We stayed in three different motels on our trip from Rochester, MN to Fortine, MT.
We ate takeout sushi in Fargo (terrible, don’t ever do that). We didn’t get sick, we just found the sushi to be inedibly dry, cold, and hard. We ate leftovers that we had with us for dinner in Williston (after the night of terrible sushi). We bought a rotisserie chicken in the grocery store in Havre.
Fargo, ND: Residence Inn by Marriott Fargo was very clean, as were all the places we stayed. Most people wore masks going in and out, but not everyone. Staff was behind a plexiglass sheet. They were helpful, for example, giving us the extra packet of coffee we requested. Coffee maker was in the room already. There was supposed to be breakfast, but we decided to visit Starbucks instead.
Williston, ND: Winterton Suites. Like most of these motels, Winterton was unprepossesing, painted in an unfortunate shade of slightly mustard-tinted yellow that seems to be popular with motels and rental properties this year. The bathroom was very clean despite decor approximating a gas station restroom. On the bright side, the managers were very cheerful and readily available, and the price was right, $100 a night. This was less than our other stops. We didn’t investigate breakfast options. The motel rooms faced a parking area, and not all rooms were occupied. We wore masks going in and out, but didn’t see other people except from a distance.
Havre, MT: Best Western Plus Great Northern Inn. This motel backs onto a BNSF railyard that emits lots of huffing and puffing, like a very loud AC unit, but inside our room we heard none of it, so I’m not sure it matters. The pool was open here and I couldn’t resist taking a dip–no one else was in it at the moment. The breakfast was limited to non-existent, though there was supposed to be something. I got an apple wrapped in plastic that tasted fine (I washed it again). Most people wore masks in the indoor spaces, but not 100% of people.
Next door to the Best Western was the highlight of our trip in culinary terms. The 406 Coffee Roastery in Havre had good coffee, and exceptional baked goods. The crumb cake was dense and delicious, with lots of crackly topping. The lemon poppyseed muffin was flavorful and large sized. We spent half as much as we had at the Starbucks in Fargo, to boot, including our big coffee drinks. There is a small park next door with a red caboose parked in it, very apropos for this town along the rail lines.
We chose places to stay that had a kitchenette and refrigerator so that we could renew our cooler each night. It proved useful when we found that eating in was preferable to eating out.
We took five days to cross the plains on the northernmost highway, Rte. 2, driving about 300 miles each day. We made a a couple of short stops each day, arriving at each day’s destination in the mid- to late afternoon.
Day1, July 28, 2020: Rochester, MN to Fargo, ND
One of Jonathan’s farm-to-table goals is to try locally made whisky, causing our unanticipated stop at the Panther Distillery in Osakis, MN. He ended up with two bottles, including Pike Street wheated bourbon whisky, “only available in Minnesota.”
Just down the road was our planned stop at Big Ole, a fanciful statue that commemorates the finding of a rune stone in Minnesota, proving that it was settled by Vikings long before Europeans. Though this story was debunked long ago, the statue remains as a local landmark.
Not far from the North Dakota border, we stopped in Rothsay, MN to see the world’s largest statue of a prairie chicken. The statue shows the bird at its most colorful, in the spring, when males inflate air pouches in their cheeks and do their mating dance.
I was sure this was as close as I’d get to a prairie chicken, as these birds have become rare with the conversion of prairie to farmland. We got to Fargo and checked into our motel. Jonathan went to pick up takeout, and returned with news that he’d seen a small flock of prairie chickens. We went to look and they were still there, though outside of breeding season prairie chickens look pretty regular.
Where did Jonathan find this rare species? On the lawn around an abandoned Hampton Inn, hiding in plain sight. One bird acts as lookout, like the one in my photo who’s giving Jonathan the eye. The rest graze, but if the lookout is spooked, all the birds duck down. They completely disappear. We watched a field for fifteen minutes waiting for the birds to reappear. When they didn’t come out, I assumed they’d sneaked off, and headed back to the car, accidentally flushing the entire group. Talk about going to ground! About eight birds were able to completely disappear in short grass. It was a lot of fun to see them.
