Tag Archive | road trip

IOWA

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I decided to take a quick roadtrip through the Midwest this summer – the middle of the Midwest, the part where no one goes for vacation!  I drove across northern Iowa, then down its Western border, and continued following the Missouri River through its namesake state all the way down to its mouth in St. Louis.  I popped in to South Dakota and Nebraska, but Kansas offered too much traffic for me to brave.  You don’t think of traffic when you think of Kansas, do you?  

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In case you thought Iowa was nothing but corn, you can rest assured that there are soybeans here, too.

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This giant statue of Pocahontas, along with a lot of historic signs about the real “Indian princess,” filled the town of Pocahontas, Iowa. Yes, you are remembering history correctly: Pocahontas was a figure in early Virginia history, at a time when no one even knew Ohio existed, let alone Iowa.

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Somewhere around Oelwein, IA, the Driftless Area ends and the land flattens out. I was in foreign territory once I’d crossed the Wapsapinnicon… which became obvious as KwikStars gave way to Kum & Gos.

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Onawa, Iowa (that’s 2/3 vowels for those counting) has the widest main street in the world. According to the sign.

This wasn’t just a whim; I had destinations in mind.  When conceiving of the trip, those sites seemed disjunct, just a mix of places and things that I might be interested in.  As I traveled, though, the pattern became obvious.  I drove through cornfields to find prairies, through a modern metropolis to find an ancient civilization.  I was exploring the beginnings of the American West, the conquering of wilderness, the root of our national psyche.  There in the cornbelt, surrounded by the simple life, I found myself feeling that I was on the cusp of great excitement.  In the middle of nowhere, at the edge of everything.  Maybe Iowa should adopt that as its new motto.

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It really is corn as far as the eye can see, even in the rolling hills of Western Iowa, where the eye can see much farther…

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Somewhere in the western part of Iowa, the towns get farther apart and the road ditches fill with prairie.

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In addition to beans and corn, there is wind in

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Iowa. These windmill farms use different technology than some of the others I have seen.

Walk Around the World

IMG_0184Since I can’t do much of anything myself right now, I am living vicariously through others to get my adventure fix.  I recently read a months-old issue of National Geographic magazine, and found this article on one man’s plan to walk around the world, following the path of human expansion out of Africa and eventually into the Americas.  I find it fascinating on many levels!

For one, I have long had an interest in walking across the country.  This will never happen, largely because I think my weak joints would fall apart if I attempted it, but it is fun to think about.  In 2000, while hiking and walking regularly along Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula, Montana, I concocted a plan.  At the time, I imagined asking random strangers along my route for lodging – a spot to pitch a tent in a yard, or a couch to sleep on.  I would let word of mouth follow me ahead, and I would build a network of generous folks willing to help out their fellow travelers.  I would maintain a list of those willing to offer a couch, and screen potential travelers.  There might even be a place in all this for the internet, I thought.  Remember, this was at a time when we had just begun making our own plane reservations via online sites, before craigslist had spread out of the Bay Area, before Facebook (Friendster, now that’s a different story…).  Most people did not have cell phones, there wasn’t even decent infrastructure for cell phones and internet across the nation.  It is both humorous and overwhelming how much things have changed in such a short time!

In his around-the world trip, Paul Salopek seems to be doing an excellent job of integrating 21st-century technology into his primitive mode of transport.  The website for the project includes a wonderful array of information: “dispatches from the field,” “milestones,” and “map room” showcase these remarkable well.

 

Something New and Different in Central Wisconsin… Really?

Every time I drive through central Wisconsin, I try to take a different route. This is because the vast middle of our otherwise fair state is a flat, windy wasteland.  On one such trip I discovered Pittsville. Ever since then, I have tried to cover up the fact that it is the (self-proclaimed) “Geographical Center of the State.”  The town seems to live up to its name, based on my stop at its gas station/social center. I feel that its existence in such a representative location could color outsiders’ opinions of Wisconsin. Luckily, unless you are able to teleport, or for some reason fly into Wausau, you can only get to central WI from the north, south, east, or west – all of which are much more appealing.

