Of Wool Jerseys and Iron Crotches

There is no sweeter feeling than the fatigue you feel the morning after a big ride. Yesterday was the annual Iron Crotch Ride in Western Wisconsin, hosted by County Cycles of Roseville. A 60 mile loop from Houlton to Osceola and back, it’s been held the first weekend in May for 25 years. As anyone who lives here knows, the first weekend in May can be snowing, or 80 degrees. This year we lucked into a mild 58 degrees, and light winds. The nicest weather I’ve ever had in my 3 times of doing this ride. Last year it was 33 degrees, and windy.

I slept for krep the night before the ride, as big thunderstorms blew through town, and the dogs were restless. I kept looking at the clock, wondering if it would be worth driving the half hour just to be rained out. A little rain doesn’t bother me, but the lightning, and torrential downpours that we had would make it a no go. Finally at 5:30am, I got up and checked the weather radar. As if on cue, the big green and red blobs of rain were sliding out of the area, promising a nice 6 hour window of dry weather.

We set off on wet roads at 8:30 am, and two punctures later, rolled into Osceola for a cup of coffee at the Coffee Connection. That’s the downside to riding on wet roads. By the time we turned south again the roads had dried, and the winds had shifted, denying us the pleasure of the usual headwind for the last 30 miles. Surely the cycling gods were smiling on us. Several cookies, and water bottles later, we were packing up our worm encrusted bikes into the back of our cars, and crossing the St. Croix back in Stillwater, MN for a celebratory beer at Brines. (The unofficial beer of the 2012 Ironcrotch was Farm Girl Saison. Highly recommended.)

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Little House in the Big Woods

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always had a weakness for falling in love with places. Perhaps it was the excessive amount of time I spent being carted around in the front seat of a Chrysler to sibling’s parades, and sporting events. Or maybe it was the interminable summer vacations to Florida in un-air conditioned automobiles with AM radio. Whatever the reason, I have always had a weakness for day dreaming about life in places seen out the window of a car. Each town we passed, each farm, each house on a hillside, I would lose myself in daydreams of what it would be like to live there. This affliction continued when I left Western New York behind and took to the road. Criss-crossing the country I would search for that one perfect place that would demand I stop and call it home. Of course, no place was ever alluring enough to overcome my desire to see what was over the next hill, or around the next bend. Life is like that.

Thankfully, in Mrs. 20 Prospect I found a reason to stop circling the country and plant roots. If not for her I’d still be wandering. And yet, even though I have lived in one place for 17 years now, I still can’t help but daydream when I’m traveling. As much as Minnesota is my home, there’s nothing about our little inner ring suburb, or 50’s Rambler that convinces me that this is the place where I want to grow old and die. If only I had a million lives to try out a million different places. I like to imagine that when you are dead your soul gets to go around and hang out in all the places you never got to when you were alive.

Last weekend we visited my In Laws in Eau Claire, a small city in a big landscape. One of those places that I can’t help but be drawn to. I brought along Isabella Cuevas, as I like to do when the weather is nice, and slipped out of town for a 3 hour ride through the hills and valleys of Eau Claire, and Trempeleau counties. Without a doubt, this is one of my favorite places in all the earth to ride a bicycle. Perhaps it reminds me of Western New York, or maybe East Flanders. The rolling hills, and farmlands, interspersed with remnants of the real “Big Woods” of Laura Ingalls Wilder fame, are covered with small two lane farm roads, and dairy farms. Each ridge promises a view, each valley a twisting descent. The farm roads don’t adhere to any modern road building standard, and the grades can be short, steep, and leg snapping. Perfect for cycling.

I rode for 3 hours, and had I not been exhausted, I could have rode for another 3. Each crossroad called for exploration, and it hurt to have to adhere to a schedule, and route. Every time I spend a weekend doing this, I end up going online and looking at homes and property in the area, which only serves to torture me more. Some people dream of retiring to malarial swamps in Florida, or sun blasted desert in Arizona. I dream of retiring to a little house on a ridge-top looking out over a big river., with enough land around me to make neighbors a theoretical concept. It’s the hermit in me that dreams of a life of walking the dogs in the woods, riding my bike in the hills, and watching the sunset from my porch.

