When it comes to travel, anticipation is half the fun. That’s why I read a huge assortment of books—both fiction and non-fiction—before going on a safari in Kenya.
This was a shooting-only-photos sort of safari, of course, and promised mind-blowing close-up experiences with the animals. Yet, in my pre-trip reading I found stories of people through their memoirs provided amazing adventure, along with historical context of the British colonial era versus the modern-day politics of Kenya. You can’t top the excitement, drama and tragedy of real life there.
Not going to Africa any time soon? These books will take you there anyway. Here are a few favorites;
Out of Africa
Probably the most famous story and movie of Kenya is Karen Blixen’s (a.k.a. Isak Dinesen) Out of Africa. If you haven’t seen the movie in a while, go find it because it’s a great romance story and just stunning visually.When we arrived in Nairobi, we stayed at the House of Waine, a little hotel in what is now called the Karen District, which is mainly comprised of land that was once Karen Blixen’s coffee farm. Though it took forever for her to travel to Nairobi from the farm when she moved there in the early 1900s, the city has grown so that the farm is now simply part of the city.
Her home is open for tours and looks much the way one would imagine it, though I didn’t see anyone who looked like Meryl Street or Robert Redford.
Beryl Markham was a British-born Kenyan aviator (one of the first bush pilots), adventurer, racehorse trainer and author. She was Blixen’s contemporary and also a competitor for the affection of safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton. She wrote of her adventures in West with the Night and Paula McLain covered her story in the novel Circling the Sun.
Love, Life and Elephants
We stopped by the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi to see the staff there as they care for the baby elephants they rescue. The trust cares for hundreds of orphaned and injured elephants and re-introduces them into the wild. Elephants are super social animals that love to play and tussle in the mud and dust. I’m a proud adopted parent of a baby elephant named Esoit whose mother was mortally wounded and the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust brought him to its Nairobi compound. Check out the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust web site to adopt your own elephant and find out more about this remarkable organization.
Dame Daphne Sheldrick tells her story of growing up in Kenya and the founding of this organization in her book Love, Life and Elephants.
Another must-see in Nairobi include the Kasuri bead factory where artisans who are single moms or developmentally disabled fashion beautiful beads by hand. And, they occasionally take breaks for beautiful singing.
Finally, Nairobi’s Giraffe Centre giraffecentre.org offers an opportunity to get up close to giraffes (close enough to feed them from your hand) and learn about efforts to save their habitat.
In her famous novel, also later a movie, Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds, Joy Adamson recounts the story of Elsa the lion cub as she make the transition between the captivity in which she is raised and the wild to which she is returned. Our first stop in the bush was in Meru National Park and we stayed in a camp called Elsa’s Kopje. It’s located above the site of George Adamson’s original camp where he raised and released orphan lions. The intricately thatched cottages and other lodge buildings are sculpted right into Mughwango Hill. sometimes with boulders and trees inside, and look like hobbit houses. Here in the khaki colored grasslands we had our first encounters with with elephants, giraffe, zebra and birds galore.
We also visited Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Mara North Conservancy and Maasai Mara National Reserve where we saw herds of zebra and wildebeast that stretched for miles as they made the Great Migration across the Mara River between Kenya and Tanzania.
We saw the “big five” —lions, leopards, rhinocerus, elephants and water buffalo. Half the fun came via the friendly hospitality of the Kenyan people as well as the incredible knowledge—and eyesight!—of the guides who drove us around. They helped us spot everything from ostriches to wart hogs, find elusive leopards and watch a pride of lions and their cubs right out of The Lion King.
I Dreamed of Africa
The Italian-born author and environmentalist Kuki Gallmann tells the story of her life in Kenya and its rewards and tragedies in her memoir I Dreamed of Africa. After reading that book, I was much more worried about puff adders than the larger animals I encountered. You can follow her on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/KukiGallmann
If you’re looking for something that isn’t all about white people coming to live in Kenya, Wangari Mathia’s autobiography Unbowed, reveals the struggles and accomplishments of an amazing Kenyan woman who grew up in the central highlands of Kenya when it was still a British colony. She became a politician, environmental activist, and in 2004, the first African woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace. She founded the Green Belt Movement which had by the early 21st century planted some 30 million trees. Leaders of the Green Belt Movement established the Pan African Green Belt Network in 1986 in order to educate world leaders about conservation and environmental improvement.
It’s a terrific book to understand the interplay between environmental conservation and the local people’s economic well-being, and how humans and animals must co-exist.
Visit Author Louise Erdrich’s Bookstore, Taste Indigenous Cuisine and Be Dazzled at Native American Pow Wows.
Standing on the iconic Stone Arch Bridge in downtown Minneapolis, the Mississippi River rushes below. A sense of history swirls up in the cool mist from St. Anthony Falls roaring before you. Indigenous people called this location Mni Sota Makoce, “Land Where the Waters Reflect the Clouds,” and it’s still considered sacred Dakota space.
Native Americans figure prominently in both Minnesota’s history and in its contemporary culture. The state contains seven Anishinaabe (Chippewa or Ojibwe) reservations and four Dakota (Sioux) communities, all just portions of their original homelands. However, one need not travel far from the Twin Cities to get a taste of Native American culture. Instead, stand here on the Mississippi and inhale the mist of thousands of years of indigenous history, then meet the people making sure Native American culture grows and flourishes here.
Louise Erdrich and Birchbark Books
Louise Erdrich is the acclaimed author of novels, poetry and children’s books featuring Native American heritage, including Love Medicine, The Master Butchers Singing Club, and Shadow Tag which takes place in modern-day Minneapolis. She has garnered a long list of literary awards, and most recently hit the heights with a Pulitzer Prize for The Night Watchman (inspired by her grandfather, who chaired the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and fought a Congressional initiative to move native people off their land). She also won the National Book Award for The Round House. And, if I were her, I’d be sure to mention that I was named one of People magazine’s most beautiful people.
