Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Door County, Wisconsin

Door County is that long peninsula on the eastern side of Wisconsin that jets up from Green Bay into the beautiful blue waters of Lake Michigan. It is also the place you hear a lot about and is highly recommended for a visit. Dotted along the coast of the peninsula are numerous pretty little towns that exude their own character and charm. We stayed in the northern part of the peninsula in a little town called Ellison Bay.

Our days were busy driving along winding roads dropping into village harbors and exploring the beauty of Wisconsin. Luck had it we arrived on a weekend when the nearby town of Sister Bay was having their annual Marina Fest. The harbor filled with boats, food vendors fired up their grills and fryers, music graced the outdoor amphitheater, and the downtown population swelled to carrying capacity. It was a good ole’ small town family event with bounce houses, the library’s annual book sale, kids building toy boats, a pancake breakfast, and more.


One of the most famous places in Sister Bay is Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Boutique. We didn’t go there to eat their famous Swedish pancakes and meatballs instead we wanted to see their unique attraction which are goats on the grass roof.  Every day, the goats are transported from their 40-acre farm to the restaurant where they spend their day grazing on the grass roof and entertaining tourists. Goats on the roof actually started as a joke when one of Johnson’s friends brought him a goat named Oscar and someone decided to put it on the roof. The goat was so popular with pedestrians they decided to add a few more and the roof filled with goat antics. In 1996, Johnson registered the “Goats on the Roof” trademark so that other restaurants in the United States can not have goats on their roofs. The goats are so popular there is even a goat cam so you can watch them from far away.


Just a few miles from the RV park in Ellison Bay we found Island Orchard Cider House which was beckoning us for a tasting. This family-owned and run cidery marries Bob and Yannique Purman's interest in French cider with their love of Door County. Travels to northern France exposed the Purmans to the dry complex refreshing ciders which take on champagne characteristics that have been made in France since the middle ages. This type of cider did not exist in the United States and the Purmans wanted to introduce this French-style cider to the American palate melding it with their Door County-grown apples. So they introduced a litmus of cultivars from France, England and America to see what would thrive in the area's climate and rocky limestone. What you have now are a variety of delicious ciders that are infused with apple, pear, and cherry that offer a great partnership to a wide range of foods. The tasting room experience is more than just a few samples, it is an interesting lesson in the company's past and development.


Right down the street was the best farm stand located in the most unique and intriguing building. For days we speculated as to what the old building's original purpose was and came up with some pretty wild ideas. None of which were right. The historic building was constructed as lodging for migrant workers who helped this agriculturally rich area thrive. We talked to the owner who mentioned that even today housing for workers is in short supply making it hard to find and keep good help. Today the inside is a farm stand and store selling locally made products. We suggested she add RV hook-ups and hire seasonal work campers. It looked like a lovely place to work if you ask us.


We found Door County very charming and it provided all of the things we like in an area…small towns, blue water, and big trees.  There are numerous state parks and nature preserves that allowed us to get a good hike in most every day and appease Spirit.  This is certainly an area we would return to someday. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Exploring Coastal Minnesota Along Lake Superior

It was hard to leave Ely and the northwoods of Minnesota but a broken toilet had us on the move heading to a repair center.  We hated to cut our Minnesota adventure short and decided to take the “scenic” route and hug the coast of Lake Superior making sure we saw some of the area's famous waterfalls and quaint coastal towns.  Leaving Ely we took County Road 1 east to Grand Marais which was a little hairy driving with windy roads and no shoulder but it was the prettiest drive of the summer and we were in awe of the rustic beauty that was the northwoods of Minnesota.  We hoped to catch a glimpse of the elusive moose before leaving Superior National Forest and were sure the woodlands and wetlands along this drive were going to produce, but it was not to be.  All along the drive were places we wanted to pull over and explore by foot or kayak or just stop and gaze for a few hours.  It was a stretch of rustic, unpopulated wilderness with eye-catching scenery.  As we emerged from our spectacular woodsy drive we descended upon the rocky northern coastline of Lake Superior which gave us a slight feeling of being back in Maine and its beautiful coastline. 

