Sunday, November 30, 2014

USA Coast to Coast. The Ultimate Road Trip. Part 5

31st  July- 2nd August 2014



Driving west we eventually hit the mighty Mississippi River. The river forms the state line between Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota and as everyone knows it was a major seaway back in the early pioneer times.

These days it is pretty much just pleasure boats, barges and the odd tourist paddle wheeler that ply her fast flowing muddy waters.



Taking the scenic road north we followed the river for a day or so before doing a u-turn and heading inland and south towards Iowa. North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa are three of the seven states that make up the area known as the Great Plains, and believe me those plains go on and on and on. It seemed that there was nothing but corn and wheat growing on those plains. The swaying green and gold crops were everywhere, dissected only by giant ugly wind farms that mar the landscape.

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Apart from corn, wheat and wind farms, Iowa also has it’s fair share of Amish communities along the back roads and is the US leader in the production of both grain and hogs. Apparently Iowa has eight pigs for every person living in the state, now that’s a lot of bacon!

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Sooner or later if you want to cover some miles quickly you have to hook into a major freeway. In order to get through the state capital of Des Moines we had to join the ranks of the zoom-zoomers and the zig-zagers, put on a brave face and drive like a local,aka… a bat out of hell. Our little stint on the freeway was short lived though as a gleaming gold dome towering above the city skyline caught our eye and we took the next exit to see what it was. A quick stop at the info centre revealed all. It was the top of Iowa’s state capital.


Yeah, yeah I know what you’re thinking, we seem to be becoming capital junkies all of a sudden. As you would have read in the last posting we’d seen the one in Wisconsin  and donkey’s ago the one in DC but this one looked way grander. You just about needed sunnies on to look at the outside. It was blinged up to the hilt. Once again we seemed to have impeccable timing and arrived in the foyer just as the afternoon tour was starting.


This capital was really impressive with beautiful spiral staircases, statues, giant murals, (what self respecting state capital would be without them), stained glass, marble arches and an unbelievable library. Of course it had all the usual fixtures as well, Supreme Court, The Senate and The House of Reps chambers adorned with fabulous chandeliers and past and present pics of the commander and chief. And then of course there was that dome. If it looked good from the outside then you should have seen it from the inside.

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These guys really knew how to build and the whole package made Australia’s Parliament House pale into insignificance. Yet again we had another very informative afternoon, the guides that are employed are just so knowledgeable. It’s a real credit to them.


Iowa is also home to the Bridges of Madison County, made famous by the Meryl Streep /Clint Eastwood movie of the same name. These red sided wooden covered bridges built in the early 1800’s are scattered on the outskirts of the town of Winterset which also  just happens to be the birthplace of the king of the western movies, The Duke, John Wayne. His real name was Marion Robert Morrison born May 26th 1907.




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Over the next few days we travelled further west towards Nebraska. From what we’d heard they wasn’t much in Nebraska, just more dead straight roads, flat terrain, wind, tornados and tumbleweeds. So we turned north and ran along the border taking us to Council Bluffs and the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, which chronicles the enormous undertaking that it took to build this massive transport empire.



The driving of the golden spike in Utah on May 10 1869 signaled the end of the track laying race between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railways. America’s transcontinental railway was born.

Train travel boomed in the 1920’s. It was the elegant and affordable golden era of travel and every night an estimated 50,000 Americans pushed out zz’s in a Pullman sleeping car.

Well the more “well to do” of society did it that way, everyone else relaxed the best way they could further down the train in cattle class.


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Moving on we toddled down the back roads of the Loess Hills Scenic Byway passing wind blown glacial bluff countryside. After driving for hours we both came to the conclusion that this area was very much over rated despite what the guide books say.

Following the Missouri River north for a bit we hit Sioux City where we spent a rainy morning visiting the educational Lewis and Clarke Interpretive Centre and learnt a whole lot more about these two intrepid explorers, their dog Seaman and the party who accompanied then as they mapped out a good chunk of the USA from east to west.

Inching ever westwards we hopped onto the I-90 and crossed the next state line into South Dakota.


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After a whistle stop tour of 1880 Town with it’s mock up of a western town and loads of memorabilia from the movie Dances with Wolves which was filmed in the surrounding area, we drove on to the unique desert landscape of the Badlands National Park.


