10 days on the road

I just got back from 10 days on the road in the upper Midwest as part of my VISIONS Across America adventure: 2,146 miles, four states, 17 Iowa State alumni interviews/photo shoots, and two alumni events.

I feel like I could sleep for a month.

As usual with these trips, I travel with photographer Jim Heemstra, and most of our time is spent driving, working, and sleeping in cheap hotels. But we always try to cram in some fun and sightseeing whenever we can.

Our travel to the upper Midwest took us to Detroit, Dearborn, Ann Arbor, and Tecumseh, Mich.; Chicago and Batavia, Ill.; Janesville, Dodgeville, New Glarus, Mount Horeb, and La Crosse, Wis.; and Red Wing, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester, and Frost, Minn.

Here are some highlights:

Detroit is a really fascinating city. While it’s said to be the first city to pave a concrete road, supplied 75 percent of all liquor during prohibition, and is the only city from which you can look south to Canada, what I saw in Detroit was incredible urban decay and a city desperately trying to keep it together while nearly half of its residents have fled to suburbia. My friend, Renee Grant, whom I met for dinner in nearby Dearborn (one of the aforementioned suburbs), said that locals drive into the city to enjoy major-league sporting events (The Pistons, Red Wings, Lions, and Tigers – oh, my) and cultural activities but then high-tail it back to the ’burbs, where they all live. Time magazine calls it “Detroit’s beautiful, horrible decline.” (View some spectacular images on this photo gallery.)

Of course, much of Detroit’s financial crisis stems from the decline in the American auto industry, which is why we were there. (We did a feature on an Iowa State mechanical engineer who works at Ford as a vehicle architect.) Afterward, we went into the city and photographed some pretty interesting stuff (including the two images above). And we were happy and relieved that our car wasn’t stolen. Here’s an image (below) from the Heidelberg Project on Detroit’s East Side. The 26-year-old project consists of two blocks of a partially destroyed neighborhood that have been turned into a strange, funky outdoor art experiment.

We then headed into Ann Arbor, a quick hour-long drive from the Detroit metro. Ann Arbor is, of course, home to the University of Michigan and The Largest College Football Stadium in the Nation. It’s also a very cool city, with a vibrant downtown area and a nice, walkable campus.

Jim and I had visited Ann Arbor before, so we decided to re-visit our favorite places there: Zingerman’s Deli, the Blue Nile Ethiopian restaurant, and the  Arbor Brewing Company. I’d have fun photos of Zingerman’s except it was pouring rain the morning we were there so I wimped out and left my camera in the car. Zingerman’s has a truly outstanding college-town vibe; I can only imagine what it’s like when school is in session. You can order Zingerman goodies on their website – it’s almost as good as Zabar’s in NYC.

We got to Chicago the next day. Chicago is one of those cities I could definitely see myself living in – if it were not for the traffic. Once we got to our hotel, the old Congress Plaza, and got rid of our car, it was a relief. Unfortunately, we had to drive in the city the next two days.

I shouldn’t complain. We had interesting people to visit, ate good food, and got to pet a seal at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

The zoo was actually a highlight of our trip. We featured Anthony Nielsen, lead keeper at the Kovler Lion House and Seal Pool, so we got cool behind-the-scenes views of those areas, including “back stage” at the big cat complex and an up-close audience with Della, the big gray seal.

We ate brunch at the zoo’s café patio and enjoyed a lovely view of the nature boardwalk and a small lake. The Lincoln Park Zoo is free – but be aware of the parking cost. We were there all morning, and our parking fee came to a whopping $30.

Another Chicago highlight was a quick run through the Chicago History Museum. We could have spent many hours there, but we only had a short time to cram in exhibits on the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 (my current obsession), the famous Chicago fire, Chicago blues, and a few other Chicago treasures. See it if you can.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the friendly welcome we received in Chicago from the nearly 50 Iowa State alumni who gathered on the patio of the Millennium Park Grill for a little Cyclone Summertime Happy Hour. It was a great night to be outside, enjoying the weather and the local Goose Island brews and listening to the sound of The Walk-ins.

Leaving the city behind, we traveled to southern Wisconsin. I enjoyed the slower pace of the rural areas, and I even got to spend one very relaxing night at a friend’s family cabin on a lake before getting back to work the next day.

We took a lot of photo detours in Wisconsin’s scenic countryside, searching for the perfect barn with the perfect black-and-white cows. We also visited the New Glarus Brewery (who the hell knew it was that popular? It’s in the middle of freaking NOWHERE) and brought back some mixed six-packs since we figured we shouldn’t do the tasting room before our photo shoot in Janesville.

We ended our four-state tour in Minnesota, spending most of our time in the Twin Cities. I must have been tired by then because I came back with very few photos. Jim, of course, took thousands. We met with a lot of great alumni in Minnesota, including an HIV researcher, a fifth-generation farmer, a TV host, a doctor-in-training at the Mayo Clinic, and a Betty Crocker Cookbook editor. We also got to go out on Lake Minnetonka with an ISU graduate who has a boat docked in the Wayzata marina. That was a real treat.

This is me, on the last stop of our last day, in a soybean field near Frost, Minn.


3 comments so far

  1. Paulo on

    Hi there. Very nice photos here on your blog. I’m a painter who lives in Chicago. I’m always looking for scenic places to paint not too far from Chicago. This one photo of a farm with a few red barns and a building with a little tower looking like a church on the background here on your blog caught my attention. Where is that place? It looks like a place I would like to paint.
    Thank you so much for your reply.

  2. cgieseke on

    Hi, Paulo. I wish I could tell you exactly where that scene is. It’s somewhere in southwest Wisconsin. The whole area is very scenic.

    • Paulo on

      Thank you for your reply. I will have to visit Wisconsin soon. You have inspired me. Have fun!

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