Ten days, eleven states (7): Revisiting the Twin Cities

St Paul, Minnesota is almost a second home. I’ve been visiting there regularly since 1998 when Hannah, our elder daughter, transferred from Swansea University in the UK to Macalester College, a private liberal arts college in St Paul. Incidentally, Macalester is the alma mater of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Hannah settled in St Paul after graduation, completed her graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, married Michael, and home is now complete with our two American grandchildren Callum (who will be seven in mid-August) and Zoë (five last May). So you see, Steph and I have many reasons for returning to the Twin Cities.

St Paul was the destination of our 2800 mile road trip from Georgia, beginning in Atlanta on 31 May and lasting 10 days, and covering 11 states. It was a great trip, but I was somewhat relieved when we pulled into Hannah’s driveway on the Friday afternoon, having covered the final 333 miles from Iowa City, looking forward to almost three weeks with the family and exploring favourite haunts, and hopefully discovering a few new ones. We are less familiar with the other half of the Twin Cities, Minneapolis (and currently in the news for all the wrong reasons), that lies on the opposite bank of the Mississippi from where Hannah and Michael’s home is in the Highland Park area of St Paul.

Callum finished the school year on the day we arrived, and Zoë didn’t complete her final childcare year at the St Paul Jewish Community Center until the following Wednesday. For the first three days of that first St Paul week we had Callum to ourselves, and both of them for the Thursday and Friday. So we had to find some fun things for Grandma and Grandad to do with them. The second week they went off to summer camp.

We visited Camp Butwin to check it out. Then the following Monday, it was Callum and Zoë’s first day. I was on drop-off and pickup duties!

Stillwater
Stillwater, a small town on the banks of the St Croix River (the state line between Minnesota and Wisconsin), some 27 miles east from Hannah’s home, is one of our favorite places. I first went there in 2004 with Hannah and Michael, and heard my first Lake Wobegon monologue from Garrison Keillor as we sat in the car park beside the river.

It’s a pleasant riverside town, that will become even better once the new bridge over the St Croix River is opened in August. This bridge will replace a narrow, 80 year old lift bridge in the town center.

Being a main route over to Wisconsin, much heavy traffic currently passes through the town center; this should disappear after August. No doubt to the relief of Stillwater residents and presumably many businesses. But will the diversion away from the town center take away some passing trade? Probably not, as Stillwater has its own attractions for visitors.

Stillwater high street has numerous antique and souvenir shops, and bookshops. One gift shop, Art ‘n Soul, on the corner opposite the lift bridge, sells beads, mainly crystals. Every time we visit Stillwater, Steph (an avid beader) has to pop in just to check things out.

On the hillside above the town there is an excellent children’s play park, and Callum spent a very enjoyable hour amusing himself on all the apparatus.

The St Paul-Minneapolis Light Rail
Opened in June 2014, the Green Line of Metro Transit connects downtown St Paul with downtown Minneapolis, passing through the campus of the University of Minnesota. On a very cold June day in 2014, we queued up to take the first train from St Paul on the Green Line. Then the heavens opened, and we beat a hasty retreat to the car parked nearby. This was our first opportunity since then to ride the Light Rail.

Callum and Zoë couldn’t keep still, and I warned them about standing up while the train was moving. It travels at quite a lick, as the clip below shows, and the cross-city journey takes about 40 minutes.

On the return from Minneapolis (we’d met up with Hannah and Michael in downtown Minneapolis for lunch), and as we were approaching the Capitol/Rice St stop, there was an almighty bang, and the driver slammed on his brakes. We’d hit a car (with five passengers, including a baby) that had apparently tried to run a red light. Within minutes we were surrounded by police cars, rescue vehicles, the fire service, and ambulances. One woman was taken to hospital although did not appear to be seriously injured. For our part, Callum and Zoë happened to be sitting when the impact occurred. No-one was hurt on the train.

While St Paul exudes ‘old money’ and extravagant mansions along Summit Avenue, downtown Minneapolis is the bright and brash commercial center. Skyscrapers gleaming in the sunlight, reflections, and on one building, celebrating a local boy made good. Who? Nobel Laureate (for Literature) and sometime troubadour, Bob Dylan.

Local boy made good . . .

The McNeely Conservatory at Como Park
This is one of St Paul’s jewels. It is always a treat to see what delights the seasonal planting design brings. So, it is no surprise that we had to visit once again this year.

American Swedish Institute
Midsummer, and we headed off to the American Swedish Institute, just off E 26th St in Minneapolis. It was a very hot Saturday, so we were glad to be able to tour the Turnblad Mansion, the focus of the institute today. Built by newspaperman Swan Turnblad at the turn of the 20th century. It’s ostentatious but so elegant, and a delight to view. I was fascinated by the Swedish ceramic stoves, known as a kakelugn, in many of the rooms. I didn’t have my Nikon with me, so the quality of the photos I took with a small Casio is less than I’d like. Nevertheless, they do give you an impression of this beautiful building.

