up eating at Restauration, the restaurant at the Hotel Winneshiek. I ate my dinner (a hummus appetizer with pita and veggies) and drank a beer at a table on the sidewalk, even though it was still hotter than bloody hell outside.

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Back at the Country Inn, I took advantage of the pool area before falling into a very comfy bed.

The next day – after a quickie free breakfast – I headed out on my last section of the route. It was Monday, and I needed to get home.

How is it possible to drive 85.4 miles from Decorah to Lansing? Google Maps says it takes 47 minutes (36.6 miles), even along the delicious curviness of Hwy. 9. The RAGBRAI version? It took me hours and hours. But that’s why this is so much fun.

My drive on this day encompassed much of Friday and all of Saturday’s RAGBRAI route. They definitely saved the best for last. (I won’t even bore you with how much trouble I had finding the prescribed route out of Decorah, but shades of Charles City all over again.) The land forms in this area are absolutely beautiful, and unique in all of Iowa.

Why? Well, let’s talk geology for a moment. This area of the state hasn’t been glaciated for a very long time, maybe 400,000 years ago (if ever – scientists do not agree on this point), as opposed to central and north-central Iowa, where the last glacier (the Des Moines Lobe) receded only about 14,000 years ago. This Driftless Area – or Paleozoic Plateau – features deeply carved river valleys and spectacular bluffs. For today’s humans, that means fun, up-and-down roads and the most gorgeous farmland you’ve ever laid eyes on. Like, so beautiful you might have a bike wreck just staring at it. Be careful out there.

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Anyway, that ends our geology lesson for the day.

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Heading out of Decorah I encountered the town of Ossian (population 845), which made me laugh right away because the permanent welcome sign announced that they have a public restroom. Ossian also had many signs of RAGBRAI, including cleverly decorated bikes on the main street.

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Next up was Castalia (population 173), which had a fire department/city hall combo, Susie’s First Chance Saloon, and old bank building, church, and city park.

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I arrived in the next town – Postville – a little after 9 a.m. I was a little bit disappointed in Postville on this visit. I’ve been here before and thought it was a very unique small town, with its mix of diverse ethnicities based on the large meat-packing plant in town. It’s a pretty famous place; the history is that a group of Hasidic Jews started a Kosher slaughterhouse called Agriprocessors here in 1987. Later the company faced complaints about its mistreatment of cattle and violations of child labor laws, and the facility was raided by the federal government in 2008, arresting hundreds of undocumented workers. Books have been written about this place.

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Downtown Postville still shows signs of its diverse populations, with Hispanic supermarkets and restaurants and Jewish synagogues. But overall it felt tired and worn out. The population has decreased a bit lately – to 2,116 people according to a website. The meatpacking plant was apparently sold and is back in business, but I didn’t look for it because the whole concept of meatpacking grosses me out.

Leaving Postville and heading toward the overnight town of Waukon, I apparently missed a turn and ended up in Frankville, which is not on the RAGBRAI route. Oops. I improvised and made my own route – Hwy. 51 to Hwy. 9 – to Waukon. By this point, I was getting eager to get to the end.

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I like Waukon. It has an energetic vibe that’s part funky, part farm-y, and part business-y. Coming in to town, I photographed a giant statue of a cowboy with a bull in a farm supply store parking lot. And I was happy to see the town had a Casey’s, because I was overdue for a bathroom-and-gasoline break.

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Downtown, I window-shopped the eclectic stores – especially Steel Cow, which may be the coolest art gallery in Iowa – and bought a cup of coffee for a dollar at the S&D Café. Hey, a coffee shop that’s open!

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I was lured into a T-shirt shop by the adorable RAGBRAI shirts in the window. Waukon’s theme is “A week behind handlebars,” with a play on the word “handlebar,” as in mustache, as in the Monopoly man. It’s super cute – the glasses are even a bicycle! – and my favorite theme of the week.

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Also in Waukon I found a nice park, an interesting, historic city hall, an old movie theatre, taverns called Waukon City Club and GoodFellas Party Bar, bicycle decorations, and the soaring St. Patrick’s church that you can see for blocks away. Waukon (population 3897) is the county seat of Allamakee County.

WAUKON TO LANSING

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Leaving Waukon: More lovely farm landscape. The route (county road A52) is actually part of the Driftless Area Scenic Byway. I drove by a large, modern home with a spectacular view that will soon be serving as a RAGBRAI host. (Cool sign, you guys!)

On X32 I got stopped for road construction by a flagger man with long gray hair and no teeth, smoking a cigarette. Classy guy. Oh, and he was spitting. Even better.

I had to wait to follow the pilot car because the road had only one lane. Again, I am assuming this was road work in preparation for RAGBRAI, which is a good thing, and it didn’t slow me down more than a few minutes.

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I arrived in Waterville (population 144), the hilliest little town I’d seen so far on the route. The whole town seemed to be built on a hill. It had a pretty white-steepled church and a staging area for road construction (the section I just passed? Or something else? All I know is that road construction would be the theme of the day.)

Speaking of road construction: After driving up a very LONG hill out of Waterville, I was really looking forward to driving through Yellow River Forest. But when I got there, they were working on the road, so once again I had to stop and then follow the pilot car. It was really disappointing, because you can’t exactly pull over and take a picture or launch yourself down a hiking trail when you’re following a pilot car down a one-lane road. Drat!

