A Note to the Surfer

We took almost no pictures between Wall, SD, and Lexington, MA. Sometimes the weather was uncongenial; other times we were too focused on covering ground. The result is a long stretch of narrative and very few photographs. Nevertheless, we've put them into a gallery for the sake of consistency. The narrative is divided into two parts, mainly because the Web editing program had trouble handling such a long file. At the end of this first part, you'll find a link leading you to the second. (If for some weird reason you want to go there right this minute, click here.)

The Corn Palace

Click to enlarge this route mapWe celebrated our freedom from schedule by sleeping until eight the next morning. After breakfast at the motel, we were on the road by 9:50. I-90 was easy driving eastward through rolling grasslands on both sides. We saw some cattle, but few signs of agriculture until we got near Mitchell, SD at about 1:30. (This immediately became 2:30, as we entered the Central Time Zone at that point.)

The Corn Palace -- click to enlargeWe spent some time on a visit to the famous Corn Palace. The murals on the outside celebrated the bicentenary of the Lewis and Clark expedition — not very colorfully, because the murals are made entirely of corn, both whole ears and individual kernels. They come in more colors than you’d think likely, but the spectrum is still a bit limited. It’s also possible that these had faded a bit. New murals are done every fall, and the ones we were looking at had been in place for the better part of a year.

Some of South Dakota’s fiercest basketball games take place on the main floor of the Corn Palace, but during the summer this space is filled with a bazaar selling gifts, knicknacks, and snacks all made from or related to corn. Dorothea sought out a gift for the friend who, she thought, had told us to be sure not to miss the Corn Palace. (When we got home, we found that this friend had, in fact, never heard of the place; the recommendation was from someone else. But she was pleased, nevertheless, with the candles we brought her, shaped like little ears of corn.)

There were more snack and souvenir shops in a small plaza across the street. The Corn Palace is quite a tourist attraction, probably because there isn’t a whole lot else to look at in this part of South Dakota. We ate lunch at a shop that sold fruit cups, sandwiches, and esophagus-aching frozen lemonade. Nearby I bought a Corn Palace refrigerator magnet to memorialize our visit.

First Stop: Pipestone, MN

We filled the gas tank and got back on the highway at 3:45 (CDT). There was now some end-of-the-weekend traffic, and driving was a little more stressful. As we approached Minnesota, we decided to detour north to Pipestone to spend the night and, we hoped, to buy a piece of pipestone for Dorothea’s friend Wendy, a part-time sculptor. The town is the site of a famous pipestone quarry that Native Americans consider sacred, particularly for carving peace pipes. It has been made into a National Monument, and only Indians are allowed to quarry the stone there. Dorothea looked up a motel in the AAA tour book — we were carrying all of them with us — and phoned from the car to make reservations.

Our detour took us 25 miles north of the interstate, but it was a relaxing drive through gently rolling, green country. We could see farms here and there at various distances from the road, each with a cluster of trees around the homeplace. The farms, where both stock raising and cultivation were carried on, were very pretty in the late afternoon light. It looked to us as if the family farm wasn’t dead yet, at least in that neighborhood, but soon after passing through Jasper, MN, we did see a large elevator bearing the name of Cargill, with a sign pointing toward their property — so Agribusiness has at least one foot in the door.

At Pipestone, we ate in the local distinguished restaurant, the Calumet Inn. Well, at least we ate in the bar, the restaurant being closed on Sunday night. Dorothea enjoyed her fried chicken strips, and my sirloin steak sandwich with mushrooms was also good, as were the fries and Texas Toast that went along with both. I had a big stein of Leinenkugel’s Creamy Dark Lager, and that was pretty good too. But the service was glacially slow, as the place had been left in the charge of a raw trainee who had to take care of both the bar and the tables. We decided to forget about dessert there and drove to a place called the Villager that served ice cream.

While we were waiting for our food in the Calumet bar, we couldn’t help listening to a family discussion going on at an adjacent table. Several grown children had apparently gathered from various distant points to make arrangements for moving their widowed mother into some kind of senior housing and selling the family homestead. They had had a few beers, and their conversation was often too loud to ignore. The poor old lady whose fate they were deciding was sitting with them, but they didn’t seem to be paying much attention to her. When we left, two of the sons were speculating on whether there might be a vein of pipestone under the property (which was apparently near the National Monument grounds) and agreeing that they should find out before setting a price on the place.

