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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!

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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!

Iowa Lakeside Lab

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Students all over the state of Iowa – and beyond – can immerse themselves in the study of natural sciences at Iowa Lakeside Laboratory on the shore of West Okoboji Lake. The 100-year-old, 147-acre field camp is filled with outdoor classrooms and laboratories, and it provides housing and dining facilities for faculty, students, and visitors who take advantage of the area’s boundless natural environment.

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I visited Lakeside this week and was tremendously impressed by the work that’s going on up there: internationally respected study of the ecology and systematics of diatoms (a type of algae or phytoplankton), water-quality research, archaeological digs, prairie restoration, conservation biology, and more.

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I stayed in a fairly comfortable motel-style room on the property; many of the students are housed in cottages and primitive cabins (i.e., no bathrooms). Most of the laboratories are in charming stone structures built in the mid-1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and surrounded by prairie plants (center photo above). A few additional laboratory facilities were built in the 1960s and ’70s; the modern Hiatt Building opened in 1998 and houses the water quality laboratory, administrative offices, and classrooms. A comfortable dining hall (shown above, as we approached from the water) provides meals and gathering space.

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Most of the time I was at the lab I felt very much immersed in another world: a world of science and nature, surrounded by the land and water of Iowa’s early heritage. The Iowa Great Lakes were created by glaciers and are unique in the state of Iowa. Anyone who’s ever visited the Okoboji area knows its shores have been developed and developed and developed until there’s precious little public land, save for a few small parks. Iowa Lakeside Lab is the only large undeveloped land on the lakefront, and that makes it pretty special.

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My visit to Lakeside was for a story I’m working on for VISIONS, the Iowa State University alumni magazine. Iowa State has had a long connection to Iowa Lakeside Lab, a Regents Resource Center – meaning it’s a part of the Regents Universities of ISU, University of Iowa, and University of Northern Iowa. All three flags fly in the property, and I met students from all three schools as well as faculty from Iowa State and the University of Iowa, although there were faculty and students from outside the system as well.

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During the three days I was there, I sat in on classes, observed field work, and went out on the lake with students studying algae, soils, ornithology, and archaeology. I watched storms roll in from the west, scuttling plans to collect algae samples and turning the archaeology dig site into mud. I went to a research site in a prairie, and I observed the GLEON buoy, which monitors water quality and weather data every 10 minutes, linking data from West Okoboji with lakes around the world. I got to watch twin fawns chasing each other in the early-morning light and checked in on a rabbit nest filled with baby bunnies (below).

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Lakeside Lab is primarily a summer place, with university courses offered from May to August. During the school year Lakeside offers environmental education programs for students in K-12 schools, and education is also available for the general public. This week I attended a lecture on climate change titled “Weather Whiplash,” which was well attended by members of the local community. Young children were there attending a summer program called Frog Camp, and two artists and one writer were also in residence for the summer.

Conferences and meetings are held at Lakeside year-round, although space is somewhat limited because many of the labs and housing units are unheated. Iowa Lakeside Lab is located in northwest Iowa about 200 miles from both Des Moines and Omaha, on the west side of West Okoboji Lake along Hwy. 86.

Springtime on the Superior Hiking Trail

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My love affair with the Superior Hiking Trail in northeastern Minnesota continues.

I’ve been traveling to this area of the country for 17 years now – a total of more than 20 separate trips. On most of these trips, I’ve traveled alone. It’s such a treat to be able to clear my mind and hike on these beautiful, remote trails for a few days – and then, each night, eat good food and sleep in a comfy cabin.

Back in the early days, I always got up early and hit the trail, hiked all day, and fell into bed exhausted. As I got older and more out of shape, I slept later, hiked gently, read good books, and drank wine. Both approaches were quite enjoyable. Within the past couple of years, I’ve improved my fitness level, and on my latest hike (June 2-4) I spent more time hiking and actually tackled more challenging trails.

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It takes about 8 hours (from Ames, Iowa) to get to the north shore of Lake Superior. It’s a straight shot up I-35 to Duluth, and then a lovely drive along lakeshore-hugging Hwy. 61 – all the way to Canada, if you want to go that far north. I usually enjoy watching the temperature drop slowly as I drive north, but on Friday the temp stayed around 85 degrees well into northern Minnesota – until it dropped dramatically to 55 degrees within a period of about 15 minutes as I reached Duluth. And it stayed cool and comfortable the whole time I was up there.

