Road Trip 2019, Part 1, Chapter 5: The Long Road Home

Day 29:  It’s a pleasant day, with lunch on the patio at the local watering hole with the kids. Yes, they’re still “the kids,” even in their 40s and 50s.  The GPS calls the bar by its old name, but now it’s Cowboy Jacks on the marquee.  Not much has changed except for a mechanical bull next to the bar.

Sunday breakfast at The Egg and I cafe with grandchildren CJ, Travis, and Ashley. The boys are engrossed in video games (CJ, still in high school, is a game programmer), while Ashley converses with her mother and Judy (off camera).

Day 30: The first highlight of the day is breakfast out with all three grandchildren and their mom.  It’s a beautiful day: afterward, we unload our bicycle, deciding to revisit the Pheasant Branch Trail, which we remember as a pleasant fast-paced paved trail winding down the Pheasant Branch Creek through woods and the nature conservancy.  Unfortunately, last year, a flash flood destroyed almost the entire trail.  The many bridges across the creek have been restored, but much of the paving is gone, replaced with gravel. We navigate the gravel portions successfully, continuing this time on the packed gravel trails through the lower Conservancy, and return via city streets, which treats us to traffic and hills.

After our ride, we meet Matt and Darice at Jack’s again, halfway between our motel and their apartment, for post-ride nachos and bebidas.  We’re not sports fans, but the kids are, so we are obligated to watch basketball and baseball when visiting.  We’re confused, but it’s fun to watch the fans enjoying the games.

Surprise, surprise: Matt has become quite a good cook.

Day 31:  Memorial Day thunderstorms are predicted.  We spend the day indoors at our son’s apartment, watching movies and baseball, except for a run to take our grandson back to his mother’s.

Day 32: We’re on the move again.  We stop for fuel, take a wrong turn, and get back on our intended path through a beautiful farming valley we would have missed otherwise.

This large park, on Barron Island, Wisconsin, and the adjacent marina are closed due to flooding on the Mississippi River.

Our intended route home takes the “blue highways,” staying off the freeways as much as possible.  After our slight detour, we end up on US14, the “Frank Lloyd Wright Trail,” through Spring Green, site of Wright’s Taliesin estate and near the controversial “House On The Rock.”  A light rain comes and goes.  It’s a pretty route: we’ve driven the Iowa and Minnesota sides of the Mississippi before, but not this road.  US14 doesn’t follow the river, but winds up and down the valleys and over the Wisconsin River.  We don’t stop at the attractions, but proceed on to La Crosse and into Minnesota, over the flood-swollen Mississippi.  We stop for lunch at Winona, at the Acoustic Cafe.  I know where it is; we’ve been there before.

After lunch, we stop at a bakery and indulge in pastries familiar from my childhood in Minnesota, before heading up through the cliffs and deeply carved valleys of the Driftless region, so-called because it lacks the glacial drift that covers the plains to the west.  We emerge onto the prairie, still following US 14.   I grew up in southern Minnesota, on the plain, and never knew much of this scenic and rugged region until we started traveling through it after a son moved to Wisconsin.

We refuel at New Ulm, where I took my polka band in 1959 to play in the Polka Days celebration.  We were too young then to take part in the beer fest that lined Main Street, but one highlight was jamming with an all-girl polka band, which would have been more fun had we not jazzed up our repertoire: the girls stopped playing to scribble our Polish-style improvisations onto their sheet music.  There are geeks in every endeavor, and we were obviously polka geeks, not ladies men.  Later, we met “Whoopee John” Wilfahrt, leader of a popular band, whose recordings played all the time on the local radio station, KNUJ, my mother’s favorite station.  We understood the “NU” stood for New Ulm, but someone in the FCC apparently had a sense of humor, granting a call sign that spelled “Junk” backwards.  Some folks just don’t appreciate ethnic music.