Erdrich, a tribal descendant of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, was born in Minnesota but grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where her parents taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school. She typically tells her stories through the perspectives of multiple characters and plots, a style some compare to William Faulkner, though I find her books much easier to read.
In addition to writing award-winning books, she plays a vital role in the Twin Cities’ literary scene as the owner of Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. Stop by the cozy store, located in one of the city’s most beautiful neighborhoods, to find a wide selection of all sorts of books, many with handwritten notes from Erdrich to recommend them, which feels very personal. The store also works to promote the literary and artistic works of Native Americans, whom she calls the “Indigerati.” For example, Birchbark sponsors readings by Native and non-Native writers, journalists and historians and also features Native American quill work, traditional basketry and painting. In addition, Erdrich and her sister Heid Erdrich (a poet and curator of Native American fine art) run Wiigwaas Press, which publishes books in the Ojibwe language.
Head back to downtown Minneapolis to tour Mill Ruins Park and the adjacent Waterworks Park on the riverfront where walkers, runners and bikers take to the historic paths. Here you’ll find one of the city’s newest restaurants, Owamni, perched above the river and overlooking the falls. The name comes from Owámniyomni, a Dakota word that roughly translates to “the place of the falling, swirling waters.” Built into a former flour mill, this eatery serves Indigenous American food so, to visitors, it feels like Native people are reclaiming a bit of their original place here on the river.
Chef and owner Sean Sherman, a.k.a. “the Sioux Chef,” is an Oglala Lakota (Sioux), born on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation and a longtime proponent of true Indigenous American cuisine which he describes as “decolonized cooking.” No fry bread here. Instead the menu offers, for example, fish, game, berries and wild rice and leaves behind the dairy, wheat flour and processed sugar that European settlers brought with them.
His cuisine hit the national spotlight with publication of The Sioux Chef Indigenous Kitchen, which garnered a James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook in 2018. Now, Sherman takes Native American cooking to the next level at Owamni where you’ll taste native corn tacos with cedar-braised bison, smoked trout with dandelion pesto, or grilled forest mushrooms. You’ll dip into beautiful purple purees of berries and crunch lightly baked crackers made from sweet corn’s ancestor, teosinte. It’s Indigenous cuisine with a modern edge and de-lish.
Pow Wow and Cultural Center
Visitors encounter a feast of spectacular color, sound and action each August at the Wacipi, or pow wow, at the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in Shakopee, just south of Minneapolis. Hundreds of native dancers from around the U.S. and Canada gather here to show off their skills and celebrate their culture. This pow pow begins with a blessing of the dance circle. The Grand Entry follows with the Veterans Color Guard carrying flags and eagle staff, followed by visiting dignitaries, tribal royalty, then the dancers and drummers.
Nearby, you can visit the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community’s new Hoċokata Ti cultural center It’s easy to see how the building, which consists of seven enormous teepees with a wall of windows overlooking a stream, got its name. Hoċokata Ti means “the lodge at the center of the camp” in Dakota.
Inside, visitors find a 3,805 foot public exhibit called “Mdewakanton: Dwellers of the Spirit Lake.” You’ll see videos in which community members tell traditional stories of how the earth, water, and sky were created. Displays cover the history of the Dakota people up to the present and include tools, beadwork, and a 200-year-old canoe raised from nearby Lake Minnetonka. Kids may scramble into a replica teepee or work on an interactive beading display. Items in the collection come from community members, the Scott County Historical Society and some are on permanent loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. A tip: don’t miss the center’s lovely gift shop.
Hoċokata Ti spokesman Andy Vig says he hopes the center will help visitors gain a better understanding of the Dakota people in history and in modern life as well. A visit to this new cultural center complements the other activities for visitors here on tribal land. For example, Mystic Lake Casino Hotel, about three miles from the cultural center, is Minnesota’s largest gaming and entertainment facility. The tribe’s organic grocery store, Mazopiya, sells community-made honey and maple syrup as well as an array of products from Minnesota Native American vendors.
“We’re still here,” says Vig of Minnesota’s indigenous people. “Here and thriving.”
A Wyoming vacation delivers gorgeous western scenery, Native American art, cowboys, polo players, hiking and open spaces. Read these great books to conjure up the spirit of the west before you go.
You won’t find many people in Wyoming. At about 600,000, the Cowboy State tallies the smallest population in the U.S. That’s around six people per square mile. Cattle outnumber humans by far. So, if you come from a more populated place—such as either of the U.S. coasts—Wyoming’s open space in itself makes an amazing sight.
Though low on people, Wyoming’s emptiness is packed with some of the most unusual sights and citizens in the U.S. That includes the beloved and often crowded Yellowstone Park and Grand Teton National Parks. They’re great, but be sure to include other destinations in your road trip to experience some of this most iconic spots in the American West.
All those unblocked vistas leave plenty of room for the imagination. Its no wonder so many classic western novels are set in Wyoming—Shane, The Virginian, and My Friend Flicka to name a few. More contemporary authors also find inspiration in Wyoming’s rugged plains, mountains and canyons. Wyoming crime solvers such as Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire (books and Netflix series), C.J. Box’s game-warden-hero Joe Pickett and others (usually on horseback) always get the bad guys and stand against corruption despite any challenges nature throws at them. The region also inspired Annie Proulx’s story collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories of which “Brokeback Mountain” is one. Finally, I have to add Hank the Cowdog, our boys’ road trip favorite when they were little.