Day Two, July 29, 2020: Devil’s Lake, ND
We decided to cross the northern Plains came in order to visit Barbara Breternitz, who lives in Devils Lake, ND, near her daughter and son-in-law. We know the entire family from our archaeology days. A wonderful socially-distanced visit ensued, including a picnic on the patio outside the tiny vacation cabin offered to us for the night by a family member. The family business was distributing oil and gas, and the cabin is packed with memorabilia.
Day 3, July 30, 2020: Devils Lake to Williston, ND
Driving across the entirety of North Dakota included a lot of flat landscape.
We broke our trip for two important stops. The Center of the Continent marker lies in Rugby, ND. This may seem a bit north for the center of anything, but it’s the center of all of North America, from northern Canada to Panama, and though the marker is said to be a few miles off, it worked just fine for us.
There was only one other stop I wanted to make in North Dakota, once again thanks to Atlas Obscura–the Whirl-a-Whip machine at Lakota Drug in Stanley, ND. We breezed across the state until we got to Stanley. There isn’t a billboard for Whirl-a-Whip along the highway, nor any signs in town. You only know that there is a wonderful ice cream machine at the drugstore if you are from the area or found it through the internet.
An older couple run the large store, while two young men work the soda fountain. The sprawling store was nearly empty, one customer waiting for ice cream. It takes a while for the counter guys to put the ice cream in the cup, sprinkle on the requested add-ins and put it in the machine, but eventually our creations appeared: one Whopper/Nutella/vanilla ice cream, one peanut butter/brickle chips/chocolate. Unlike most blended treats, these are made with regular ice cream, not soft serve. They were delish.
Day 4, July 31, 2020: Williston, ND to Havre, MT
360o of Wheat.
That’s Montana east of the mountains, more than half of the state. Wheat, grain elevators, rail cars by the hundreds. There are some other crops, but there’s a lot of wheat.
I also wanted to have a look at the Missouri River. The railroad was built to follow the river, and the highway parallels the railroad as it cuts across the prairie. On a map, the river coils back and forth like a stretched Slinky. As we drove, we’d pass a stretch of river, then fields, then another stretch of river. Up close, the river is muddy and wide, with not a soul in sight, though deer tracks in the mud right along the shore showed us where the locals pass unnoticed.
One small town after another dots the highway west. Our Prius becomes more and more unusual and pickup trucks the norm once we pass the Montana border. In Poplar, we slowed to a stop with the traffic, and the cars weren’t moving. I passed the bottleneck and found that the line of cars were backed up for more than two blocks leading off the highway and around the corner. We think it was a line for the local food bank.
By the time we reached Havre, MT (Have-er), it was late enough that we passed up the opportunity to visit Havre’s attraction, Havre Beneath The Streets. A century ago, fire demolished the town, and while rebuilding was underway, a number of businesses set up shop in the basement spaces that survived. Some of these have been restored and can be visited. When you’re next in Havre, have a look. https://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/4349
Day 5, August 1, 2020: Havre to Fortine, MT
Five days is one day too long for an overland trip for us. By Saturday, August 1, we were ready to be settled down again, but still had a full day of travel to go. We set out across the wheat, canola, and sugar beet fields toward the west, and finally began to see the outline of the mountains in the distance.
It was surprising to see even the small patches of snow that still remain on the mountains. Montana days have been very hot, 95-99o, much warmer than we ever expected. We passed through East Glacier, MT, a town adjacent to the Blackfeet reservation, complete with casino. This year the tribe opted to keep the east entrances to Glacier National Park closed. Our house in on the west side of the mountains, so we crossed the park on the highway, including the entrance to Glacier N. P.’s best known attraction, the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The road was bumper to bumper on Saturday afternoon. We’ll have to strategize when to make our own trip there.
