Billings, Montana 6/11 – 6/16

Billings, Montana:  Population =  157,048 (metropolitan area = 166,855), elevation = 3,123 feet, Average January low temp = 15.6º, Average July high temp = 89.4º, average rainfall = 33.08”, Average snowfall = 55”

We are doing the 80 MPH speed limit on Interstate 90 and still, people fly by us on their way to Somewhere.  I guess when the distances are so great between Here and There, the locals tend to grow a heavy right foot.  The landscape changes from flat to steep, plateau to valley, dotted with bushes to covered with pines.  We pass over a final ridge and there, off in the distance, I see tall buildings, stark against a backdrop of snow covered peaks.  Looks like an interesting shot so I grab my phone, turn it on, unlock it, bring up the camera app…  and the shot is gone.  In its place is a massive refinery.  Columns bristle from a maze of pipes.  Flames sprout from a thick dark pillar of steel.  A smell like burnt asphalt pervades the area.

All this hardware turns crude oil into money

In a way, the refinery hints at what Billings is all about.  Billings is a working-man’s town; it is not pretty, but it has a job to do.  It lies along a river, but, more importantly, it lies along a railroad.  There are tracks right up snug to the downtown that carry endless cars full of oil and coal to caches near and far.  The downtown tapers off into small industrial businesses and warehouses to the East.  Older, drab residential neighborhoods lie South.  The newer housing and retail developments sprawl to the West.  To the North, high up on the ridge of Rimrock, is an eagle’s eye view of the whole city.

Looking East toward the city and refineries
Looking West toward the outer ‘burbs and the Front Range of the Rockies

There are a few interesting things to do in Billings.  TripAdvisor points out a mansion tour, art galleries, museums.  We visited the Western Heritage Center.  The building looks historic outside, but sadly, the displays inside were just kind of a jumble of various old stuff they collected.  The one high point was “The Real West” collection of quotes and photos from the pioneers.  These are a rare, often poignant, glimpses into another time.  (I hope you can read the text)

Another interesting thing we found to do was to visit the Pictograph Cave.  We learned that a pictograph is painted on a wall, a petroglyph is carved into it.  After a long drive to the outback and a fairly grueling (for us) climb up the side of the cliff to the cave, we found ourselves in a half bowl shaped indentation in the limestone cliff.  Close examination revealed just a few dots to me.  The drawings of what used to be there just make it all the more tragic that the paint has faded away and flaked off.

The trail to the Pictograph Cave is steep and winding
Details of the cave paintings, as seen long ago
Above the row of dots, there are a row of red rifles. Can you see them?

Running around town, we found a few good restaurants, some fun stores, and a LOT of breweries.  On the day before we left, there was the Alive After Five mini-festival.  Every week, all summer, they pick a downtown block to close off then they set up a stage for a band, and a row of food, beer, and drink tents.  The weather was fine and the band was good.  Great people watching.

The Scheels superstore has wildlife displays
Alive After Five celebrates summer in Billings

Montana is an outdoor tourism state.  If you are going hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, skiing, or off-roading, Montana is probably going to be lots of fun for you.  If you are just passing through and don’t do any of the outdoorsy things, it is going to be a long trip.  Big, bustling towns are few and far between.  Rentals are scarce and expensive.  Sorry Montana, but I am looking forward to Washington.

Next up:  Manhattan, Montana

Crossing the Prairie 6/5 – 6/11

Crossing the Prairie  6/5 – 6/11

All too soon, our visit to MInnesota, to family and friends comes to an end.  It is time to pack up and roll on down the road.  But where to now?  The West Coast is calling to me again.  After all of our travels, I think the Eugene, Oregon area is still my favorite.  Marylu is not so sure yet.  So there are more cites left for us to see and even some to revisit.

Eugene, OR is lush green, blanketed in tall trees and fields of flowers. Just beyond the distant mountains, Mother Pacific rolls her pretty waves.

From Minneapolis, we take Interstate 94 North and West, heading for North Dakota.  We know from previous experience that North Dakota is, shall we say, “scenery challenged”, so our plan is a series of short stays in hotels as we hop across the state.

On the way to Fargo

Our first stop is Fargo.  Fargo is a busy, industrious city, with a population of over 120,000.  There are lots of great places to eat and drink.  This is also a city with a sense of humor about itself.  At the top of the list of weird things to do in Fargo is to go see the Wood Chipper.  You know the one… from the movie.  (Thanks to Rita and Dagan for a nice visit and some great tourist info!)

