Tuesday, September 11, 2018


This summer, we took our semi-annual road trip.  We booked a tour to the Canadian Rockies, starting in Calgary, Alberta.  But first we had to get there.  About 35 people were on the tour, and they all flew to Calgary, either from Chicago or the Twin Cities, except us.  We could save $1000 on the tour if we didn't fly.  Of course, it cost more than the $1000 for gas and hotel rooms for 8 days and 6 nights.  Be we did it for the adventure.  Here is what we learned.


Driving in Northwest Wisconsin, we stopped at a rest area containing an exhibit remembering the passenger pigeon, an extinct bird which filled the sky by the billions back in the 19th Century.  The famed ornithologist and painter John James Audubon described the experience, writing that an enormous flock of pigeons would darken the sky and could take hours to pass over.  Of course you didn't want to stand underneath while they were passing over.  The birds were noisy also.  Their cacophony would cause horses to bolt.  In the forest where they would perch and eat acorns and beechnuts, the dung on the forest floor could be a foot thick.  That left large bare areas on the ground.

In the 1800's people would shoot them for sport and sometimes eat them.  The birds often flew low enough that they could be brought down with a stick.  A single shotgun blast could being down 10 birds.   The birds did have natural predators, hawks, weasels and the like.  But the sheer number of the birds protected their population from decimation--until the European settlers came along.  After the Civil War, the extension of the telegraph and the railroad brought hunters out to bag the birds commercially.  They didn't just shoot down the flocks.  They disrupted the nesting grounds.  By 1890, the birds were pretty much gone in the wild.  The last passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

The bird got its name from the French word passager which means passing by.   The birds' habitat comprised all of North America east of the Rockies.  The nesting grounds in Wisconsin where we visited covered 850 square miles, larger than the Chicagoland area.   The nesting grounds!   According to one naturalist, this area had 136 million breeding adult birds. 


Nearby Ellsworth is the Cheese Curd Capitol of Wisconsin.  That is saying something!   Ellsworth is a town of 3000, about 40 miles from St. Paul, MN.  Every year in June, they celebrate the Cheese Curd Festival where you can try cheese curds prepared 20 different ways.  They are usually served beer-battered with dipping sauce. 

The cheese curds are made at the Ellsworth Co-op Creamery.  We stopped in Ellsworth for lunch at a local bar and grill.  It was a friendly place.  Several people were playing pool.  Everyone seemed to know each other.  There are not many restaurants in Ellsworth.  We had sandwiches and breaded deep fried cheddar cheese curds with a touch of garlic.  They were delicious.  At a nearby A & W, they put the curds on the menu and they quickly proved  to be more popular than the French fries. 


Little Falls is in fact little, compared to Minneapolis for example.  But it is a prosperous town and attracts many tourists for camping and fishing at nearby Charles A. Lindbergh State Park.  Surprisingly, the state park was not named after the famed aviator.  It was named after his father who was a Minnesota congressman.

The restored 1906 house was the boyhood home of the more famous son.  The house is on high wooded ground next to the Mississippi River.  The falls on the river give the town its name. 

Lindbergh (the son), of course became a hero as a young man, being the first pilot to fly solo nonstop from New York to Paris in 1927.  He won a cash prize for that.  But he was not the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.  Actually 81 people did that before Lindbergh.  

The first was Lt. Commander Albert C. Read who also won a prize when he flew from New York to Lisbon in a Navy Curtiss NC-4 flying boat in 1919.  The plane developed engine trouble on the way, and Read had to spend 10 days in the Azores. But he completed the trip.

A few weeks later, a pair of Brits, Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Arthur Brown took off from St. Johns, Newfoundland in a Vickers Night Bomber.  They crash landed in a peat bog in Ireland and walked away unscathed.  They were knighted by the King.  Their average speed was 118 mph.   In 1924, two Americans, Lt. Lowell H. Smith and Lt. Eric H. Nelson flew around the world from Seattle to Seattle, covering over 26,000 miles.   The point I'm making is that the Lindbergh flight was closely covered by the media and the others weren't.  Lindbergh became the world's first mass media hero.

Several years later, Lindbergh lent his name and fame to some questionable causes, enough that President F. Roosevelt called him "the most dangerous man in America."   Many people still idolized Lindbergh, so he had influence with a lot of followers.  Lindbergh became enamored with Nazi Germany because of their wacky racial theories, and even accepted an award from Hitler.   While married to the author Anne Morrow, Lindbergh fathered children with two European mistresses, one German.  Recently two German men claimed they were Lindbergh's children and DNA tests proved them correct.

