LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Two English Majors Take A (Mostly) Blue Highways Trip East

Lizzie was sad Monday a week past. She saw those suitcases, and she became clingy, not sure whether she was going with us or not. For her, this time it was the kennel, as Chelsea is gone for schooling and thus her best pal not available for dog-sitting.

Thus, it was that we two English majors made a road trip east, to Iowa for our grandson’s wedding. We took this opportunity to visit some destinations in the Midwest that have been on our list for quite some time.

Our field guide for traveling is very often the book “Novel Destinations: Literary Landmarks from Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West” by Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon (National Geographic, 2008). It has helped us find many wonderful treasures and inspired us on many occasions. When we can, we get the local tour guide to sign and date our copy of the book.

Our first stop was Sauk Centre, Min., the boyhood hometown of the novelist Sinclair Lewis, a place that both of us have driven by hundreds of times but not explored, always in a hurry to get to the Twin Cities. The town was in Lewis’ fiction known as “Gopher Prairie.” Here we enjoyed a hearty lunch in the old Palmer Hotel, where Lewis worked as a boy. I recommend the wild rice chicken salad. It is brought in generous portions, and I put some in our cooler for another lunch along the trail.

The Palmer House is a beautiful old hotel with many interesting items within and “Main Street’ Sauk Centre has lots of well-preserved old buildings.

A word to the wise about traveling to some of these smaller museums and historic houses in the winter. Many have few or restricted hours in the offseason. We arrived at Lewis’ boyhood home five minutes prior to the advertised closing, but someone had locked up early for the day. We were quite satisfied with an explore around the house and left with the knowledge that we still had one of our longest day’s drive before us. That and we have both spent lots of time in homes very much like this in our lives. We’ll go back another day.

In planning the trip, I also checked out three books from the Bismarck Public Library as additional field guides for exploring out-of-the-way places. We vastly prefer blue highway travel and for the more than 2000 miles, we drove we managed that very goal.

In the book “Backroads of Minnesota,” I noted that our route toward Spring Valley, Minn., would take us right by a place neither of us had ever heard of: the Jeffers Petroglyphs, a Minnesota State Historical Society site.

Sure enough, the Visitor’s Center was closed when we arrived; however, we were able to take the walk and enjoy the enchanting petroglyphs accompanied by fine interpretive signs as the sun was low in the west. These are the treasures one finds when one gets off the freeway.

Backroads Minnesota and Iowa take travelers through the agricultural heart of the United States and past lots of corn fields. We enjoyed the various folk art found here and there, especially this crow. We spotted a few crows flying by as well. Blessings to all of the folks who’ve preserved these places.

After a night in a small Minnesota town, we drove on to Iowa, where we stopped north of Decorah at Seed Savers Exchange, a fascinating place located in wooded, hilly rural Iowa, employing a surprising number of local folks. We have in the past ordered many of our gardening seeds from here, and it was fun to see it in person. We stocked up on some seeds for next year and some other delicious delights.

Onward, the trail took us to Decorah, another beautiful and charming small city in the Midwest, home of Luther College. We indulged on some local barbecue and then spent a couple of hours touring the Vesterheim: the National Norwegian-American Museum & Heritage Center, of particular interest to us because we are both of Norwegian ancestry. I recommend a visit there. Do take the guided tour. They even sell bottled water from Norway, and it was particularly tasty!

The Bethania Lutheran Church was brought here from North Dakota, in several pieces, no small feat.

These rosemaling painted trunks were of particular interest to me because my great-grandmother traveled to the United States from Norway with her trunk to Iowa. Sadly, when the family later traveled to the South Dakota prairies, at some point, it was forced to jettison the trunk, filled with her dowry treasures from Norway. The strength of these pioneers leaves me humbled.

Our next stop was the Effigy Mounds National Monument, high on the banks of the Mississippi River, on the border of Iowa and Wisconsin. Here we took a four-mile hike to view the ancient mounds and marvel at the works of humans so many millennia ago. The woods were quiet in the late autumn as we practically had the place to ourselves. The views of the mighty river from the high points were splendid.

We crossed the Mississippi River on an old bridge and entered Wisconsin, headed to Avoca, where we had reservations at an organic farm tucked away in the woods, our first experience with Airbnb, and it was a good one. Thanks to Google maps,we found our way there in the pitch dark and were greeted with wonderful touches, like this delicious cheese.

The next morning, our hosts fed us a bounty of their delectable dishes including freshly pressed apple juice and gave us advice on our travels in their home country. As we drove out of their yard, Tom was off to milk their cows and gave us a friendly wave.

This day’s focus was a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, a place that I’ve been longing to visit for many decades and which I will write more about on another day, it being a worthy topic for a blog of its own. Later, we tucked in for the night in West Branch, Iowa, and wished we had taken in the Wisconsin State Capitol, but alas, there was not enough time.

Day four found us in Des Moines , Iowa, as scheduled, for the wedding rehearsal at Brown’s Woods Forest Preserve and the good company of new members of our extended family. On morning No. 4, we toured the ornate and awe-inspiring Iowa State Capitol, finishing in time for the wedding and reception. The mosaics in the building are not to be missed, and it is one of the loveliest Capitols we have yet toured.

Now it was time to return to the west, and our trail took us in the direction of Lincoln, where at the urgings of knowledgeable friends, we visited the Nebraska State Capitol, again an magnificent building of very different architecture. Nebraska is celebrating 150 years of statehood this year.

At the top of the 400-foot tower of the Nebraska State Capitol is a figure called “The Sower,” “modeled after the traditional method of hand sowing grain for planting, symbolic of agriculture’s role in the development of civilization. … New York sculptor Lee Lawrie represents this timeless symbol of agriculture as a barefoot man …”

Again, the mosaics were beautiful, as were all of the detail throughout the building.

We were traveling toward our destination of Red Cloud (which I will also write about on a later date) and spotted the “brown signs” we like so much, so we quickly routed ourselves to Homestead National Monument, where Jim could get another stamp in his National Park Service Passport book.

The ingenuity of the homesteaders is to be admired. Good for the U.S. and the National Park Service for preserving and interpreting these great places so we can better understand the people who came before us and better appreciate our native country.

We were relieved to be off the freeway traffic and back on our preferred blue highways. Again, we had the place to ourselves due to the autumn season. A cold wind was blowing the cornstalks across the roads, and it was time to tuck in our lodging for the night. A sneak preview: we slept in the writer Willa Cather’s Second Home in Red Cloud and Jim told me (the trip planner of our partnership), “You did great!”

We will forevermore remember that we were in Nebraska when the news of the Mueller indictments came out.

After the briefest of ventures to nearby Kansas, we pointed the Highlander toward South Dakota, where we spent the night on the banks of the Missouri River in Chamberlain. En route, we drove through the sandhills of Nebraska. Overhead, the sandhill cranes flew in the other direction in flock after flock. In my mind, I could imagine their plaintive and distinctive call. We crossed many prairie rivers, including the Platte and the Elkhorn.

Jim’s U.S. Navy blue laundry bag was full of dirty clothes, and it was time to get back to our washer and dryer. It is true: there’s no place like home and, yes, Lizzie jumped with joy when we picked her up.

There must have been some hellacious winds when we were gone. The Red Oak tree is completely bare. We are now hunkered down for the winter. I see a few snowflakes as I write this.

“Wander where there is no trail. Hold on to all that you have received from Heaven but do not think you have gotten anything.”Chuang-Tzu

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