Category Archives: Minnesota

A Continental Crossroads

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Many places refer to themselves as a “crossroads” of some kind. In fact, every sign welcoming motorists to the state of Indiana refers to the state as the “Crossroads of America”. Indiana’s claim to being the “Crossroads of America” has to do with some of the earliest long distance highways, including the Lincolnway, which pre-dates Route 66, passing through Indiana. Even now it is a place many have to drive through to get to destinations like Chicago, Detroit, and Louisville.

Duluth’s claim to be a “continental crossroads” seems even more substantial than Indiana’s. The North American continent includes Canada and Mexico, as well as the United States. Duluth makes this claim based on railroads and waterways. Duluth was an important rail hub in the heyday of the Minnesota lumber industry around 100 years ago, with lumber from points north being hauled to Duluth to make connections to other areas, both by rail and by ship via Lake Superior.

With this history, one of Duluth’s major attractions is their historic depot. This depot, located in the center of town, contains several museums, including an impressive rail museum. Many old trains are on display here, and visitors can view the inside of many of these trains, including the passenger and dining cars, as well as the conductor’s cars.

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One of the most impressive trains on display here was an old snowplow train. This particular model, was used to plow large amounts of snow, as much as 12 feet high. Seeing this is not too surprising given Duluth’s cold and snowy climate. Residents of Duluth undoubtedly put up with more cold and snowy weather than I would ever imagine wanting to experience.

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Duluth is a place I had never been to before. In 2007, I did visit Bayfield and the Apostle Islands, which are only 90 miles away. But, I never did visit Duluth. I did not specifically avoid coming here, but I did not seek it out either. I guess that would make it kind of a “neutral” place for me. We all have a lot of places like that. Places we would not make a specific point to visit, but would not avoid. Duluth is quite far North, and out of the way of most American road trips. In fact, on the trip here from Minneapolis along I-35, there were plenty of billboards advertising resorts in Canada, specifically Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Duluth turned out to be kind of an interesting place. It is still very much of an industrial town. Many industrial towns in the Midwest have experienced a certain amount of decline, leading to the term “rust belt”. From what I saw here, the decline seems to have not been as bad here, and there still appears to be a significant amount of industrial activity. I almost wonder if this town looks a lot like the other industrial towns in the country looked like back in the 1950s or so before much of this happened.

There also are kind of neat bluffs just outside of town. They kind of remind me of the river bluffs I would encounter along the Mississippi River along I-90, in a completely different part of Minnesota. The town appears to have mostly been built in the lower terrain right along Lake Superior, giving it a neat lakefront. I still wonder if people hike up these bluffs on a regular basis, the way Boulderites regularly hike the Flatirons.

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But what about Duluth’s claims to be a “continental crossroads”? Well, the fact that it is an important shipping port definitely backs up this claim. It was out of Duluth that the tragic voyage of the Edmond Fitzgerald left in 1975. This voyage, intended for Cleveland, was one of a number of journeys taken along the Great Lakes from Duluth over the years. From points north and west, it is the nearest access point to the Great Lakes, which provides shipping access to the Atlantic via the Erie Canal. Also, with a good number of ports along Lake Superior being in Canada, Duluth’s importance undoubtedly stretches beyond the United Sates.

But, does this make Duluth any more important than I had previously thought? Maybe not? I mean, there are tons of airports near an international border that can call themselves “international airports” by virtue of their location more than their flight availability. And, almost every town that refers to themselves as a “crossroads” of some kind have some kind of story to back up their claims. The truth is that, the world is full of crossroads. Routes and trails have criss-crossed the continent for a long time, and along these routes and trails, many important connections have developed in quite a few locations, each with significance in the history and development of our nation. This is actually one of the things that made our country great. It is not once place that made us who we are, nor is who we are just one thing. Everybody had input. And, more importantly, everyone had the right to decline input as well. Minnesota is quite different from Texas, which is also quite different from New York. Each place developed differently, and each “crossroads” across this great continent has their own unique way of life based on what kind of “crossroads” they are.

Camping in the Badlands

Today, June 2nd, started with a bang. Following our friends Jason and Allison, after only about 5 minutes of driving, suddenly a large black structure came flying off their vehicle. At first glance, the structure looked like a tire, and I became concerned that they had lost a tire. But, they continued, seemingly unaffected, so I assumed they had just run over an old tire, or old piece of rubber of some kind that was on the road. Either way, they wanted to stop to check things, which turned out to be unexpectedly beneficial. We stopped, still on some county road nowhere near the interstate, and concluded nothing was wrong with their vehicle.

After returning to the car, I suddenly see Allison running back to us with the kind of look on her face that made me think that something could have been wrong. It turns out that I had confused the sad look with the amazed look. Outside their car, sitting on some county road in South-Central (Minnesota that is), they had spotted a baby fox. This baby fox was quite cute. It actually made me think of dogs. It seemed in no way alarmed by our presence- and just presented itself to us, the same way a pet dog would. Had the fox of 60,000 years ago done the same to our forefathers, could the fox have become the pet of choice for humans rather than the evolved wolf (dog)?

