Sunday, September 16, 2007

Midwestern Mouse

No matter how much you like your job, being on vacation is always better (apologies to my boss if she’s reading this). That being said, the Mouses don’t usually go to glamorous beach-and-sand places where the drinks come with little umbrellas. Where do we go? Well, most recently, we went to the Midwest, specifically Minnesota and Wisconsin . Did it rain? Yes. Were there mosquitoes? Yes. Was there frost on the car in the morning? Yes. Gosh, it’s an awful lot like Maine! We went because my aunt and uncle, Terry (she of the Italian beef recipe fame) and Kenny, live on a 200-acre farm not far from the upper Mississippi near the Wisconsin border. The last time I had been there was 26 years ago at Christmas; it’s much nicer to go in September when you can fish and bike and drink beer and float on the rivers.

After arriving in Minneapolis and picking up our fabulous Suzuki Grand Vitara rental car (the motor sounded like a moped when we’d go uphill), we stopped briefly in Hastings, MN, the first town on the Great River, just so we could see the Mississippi and get a feel for what was in store. We had lunch in Red Wing (famous for this as well) at the Staghead and then climbed Barn Bluff for great views of the river and town. Continuing south along the river, we passed through Lake City, Wabasha (setting for the Grumpy Old Men movies) and Kellogg (we were too late for the reputedly amazing LARK toy store and museum). We ended up in Winona for the night where there’s not too much going on even with the college in town, but we found Bub’s (pronounced “Boobs” – hee hee), a great place for a beer. Dinner (meh) was at Jefferson’s, an old train depot.

Since we had planned to get to the farm a little after noon on Sunday, we drove a loop away from the Mississippi through Stockton (ravaged by the August 18th flood), Rochester (home of the Mayo Clinic) and Lanesboro. Lanesboro is tiny and adorable and appears to subsist entirely on tourism: you can ride bicycles on the converted rails-to-trails and you can paddle/tube the Root River. You can also have handmade brats with grainy mustard, sauerkraut, spaetzle and home-brewed root beer at Das Wurst Haus, all served to live accordion music. After that brief lunch, we made our way to the farm where we settled into the Granary (which they’ve converted into outstanding guest quarters) and then drove to the boathouse on the Mississippi. We took a tour of the river’s backwaters (ducks, geese, egrets, white pelicans, cormorants) on their pontoon boat; Kenny is an avid sportsman and conservationist, and has a wealth of knowledge about this area. Dinner was sauerkraut and Canadian bacon pizza at Happy Joe’s – way better than it sounds, I promise - and Fat Squirrel beer, bottled by the New Glaurus brewery. That night, tucked into bed in the Granary, we fell asleep to the coyotes singing in the fields.

On Monday it rained and rained, so Terry and Ken took us on a driving tour of the area. The flood and mudslide damage from the “big rain” was just unbelievable on both sides of the Mississippi: railroad tracks knocked off the ties, roads and bridges buckled, whole houses swept off their foundations. After checking out the rain-drenched view from Great River Bluff State Park, we had Chicago-style hotdogs for lunch, picked up Hmong egg rolls for dinner and stopped in for ice cream (I tasted the cult flavor Blue Moon but went with something chocolaty and caramel-y instead). The rain let up enough for us to take a walk with the dogs on the farm’s tractor road, edging around the recent washouts, and then it was a tasty stir-fry and those egg rolls for dinner.

The next day was sunny and clear, with wind gusts up to 35 mph. Ken and Mr. Mouse attempted some fishing anyhow; the fish were deemed “sparse” upon their return. We four then went over the river to Wisconsin for a 22-mile round trip bicycle ride on the Great River State Trail from Midway to Trempealeau and back again, taking a break at the hotel in Trempealeau for Fat Squirrel beers and sandwiches we’d packed. Mr. Mouse had to buy the first round of beers: Ken bet him that Terry would be able to talk non-stop for the whole 11-mile ride. The return trip was much quicker as the wind gusts were at our backs, but I was still wishing for padded bike shorts by the time we were done. Dinner was a fish fry: crappie and bluegill filets, none caught that morning.

Wednesday was also sunny and clear, but not windy and thus deemed perfect for floating on the Root River from Lanesboro to Whalan. Terry and Ken have the coolest little one-person float-boats (also these) I’ve ever seen: a metal frame with a backed seat, mounted on two pontoons and steered with two oars. So very fun. The river was a lot higher than normal, due to all the recent rain, so it was hardly necessary to row; this trip usually takes five or so hours but we did it in under four. The boys fished off and on, while Terry read in the calm stretches and I just bobbed around, admiring the scenery. After putting the gear away, the boys and I headed to the Mississippi for some pre-dinner fishing and then we all had dinner together (with lefse!) at the boathouse.

We left Terry and Ken’s farm the next morning for some exploration on our own, heading across the river to WI. During breakfast at a diner in Stoddard, we saw an ad for the Vernon County Fair in Viroqua, so off we went for a couple of hours. After continuing south on the Great River Road to Prairie du Chien, we took scenic 60 East along the Wisconsin River, passing through Spring Green and Sauk City, before arriving in Madison. We had burgers and beer at the Great Dane Brewing Company (Mr. Mouse’s burger had one beef patty and one bratwurst patty and was served on a pretzel dough roll). We then had postprandial beers at a great bar, the Old Fashioned Tavern, located at the feet of the beautiful capitol building.

Friday was our last full day. We had breakfast at Monty’s Blue Plate Diner in a funky Madison neighborhood, and then explored the University’s campus a bit. The school is huge, but quite pretty, located on the shores of Lake Mendota. We headed out of town along the lake shore and then hightailed it via the interstate back to the Mississippi River, where we continued on the Great River Road, but this time going north. We passed through Alma, Pepin and lovely little Stockholm, finally crossing the river one last time at Prescott. After checking into our hotel (located right next to the behemoth Mall of America), we drove into Minneapolis since we had gotten tickets to the Twins game that night. We got a great parking spot and then stopped for pre-game beers at Dan Kelly’s Irish pub (and watched the first inning of the Red Sox v. Yankees game) and Hubert’s sports bar (across the street from the Metrodome; second inning of the Yankees game). Although the Twins lost to the Tigers 4-2, we got to eat brats and drink Summit ESB, and Mr. Mouse scored a blaze-orange Twins baseball hat for me, offering the girl sitting next to us $5 for it. We left a little before the game was over and quickly made it back to our hotel for a nightcap in the bar (and the 8th and 9th innings of the Yankee game).

That was it. We had to get up EARLY the next morning to scrape the frost off our car before turning it into Budget where they had misread the starting mileage and thought we’d put 5,000 miles on it (it was more like 900). It was an easy trip home again and now we’re slogging through the laundry and battling post-vacation depression. It was a great trip. And I can guaran-goddamn-tee you that it won’t take another 26 years before we go back.

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