We met Virginia at Fortine Mercantile, and she led us up Deep Creek Road to our home for the month. The house began as a log cabin, but is now an all weather home complete with central heating and air conditioning. The yard has lovely flowers and a group of tart (pie) cherry trees that are protected by a high fence. It keeps out deer and the occasional bear. We are careful to keep the gate closed. I don’t want to think about a bear playing in our trash can.
I’ll close with a few interesting things we saw along the way.
Rochester surprised us, as new locations often do. We weren’t sure what we would be doing in isolation here, and yet we end our visit with a list of places still to visit. There are lots of excellent parks with walking trails. Wildlife management areas (WMA), reservoirs, state parks, and forests led us out of town.
In addition to our day on a pontoon boat on the water, we drove along stretches of the Mississippi River on both the Minnesota side and the Wisconsin side. From Winona to Wabasha, the drive was beautiful, and there was always a park along the way where we could stop to picnic and look at birds. If I came here again, I would spend more days along other stretches of the river, from Lake City to Redwing, and so on, as far as I could go. I might even spend a week on a houseboat.
Pandemic precautions take some activities off the list. One drive took us through Fountain City, WI, a charming riverside town with lots of interesting buildings from a stone barn that was barely off the road, to a gorgeous painted Victorian, and a Frank Lloyd Wright style house. I would have liked to stroll the streets doing some window shopping, and perhaps sit in a cafe along the river for lunch. These days, many stores are closed or out of business, and the streets are quiet. I was able to have an ice cream cone at the Nelson Creamery in Nelson, WI, a real treat.
The Farmer’s Market in Rochester was excellent, and we bought our first sweet corn of the season this month. We usually arrived when the market opened at 7:30 a.m. on Saturdays. Yesterday, when we stopped by at 9:15 a.m. after birdwatching, there were so many people shopping that we decided to skip it. Even with masks, it was very crowded. We all want to get outside–and get that sweet corn!
One small difference between Rochester and other places we’ve been in the US is that here there are a lot of houses that haven’t been expanded over the years. In the Chicago area, it has become a curiosity to see a house that retains its original footprint. Everyone seems to have added a second story, pushed out their kitchen wall, or added a sunroom, seeking to add more space. Here, we see houses that span at least the last century, whether large or small, standing as they were built, without additions.
We didn’t overlook the local landmark, the corn cob water tower. Until a few years ago, the tank held 50,000 gallons of water and was used by a nearby cannery. The corn cob has always been illuminated at night, an informal beacon. The cannery closed, and after some discussion about tearing down the corn cob, the county now cares for this landmark. We’ve enjoyed our stay in Rochester, and are on our way west once again.
The water was dead calm, smooth as glass, without a ripple. Our host, Phillip, and his wife Tammy, had offered us a ride on their pontoon boat on the Mississippi. We met at the boat landing in Wabasha, MN at 10 a.m. Monday morning. The sky was partially overcast. We could sit socially distant and not risk sunburn. We left the dock for a ride on Lake Pepin, a wide spot in the Mississippi. The conditions couldn’t have been better. The air was still and warm until the boat began to move, then the breeze was cool and comfortable. The pontoons were faintly warm when I rested my arm on them. This was heavenly compared to last week’s ferocious heat.
There weren’t many boats out as we headed upstream. You can see why the river is considered a “lake” through here. The water is backed up behind a dam that creates this large pool of water. Parks, beaches, and campgrounds line Lake Pepin.
Our trip took us about halfway up the length of Lake Pepin to Lake City, MN, where a forest of masts in the marina hints at how many sailboats are on the water on weekends. From there we turned downstream to visit the lock and dam at Alma, WI.
Boats that are traveling longer distances use the locks at each end of Lake Pepin that raise and lower them to the next stretch of river. There are about thirty locks on the Mississippi between its starting point in Lake Itasca, MN, and the St. Louis area. The southernmost lock lies at the entrance to the Chain of Rocks canal, a 17-mile-long detour around rapids. Below St. Louis the river is too wide for locks and deep enough that they aren’t needed.
