Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lake with a river running through it

That's what Bemidji means, a lake with a river running through it. I asked both the pronunciation and the meaning. It's an Indian word. Indeed there is a Lake Bemidji with a river running through it, namely the Mighty Mississippi. Above, I am standing on a rock in the headwaters where it flows out of Lake Itasca (named after our RV, by the way) on its way to Bemidji Lake and Cass Lake and one I can't spell and then to the Gulf of Mexico, 1,475 feet lower in elevation and 2,275 miles away. When I said our plans for the summer were to visit the Great Lakes, I didn't realize that I would learn so much about rivers. The mighty Mississippi drains the eastern half of the US, and has 93 major and minor tributaries. It is the fourth longest river in the world, surpassed in length only by the Nile, the Amazon and the Yangtze. 

Here's some folks crossing the Mississippi about a quarter mile from the source.  Amazing to think it goes from this little stream to a mile wide at Cairo.
The search for the headwaters of the Mississippi was all consuming to some folks who got towns and counties and trails named after them in these parts.  Why all the bother about the headwaters?  Well, besides being geologically interesting, the Mississippi was politically important, setting boundaries between the US and France. The tip of Minnesota projects up into Canada because at the time of the Treaty of 1783 in Paris, the headwaters were thought to be much farther north. 

But I stray from Bemidji.  Bemidji, also known as the home of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, is about 50 miles northeast of the Fargo, ND.  However, since Minot ND is 91 degrees and flooded and Bismark ND is flooding and Fargo warns of a heat wave, I don't plan to color in North Dakota this trip. Think I will stay right here in Paul Bunyan country.

(had to use Daisy for scale here.....she's the white spec by the ax)

The biking trails are fabulous here, all paved and fairly flat.  Minnesota is not much on elevation, with the highest point about 2800 feet and the lowest 1400.  That makes for some Texas flatlander type biking.

And guess who I spotted in Nisswa, cute little town on the 112 mile Paul Bunyan bike trail.   I knew no one would believe me, so I took a picture with him.  I wondered about him being here but then I realized we are pretty close to Canada.  Even got Canadian TV tonight. 

I think Justin may have been here counting lakes.  The Minnesota license plates say 10,000 lakes, but in actuality, there's more like 15,000.  There's over a hundred in Itasca State Park.  I don't know how they count the little lakes the RV parks dig to make themselves more scenic, but since the count is so loose anyway, I suppose it doesn't matter.  What does matter is that Minnesota is not running out of water.  All you folks in Arizona and California and Nevada might consider moving up here. Plenty of water to drink here and you probably won't need to water your lawn either.

Course, it is a little nippy here in the winter.  I met a gentleman at a fruit stand in St Cloud who said he moved from Houston, Texas.  First winter he was here it snowed 36 feet on Halloween and the snow didn't melt until May.  Coldest winter he remembers was 54 below.  Don't put your tongue on anything metal in that weather, for sure.  I saw photos back in Nisswa of golf tournaments on the lakes in the winter.  Guess you don't get your balls back after you putt them in the hole.

The natives are enjoying swimming now that it is officially summer.  I put one toe in Sunday night and changed my mind.  I asked the girls in the pool where they were from:  two from Minnesota  and two from Canada.  I understand folks from around here will swim in anything except Lake Superior.  Superior is too nippy even for natives.  But in little lakes like this one, you'll find the locals playing with wild abandon.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Partly cloudy with a chance of flowers

I know where all the rain that is missing Texas has gone: the Great Lakes. So far Fridays have been the only sunny days of the week. When a beautiful Friday happens, the natives go wild. This week on Friday they were all on bikes along the Root River Valley, which has a 60 mile paved bike trail through little towns and along the river, past farms and barns. We found the beginning of the trail in Houston at the Houston Nature Center, complete with bike sculptures on display in the gardens.

Carl started his ride there, headed toward Peterson, about 20 miles upriver, where I drove Daisy and the RV before biking out to meet him.
It seemed fitting to end our day of biking in Austin, home to the Spam Museum and Yogi Bear's Jellystone Campground.  First time I stayed at a Yogi Bear campground. Yogi Bear had a large population of little girls on pink bikes cruising till dark and back at it at sunrise. One of them asked Daisy’s name, twice. Then she asked, “Is Daisy a boy or a girl?” I wondered would a boy dog named Daisy have the same problems as a boy named Sue? Three boys asked permission to pet Daisy as well, and they were pleased at her talking. Then they all thanked me politely. I smiled an approving smile at their mother. She raised them right.
Yogi Bear also had a big bouncy jumping park. Since there was no posted Seniors only time, I stayed off of it.