I took four separate hikes on the SHT. I’ll talk about these in the order I hiked them:

 

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OBERG MOUNTAIN

This 1.8-mile loop is a great leg-stretcher, with easy access and nine scenic overlooks. It can be incredibly beautiful in the fall, but it was also pretty this spring, with green green green in every direction.

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To get to the Oberg Loop hiking trail, turn onto Onion River Road at Hwy. 61 milepost 87.5 and drive 2.2 miles to the big parking lot on the left side of the road.

 

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ALFRED’S POND

Officially, this 9-mile section is called “Caribou River Wayside to Cook County Road 1,” but I just think of it as the Alfred’s Pond hike. It’s one of my favorite hikes on the whole SHT. And the cool thing about this section is there’s another trailhead about a third of the way through, so you can park there and only be about 2.3 miles from the pond. That’s what I did.

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The trail was lined with lovely birch trees with their early spring leaves, and so many wildflowers that I spent much of my hike taking pictures. I can identify some – trillium and marsh marigolds are my favorites – but others are just, well, pretty spring wildflowers. Here are a few:

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It began to rain lightly while I hiked. I could hear it hitting the trees above me, but I really wasn’t getting wet until I got to Alfred’s Pond and left the forest canopy. I popped my poncho on over my head and sat quietly on the bench at the end of the walkway to the pond, just drinking in the aching beauty of that remote location. There were no people anywhere – just me and the lake and the trees and the rain. It was so beautiful it almost made me cry. But instead I smiled, grateful for the experience.

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To hike this trail section, park at the Caribou River Wayside trailhead right on Hwy. 61 at milepost 70.5. Or to get to Alfred’s Pond without walking quite so far, take Sugarloaf Rd. at milepost 73.3 and drive 1.5 miles to the parking lot on the left.

 

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BEAN & BEAR LAKES

I don’t know why I’ve been obsessing lately about the Bean & Bear Lakes hike. I did it once, years ago. I remember that the hike was tough but the lakes were beautiful. Maybe I just wanted to challenge myself. Anyway, I hiked this “Twin Lakes Trail” on Saturday afternoon. I parked at the Bay Area Historical Society in the town of Silver Bay; a 2.3-mile spur trail takes you to a loop trail with dramatic views of the twin lakes.

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The spur tail was muddy, rocky, and not particularly scenic. I was happy to get to the main event: the section with views of the lakes. It’s worth the time it takes to get there:

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This section is part of the main SHT; however, once I started heading back toward Silver Bay I noticed a severe shortage of signs telling me where I was and I started to worry. It was late in the day and I couldn’t afford to get lost. I didn’t see a trail sign or a human being for a long time and just counted on my instincts to be hiking on the right trail.

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And I was – up to a point. I hiked right back to Silver Bay on the SHT, somehow without ever turning onto the spur trail. (You can see the confusing signage above.) So when I popped out in the town, I was nowhere near my car. Interesting! I don’t think this has ever happened to me. I walked and walked and walked and walked along a roadway, hoping it was the right one and I’d eventually find my car. Of course, I finally did – it’s a small town, after all – and I was never so happy to see my little orange Prius waiting for me at the local historical building.

I think the hike itself was about 7 miles (with lots of mud and scrambly ups and downs), plus I think I walked a couple of miles in town. All I know is my feet hurt, and the beer and pizza that night in Grand Marais tasted mighty good.

To do this hike, turn at the Hwy. 61 stoplight at Silver Bay around mile marker 54.3 and drive to the historical building on your right or, better yet, drive along Penn Blvd./Outer Drive for a really long way until you get to the trailhead parking on your right. Try not to get lost.

 

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TOWER OVERLOOK

From Cook County Road 1, I hiked north with the goal of arriving at Tower Overlook within an hour. I didn’t count on the boot-sucking mud and slippery creek crossings, which made the trail a bit of an obstacle course. But it was a pretty hike, with an outstanding variety of spring wildflowers. Here are some of them:

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The whole trail section is 8 miles long, ending at Temperance River State Park, but I turned around after a couple of miles once I got to the overlook. I didn’t see a single person on this section. Ahhhhh! But I did see a very small toad and trash my hiking shoes.

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To get to this section, turn left on Cook C. Rd. 1/Cramer Rd. at the Hwy. 16 milepost 78.8 and drive 3.6 miles to the parking lot on the right.

THE REST

I stayed two nights, as usual, at Cascade Lodge, located on Hwy. 61 between Lutsen and Grand Marais. I like Cabin 2, but there are other cabins and a lodge from which to choose. I ate breakfast at Cascade Restaurant, which sort of feels like going to grandma’s house I’ve eaten breakfast there so many times. They have the best blueberry pancakes ever.