Close Encounters with Devils Tower
On our recent Wyoming road trip we drove from east to west along the state’s northern tier starting at Devil’s Tower, one of Earth’s most impressive geological features. Rising 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River, the monolith creates a sight so unusual it made the perfect location for aliens to land in Steven Spielberg’s classic sci-fi movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Watch it before you go.
From the highway, you can see Devil’s Tower off in the distance but don’t just pass by. It’s worth a closer look. Hike the 1.3-mile Tower Trail around the base to see how different it looks (often resembling a giant bunch of rocky pencils from various sides and in different light. You’ll see small, colored bundles of cloth around the base of Devils Tower that are sacred offerings left by Native Americans for whom the tower is a cultural and religious focal point.
Cowpokes, Polo Ponies and Art in Sheridan and Big Horn
Not far from Devils Tower we veered north on I-90 to visit Sheridan, a town of almost 18,000 people set next to the 1.1 million acres of forested mountains and rolling grasslands of the Bighorn National Forest.
We enjoyed a tasty lunch at Frackleton’s then headed down Main Street to King’s Saddlery which carries tack any “cowboy, cowgirl and city-slicker” could need such as saddles, ropes, bridles, bits, headstalls, reins, halters, roping equipment, barrel racing equipment, saddle bags, saddle blankets and slickers. Even if you’re not in the market for a new saddle, you have to see King’s. In the back of the store you’ll find folks finishing ropes and working on saddles to customers’ specifications.
Ask to see the Don King Museum, a little gem out behind the store. It’s free. You’re welcome to explore the collection of old west memorabilia including a collection of hand-tooled saddles for which Don King, the store’s founder, was famous along with wagons, coaches, Indian artifacts, guns, Western tack and original artwork.
Head down the street to take a peek at the famous Mint Bar, the watering hole that’s been wetting whistles in Sheridan since 1907. I felt like I should be wearing cowboy boots and spurs. The ultimate in farmhouse decor, the Mint’s walls feature over 9,000 cattle brands from around Wyoming.
In its early years Sheridan’s social life centered on bars, pool halls and brothels around Main Street. The Sheridan Inn must also have been a lively place then. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody used it as his headquarters during tryouts for his Wild West show. You can stay at the Inn where each room is themed around the iconic Western personalities.
Stroll down Main Street and you’ll soon get the idea that, despite its western roots, Sheridan is no mere “cowtown.” An abundance of terrific statues line the street and other areas. The city’s public art project has brought at least 60 unique pieces of outdoor art to the downtown and made it something of a community phenomenon.
In the tiny town of Big Horn, right next door to Sheridan, they focus more on polo ponies than cattle horses. The posh sport of polo seems a bit out character for this rugged region, yet Big Horn has been a polo hub since the 1890s when aristocrats from England and Scotland made their way to Wyoming. For example, William and Malcom Moncreiffe settled in Big Horn and established a successful business raising registered sheep. They also played an important role in bringing the sport of polo to the area. Now, notable players from all over the world head to Big Horn every year for the summer polo season.
Also tucked back in the Big Horn area, we found the elegant Brinton Museum located on the 620-acre Quarter Circle A Ranch that originally belonged to William Moncreiffe. You can tour the historic ranch house as well as the museum dedicated to Native American art and culture as well as American fine and decorative art.
We left Big Horn and headed south on I-90 toward Buffalo, the town upon which author Craig Johnson’s modeled his fictional town of Durant in his Longmire crime series. Take special note of the landscape in this area. You’ll see the terrain of “Absaroka” County that Sheriff Walt Longmire and his smart-alecky crew inhabit. Buffalo celebrates “Longmire Days” annually.
Traveling from Buffalo, we took U.S. 16 which becomes the stunning Cloud Peak Skyway Scenic Byway. It rises over the southern portion of the Big Horn Mountains and offers breathtaking scenery, worth all the chugging our little RV did as we climbed to the peak at 9,666 feet. Then the road winds through the spectacular Tensleep Canyon. Thankfully it offers plenty of pullouts so even the driver can stop and ogle the view.
We’re members of Harvest Hosts, a program for RVers that allows members access to a network of wineries, farms, breweries, museums and other unique attractions where they can stay overnight. We spent the night at a farm near Shonshoni, on the Wyoming prairie with the mountains off in the distance.
Land like this is the setting of One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow by Olivia Hawker, set in the 1870s. In the story, a man kills his neighbor after he catches him “in flagrante” with his wife. He then goes to jail, which leaves the two wives alone with their children to fend for themselves during the brutal Wyoming winter. It’s action-packed and gives a pretty good idea of the hardship of life in Wyoming at that time.
On the westernmost side of the state, we arrived at our final destinations of Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. We visit those places over and over, but we were happy that this time we had also included in our trip a few of the other great destinations–and that wide open space– that Wyoming offers.
Travel to Seneca Falls, New York, the hub of women’s history in the U.S. for an education on the history of women’s rights and a hefty dose of historic charm.
The struggle for human rights never seems to end. Yet, in Seneca Falls, New York, you’ll find inspiration when you learn about the historic leaders of women’s rights. Located in New York’s Finger Lakes region, at the tip of Seneca Lake, the town makes a great stop on your tour of the area.
Seneca Falls was the site of the first Women’s Rights Convention held on July 19-20, 1848. The Women’s Rights National Historical Park commemorates that event and depicts women’s struggle to gain the right to vote and for other rights that come with equal citizenship in this country.
One of the meeting’s organizers, Seneca Falls resident Elizabeth Cady Stanton, began the event with a speech on the convention’s goals and purpose:
“We are assembled to protest against a form of government, existing without the consent of the governed—to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to have such disgraceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love.” The Convention culminated in the Declaration of Sentiments, which is full of ideas that were quite revolutionary at the time.