The weather has been largely unpredictable, changing from sunny to sprinkles at will. The best indicator of beautiful weather is meeting a line of Harleys out for a drive. Harleys are also a great indicator that you have found a scenic route. When you meet Harleys, it is going to be a great day. 

If the Harley's turn out to be wrong, you can always duck inside someplace like the National Eagle Center at Wabasha, an education and preservation institution, to learn some interesting facts from these raptors who have lost their ability to fly and therefore cannot be released into the wild.  Most of them were hit by autos.  This is the closest I have ever been to one of the magnificent birds.  Since they have no survival issues in captivity, they may live as long as 40 years.
This is Angel.  She's 12. A beauty. no?  They found her hopping around on the ground, about age one, with a wounded wing that would have prevented her from ever reaching adulthood.  Lucky Angel to have been rescued.

Angel has a soft imprint on humans. She was raised as a chick by eagles, so she knows she is an eagle. However, humans are her flock. Eagles raised entirely in captivity have a hard human imprint.

Angel is primarily calm, but every once in a while she jumps off and tries to fly into the crowd. We have to give her space. Did you know that the only thing that ever touches an eagle is a mate? No touching Angel, not even by her handler. And that eagles mate till death do us part? If one of the pair dies, the other finds another mate. Just like pioneers, they must go on to propogate. Only 20% reach adulthood, so the urge to propogate is strong and necessary.

One final word about the weather. Be careful what you wish for. It is supposed to stop raining for a while next week, and Minneapolis is going to reach 100. The weather report includes a warning that the mosquito population is about to explode. Clear skies, stay away!

Friday, June 24, 2011

The farmer in the Dells

In some states, cows outnumber humans. But despite being a major dairy state, in Wisconsin there are 5.6 million people to 3.4 million cows. That means that for every person, there is 2/3 of a cow walking around somewhere. That seems fairly manageable until you throw in the number of people that own cows: 1 million. Those farmers are outnumbered 3.4 to 1. If anyone ever organized those cows, it would be all over for the humans. (I don’t know if I believe these figures. Seems like owning 3.4 cows is not much of a dairy.)

Geographically speaking, I think cows control more space than humans. They have valley after valley of verdant green dedicated to their well-being, growing crops for their consumption, storing grain for their winters, harvesting milk from their udders. In my travels, I can’t seem to leave the valleys. They transfix me. What an undulating and gracious terrain. Barn after barn, farmhouse after farmhouse, grain silo after grain silo, rolling road upon rolling road, the landscape tickles my senses. After a week, I finally stopped snapping 50 mph photos of every barn, finally barn-numbed, scenery sated.

From the large bovine population comes cheese and the local preferred snack, fresh curds. Convenience stores have bags of the curds on the counter and sample plates to offer. Hard to describe the tasting experience. A little chewy, about halfway to the chewiness of a gummy bear, dissolving in the mouth faster than cheese does, and they squeek in your mouth as you chew them. I experienced the flavor sensation of eating a Cheetoh. Visually, they have the appearance of a packing peanut, though much less uniform since they are randomly cut with screens before the cheese hardens. I sampled my curds at a family operated cheese factory with the cheese making process on view through glass windows. I suspect that curds are addictive, so after my sampling, I swore them off, less I not be able to stop.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Mississippi Two

Today we crossed the Mississippi for the second time this summer, the Upper Mississippi. Like the lower, it is a huge traffic lane, but the prevalence of islands makes it look like Huck Finn and Jim might be alive out there. It seems bloated, based on the submerged trees on islands, some of them toppling over into the river.

On the Iowa side of the big river, we met some fellow geezers from Minnesota on a Model T tour. Their group name was the T Totalers. We talked to them while overlooking the confluence of the Mississippi and the Wisconsin (I noticed they did talk a little funny, like maybe they were from Lake Woebegone). Like us, they had chosen Pikes Peak State Park overlook on the Iowa side (no admission) vs. the state park on the Wisconsin side ($10).

They had been touring together for a week in Iowa, and I asked if they had a plan. "Well, Peggy does," the fella said, pointing to Peggy, "but she pretty much keeps it to herself. We just follow her."