We go a bit farther on 14 than we intended: many roads are closed around the Minnesota River Valley, taking us on detour out of our way through Sleepy Eye, a name I remember from childhood, though I can’t remember passing through before.  Our intended destination is Fort Ridgely State Park, on a creek feeding into the Minnesota River, north of Sleepy Eye.  The campground is empty. There are mosquitoes.  There is a pit toilet and two sani-cans.  It’s a bit spooky, and the fee is $37.  We drive on, deciding a motel for a few dollars more is a better option.

We turn west again at Fairfax.  In 1947-48, I lived just east of Fairfax.  We rented a house on a farm with no electricity, and no running water.  I remember my father taking me to a wild game and bison feed at the Veterans of Foreign Wars club in Fairfax, in the fall of 1947, where we sampled everything.  It would be many decades before I tasted such again.   My uncles hunted game birds, but not deer.  We moved south to our old home town the next winter, after my sister Jane was born.  The Rural Electrification Act had passed in 1936, but the high-voltage towers didn’t march across the prairie until 1948, on the state highway to the south, out of reach.

At Morton, another tiny town, to the west at the junction with US 71, we stop for the night at the town’s only motel, convenience store, and gas station.  We had decided to be spontaneous in our trip back.  Initially, we thought we might take the usual Great Circle route to the Northwest, I-94, through St. Paul and Minneapolis, spend some time in the north lakes country, and then across the High Line through Montana, one of our usual routes when we have time.  I hadn’t contacted my cousin who lives north of Minneapolis, or Judy’s cousin in North Dakota, so we had no obligation to drop in, and choose a different route.  Our spontaneous route takes us close to other cousins, but  we’re getting weary and don’t want to impose, so we’ve not made plans to see everyone along the way.  We’re trying to find different ways we haven’t been, which is getting difficult, as there are only so many east-west routes that don’t meander, so it’s inevitable to repeat some segments.

Day 33: We leave early from the Morton Inn, heading toward Redwood Falls for coffee. The convenience store offers brewed coffee and packaged pastries to motel guests, but we’re not fond of such fare.  US 71 somehow doesn’t look familiar, until I see the old road and steel trestle bridge to the side, the bridge blocked at both ends. Ah, we’re on a new road.  We drove this way often when I was growing up, between Jackson and my aunt and uncle’s place just north of Morton. One of my cousins still lives on the old homestead, but we didn’t know we were coming this way until we did, so we don’t stop. We’d come north on this road a few years ago, and had found a funky coffee shop in Redwood Falls, the Calf Fiend Café, and we’re headed there now. But, we take a left turn into Old Town this time, and the Blue Highway time warp catches us: the Calf Fiend is there on Main Street, all right, but in this universe it won’t open for business until next week. The old highways are like that.  Maybe the café is seasonal, or simply closed for vacation over Memorial Day, or maybe we’re months or years earlier than when we passed by before.  Time is fluid on the old roads.

We turn around and head west for Granite Falls. More road closures send us yet on other back roads, this one past a monument for the 1862 Indian War. My hometown has a similar monument. In 1862, the newly-minted State of Minnesota sent their entire state militia off to join the Union Army—including 13-year-old Criness Larue, as a drummer to keep cadence on the long march to battle—leaving the frontier undefended. A faction in the local indigenous population was unhappy with the government arrangement with the trading agents, the latter withholding payments due the tribes according to the treaties.  The militants took advantage of the reduced military presence and attacked many settlements, killing settlers. The outcome, when the U.S. Army intervened later that year, was a mass hanging in Mankato of 38 members of the warrior band, the largest mass execution in U.S. History, along with hundreds jailed.  The surviving several thousand members of the bands involved were then deported to reservations in Nebraska and South Dakota territories, where their descendants remain to this day.

Young Criness, my great-grandfather, survived the war to grow up and, in 1879, marry Lucy Tanner Koon, whose father, Dennis Weed Tanner, was killed at Harpers Ferry, serving  with the 5th New York infantry. Lucy’s stepfather and half-siblings died in one of the epidemics in the 1870s, and what was left of the family resettled in southern Minnesota.