I don’t know why I do this to myself. I have no intention of moving until the kids are out of high school, and I am less dependent on the financial benevolence of my dark corporate overlords. Yet I find myself continually searching jobs listings and property listings in the hope that I find that one perfect place that was made for me, where I can eek out a living teaching at a small college, and spend my days reading and writing. Whenever I get caught in that funk, the only thing I can do is tell myself, “10 more years. Keep cashing those checks and squirreling money away.” And keep on riding. Always keep on riding.

The Ballad of Yellowstone Sue

Oh hell. I’m teaching again, and it’s been a busy week, what with my dark corporate overlords collecting their quarterly pound of flesh, so here’s a rerun environmentally conscious, re-cycled blog post, following along in yesterday’s great Wisconsin paper valley milleau.

It was ‘round about the winter of 1991, and I was a confused and conflicted young man still trying to re-build from disaster of my last semester at Clarkson and find my place in the working world. I had already been a resounding failure in the first district office I had worked in, Birmingham, Alabama, and I was taking another shot at a fresh start with our office in Chicago. As I mentioned before, I had been placed on a long term assignment at a new construction site in Northern Wisconsin, where I was the youngest and the greenest of our 5 person crew at the site. We were working long hours during the day, and spending the long winter nights in the neon lit bars of Wisconsin’s “paper valley”.

Main Street Nekoosa WI

Like I said, I had still not found my groove after losing most if not all of my self confidence during my final days in college. Like most new grads I hated my job, and was very disillusioned about my choice of career. Lucky for me, the other four engineers on the project were all younger than 25, so my life outside of work wasn’t as miserably lonely as it had been during my stint in the South.

It was after work one afternoon, when my friends Cathy and Joe and I stopped into the supermarket across the street from our hotel to lay in some supplies. She was working one of the registers, and when she looked at me and smiled, her piercing blue eyes made me suddenly speechless. There was no doubt, I was smitten. I told Cathy and Joe about it at dinner that night and they both goaded me in to returning. So on my second trip back to the grocery store that evening I made sure to stake out the registers until her line was empty. Then I picked up a pack of M&M’s, walked up to her, and struck up a conversation.

She was just out of college as well, with a degree in Elementary Education, that old stand-by for women who are lacking in imagination. She was living at home and substitute teaching for the winter, working at the store to save some cash until Spring. Then she would hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, before finally entering the working world. I was intrigued. She was fun to talk to, and not at all shy about sharing intimate details of her life, hopes and dreams with a total stranger. Still, I was a chicken, so when someone else got in line at her register I said goodbye and left. Back in my room at the Chalet Motel I was tortured. Why hadn’t I asked her out? How could I let that opportunity pass? So I swallowed my pride and with a pounding heart, and sweaty hands I went back to the supermarket.

On the third trip through her line that evening I confessed to her that I wasn’t really addicted to M&M’s, but that I wanted to know if she’d like to maybe, possibly, like, um… go out sometime, maybe. The date was on.

We met at a local restaurant one evening that weekend and our conversation picked up where it had left off. She told me of the wonderful and amazing subculture that “through” hiking the Appalachian Trail was. How each Spring people from all parts of the country and world, in all different stages of their life, began the journey from Springer Mountain Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Northern Maine. On the way they developed friendships, and “trail families” that looked out for each other, and pitched in to help each other reach that common goal. It was a life changing experience for all of them, and when they finally reached the summit of Katahdin in October they would never be the same.

I was enthralled. Now I had done some hiking in Alabama and Georgia the previous summer. With no friends, and no place but a hotel room to call home it was one of the few pursuits I had found where being alone wasn’t such a socially unacceptable thing. But I had never conceived of such an adventure as that. I wanted to join her, and as we continued to date, I began to read books about “the Trail” and dreamed of quitting my job and going from living out of a car, to living out of a backpack. It was so romantic, and seemed to be just what I needed. A six month sabbatical in the woods to find myself, and my calling.

But there was more. I was smitten with her. She was a tall, apple cheeked, all natural girl, with eyes as blue as a glacial lake and seemingly as deep. She had a mystique that reminded me of Ingrid Bergman in the movie “Casablanca”. I remember one night after shooting pool with my friends, we stayed up half the night talking and telling each other stories about the places we had been and the adventures we dreamed of having. So it came as no great surprise when under a dishwater gray March sky I made up my mind. I was going with her.