Although I’d never been to the American Swedish Institute before, I was ‘familiar’ with the Turnblad Mansion, as I mentioned to one of the volunteers, John Nelson. The mansion featured in one of the programs by Tory politician-turned-TV presenter, Michael Portillo (he of the flamboyant trousers and jacket) about the Twin Cities, in his series Great American Railroad Journeys (a spin-off from his popular Great British Railway Journeys), and broadcast earlier this year on the BBC. I mentioned this to Mr Nelson, and he told me he had sat next to Portillo in the sequence where he dined at the mansion. He said he hadn’t seen the program nor met anyone, until that moment, who had!

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
This was our third visit to the arboretum. Again, we enjoyed a tour round the ‘Three Mile Drive’, discovering new landscapes where we didn’t stop last year, and renewing our acquaintance with those we had see previously only on the Autumn.

The St Paul waterfront
Finally, we took advantage of the excellent weather to explore the walks along the Mississippi close to where Hannah and Michael live, at Hidden Falls Regional Park, and beside the Downtown area of St Paul.

Finally, of course, we had time to sit back, relax and just enjoy being with Hannah and Michael and the grandchildren. And, of course, the addition to the family: Hobbes the cat!

All too soon our 2017 visit to the USA was over, and on 28 June we headed back to MSP to catch our overnight flight on Delta to AMS, with a connection to BHX. It’s three weeks today since we came home. It seems a lifetime ago. But there’s always next year!

 

 

Ten days, eleven states (6): The mighty Mississippi, or is it?

It’s not even the longest river, as such, in North America. From its source at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota (that we visited in 2016) until the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi is 2320 miles long.

The Missouri, on the other hand, which joins the Mississippi near St Louis, MO, flows eastwards for 2341 miles from its source high in the Rockies of western Montana before it reaches that confluence.

One of the other main tributaries of the Mississippi is the Ohio River, at a mere 981 miles, yet its flow is much greater than the Mississippi, and at its deepest point, near Louisville, KY, it is over 130 feet deep. That’s some river! The Mississippi and its tributaries drain almost half the land mass of the the United States.

The Ohio joins the Mississippi at the southernmost point of Illinois, Fort Defiance, just south of Cairo, an almost abandoned town that looks like it has suffered one flooding event too many over the years.

Cairo was, apparently, the prototype for Charles Dickens’ ‘City of Eden’ in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit (which I read recently as part of my 2017 Charles Dickens challenge) published serially between 1842 and 1844. Dickens visited the USA in 1842. He was not impressed with Cairo; neither were we.

We left Cave City, KY just before noon on the Wednesday (Day 8 of our road trip), heading to Troy, IL, and then to follow the Mississippi north through Missouri, Iowa, and southern Minnesota to St Paul. This is our route from Cave City to Iowa City.

Before reaching Fort Defiance, we had already crossed the Tennessee River, which joins the Ohio River near Paducah, KY. Just before Paducah, we turned west and reached the banks of the Mississippi at Wickliffe, just down river from the confluence.

There are two impressive bridges crossing the Ohio and Mississippi. Seeing the enormity of these constructions makes you really wonder at how much an obstacle these rivers were during the westward expansion of the settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today the Mississippi alone boasts more than 130 bridges along its length.

The Cairo Ohio River bridge on the left (5863 feet) and the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge on the right (5175 feet)

Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark camped here in 1803, and it was a strategic location during the Civil War, for obvious reasons commanding the approaches upriver to both the Ohio and Mississippi.

River selfies! We are standing at the tip of Fort Defiance, the southernmost tip of Illinois. Top: the Ohio River, with Kentucky on the far bank. Middle: the confluence of the the Ohio and Mississippi, looking south, with Kentucky on the left bank, and Missouri on the right. Bottom: the Mississippi River, with Missouri on the far bank over the Cairo Mississippi Road Bridge.

Leaving Fort Defiance, we headed north along the Mississippi, on IL3 until Red Bud, when we headed north and skirted around St Louis to the northeast to reach our next stop at Troy, IL.

The following day, the penultimate one of the trip, took us from Troy all the way north to Iowa City, mostly along the banks of the Mississippi. I can’t deny I faced the 43 miles from our hotel on I-270/70 around the north of St Louis with some trepidation. Although it wasn’t quite as busy as I had feared, there was some careful navigation and changing lanes constantly to ensure we headed out in the right direction. Eventually we reached our exit and headed north on MO79, having crossed the Mississippi to cross into Missouri, and then the Missouri River.

Just over 40 miles north from where we left I-70, the road ran parallel to the Mississippi, and just a few meters away. Having been on the road for a couple of hours, and looking for the inevitable comfort break, we stopped in the small community of Clarksville. There’s a lock and a dam at this point on the Mississippi, and just at that moment a large grain barge (probably empty) was moving through on its way north.

Clarksville has been flooded many times, and some of the riverside properties looked as though they wouldn’t be able to sustain yet another one.