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The remainder of the drive across Minnesota on I-90 was uneventful. A lot of windmills, that is it. Our first stop off on our journey to the Badlands was in Sioux Falls, SD. I’ve been to this town before. In fact, whenever I see this town, I think to myself that if I were to ever run a city, this is what it would look like, mainly on the count of how many signs that say “CASINO” one encounters here. Of course, they are mainly for places that throw in a slot machine or two, not full-fledged casinos with table games and all, but you still see them. And it makes you think this town is a gambling haven. We encounter a couple of other peculiarities in Sioux Falls. First, the gas station we filled up at had the following “Free Dandelion” sign. I not sure if that was supposed to be a joke or for real. Then, we saw something peculiar from a civil engineering standpoint, an interstate highway, 229, that actually turns into a dirt road (after its’ junction with I-90). From the point of view of someone who did not even know dirt roads still existed until college, but then became all too familiar with them on storm chases. I still think of dirt roads as not belonging in areas near “civilization”.

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To break up the drive, we stop at the Mitchell Corn Palace, in Mitchell, which is just over an hour farther down I-90. For over 100 years, they have been building a succession of buildings that are actually made out of corn. Since corn does not last too long, roughly once a year they reconstruct the building with a different theme. The whole practice is rather ridiculous if you think about it. It becomes even more ridiculous when you see that the town’s city hall is actually attached to this building! Imagine being able to say you get to go to a castle every day because you are the mayor of the seventh largest town in South Dakota. Talk about the life.

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My party thankfully avoids making all of the corn related puns one could make when visiting a ridiculous exhibit like this. I won’t repeat any of them, but I am sure you have thought of at least four by now. I did enjoy getting my picture taken with “Cornelious”, and buying a corn dog at the concession stand.

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South Dakota is pretty dull to drive across until you reach the Missouri River Valley, at the town of Chamberlin. At that point it becomes sort of interesting, but it does not become exciting all at once, the way it happens in Colorado where you suddenly see the mountains in the distance and one of the dullest most barren areas suddenly becomes a playground of infinite adventure possibilities. This transition starts with the Missouri River Valley, and then with some other river valleys that carve out of the land, as is typical in the high plains. Either way, it feels like we are in the West again.

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The other gradual transition across the state of South Dakota today was in the weather. Upon entering the state, the weather was similar to the weather we left behind in Iowa/Minnesota. It was chilly for this time of year last night, and we woke up to temperatures near 50 degrees and a thick deck of strato-cumulus clouds. As we transitioned across the state, the strato-cumulus clouds gradually waned, until there were suddenly quite few clouds in the sky. It also significantly warmed across the state, and by the time we arrived at Badlands National Park, it was a comfortable 70-72 degrees with good sun.

Indeed we were in the west. The distance we can see, the dryness, the scenery, everything felt a lot more west than Midwest. I switched I to what I am referring to as “Western mode”, which basically means being more prepared for dehydration and drinking more water. As soon as we arrived at Badlands National Park, we found a couple of really neat scenic overlooks, and then an area with some minor hiking trails. Today’s hike only lasted some thirty minutes and was more of a goofy/exploratory hike. By this, I mean there was no serious burn, no real workout. But we did some goofy things, climb a few rock structures, and went off trail. I even threw a few rocks around to see if I could throw them over some of the gorges. Hikes like this can be fun, even if they don’t build anything.

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After hiking we went to our campsite, which was actually within the grounds of the park. This is my first time camping at a National Park! As a result of this, we have the minor inconvenience of not being allowed to have a campfire. But, the bigger inconvenience on this day is the wind. The high plains is known to be a windy place. Sometime in the afternoon, a Southeast wind of around 15 miles per hour, with major gusts, developed. I think for a while sustained winds may have reached 20. The main issue with this has been that it keeps blowing into my tent, and knocking the rods that hold it up out of place. I wonder if I have a sturdy enough tent. They have to make sturdier ones, but, are they tougher to carry? What is truly the best tent to have for hiking, or bicycle touring? Maybe, having the tent be less effective when camping in the wind is just a fact of life. This, of course is somewhat disturbing to me, as Colorado can get windy at higher elevation.

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Isn’t it strange how experience often leads us to more questions? I have some camping experience for sure, but to too much. I had never really thought of the odds and ins of these types of situations. I just know that I want the tent to be big enough and comfortable, that is all. Now, I am suddenly in a quandary of thought about a number of factors such as a tent’s weight, it’s reliability, durability, and, of course, how many people it can hold. It’s been said before that for every new question answered, two more are created. I really hope this is not right numerically, as we will never create a closed system of equations if this is the case. But, I do se the reality in answers leading to new questions. So do experiences. In a way, this is the rhythm of life. We meet people, try things, and create experiences. This leads to new inquiry, new ideas, and new methods. Which, leads to new experiences, activities, and people. The cycle goes on and on. The same is true of work, leisure, pretty much any area of life. Getting into this rhythm will create a life that will continue to perform, be motivated, and advance.