The first town we visited was Grand Marais which has made a name for itself with an outdoorsy adventurous spirit and an artsy vibe.  Outside Magazine named it one of the “Top 10 Beach Getaways,” “The Next Great Adventure Town” was National Geographic Adventure Magazine’s description, and it scored the “Coolest Small Town in America” accolade by Budget Travel

The town of Grand Marais is home to just shy of 2,000 residents but that swells to carrying capacity in the summer when many wanderers are attracted to the town where outdoor adventure, arts, and music co-mingle.  The town wraps around a protected harbor guarded by a lighthouse and breakwater which doubles as an inspiring subject for painters and photographers and where others cast a line or take a dip in the cool waters on warm summer days.  Grand Marais is a gateway to the southeastern portion of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Gunflint Trail (a historic foot path for travelers and fur traders from inland lakes to Lake Superior) and a place where arts and native crafts are celebrated with the many galleries and the North House Folk School.  The North House Folk School’s mission is to enrich lives and build community by teaching traditional northern crafts in a student-centered learning environment that inspires the hands, the heart and the mind.  Classes include boat building, jewelry, wood carving, sailing, outdoor skills, bread baking and many more.  This is the kind of place you wished you lived near to take advantage of their offerings.


When you camp in Grand Marais you will most likely stay at the only game in town - the Grand Marais Campground and Marina - which is within walking distance of downtown and sits right on the harbor making for a perfect location. 20170823_072610The sites are nothing spectacular and you are quite close to your neighbor but what you trade for site quality is offset by being close to town.  You don’t have to be in Grand Marais long before you’ll hear about the famed eatery which loftily boasts the name World’s Best Donuts – a five generation donut shop.  They open at 6:30 a.m. and close when they are sold out of donuts so what does that tell you?  We opted to get there at 7 a.m. to ensure we did not miss out on the pillowy sweetness.  To make a fair evaluation of the claim we thought it necessary to try more than one. O.k., we had four.   Although not the “world’s best” in our humble opinions they were very good and worth the calories.  Another eatery that came with great reviews and an awesomely creative menu to match was The Crooked Spoon.  The small restaurant fills up fast so we took a seat in the rooftop bar (which also serves food) while waiting on our table.  The food was amazing and certainly the best “fine dining” meal we ate in a while.

One afternoon, we ventured north of Grand Marais about 20 miles to Judge C.R. Magney State Park on a quest to see some of the waterfalls this region is known for.  The most popular hike takes you upstream along the Brule River to a place called “Devil's Kettle.”  Here the river splits around a mass of volcanic rock where half of the river plunges 50 feet into a pool, while the other half pours into a huge pothole.  While the hike to the falls is not very long there are just shy of 186 steps (yes, I counted them) that you must climb on your way back to the trail head.  Driving south to the town of Two Harbors you will pass numerous state parks with spectacular waterfalls.  Exposed lava beds now smoothed by thousands of years of rushing water make for dramatic scenery and popular tourist attractions.


Burlington Bay Campground in Two Harbors was our next stop for a quick two night stay.  The campground sits right on the bay and some of the campsites have great views.  There is a walking path (the Sonju Trail) that leaves from the campground and winds down to the Two Harbors shoreline where the popular activity is to walk out the breakwater to the lighthouse and watch the Great Lakes freighters being loaded with iron ore at the docks.  You also pass the Two Harbors Light which is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in the state of Minnesota dating back to 1892.  The lighthouse is part museum open to the public and part bed and breakfast for those who always wanted to know what it is like to sleep in a lighthouse.  The other claim to fame of Two Harbors is that it is where the company 3M was founded.  There is a museum open to the public describing the company’s beginnings and rise of the company.