At Louisiana, MO (about 36 miles north of Clarksville) we stopped to view the Champ Clark Bridge from a high vantage point. Built in 1928, this bridge no longer has the capacity for the traffic on US54. By the end of 2019 a new and wider bridge will be in place.

In southern Iowa, north of Montrose, we were reminded once again of the great migration westwards, of pioneers seeking a better life, in this case Mormons heading to Utah. In 1846, Mormons were hounded out of Illinois just across the river, at Nauvoo. The river is well over 1 mile wide here.

A bystander told us that the white building on the opposite bank in Illinois was a Mormon temple, now abandoned.

We turned inland at Muscatine, IA to spend our last night at Coralville, a suburb of Iowa City.

The following morning, we continued our route north across Iowa: flat, rather boring landscape, and mile upon mile of maize. Once we crossed into Minnesota, we turned northeast to Winona and the Mississippi once again. To the west of the town, there is access to Garvin Heights Lookout, some 500 feet above the river. What a view, north and south!

In this stretch of the river, it forms a series of wide lakes. North of Winona, we stopped briefly to view Lake Pepin.

Then it was time to push on, and complete the final 63 miles of our epic road trip via Red Wing and Hastings, MN. Leaving the Mississippi at Hastings and pushing westwards to wards St Paul, we finally arrived at the home of our elder daughter Hannah and her family alongside the Mississippi in the Highland area. The final three days were certainly a Mississippi adventure, although I never aspired to be a latter-day Huckleberry Finn.

The video below covers the final three days of our trip from Fort Defiance to the Twin Cities.

 

 

Ten days, eleven states (1): Almost 2800 miles from Georgia to Minnesota

Yes. That’s right. Eleven states in just ten days.

2764 miles to be precise. Ninety-four gallons of gasoline consumed. Almost 30 mpg at just USD209. That’s not bad considering we rented a Jeep Patriot SUV (with a Connecticut licence plate!).

I’d opted for a car rental through Rentalcars.com and chose Alamo as the best deal. Just USD357 for the actual rental, USD250 for the one way drop-off fee, and USD98 for roadside assistance cover and various taxes.

I had planned our route meticulously, taking in various sites and landscape features I thought would be interesting, and avoiding as much as possible any of the interstate highways. I bought Rand McNally road maps for all states except Virginia and Minnesota (we already had a DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer for MN). I checked precise US and State Routes using Google maps since the scale of the Rand McNally didn’t always show the road name. I even used Google Streetview to check the various intersections, and before we traveled I already had an image in my mind of the entire route.

I prepared daily detailed route plans on cards, which Steph used to navigate us across country from Atlanta to Minnesota, with each map marked at decision points corresponding to the route card details (you can just make out a series of circles on the map below).

Fortunately, US roads are very well signposted and road signs (e.g. US61 or GA23, for example) are posted every few miles. It was hard to go wrong, but we did on three occasions; nothing major, however. My first mistake was leaving the car rental center at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. I turned on to I-85N instead of I-85S, but was able to turn around within a mile. On two other occasions we made a turn too early, but realised almost immediately. Not bad really for such a long road trip. Nor did we encounter any road works that held us up, or any road accidents. We almost never saw a police car.

These four map links show the actual route we took over the ten days:

Atlanta – Savannah, GA – Greenwood, SC – Blairsville, GA
31 May – 3 June
Blairsville, GA – Cave City, KY
4 – 6 June
Cave City – Iowa City, IA
7 – 8 June
Iowa City – St Paul, MN
9 June

We stayed in ‘chain’ hotels like Best Western, Comfort Inn, Quality Inn and the like, about USD100 or so a night. In Savannah we stayed at The Planters Inn on Reynolds Square, close to the river and other historic attractions, and this was our most expensive at around USD230 including taxes and valet parking. Breakfast (if you can call it that) was provided in each hotel. For lunch, eaten by the roadside or at a scenic viewpoint, we picked up a freshly-made sandwich and with some fruit from the hotel, we had enough to keep us going until a substantial dinner in the evening. Surprisingly, we ate Mexican on three nights and had very good meals. There was even beer! Twice we ate at the nearby Cracker Barrel Old Country Store – reasonable food but no beer. Walking into our second Cracker Barrel in Troy, IL it was déjà vu; the layout of the restaurant and the store was identical to the one we patronised in Johnson City, TN.

Anyway, here is a summary of our epic road trip.