However, on a recent trip from southwest to northeast, I found a place that I actually want to go back to. Abbottsford, WI reminds me entirely of Postville, IA – another surprisingly distinctive town on the flatlands, that goes by the moniker “Hometown to the World.”  Eerily, I had thought of Postville earlier the same day, for the first time in years.

You have to get off the highway (WI 29) to see the historic downtown of Abbotsford. I did this because I needed to de-fuel at a pit stop, and while there I thought I’d check the online reviews of local restaurants. Cafe Mexico had several raves, so I drove over to find it… And found myself in a one-block Little Mexico! The restaurant, a Mercado down the street, a shop for quinceanera dresses, a Spanish-

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language tax preparation office… Everything from the size of the
street to the architecture seemed to have Latin influences.  Folks, we are in central Wisconsin here.  For all that I love about my state, it is incredibly white, and not very friendly to diverse groups. Even in the agricultural communities where many Spanish-speaking residents live, they are typically not welcome at local establishments, and only show their faces at the nearest Walmart. It’s sad, I know, and something that has bothered me for a while. It is one more reason that Abbotsford was so pleasantly surprising!

I suspect that Abbottsford’s diversity has the same source as Postville’s – a huge meat processing plant outside of town. Unfortunately, the restaurant was closing up just as I arrived. However, the mystery of the town’s history combined with the promise of an authentic dinner will bring me back. And it may be the first time that I will expect to enjoy my trip through central WI!

Buffalo Trace

IMG_1523_2Though the Jack Daniels tour was a great experience, I thought I might get something else out of a smaller distillery, and I still had a hankering for a sip of bourbon.  On the last day of my trip, barely following a breakfast of tea and donuts, I arrived at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in the capitol city of Frankfort, Kentucky.  It was a foggy Tuesday morning, but the 10 am tour had ten people on it nonetheless.  Buffalo Trace, as a brand, has been around since 1998, but the distillery has been in continuous operation longer than any other in the United States, since 1870.   That’s right – “continuous.”  The OFC distillery was one of four in the US that continued to distill spirits during the nearly 14 years of Prohibition, as a medicinal product!  Although the Buffalo Trace label is considered a small batch, there are many other bourbon products produced there, some at a more premium level (Blanton’s, Eagle Rare), some slightly less so.  They also bottle a wide variety of other products that were produced elsewhere, including vodka, rum, tequila, etc.  As a result, though Buffalo Trace is certainly produced on a smaller scale than Jack Daniels, the size of the operation is not noticeably different.

Seen through the fog, "Warehouse C" is one of the oldest buildings on the Buffalo Trace campus, bearing the initials OFC at the top, which stands for Old Fire Copper, the original distillery name.  It is full of barrels of tasty bourbon whisky... so tempting!

“Warehouse C” is one of the oldest buildings on the Buffalo Trace campus, bearing the initials OFC at the top, which stands for Old Fire Copper, the original distillery name. It is full of barrels of tasty bourbon whiskey… so tempting!

The standard (free) “Trace” tour includes two half-shot samples, a couple history stops, a visit to a small

Our tour guide turned bartender at the end, pouring us half-shots of various products distilled and bottled on-site.

Our tour guide turned bartender at the end, pouring us half-shots of various products distilled and bottled on-site.

warehouse, and a walk through the smallest bottling room.  There is also a self-guided walking tour of the grounds, with identification of the historic buildings.  Seeing the bottling room was pretty cool, especially since it was in normal operation when I visited on a weekday.  I didn’t really miss seeing the production facilities, but that was partly because I had seen them at Jack Daniel’s.  Based on my extensive visits to breweries, I surmise that the basic production does not change significantly from one facility to the next.  If this is the only place you plan to go, though, you should make reservations for the “hardhat” tour which will take you through some of these other buildings, or even the history tour which will go more into architecture and history.  As for me… maybe next time!