We haven’t given up on our search for coffee. Granite Falls doesn’t have a coffee shop, but the next town, Montevideo (pronounced Mon-tah-Vid-AY-oh, not “mount a video”) does, and we soon roll up in front. It is open in this space-time continuum. The barista, a friendly woman about our age, says she grew up in Iowa, near where I went to college. It always helps to try not to be a stranger when passing through small town America.

In addition to some very good espresso, I snag a bar made from toasted rice and barley breakfast cereal and topped with a peanut-butter/chocolate mixture. “Bars” are as popular with Minnesotans as “hotdish” and Jello salads, with various puffy breakfast cereals a common main ingredient. Ordering one makes me feel right at home. Eating the gooey, over-sweet confection reminds me why I left.

Leo’s Good Food, Redfield, South Dakota., on U.S. Highway 212.  Sandwich prices were south of $5, and the menu was from the 1950s. We estimate most of this region is locked in a time warp sometime in the 1980s. On our last trip across northern South Dakota on US 12, we ate in a restaurant that had posters that declared “This is Reagan Country,” as if the Great Communicator was still in charge.

Soon, we cross into South Dakota and back a few decades, on the poorly maintained roads characteristic of Red states. We stop for lunch at Redfield, pick up a couple of Bavarian Cream-filled Bismarcks at the local bakery, against our better judgement, then cross the street to the recommended café for lunch. The menu hadn’t changed in 60 years, nor the prices in 20.  An elderly man comes up, puts his hand on my shoulder, and cracks Santa Claus jokes, obviously referring to my full white beard.  I respond with my standard line, “You must have mistaken me for my brother, Nick.  I’m Bob Claus. I deal in lumps of coal.”  He says, “I thought there had to be two…”   He takes up residence at the end booth and orders his usual.

Judy orders a breaded chicken cutlet sandwich and I order soup and an egg salad sandwich. We simply don’t eat this way, unless we get trapped in the 1950s in a Blue Highway time warp, where plant-based food is relegated to salads and over-cooked sides served with gravy and pot roast. We share a slice of Strawberry Pie to fortify ourselves for the antique lunch. Returning to the car, we realize the Bismarcks won’t survive the afternoon, so we wolf those down, too, the pudding-like filling threatening to gush out and down our fronts. Finishing the calorie-laden treats unsoiled, we push on down the road toward the 21st century.

The Dakotas are relatively flat through the Plains, so snow melt and spring rain collects in low spots and doesn’t go anywhere, mostly, once the ground is saturated. What does run into the rivers and creeks quickly overflows into the fields and forests before proceeding downstream to bring misery to folks living along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers in states farther south.

After a long time, we cross the Missouri River, here at the midpoint of Lake Oahe, dammed just above the capital, Pierre (“Pier,” not “Pee-Air”), snapping back into the 21st century, but an hour earlier, in the Mountain Time zone. After passing through a large reservation and getting into a more hilly region, we arrive quite early at Faith, where we had planned to camp in the city park. While the park is reasonably priced, there isn’t much to do for the rest of the afternoon, so we walk around the park until we get a good enough cell signal to check out other possibilities.

Red sunset at Llewellyn Johns State Recreation Area, South Dakota, courtesy of out-of-control wildfires in Alberta and Northwest Territories, up to 2000 km away.

We end for the night at a state recreation area campsite an hour’s travel north. Despite being the only ones in the campground, we have to call the 800 number to reserve a site and pay for it, including the service fee, so the cheap $15 campground is a couple of dollars more than we thought, plus tax, plus a car permit, which is separate, cash in an envelope deposited in a vault next to the reservation directions. At this point, $10 for the city park, including flush toilets sounds better, back at Faith, but we’re here.  Kathy, the reservation clerk, doesn’t have a clue where we are at, because she is in San Diego and has never been to South Dakota, except she’s heard of Mount Rushmore and thinks we might be in Custer State Park, 330 km to the south.  I have to spell the name, “Llewellyn Johns, Double-Ell E Double You E Double Ell Why En, Jay Oh Aitch En Ess, just like it sounds (snicker).” Nevertheless, the setting is pleasant, there are birds singing, the sunset is awesome, and the mosquitoes have been slow to find us. And, we are a bit closer to home.