31 May, Atlanta, GA – Macon, GA, 82 miles
Our flight (DL73) from Amsterdam landed on time just after 14:15, and despite arriving at an E pier and having to walk the considerable distance over to the new F International Terminal for immigration and customs, then taking a 15 minute shuttle to the new car rentals center beyond the airport perimeter, we were on the road not long after 16:00. We were headed to Macon on I-75, some 82 miles southeast of Atlanta towards Savannah to spend our first night, and recover—to the extent possible—from our long day of travel from Birmingham (BHX), arriving to our hotel (Best Western on Riverside Drive) just around 18:00

Just arrived at Best Western in Macon

We had the room on the right of the balcony, overlooking Reynolds Square

1 June, Macon – Savannah, GA, 167 miles
Since we had only a relatively short journey to reach Savannah, and because I wanted us to get a good rest before setting off once again, we didn’t leave Macon until after 09:00. Our hotel in Savannah (Planter’s Inn on Reynolds Square) had contacted me that morning by SMS asking what time we expected to arrive and hoping to have a room ready then. Not only was our room ready at just after 11:00, but we’d been upgraded to a balcony room. Once we had settled in, we set off on a leisurely stroll around the historic riverside where the old cotton warehouses have been converted to restaurants and other retail outlets, as well as apartments.

Savannah oozes history (and Spanish moss) – a direct line of historical events from the early 18th century, when it was founded, through Colonial times, and the turmoil of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

2 June, Savannah – Greenwood, SC, 196 miles
We spent the morning in Savannah absorbing the Colonial, Revolutionary and Civil Wars history of this beautiful city. The weather didn’t look promising, with thunderstorms forecast, so we left the hotel by 07:30 and wandered through the various squares, parks and colonial streets for three hours, with just a small shower to bother us. After freshening up at the hotel and checking out, we were on the road again by 11:30, headed for Greenwood in the northwest of South Carolina.

The US17 route out of Savannah crosses the Savannah River over the fine-looking Talmadge Memorial Bridge, completed in 1991, 185 feet above the water.

We passed through a heavy rainstorm for the first 20 miles or so, but the weather brightened, and we stopped for a bite to eat beside the road in glorious sunshine. The road north was almost completely straight passing through small towns with names like Denmark, Sweden and Norway. There wasn’t much evidence of much agriculture, just some maize on this coastal plain with rather sandy soils. Communities seemed quite impoverished (according to the 2010 census it is the 7th poorest state). Nevertheless, the Southern Baptist (and some Presbyterian) churches and chapels stood in stark contrast. I’ve never seen so many places of worship so close together. There must be a lot of wicked souls need saving in South Carolina (and surrounding states) to require so many churches, often within just a few hundred yards of each other (or closer).

We were in Greenwood by 17:00, found our hotel, the Hampton Inn, and enjoyed steak and seafood meals at the Red Lobster outlet beside the hotel.

3 June, Greenwood – Blairsville, GA, 195 miles
Distance-wise this was never going to be one of the longest days, but I had planned our route climbing into the Appalachians through the Chatterhoochee National Forest on US60, a winding road among the trees.

We departed from Greenwood around 08:00 and made our first stop at the SC-GA state line to look over the Savannah River at Calhoun Falls. We had another stop at Cleveland, GA to tour the historic courthouse museum, and arrived in Blairsville by about 15:00.

Not wanting to go straight to our hotel, the Comfort Inn, so early in the day, we opted for a 55 mile round trip taking in some of the hills and forest to the north and east of Blairsville, arriving to Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia at 4500 feet, around 16:30 just in time to take the last shuttle bus to the summit, and down again. I decided not to walk the 1 mile descent from the summit to the car park because the average gradient was more than 14%, and Steph and I were concerned that I might hurt my right leg, which is still giving me some grief 18 months after I broke it.

4 June, Blairsville – Johnson City, TN 282 miles
This was our opportunity of really traveling through the Appalachians. I’d chosen to travel east along the Cherohala Skyway in North Carolina. We had expected some poor weather this day, so set off as early as we could get away in order to enjoy the early morning brightness. The Cherohala offers some spectacular views along the way, and we were not disappointed at all.

Looking south from the Cherohala Skyway over North Carolina

But the further east we went, the more cloudy it became, and by the time we reached US441 to cross the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it was raining quite hard and we didn’t really see very much at all. We took the side route of about seven miles to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point over 6600 feet. Couldn’t see a thing! But lower down on the north side, the weather improved and we did see something of the Smoky Mountains.

We then dropped down to Gatlinburg in Tennessee. If you’ve ever harbored the desire to visit Gatlinburg – don’t. What a tourist disaster! A narrow highway through the center of the town, tackiest tourist souvenir stores lining both sides, and even though this was early in the tourist season, there were throngs of people about. I’m glad we were only passing through. Then it was on to our hotel on the outskirts of Johnson City.

5 June, Johnson City – Charleston, WV, 380 miles
The focus early in the day was the Cumberland Gap, northwest of Johnson City by about 80 miles or so. Not long after leaving Johnson City, along US11, we passed through one of the heaviest rain storms I’ve ever experienced. I could hardly see in front of the car. But by the time we reached Cumberland Gap, the clouds had lifted somewhat, and the sun appeared.

The ‘Cumberland Gap’ is familiar to me from my skiffle days, as sung by Lonnie Donegan.