Two Harbors marked the end of our month-long trip through Minnesota.  While our stay in the state was short we visited a cross-section of places and squeezed in a lot.  From touring a paper mill, finding the birthplace of the bus industry, hiking to waterfalls, paddling the boundary waters, catching walleye to eating some great food we had a great time and vowed to come back to the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Outdoor Adventure in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota

Once we drove into the town of Ely we knew it was our kind of place.  We were up in the northeast portion of Minnesota where woods and water abound.  Here we found a small (population of barely 3,400), outdoorsy, and surrounded by public land area with lots of water and tall green trees that made our faces light up with excitement and a feeling of “belonging” and that we were going to be very busy.  The town’s main street is lined with outfitters ready to strap a canoe on your car and set you off into the land of lakes where traveling requires a paddle and life preserver.  The "Mayberry" feel of this town overcomes you when you drive by the centrally-located park filled with picnickers laughing and kids playing on jungle gyms.  Everyone comes to town on Tuesday evenings in anticipation to see what will show up at the Farmers Market then migrates through the town as the stores shake off a sleepy weekday evening with Tuesday Night Live where downtown is a buzz with live music, great restaurants, tours and shopping.  The diverse downtown has a brewery, just down the street from the store selling hand-made mukluks which is near the wildlife art gallery and across the street from a chocolatier.  Oh yes, we fell in love with this town and its’ outdoor adventure hipster vibe quickly understanding why it is one of National Geographic Traveler’s “50 Places of a Lifetime.”

The draw of this area is the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) which are overseen by the federal government. Great glaciers carved the land by scraping and gouging rocks leaving behind rugged cliffs, gentle hills, craggy rock faces, sandy beaches, and thousands of lakes and streams speckled with islands and bounded by forest. We must say that it was pretty spectacular.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Our First Taste of Minnesota - Duluth and Grand Rapids

Some little voice in my travel head said Duluth was going to be a pretty cool Minnesota town.  And, based on reports from friends who had been there we decided to check it out.  So after spending two months in Michigan we left it in our rear view mirror and ventured west to the land of Ten Thousand Lakes to spend some time in a state we had not visited in the RV.20170801_211141

Duluth has a vibrant downtown so we decided to stay right where the action was.  Some friends had mentioned the Lakehead Boat Basin Marina and RV Park which is within walking distance of the Canal Park District so we decided to give it a try.  Here’s the thing to know about the Boat Basin … it is a parking lot.  Yep, that means pavement with barely a few strips of grass for your dog to pee on.  This is not a “campground or RV resort” it is a parking lot.  But, what you give up in amenities (like grass) you gain in location and a great view of the iconic lift bridge.

There are many reasons to stay in downtown Duluth which has a very high walk-ability rating with restaurants, breweries, distillery, shopping, and attractions all within a few mile radius.  The first thing you notice about Duluth is their most famous landmark - the Aerial Lift Bridge – which has been in operation since 1905.  Duluth (and its sister town of Superior, Wisconsin) are major shipping ports on the Great Lakes where iron ore, coal, limestone, and agricultural products are always on the move.  The 900-ton lift bridge climbs slowly up in the air (nearly 200 feet) to let the thousand foot long Great Lakes freighters and other boats glide through the channel. 


During the busy season the bridge may rise and fall up to 26 times a day which draws thousands of tourists to watch the action.  The bridge and canal are operated and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who also operate the Lake Superior Marine Museum and Maritime Visitor Center (which is free).  The museum is filled with information about local shipping, historical facts about Lake Superior shipwrecks, and resurrected artifacts from sunken ships.  A computer board displays times and information about ships passing through the canal so you can time your visit to watch the bridge in action.  Decades ago, pedestrians were able to ride on the bridge when it was raised. But, this was outlawed in the early 1980's after a horrible accident that claimed the life of a woman when she was crushed by the steel bridge.


Just over the bridge in downtown Duluth is the revitalized downtown district of Canal Park.  If you have just a few hours to spend in Duluth this is the epicenter so start here.  Breweries, restaurants, shopping, a distillery, an aquarium, and museums make up this vibrant area.  We drove in on a Sunday and this place was in full swing with people milling about everywhere.  Running along the water adjacent to Canal Park is the Lakewalk which is a paved path and serves as a great place to get some exercise, or in our case, a conduit to our lunch destination – Fitger’s Brewhouse. 