I bought a backpack. I bought a tent. I made a list of all the gear I would need. I bought maps, and started planning my trip. Then I told her. She was thrilled, but made me promise her that I was going because deep in my heart I was doing it for me. She said that if I was doing it for her I wasn’t welcome. I lied of course, what could I do?

Then I told my family. Well if the trouble I had gotten into before graduation didn’t kill my parents, this would surely finish the job. They cried, they screamed, they pleaded. How could I be so stupid? How could I throw away a good paying job, and ruin my career. Nobody would ever hire me again after a boneheaded decision like that. They even convinced my big bruddah to call me up and tell me not to make the same mistake he did when he dropped out of college to hitchhike around the country.

I was torn. I wanted so bad to chuck it all, tell my family to get bent, and for once in my life think only of myself. But I knew I couldn’t do such a thing. Then fate intervened. I got a call from my district manager that they needed a body on a job in Alabama. So there it was. I could say yes, pack my bags that night and go to Alabama, or I could say no and…

I packed my bags that night, and said goodbye to Sue. She was cool with it. Nothing ever upset her. After she left I cried like a pathetic little baby.

The funny thing is she never did hike the Appalachian Trail. Her friends backed out, and when Spring came she didn’t have the cash. So instead she found a job in Sequoia National Park working at a snack bar. You see she had spent the previous three summers working summer jobs in Yellowstone National Park, and had become something of a seasonal employment groupie to the National Park System. I never knew there even was such a thing.

So I went South again to Alabama for a week, and when the job ended I was back to sucking flyash, and crawling boilers in Waukegan, Illinois. We wrote letters to each other. The dormitory in Sequoia only had one pay phone. The difference between her letter’s filled with awesome vistas of the Sierra, and mine filled with descriptions of the purple chemical sunsets of Waukegan, Illinois couldn’t be more striking. I was miserable in Chicago. My district manager thought I was a malcontent. I thought he was a jerk. I had to get out of there. It was my second district office in 12 months, and I was running out of country. So during the national meeting that summer I lobbied hard with the Denver district manager and the following week I was headed West. Sure I was still 800 miles from Sue, but I was getting closer.

I had a week’s vacation coming so I decided to fly to San Francisco with my friend Joe, and help him drive an Alfa Romeo Spider he had just bought, back to Chicago. I called Sue and told her, I’d be on her doorstep a week from Saturday. So exactly one week from Saturday, as the sun sank into the California sky, and the stars blinked on above the Sierra Nevada, we drove the Spider up the mountain into the park and showed up on her doorstep. She wasn’t there. She’d left for the weekend, and told no one where she’d be.

In the Sierra Nevada

I was crushed, and humiliated. The gods mocked me all the way back across the country. I was angry, but I couldn’t let it rest. So I wrote her. She apologized. Her parents had come to town unexpectedly, so she’d left with them for the weekend, and had no way to tell me. Fair enough I assumed, I couldn’t hold that against her could I? It’s amazing the depths to which a person will delude themselves over a pretty girl.

In the mean time I had finally hit my stride at work. I clicked with Charlie, my new boss, and suddenly big time responsibility, and projects were mine. The chances I never got in Birmingham, or Chicago were mine at last. Amazingly, I didn’t screw them up, and soon I was a rising star in the district. I decided work wasn’t so bad after all. I bought a Jeep, and started putting that backpack and tent to use on the weekends. Gradually I began to forget about Sue.

Then while working in Salt Lake City, Utah that September I got a letter from her.

She had found a position for the fall in Yellowstone National Park. She was only 6 hours away! When the job in Salt Lake ended, with no phone number and no idea where to find her in a national park the size of Connecticut, I headed north. It was the week after Labor Day, and the hordes of summer tourists had disappeared. The elk had come down from the higher elevations to mate. The temperature had dropped, and steam rose from the paint pots and fumaroles in the cold morning air as I entered the park that Saturday. After a day of searching, she was nowhere to be found. I was bummed. I thought that intuition, and luck couldn’t possibly fail me now. I resigned myself to the fact that I’d never find her, then I stopped at Old Faithful Lodge to get some lunch before heading home. I looked up, and there she was, my waitress.