The bottling room... very cool part of the tour!  They were bottling single-barren Blanton's that day.

The bottling room… very cool part of the tour! They were bottling single-barren Blanton’s that day.

The one thing that I wasn’t able to photograph in either location was the scent.  If you like whiskey, that might be your favorite take-away from an in-person visit.  In the warehouses, the leaky barrels fill the old buildings with intense whisky fumes, known in the industry as the “angel’s share.”  Outside, the pervasive smell of fermenting corn mash is reminiscent of a sweet, extra-flavorful bread or breakfast cereal.  Mmmm.

The Falls

It goes to show that change is good, every cloud has a silver lining, etc. I may have had to alter my travel plans, but they wound up leading me instead to the tallest waterfall in the eastern United States!

Fall Creek Falls, at 256 feet, the tallest waterfall in the eastern United States.

Fall Creek Falls, at 256 feet, the tallest waterfall in the eastern United States.

Fall Creek Falls is striking not only because of its proportions, but also as a result of its beauty. I’m glad that I got to see it in the fall of the year, with low water levels. I find that it brings out the facets of falling water best, when there isn’t too much rushing over at once. I loved seeing the different shapes of the rocks, the cracks and troughs that the water had formed and flowed through.

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Very of surrounding bluffs from the Fall Creek Falls overlook.  The trail back to the visitor's center offers a "challenging" variant, that will allow you to walk out to the edge of the bluff near the middle of this photo!

Very of surrounding bluffs from the Fall Creek Falls overlook. The trail back to the visitor’s center offers a “challenging” variant, that will allow you to walk out to the edge of the bluff near the middle of this photo!

The falls, along with several others, are located within Fall Creek Falls State Park, which offers a ride range of recreational amenities and lodging options.  If you just want to see the water and move on, you can park in a parking lot which is approximately 300 paved feet from the falls overlook. I recommend the somewhat rough 1-mile walk from the interpretive center, though. A waterfall as impressive as this one can be appreciated even better if you work for it a little bit! Though, I admit the hike would be easier if I hadn’t done 12 boulder-strewn miles the day before!

Holly bedecked with berries helps to make the Tennessee woods a beautiful place in autumn!

Holly bedecked with berries helps to make the Tennessee woods a beautiful place in autumn!

Rock doves seemed to enjoy flying around and perching behind the cascading water - fun to sit and watch at the mid-way point in the hike!

Rock doves seemed to enjoy flying around and perching behind the cascading water – fun to sit and watch at the mid-way point in the hike!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you are even more adventurous, or a glutton for punishment like myself, you can take the half-mile hike/staircase down to the bottom of the falls. It was lovely, and a great workout! Perfect preparation for the trip home – fourteen hours of sitting in a car, eating gas station food. I earned every bite!

View from the bottom of the trail down to Fall Creek Falls; I chose to rest rather than clamber closer on the rocks.

View from the bottom of the trail down to Fall Creek Falls; I chose to rest rather than clamber closer on the rocks.

The park contains several more waterfalls, including this one, which fell as a mist and was only visible as it hit the pool below

The park contains several more waterfalls, including this one, which fell as a mist and was only visible as it hit the pool below

 

A Delectable History Lesson

When planning this road trip to Tennessee, I soon came to the conclusion that a stop at a historic whisky distillery would have to be on the itinerary.   It turns out that one could plan an entire vacation around top-of-the-line bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey.  I’m partial to bourbon, but Jack Daniels is…well…Jack. The trip wound up including two separate visits – one to Jack Daniels in Lynchburg TN and the other to Buffalo Trace in Frankfort KY.  Both were excellent, though different.  And I’m looking forward to that whisk(e)y-centric tour someday!