Fitger’s has graced the waterfront since 1859 when the idea of constructing a brewery was proposed to put people back to work in the trying economic times.  In fact, brewing is said to have been Duluth’s oldest continuously operating industry.  Today, the old brewery is a destination with shopping, a hotel, entertainment, and restaurants.  But we really didn’t come here for the beer it was because I wanted to try a Minnesota wild rice burger.  Minnesota wild rice was sold everywhere – gas stations, welcome centers, souvenir shops – and I definitely bought some poundage.  But, a wild rice burger was new to me and sounded delicious.  This one was amazing and while I was eating this juicy rustic flavored piece of Minnesota my fingers were spontaneously Googling recipes.  Betsy just sits and laughs as she enjoys a real hamburger!  20170731_130644

After our lunch it was time to head back downtown with a stop at Duluth Trading Company – a store that got its start by making the “Bucket Boss” a tool caddy that fits around a five-gallon bucket.  The company has really grown since their start in 1989 now making men's and women's apparel, tool bags and luggage, dog gear, and automotive accessories.  They also invented the much appreciated apparel item call the Longtail T Shirt which is a “cure for plumbers butt” as it stays tucked in when you bend over to tighten a pipe.  Women everywhere thank you.

Betsy and I split our afternoon with her going to the Great Lakes Aquarium and me going to the S.S. William A. Irvin Ore Boat Museum.   The most prominent exhibit in the aquarium is Unsalted Seas which showcases large lakes of the world, the animals that call them home and the importance of freshwater ecosystems around the world.  It features the largest sturgeon touch tank in North America that brings you up close with these prehistoric creatures.

The S.S. Irvin is your opportunity to explore and delve into the Great Lakes shipping industry and the role it played in moving iron ore across the region.  The moored ship is a prominent downtown feature but in 1938 she began her service as a workhorse for US Steel moving up to 13,000 tons of taconite across the Great Lakes until her retirement in 1975.  It was also a favorite ship of dignitaries and elected officials because of the luxury and comfort of her rich mahogany staterooms and comfortable amenities.  While considered technologically advanced at one time she soon became a dinosaur when 1,000-foot long ships graced the waters moving faster, carrying more cargo, and requiring less crew.  Today, the ship is a floating museum open for hour-long guided tours taking you through staterooms, the galley, engine room, and most interesting – the belly of the ship where the taconite was stored.  (Admission to the ship is $7 unless you go on $5 Tuesday.)   


Before leaving Duluth we ventured out of town 25 miles to the Jay Cooke State Park one of the most visited state parks in Minnesota.  The park is known for its rugged beauty and year-round outdoor activities (including hiking, camping, skiing, mountain biking, and lots of ranger-led programs).  One of the most iconic features is the suspension bridge known as the “Swinging Bridge.”  It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 and stretches over 200 feet long across the rapids of the St. Louis River.  Rigid steel cables now support the wood and steel structure, but when it was first built it truly lived up to it’s name.  At the time it was built, the wooden bridge swayed when walked on and was only for true adventure seekers.  The new bridge doesn’t have quite a lot of sway which it was originally known for which was fine for me and Spirit who are not really fans of swinging bridges suspended over rushing rivers.  While we were in the park, we decided to hit the trails for a few miles because our next stop was going to require us to be hungry and burn off some calories. 


The book Hamburger America has been at times a road map for us and on page 149 was Gordy’s Hi-Hat which was 20170802_12142720170802_121830way too close to Duluth for us to pass up.  The owner proudly claims that they are a real deal drive-in with no fancy stuff on their burgers.  Gordy’s opened some 50 years ago and has an amazing following.  We were floored at how many people came there during our visit as there was a constant stream of hungry patrons.  The restaurant is only open six months a year during which time they serve up to 2,000 burgers a day.  The burgers were GREAT!   The simple combination of perfectly seasoned meat, melted cheese, onions and pickle was full of juicy goodness that made us happy. 

On our way to Gordy’s was a truly unique gas station in the little town of Cloquet that deserved a look.  What was the fascination with a gas station you ask?  It was the only one ever designed by the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  Wright had designed a house for a resident of Cloquet named R. W. Lindholm, who happened to be in the petroleum business.  Back in the late 1920’s  Wright designed a gas station to be built in Buffalo, New York which never came to fruition.  Knowing what Lindholm did for a living, he convinced his client to build a gas station that was similar in design to the Buffalo station.  The station opened in 1958 one year before Wright died at the age of 91 and is still in operation today.


After Duluth we ventured on west to Grand Rapids.  What was the attraction to Grand Rapids, you ask?  Well, there was a paper mill open for tours and The Greyhound Bus Museum was nearby. The other major tourist attraction in Grand Rapids is the Judy Garland Museum but we didn’t have enough time because our campground was located on a lake that was known to be a fishing hot spot and once we started fishing we couldn't stop.  Sorry Judy, we’ll see you next go-round.

The Blandon Paper Mill was a fascinating guided tour that started off with a video followed by a tour of the factory guided by a 30-year Blandon veteran.  The paper mill started in 1901 and today is one of North America’s leading producers of lightweight coated magazine and catalog printing papers (which is the only product they make) and one of northern Minnesota’s largest employers.  The paper making process is pretty simple.  Take the raw wood from trees (whose fibers are called “cellulose”) and turn it into “pulp”  which is a watery soupy-like mixture of cellulose, wood fibers, water, lignin and added chemicals.  The next step is to remove the water from the pulp (which makes up nearly 90% of the pulp) which is done by huge machines that pass the pulp through a layered mat which squeezes out the water. Next, the mat passes through heated rollers that removes any remaining water and compresses it into one continuous roll of paper.  The final step is to press the paper into a desired thickness, add coloring, and special chemicals to give it the texture and coating desired.  Rolls are cut to size and packaged for shipping.  Unfortunately, Blandon does not allow photographs to be taken in the plant but I did find this video that illustrates the paper-making process.  This was a very interesting and informative tour and was well worth the two hours it took (and it was free).

A short drive from Grand Rapids is the town of Hibbing which is recognized as the birthplace of the bus industry in the United States and home to the Greyhound Bus Museum.  The museum is filled with thousands of pieces of Greyhound Bus memorabilia and artifacts including 13 buses from years past.  The story of the bus industry started in 1914 when Carl Wickman and Andrew "Bus Andy" Anderson got the idea to charge miners for rides to and from the mines in their Hupmobile vehicle. 


Turns out the miners were good customers and the gentlemen made $11.50 on their first day.  After working long 10-12 hour days in the mines it was a relief to have a ride home.  As ridership increased, the men heard of a company that was building larger vehicles capable of carrying more passengers so they could keep up with demand.  They loaded the passengers onto the new bus but realized the bus unfortunately wouldn’t move.  The overloaded bus was too heavy for the springs which caused the fenders to push down on the tires and act as brakes.  The men changed out the springs and decided to build their own buses.  Wickman and Anderson's simple idea morphed into the bus line known as Greyhound and they retired as millionaires.  


When we arrived at Trout Lake RV Park and Campground in Grand Rapids it was obvious to us and the owner that we were going to be a tight fit in the spot they assigned to us.  The preferred alternative was for us to park down near their pavilion where we had water and electric coupled with a great view of the Trout Lake with beautiful sunsets.  The campground had a little beach and boat launch so we were happy to get our first fishing lines wet and experience this highly recommended lake for fishing.  A Minnesota annual fishing licence was only $45 which when compared to other states was a bargain.  Turns out Betsy found the walleye honey hole while small mouth bass and I were getting acquainted near the grass beds.

Our first taste of Minnesota was filled with lots of attractions mixed in with outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking, and fishing.  Next up, we will be heading to northeastern Minnesota to visit the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area near the Canadian border where we really fell in love with Minnesota!  And so did Spirit.