Yellowstone

She got off work at four, so I stuck around. We spent two hours walking around the trails by the lodge talking. It was funny. There was nothing there. No spark, no interest. Just the same stories I had heard the previous spring, only this time in the midst of all the glory of Yellowstone they seemed as flat and dull as the Midwest. We promised to keep in touch and I left.

Over the years we did keep in touch. Each winter and summer I’d find a letter in my mail box telling me what park she happened to be working at. She never did get a job teaching school. She just cooked fries, and served food to a mobile nation of old guys in Bermuda shorts, and women with bouffant hairdos. A few years later we started corresponding via e-mail. She was working in Colorado for Outward Bound. Still seasonal, but no longer beholden to the whims of Government budgets. Her e-mails were full of the plans she was making, and the things she was going to do. She still hadn’t hiked the Appalachian Trial.

The funny part is I did eventually climb Springer Mountain in Georgia. When I reached the summit it was surrounded in fog. I sat down to take a rest, and the clouds began to part. Sitting there watching the fog roll back from the southern foot of the Appalachians I realized I had done it for myself after all. I may not have walked all the way to Maine, but the path I had chosen I had cleared myself, and it belonged to me alone.

The Trail up Springer Mountain

Working at the Mill

As I’ve talked about before, my first few months out of college were a bit of a struggle for me, as they are for most people. The transition from the unstructured, chaotic life of a college student, to the long boring expanse of the workday is never an easy one. Adding to my misery was the cultural upheaval of being assigned to a district office in Birmingham, Alabama.  The Southeast district was full of middle age engineers who had no interest in training, or helping out some kid from New York, and my days in the deep South were lonely. I struggled with the Southern culture, and never really felt at ease out on my own in the Deep South. I just stuck out too much. I used to just dread hearing someone say in that slow drawl “You ain’t from around here, are ya boy?” while in the distance a banjo played.

So when I was sitting in the district office in the Autumn, and the Area Manager came up to me and asked if I would be willing to head up to the Chicago district to help staff an outage inspection I responded “I can be packed noon.” By nightfall I had crossed the river into Illinois, and I felt like getting out of the car and kissing the ground. The Chicago district manager had a young female engineer that he correctly had deduced wasn’t long for the lifestyle of a field service engineer, and had talked the Birmingham office into a swap. I was the player to be named later. They took me sight unseen, willing to take a chance on me only because I was a guy. The Y-chromosome has more privileges than just being able to pee standing up.

The Chicago district was a big change from Birmingham. The field service staff was larger, and split almost equally between veterans, and young engineers in their first few years of work. After a few short weeks in Central Illinois, they sent me up to Wisconsin to be the 5th person on a startup. The project was the construction of a new recovery boiler in Nekoosa, at the Georgia Pacific paper mill. GP had just recently taken over the 100 year old Nekoosa mill, in a hostile takeover that was all too common at the time. The Paper business was struggling through the recession, and the bigger fish were out gobbling up the little Mom and Pop mills all over. This was my first project at the Paper Mill, and the difference between it and working at a coal plant was striking.

Nekoosa Mill - photo copyright Shane Rucker @ http://woodcountywisconsin.blogspot.com/

The mill was close to 100 years old, and had been added onto over the years, giving it a real cobbled together look. Nekoosa was a small mill town, with only about 2,500 residents. The as you can see in the postcard above, the city consisted of a Paper Mill on one side of main street, and a row of businesses on the other side. The paper mill expansion was a huge boom time for the town. There were several hundred Union laborers working on the project, and the city was always swarming with guys in Carharts coming and going in their pickups.