The Women’s Rights National Historical Park is actually a collection of historic sites, all within easy walking distance. Start at the Visitors Center (check the hours they’re open!) which presents a great film on the first convention and its leaders. Exhibits further explain that event and women’s progress since then. The Visitors Center also has an excellent book shop. Other buildings in the park include the Wesleyan Chapel where the convention took place and the houses of other prominent leaders of the movement including the homes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mary Ann M’Clintock. The Park offers outdoor ranger-led tours.
Beyond the Park
Down the street from the National Women’s Rights Park Visitors Center, you can also tour the National Women’s Hall of Fame, where plaques and photos pay homage to America’s most famous women. In addition a stroll along the The Cayuga–Seneca Canal (which links to the Erie Canal) is a must.
Finally, many believe that Seneca Falls was the inspiration for Frank Kapra’s fictional town of Bedford Falls in the classic film It’s A Wonderful Life. There’s even an It’s A Wonderful Life Museum. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the movie so they’ve got big plans for a festival December 8-22, featuring anyone and everyone who is still alive and connected to the movie such as the actors who played the Bailey children, including Zuzu.
It’s not as exotic as Ernest Hemingway’s other famous haunts — Paris, Cuba or Africa, for example. But travel to Walloon Lake in Michigan, and you’ll experience the outdoors and love of nature that set Hemingway on his path to a Nobel Prize in literature.
It’s not easy being an Ernest Hemingway fan these days. The Ken Burns/ Lynn Novick documentary “Hemingway,” on PBS has once again whacked the #metoo hornet’s nest that surrounds Hemingway, one of America’s most famous writers. Hemingway was a hyper-macho fellow (a trait much admired in his day), a philandering “man’s man” who reported on wars around the world, admired bullfighting and drank like fish, much to the detriment of his personal relationships.
Yet, the Nobel Prize winner changed American literature the way jazz changed American music. One of my favorite writers, Edna O’Brien, said in the Paris Reviewthat the first time she heard a lecturer read aloud the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms, “I couldn’t believe it—this totally uncluttered, precise, true prose, which was also very moving and lyrical.”
So, let’s pause our #metoo judgement for a moment. Instead, read Hemingway’s books and essays about the places in Michigan where he got his start as a writer and outdoorsman long before he was famous.
Ernest Hemingway was just three months old when his family took him to Walloon Lake’s north shore for the first time. In those days, the trip from Chicago required a combination of trains, boats, and buggies. He spent time there at the family’s cottage, Windemere, every summer until he was about twenty. The woods and waters of the area shaped Hemingway’s life and outlook in fundamental ways. That environment inspired his love of nature and the “strenuous life,” as his hero Teddy Roosevelt called it, of hunting, fishing and physical risk seen in all his writing. And, at Walloon Lake, Hemingway married his first wife, Hadley, who became known as “The Paris Wife.”
Nick Adams Country
I grew up in Michigan and spent time each summer at a cottage (that’s what Michiganders call them no matter how big the structure) in the same area, mainly on Mullett Lake, near Cheboygan, at the tip of the Michigan mitten. I can attest to the area’s power to inspire the love of the outdoors, though I didn’t experience as many bootleggers and tramps as Hemingway. Plenty of boaters, water-skiers and fishermen, though. And it wasn’t always a “strenuous” existence. Hemingway said, “It’s a great place to laze around and swim and fish when you want to. And the best place in the world to do nothing. It is beautiful country … And nobody knows about it but us.”
Yet, now, the village of Walloon Lake wants to be sure everyone knows about it. This year they’re celebrating Hemingway with a series of events, including The Hemingway Birthday Celebration which takes place July 21. Labor Day weekend, September 3-6, brings the Hemingway Homecoming featuring the unveiling of historical installations downtown focused on Hemingway as well as other aspects of the village’s development such as early rail travel, hotels and resorts, boating and more.
They’ve also been reading The Nick Adams Stories, a collection of short stories that Hemingway wrote about his boyhood in northern Michigan. The stories cover hunting, fishing, life, death–all the most important things– with descriptions that make you feel you’re there with him. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” for example, he describes, “holding the rod far out toward the uprooted tree and sloshing backward in the current Nick worked the trout, plunging, the rod bending alive, out of the danger of the weeds into the open river.”
So, don’t #cancelpapa or dismiss Hemingway without first reading his work. He makes an excellent tour guide for adventure, the love of nature and an understanding of the human condition.
Though it’s called “driftless” the terrain of southwestern Wisconsin makes an ideal road trip for people who love to drift and explore.
Ten thousand years ago, the Ice Age took a detour around southwestern Wisconsin. That’s why it’s called the Driftless Area. Without the glacial deposits of rock, clay, sand and silt called drift that flattened the rest of the upper Midwest, this region’s winding backroads reveal picturesque limestone bluffs, spring-fed waterfalls, blue-ribbon trout streams and a rolling pastoral landscape—all nurturing iconic small towns, interesting people and acres of happy cows.
Located halfway between Chicago and Minneapolis, and encompassing roughly a quarter of the state, Wisconsin’s Driftless Area packs in an eclectic blend of natural beauty, outdoor action and culture. The region’s most famous citizen, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, built his home and studio here, called Taliesin. Wright said of the area, “I meant to live, if I could, an unconventional life. I turned to this hill in the Valley as my grandfather before me had turned to America – as a hope and haven.” Little did he know the area would become a favorite for anyone who enjoys fishing, birding, biking, hiking and more.
But it’s easy to overlook the Driftless. We’ve blasted by it countless times on the way to Chicago, Madison or Milwaukee from our home in Minneapolis, always thinking “gotta go there.” So this time, forgoing the cities, we made the Driftless our destination, dipping south from I-90 to explore the region at our own meandering pace.