We went up to the Pinnacle Overlook, hoping to see the views over Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky – even as far as North Carolina on a good day. It was only a case of ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ as the clouds came rolling in, then dispersed. As a major pass through the Appalachians, the Cumberland Gap was strategically important for both the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War of the 1860s, and changed sides every so often. There is still evidence of military occupation high on the Overlook.

Looking north into Kentucky and the town of Middlesboro. The highway has just emerged from the tunnel through the Gap.

Then later in the day, heading east towards Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, we traveled along The Trail of the Lonesome Pine in Virginia. Until I was planning this trip, I wasn’t even aware that the Trail was a real entity, not after I’d heard Laurel and Hardy singing about it.

6 June, Charleston – Cave City, KY, 371 miles
Our destination this day was Cave City in central Kentucky where we planned to visit the Mammoth Cave National Park the following day. Heading west out of Charleston on I-64, we turned south at Morehead in Kentucky (about 110 miles west) to head south through the Daniel Boone National Forest.

We traveled some 125 miles along scenic highways and byways. Then we turned west on the Cumberland Parkway west of Somerset, KY for the rest of the day’s trip to make up some time and so as not to arrive to our hotel too late. However, Kentucky is divided into two time zones, so we gained an hour (from Eastern to Central Time) about 80 miles east of Cave City.

7 June, Cave City – Troy, IL, 367 miles
The Mammoth Cave National Park opened at 08:00, and we were at the Visitor Center not long afterwards. I had booked a tour of the Frozen Niagara cave some months back, at 09:20. This was a guided tour, the first of the day, and to a cave that was easily accessible. I didn’t want to contend with scrambling over rocks with my leg. In any case we planned to stay at the Park only until late morning as we still had the whole day’s trip of over 350 miles to make.

We enjoyed the cave, along with a group of fewer than 30 others. The caves are kept closed and it’s generally not possible to visit them alone. What amazed us is that the cave system, at over 440 mapped miles is the largest system in the world. The Park gets very busy during school holidays, and we were fortunate to have visited when we did.

Our next port of call was Fort Defiance at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and the southernmost point of Illinois. Most impressive.

Then we followed the Mississippi north towards St Louis and our hotel in Troy just northeast of the city, catching a glimpse of the famous Gateway Arch as we skirted the city center on the Illinois side of the river.

8 June, Troy – Iowa City, IA, 332 miles
Our plan was to follow the Mississippi north through Missouri into Iowa. Heading west around the north of St Louis we crossed both the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers close to their confluence. Heading north on MO79, we stopped at Clarksville to stretch our legs, and look at the dam and lock, where a very large combination of barges was being ferried northwards slowly against the current.

Further north we stopped also at Louisiana, MO to view the Champ Clark Bridge that connects MO and IL, from a vantage point high above the river.

Then it was on to our next, and last, overnight stop in Iowa City.

9 June, Iowa City – St Paul, MN, 333 miles
Our last day on the road, heading north on very straight roads, before crossing into southern Minnesota and crossing the Bluff Country eastwards to reach Winona on the Mississippi.

Just south of the Iowa-Minnesota state line we passed through Cresco, IA which proudly advertises itself as the birthplace of Dr Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution in wheat and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 1973, who I had the honour of meeting when I worked at IRRI.

In Winona, we took a short diversion to a scenic overlook about 500 feet above the river valley and had a spectacular view north and south.

Then we set off with added determination to arrive to Hannah and Michael’s in the Highland Park area of St Paul by late afternoon, and the end of our enjoyable 2017 road trip adventure.

Here are the individual blog posts about the various places we visited:

Meandering beside the mighty Mississippi in Minnesota

minnesotaWe have been visiting Minnesota regularly for almost two decades, with the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul our main destination.

One geographical feature dominates the landscape in the Twin Cities: the mighty Mississippi. It bisects the metropolitan area, with Minneapolis on the west bank, and St Paul on the east. Since a decade ago, our elder daughter Hannah and her husband Michael have lived just a few blocks from the Mississippi. In April this year they moved to a new house along the banks of the river – although at least 50 m above the water, so no danger of flooding there as the river flows through a limestone gorge.

In this short video that I took on take-off from MSP last week, our Delta flight banked to the west, and followed the Mississippi northwest over the center of Minneapolis, and the rapids between the Central Ave SE bridge and that carrying I-35W.

When we travel to the USA, Steph and I try to make a road trip, short or long. In 2011, it was the Grand Canyon and other canyons of Arizona and New Mexico. We were drawn to the Minnesota Riviera in 2012, and the Oregon coast, Crater Lake and the redwoods of northern California in 2013. 2014 saw us trek across the Great Plains from Minnesota to Yellowstone National Park, and last year we took a mini-break by train in Chicago.

Because of the ongoing rehabilitation from my leg injury earlier this year, I didn’t want to make a long road journey. But we decided to take a mini-break, just 3½ days (and a round-trip of 750 miles) to the source and headwaters of the Mississippi River north of the Twin Cities in northwest Minnesota.