Philip, our host, grew up along the Mississippi near Wabasha, and could name every channel, showing us some that connect to oxbow lakes. He hunted and fished along the river in his teenage years, and he pointed out places like the inlet where he went duck hunting. His work is in real estate, so in addition to knowing the name of every point and inlet, he knew which clusters of houses are summer camp rentals, and which are condos.
We decided not to hike up one of the huge mounds of sand on the shore. Visitors often take on that challenge for a photo, and to slide down afterward. The mounds are sand from dredging. Tributaries dump sand into Lake Pepin, and though it won’t fill in for a very long time, dredging keeps the central channel open for barge traffic.
One downside to living along the Mississippi in either Minnesota or Wisconsin is the fact that the railroads arrived first, and there are tracks laid close to the river on both banks. Phillip and Tammy described sitting down to delicious ribs at a riverside restaurant one weekend afternoon. Just as they were enjoying their first bites, a freight train bore down on them, passing just a few feet from where they were sitting on the restaurant’s screened porch, and rattling everything and everyone. “I should have known,” Phillip laughed. “The railroad is right there, but you forget.”
By the time we finished our circuit of the region, we had seen four bald eagles. They perch along the river waiting to spot fish to catch. In recent years, visitors find that eagles will approach their boat if they toss a fish into the water. Eagles have become partly habituated and don’t immediately fly off when approached by boat, they are waiting to see if they’ll get a snack.
We had such a good time that I suggested Phillip consider putting together a day trip on the Mississippi as an Airbnb “Experience.” Take our boat ride, add a stop to take a dip, and have a picnic, and you’re had a pretty terrific day.
Around noon, when we were heading back to the boat ramp, we started to be passed by large rental houseboats. These looked like a lot of fun, too. We particularly liked the ones with two water slides off the back. Maybe we’ll be back for another visit.
A break in the high humidity gave us a perfect day to drive along the Mississippi, looking for Huck and Jim on their raft. We drove east from Rochester to Winona, MN on Rte. 14, a prettier drive than the interstate, then turned northwest along the river, getting as close as possible to the water on side roads. At Lake City, MN, we turned southwest on Rte. 63 and drove the last leg of our triangular route.
The level lands of the driftless area make good corn and soybean fields, and we passed a lot of them. Approaching the Mississippi, we found rolling hills before arriving in Winona, where a series of large sandbars clog the river but provide an excellent vantage point over the water.
Farther along, we stopped at McNally’s Landing just as a powerboat was being pulled out of the water after a morning fishing trip. Not long after, another truck towing a trailer pulled up and launched a boat. Out on the water, people were fishing, and pontoon boats were lumbering slowly along the channel to keep from swamping the passing kayaks.
We found ourselves alone on a forest path. It was just right for birds, sunny and shaded, near water, not too late in the morning. Following birds with our binoculars as they jumped from branch to branch, we wished they’d slow down just a little bit so we could get a better look. Sometimes, they cooperated.
Just before Minnesota City, we stopped to have our picnic lunch, looking out over the Mississippi and enjoying the beautiful day. A quick loop through Minnesota City revealed the secret getaway car emerging from Don’s Auto Body.
The road runs right along the river for a stretch beyond Minnesota City. On this sunny Sunday afternoon, every place where a boat could be launched was lined with trailers, and the river was full of boats. We continued along to Lake City, where we cruised the streets and discovered a beautiful old house. After our visit to Lake City, we headed for home, content with our day, and ready to try the opposite bank of the Mississippi on another day.
One of the questions we get from people when we tell them about our life on the road is–Why? When we decided to make our way west by a northern route the question came up again. This time, our lack of knowledge about Minnesota is part of the reason we decided it might be good to spend a month here in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. That’s true, but we have paid a bit of a price for not doing more advance research.