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IMG-20131026-00676_2The Jack Daniels distillery is located in historic Lynchburg, TN, at the south-eastern end of the farm country that extends between Nashville and the Cumberland Plateau. It is in Moore County, which was originally part of Lincoln County.  All of this geography matters more than you might think.  I won’t give everything away, just put it in context.  The fine whiskey produced by “Mr. Jack” was a result of having an excellent source of water from the limestone spring coming out of the hills, a ready source of grain nearby, white oak and sugar maple trees for the barrels and charcoal-filtering, and temperature fluctuations to mature (or “season!”) the spirits.  Of course, there were plenty of stills, legal and otherwise, in these hills, and they all used the “Lincoln County Process” of filtering the raw whisky through charcoal before barreling.  What really made JD into the brand it is today was the pride of its founder and subsequent owners and master distillers.  It all started in 1866 when Jack Daniels became the first man to register a distillery in the United States.

I had originally planned to visit Jack Daniels on a Sunday, but plans changed and I wound up arriving there late Saturday morning.  On a typical October weekend, this might not have been a problem, but this particular day was the annual meeting of the World Barbeque Invitational.  Everything took a little (or a lot) longer than would be typical.  Word to the wise: check the events calendar before you go!  I got registered for a “sampling” tour, then walked around the historic town square, fighting my way through crowds in the gift shops, for a while.  Moore County is a dry county.  According to the story we were told, the population of the county was too low to achieve the minimum number of votes needed to vote themselves “wet” after Prohibition ended.  When, a few years back, the law was changed to allow a percentage vote, residents decided to maintain the status quo, in order to keep Lynchburg and its surroundings a family-friendly environment (aka tourist trap).  Nonetheless, a small amount of whiskey may be consumed during the sampling tour, in the interest of educating visitors about the aging process.  Other stops included the fermenting vats (wow, that mash smells strong!), seeing the original stills, witnessing the filtration process, and a small barrel warehouse.  Most of these are also included on the standard tour, which probably would have been sufficiently informative.  In either case, it is definitely worth the trip.

The tour started with a visit to the "Rickyard" where white oak is cut, dried, and turned into charcoal for the filtering process.

The tour started with a visit to the “Rickyard” where sugar maple is cut, dried, and turned into charcoal for the filtering process.

The pure water used in the Jack Daniel's distilling process is drawn from the creek emanating from this cave.  The dam and channel were built to control water levels in times of flood and drought.

The pure water used in the Jack Daniel’s distilling process is drawn from the creek emanating from this cave. The dam and channel were built to control water levels in times of flood and drought.

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The Jack Daniel’s grounds are on a hill, with buildings on different levels, overseen by the Sugar Maples that give Tennessee whiskey its distinctive flavor.

Music City

NASHVILLE!

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A place I’ve never been, and always wanted to go – but I almost forgot to plan it into the trip!  Good thing I didn’t, because in many ways it was the highlight of the vacation.

Historic and modern, Nashville is full of striking architecture

Historic and modern, Nashville is full of striking architecture

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you may remember, the object of this journey was to see mountains, and I had decided to spend Monday afternoon in Nashville on my way back home.  At the last minute, I re-arranged the itinerary, putting me in the Music City on Thursday and Friday instead – all the better for music appreciation.

In all, I was in, I think, six different music venues, and heard more bands play than that, which right there made it all worth it – living as I do in an area where you’re hard pressed to find one band playing on a Friday night!  I highly recommend both Roberts’ Western World on Broadway

Robert's Western World is a classic dive honky-tonk on Broadway, still specializing in PBR and hotdogs, and the classic country offerings on their small stage add to the ambience.  We came here first, tried a couple other spots, and then came back for their foot-tapping sounds and unpretentious style.