 

The Wurst Bier Hall offers a world of sausages and beers
A fine beer and a handsome logo
The world’s most famous wood chipper. Love the sock!

From Fargo, it is a short hop to Bismarck.  This is the capitol of the state, and the capitol building is unusual.  Most capitols have two wings and a dome in the middle.  This one has a round wing, divided into two halves, where the House and Senate meet.  Attached to the round wing is an 18 story office building where most of the state functionaries are located.  No dome but a nice observation deck on the top floor.

Early photo of the North Dakota capitol building shows the two wings
The House chamber features innovative lighting and fine woodwork.

Bismarck is also a great town for food and drink.  We found some very nice breweries who are cooking up some fine beers.  Our favorite place to eat was Sickie’s Garage, who are famous for their burgers.  In between beers and burgers, we visited the State Historical Society Museum and learned a few things.  North Dakota used to be covered by an inland sea and, apparently, dinosaurs came here to die in the mud and be preserved.

Tater Tot Hotdish Burger: tots, corn, green beans, cream of mushroom soup, hamburger. Genius!
Bisons were much larger, with bigger horns, way back when. This guy is fighting two saber tooth tigers.
This monster fish could easily swallow a fisherman whole.  And I would not mess with that turtle behind it either.

Still headed West, the prairie starts to get more interesting.  We start seeing rolling hills.  Those turn into peaks and wide valleys.  At Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the landscape descends into the chaos that is the Painted Canyon.

Ruler straight lines of power cross the prairie grasses
The Painted Canyon shows off a palette of limestone, sandstone, trees, and grasses

At Glendive, Montana, we are, I hope, getting close to the end of the prairie.  The horizon is closer and lumpier.  Not a lot going on in Glendive, but they do have a new brewery.

good luck with the new brewery. So far. so good!

The road to Billings has even more prairie for us; miles and miles of flat grassy lands, broken occasionally by ridges and canyons of pale sandstone.  We are steadily gaining elevation as we cross the vast plateau.  Just as we start to see the signs and buildings and refineries of Billings we spot, far off in the distance, the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains.  We are at the end of the Great Prairie.

The ridges are getting higher, the road is getting steeper

Next up:  Billings, Montana

Plymouth, Minnesota 5/19 – 6/5

Plymouth, Minnesota:  Population =  75,907 (Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area = 3,520,000), elevation = 971 feet, Average January low temp = 3º, Average July high temp = 83º, average days below freezing =  76.2, average days over 90º = 15,  average precipitation = 29.4”, average snowfall = 56.3”

Plymouth is essentially a bedroom community to the West of Minneapolis.  Its big square outline encompasses homes, businesses, parks, theaters, and restaurants.  But mostly homes.  These are nice, well-landscaped middle class homes lining streets with tall canopies of trees.  It is a good place for home and family and, if you work nearby, an easy commute.  If you do not work nearby, Highway 494 is a slow grinding daily crawl into and out of the heart of the anthill.  494 is also the main route to the outstate getaways “up north”, so Summer Friday afternoons are a brutal slow moving traffic torture.

A big shiny office building in Plymouth
Driving through Plymouth. Not rush hour.

But it is not necessary to flee the Metro Area for a little R&R.  Right there in the heart of the city is Medicine Lake.  On the West side there is a small beach area with a playground, some trails, and benches from which to contemplate rippling water and roaring speedboats.  On the North end of the lake is French Regional Park, which has a full range of sports and games for all seasons.  (Closed due to road construction)

A little early for swimming, but there are plenty of hikers and bikers out enjoying Medicine Lake.
Big houses and fast toys abound on the lake

Otherwise, Plymouth is not a real exciting place to visit.  It is a good place to hang our hats for a while so we can meet up with the family and friends we have been missing for the past year.  Rather than sightseeing this time around, we are mostly people seeing.  Every day we are off to restaurants and homes to meet up with old friends.  You know who you are and we love you.  We also value your privacy so we won’t post photos of everyone here.

Just outside Plymouth, the Ridgedale Mall has kind of a dome
Part of an art display in the mall

There was one place in Plymouth the did get me a little excited: the post office.  We use a mailing service based in Sioux Falls, SD.  Every month or so we request our mail, which is then sent out to where we request it.  This month I chose General Delivery in Plymouth.  I slogged through the USPS web sites until I located the main Plymouth office and it said “General Delivery” under services, so I had the mail sent there.  I used the Tracking Number to see where my mail was until it got delivered to Plymouth.  Then I went to claim it…

“I am here to pick up some General Delivery mail”, I said, showing my ID.

“No General Delivery here”, the postal troll squawked.