I showed up at the plant, and began asking around for our construction trailer. It was across the street from the plant, in a parking lot across from the Jack ‘n Jill supermarket. I had not been on a start-up project yet, just outage work, and the buzz of activity going on around the place was a bit disorienting. Walking into the trailer I was surprised to see that the field service crew was as young as I was. There were four of them on the project, and during the next 6 months, I would come and go as the workload ebbed and flowed, helping out as the 5th guy whenever things got busy. The project lead was a quiet bearded guy, who seldom spoke more than 2 words. He was in his late 20’s or early 30’s, and had been working startups in the Paper Valley of central Wisconsin for about 5 years. The rest of the crew consisted of Mike, a 3rd year field guy from Massachusetts, Cathy, a 2nd year engineer from Worschester, Mass, and Joe, another 2nd year guy from Aurora, Illinois. We also shared out trailer with the team from ABB Impel, who were the control system contractors, and had 3-4 young 20-something electrical engineers on the project.

Nekoosa Mill - Photo copyright Shane Rucker @ http://woodcountywisconsin.blogspot.com/

It did not take long to fit into the crew. Mike and Cathy were classic extroverted Easterner’s, quick to laugh, or swear like sailors. Joe, or “Jumpin’ Joe” as we called him, was a quiet Midwestern guy that made Eeyore seem like an optimist. As for the boss, the “Quiet Man” tried to fade into the background, and pretty much left Mike to communicate with us kids and give us our daily assignments. Being older, he had a wife and kids, and had been in Central Wisconsin long enough to buy a house and settle down. A rarity in our line of work. The rest of us had overrun the Chalet Motel in Wisconsin Rapids, a town of about 10,000, about 15 miles up river.

It was late Autumn when I arrived on the project, and deer hunting season in Wisconsin was another new cultural experience. In Packerland just about everybody hunts, and if the talk isn’t about the Packers, it’s about hunting. For a bunch of college kids from towns and cities, the Up North accent, and blaze orange cammo’ amused us to no end. I discovered that folks in Wisconsin are some of the friendliest, and most welcoming people you will ever meet. It wasn’t long before I knew the names of all the old Ladies working the front desk at the motel, or in the deli at the Jack and Jill.

Winter came quickly, and the weather reminded me of my days in Potsdam. But unlike school, I was now working outside in it. I was not set up for working in the cold, and I soon had to get to the Shopko, and Fleet Farm to get outfitted in Carhardt, wool socks, and long johns. Dad also helped out when I was home for Thanksgiving, by setting me up with some helmet liners for my hardhat. Those “Rocky the Squirrel” liners looked absolutely ridiculous, but were a life saver. I doubt I’d have made it through the winter without them.

The hours were long, and often required us to pull night shifts, or weekend shifts to keep the project on track. I had no idea what to do, but Cathy and Joe were great about taking me under their wing, and helping show me the ropes. Most of our work at the point in time was checking out the electrical system, and doing wire tests with multimeters to make sure things were wired properly before we fired them up. A recovery boiler is smaller than a large coal fired boiler. The boiler building was only about 8 stories tall, and much tighter inside due to the amount of process piping involved. A recovery boiler provides steam to run the paper machines, and co-generate some electricity through a small steam turbine. The fuel is actually a byproduct of the paper making process.

“Black Liquor” as it is called, is a byproduct slurry of wood pulp, and chemicals that comes off of the digester tanks. It is sprayed into the furnace through oscillating guns that look like fire hose nozzles, and as it burns it forms a pool in the bottom of the furnace. That pool of burning liquid, then pours out through a tap into another tank below, having now been transformed into “green liquor”, which is then fed back into the digester. This allows the mill to recover the inorganic chemicals used in the Kraft process for making paper. The Kraft process is as foul, and smelly as they come, and is responsible for much of the rotting eggs mixed with flowers smell that hovers in every Paper Mill town. The whole process is quite involved, and results in a lot of humidity being vented into the atmosphere, which in the winter time means that a paper mill is always surrounded in fog.

Nekoosa Mill copyright Shane Rucker @ http://woodcountywisconsin.blogspot.com/

We’d arrive in the morning, and that smell would hit us as soon as we crossed the bridge into Nekoosa. By the time we left to go home at night, the town would glow in a yellow cloud, and the smell would have permeated our clothes. On Friday’s we’d stop for Happy Hour in one of the bars in Nekoosa before heading back to Rapids, and getting cleaned up. One Wednesday night in March, Cathy (a good Irish Catholic girl) and I were sitting at the bar feeling guilty about being out drinking on Ash Wednesday, when our guilt got the better of us and we left the bar after 2 beers to go to Mass in our work clothes and receive ashes. You aren’t truly Catholic until you have gone to mass drunk. As filthy, and smelly as we were after working in the mill all day, I think the priest’s thumb actually left a clean spot on my forehead.

