There is something to be said for the 2 week vacation. One week vacations seem to be the standard, whether for work, personal or financial reasons. But with two weeks you find another level of satisfaction. When you hit the Saturday of the first week, instead of your mind straying to returning to work and responsibility, you are overcome with ease knowing that you still have an another, entire week to go. With that, we just wrapped up our wonderful 2 week family vacation to the great states of Minnesota and Wisconsin. For me it was also another step towards completing a “bucket list” goal of visiting all 50 states, with Minnesota being state 48 and Wisconsin being state 49.
We got an early start with a flight out of Newark airport to the Minneapolis airport, and then took a scenic four hour drive to the north country, “land of 10,000 lakes” section of northern Minnesota. Our first destination was the historic Burntside Lodge in Ely, Minnesota. The Lodge has been listed in the book 1,000 Places To See Before You Die, but that in itself shouldn’t be the reason to visit, for there is so much more.
Our fantastic 1920’s era cabin echoed an aura of rustic chic, and my son fell in love fell in love with his room, an altered porch with wall-to-wall windows and direct water views. With a reputation that preceded it, the stay at Burntside still managed to exceed everything I had imagined about staying in a cabin on a Minnesota lake. Wonderful accommodations, gracious hosts, and a fully available marina with kayaks, canoes, pontoon boats. Boating a 12 mile long wild lake with 125 islands, and a world class dining experience that included an almond infused dessert that was one of the best of my life. Scenic waterfall at Kawishiwi Falls, great hiking at Bass Lake and Dry Lake, a tour of an old mine at Soudan with the charming character of a guide, an ex-miner, named Carl. Teaching my son to play solitaire on a quiet rainy day at the cabin. The distinctive call of the loon. The smile on my son’s face when I let him drive the pontoon boat across open waters. Watching my son belt out Country Roads (by John Denver), while my wife drives a boat for her first time, cruising along Burntside Lake in the glorious sunlight, was a defining moment. The Lodge is situated such that the sun sets on the far side of the lake, making for several memorable sunsets, including one of the best of my life on the first night of our stay. At Ely we also all picked up the Midwestern phrase of “you bet’cha” or “you bet” as a replacement for “thank you”, something that my son never tired of saying for the rest of the trip with an ear-to-ear smile on his face.
After the week of quiet, we then hit the road for a 6 hour drive down to Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, which included a lunch stop on Lake Superior at Duluth, with the destination of five days at “the Dells”, advertised as the “Waterpark Capital of the World.” After having been in town for a few days I turned to my wife and said “This town is so gaudy that it works.” A 40-foot dinosaur at a gas station, an upside down White House, and at least 4 water parks all claiming to be the largest in the United States. Go-karts, mini-golf and arcades at every turn. Taking in the Tommy Bartlett show, one of the best live shows I have seen in a long time, complete with world class water-skiing followed by some comedic and stunt acts. The highlight was certainly the water-ski stunts, with Aqua the clown that had my son laughing out loud, but a close second would definitely be TJ Howell, making his entry on his famous “rocket cycle”, juggling chain saws and his comedic, side-splitting “little man” skit that brought me and wife to tears.
We then headed west to the river port city of La Crosse, Wisconsin to spend a few days. The stay included a stop at the Grandad Bluff where it seemed you could see to infinity, a paddle boat trip with the La Crosse Queen along the “mighty” Mississippi River and a stop at the World’s Largest Six-Pack. Although my first impression of the city as we drove in was not a good one, I quickly warmed up to its charms with a concert at the riverside park, and more restaurants than would seem could be supported by a city of 52,000 people. If I were to associate Wisconsin with a food, it would of course be cheese, perhaps cheese curds, and maybe even beer, but we quickly learned, to my delight, the small pleasures of warm, soft pretzels with cheese that seemed to be available at every restaurant.
The drive back to Minneapolis brought us along the famous Great River Road, and included a stop at the National Eagle Center in the small riverside town of Wabasha, Minnesota. Everyone seemingly has a favorite animal, and for whatever reason mine is the bald eagle. Learning about these iconic creatures, seeing them close up, was well worth the visit. Although not for everyone, the live educational event that in part had an eagle eat a dead rat was interesting, although my son was not as big a fan, exclaiming “that’s disgusting!”
In preparation for the trip I made yet another epic road trip mix. Hope you like it.
Yuma – Justin Townes Earle
Nobody Knows My Trouble – Ryan Bingham
Ain’t No Reason – Brett Dennan
I’m Goin’ Down – Trampled By Turtles
Lungs (Live) – Townes Van Zandt
Aunt Peg’s New Old Man – Robbie Fulks
Unknown Legend – Shovels & Rope & Shakey Graves
Time To Move On – Tom Petty
Telephone Road – Steve Earle
Valley Road – James McMurty
Rio Grande – Dave Alvin
Waitin’ Around To Die – Townes Van Zandt
Dollar Bill Blues – Townes Van Zandt
Pancho and Lefty – Townes Van Zandt
Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight – Rodney Crowell
Seven Times the Wind – John Stewart
Gold – John Stewart
Crazy Eddie’s Last Hurrah – Reckless Kelly
Seven Nights In Eire – Reckless Kelly
Overall, it was the kind of trip that hits your soul. Witnessing the majesty of Americana and life on the road, and to do it as a family made it that much more special. It hit the peaceful moments of life on a lake, the chaotic fun of an over-the-top tourist town and a step back in time at a river port city. For me there is something about classic road trips that really makes me live in the moment, seemingly forgetting about any troubles, and reminding me of one of my favorite songs for the road, Windfall by Son Volt:
May the wind take your troubles away,
May the wind take your troubles away,
Both feet on the floor, two hands on the wheel,
May the wind take your trouble away.
Till the next time on the road . . .