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After a visit to the visitors center where we determine a good hike for tomorrow, and a brief incident that involves me actually breaking our pants, our day ends with an evening presentation at the amphitheater about the black footed ferret, and then some star gazing with some heavy duty telescopes available at the park. This activity was an unexpected possibility at Badlands National Park. I learned about why this area is called the “Badlands”, and a lot about the history of the black footed ferret as well as the prairie dog. Then, we got to look at Saturn in this telescope, which was really quite awesome. Their telescope was so advanced that you could see the ring formations around Saturn, as well as some of its moons.

Overall, it was a very productive day. It is hard to believe that so much of it was spent on a fairly boring road. Tomorrow will involve less driving and more activities, which I look forward to. But, today’s activities were so diverse and the day was so full that I hope I can absorb them all, as well as the frenzy of thought they all put me in, in time to enjoy tomorrow’s to their fullest.

A Long Drive Down a Familiar Road

There is no road that I know better than Interstate 90. Before moving to Denver last year, I lived in the Midwest for 19 years. In that time, I attended High School, College, Graduate School, and started my first job. I lived in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. But, I never lived more than 10 miles from I-90. I drove back and forth on that road so much that I once claimed that I could tell at least one story about every exit on that road from South Bend to the Dells.

Today’s journey began on that all to familiar road. It was surreal to be driving past the same places, looking at the same exits, and reminiscing about the same stories, the same people, but keeping in mind that I no longer live here. It was almost like a journey into another life, but one that I am still living.

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We got an early start on June 1, and raced across Wisconsin. Well, raced is a relative term. Wisconsin remains, along with Illinois, the only states in the Midwest to still have a statewide speed limit of 65. In addition, unlike in Illinois, they are looking to pull you over.

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Regardless, we still go to LaCrosse in 4 hours, with our first stop being in Sparta, WI. Sparta is known as the “bicycle capital of Wisconsin”, which, as a bike enthusiast, makes it near and dear to me. In fact, I had ridden through Sparta in 2006, on a ride across the state. It is where the LaCross River Trail ends and the Elroy-Sparta trail begins. Both are bicycle trails created from abandoned rail beds, and quite fun to ride. Sparta hosts a bicycle museum, and has even placed bicycle images on their road signs!

In LaCrosse, we did something I am not accustomed to on road trips. We actually stopped at a microbrewery to sample some beer. The Pearl Street Brewery would not open for tasting until noon. With a little bit of extra time, we went downtown and checked out some sights, including the grounds of Oktoberst. LaCrosse is said to have one of the best Oktoberfests this side of the Atlantic. I regret never having gone there, but I did live in Madison, and living in Madison is almost like a non-stop Oktoberfest!

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After sampling some good beer, it was time to tackle a new state, Minnesota. When it comes to states to drive across, Minnesota is the ultimate tease. The first ten miles are utterly spectacular! The road follows the bluffs of the Mississippi River, which are almost at their best here. In fact, this is my favorite Mississippi River crossing (with St. Louis being a close second).

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Unfortunately, after those ten miles, the surrounding scenery suddenly goes dull. I mean suddenly! At mile marker 267, you suddenly enter a mainly flat terrain full of corn fields. It stays that way for pretty much the entire rest of the state. So, essentially, Minnesota presents itself to the westbound I-90 traveler as quite exciting, but ends up manifesting as dull and frustrating. It reminds me of our own government, but that is another issue.

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Today’s destination is Spirit Lake, Iowa, for some camping. Spirit Lake, despite being in Iowa is only about 20 minutes off of I-90. The drive is quite easy, and, to be honest, I do not notice the difference in scenery between Iowa and Minnesota. I would say that the part of Minnesota I had been traveling through today is like more like Iowa than the rest of Minnesota.

However, ironically, the part of Iowa I end up camping in may be more like Minnesota than the rest of Iowa. Specifically, I am referring to the size of the lake. Minnesota, of course, is known for its lakes. Every time I visit the state, it feels like half the population owns a boat. In fact, the state motto is the “land of 10,000 lakes”. Iowa may not be lacking in lakes the way many states out west are, but it isn’t known for it’s lakes. But, Spirit Lake is a place where life pretty much revolves around the lake, much the way it does for many places in Minnesota.

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I am very proud of myself on this day. I put up the tent all by myself! Yeah, this is something that many people know how to do, but it is a skill I never developed, and really need to have. Especially, if I really want to dive into the experience of living in Colorado, and, what is the point of moving to a new place if you don’t plan to experience it with all you’ve got.

The evening was all about spending some quality time with good friends, the kind of people you truly feel comfortable around. We goofed off, we grilled, and played frisbee in the park. We had a few drinks, and got a bit loopy. My friend Jason found a way to break a rock trying to break a gigantic tree branch to make more firewood. It was quite hilarious.

More importantly, we talked about some real stuff. The kind of stuff that people don’t seem to talk about anymore. People, society, who we are, where we are going, what we need in life. I have no idea why people don’t talk about all this anymore. Maybe it is the constant distractions. It seems like we are more connected than ever, but also more isolated. I really don’t know what I personally can do about this, but be there for people when they need me, which I plan to do. If I can reduce the amount of loneliness in this world, I could truly be of service to humanity. Maybe this is the kind of realization people tend to have on a quiet (somewhat, as it has been windy) night in a lake in North Central Iowa.