“Your web site says General Delivery is here”, I pleaded.

“No General Delivery here.  You go downtown!”

“The web site said here.  The tracking number says it is here”, I moaned.

“No General Delivery here.  You go downtown!”  the troll gibbered.

Then he turned and walked over to a bin, reached in, and pulled out my envelope.  Handing it to me he says, ““No General Delivery here.  You go downtown!”

“OK”, I say, “I go downtown!”

You go downtown!

Enough to drive me to drink.  There are no breweries in Plymouth, but fortunately, there are several nearby.  We found some old favorites and some new places to explore the brewer’s art.  For some reason that escapes me, sours are more common now.  I still like beer flavored beer.

Besides seeing all of the friends and family, the most fun part of this visit was the Segway Tour.  We did the Magical History Tour, which starts in the historical St. Anthony Main district.  Our guides were fun and knowledgable and pointed out the many historic sites along the way.  Riding a Segway is amazing!  It takes just a few minutes to get the hang of it and then it seems natural and intuitive and effortless.  You get to pity the poor people who have to go about on foot.

St. Anthony Main historical district
Marylu leads the way
The Stone Arch Bridge with old flour mills in the background
Since 1940, the iconic Grain Belt Beer sign has been a part of the Minneapolis skyline

The past two weeks have been a blur.  While it was fun seeing the familiar sights again, it is really the people that make this area “home”.  Great to see everyone!  Whenever somebody asks us where we are from, Marylu and I always say, “Minnesota”.  Maybe after we have settled someplace for a while, home will be there, but today, and for a long time to come, this will be “Home”.

Next up:  Crossing the Plains

Rochester, Minnesota  5/12 – 5/19

Rochester, Minnesota:  Population =  112,225 (metropolitan area= 213,873), elevation = 1030 feet, Average January low temp = 8º, Average July high temp = 84º, average rainfall = 33.08”, average snowfall = 53”

The journey from Wisconsin Dells to Rochester passes through the river bluffs near La Crosse, an area of woody, rocky beauty.  We enjoy the sculpted terrain as we roll along the Mighty Mississippi.  Too soon, we are back in the heartland where the farmers are preparing to plant the corn and soybeans that will blanket this largely flat landscape.

The Hadley Valley Schoolhouse was built in 1885
William Dee’s log cabin was built in Rochester in 1862

From its humble beginnings as a stagecoach stop between St. Paul and Dubuque, Rochester could have developed into just one of many similar small towns in Minnesota.  But then there was this doctor, William W. Mayo, who started here as the examining surgeon for draftees into the Civil War.  After the war, he built a successful private practice in Rochester.  In 1883 much of the city was demolished in a tornado and there was no facility to treat the wounded.  Together with his two sons, William and Charles, Mayo and the Sisters of St. Francis raised the money to build a new hospital: St. Marys.

William W. Mayo and Mother Alfred Moes
William W. Mayo with his two sons, William and Charles

The Mayos enlisted the best doctors they could find for the hospital and formed an integrated private group practice.  In 1919 they formed the Mayo Properties Association and become a non-profit.  As the practice grew, more buildings were added.  Downtown Rochester is now full of hospitals, clinics, research centers, and medical education buildings.  The Plummer building is one of the early buildings and it is beautifully decorated with art deco trim and carvings.

The grand entrance to the Plummer Building
Lobby of the Plummer Building

The renowned medical center draws people from all over the world.  Walking the streets, we hear foreign languages, see foreign clothing.  There seems to be a lot of ethnic restaurants around for such a small town.  But still, this is Minnesota, so there are some great Minnesotan breweries too.

We did not have much luck with the weather while we were in Rochester.  It was a grey, rainy week.  One afternoon downtown, a storm front with 60 MPH winds came through with a downpour, and watching it whip through the buildings was like seeing a horizontal waterfall.  On the dry days we were able to do a little sightseeing, get lost in a park, and visit lots of restaurants.

Looking toward the city from Silver Lake Park
Somewhere in the wilds of Quarry Hill Park. There are trails, but the signs hid from us.
It’s a Minnesota thing. I guess…
The most “Minnesota” poutine we have ever seen features slabs of meatloaf with lots of gravy
Dr. Plummer’s house is open for tours. But not on the day we were there.

Rochester is a nice city to visit, if you are in the area.  And you don’t even have to be sick.