Day 34: We wake to find we have neighbors, another camper, in after dark.  We wonder if they bothered to go through the reservation system: we had very little phone reception and no data connection to use the web site. We quietly break camp and drive north on the under-construction highway, which has construction delays, gravel, and potholes, to Lemmon, where I clean bugs off the windscreen while Judy shops for breakfast at the supermarket. Then, we are off on US 12, angling briefly up into North Dakota before crossing into Montana, where we stop at Lawler’s in Baker, for the only espresso we’ve seen since Minnesota. We’d been here before, too. Strange to have favorite stops thousands of kilometers apart, in small towns.

Makoshika State Park, Glendive, Montana. This panorama covers about 270 degrees of breathtakingly  tortured loess formations, a treasure trove of fossils on the Dinosaur Trail. The other 90 degrees is the town of Glendive, immediately behind us, but behind the bluff.

We head north now, to Wibaux (wee-BOW), through changing terrain, and briefly on the Interstate to Glendive and the gem of Montana’s State Parks, Makoshika (ma-koh-SHI-kah). The park is closed for repaving. After 20 years of living and traveling through Montana, the day we decide to visit, it’s closed. But, one trail is open, the Bluebird Trail, that winds up the hills behind the visitor center. It is a true gem, that reminds us of the Painted Rocks in central Oregon. If the roads had not been closed, we would have missed this jewel of a trail.

Lunching out of our food stash, we head northwest for the long, lonely run across Eastern Montana on MT 200. Montana is one of the larger states, but has one of the smallest populations: like Wyoming, it has only one Representative in Congress, but two senators, like everywhere else, so a Montanan’s vote is worth about eight California votes on the national stage. Being large, it also has a lot of roads. Given the ratio of roads to cars, statistically, one should meet another car on the road about every 10-15 kilometers. Since the freeways have the most traffic, old blue highways like MT 200 have fewer than average. The highway climbs westward in a series of ridges with rollers between. We top one after another without seeing another vehicle in the distance.  The empty roads bring on a sense of complacency which is quickly dispelled as we encounter memorials along the road, about every 10-15 kilometers, where previous travelers had met, with disastrous results.  The old markers are simple white crosses, but there are poignant newer shrines adorned with flowers and teddy bears, tended by still-grieving families.  Montana still has one of the highest highway fatality rates in the nation.

In late afternoon, the hills become forested as the highway climbs higher into the Judith Mountains, an island mountain range in the middle of the Judith Basin.  At long last, we come to Lewistown, self-check-in to an RV park, and end the day at a Mexican Restaurant, the usual safe bet for meatless meals in cattle country, but only if you are vigilant.

We know we are in Montana because I order a Bean and Cheese Burrito, and the waiter writes down Deluxe Beef and Bean. The burrito has a strange taste and texture, which I conclude must not be plant-based. We’ve seen thousands of Steak Steers and Hamburger Cows across the prairie, and one has somehow ended up in my food. But, I’m hungry, so I eat it. Why people persist in grinding up animals and adding them to their food escapes me, but it is almost impossible to get any meal in the mid-west or mountain west without some sort of animal parts mixed into it.  When we ask about meatless options, the response is usually, “Somebody gotta eat them cows.”  A line of humorous postcards poking fun at Montanans had one showing steak-wielding men “deprogramming” a vegetarian. It’s true. I imagine the waiter didn’t believe what he heard, so served me what an ordinary Montana man would find acceptable. No one has ever accused me of being ordinary, but it’s nice to be mistaken for being so, once in a while. After all, I was wearing a Montana ball cap. Next time, though, I will be more careful, and possibly complain. But, I’ve reverted after a couple of days traveling through Minnesota: Minnesotans talk about misfortune a lot, not to complain, but to demurely boast how stoically they endured the experience.

