Great Lakes and Amber Nectar

Last week, the Voyager returned to the wilderness of the North, visiting the Rockies for the final time whilst commencing its crossing of the Great Plains. In week eight the journey heads South-East, through the flat, vast land of ten thousand lakes, towards America’s second city.

Day 50 – Bismarck, ND to Fargo, ND

As mentioned last week, we took an absolute battering last night. A storm of rain, hail, lightning, bison; you name it, we were hit by it. Celebrating fifty days on the road, I did not envisage Bismarck, North Dakota post-apocalyptic storm but this trip has been full of surprises.

North Dakota License Plate

The fact that we could not find anywhere to watch Wales play in the Rugby World Cup, however, was not a surprise. American’s look pained when trying to pronounce ‘rugby’, let alone finding a channel that shows any. My diminutive phone screen sufficed.

We left Bismarck heading East on Interstate 94; surely one of the straightest and most tedious roads in America, possibly on earth. It is easy to find on a map as it runs the complete length of the state, right through the middle of North Dakota, in a near perfect straight line.

That is the equivalent of driving from London to Glasgow with virtually no reference points or landmarks; and it doesn’t exactly turn into the Las Vegas Strip when you finally cross into Minnesota either. There wasn’t even a storm to distract us today, just hours and hours of nothingness… but then, something… something large.

World's Largest Buffalo

The world’s largest buffalo to be exact. Standing proud and fantastically American right next to the freeway in the middle of absolutely nowhere. If not more to stop the onset of deep vein thrombosis from sitting in the same position for countless hours than from sheer excitement, we thought we better get out of the car and have a proper look at it. We actually discovered some real buffalo not far from the ‘monument’ which we fed and admired whilst our blood circulation recovered, before we got back on the highway to hel, Fargo.

Real Buffalo

Day 51 – Fargo, ND to Monticello, MN

Now I have not seen the film Fargo, and if purely based on my experience staying there I would not see the film Fargo; but for the gripping reality that none of the film was actually filmed in Fargo. That is your fun fact for the day, literally your only point of interest. The rest of our day involved leaving Fargo, driving, eating, complaining about the scenery, discussing the world’s largest buffalo and more driving.

City law in Minneapolis forbade us from ‘sleeping in our vehicle’ so we chose to car camp forty-five minutes North-West of the city at the sprightly named Monticello, Minnesota. Despite the name, the town is anything but sprightly. Just another mishmash of fast food chains, gas stations, ammunition stores and drive-through churches.

Today’s unbearable tedium gives me an opportunity to show you what life looks like inside the Voyager. Each evening we convert the back of the minivan from standard driving set-up into firstly, our dining room – only when too cold, too wet or too raccoon-threatened to cook outside – and secondly, our bedroom. After nearly eight weeks of practice we can complete this process with our hands tied, eyes blindfolded and brains lobotomised, in under ten minutes. Mercifully, we’re back to civilisation tomorrow.

Before...

After

Day 52 – Monticello, MN to Fribault, MN

Minneapolis is civilisation yes, but it is not the Greek or Roman or Egyptian sort. It is a city built for blizzards and freezing temperatures – similar to Calgary – which means that there is extremely little to see or do outside of the maze of indoor shopping malls and interconnected sky-walks that make sure that, whilst you shop, drink, eat and potentially live your entire life, no contact is made with the great outdoors. This, in all honesty, is probably a welcome concept during the bleak mid-Winter but it does make for an extremely depressing city the rest of the year.

Minneapolis

Minneapolis

The one impressive exception was the Walker Art Centre and adjoining sculpture garden. This cheerful ‘Cherry on Spoon’ sculpture was particularly popular. Unfortunately, one teaspoon of Minneapolis’ culture did not sufficiently enhance the city’s appeal and we promptly left downtown in search of what Minnesota is truly famous for, lakes; at least that is what their license plate says.

Lake Harriet

Eleven thousand eight hundred and forty-two to be exact; although we only had time for a smattering. We stopped at the picturesque Lake Harriet; indeed, so picturesque that scores of well-dressed teens were having their pre-prom photos by the side of it. We wandered around its edge until dusk, when the prospect of falling in became more probable than not, before heading South, just outside of the city limits, to legally sleep in our vehicle.

Lake Harriet

Day 53 – Fribault, MN to Waterloo, IA

Another Sunday, another visit to Buffalo Wild Wings to watch ‘America’s game’. Apart from the dependable stench of urine one inhales upon entry to any of their establishments, it has proven to be a reliable Sunday watering hole when options are severely limited e.g. Bismarck, North Dakota. Following a sporting result that did not put a smile on my face, we headed South to a state that hasn’t put a smile on anyone’s face since 1987.