Nekoosa Mill copyright Shane Rucker @ http://woodcountywisconsin.blogspot.com/

As I said before, Main Street in Nekoosa consisted of a Paper Mill on one side of the street and a row of bars on the other. The bars were making a killing off of the craft laborers that year. Every night at quitting time the guys would pour across the street from the construction site to the bars. Each Union had their own bar. Being college grads, we usually drank with the Electrician’s, who are like the intelligentsia of craft laborers. Meaning they can read. Mike was the only one of us crazy enough to hit the bars next door with the Pipefitters, and Millwrights. But only on rare occasions would he go into the Boilermaker or Ironworker bars though. Those two were the places the fights broke out.

Winter in Wisconsin is a 6 month long reason to drink. Not that Wisconsinites need a reason. I remember one Saturday we all piled into the car and headed up to Rib Mountain in Wausau to go skiing. Afterwards we stopped in the lounge at the Holiday Inn to have a few drinks. There was a band playing, and things quickly got out of hand. I remember being out on the dance floor with some girls that we had met, and looking up to see Cathy on stage playing drums in the band. When the bar closed at 2 am, the waitresses came around with plastic “to go” cups for everyone to take their drinks home with them. I can remember thinking “What a country!” Wasting a drink was a bigger concern than drunk driving.

There were many nights like that during the Winter of 90-91. We’d drink on weeknights in town, and on weekends we’d sometimes road trip to Madison to drink and sleep 4 to a room in some dive hotel within walking distance of State Street. The funny part about it, is that it wasn’t that out of the norm. By Wisconsin standards we were all tea-totalers.

Winter passed slowly, and I came and went several times while the project churned slowly on. By summer 1991, most of the systems were operational, and the staff was greatly reduced. We each went our different ways. I was transferred again, this time to the Denver district office. Joe went back to Chicago, and worked the ComEd plants. Mike stayed on in the Paper Valley for awhile, before finding work back in the HQ in Connecticut. Cathy switched to the performance testing group based out of Connecticut as well. You can take the kids out of Massachusetts, but you won’t take the Massachusetts out of the kid.

Those were some great days though. I’d never have known that I would end up in Minnesota, married to a good Wisconsin girl, but it wasn’t that hard to imagine. I’ve never felt more at home, than I did working in Nekoosa that winter. We’ve all grown up now. I have lost touch with both Cathy and Joe, as they have their own families and have moved on like me. But when this gray season of overcast skies, and low hanging fog roll into the upper midwest, my mind returns to Nekoosa.

Optima dies, prima fugit.

Into the hills

We have turned the corner of the seasons. In the past week there can be no mistaking it, it is turning into autumn. Warm days, and cool nights, with hardly a hint of humidity in the air, these are the golden days of September. There may be no finer time to be in Minnesota.

And yet, this season never fails but to make me miserable. Why? Perhaps it’s the melancholy of autumn, or the realization that school has started and the kids are one year older. No, it’s more than that. My melancholy seems to descend right after our week up North in early August. Each year it gets harder and harder to go back to my soulless life of servitude to my Dark Corporate Overlords.

Ever since our vacation ended, it has been a whirlwind. Work has been busy, and I’ve been coaching the 5th & 6th grade girls’ soccer team at Our Lady of the Subdural Hematoma again. I’ve had a blog to keep up, a book to finish, and my part time teaching gig looming in the near future, this is not the time to sink into a funk. Throw in a persistent summer cold, and here I am. Funked.

This past weekend we went to Eau Claire to see the in laws, and I was reminded yet again how much I love Western Wisconsin. There may be no more beautiful place on earth this time of year. The crops are mature, the apples are ripening, and the weather is perfect. I spent most of the weekend with the lovely Isabella Cuevas, riding into the verdant hills of Eau Claire, and Trempealeau Counties, the finest road biking country this side of East Flanders. I fell in love with the place all over again.