I’ve been struggling with a moral dilemma. How much of a state do I have to traverse before I can color in the map on my window? Today we crossed into Iowa to have a look at the Mighty Mississippi but found no roads to travel north beside it. So we had a look from the State Park and came right back into Wisconsin.

Last summer, I declined to take a quick flying u-turn through Delaware so that I could color the state in. I’ve regretted it ever since. Who knows if I will ever get that close again?

Thus I’ve decided to color in Iowa. You never know if you will wake up tomorrow, and I’d hate to have that detail lost forever.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Counting my Weight Watcher points today. 4 points for sampling three fine craft brews is a bargain.  3 oz of each choice and I get to keep the glass too.

New Glaurus Brewing Company, in New Glaurus Wisconsin, has been voted one of the best breweries in the WORLD twice. And a woman owns it. That made two reasons to stop in for a tour and a tasting. They just relocated from a small brewery to a majestic setting on top of a hill overlooking this Little Switzerland town where the banks looks like Chalets. That made three reasons to stop.

I skipped over Totally Naked (like my beers with a little more bite) and started with Spotted Cow, an unfiltered ale, approachable and slightly fruity and soft on the palate. While sampling this one, I took the self guided tour. Carl was interested in all the boilers and pipes, and I found myself drawn to the more fun aspects, such as an industrial staircase that rose at least three floors and was labeled Stairway to Heaven.
I moved on to Moon Man, a session beer with a bright bold blend of five hops that flirted obligingly with the smooth malty backside. Looking around their gift shop while I nursed this one, I decided against any merchandise that said Totally Naked.

While waiting in line for my third, I could not help overhearing the couple ahead. "Why don't you have the Two Women?" she said. "Well, yeah, why not?" he said and looked back at me. "Anybody available?" She was blushing by then.  She asked for the Fat Squirrel. After a quick taste, she said, "Yuck, you can drink this one," and ordered another for herself. As she left the room, someone asked, "What did you get?" "Two men." she quipped.

I took a chance and orderd Fat Squirrel, a Wisconsin malt of six different varieties imparting the natural toasted color and clean hazelnut notes resulting from the carefully chosen barley malts. The first taste was a shocker, but it grew on me. Especially with the million dollar view from a picnic table on the patio. Nice finish, that Fat Squirrel.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Garden Walks

Erica, faithful reader who looks at my photos without me asking you to, this is for you!

Drive by shootings

Most of the scenery I see you will never experience, because as the RV moves down the road, the moment to take a photo passes before I can raise the camera. Once you have driven an RV for a while, you know you can't turn it on a dime or slam on the brakes. Once the moment is over, it's pretty much over.

However, I do take a lot of photos out the window. Most times I get a shot like the one above. I only saved it to show you how bad some of them are. Most of them are deleted the same night. I pretty much ignore all the rules of composition and hope for something better than a road sign in the middle of my rustic barn scene and power lines draped across my village street scene.

My friend Terry say she takes a lot of picture hoping some of them will turn out. And that's a typical day driving a scenic route in the RV. Sometimes, though, magic happens. I've started a new album, called Drive By Shootings, and I plan to add to it the whole trip. Here's the beginnings.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Lot to Love

I would never never never thought that I would love an automobile museum, but I truly loved the Gilmore in Hickory Corners, MI. What's not to love about a grassy knolled farm with a collection of relocated and restored barns? And a 1930's Shell Station?  Then there were the cars. The collection of shiny brass and nickel ornamented automobiles brought out the artist in me. I found I never took a full photo of an auto, because I was fixated with the shiny lights and ga ga fixtures. Barn after barn was filled with pristine autos from the earliest days of the auto to the cars of my first memories.  Just a yummy day.

Enjoy the photos.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

three weeks, three days and eight hours

Finally, the Great Lakes, Erie to be exact. And finally, cool air. The heat wave that has gripped the midwest since we started our trip has broken. Daytime temps in the low seventies, dipping into the high fifties at night. Umm, Yum!

We found ourselves in Cleveland, which I would not have considered as an RV destination, but we needed a big city to find a dealer authorized to do warranty work.  The cab A/C was toast.  But Cleveland was actually quite gracious, at least the part I saw, Lakeside Drive to the west along a curve in the lake. 

Cooler weather makes you do things like sleep with the windows open and plan a bike ride on an island, South Bass Island, and to the village of Put In Bay.    Ferry rides on a lake are always a plus, and biking felt invigorating.  