I can say this about Yellow River Forest: It’s very lush and shady. I think the riders will love it, because it will be a really nice break from the sun. I imagine the hiking trails are nice, but I didn’t get to experience them. Nor the scenic overlooks. So let me know how much fun it is, okay?

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Harpers Ferry (population 328) is the next town on the route. It’s right on the Mississippi River, so there’s a lot of boating activity. The river laps right up onto your feet if you aren’t careful. I’m sure this will be a fun town to ride through.

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The road from here on out is on both the Driftless Area Scenic Byway and the Great River Road National Scenic Byway.

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Side note about Harpers Ferry: It’s very close to Effigy Mounds. I didn’t take the time to visit because I’ve been there before, but if you’re in the area and you have time, do yourself a favor and check out this National Monument run by the National Park Service. The preserved mounds are considered sacred to Native Americans, and they’re located in a really beautiful area just south of Harpers Ferry.

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Heading north, between Harpers Ferry and Lansing, I came upon the Immaculate Conception Wexford Church, which sits high up on a hill. It’s a really striking building in a pretty amazing setting, so I stopped and took some pictures of the church and the adjacent cemetery.

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Apparently the church has been there since 1851 and was established by an Irish priest. (Fun fact: If you go to their website, you can find recipes for Irish stew and salted codfish and the like.)

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OK, we’re now seriously near the end of the route. Let’s stay focused! And……we’re in Lansing!!! There’s the cool/awesome/scary Mississippi River bridge! And vibrant main street! And lots of bicycle motifs all ready for RAGBRAI’s final stop of 2017. This is the end of the road, folks.

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Before you leave Lansing (population 999), check out Horsfall’s variety store, which is filled with pretty much everything you can imagine. And ride to the top of Mt. Hosmer for the coolest view of the river and the scary bridge. I was headed up there myself when I was slapped with the last of the road-construction indignities: The road was being completely resurfaced when I got there. So sad!

But, as if to make up for my disappointment, within 30 seconds a deer walked in front of me. And then I passed the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. How’s that for an awesome end to an awesome drive?

And it WAS an awesome drive. I took 1,153 pictures. Kudos to the folks who come up with this route, because I had a blast. Even though I may have sounded whiny and complained about stuff being closed and not being able to find a good cup of coffee, I loved this drive and this part of the state, and I loved all the little towns, even the ones I didn’t bother to stop in. Together they make up all the things I love about being an Iowan.

POSTSCRIPT

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OK, so after I was officially finished with the RAGBRAI route and was heading back to Ames on Hwy. 9 (the most direct route available), I stopped back in Decorah, where I ate a giant ice cream cone at the Sugar Bowl. (I thought it was closing. I’m so glad it didn’t.) And I took a few more pictures: The Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum and the cow painted on the side of the co-op building. And, of course, filled up my travel mug at Java John’s Coffee House.

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And the last thing I did was drive to the north side of town to find Dunning’s Spring Park. I’ve read about this place and seen pictures of the waterfall, but I never knew where it was. My trusty map got me there! It’s a cool place in both uses of the word – it’s awesome and it’s also about 15 degrees cooler than the rest of the town. I walked up the 120 steps to view the falls from above, but in my opinion the best views are below. You can even play in the water if you want to. And you know you’ll want to.

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Yankee Doodle Pops

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Twenty years living in Iowa. Twenty-four years of Yankee Doodle Pops. And this is the FIRST TIME I’ve experienced this classic Des Moines Symphony concert.

I’ll be honest. I’ve avoided this event because I’ve heard how horrendous the traffic jam is after the concert ends. Isn’t that lame? I feel like a lazy loser. I’ve also had a number of other excuses: I’m in Alaska, I’m in Boston, I’m in Africa. True! I seem to travel a lot in early July. But 20 years? C’mon, I’ve had lots of opportunities to experience this iconic Iowa event.

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So this was the year! No excuses! We plotted out our parking garage — 5th and Keo — so we’d have an easy getaway. We brought our ubiquitous bag chairs, our cameras, and a picnic dinner. We schlepped all our stuff the 12 or so blocks to the capitol grounds. And we waited. We may have arrived a little early. We people-watched. We (unsuccessfully) tried to avoid rowdy children. We listened to the concert prelude featuring the Turner Center Jazz Orchestra and Tina Haase Findlay (they were pretty great, by the way).

By 8:30 p.m., when the actual Pops concert began, you’d think everyone would be settled in, right? Nope. A gazillion people were still streaming in, walking between our expertly chosen spot and the stage (see a photo of my vantage spot below). Not that I was annoyed by this. Nor was I annoyed by the fact the everyone CONTINUED TO CHAT during the entire concert.

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The symphony was excellent. With a theme of “An American Journey,” it played a number of patriotic songs, some marching band tunes, a few show tunes, a couple of John Williams pieces, some military tributes, a few Frank Sinatra numbers, and — during the fireworks show — the popular 1812 Overture and Stars and Stripes Forever.

We were told from the stage that Yankee Doodle Pops is the third-largest Fourth of July concert in the country — behind Boston and Washington, D.C. Is that true? I would question this, but maybe so. There were an estimated 100,000 people there.

I’m not a super patriotic person, and I’m even less so lately, but I do enjoy a good pops band. It may be genetic — my father was a marching band aficionado, and I tap my toes just like he did.

Happy Fourth of July!