Sigh…

I would love to live in a small farmhouse, on a nice piece of land in one of those peaceful valleys. We could ride every day in the warm weather, and put on the skinny skis in the winter time, and never miss the city. I’d sit on the porch in the evenings, and watch the deer, and wild turkeys wander out of the woods to graze in the fields. That is all I really want from life.

Someday.

For now it will have to wait. Another 10 years for the kids to be off to college, and out of the house. Another 10 years of squeezing all the money I can out of this high paying corporate gig. Maybe then we can slip away to the country, while we still have a few years left to enjoy it before age starts to take its toll.

In the mean time, I will have to be content with my day dreams.

And a lottery ticket.

Lake Pepin

This past weekend, the 20 Prospect family paid homage to own of our ancestors favorite traditions. The aimless drive into the country. Yes, we upped our carbon footprint by 2 sizes, loaded the kids into the minivan and set out on a drive for no earthly good reason. As I’ve said before, this was the usual weekend activity around 20 Prospect when I was growing up. Depending on the season it was called “Going to get ice cream” (Summer), “Going to get apples” (Fall), or “Going to see the geese” (Spring), but it was always the same. An afternoon spent driving around Western New York.

This weekend we chose a direction on the compass that we seldom ever travel. We’re used to going East to the St. Croix valley to canoe, or Eau Claire to see family, trips North to sit by a lake, and even trips due south into Iowa, but we never go Southeast along the river. Mrs. 20 Prospect went to college in La Crosse, WI, so we’ve made a trip or two down along the river road during our child free years. We hadn’t done so for years, which is a shame really, because it is one of the prettiest parts of the state.

To folks that have never been here it’s hard to believe the varied landscape of Minnesota. We’ve got the arboreal forests, and lakes along the border with Canada, the majestic shore of Lake Superior, the northern bogs and pine woods dotted with lakes, the rolling farm country of Southern MN, and the flat prairie to the west of us. The Twin Cities sits right in the center of it all. Pick a different direction and you can have a vastly different weekend away from home.

The Mississippi River Valley that runs south and east from the cities is a geography unto itself. Limestone bluffs rise along the river, broken by coulees, where creeks and rivers flow down from the driftless (unglaciated) hills that flank the river. There are few more pastoral places in the United States than this little corner of the upper Midwest. The most surprising part of all though, is how relatively untrammeled it is. With such a large population center as the Twin Cities only an hour away, you’d think it would be overrun and loved to death, but it isn’t. The lure of the Northwood’s and North Shore seem to draw people in the opposite direction.

Lake Pepin

But I’m going to let you in on a secret. In my opinion, the trapezoid of land between Eau Claire, Black River Falls, La Crosse, and Prescott, Wisconsin is the most wonderful road biking country in the world. Being home to Dairy Farms the state of Wisconsin has paved a larger number of rural roads in this area, than on the MN side of the border. Dirt and gravel roads are few and far between. As is the traffic once you turn off of the river road. I’ve biked for hours in the hills south of Eau Claire and seen more deer than cars.
Throw in the beauty of the river valleys, and you’ve got a place that I wouldn’t mind retiring to someday. It’s got just about everything you could want. Good access to major metropolitan health care, and culture, quiet roads, great infrastructure, vineyards and orchards, and lots of places to get outdoors in all seasons, and the property prices are very cheap unless you are on a bluff top, or on the water. It’s a little paradise.

And if you like big water there’s Lake Pepin, a twenty mile stretch of the Mississippi where it widens out into a lake as wide as two miles across. That was our destination, and turning around point on Saturday. Stopping for dinner at a bar on the water in Pepin, WI I was amazed by the size of sailboats, and yachts in the marina.

Pepin Marina

We weren’t alone of course. There were plenty of others out for a ride on their motorcycles, or in their little convertibles, taking in the scenery, but it was far from crowded on the roads. I suppose that will change when the leaves are turning this autumn, but even then I’d say the traffic is far less than heading north on I-35, or I-94 on your average Friday afternoon.

We were only gone for an afternoon, but it felt like we traveled much farther than that. And as if that wasn’t enough, we saw the world’s biggest boot!

World's Largest Boot - Red Wing, MN

Minnesota.

I love this place.