What is the source of the Mississippi?
The source of the Mississippi was controversial for almost a hundred years in the 19th century, until, after a thorough hydrological survey by Jacob V Brower in 1888, Lake Itasca was confirmed as the source. Lake Itasca had been claimed as the source by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in 1832.

20160922-099-minnesota

Our first day itinerary, of about 260 miles took us northwest to Nevis, where we had booked bed and breakfast accommodation at The Park Street Inn, a house built in 1912 by banker Justin Halvorson who came to the town to set up a bank and devlop this region of Minnesota.

We spent almost the whole of our second day in Itasca State Park, touring the park by car, and stopping wherever the fancy took us. But our prime objective was the source of the Mississippi.

Our destination on the third day was Grand Rapids, no more than about 75 miles by the most direct route from Nevis. We took almost 200 miles! On the last day, Thursday, and with the weather deteriorating (there had been flash floods in the Twin Cities overnight) we headed back to St Paul by the most direct route.

Lake Itasca State Park
We entered the park at the south gate, and stopped at the Jacob V Brower Visitor Center to pay our USD5 park fee, and see the various exhibits about the park, its establishment in 1891, and the history of exploration of the Mississippi headwaters.

We took the road north along the lake to the source of the Mississippi as it leaves Lake Itasca, as a small stream bubbling over a small rapids, to begin its journey of more than 2000 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.

I would have liked to cross the Mississippi on foot, but didn’t dare even make an attempt, although I made it across a log bridge just 50 feet or so down from the rapids. And Steph only made it to the middle of the stepping stones. The gap between two stones was just too wide for her to feel comfortable and, in any case, one broken leg in the family was more than enough!

The Mississippi flows north out of the lake. Just a little further on, the park road crosses the river, no more than a stream ten feet wide, but with an auspicious sign alongside.

We followed the Wilderness Road right round the park, stopping every so often to admire the scenery, views of the lake, the Fall colours in the trees, and the old-growth red and white pines (the remaining stands of these in the state).

At the headwaters of the Mississippi there is an interesting set of displays about the river. This one caught my attention.

20160922-131-minnesota

It’s interesting to note that the Mississippi is not the longest or largest (in terms of flow) of the rivers that drain the overall  watershed. The Missouri is longer; the Ohio flows stronger. And other rivers, like the Arkansas, join the river further downstream. The Mississippi and its tributaries drain about half the United States!

Although we even made it to the Aiton Fire Tower (over half a mile on foot uphill from the nearest car park), and even though other visitors told us that there was a magnificent view of the forest from the top, at 100 feet high, that was too much for my head, and more than enough for my leg. We made it to just the fourth floor.

20160922-168-minnesota

Our itinerary from Nevis to Grand Rapids took us via the small Schoolcraft State Park, named after Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Here the Mississippi is already 50-100 feet wide.

Then the landscape drops noticeably into Grand Rapids where the Mississippi becomes a raging torrent and its power already harnessed by the building of a dam and creation of a lake to power paper mills.

the_wizard_of_oz_judy_garland_terry_1939

Judy Garland – born in Minnesota, not Kansas!

Who’s from Minnesota?
Grand Rapids is the birthplace of Frances Ethel Gumm. Frances Ethel who?

Judy Garland to you and me, who was born here in 1922, but moved to California four years later. There was a museum a couple of blocks from our hotel. We passed it on our way south.

When I looked up information about Judy Garland, it crossed my mind to find out who else famous hails from Minnesota, or spent significant time there. I’d seen a sign to the ‘Charles Lindbergh homestead’ at Little Falls on the drive north where Lindbergh spent much of his childhood. Lindbergh was the first pilot to make a solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

Minnesota has quite a number of famous sons and daughters, including Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale (politicians), F Scott Fitzgerald and Garrison Keillor (writers), the one and only Prince (musician), and James Arness (actor, Gunsmoke), among many others.

We like Minnesota. The people are laid back, typical mid-West I’m told. The state has lots to offer, perhaps not as famous as attractions in many other states. Nevertheless, it suits us just fine, as it seems to suit Hannah and her family.

 

 

 

A bridge too four . . .

There’s water everywhere, notwithstanding all the lakes that characterise Minnesota. It’s not for nothing that Minnesota is known as ‘The Land of 10,000 Lakes’.

The Minneapolis-St Paul metro area (the Twin Cities) is surrounded (almost) by water. I’m talking about rivers. Large rivers.

The mighty Mississippi River bisects the cities. The Minnesota River is a southern boundary to Minneapolis. And the St Croix River is the state line between Minnesota and Wisconsin just east of St Paul, and its confluence with the Mississippi is just south of St Paul.

The Twin Cities (and surrounding areas) have their fair share of bridges – road and rail – that cross all of these rivers. There are twenty six highway bridges across the Mississippi, eight across the Minnesota River, and five across the St Croix (and another being constructed to relieve Stillwater of its congestion at the Lift Bridge.