Finally, for those who like to imagine their destination before they go, several books give an accurate idea of the Driftless. David Rhodes’ prizewinning novels Driftless and Jewelweed beautifully capture the people and the land of this region and Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank offers an account of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life in Chicago and Wisconsin.
Parks & Rec
Our route followed State Road 23 to Governor Dodge State Park, located between Spring Green and Dodgeville, which we made our basecamp for the trip. Named after General Henry Dodge, the first territorial governor of Wisconsin, the park contains over 5,000 acres of idyllic natural beauty.
At Governor Dodge we hiked up cliffs, under waterfalls, over fields of grass and wildflowers and along spring-fed creeks where you can step into the cool air of the old spring houses that early settlers built as natural refrigerators. When we weren’t feeling so ambitious, we cooled off in the park’s two lakes which have large picnic areas, fishing, and boating (electric motors only). The Dodgeville Kiwanis club operates a concession stand at Cox Hollow Lake offering boat and canoe rentals as well as treats such as pizza and king-sized ice cream cones at a bargain price. That lake also features a dog beach just right for our golden retriever, Duffy, and other wet, ball-chasing friends.
Yet, due to its unique geology and abundant rivers and streams—the Mississippi, Wisconsin, Kickapoo and Baraboo, to name a few—the Driftless region abounds with recreational opportunities beyond the boundaries of its state parks. Over forty percent of North America’s migrating birds pass through the area annually along the Mississippi River Flyway because of its abundant water and vegetation. Depending on the time of year, sandhill cranes and bald eagles nest on the riverbanks while tundra swans and white pelicans stop in for a visit. Smaller species from orioles to ruby-throated hummingbirds make their home here, too.
Along the Driftless Area’s northern edge is the Elroy Sparta State Trail, a family-friendly three-tunnel bicycle trail that has been inducted into the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. To the south, cyclists may ride the Military Ridge State Trail from Dodgeville all the way to Madison. Prefer paddling to pedaling? The many rivers flowing here make it paddlers’ heaven and there are canoe/kayak liveries in Ontario, Rockton, La Farge, Readstown, and Prairie du Chien, among others.
Finally, the Driftless area is known for thousands of miles of designated trout streams that Outdoor Life called “the best kept secret in the trout world.” And, for fisherfolk who prefer boats to waders, area lakes and and rivers offer walleye, smallmouth bass, and northern pike as well as panfish, including bluegill, crappie, and rock bass in abundance.
The Wright Stuff
One reason the Driftless area is so appealing is that visitors can weave a love of the outdoors with opportunities to enjoy the area’s fascinating culture and history. Those things come together just outside Spring Green at Frank Lloyd Wright’s 800-acre estate, Taliesin (Welsh for “shining brow”). As a child Wright spent summers in this valley on his uncle’s farm where he witnessed the patterns and rhythms of nature. He incorporated his observations of nature’s design into his philosophy of “organic architecture” maintaining that a building should be suited to its environment, purpose and time. Wright’s Prairie Style, so prominently displayed at Taliesin, is considered the first uniquely American architectural style and he expanded and refined those ideas in his studio and school for architecture here, concepts that continue to influence architecture around the world. That’s why the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recently named it a World Heritage site. See my post on Frank Lloyd Wright homes.
Taliesin is only available via guided tours that start from the visitors center and go by bus across the road to the estate. Strolling outside Wright’s home, with dramatic horizontal lines and limestone construction that seems to rise straight from the land, it’s easy to understand his thinking. A house, he said, should be “of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.” Inside, Wright’s starkly simple interior spaces offer commanding views of the valley. The tours downplay it, but many stories from Wright’s own life add to the drama of Taliesin. For example, 1914, while Wright was away, a worker at the estate murdered seven people and set the house on fire. Read about it in Nancy Horan’s somewhat fictionalized bestseller Loving Frank.
Over-the-Top on the Rock
Not far from Taliesin, but light years away from Wright’s austere aesthetic, Alex Jordan built his House on the Rock atop a chimney-like rock formation. Leading his own “unconventional life,” Jordan started building his dream house in 1945 and kept adding until it resembled, as one Boston Globe writer said,”the lair of a 1970s James Bond villain,” a testament to over the top excess.
Inside Jordan’s home, opened to the public in 1960, you’ll see his lifetime of collections including the world’s largest indoor carousel with 269 carousel animals and 182 chandeliers. Also on display: 200 model ships, a 200-foot tall sea creature, hundreds of musical instruments, model airplanes, dolls and suits of armor. And, don’t miss the glassed-in Infinity Room that extends 218 feet over the valley floor. Kitsch, or art, depending on your taste, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.
From Taliesin or the House on the Rock, you’ll want to swing into Spring Green, a great place to get supplies, artsy gifts and to visit its excellent book store, Arcadia Books.
A Taste of Switzerland
From Spring Green it’s about 45 miles southwest to New Glarus, a bit of Switzerland transplanted to Wisconsin. Swiss immigrants came to the area in 1845 from the Canton of Glarus and settled here because they found the region similar to home, just without the Alps. You’ll feel like yodeling when you see the town’s Swiss-inspired brown and white architecture adorned with happy cow statues and window boxes filled with red geraniums. The town displays its heritage to the fullest during its many festivals including the Wilhelm Tell Festival, Polkafest, the Heidi Folk Festival and, naturally, Octoberfest. New Glarus celebrates its 175th anniversary in 2020.
Even if Ieiderhosen and polka dancing aren’t your thing you’ll enjoy New Glarus’ history on display at the Swiss Historical Village, a collection of 14 buildings where tours and exhibits trace the Swiss colony’s growth into a prominent dairy farming community. And if the way to your heart is through your tummy, you’ll fall in love with New Glarus’ authentic Swiss bakeries, butcher shops and restaurants . For our campsite dinner we stocked up on cheese at the Eidelweiss Cheese Shop, Swiss sausages at Ruef’s Meat Market and an assortment of gorgeous leckerli, bratzeli, and pfeffernüsse cookies from the historic New Glarus Bakery.