We rose at seven, since we were 60 or 70 miles shy of the point I’d thought we might reach the day before, and we still had our local errand to do before we could start covering ground. The motel’s continental breakfast was toast, plus an array of very gooey frosted donuts and similar pastries. To accompany the toast, the hosts, an elderly couple (definition: ‘older than us’), eschewed the usual individual packets of butter, margarine, jelly, etc., and provided plastic squeeze bottles of Kraft Parkay margarine, grape jelly, and strawberry jam. They also put out a shaker full of cinnamon sugar, which Dorothea courageously sprinkled on her dry toast, but I succumbed to the lure of Parkay before putting it on mine. Then, with unbecoming delight, we applied ourselves to the sticky goodies: I had a huge oval pastry of raised-donut consistency, covered with thick maple frosting. It was wickedly delicious. Dorothea ate a chocolate donut with chocolate frosting and chocolate sprinkles, which she also enjoyed lasciviously.

We then set forth in search of pipestone. Some was available at a place called “Fort Pipestone,” built to resemble a stockade that the early settlers had hastily thrown up to protect themselves during the Sioux uprising of 1862. The price of their pipestone was low, but we learned that it came from a nearby farm that belonged to the shop owners, not from the quarry reserved for Native Americans. Because Wendy’s sculpture has religious significance for her — she’s the pupil of a Native American spiritual teacher — it was important to get stone that came from the Indians’ quarry. We headed to the National Monument’s visitor center, where a very helpful ranger told us where in the town we could find a shop kept by one of the Indian quarriers. No raw stone is sold at the visitor center, only finished pieces made by Indian craftspeople who work there in a sort of exhibit area. We bought a few inexpensive examples for gifts.

Little Feather Center -- click to enlargeSince we really didn’t have time to walk around and see the quarry, we went immediately to the Little Feather museum and shop. We didn’t meet the quarrier himself, whose Anglo name is Chuck Derby (Running Elk is his Sioux name), but the Native American woman in charge of the shop was helpful and sympathetic, and Dorothea was able to buy two fine pieces of stone.

Lunch in Spam City

Click to enlarge this route mapWe left Pipestone at about 9:50, and found the driving quite easy most of the way. Back on I-90, we stopped for gas in Albert Lea, MN, and for lunch a few miles later in Austin, which proudly bills itself as “Spam City, USA,” because Hormel’s main Spam production facility is located there. (A billboard advertising the local Spam Museum was headed “Aw, c’mon. It’s free.”)

Spam City or not, this delicacy did not appear on the menu of the Sterling Café, where we ate, and I can’t say that either of us missed it much. I ordered a tuna sandwich and got instead a tuna-flavored mayonnaise sandwich; Dorothea had better luck with her BLT. I had noticed brownies on the menu and ordered one for dessert. I was quite surprised by what I got: a 6-inch square piece of very flat chocolate cake, ¾ of an inch high and surmounted by ¼ inch of thick icing. I quartered it and it looked like four full-sized frosted brownies — but what was under the icing was still cake. That said, it was pretty tasty, and I was able to give Dorothea one of its four quarters and still feel pretty stuffed.

Second Stop: Tomah, WI

The farms of Minnesota seemed to go on forever, with few trees in sight. The day was hot and humid, so the air was hazy, though the wind was strong enough to require a good grip on the steering wheel. When we got close to the Mississippi River, the land became hilly and forested, a welcome relief. We came down from a high bluff to cross the river, which was very wide at that point — perhaps a mile — but a marker told us that it was only nine feet deep. We crossed the river to Wisconsin, still on I-90, where the wooded landscape continued.

Driving got a bit hairy just after our crossing. For a few minutes it felt like the Mass Turnpike or I-84 in Connecticut. But this didn’t last long, and we reached the Lark Inn in Tomah, WI (where Dorothea had again phoned to make a reservation) by four o’clock. This was where I had thought we might be by that night, so we had now caught up with our unscheduled schedule.

The Lark Inn was a pleasant, comfortable, rambling sort of place, not another example of cookie-cutter motel architecture. It looked as if it had been added to at various times over the years, and had individual cabins as well as connected units. We got one of the latter — a bigger room than we paid for, because the woman who took Dorothea’s reservation call upgraded us when she found that all the rooms in the class they’d agreed on were taken. The room was decorated in a patchwork “country” style which, although it may not have been the epitome of sophistication, at least reflected the taste of the owners rather than a motel chain’s decorating consultant.