Closest to where our daughter and her family live in the Highland Park neighbourhood of St Paul is the Mississippi River Bridge. Or should that be the Intercity Bridge, the Ford Parkway Bridge, or even the 46th Street Bridge? Its official name is ‘Intercity Bridge’, but at both ends there is a plate stating that the name is ‘Mississippi River Bridge’.

The Intercity Bridge, looking north from the Lock and Dam 1. Photo downloaded from the Minnesota Department of Transportation website.

Work began on this beautiful bridge in 1925, and it was completed two years later. It connected Minneapolis with the Ford Motor plant on the St Paul side of the river, now closed and demolished.

The following five photos were taken from an information booth above the old hydroelectric plant.

20160909-021-minnesota

20160909-019-minnesota

20160909-022-minnesota

The Ford Motor plant is on the eastern side of the Intercity Bridge. Below the bridge is the hydroelectric plant that provided power for Ford.

20160909-020-minnesota

20160909-023-minnesota

Now that the trees have matured along the banks of the Mississippi, there are few clear views of the bridge from the banks, even from the viewpoints.

The next bridge upstream is the Marshall Avenue bridge, and can just be seen from the Intercity Bridge. Our daughter Hannah now lives just beyond the river bank treeline on the right of these photos, on Mississippi River Boulevard.

20160912-004-minnesota

20160912-005-minnesota

This is the view today of the hydroelectric power station, the dam and lock below the bridge.

20160912-006-minnesota

About a mile further down river is Hidden Falls Regional Park. The road drops steeply down the bluff to the water’s edge. And there you get a real appreciation of the majesty and power of the flow of the Mississippi, even though it’s over 1200 miles to the ocean at the Gulf of Mexico.

Just over the Intercity Bridge on the Minneapolis side is Minnehaha Regional Park, and the beautiful Minnehaha Falls. On a visit to St Paul at Christmas 2007 we saw these Falls under very different circumstances: completely frozen. But not yesterday.

 

Letting the train take the strain – Amtrak-style

amtrak-logoSt Paul, Minnesota.
22 September 2015.
07:45.

The Amtrak Empire Builder pulls into Union Depot on time, two days and about 1,800 miles after leaving Seattle¹, headed by two GE P42 Genesis locomotives.

Destination: Union Station, Chicago. Another 400 miles and 8 hours travel, with intermediate stops at Red Wing and Winona in Minnesota, La Crosse, Tomah, Wisconsin Dells, Portage, Columbus and Milwaukee in Wisconsin, and Glenview (an outer suburb of Chicago) in Illinois.

Until early 2014 Amtrak used the Midway depot (between Minneapolis and St Paul) as its station in the Twin Cities. Now it operates out of the refurbished—and very plush—Union Depot in downtown St Paul, alongside the Mississippi River. Interestingly, Amtrak uses three-letter codes for all its stations, just like airports (MSP for St Paul-Minneapolis).

20150930 0464

20150930 0465

We arrived to Union Depot with about 20 minutes to spare, found our way to the exit gate, and joined the other passengers (around 40) waiting to board the train that was due in a few minutes later. Once all St Paul passengers had ‘de-trained’, we were assigned our coach at the departure gate, and made our way down to the platform. The train consisted of a single-decker baggage railcar just behind the locomotives (you can just see it in the photo above), and a long set of sleeper cars and seating cars, a dining car, and an observation car. Seattle cars were at the front of the train, and those from Portland at the rear.

20150930 0471

Although we had reserved seats, we didn’t have actual seats assigned. But as the railcars were not full, we just found the first empty seats available, all on the upper deck of each Superliner car. Fortunately, Amtrak does assign blocks of seats for couples traveling together, and those for passengers traveling alone. So it’s always possible to sit together. If the train is full, however, the conductor will assign specific seats.

On both sectors we had no problem finding good seats, and down to Chicago, our car was immediately behind the observation car, with its snack bar on the lower level. All seats face forward, recline, there’s a foot-rest, and ample space between seats, more like the business class seating space on an aircraft.

20150930 0474 20150930 0477

Since we only had hand luggage, this could be accommodated in the racks above our seats. There was plenty of space for larger luggage downstairs, and baggage could also be checked and stored in the baggage car.

So, letting ‘the train take the strain’ we settled into our seats, anticipating the journey south to Chicago.

We departed on time at 08:03, which is exceptional for Amtrak considering the issues this service has been facing in recent times. Delays of up to five hours have occurred on some sectors, especially west of St Paul. The Amtrak Empire Builder runs on tracks (often single tracks) owned by several freight companies², which take priority. So if extra freight trains are added to the schedule, or there’s a breakdown on one of the single track sections, for example, then Amtrak just has to fit in. Fortunately on both sectors of our Chicago jaunt, the trains ran to schedule and on time.