I ate lunch on Friday in Two Harbors at the Vanilla Bean Café. They have an awesome wild rice burger. And, as per my usual routine, I ate dinner both nights in Grand Marais, once at Gunflint Tavern and once at Sven & Ole’s Pizza.

I love this place and can’t wait to go back.

Mother’s Day at Reiman Gardens

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Moms get in free at Reiman Gardens on Mother’s Day, so today was a nice opportunity to go to the gardens with my family and see the new exhibition, Washed Ashore.

The sculpture exhibit opened April 29 and features 10 sculptures made from trash collected from beaches to make a statement about the amount of plastic garbage in our oceans and waterways.

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All the plastic was collected by volunteers. Sculptures were each directed by a lead artist and then created through a collaboration of the artist, team members, and volunteers. (That’s Rufus the Triggerfish, above.)

Kids were having a blast finding specific items in the sculptures — water bottles, flip-flops, nylon rope, and the like — in a sort of scavenger hunt. I’ll bet they were learning something about water pollution while they played the game. The great white shark, below is 12 feet long and 6 feet tall.

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Here are some facts about the Washed Ashore project:

  • 90% of marine debris is petroleum based
  • 38,000+ pounds of marine debris has been processed
  • 10,000+ volunteers have participated
  • 95% of all the debris collected by volunteers is actually used in the artwork
  • 300+ miles of beaches have been cleaned to create a total of 60 sculptures

Time for tulips

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Spring is always so very welcome in central Iowa, no matter how cold and snowy the winter has been (or not). This year’s winter was mild, but we had plenty of chilly, damp, dreary days in March and April to make up for it, so it’s been a real treat in the past couple of weeks to see the sun…and the green trees…and the flowers.

I met my two sisters earlier this week in Pella, one of Iowa’s most enchanting small towns. They live in the Kansas City area, and they first considered coming for Tulip Time (held Thursday through Saturday, May 4-6) but instead decided to visit on Tuesday. They wanted to see the tulips and buy goodies at the Dutch bakeries without the lines of people and parking headaches of the actual event. Can’t say that I blame them — Tulip Time is a lot of fun and well worth the crowds, but after you’ve done it a couple of times you really don’t need to go again.

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So we met at Jaarsma’s Bakery on the square and came away with large blue-and-white bags of pastries (just seeing those bags makes my mouth water). We ate lunch at Smokey Row, took pictures of tulips, browsed the downtown shops, bought cheese at Ulrich Meat Market, walked through the gardens outside the Scholte House Museum, and drank coffee at Brew, a newer coffee house in downtown Pella. I think it’s been a couple of years since I visited Pella, so some of the shops have changed, but overall it’s the same pleasant experience I remember from previous spring visits. I mean, you really can’t go wrong with tulips and Dutch letters.

Here are a few more photos:

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Mile High fun

My oldest daughter, Katie, and I spent last weekend in and around Denver, Colo., visiting my younger daughter, Lauren, who moved to the Mile High City in January.

We arrived Friday night after a 10-hour drive from Ames. After checking in to the Hyatt Place Hotel near the Denver International Airport, we were ready for some food and drink. Lauren suggested the Bent Fork Grill, which did the trick. I ate a cobb salad and ordered pint of Colorado Native, a local brew.

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The next morning, we headed to Snooze, an “a.m. eatery” with three locations in Denver, a few more in Colorado, plus restaurants in California, Arizona, and Texas. I had never heard of this place, but it was really fun. Apparently, the wait for a table on a weekend morning can be a couple of hours long, but we only waited about 30 minutes. The wait was made even more pleasant by A) the warmth and sunshine as we stood outside and B) the free coffee (in reusable orange cups) available to anyone standing in line. What a concept! Why don’t all restaurants serve free drinks while you wait?

The Snooze atmosphere is part Jetson’s/part Epcot theme park. Lots of fun décor and seating options. We sat at a round table with two curved benches that Katie said was like eating breakfast on the Disney teacups ride (above).

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The menu is fun and enormous, with promised “fresh twists on America’s favorite classics & creative morning cocktails.” We decided to share three menu items: a flight of pancakes (again, what a great concept), consisting of one sweet potato pancake, one blueberry Danish pancake, and one pineapple upside down pancake (above); huevos rancheros; and Snooze spuds deluxe (hash browns, cheese, eggs, and more). All the food was good; we loved all the pancakes, but the sweet potato was our favorite. We should have only ordered two items to share; we left a lot of eggs and hash browns and such on our plates.