In the late 1930's, Lindbergh became a leader in the America First movement because he was concerned that America was being overrun by "brown, yellow, black and Jewish people".  In that regard, his view was that the U.S. and Nazi Germany had much in common.  He supported an accommodation with Nazi Germany, even after it overran Europe in 1940.  That movement eventually fizzled in late 1941 when Germany declared war on the U.S.  Lindbergh faded into well deserved obscurity. 


Our road trip continued up the center of Minnesota to Lake Itasca State Park which is the source of the Mississippi River.  We first visited it about 20 years ago, and it looks pretty much the same today except they have added the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center, built in 2005 with a shelter, bathrooms and a gift shop.  It also features a small scale mock up of the Mississippi River all the way to New Orleans.  They charge 7 bucks a carload to enter the park.  It was worth it.

Mary Gibbs was an early environmentalist.  She became Park Commissioner (succeeding her father) in 1903 when she was 24.  At the time, a logging company was constructing a dam a quarter mile downstream which would create a lake and also destroy old growth trees.  In her main accomplishment as commissioner, she confronted the loggers and had her life threatened.  She ultimately prevailed, survived, and live to age 104. 

The lake itself is only about 2 square miles in area and is 1475 feet above sea level.  In other words, the water flows downhill 1475 feet over the next 2552 miles down to the Gulf of Mexico.  It was "discovered" by Henry Schoolcraft, an early explorer who, in 1832, correctly identified the lake as the primary source of the river.  Actually, two other streams empty into the lake from the other side.  One originates in nearby Elk Lake, about 7 miles upstream and 100 feet higher in elevation.  This was controversial, and finally in 1891, Jacob Brower, a surveyor and President of the Minnesota Historical Society, decreed that the lakes and streams further south of Lake Itasca were not the true source because they were "too small".  He successfully lobbied the state legislature to make Lake Itasca a state park to protect it from logging.  The bill passed by one vote. As the "Father of Lake Itasca", Jacob Brower was honored when the 1905 Visitor's Center was named after him.

Schoolcraft got to name the lake.  He disregarded the local Indian name which was translated to "Elk Lake".  Instead he chose a combination of the Latin words "verITAS" and "CAput" (truth and head).

The lake flows out over large stone rapids which most visitors step over to walk across the river.  It is approximately 15 feet across.  The first 30 feet or so of the river is a pond in which many visitors jump in the water and swim on warm days.   I was dismayed to learn from Wikipedia that the channel in that area was bulldozed by the government to create a more "pleasant experience" for visitors.  The Civilian Conservation Corps drained the swamp, dug a new channel and installed the stone rapids and the pond.  Above the rapids, the lake today is covered by lily pads.  A few hundred yards downstream is a small stone and wood truss pedestrian bridge crossing the Mississippi River.  Wooden steps lead down to the water, and we watched many people and their dogs wade across, just for the experience.


We crossed into Canada in Saskatchewan at the Port of Entry on U.S. 52 in western North Dakota.  Gas is expensive in Canada.  It is measured by the liter rather than the gallon. A gallon is about 3.8 liters.  At $1.54 per liter, gas is about $5.82 per gallon (Canadian).  Discount that by about 25% to get American money, and it is still well over $4,30 per gallon.  On our return trip from Calgary, we drove south from Lethbridge, Alberta with just about enough gas to get to the border.  Our fuel gauge was down to 9 miles left in the tank when we got to the U.S. border and filled up the car.


Several years ago, the Canadian satirist Bruce McCall did a 2001 TV special "Talking to Americans" to expose the ignorance of most Americans toward Canada.   Comedian Rick Mercer asked New Yorkers on the street, "Should American be bombing Saskatchewan?'  The responses were "Absolutely" and "If that's what they're going to have to do, that's what they're going to have to do." and "Bomb those Commie bastards." 

Actually Saskatchewan was bombed--by the Japanese toward the end of World War II.  Japan launched 10,000 balloon bombs intended to reach North America and cause panic.  A few forest fires broke out and a few people were even killed, but by and large, the bombs caused little damage.  News of this was censored until after the war ended. 

Driving Saskatchewan is a long and sometimes monotonous drive through endless canola and wheat fields.  Saskatchewan is the size of Texas and is the only province to not have any natural boundaries (i.e. rivers, mountains, etc.).  It is just a large rectangle.  The canola fields have beautiful yellow flowers stretched as far as you can see.  Canola is used to make low cholesterol cooking oil.  The name is a contraction from "Canada" and "oil". 

Eventually we drove into Moose Jaw where we spent the night at a Comfort Inn down the street from the giant moose statue.  Moose Jaw, a city of 33,000 people, is one of only 3 or 4 significant cities in Saskatchewan.  The others are Regina and Saskatoon.  Moose Jaw is often called "Little Chicago" and there's a story behind that.  To attract tourists, it declared itself as the Chicago of Western Canada, and probably not in a good way.

the most popular attraction is Tunnels of Moose Jaw, where history comes alive underground.  Apparently, during Prohibition, the Capone Mob set up an operation there to supply liquor to thirsty Americans.  Pictures of old newspapers with screaming headlines like "CHICAGO MOBSTERS SPOTTED IN MOOSE JAW"  as it appeared in the Moose Jaw Examiner.   The police were shocked, SHOCKED to find gambling and liquor abounding.   The whiskey was hidden beneath the train station.  "CITY POLICE DENY BEING ON THE TAKE".   Where have I heard that before?  The article has a mugshot of Al Capone who is like George Washington--everyone wants to claim he slept there.   We once visited Al Capone's HAT exhibited in St. Pierre and Miquelon. 

In Moose Jaw, you can see performers in The Chicago Connection, and they charge money for that.
I grew up in Chicago, and I could see that for free.   The other attraction performance in the Tunnels of Moose Jaw is Passage to Fortune which describes the history of Chinese immigrants to Canada who were recruited to work for the railroad.     They lived underground, in deplorable conditions, but ultimately overcame their hardships and now send their kids to Harvard. 


Another city, known mostly to hockey fans, is Medicine Hat, a city of 63,000.  It is also known as "the Gas City".  With some trepidation, we ate lunch there.  I'm not sure if the locals are proud of that name or not, but it got that moniker when a large natural gas field was discovered nearby in 1883.  The Gas City Rollers is the local roller derby team.  The City of Medicine Hat got its name from the native Blackfoot Indian word "saamis", loosely translated as "medicine man's hat". 

According to the Medicine Hat Tourism Board, the deal was that one winter the tribe was suffering from famine and hardship.  They chose a young brave to save the tribe from starvation.  He walked for days and made camp by an opening in the ice on the South Saskatchewan River.  There he summoned the spirits who appeared in the form of a talking snake which told him where to find a bag containing medicines and a saamis (holy bonnet).   He could wear the hat only in war but it would insure victory.   In the Canadian version of the Kerward Derby, with the magic of the saamis, the young brave found plentiful game to save the tribe from hunger.  He became a great Medicine Man.  The first Medicine Hat was a symbol of leadership, prowess and mysticism.

The ultimate symbol of Medicine Hat is the Saamis Tepee, a 215 foot metal tepee towering over the Queen Elizabeth Highway.  It was hard to miss, so we visited the tepee.  On the outside are ten hand painted storyboards interpreting and retelling the history of the various First Nations (Indians) of the area up until the present.  The tepee was originally built for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary and later moved to Medicine hat. 


We spent a nice evening in Great Falls, Montana which, until the 1970's was the largest city in the state.  Then it was surpassed by Billings and Missoula.  Great Falls was notable for the dinner we ate there.  The manager at our hotel recommended Jakers Bar & Grill, several blocks down the street.  The restaurant promotes itself as the Best Happy Hour in Great Falls.  It was moderately priced, and we had a feast.

The first thing we saw was the huge salad and soup bar.  To limit our intake of food, we elected not to use it.  Instead we ordered off the menu.  They started off with scones and honey butter.  They served several choices of soup, but the lobster bisque caught my eye.  It turned out to be the best I've ever tasted, and I've had it at many expensive restaurants.    The bisque didn't skimp on the lobster--it was  chock full. I've never seen that before. 

The menu had half pound burgers with many varieties of toppings.   Even with salad on top, the burger is probably fattening.  Also on the menu was prime rib and salmon, prepared the right way.
I elected to have parmesan encrusted walleye.  Instead of fries, they serve Jakers Bakers which are baked potatoes with everything, and I mean everything on them.   But if you want fries, you can try gorgonzola waffle fries.  This was unbelievable!  As it turns out, Jakers had 6 locations in Idaho and Montana.  If they're not coming to Chicago, we'll have to go back to Montana.


Crook County, Wyoming,  perhaps illustrates the truth in advertising concept.  It is reputed that early settlers were politicians from Washington.  Despite popular belief, Chicago is in Cook County, not Crook County.    Crook County is located in rural Wyoming.  There is also a Crook County in Oregon, but we didn't visit.   The main attraction, other than their politicians is the imposing Devils Tower National Monument, made famous by the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was filmed there.  We visited it before, and they encourage you to get out as quickly as possible with the 80 mph speed limit.  We sailed through Crook County at close to 100 mph.


I basked in front of a 15 foot obelisk in Rugby, North Dakota which claims to be the geographic center of North America.  I had some questions about that.  Wikipedia points out that North America includes Central America, the West Indies, the Aleutian Islands, and even Bermuda.   It wasn't clear if all of those were factored into the Rugby location.  Also, it is not clear why that would even be important except to allow a small town to promote tourism.

By all accounts, that obelisk isn't really at the center of North America.  The U.S. Geographical Survey, established in 1931 that the geographic center is actually about 15 miles south of Rugby.   That was close enough for the town of Rugby to seize the day.  The USGS further stated that "No marked or monumented point has been established by any government agency as the geographic center of either the 50 states, the coterminous United States, or the North American continent."

Recently it was reported that the actual geographic center of North America is in another (appropriately named) town, Center, North Dakota, located about 145 miles southwest of Rugby.. A professor at the University of Buffalo named Peter Rogerson decided to precisely calculate the center using a computer program called an azimuthal equidistant projection which considered the curvature of the Earth.  Before the computer age, the USGS had calculated it using cardboard cutouts--they cut out the shape of the continent from a sheet of cardboard and then balanced it on a small point.   In most cases of measuring the center of anything, the difference in distances is small, usually less than 2 miles. 

The U.S. has two geographic centers.  The center of the continental U.S. is near Lebanon, Kansas, but if you include Alaska and Hawaii, the center moves up to near Belle Fourche, South Dakota.  We drove through there, unaware of its geographical significance.


Passing the signs pointing to Mount Rushmore, we rolled into Sturgis, South Dakota which is the foremost biker town in the country.  Especially during the Sturgis Rally.  Sturgis is not very big, only 6600 people, but during the 10 day Rally, they claim that 1 million people attend this extravaganza. 
That 1 million was the "official" count in 2015, when they celebrated the 75th Rally, although others say it was only 740,000.  Be that as it may, even in an off year, they get 500,000 visitors.  The first Rally was in 1938 and has been held every year except during World War II (gas rationing).

We showed up a week early, but the merchants were already gearing up for the 2018 Rally.  I bought a t-shirt promoting the Rally.  Huge banners were already strung over the streets.  Hundreds of motorcycles of early arrivals were parked in the middle of the wide streets.  According to the Chamber of Commerce, over 1000 vendors set up displays, selling accessories, food, tattoos and body piercings, and t-shirts.  The town obviously can't accommodate the throngs of people, and over 60 nearby campgrounds serve the bikers. 

The schedule listed 197 concerts at the various venues.  Most of the music was County and Western and Southern Rock.  Some of the bigger names in town included Foreigner, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Trace Adkins, the Marshall Tucker Band, Eric Church and Kid Rock.  Based on a casual observation, there were probably very few Progressives in attendance.   President Trump is popular in Sturgis, and his picture adorns t-shirts all over town. 

We visited the Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame located in an old post office building on the main street in Sturgis.  It was founded in 2001 to honor those who had a long term positive effect on the motorcycle community and lifestyle.  The Hall of Fame has plaques honoring approximately 180 inductees including some well known people as well as others known only to those in the biker culture.  There is William S. Harley, as well as Arthur Davidson and several other Davidsons.  Politicians include former Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell and former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson.   Other familiar names ware Peter Fonda and Jay Leno, as well as Evel Knievel and his son Robbie, and even Malcolm Forbes, the magazine guy who once ran for President. 

The museum displays over 100 classic motorcycles dating back to 1905, such as vintage Indians (motorcycles, not people) which they haven't made since 1953, Harleys, Triumphs and other makes.  The guy who founded the museum, Pappy Hoel, was in the ice business in town until the widespread use of refrigerators put him out of business.  He liked to ride, and in 1936, he applied for and became the local dealer for the Indian Motorcycle Company.  With fellow bikers, Hoel started a group called the Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club.  Hoel and his buddies promoted the initial Rally in 1938, partly to increase his business.  It was held in his backyard, and his wife Pearl provided sandwiches and coffee for about 200 attendees.    Today he would need a really, really big backyard.


The little town of Wall is a monument to self promotion in rural South Dakota, 60 miles from Mount Rushmore.  Years ago, it decided to re-invent itself as a tourist trap.  A Nebraska pharmacist named Ted Hustead purchased the small drugstore in 1931.  The town had 231 people but had a Catholic church which sealed the deal for Hustead.    Business was slow until Mrs. Hustead decided to advertise free ice water to weary travelers headed to Mount Rushmore.  The rest is history.

Today Wall attracts 2 million tourists annually.  It is a Western themed shopping mall with restaurants, gift shops, and of course, the drug store, all owned by the same owner. If that isn't enough, it has a Western art museum with original oils by world class artists.  But wait, there's more--an 80 foot brontosaurus and a mini Mount Rushmore.

Driving down Interstate 90 from Minneapolis to Billings, Montana one can see hundreds of billboards promoting Wall Drug.  For further promotion, they hand out free bumper stickers.  We didn't take one. 


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