The Badlands, Mako Sica as it was known by the Lakota Indians, rise abruptly from the flat prairies, her spires, ridges and buttes jutting skywards. Covering 244,000 acres it is barren but beautiful. The heat is incredible and the silence is peaceful. No song of a bird, just the eerie whisper of the wind through the moonscape of gorges and canyons.

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Where rivers once rushed by 65 million years ago today there are just a few dribbling streams. Some animals, bison, pronghorn’s, bighorn sheep and rattlesnakes inhabit the hiking only wilderness area of the park. Although to see them you have to be prepared to be completely self sufficient and hardy enough to rough it for a few days. We sure didn’t feel the need to go down that road just yet.


INFO :  Iowa State Capital Des Moines: Hours, Mon – Fri 8 – 4.30, Sat 9 - 3. Admission and guided tours Free.

Union Pacific Railroad Museum, Council Bluffs Iowa: Hours, Tues – Sat 10- 4. Admission Free.

Lewis and Clarke Interpretive Centre, Sioux City Iowa.: Hours, Mon-Fri 10- 4 Admission Free

Badlands National Park South Dakota : Open Daily. Fees: Entry with Seniors Card Free. All others: $15 per vehicle  valid for 7 days.




Monday, November 24, 2014

USA Coast to Coast. The Ultimate Road Trip. Part 4.

17th - 30th July 2014.

Those who live in Michigan’s Upper Peninsular, the “U.P” as it is known to locals, treat it almost as a separate state aka Yoopers the folks who live here love the place. The weather’s cooler, it’s sparsely populated, the scenery is gorgeous and life is a bit more countrified than the faster pace of lower Michigan.


The giant freeways don’t come up to these parts mostly there are just two lane roads bounded by forests or cherry farms on either side. Cherries are a big thing around here. Producing 75% of the USA’s crop Michigan is known as the Cherry Capital of the country. You can hoof on down to the paddock and pick your own or get them by the basket load or baked in to die for cherry pies from the roadside farm stalls. We didn’t do any picking but know all about the pies as we indulged in the odd one or two. After all, when in Rome …

An intermediate stop for us in U.P was at the Soo Locks in US border town of Sault St Marie. The St Marys' River, the only water connection between Lake Superior and Lake Huron as well as the other Great Lakes, forms part of the border between Canada and the USA.The locks were built to allow a system for vessel movements around the St Marys’ Falls that dominate this part of the river The original smaller locks built by a private company in 1853 were taken over by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1881. Sitting on the US side of the river, today these four locks are an integral part of the seaway that link the upper Great Lakes to Atlantic Ocean.




The locks operate free of charge to all vessels and handle pleasure and commercial vessels up to 1000ft in length. Three of the four locks are 80 ft wide while the larger Poe Lock is 110ft in width. The height drop from Lake Superior to Lake Huron is 21 feet so you can imagine how strong the lock doors have to be to hold back the rushing waters as the locks fill and empty many times a day. We were lucky enough to see one of the 1000 footers squeeze in for a transit while we were there. Over 11,000 vessels carrying 90 million tons of cargo pass through these locks every year. Most of their cargo is iron ore, coal, grain or stone.


Moving on we headed west to Newberry, the Moose capital of Michigan. Apparently there are more moose sightings around here than anywhere else in the state. And for the record, we never saw one.

So apart from peering into the swampy fields intent on spotting one of Bullwinkle’s cousins we did have a very nice sausage sizzle in the local park and visited Oswalds Bear Ranch where we saw a few grizzly and black bears. The brochure says there are 28 bears running free but they were actually free-ranging behind bars.

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Still in Michigan and driving west we stopped at Tahquamemon Falls. Both the upper and lower falls were beautiful with a sparkling stream full of trout running between the two. We wished we’d had a tent to pitch alongside for the night, that would have been a nice change from boring hotel rooms.



Earmarked for the night was a town on the outskirts of Munising. After settling in to our Super 8 Hotel we ventured out for a bite to eat. The pickings were pretty slim so we poked our heads into Sydney’s Shark Bay Bar and Restaurant for a look see. After all how could we drive past a place way out here that was named after our home town.