Iowa. The state Bill Bryson billed as the most insipid and monotonous, both geographically and culturally, in the whole of America. We were here to prove him wrong. We began the resurrection of Iowa’s reputation by searching for any activities or landmarks or anything of any cultural significance on the one hundred and fifty-mile journey South-East from the Minnesotan border to Waterloo.

The Road Through Iowa

First round goes to Bryson. Fields and fields of golden corn, glistening grain silos and the occasional crimson barn is literally all there is. No brown road signs indicating something that may be worth stopping for. No historic markers or famous creeks or noteworthy mounds; but we have not given up hope. One more day in Iowa and we will surely hit the jackpot.

The Road Through Iowa

Day 54 – Waterloo, IA to Madison, WI

Dubuque

Or maybe not. We continued our search through the silo state – not its real moniker – to no avail until we had almost crossed over the border into Wisconsin when we finally hit a town – Dubuque, Iowa. Our one and only hope for the state; and what a treat it was. The town had brick buildings, a clock-tower and, quite amazingly, a fully-functioning brewery.

Dubuque

Dubuque Brewery

A brewery which happened to be located right next to the most famous river in America, the Mississippi. It was our first glance at the illustrious river, which – as it is in its infancy here – would have looked like any other but for the fact our sense of awe had been so badly deprived through the Great Plains. Thus, the prospect of a beer next to Ole Miss was almost too much excitement to handle.

Dubuque Brewery

Dubuque Brewery

We supped on Dubuque Star and explored the historic brewery’s bowels; fully satisfied that it justified the state of Iowa as a must-visit metropolis of entertainment and exhilaration – sorry Bryson. Dubuque marks a meeting of three states, Iowa, Illinois & Wisconsin, the latter being the next state on my bucket list. So we gathered our corn, said goodbye to the silos and headed across the Mississippi – ‘Welcome to Eastern America’.

Mississippi River

Day 55 – Madison, WI to Milwaukee, WI

Madison

We woke up in the state capital Madison, a rather nice college town full of nice buildings and nice people. In fact, Wisconsin should consider changing its nickname from ‘America’s Dairyland’ to the ‘Nice State’ because, one: it is extremely nice; and two: we were yet to see a single cow. The city is sandwiched between two lakes, which we strolled around before making the short journey East towards Milwaukee.

Madison

On our way there we received a text from Aaron & Jess, fresh from their culinary voyage of discovery through the Deep South, that they were ahead of schedule and could meet us that evening – welcome news. Upon arrival in Milwaukee we headed straight towards another lake, this time a slightly bigger one.

Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan, our first ‘Great Lake’, looked anything like a lake. In fact, it is so large that it has beaches, tides and no possibility of seeing the other side. Communities of fisherman or Nessies or Somali pirates could quite happily live unnoticed in its vast expanse. We took a few breaths of fresh lake air and headed towards another meeting with our travel comrades.

Milwaukee

Kamloops, British Columbia; Missoula, Montana; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We had criss-crossed paths with Aaron & Jess at some unusual places across North America but the one constant of any meeting or farewell was the fact they took place at a Walmart car park. Today was no different. We bagged a thirty-pack of beer, had dinner and exchanged Great Plain and Deep South stories.

Day 56 – Milwaukee, WI to Chicago, IL

Pabst Brewery

Newly re-joined, the Plymouth Voyager and Pontiac Montana did what they do best, took us to a brewery. This time, it was to the origin of one of America’s oldest and most popular cold beverages, Pabst Blue Ribbon. The size of eight city blocks, the inaugural Milwaukee plant has not been brewing Pabst since 1996, but is currently undergoing major re-development to restore it to its former grandeur.

Pabst Brewery

Pabst Brewery

We took a guided tour of the plant, viewed Captain Pabst’s office as it was over one hundred years ago when he was commanding proceedings, and, obviously, sampled an old Pabst ale. After saying our farewells to the tour guide, who had spent a year living in Swansea and could order a beer in fluent Welsh, we continued South, alongside Lake Michigan, towards the Windy City.

Pabst Brewery

Pabst Brewery

Our rush-hour arrival meant a rather stressful and hurried precursory drive around downtown Chicago, which actually was not in the least bit windy. The black, box-shaped Willis tower, with its head in the clouds, dominates the skyline and casts long dark shadows over the surrounding box-shaped skyscrapers. With both minivan’s headlights failing, and last night’s late night catching up with me, we went in search of a suburban supermarket which we could sleep at; Costco obliged. Chicago town will wait.

First Glimpse of Willis Tower in Chicago

Next week the Voyager dubs Chicago home as I celebrate my birthday eating pizza pie and climbing some of the tallest buildings in the world before heading Eastwards in search of Motown.

Total kilometres: 14,459

J

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