Next up: Plymouth, Minnesota

Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin 5/5 – 5/12

Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin:  Population =  2,678 (Lake Delton population = 2,914), elevation = 909 feet, Average January low temp = 7.2º, Average July high temp = 84.4º, annual precipitation = 33.56”, annual snowfall = 41.2”

The Wisconsin Dells is a strange world.  It is a combination of natural and un-natural entertainments.   It lives in two towns and four counties.  Driving through it, the town looks a lot bigger than what the population would support.  That is because so many things are inflated to larger than life sized.

The world’s largest Trojan Horse

Driving Highway 23 (Broadway) East-West takes you through downtown Wisconsin Dells.  The downtown is fairly compact, with a mix of solid old brick storefronts and garish new buildings.  This being a tourist Mecca, there is a high proportion of good restaurants and bars, as well as ticket sellers, fudge dealers, souvenir hawkers, and a few outlandish amusement parks.

Driving Highway 12 (Wisconsin Dells Parkway) North-South takes you from Wisconsin Dells to Lake Delton.  I am guessing that Lake Delton has homes someplace, maybe out by the Outlet Mall.  Along the Parkway, things are seriously Un-natural.  This is where the huge amusement and water parks have sprouted, interspersed with hotels, small, large, and huge.

To get a true appreciation of how massive this tourist entertainment district is, I guess you would have to visit during the high season in summer.  During our visit in mid-May, the parks are just gearing up for the coming season.  The waterslides are dry, the roller coasters still, the parking lots empty.  The biggest show in town is the Rick Wilcox Magic Theater, but that is sold out for the rest of the month.  Of course we visit the local breweries and find some great beers.

An excellent Belgian Trippel
Very nice Irish Red

Kind of hidden in the Downtown area, there is the entrance to the Riverwalk.  From this vantage, you can see the rushing Wisconsin River, nestled between high carved sandstone bluffs, blanketed with forests.  During the high season, the river is the playground of jet boats, amphibious “duck” vehicles, and a myriad of small boats.  In May, the river is mostly quiet and our tour boat putts along, often accompanied only by the occasional duck or goose.

The sandstone is so porous, the trees grow right through it
This is a “braided” river. It splits into smaller streams that flow between islands.
Water, wind, and time create striking rock formations
A boardwalk takes us into the Witches Gorge

 

Standing Rock. The gap is only about 5 feet but the dog they have trained to jump it was not liking it very much.

From my vantage point as an off-season visitor, Wisconsin Dells looks like a huge machine, dedicated to removing money from tourists.  Judging from the thousands of hotel rooms available, I would guess that the machine is very effective.  On the other hand, the river valley is beautiful and, at this time of year, serene and lovely as seen from a slow boat.

Next up: Rochester, Minnesota

Ottawa, Illinois 4/28 – 5/5

Ottawa, Illinois:  Population =  18,562, elevation = 482 feet, Average January low temp = 17.0º, Average July high temp = 85.6º, annual precipitation = 36.49”, annual snowfall = 24.6” (weather readings are from Peoria, which lies 73 miles to the Southwest.)

We probably turned North too soon.  Back in Memphis, when we woke to find snow on the ground, we should have turned tail and headed back to Texas.  Instead, we continued on Northward into Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.  Fine and beautiful states all, but this year Spring came to them cold and rainy and windy, with lots of storms to liven things up.  Our week in Ottawa started with a weekend rain total of over 5 inches.  The little home we rented had a sump pump that kept gallantly bailing the entire week we were there.

A playground on the banks(?) of the Illinois River
Looks like a “farmer’s holiday” until this field dries out.

Ottawa is an interesting little town.  It is kind of touristy in that it is flanked by some beautiful parks and rivers and is close enough to Chicago to make it a prime weekend getaway.  There seems to be a lot more nice restaurants than there would normally be in a town of this size.  The downtown is built of stolid, stately old brick buildings from the mid 1800s.

There are murals scattered throughout the downtown.  One depicts the first Lincoln-Douglas debates, held here in 1858, where Stephen Douglas accused Lincoln of being an Abolitionist.  Another shows the Union Army marching off to war.  Still another is a folky bit of nostalgia for the 50s.

So what’s to do in a small town when it is pouring rain and the parks are flooded?  We did some shopping, took in a movie (“The Circle” was disappointing), tried some restaurants, and sampled the local wines and beers.  It may seem like we spend a lot of our time drinking, and maybe so, but we are also socializing.  The proprietors of wineries and breweries are generally nice people, fun to talk to, and full of local knowledge about what to see, do, and eat in the neighborhood.  Many thanks to the good people at Clarks Run Creek for their hospitality and their tip about what is probably some of the best fried chicken in the country.

Rip’s menu: light or dark, quarter or half. Served on fine paper with a side of pickles and some breading crunchys.