Wisconsin wouldn’t be Wisconsin without breweries and one of the state’s best is the New Glarus brewery on the south edge of town. We walked from the parking lot up to the brewery’s hilltop site with beautiful views of the surrounding countryside from its rustic outdoor terraces. We sampled flights of Spotted Cow ale, Two Women lager, and fruity beers that are their specialties.
Artisans and Artists
Without the layers of glacial rocks and sand, the Driftless Area’s lodes of lead, zinc and other minerals rested tantalizingly close the the surface attracting miners from Cornwall, England in the early 1800s to what is now the town of Mineral Point. The story goes that the first of these prospectors made shelters in makeshift holes in the ground called Badger holes, thus giving the state its nickname.
They didn’t remain in Badger holes long, however, because these miners brought with them expertise in stone building construction. Their sturdy and fireproof stone legacy remains the trademark of Mineral Point. The city was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and the National Trust for Historic Preservation called the town one of America’s “Distinctive Destinations.” Another Cornish legacy: the pasties (meat pies) and figgyhobbin, a cinnamon and raisin pastry concoction you can savor at Mineral Point’s Red Rooster cafe.
Mining faded, leaving the historic buildings empty until 1935 when two foresighted gentlemen, Bob Neal and Edgar Hellum, began restoring a group of stone houses, now called Pendarvis, on Shake Rag Street. You can visit the buildings and hike the 43 acre Merry Christmas Mine Hill Trails & Prairie to see remnants of mining equipment along with one of the largest restored prairies in southwest Wisconsin. Over the years, artists have continued Neal and Hellum’s work, taking up residence in derelict buildings and turning them into art studios. Now, the 70-plus artists who reside in Mineral Point are delighted to show you their work and share their stories. In addition, anyone who wants to foster their creative side is welcome at Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts where they offer classes that range from blacksmithing to fiber art, pottery, photography and much more. Even non-students are welcome to stroll Shake Rag Alley’s collection of historic buildings and its oasis of trees and gorgeous gardens.
You’ll find more of the Driftless Area’s natural beauty and local culture along its scenic rural roads. Dozens of small family farms, seemingly plucked straight from a Norman Rockwell gallery, dot the landscape and many supply award-winning farm-to-table restaurants in Chicago, Minneapolis and Milwaukee. Amish buggies and Mennonite roadside stands with crafts and baked goods evoke a simple, local lifestyle. In the warmer months, music lovers can enjoy a variety of outdoor festivals, especially Larryfest, a terrific annual festival of bluegrass, folk and old-time music in LaFarge.
So what’s the best way to enjoy the Driftless? Ironically, by just drifting through it. Meander. Stop and sample. Meet the locals. Transport yourself back to a simpler, yet surprisingly rich, time and place. And be thankful for those wonderfully fickle glaciers.
If You Go:
Wisconsin’s Driftless area makes a great getaway for every kind of traveler, even the family dog. Wisconsin state parks welcome well behaved dogs on leashes and Governor Dodge state park has a special dog beach. Most bars and eateries welcome leashed pets on their outdoor patios. All of the sites mentioned in this article have easy parking for large vehicles and trailers. As with most of the Midwest, the Driftless area can be humid and buggy in summer, so come prepared with insect repellent and a fan.
Wisconsin State Parks are very busy in summer and during the fall leaf-peeping season, so book in advance with the Wisconsin State Park System Reservations site https://wisconsin.goingtocamp.com
Wisconsin State parks with camping in the Driftless area include:
Visiting South Dakota State and National Parks on a Road Trip from Minnesota to Wyoming
South Dakota seems synonymous with family road trips, summer vacations and heading “out west.” Every time we drive that direction from Minneapolis, there’s a feeling of anticipation as the landscape gradually changes from hills, to flat prairie, to a more rugged and rocky type of Great Plains geology.
Recently, my husband and I set out like Lewis and Clark to explore South Dakota—only with much more pleasant accommodations in our little Winnebago Rialta RV. Our itinerary ran from east to west along I-90 where we hoped to see stunning rock formations, historic locales, uncrowded spaces and the wildlife for which this region is known. Our journey included stops at three parks: Palisades State Park, Badlands National Park and Custer State Park.
Hitting the plains fires up my imagination with images of rugged pioneers, native Americans and western life–images that came from books I’ve been reading since childhood, starting with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series. In fact, De Smet, where Laura lived as an adult is about an hour and a half north of our first stop in Palisades Park. So if you’re a fan you might want to veer north for a visit. Be sure to read the less happy but more accurate story of Laura’ real life, Prairie Fires (a great for book groups).
Split Rock Creek, the centerpiece of Palisades State Park in eastern South Dakota, isn’t a huge body of water but it’s had an outsized impact on this rocky gem of a spot about 20 miles from Sioux Falls.
Here, the creek cut deep gorges through the billion-year-old Sioux quartzite rock that lines its banks. That resulted in 50-foot vertical cliffs and intricate rock formations that are popular with kayakers, rock climbers and photographers.
Back in the mid-1800s, the rushing creek also powered a flour mill on the bluff that overlooks the park. Starting in 1862, the tiny town of Palisades grew up around the the mill. However, with the promise of free lots, the railroad soon lured businesses away to the nearby town of Garretson where its rail yard was located and the town of Palisades faded away.
Palisades State Park opened in 1972 and has remained one of the South Dakota’s smallest parks—until now. For comparison, at 71,000 acres, Custer State Park at the opposite end of I-90, dwarfs its little cousin, Palisades. But in spring of 2020, about 270 acres were added to the park for a total of nearly 435 acres. Park officials expect to add 75 new camp sites for a total of 109 sites along with more cabins, hiking trails, day use areas, improved habitat for wildlife viewing, and park programs.
