When I was growing up, we’d leave for vacation early in the morning when the air was still cool.  The traffic light at our corner was changing, but no one was there to see it except us.  That was always the start of vacation.

Megan and I don’t leave that early on our way to our first stop in South Dakota, but early enough that we’ll get there in time to eat, relax, check email and whatever else.  By Naperville/Chicago standards, the traffic, at least on our side of the highway heading west, is quite light.  The other side, heading into town and work, is slow.  Our biggest barrier is construction, especially the kind that stretches for miles and sometimes there’s no one even working.  I have an old AAA Trip Tik in the pocket of the van door, the kind with the spiral back.  Since we take the same trip every year, I’ve kept it, marking places with cheap gas or places to eat.  Perhaps I’ll sell it at Sothby’s someday for a small fortune.  In the meantime, it’s kind of fun—a useful link to the past trips we made.

I drive the familiar roads as Megan succumbs to sleep, tired from staying up late to play games on the PlayStation, something she’ll have to forego in Wyoming.  Until we get out of Illinois, things looks pretty much the same.  But past Janesville, Wisconsin, things start to look a bit more wild—hilly and forested but with farms no longer carved from the prairie but from the forest..  Some of the signs for Wisconsin Dells advertise Tommy Bartlett, who evidently does some sort of show.  How long has he been at this?  I don’t remember not seeing those signs.  He might be the Wisconsin Dells’ Mick Jagger, someone’s grandfather cavorting on the stage, although I imagine him more like Tommy Dorsey.  I Google him and find I’m completely wrong–he puts on water ski shows and has an exploratory interactive science center.  Who knew?  (Probably everyone in Wisconsin, but who’s counting?)

You know you’re in Wisconsin when you see signs for cheese, Yuengling beer and Green Bay Packer stickers on every other car.  (I don’t mind the stickers; I’m a big fan.)  Carr Valley Cheese is my favorite, a place I discovered after years of driving by Mauston (a very appropriate name.)  Now that I’m eating mostly vegan, I pass by, but Sid Cook makes the most amazing cheese!  And of course, there’s Madison, the liberal heart and home to whomever’s liberal in the state. When we used to make the drive from Wyoming back to Cleveland without staying overnight, we always reached Madison early Saturday morning, just in time for the farmer’s market held around the state house and would haul home or consume on the spot a variety of tasty goods.

Dane County reminds me of Dane and Dale, two brothers I knew years ago.  They taught me to skeet shoot and Dale put up with me learning to drive a stick shift in a college parking lot.  I lurched and killed the engine more times than I care to remember, but I learned and  loved driving my yellow VW Super Beetle Sundance.  After many years, he (Sundance) ended up as a 16th birthday present from someone’s son, since we couldn’t put a car seat in the back of the two-door vehicle.  I imagine that boy spent more on the car than we could have and had a gem.

Tomah, Wisconsin is where the highway divides—our way to La Crosse and then into Minnesota, the other way to Eau Claire and also into Minnesota but on a completely different tangent.  One year while I was napping, Shanon driving and Bill ostensibly in charge, the van mysteriously went towards Eau Claire and when I woke to discover the mistake, we had to bushwhack via back roads to return to the correct highway.  We got in to the motel so late that night that the couple who runs it left the key to our room on top of the ice maker because the office was closed, but we saw some of the most beautiful country on the way.  There are also cranberry bogs outside Tomah.

We reach La Crosse and pass over the mighty Mississippi, awesome in its wideness.  We wind up and up and suddenly we’re in the vast farmland of Minnesota, the view stretching for miles, broken only by prosperous-looking farms.  I’ve hit my driving stride now, a sort of fugue state where I see things and think a lot, but time passes almost without me knowing it and I wonder how I got where I was.  We’re listening to the BBC production of “The Hobbit.”  Once that’s done, it will be on to familiar territory with the 13 hours of “Lord of the Rings”, our accompaniment on this trip for almost the girls’ entire lifetimes.  Rochester and the Mayo Clinic go by.  Austin has the Spam Museum, unvisited over these many years, mostly because we usually get to Austin when the museum is closed.  We stop for gas in Albert Lea.  As we drive farther, we pass cattle lying or standing packed together in the shade provided by a billboard in their field.

“Our” motel is a Best Western in Canistota, a very small town a bit less than half an hour west of Sioux Falls.  We somehow discovered it  years ago and now stay there every year.  It’s about 16 hours from Cleveland, a drive I made myself without another driver the years the girls were too young to drive and Bill couldn’t drive out with us but had to fly.  It’s a mere 10 from Naperville, a positive doodle.  The motel’s run by a lovely older couple, the rooms are large and always immaculately clean, worth the ten minute or so drive off of I-90.  After all these years, it’s a lot like coming to a friend’s house where they always have a room for us.  We’re ready to stop.  We have something to eat from the cooler and watch an episode of “Sherlock”, Sherlock Holmes for the Sesame Street generation, those with attention spans of about 30-seconds.  It’s manic, but so was Sherlock Holmes.  There are a lot of bikers outside, sitting in the shade, trying to keep cool by drinking beer and making noise.  The first week of August is biker week in Sturgis, South Dakota and bikers come from all over to hang out, party and do whatever else bikers do when they get together.  There will be thousands of them, from Hell’s Angels who look as though they haven’t washed their hair since the 60’s to older couples with one riding a motorcycle and the other in a side car.  I’m sure it’s good for business, but if I lived anywhere in the vicinity, that time would be my vacation time.  However, all the bikers we’ve met have been very nice and you see more American flags flying on bikes than many other places.

We get some rain along with a tremendous thunderstorm.  I polish up my Friday Fictioneers story to post when I get up and before we leave in the morning, turn out the light and sink thankfully into the comfortable bed.  One more day until the mountains.

  1. Cindy Marsch says:

    I really enjoyed this post! It reminds me of many things.

    • I’m glad, Cindy. If I could just figure out a way to write straight from my head, it would be so much easier.

    • I’m glad you did, Cindy. It’s one of those posts that I’m not sure people will like but I want to write it, so I do. I’m always glad when it strikes a cord. I want people to feel like they’re traveling with me and seeing and enjoying a bit of this amazing land.

  2. Nice post, at a moment I felt like if I was going too lol