Robert’s Western World is a classic dive honky-tonk on Broadway, still specializing in PBR and hotdogs, and the classic country offerings on their small stage add to the ambience. We came here first, tried a couple other spots, and then came back for their foot-tapping sounds and unpretentious style.

and the Grand Ole Opry, if you want the classic country experience.  If you want more modern country, or don’t like country at all, the city still has plenty to offer.  Nashville is without doubt a musical destination, its tunes suiting its geography, nestled between the hip towns of the south-east, the old-time Appalachians, the deep south, and the rural Midwest.  I barely scratched the surface, and look forward to going back to hear more!

Langhorne Slim and the Law was one of the smaller, not-really-country bands that I checked out, in this case in an upstairs bar packed full of college students.

Langhorne Slim and the Law was one of the smaller, not-really-country bands that I checked out, in this case in an upstairs bar packed full of college students.

The Grand Ole Opry live radio performance was a wonderful experience - even better than I expected it to be!  We saw about ten acts in two hours, and they each included some personal anecdotes of their musical career.  Act more quickly than I did, and you won't wind up with this obstructed view...

The Grand Ole Opry live radio performance was a wonderful experience – even better than I expected it to be! We saw about ten acts in two hours, and they each included some personal anecdotes of their musical career. Lady Antebellum “headlined,” but I loved the oldest performers the best! Act more quickly than I did, and you won’t wind up with this obstructed view…

There is plenty to do in Nashville if you don’t want to listen to live tunes (but… why would you go there if you don’t like music?).  Historic buildings, sports teams, a lovely river, shopping, plenty of bars, barbecue joints (or hot chicken – that’s a big thing down there).  The downtown area is very walk-able; the touristy area is really only a few blocks square, but outside of that are some fun shops and restaurants, too.  Looking at all of the offerings, I was struck that it would be a fun place to visit with children, though in mid-October we saw more bachelorette parties, family reunions, and anniversaries.  However, remember that I was only there for 36 hours – and everything I saw had to do with music!

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The Johnny Cash Museum had only opened months before we went, and although it was well-done, I didn’t feel that it was worth the hype… or the price of admission.  If  you’ve read or heard much about Johnny Cash (heck, even liner notes would be enough), you’re not going to learn too much here.  I did think it was neat to see his IMG_1402hand-written letters, his official papers, and his stage costumes.  They also went a little more in-depth on his later, less-public life, which was interesting.  There were multiple kiosks with mini screens and headphones, so that you could watch videos of some of his stage or television appearances.  We got in there in the morning, before there were many others inside, and within a half hour it had gotten too crowded to be comfortable, which leads me to believe that it would not be any fun at a busier time of year.

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

 

The Country Music Hall of Fame has been on my list for some time, and the museum attached to it is really amazing.  It takes the visitor from the very beginnings of “country” music, with folks coming out of the hills singing harmonies, dancing to jug bands, or strumming true folk songs on guitars, though the modern day with its diversity of sub-genres.   It does a great job of balancing the evolving music, the social forces that popularized or altered it, the distinctive showmanship of the genre, and the values espoused by its performers IMG_1416(whether the gold-plated automobiles or their pious devotion).  It combines text, videos and recordings, glass-case displays, and beautiful architecture.  My only critique is that there is not much that is interactive, so kids may get bored before you do.  The ticket is good all day, so if I had it to do over again, I would go in the morning for an hour or so, then walk around and eat lunch, and come back to digest the rest.  As it was, it was tough to take it all in at once, and I almost missed checking out the Hall itself.

IMG_1423Though the city was busy for the weekend, I found crowds to be mostly manageable, in the middle of October.  It is possible that I wouldn’t want to be there in a weekend in a more popular travel season.  Another lesson learned was to make my hotel reservations online as soon as I found something I wanted.  Waiting only made it too late to reserve the place I wanted online, and when I got there in person I had to pay almost twice as much for the same room.  On a positive note, I did make sure to get tickets to some shows, so I had some entertainment planned out, and I recommend that, as well.  I can’t wait to get back to Nashville again, and would love to hear your thoughts on not-to-miss sights and sounds in town!

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