Midway across South Dakota, the Badlands gouge through the flat plains with eons-old rock formations that resemble a moonscape. On previous trips to points further west we simply drove through the park for a quick look. We thought it didn’t offer much more than barren (though pretty impressive) rock. This time we stayed for two days. Our hikes and scenic drives revealed not only fascinating geological formations but also plenty of life including wildflowers, agitated prairie dogs and mountain goats galore.
But it surely doesn’t seem like great farmland. That didn’t stop the hopeful homesteaders who arrived in this area after the Homestead Act of 1862 provided the opportunity for folks to head west to acquire land. It was theirs for, say $18 for 160 acres if they lived on it for five years. You can view the some of the land they settled at the Badlands National Park’s Homestead Overlook. Most of the land claims turned into “Starvation Claims” and were abandoned or sold.
Here’s a story I’ll bet you haven’t heard about: African Americans were prominent among the region’s homesteaders. Many were introduced to the area when they were Buffalo Soldiers. You can read about these pioneers in a gripping novel, The Personal History of Rachel Dupree by Ann Weisgarber. The book starts out with a family lowering their little girl down a well to scoop out the last of the water on their drought-stricken farm. It grabbed me from the very start. Also, The Conquest by Oscar Micheaux is a semi-autobiographical novel of a black homesteader in Gregory County during the early 1900’s
We visited on the way to Custer State park we visited South Dakota’s trademark, Mount Rushmore. The four faces appear on promotional material, license plates and have been featured during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Cool if you’ve never seen it before, but crowded. We headed to a similarly giant sculpture nearby, the Crazy Horse Memorial, which I liked better because it has a nice little museum and Native American programming.
At the opposite end of I-90, we explored Custer State Park, South Dakota’s largest state park. At 71,000 acres the huge park seems more like a national park. It offers hiking, boating, fishing and plenty of wildlife including bison traffic jams.
One of my favorite hikes was the one up Black Elk Peak, a 7,242-foot granite mountain with an historic stone firetower at the top. It’s considered the highest peak east of the rockies, depending on if you think the 8,749-foot Guadaloupe Peak in Texas is east of the Rockies or part of them . The beginning of the 7.6-mile loop trail is bedazzled with shiny mica rock which makes it look like it’s paved with rhinestones, quite magical.
For non-campers, Custer offers historic lodges and cabins, including State Game Lodge built of native stone and wood in 1920 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It served as the “Summer White House” for President Calvin Coolidge in 1927 and was visited by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. Book ahead and stay in their historic rooms. Even if you’re not staying there, the Lodge welcomes diners in the restaurant and you can carry out food to eat outdoors. We enjoyed cocktails on the Lodge’s front porch before returning to our camp site.
Anyone interested in enriching their South Dakota travel experience will find an abundance of great books about both the state’s history and modern life, too. Here’s my list:
Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Life of Two American Warriors–Stephen Ambrose
Book and travel ideas to inspire “outdoor therapy” and to plan for #travelsomeday.
Shut in because of the Corona Virus pandemic, opportunities for quiet contemplation, soul searching, and spiritual retreat abound. Too bad I don’t find those pursuits more appealing. Hugs, shared meals, raucous laughter, talking with strangers I meet when I travel, reading a person’s facial expressions without the cover of a mask. Those are just a few of the things I miss during this time of isolation during the Corona Virus pandemic.
I’ve tried all sorts of remedies for my shelter-in-place malaise—cooking, puzzles, cleaning, Zoom chats and Netflix galore. Yet, the only place I really find solace is outdoors. Nature and open spaces, along with the physical exertion of walking mile after mile, sooth my mind and spirit.
Psychologists have been studying this phenomenon for some time. Hence the term nature therapy. The Japanese call it, shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing . Nature deficit has also been diagnosed, a “dose of fresh air” prescribed. And writers have written about the beauty and adventure of connecting with nature for years. Now is a great time to tap into their observations of the universe, our environment and our fellow human beings.
For literature to inspire your outdoor journeys I recommend Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces about her time in Wyoming and Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire about his stint at a park ranger in Arches National Park in Utah. Or, for a more recent read, I enjoyed Richard Powers’ Pulitizer Prize winning book, The Overstory, about a wide-ranging cast of characters whose experiences all relate to trees.
Finally, for approachable nature poetry, you can’t beat anything by Mary Oliver. In her poem, “Wild Geese,” she says that despite our problems, the world goes on.
…”Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”
Dreaming of Places to Go
I have friends who haven’t left their New York City apartment for weeks. And who can blame them? I feel fortunate that here in the Twin Cities we have a massive number of parks and recreation areas at our finger tips where we can spread out from one another. I asked some of my friends at convention and visitors bureaus about the outdoor spaces they love to show off to visitors. I started with the Midwest. You may be surprised at the beautiful open spaces they offer, not far from large cities. They make for beautiful viewing and inspiration for places to go in the future.
Kondo books in hand, I set out on an exploratory and organizing journey through my house, ready to ponder what possessions spark joy and which to “thank for their service” as Kondo says, and set free. I started with the pantry cupboard, always an adventure with mysteries and discoveries on each shelf. I slowly realized that while some people have been acquiring truckloads of toilet paper, I’ve been hoarding chutney.
The takeaway here is that if you squirrel away bottles of chutney in different places, you can’t find them when you feel the urge to stew up Indian food. You run out and buy more. Then you don’t make whatever dish you planned on and stash the chutney in yet another location and forget about it. Repeat. The result: we have a lifetime supply of chutney.