The skies finally cleared up for a day so we could go out and explore the park.  Starved Rock park is a huge attraction in this area.  The park is located on top of a tall rocky bluff, cut by deep canyons and rushing waterfalls.  Scenic hiking trails wind throughout the park.  There are cabins to stay in, a big resort with restaurants, campsites, horses, and boats and fishing, as well as the whole gamut of winter sports in their season.  There are also chainsaw carvings all over the grounds.  We were delighted to find the twin brother to the carving of Chief Paduke we saw in Paducah, Kentucky.

From the bridge, you can see some of the limestone canyon below
The Lodge was a CCC project, back in the 1930s
Memorial carving of Chief Walks with the Wind

Ottawa was a nice place to visit, even with the soggy week we had.  Spring is the slow season so it was pretty easy to get around, get a table, find a parking spot.  From all reports, summertime is a lot more crowded with tourists.  Make your reservations early.

Next up: Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

Springfield, Illinois  4/21 – 4/28

Springfield, Illinois:  Population =  117,006 (metropolitan area= 211,700), elevation = 558 feet, Average January low temp = 18.7º, Average July high temp = 86.2º, annual precipitation = 37.43”, annual snowfall = 20.9”

As state capitol buffs, Springfield, Illinois is practically a required stop.  There are two capitols here, the newer, working one, and the old historic one.  Due to the VERY limited periods of time when state lawmakers are actually in session, we have been able to see a great many state capitols that were almost deserted.  We happened by the new Illinois capitol during a March For Women outside, and a big lobbying effort by Realtors on the inside.  Though it is a beautiful building, we had to squeeze our way through crowds and sneak into the Senate gallery.

At the State Capitol in Springfield, it is a march for Women’s Rights
The dome atop the Capitol is framed by wrought iron and statuary
The State Senate Chamber (in session)

 

Protesters and lobbyists vie for attention

The old State Capitol is a much smaller building and even, in its own way, kind of homey.  The rooms are more human sized, the desks plainer, the decor simpler.  There are pot-bellied stoves that supplied the heat during the long winters.  If you look closely at the House of Representatives photo, there is a stove pipe hat on the left end of front desk, next to the candle.  That is where Abraham Lincoln sat when he was a State Rep.

The Historic old State Capitol
The old Senate chamber
The old House of Representatives chamber

And speaking of Lincoln, this is the capitol of the Land of Lincoln.  Our first Lincoln stop was the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.  The displays show Lincoln growing up, moving into Springfield to practice law, getting married, getting elected to the State House and then the White House.  Many of the artifacts on display were his own personal possessions.  The films about the Civil War do a great job of explaining the ebb and flow of the politics and battles.

A recreation of the legendary log cabin where Abe grew up
Lincoln’s war time cabinet discussing strategy
A life mask of Lincoln, just months before the assassination
One of Mary Todd Lincoln’s formal gowns

Our next Lincoln stop was just across the street, in the old Union Station.  Inside there is a display from the movie “Lincoln”.  The have costumes and sets from the movie, as well as scenes from the movie playing on monitors.

Items worn by Sally Field in “Lincoln”
Costume worn by Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln”

Just a couple of blocks away is Mr. Lincoln’s Neighborhood.  The house he and Mary and the kids lived in is still there, as well as many other beautifully maintained houses of the era.  After his assassination, his household goods were packed up and shipped back here.  Mary did not  return.  Caretakers have watched over the house since.  The furnishings, carpets, and wallpaper are mostly what was there when the Lincolns lived in the house, with the exception of a few repaired and refurbished pieces.

Guests in the Lincoln home would be seated in the parlor
The living room was more for family
The chair with removable lid is Mary Todd Lincoln’s actual commode.
Mary learned to cook on this iron stove

Finally, we visited the Lincoln Monument.  Abraham, Mary, and the 3 youngest of the four children lie entombed here.  Nobel statues of Lincoln line the hallways of the Monument.  A massive tombstone marks the President’s final resting place.

The Monument to President Lincoln

There are a lot of other great things to see in Springfield too.  We listened to a concert at the Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon, one of the largest and finest carillons in the world.  We witnessed the spring flowers bursting forth at the Botanical Garden.  We sampled fine beers in the breweries.

The carillon is 132 feet tall and contains 67 bells that the operator plays, much like an organ
Spring!
A very nice APA

Springfield is a great city to visit.  Besides all the Lincoln stuff, there is a lot going on for a town of this size.  Big enough to have everything, small enough to not be crowded.

Next up:  Ottawa, IL