We've been spending the summer RV'ing for 4 years and finally snapped to the rating system in the RV camping books.  Ever since, we've been seeking out bathrooms with a 10 rating.   In Amish country, there was Evergreen, with bathrooms rivaling the Houstonian.  The campground at Geneva on the Lake had showers so big I could have driven a golf cart into them.   We've been enjoying the upgrade.  Who knew?  Tonight I am at another 10, in Monroe Michigan, Camp God Willing.   The ducks love it here.

And this little boy loves Daisy.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Lost in the Cave, with music

So have you heard a pipe organ made of stalagtites? A zany musician searched for stalagtites for each note, then wired an organ with electronic strikers throughout the cave to strikes the notes. Luray Cave was the best of the three I have seen on this trip, because of the organ but mostly because it is so old, with massive caverns and even more massive formations.
 There's a video near the end of the album. Enjoy!

Luray Va RV Resort

Sometimes there is an RV camp worth mentioning, and nothing tells the story better in this case than the photos.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Don't read this if you don't like history

We crossed into Virginia, presidential country. Within 50 miles are the homes of Wilson, Madison, Jefferson and Monroe. Who can pass that up?

Wilson was our first stop. That's his Pierce Arrow in the photo.  I knew little of him, but now I can tell you that after keeping the US out of WWI for as long as possible, he negotiated the peace settlements at the end. He formed the League of Nations but could not get Congress to ratify it. The US was never a member, even though Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Other things he is known for are the Federal Reserve System, Anti Trust and income tax. Yikes. He was a prolific writer during his tenure as history professor, rising to the rank of President of Princeton.

Personally, I have conflicted reactions to him. He was not a Woman’s Rights supporter, but his daughters were active suffragettes. One of them recorded songs for the Red Cross and then moved to India, where she remained until she died. Her name? Margaret.

This is the house he was born in, son, grandson and nephew of a Presbyterian minister.  This was the Manse in Staunton, Va. where he lived until his father got a better position in Augusta Ga.  There the family lived during the civil war, and his father was an avid Confederate.  At the manse, there were servants, slaves hired by the parish for the Manse, on loan from local plantations.  Wilson was the first Southerner elected after the Civil War since Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's running mate.

Next stop on the Presidential tour: Jefferson’s Monticello.
This is the nickel coin view of Monticello.

Born an heir to the land where he built Montecello and empowered by all the manual labor needed, he created his vision of a French mansion on the highest hill of his sizeable property.

Then he planned orchards, gardens, roads, and cash crops with the most intimate detail. He wrote down everything, from production to crop rotation. And of course he wrote many famous documents.

Jefferson wrote the first draft of the declaration of independence. Then a committee of Franklin and other edited it He also authored a document granting freedom of religion to Virginians, and planned every detail of the University of Virginia, from the books in the library to the buildings to hiring the professors. These three things he asked to be carved on his tomb.

Jefferson was conflicted all his life about freedom. He wanted it for every man, but in his will he only freed 5 of his 200 slaves. He wrote about his conflicts over slavery, but decided that the issue would be resolved by another generation. DNA researchers generally agree that long after Martha's death, he fathered several children by Sally Henning, a servant in his home.

He traveled a great deal, away in Washington and France, and it was in his retirement years that most of Monticello was completed.

Within a stones throw of Monticello is Ash Lawn, home to Monroe, on land that Jefferson picked for him.  He even sent slaves to plant Monroe's trees. And 20 miles further is the home of Madison, Montpelier. But there’s only so many presidents I can do in a day, particularly on a day that reached a high of 96.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

All Aboard

The West Virginia Cass Railroad State Park met my expectations. We climbed to the summit of Bald Knob on an old logging train, open cars, cool breezes. The steam engine was the star attraction of the trip. It was a Shay, built especially for logging, capable of steep grades and curving rails. The designers created gears so that every wheel of the engine provided power and traction.

The details of the steam powered train became more interesting as we climbed. We saw the train yard, with its mound of coal, shovels idle, although clearly they were used to feel the coal elevator manually. We stopped for water twice, water stored from mountain streams. In the old days, the train would pump water out of any stream along the way. Our engine was the largest ever made, weighing in at 169 tons, and it produced more power than was needed to push our four tourist cars up the mountain. So the boiler constantly let off steam, puffing huge white plumes. The whistle let off puffs of steam as well.