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Our next destination was Denver’s open-air Mile High Flea Market (above). One of Lauren’s co-workers told her this was a must-experience weekend activity, but I will just say that I didn’t find it all that interesting. It’s huge and sprawly and messy, with vendors selling antiques (a.k.a. junk), clothes, tires, kitchen appliances, furniture, luggage, cosmetics, electronics, prepared food, produce, and a lot of stuff nobody needs. We each found a pair of shoes we liked, priced at two pairs for $25. Open weekends year-round, there is a charge to get in to the flea market ($2 per person on Fridays, $3 on Saturdays and Sundays).

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You can’t visit Colorado these days with at least one visit to a marijuana dispensary, right? So we went to two. As a teenager growing up in the 1970s, I remember buying (illegal) pot in a sandwich bag for $5, and you had absolutely no idea what you were smoking.

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Today, weed is big business for states in which recreational use is legal, and the options are amazing. We visited the Oasis Cannabis Superstore (“the largest selection of cannabis in the world” according to the sign) and talked to a really friendly, happy guy (above) who told us way more than I could understand about the different cannabis strains (more than 100 available in this store alone) for smoking, plus edibles and other products, like creams and lotions that apparently cure what ails you. (I wonder how the Girl Scouts of America feel about the Girl Scout Cookies hybrid sativa weed for sale?)

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The other place we visited was a neighborhood dispensary called Star Buds, which was much smaller but no less friendly. I didn’t take any pictures in that one.

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By now it was mid-day, and we decided to head west to Red Rocks Park, about 10 miles outside of Denver. The park and amphitheatre are 6,450 feet above sea level, with great views and natural rock formations. This was my first time visiting, and I had been told about all the super-fit people who go to the amphitheatre to exercise. It was a beautiful spring day, and the place was full of people stretching and jumping and lifting and whatever else you can do on the stairs. (There’s also an opportunity for hiking and biking nearby.) Apparently, there have been concerts held for more than 100 years in what is now a 9,525-seat open-air theatre.

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We had eaten such a big breakfast that we really weren’t hungry, but it was about 2 o’clock and we were lured to the outdoor seating area of the Ship Rock Grille, a restaurant on site, mainly just to sit on the lovely patio (above) and soak in the beauty of the mountains and rock formations. We ordered a couple of appetizers and I enjoyed a pint of Alaskan Amber.

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Our next stop was a place called The Source, the ultimate hipster destination in Denver’s River North District. The former 1880s brick foundry building is a collective of food artisans and retailers offering visitors everything from freshly baked bread to craft cocktails, street tacos to flower arrangements.

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We poked around in the shops and then sat down in the Crooked Stave brewery and ordered a few sample-sized brews. The brewery focuses on IPAs and Belgian sours (“wine-forward, barrel-aged”); neither style appeals to me, so I just sat and enjoyed the people-watching while Lauren and Katie sipped weird pink beer in cute, tiny glasses (below). Like I said, it’s a hipster paradise.

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After that, we drove back to the hotel for girl talk and pizza. The next morning, we headed north to Fort Collins, one of my favorite college towns. This is a small city in which I could definitely see myself (or my kids) living. It’s a nice size, easy to get around in, and has the most wonderful downtown, filled with independent shops, bars, and restaurants – with very few chains in sight.

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We were there on Easter Sunday and were worried that shops and restaurants would be closed – or serving the dreaded $30-per-person Easter buffet – but we needn’t have worried because the downtown area was hopping (no bunny pun intended). We had our choice of a dozen or more places to eat, and we chose to dine on the outdoor patio of Rare Italian, a restaurant serving a lovely brunch menu – everything from pancakes to lasagna. We ordered cocktails, too, because why not?

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We also met up with a friend, Adam, who lives north of Fort Collins but is originally from Iowa, and after eating brunch with him we went to Black Bottle Brewery, one of many, many breweries large and small located in Fort Collins. I wanted to try several different styles, so I ordered a flight and enjoyed all three (above). (Can you buy Black Bottle beer in Iowa? Please say yes.)

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We walked around Fort Collins’s Old Town Square, basking in the warm sun and enjoying the friendly vibe before grabbing ice cream cones at Walrus Ice Cream shop, a locally owned sweet shop celebrating its 30th year in business this year.

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After that, we headed back to Denver for more girl talk and a dip in the hotel pool.

Our weekend went by too fast; we had to leave for our long drive back to Iowa first thing Monday morning.