Day 35: Up early, we head downtown Lewistown to the Rising Trout Cafe, where we get excellent espresso and bagels. As we head out of town, we have a brief scare: the truck motor quits as we turn into a rest area. It’s been running well, but a bit rough at idle. It restarts, and we continue on.

The haze that has been building since mid-South Dakota is thick now: we can barely see the foothills of the Rockies ahead. We learn there are early-season fires in Alberta, to the north, which have blanketed our route from Minnesota to Washington.  I’ve been working on a climate disaster novel set in 2076.  It appears I’m about 50 years too late in my projections.  It’s here now.

At Great Falls, we stop again for coffee and fuel for the truck. We pass through a few light rain sprinkles, climb over Rogers Pass (1700 meters), past the turn-off to where Unibomber Ted Kazinski’s cabin used to be, and into Lincoln for lunch. The Pit Stop looks like the best bet, and we are not disappointed. Judy orders the special, a tuna melt, being a true “road kill” vegetarian, and I order a veggie personal pizza.

It seems strange to pass through Missoula without stopping, but we’re anxious to get home this weekend, so we continue on, grab ice cream at the travel center in St. Regis, and drive through rain over Lookout Pass.  We stop for the night at Cataldo, where there is an RV park next to the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. They have one RV spot left: we take it.

We unload our bike and pedal east to milepost 44, where we turned around on the freezing morning we last rode the trail on Day 2. We reverse, riding past the campground, when we spot a moose on the river bank. Several other campers are harassing the moose, which moves in our direction, giving us a good photo-op. It appears to be a young female calf, more curious than aggressive.  We continue down the trail, hoping to complete yet another substantial segment.

Coeur d’ Alene River at Cataldo, with threatening thunderheads not so far away. Fortunately, they passed to the right.

Just after we pass milepost 40, the dark clouds ahead  dump rain; lightning flashes and thunder peals overhead. We crank on toward milepost 39 at top speed, reverse and sprint back to the campground, setting what, for us, is a speed record for a 15-km course, 20 km/hr, our best in at least 10 years.  We quickly load the bike in the truck.  The rain goes another direction, but clouds still threaten into the evening. But, we’ve chewed off another 10 miles (16 km) of the 144-mile (230 km) round-trip, leaving the section between mileposts 29 and 39 and the section between mileposts 58 and 72 for another time.

Day 36: We’re up at dawn, before the end of “quiet time” in the campground, and slip away, headed for home.  We refuel at Coeur d’ Alene, usually the source of cheaper fuel, but this time the price is higher than we paid in South Dakota or Montana.  We remember that “cheaper” is relative to Washington, so we hope to get home on this fill.  When we travel, cooking in camp on an overnighter isn’t time-efficient, so we grab breakfast with coffee at Starbucks and press on, stopping again in Ellensburg for coffee and lunch.

We’ve seen a lot of scenery over the last month, but driving over the Cascades into Western Washington is always the best part, not only because it’s jaw-dropping scenic when the mountains are out, as they are today, but because we’re close to home. The growing traffic congestion as we descend into the Puget Sound region is not the best part, however.   At the end of four days travel on mostly back roads, averaging over 625 km a day, we’re ready to be done traveling for a week.  We arrive home in late afternoon to find the rhododendrons nearly bloomed out, but the weigela is in full bloom, the peonies are ready to pop, and the hardy geranium have spread and bloomed.  It’s good to be home.

Statistics:

36 days, 35 nights: 13 nights at timeshares, 1 AirB&B, 4 camping, 2 nights with friends,  15 nights in motels.  12 days in Canada.

Truck: 6900 miles (11000 km); bicycle: 173 miles (280 km).  12 bike rides, 20 days point-to-point driving, 90 – 860 km/day.

Part 2, British Columbia, starts next week: stay tuned.