It was run by a chatty lady named Peggy Sue who, apart from having two Aussie diners in her establishment, had always aspired to go down under but had never made it, so she turned a little piece of the U.P into OZ instead. Decorated to the hilt with Australiana kitsch it made us feel a little homesick.



From here it was on to Pictured Rocks State Park along the shores of Lake Superior. The main event were the towering multicoloured sandstone cliffs. They were pretty but certainly didn’t blow us away. As we didn’t hang around the rocks for long we made a beeline 90 miles further on to an out of the way town named Iron River.

It was Saturday night and the Rodeo was coming to town. We might not have been dressed for the part sans cowboy boots and hats but we sure had a great time watching the show.


The stands were absolutely chockers by 8pm.It seemed the whole town had turned out to support the event or maybe there just wasn’t anything else to do in Iron River on a Saturday night. Anyway as with all big sporting events in the land of the free the night started with the crowd on their feet and hands on their hearts as one of the cowgirls belted out an excellent rendition of the national anthem. Then it was time for some very fancy horse riding, bull wrestling and bucking bronco stuff.

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The show went for about 3 hours with many different events all timed against the clock. There was a real carnival atmosphere to the night. If you ever get the chance to go to a Midwest small town Rodeo then do it. You sure won’t be disappointed.

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Tripping across the state line we found ourselves in Wisconsin, the Badger State.

Wisconsin was given the name the “Badger State” in the 1930’s after the lead miners, called badgers, who lived in shelters in the hillsides much like their animal namesakes.


DSCN2066Now  while Michigan might have been big on cherries,Wisconsin has cheese and lots of it.The WI population, in particular the Green Bay Packers NFL fans, refer to themselves as “cheeseheads”, not the nicest of nicknames but there you go and the states’ license plates sport America’s Dairyland as the tag line and it’s easy to see why. The countryside is speckled with cows, mainly the black and white versions. Wisconsin churns out 2.4 billion pounds of cheddar, gouda and other yummy varieties and from the few that we sampled they were delicious and not always that awful orange colour either.


Since we’d been hot bedding it every night for more than a week we decided to slow down for a bit with a two night stopover on the eastern side of the state. Pretty Door County covers a small peninsular that sits between Lake Michigan and Green Bay WI. We found a little cabin in Bailey’s Harbor which was described on the net as rustic and rustic it certainly was. Blind Freddy must have been the architect as not one wall was straight and we won’t even talk about the sloping floors. My dad would be turned in his grave if he could have see it. Still it served as a good base to explore the peninsular. The county is surrounded by water which makes it pretty enticing for those who live further west in the state. Weekends in summer are busy. The main villages are Bailey’s Harbor, Egg harbor and Sister’s Bay. We drove the entire loop of the county in a day stopping at upmarket Egg Harbor and Sister’s Bay. Egg Harbor had a theme going which as the name suggests included eggs, big painted ones. While up the road Sister bay was more into goats.

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Madison, Wisconsin’s capital is toward the southern end of the state and we  stopped here for a couple of hours to tour the state capital building. Looking  like a mirror image of the Capital building in Washington DC this is the second largest but the tallest state capital building in the country by 16ft 2 inches so we were told.The biggest one being the nation’s capital of course.

Built between the years 1906 and 1917 at a cost of $7.25 million the inside is very ornate with huge murals adorning the walls and amazing glass ceilings giving loads of natural lighting as well as a massive 40,000 light bulbs to boost the interior on dull days.

There are 43 kinds of stone in the building from six countries and eight states. In the rotunda alone there is marble from Greece, Algeria, Italy and France.


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The building is not just a pretty face it’s a workhorse housing the WI Supreme Court of Appeals,the houses of the Senate and the Assembly as well as the Governor's conference and reception rooms. With an excellent guide we had a very interesting couple of hours there.



From here it was on to our cozy pre-booked log cabin in the town of Tomah and another BBQ dinner in the park where our special guests were a flock of Canadian geese.





INFO: Iron River Rodeo U.P Michigan: Fee $20 ( check in advance for fee changes)

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Park : Hours, Open year round. Admission Free

Oswalds Bear Ranch, Newberry Hours:Memorial day – Sept 30th,.Hours 0930-4pm .Fee $20 per vehicle 

Wisconsin State Capital, Madison. Hours: Daily 800 –4pm. Admission Free