I mentioned we got pushed up the mountain. That spared us from breathing smoke all day. The black plume of coal smoke was astounding. Lump coal does not burn completely, and the excess goes into the air. Coal powered electric plants grind the coal to fine powder in order to burn it more completely.

Seasonal employees man the train, and I thought at first the brakeman on each car had nothing to do. Then we started downhill. My view was of the woman brakeman in the car ahead. It took power to constantly turn the wheel to set the brakes just right, not so much they stopped the wheels, but enough they slowed the car from going too fast and hitting the car ahead. The brakemen worked as a chorus, checking the brakes visually by leaning out over the car, then waving okay to the car ahead and behind.

My woman was all business. In idle times, she talked about all the features of the train. She talked to her coworkers about hoping she could get on in the shop over the winter. Almost everyone in the state park system gets laid off at the end of the season and goes on unemployment unless they have a winter gig. It touched me to think about her living on the edge that way.

At the top of the mountain we stopped for a million dollar view from an observation tower. A kind gentlemen snapped this photo of us and emailed it to me when my batteries died at an unfortunate moment. A random act of kindness, and I received rather than gave.
Hello from West Virginia, almost heaven!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Country Roads Take Me Home

We repeated the Parkways this summer as a scenic way to get to West Virginia, a state that is uncolored on my US map on the window of the RV. I’d heard it is beautiful. And yes, in fact, it is.

West Virginia has a wonderful network of state parks, all admission free. They have taken the natural treasures and developed them for the common man. So far two tram rides, one jet boat, and soon, a railroad state park.

With the state park network having a foothold on camping, providing everything but cable and internet for a reasonable price, private RV parks are almost non-existent. I haven’t had Wifi for days, but I have stayed in some very scenic places: Pipestream, Hawks Nest, Watoga on the Greenbriar River, and Forest camps as well.

I am also in a radio free zone, created so that researchers with America’s largest moving telescope at the Green Bank National Radio Astronomy Observatory can search for evidence of other solar systems like ours. 12,000 acres with no cell towers or radio waves. Big bang, anyone?

Can’t get that John Denver song out of my head. “Country roads, take me home, to the place that I belong, West Virginia, Mountain Mama, take me home, country roads.”The roads wind as we traverse the Appalachians, rising to maybe 4,000 feet. That’s tall for very old eroded mountains. Once we put a destination into our Garmain and instead of the main roads, we went on a windy twisty adventure. Underneath the canopy of the forest, mountain laurels were popping with pale pink blooms, much like the dogwood of East Texas in the spring. Still very few rhodies. Whenever I sighted one I felt like a bird watcher logging a rare bird. Two weeks from now the woods will be bursting with pink. Appalachian spring is wonderful.

I love that the barns are unpainted here, filled with square hay bales, bringing back memories of stacking them in the barn of my childhood, creating grand staircases and rooms and castles smelling of fresh hay. I love that the rhododendron planted 60 years ago right by the front door of a house is now larger than the house, and the homeowners have abandoned using the front door rather than cut it back. I love the peonies, planted close to the road so that passersby can admire their pink and white and purple blooms. I love the flame azaleas, bursts of fiery orange in the landscape.

I can see most things here from John Denver’s song, Almost heaven, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.There’s just one line where I think the writer gave up on a rhyme that makes sense: Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze.  ????What????

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A little bit of history

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I love history. So anytime I get near something significant I have to stop. And Andrew Johnson’s hometown of Greeneville TN did not disappoint. He was the Democratic VP chosen by Lincoln, a Republican. Lincoln chose him because he thought he was a good man. The party philosophies back then were not what they are today, so let’s just say they had different ideologies but saw eye to eye on slavery. Even though he was from Tennessee, Johnson did not vote to leave the Union with his state.

After Lincoln was shot, Johnson became president and was totally at odds with Congress over the Reconstruction. He was a strict Constitutionalist, believing in preserving states rights. His politics got him impeached by the House, but he was not removed from office by the Senate. One Republican vote saved him. All this you can learn in a 14 minute film, or by reading the displays at the National Park Service site.
I have respect for a man who was so poor that his mother apprenticed him as a tailor when he was but a child, who taught himself to read and rose to the highest office in the land. He never gave up his ideals.

Greeneville is historic as one of the oldest towns in Tennessee, and it is clean and manicured. Not far east of the town is the birthplace of Davy Crockett. Now that’s something, eh?