I also discovered several boxes of Chinese Gunpowder Tea. Let your imagination run wild with its possible uses because I have no idea why we have that. Most interesting, I found two bags of an exotic Greek herb called Dittany that I received from our tour leader last spring on the island of Crete. Dittany is in the mint family and grows, according to the package, 650 meters above the village of Anopoli Sfakion. (Extra geography points if you look this up.) According to the package, “We collect the herb early in the morning to retain all the essential oils and aroma and we dry it naturally. It is considered tonic, antiseptic, inflammatory and a poultice. It helps the headaches, stomach and skin inflammation.”
Wanting to verify this, I consulted one of the Internet sites I most trust for medical advice, the Harry Potter Wiki. It says, “Dittany is a magical plant used in Potion-Making. It is a powerful healing herb and restorative. Its use makes fresh skin grow over a wound and after application the wound seems several days old.”
I’m telling you, this is powerful stuff, especially if you need a poultice. Come on folks, a bag of Dittany is certainly worth at least a four-pack of toilet paper. And chutney? Perhaps Major Grey’s isn’t in huge demand, so I’m hoping for two rolls in trade. We can meet in my driveway and exchange products by tossing them at each other from a safe distance.
Other Reading for In-House Travel
You probably haven’t heard of him, but a fellow named Alexander von Humboldt made an expedition around South America from 1799 to 1804. Before that, he practiced by making an expedition around his bedroom. It’s in the public domain so you can read the timeless travel story, Journey Around My Bedroom, even though the library is closed.
According to the excellent site, Library Hub, von Humbolt undertook this rather small-scale exploration because he was sentenced to house arrest for something related to a duel. They say, “In the centuries before ankle-monitoring bracelets and the like, the authorities relied on the honor of young noblemen” to stay put. Sounds like the honor system of the current stay-at-home order. Humbolt enjoys the fact that this type of journey costs nothing. And, he points out that bedroom travel is especially great for those who are scared of robbers, precipices, and quagmires. And who isn’t these days? His dog and manservant also make appearances just as Duffy and Scott do in my bedroom.
And, don’t miss Hank Azaria’s hilarious play-by-play of making his bed, a substitute for sport announcing these days. It was broadcast on National Public Radio… “going, going, Bed Bath & Beyond!”
At Home with Bill Bryson
My favorite book by author Bill Bryson is the one about his travels in Australia, In a Sunburned Country. It’s laugh-out-loud funny. But you might find another Bryson book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, more appropriate right now. I wrote about it in a previous post. In At Home, he takes an investigative and historical tour through his Victorian home in England. Seriously, it’s interesting. His house is much more fascinating than my late-60s vintage suburban home in the American Midwest.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, celebrates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League in 2020.
Most people know that Kansas City is a great sports town—go Chiefs! But not everyone knows that KC is where the country’s first successful organized black baseball league got its start. So, it’s appropriate that the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is in Kansas City. It’s a great destination for baseball fans and fans of Black History and Civil Rights history, too.
Empowerment and Entrepreneurial Spirit
African-Americans began to play baseball in the late 1800s on military , college , and company teams and on professional teams with white players, too. Sadly, by 1900, racism and Jim Crow laws forced them out. So, black players formed their own units, “barnstorming” around the country to play anyone who would challenge them.
In 1920, a few Midwestern team owners met at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City and joined to form the Negro National League. Soon, rival leagues formed in eastern and southern states, bringing the skillful and innovative play of black baseball to major urban centers and rural areas in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America. The Leagues were known not only for their high level of professional skill but they also became centerpieces for economic development in many black communities.
Telling the Negro Leagues’ Story
Exhibits at the museum introduce teams such as the Kansas City Monarchs, the Birmingham Black Barons, and the Chicago American Giants with mementos that include pristine uniforms of the era. Exhibits show what it was like for teams to travel in the days of segregated hotels and restaurants and “The Green Book” that was a directory of places that welcomed people of color.
There’s a life-size baseball diamond inside the museum with bronze statues of the Leagues’ most famous players and I particularly enjoyed watching members of a college baseball team that was in Kansas City for a tournament as they experienced the museum and and the stories they heard.
One of the best stories I encountered at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was that of “clown teams.” Not clowns with red noses but the kind that “clowned around” doing funny tricks such as “shadow ball,” in which the ball was thrown around the field during infield practice at a faster and faster speed. They then threw out the ball and kept doing the same thing without the ball, an idea the Harlem Globetrotters later put into practice.
The most famous of them played for the Indianapolis Clowns. They nicknamed him “Pork Chops” because he ate only pork chops and french fries on road. “Pork Chops” went on to become one of the game’s most celebrated players of any color. He went on to play in Major League baseball, smashed Babe Ruth’s home run record (714), and became the all-time home run leader in the Major Leagues.
“Pork Chops” was Henry “Hank” Aaron.
In addition to Hank Aaron, some of baseball’s greatest played in the Negro Leagues before baseball was integrated. The great Jackie Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs. In 1945, Major League Baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers recruited Robinson from the Monarchs and he became the first African-American in the modern era to play on a Major League team.
It was an historic event in both baseball and civil rights history. But, it prompted the decline of the Negro Leagues. Other Major League teams recruited African American players and their fans followed. The last Negro Leagues teams folded in the early 1960s, but their legacy lives on at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum “Where History Touches Home.”
If You Go: The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is located in Kansas City’s historic 18th and Vine Neighborhood, which is also the city’s famous jazz district. It’s right next to the American Jazz Museum, which is also a great place to visit. Hungry? Pay a visit toto Arthur Bryant’s for its legendary Kansas City barbecue.
Read Up: You’ll find excellent books on the Negro Leagues and their place in American Civil Rights history as well as biographies of some of the most famous players. Here are a few: