Tag Archives: Wisconsin

Iconic America

My last trip to the US was supposed to start slow and easy, with a relaxing drive through Wisconsin, before reaching Upper Michigan, my intended main destination. However it turned out to be anything but a slow start. The fun begun right at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. As usual during my travels in America I made the car rental agency desk my first point of call. I had reservation for the usual full size car as I never rent anything small here. I know, I know, I travel alone you say, I could take something small and environmentally friendly. But what’s the point? I don’t travel to America to save the planet. Anyway, I couldn’t believe my luck when the agent asked me if I would like to upgrade to Ford Mustang for a small fee. You must be kidding me, of course I wanted to. In fact I tried to reserve the Mustang a couple of times before, and always got an answer that they were sold out. So you can imagine my surprise at the fact they had so many of them available that they even asked what colour I would like. Red or black. Brilliant. Just for the records, I chose the black one.

Driving a Mustang is fun. First it is one of America’s icons. Second, it is a fast car which handles surprisingly well (unlike some other American cars), and of course it looks great and sounds even better. In other words, it is a one damn piece of a mean machine and I loved it. After few days in Chicago (about which I’ll write another time) it was time to head north. At last! Out there, on the open highways out of town, it was the natural environment for the Mustang. As I wrote before, car culture is an important part of America and one of the aspects why I like travelling there so much. So you can imagine how much fun I had driving Ford Mustang on the quiet rural roads. Even stopping for the red lights was fun. Well, to be precise, accelerating when the lights turned green was fun. Some of the roads I chose were so small and unimportant that I really had to use my detailed state atlas to find my way. Now, before you even ask, I don’t use the satellite navigation. It makes people dumb and you never know what interesting you might miss nearby. Besides, I am a map geek.

My first real stop in Wisconsin was the city of Milwaukee. That’s where another great American icon was born and is still produced up to today. I am of course referring to the legendary Harley Davidson motorbike. I guess (and hope) I don’t have to explain how big a brand it is. In fact it’s not just a brand, it is more of a religion for some. Well, maybe not a religion but definitely a symbol of America. Even if I don’t belong to really crazy or devoted fans (in fact I can’t even ride a motorbike….yet), I still decided to visit The Harley Davidson Museum.

This modern (opened in 2008) museum is located in a former industrial area just south of downtown. The simple but elegant building resembles more of a factory or a warehouse rather than swanky museum, but I think it is actually a good thing. It corresponds with the blue collar origin of the company and also lets the exhibition to be more important than the architecture.

You realize it can’t be the usual attraction as soon as you see that the parking for the motorbikes is twice as large as the one for cars. Also, if you arrive on a four wheels you have to park further away from the entrance than bikers. I guess for some people it must be more like a shrine than a museum. But it is still a great, well designed and informative place. Among the many exhibits there is the oldest surviving Harley Davidson bike. There are in fact hundreds of Harleys of different ages, in all shapes and colours, including replicas of the ones from the movie Easy Rider (originals were destroyed during filming), as well as the “Fat Boy”, motorbike. Arnold Schwarzenegger rode one of these great sounding machines in the Terminator II movie and it is probably my favourite Harley. There is a gallery focusing on the Harley Davidson in popular culture, as well as the one focusing on the history of the company and its designs. In my opinion, one of the most interesting (and fun) parts of the museum is the engine room. Various classic engines are displayed on a big wall and you can listen to the sound of most of them using touch screens. And what a sound they make. Deep, strong and rough, for some better than most music. The best photo opportunity comes right at the end of the tour when in a big room you can sit on one of a dozen or so motorbikes fixed to the floor. Also while there you can watch short films from some of the best drives in America. It is a great room to just sit down, think and dream. Overall the museum is a great place to learn about Harley Davidson and how big a role it plays in American culture.

Milwaukee itself is an usual mid sized American city. I’m sure it is a nice place to live but to be honest I didn’t find it particularly exciting or interesting. So after a short walk around downtown I hit the road and headed north again.

My next destination was Green Bay, home to another iconic American institution. The Green Bay Packers football team. Now, just to clarify, I mean American football not normal football which Americans, rather confusingly, call soccer.

Most people outside America have very little knowledge of this sport. The rules look complex at the first glance and a usual game has plenty of commercial breaks. But once you learn the rules and start watching you can quickly realize it is in fact a fast paced and very entertaining game. I myself learned the rules from Wikipedia couple of years ago just to be able to watch the Super Bowl (broadcasted in Britain by the BBC) and gradually become a fan of the Green Bay Packers.

Green Bay is a rather sleepy mid sized American city and most people (including many Americans) would probably never have heard about it if not for its legendary football team. It is the only major American sport team owned by the public. It has around 110 – 120 thousands shareholders and no one can own majority of the shares. Due to its statute the club has to stay in the Green Bay and shareholders don’t even get privileges in obtaining tickets. Its structure must be one of the reasons why the club has developed such a large base of dedicated followers even though it is located in such a small and unremarkable place. In fact due to its popularity it is virtually impossible to get season tickets. There are at the moment over 80 thousands people on the waiting list and with the current rate of annual turnaround you would have to wait more than 900 years to get hold of the season ticket. 900 hundred years!!! Can you believe it? During my visit I met a person who inherited his ticket from his dad and the ticket is in family hands for over 50 years. Apparently it’s common to pass tickets to your children or to put a newly born on the waiting list. Totally crazy.

Apart from its interesting structure it is still one of the most successful teams in history as well as current champion of the NFL. So while travelling around this part of Wisconsin I simply had to visit the Lambeau Filed, home to the Packers. Opened in 1957 and modernized many times since then it is a 73 thousands seat modern stadium which still has plenty of character. First, it doesn’t have even a partial roof. You might say it’s nothing special but consider that NFL season starts in October and ends with Super Bowl final in February. That means games in the middle of the harsh Wisconsin winter. It must be a remarkable sight, to see 73 thousands people cheering their team in a heavy snowfall or freezing temperatures, or both. Second, there are no comfy plastic seats, just hard aluminium benches. The guide told us it is simply to increase the capacity. Yes, the Lambeau Field is definitely not a place for softies. One of the best parts of the stadium tour is when you walk through the dark, undecorated, concrete tunnel which the home players use to enter the field. In that moment hidden speakers let you hear the roar of 73 thousands fans which greet players during every game. Believe me it is a damn amazing feeling, even if you know you are entering an empty stadium in reality. There is also a huge fan shop where you can buy all the possible gadgets associated with the Packers. Clothing (for people or pets), mugs, magnets, books, flags, even a tooth brush or a shower curtain, truly amazing choice.

Outside the Lambeau Field devotion to the team is visible all over the town. Lamp posts and traffic lights are all decorated with tiny football helmets and many streets have names of the famous past players and coaches. Team flags hang outside many of the houses and stickers decorate the cars. I have never before seen such a connection between a sports team and community. Definitely not in America There is even a plastic dinosaur wearing the Packers colours outside of the local gas station. Crazy.

From Green Bay I headed north again. To fully use my Mustang potential I chose the state highway 55 instead of some other major roads. I have to admit that being a map and road infrastructure geek, I did my research and knew beforehand what to expect. I even made sure it wasn’t a state-designated truck route with STAA authorized dimensions. Also, like most of the local highways, it was not really heavily patrolled by the highway police. The road was narrow, empty and crossing a nicely undulating landscape, in other words, a classic American drive and perfect territory to drive fast. At this moment it’s probably wise to shut up and skip the details so as not to incriminate myself. All I can say, I had a huge grin on my face for the most of the day. Finally, after a few hours I reached the border of yet another fascinating state, Michigan. But that’s subject for another story or two.

Mississippi River

Mississippi is difficult word. Especially for non native English speaker, like me, all those double consonants were impossible to memorize. Only after some years I learnt how to spell it. It is also one of those names which start imagination. When I was young I was looking at maps of USA and this great river was always catching my attention. Then there were books, (anyone remembers Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer) and movies which placed Mississippi deep in my head. Finally, last summer, I decided to visit central USA, including the Mississippi river valley.

I started my trip in rather unusual place which was Davenport, Iowa. Now, it is not where most people start travelling alongside the Mississippi River. Iowa in general is not a state where tourists are going in droves. In my case I had to cross it on my way from the great plains of Dakotas and Nebraska to the Great River itself. Davenport didn’t really look like city worth stopping, (apart from the night in a cheap motel), so I immediately crossed to Moline, Illinois, which I would probably pass as well but I got lost. But let’s start from the beginning. I got off the highway to stop at the Illinois welcome center. Most states in the US operate tourist information centers alongside the major interstates. They are usually real mines of useful, as well as useless, information, brochures and glossy magazines. After getting all I needed I was trying to go back to the interstate 80 but somehow ended up in Moline. Driving up and down, trying to get back to the freeway, I found place called the John Deere pavilion. John Deere is one of the American icons. In the Midwest John Deere baseball cap is as important part of the local clothing as Stetson hat is in the American west. Pavilion itself, apart from great gift shop full of toy machines and branded clothing, offered a chance of getting into some seriously big machines. Where else could you try how it feels to sit in the driver’s seat of a combine harvester or the 8345RT tractor with caterpillars instead of wheels? If you have even a bit of child left in you, don’t skip this place!

From Moline I used main roads away from the river to get to Hannibal, Missouri where the real trip along the Mississippi started. Hannibal is small, quintessentially American, town famous as a place where Mark Twain grew up. The town became inspiration for fictional town of St. Petersburg in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Nowadays the biggest attractions in town are those connected to the great writer himself like his boyhood home, museum or J.M. Clemens Justice of the peace office (Mark’s father office). But the best way of experiencing the town is to wonder aimlessly around its few streets enjoying lazy atmosphere. South of town there is a vista point on top of the high bluff which offers great view of the Mississippi valley and the town of Hannibal itself. Similarly good view you can find north of downtown from the lighthouse. Yes, there is a lighthouse in Hannibal, thousands of kilometers from the nearest ocean.

The best way of following Mississippi is to drive the Great River Road, a well marked scenic byway, running almost the entire length of the river. It uses local, county and state highways on both banks of the river as close to the water as possible. Navigation is made easy by signs featuring steering wheel but it helps to have some detailed map as this road can be a bit more complicated than you might expect from a popular tourist route. I decided to follow eastern branch of it which offered a taste of the real rural Illinois. Fields, farms, small towns, lush greenery and heat.

After passing towns Quincy and Warsaw I arrived to Nauvoo. It is small town, with population just above one thousand, but historically quite important. In 1839 group of Mormons settled there, among them Joseph Smith founder of the religion and Brigham Young, leader who after death of Smith led Mormons west to Utah territory. Because of that it is a place where you can probably see more Utah license plates than anywhere outside the Utah itself. Today Nauvoo is a very well preserved town with number of historic houses and local businesses (like black smith shop, bakery, post office or gunsmith shop) looking almost exactly as they did 160 years ago. There is also replica of the historic temple. Build in 2002 but looks identical as the original one.

North of Nauvoo I continued along the Great River Road. It wasn’t the most spectacular part of it. Land was flat and I couldn’t see river from the road as it was hidden behind the tall levees. Finally, I spend a night on some god forgotten campground where mosquitoes wanted to eat me alive.
In northern Illinois things got much more interesting. High bluffs appeared on the both sides of the river with road squeezed between them and the Mississippi itself. One of the best places to explore this varied topography is Mississippi Palisades State Park. Short hiking trails lead from parking lots to scenic overlooks from where you can see the river valley stretching for miles north and south. Apart from a spectacular topography, the northern Illinois (and Iowa on the western bank of Mississippi) offer interesting small towns like Fulton, Clinton, Savanna or Sabula, the last one located on the island in the middle of the river.

The most famous of them is actually few miles of the Mississippi. Galena at its peak in the mid-19th century was booming mining community with population of 14,000. Now, with only 3,500 inhabitants, it is much more quiet place. Its downtown is almost completely preserved and is full of historic houses and churches located on a hilly terrain. One of the main attractions is home of general Ulysses S. Grant, the civil war hero. The whole town is a perfect place for lazy stroll, doing some shopping, or having a nice meal. It is also very photogenic but the best time to take pictures is in the earlier part of the day as it is located mostly on the north-western slopes and in the afternoon you will have sun facing you. After Galena I left Mississippi river valley for a while and moved inland to southern Wisconsin. My destination was town of New Glarus. As the name suggests it was established as a Swiss community and even now in the countryside surrounding the highway leading there you can spot farms proudly displaying Swiss flags next to the American ones. The town itself offers quite bizarre experience with some pseudo-alpine buildings. In some moments you can get really confused. Are we still in USA? But all this unashamed commercialization hide community with really interesting history. You can explore it in Swiss Historical Village which preserve some original wooden buildings from the early pioneer times. At the end you can have pizza in pizzeria Ticino, which looks exactly like moved from the Alps.

After continuing my detour to Madison, where I visited Wisconsin State Capitol, it was time to get back to the river. In Wisconsin the Great River Road follows state highway 35 and it is a truly spectacular drive. One place which you shouldn’t miss is the Wyalusing State Park at the confluence of Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers, just south of the Prairie Du Chien. It offers spectacular views from the 150m tall bluffs, on top of which you can find prehistoric Indian mounds. Campground in the park has some of the best tent sites I have seen in my life. They are located right on the bluffs edge so you can see spectacular views practically from your tent. Unfortunately they have to be reserved in advance, so I couldn’t stay there. That caused other problems. There was some convention or gathering going on the weekend I was there so all the hotels in Prairie Du Chien, and also in town of McGregor on the Iowa side of river, were full. I ended up driving over 20 miles west, inland into rural Iowa, to the town of Postville where I stayed in the worst motel in my life. Doggy, dirty, creepy, with bad service and not as cheap as you could imagine.

Anyway, the following morning weather was great and I got back to the river in a good mood indeed. North of Prarie Du Chien lays probably the most spectacular part of the Mississippi Valley. Almost all the way to the outskirts of St. Paul (about 200 miles away) you encounter one amazing vista after another one. The valley is also dotted with small towns like Ferryville, Genoa, Stockholm, De Soto or Alma. They usually contain few houses, a bar or two, local shop, sometimes a gas station, all which makes them very tranquil. It is also fun to cross the river on some narrow and steep steel bridges linking Wisconsin with northern Iowa and southern Minnesota. It is big attraction especially for road and bridge geeks like me. One of the best spots to enjoy the great view of the Mississippi valley is Garvin Heights City Park in Winona, Minnesota. Located just off the US Hwy 61, this view point offers an amazing vista of Winona, which is located in the middle of the valley, and the surrounding countryside. Equally good view you can find from Wabasha Overlook at the outskirts of the town of Wabasha, also in Minnesota just few miles up the river. The difference is that if you can drive to the viewpoint in Winona you have to climb to the one in Waabasha. The landscape is really impressive all the way to suburbs of the Twin Cities.

It was my dream for many years to follow the Mississippi river. I red books about it, explored maps, watched movies etc. And I have to say I wasn’t disappointed seeing it in reality.