About 20 miles south of St Paul, the railway crosses the Mississippi at Hastings over to the west bank. I didn’t even notice when that happened, as the river is quite narrow at this point. Not so, further south, as the river merges with a set of lakes. Where the railroad crosses the Mississippi over to the east bank near La Crosse, WI, it is most impressive as you can see in the Part 1 video (at around 13 minutes).

From Hastings south to Red Wing and Winona, the railroad more or less hugs the bank of the Mississippi. After crossing the river, it heads east over mid-Wisconsin, often through extensive wetlands, but also mile upon mile of maize and soybeans. After Milwaukee, on the shore of Lake Michigan, it turns abruptly south, and after another 90 minutes or so, pulls into Chicago’s Union Station—as we did on time around 15:55.

On both sectors there are slightly longer stops at Winona and Milwaukee to permit passengers to step off the train for a few minutes and stretch their legs and, if needs must, smoke. All Amtrak services are strictly No Smoking!

20150930 0470

Stretching our legs at Winona, MN

On the journey to Chicago, we bought sandwiches in the snack bar. Big mistake! They were expensive, and dry, almost inedible slabs of bread (no butter or mayonnaise) with a turkey and cheese in between. As we had to leave the house early for our train we hadn’t had time to prepare anything. On the return journey we stocked up with supplies from a deli close to our hotel. Much tastier and better value.

While many passengers (retirees in particular) take the Empire Builder for its relaxing way to travel across this vast country, for others rail travel is cheaper than flying. After all, our two return tickets cost only USD224. For others it’s really the only way they can travel. On both journeys there were many Amish (or were they Old Order Mennonites, or even Hutterites?) making their way to Chicago, or back to their communities in the far west in Montana.

20150930 0476

A young ‘Amish’ woman and her baby making their way through the observation car.

On the return leg, there were four young ‘Amish’ women sitting in the row in front of us, chattering away in ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’, that strange Swiss-German dialect they have used since first arriving in the USA (you can hear them at the beginning of the Part 2 video). They were traveling to Malta, Montana, another 36 hours at least west from St Paul. Another young man seated near us was traveling on to Portland, OR. And only seated! I couldn’t do that. On a longer journey than our trip to Chicago, I would definitely choose the sleeper option, with all meals included.

Was it a good trip? On the whole, yes. I love traveling by train, as I have posted elsewhere on this blog. Traveling by train allowed us to see new parts of the USA that we wouldn’t had we flown to Chicago—new communities, new landscapes, new agriculture. A pity though that Amtrak doesn’t clean the railcar windows more regularly (as you can see from the videos, unfortunately).

Maybe another time, for a short trip like this one, I would travel by train one way, and return by air. That would certainly be the case for a transcontinental trip. Nevertheless, our trip was comfortable, interesting, on time, and with rail travel there is the distinct advantage of arriving in the center of the city. From Union Station in Chicago it was a short taxi ride to our hotel. I have one regret. We didn’t have time to look round Union Station. It was a bit of a maze to find our departure gate, so once there, we just waited for the gate to open (about 20 minutes) rather than wander off around the concourse, and I’m not sure in which direction that lay. Union Station is huge.

Three things struck me as we traveled:

  1. Chicago is the terminal for many of the long-distance trains that Amtrak operates to California, the Midwest, and Texas among others. Of course, it was the city from where the 19th century railway building boom started. Parts of our journey used to be double track or more. Many lengths are now just single track. But looking at the landscapes, the rivers and wetlands that the railroad crossed again brings to mind the superhuman effort to build a trans-continental railway then.
  2. The state of the railway is quite poor in parts, although efforts are being made to upgrade different sections of the line. But almost exclusively existing wooden sleepers are being replaced by wooden sleepers. I hardly saw any concrete sleepers at all. And rail lengths are very short. This is in contrast to what you see in the UK and Europe, where all rail refurbishment is with concrete sleepers and extremely long lengths of steel rails welded together for a safer and smoother ride. With wooden sleepers about a foot or so apart, I hate to think just how many trees (and which species) have been sacrificed to build the railways. Crossing the Great Plains in the 19th century, sleepers were shipped in, were quite crude, and made from timber (often cottonwood) that didn’t survive for very long. Modern wooden sleepers are huge chunks of wood.
  3. And as you will see as you watch the two videos, there isn’t much segregation between the railroad and cars and people. Obviously the railroad follows today the original 19th century route, passing through the center of towns along the way. There are innumerable railroad crossings, and the locomotive engineer was constantly sounding his horn the whole journey as we approached the many roads crossing the line, or on entering towns. There are no fences, and the line often cuts across gardens of houses alongside the railroad.

However, this Amtrak trip is another item ticked off my Bucket List. Time to start planning my next trip.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
¹ Actually, the Empire Builder is two trains, one from Seattle and the other from Portland, OR that join to form a single train at Spokane, in eastern Washington State.
² BNSF Railway’s northern route from Seattle to Minneapolis, Minnesota Commercial from Minneapolis to St. Paul, Canadian Pacific from St. Paul to Glenview, and Metra from Glenview to Chicago.