As advised by the people at the desk, and also the AAA book, we went for dinner to Burnstad’s European Café, where we ordered the Monday special, roast pork loin with cherry sauce. We started with soup — creamy wild rice for Dorothea and chicken with spaetzle for me. Both were very good. We found the pork loin excellent, though the sauce —also available on chicken — narrowly avoided coming too close to cherry pie filling. However, it was neither oversweetened nor thickened in any way, and what it may have lacked in complexity it made up in liveliness. We both also had potatoes au gratin, not a complete success. I said to Dorothea that it’s probably only in Wisconsin that we’d find potatoes au gratin that really ought to be called “cheese aux pommes de terre.” I had a glass of chardonnay (Lindemann’s), and we couldn’t resist ordering dessert — it was impossible to avoid being seduced by the big dessert case everyone has to pass on the way in — but neither my apple strudel nor Dorothea’s chocolate cake was a huge success.

Heading for Green Bay

Rain had been predicted during the night, but none fell. This was fortunate, because we discovered as soon as we pulled out of the motel parking lot that we had left the moon roof open.

Click to enlarge this route mapThe day’s route included very few miles of interstate — it was mostly two-lane blacktop or cement roads running straight east or northeast through woods and occasional small towns. For the most part, the land was nearly as flat as the Central Valley of California, but the farms were smaller and the trees abundant. In choosing our destination, I had allowed plenty of time for traffic or rain delay, but neither materialized, and it was soon clear that we could have covered more territory in the time we planned to spend driving. However, we had made reservations in Menominee and decided not to change plans.

We bought gas at Waupaca but were in Green Bay before we felt ready to stop for lunch, a little after 12:30. We found Hansen’s, part of a Wisconsin dairy chain that serves sandwiches (all subs of various kinds) as well as ice cream. Dorothea had a small turkey and bacon sub, toasted, and I ordered a small Italian, with everything, on a cheese-and-herb roll. The result, while not exactly North End style, was impressively good, and Dorothea pronounced her sandwich the best of the trip. I drank root beer, and Dorothea tried a Mountain Dew, but she didn’t take advantage of the free refill when someone she asked assured her that it was chock-full of caffeine. She resisted the ice cream, but I didn’t, and tried maple walnut. Its quality was very high — no doubt a point of Wisconsin pride.

It was very early afternoon when we got to Marinette, on the Wisconsin side of the Menominee River. Menominee, MI, our destination, was just across the bridge. We put our extra time to good use by finding the Marinette public library, logging onto the Net, and checking our email. (In my case, that meant deleting most of it — not only spam but advertisements I didn’t mind getting but had no interest in at the moment.)

We got to the motel in Menominee a little before four. It’s right on the shore of Green Bay (an arm of Lake Michigan), and our room was on the lake side, but since it was 91° and humid, we weren’t tempted to go outside.

As per our usual custom on the trip, we went for an early dinner, walking across two empty parking lots on our side of the street to Schloegel’s Family Restaurant, which both our desk lady and the AAA recommended. They didn’t serve alcohol, which made the German sausage plate less attractive to me than it would have been otherwise, but I was happy enough to order stewed chicken with dumpling (singular, but sizeable) and drink iced tea. They gave me my choice of light meat, dark meat, or both, so I opted for dark and had two big legs to contend with, plus stuffing and beets. Instead of salad, I started with a scoop of cottage cheese. Dorothea had salad, then Canadian Walleye (i.e., pike), lightly breaded and pan-fried, with French fries and beets. She found the fish delicate and slightly sweet. For dessert, we both had pie from the bakery that operates in tandem with the restaurant: custard for me, rhubarb with vanilla ice cream for Dorothea. It was an excellent meal at an excellent price: $25.00 plus tip for the two of us.

Bench outside our motel room -- click to enlargeOn the way back we strolled toward a bench that overlooked Green Bay in back of our room. It looked like an attractive place to sit for a while, but we changed our minds quickly when clouds of mosquitoes appeared.

While we were eating, we had overheard some local people predicting that the weather would cool off the next day after a thunderstorm. We decided that we’d be happy to get that out of the way during the night — for one thing we’d remembered to close the moon roof, and for another the car desperately needed washing.


The Way Home, continued        > Top of this page


This section last updated 12-24-2004

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