Our Airbnb reservation outside Minneapolis blew up just a few days before our scheduled arrival. We had to find a place to stay, and a perfectly fine, comfortable house in Rochester filled the bill. Once we were here, we discovered that Rochester, and all of southeastern Minnesota, is in the “driftless” region, a level area that was never covered by glaciers during the last ice age. Where there were glaciers, as the ice retreated, it scraped divots in the bedrock that became lakes, and left piles of rock, drumlins, eskers, and other post-glacial hills. We are in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but in the part without the lakes….
Once we got here, we discovered that Rochester may be famous for the Mayo Clinic, but there’s a limit to what else is here. The downtown is like one giant convention center, a bit like Waikiki without the beach. Large hotels line Broadway, the main street. A few cafes and restaurants are reopening with outdoor seating. The city has made a big effort to create outdoor dining areas by lining up cement barriers where there once was on-street parking. It makes space for outdoor restaurant tables, and gives the downtown a bit of a construction project ambiance. Add in a stretch of 90o days, and downtown Rochester looks like a convention city/convection oven.
The original Mayo Clinic has brass doors to rival Florence (that seems to have been the intention, at least), and a lot of interesting architectural elements, there are historic exhibits, though the building isn’t open these days.
After my visit downtown while Jonathan was at the dentist, we’ve stuck to Rochester’s parks. They are a real highlight of the city. Quarry Hill Park has miles of bicycling trails, walking paths, a pond, forest, butterfly garden courtesy of the local Master Gardeners, and that’s with the visitor center closed and programs cancelled. We go early in the day before the park fills up, which it does, every day. Also nearby is Bear Creek park, smaller and a bit quieter, with paths along the water that are excellent for birdwatching. We saw a lazuli bunting here, a pretty blue-headed bird. What a treat!
Just a few minutes to west is a trail along the Zumbro River. On our way there, we passed a deer standing in a field of crops, peacefully browsing. We were on the path by 8 a.m., a good idea. By the time we left two hours later, there were individuals and families on bicycles, walkers with and without dogs, runners with and without dogs, and the prize group: a man with two dogs and a baby in a stroller (She was asleep). At least he wasn’t trying to run, too. All this traffic failed to dissuade the birds, who came out to show off their shapes and colors. Though we didn’t see anything exotic or brand-new to us, we enjoyed the hummingbird that sat on a branch so that we could get a good look.
Outside Rochester, state parks provide more places to walk. Forestville State Park is not far, and provided excellent bird watching. Before we even got there we saw a ring-necked pheasant by the side of the road. In the park we walked along the Root River, and passed very few people on the trail. The morning heated up and eventually we returned to the car. On our drive home, the sky got darker and darker, it looked like we were under a slowly swirling, dark gray pancake. Drops began to spatter the windshield as we approached Rochester, though it wasn’t raining very hard when we arrived home. Five minutes later, it was pouring! Rain, thunder, and lightning continued for the rest of the day and long into the night, We took our walk at the right moment. There will be time for others.
The month of June ended and we got on the road to the next stop in our journey West. Ohio was lovely, but we are due in California in October, getting there one month-long stop at a time. At one minute to eight a.m. on June 30 we pulled out of the driveway in Conneaut, OH and headed for Chicago. We arrived in time for Jonathan’s physical therapy appointment at 2:10 p.m., five minutes early. We made two pit stops and a stop for gas, wearing our face masks, and washing our hands thoroughly after each stop, finishing with a layer of hand sanitizer when we were back in the car. Fellow travelers were evenly divided between those wearing masks and those not.
What with the temperature hovering above 90o F., the early wake-up time, long drive, and a few hands-on demonstrations of how to assist Jonathan with his exercises, I was worn out. We overnighted at Extended Stay America in Hillside, IL. Most guests wore masks when outside their rooms. This is a place that gives you a hotplate, microwave, and refrigerator. I was disappointed there were no cups and dishes until I saw a card indicating that guests could request any of a long list of clean utensils and appliances. Not long afterward, we had a coffeemaker, toaster, silverware, plates, mugs, and cups, as well as supplies to wash up afterward.
The following day was my monthly eye appointment in Oak Park. This was a big moment because I had my first injection of Beovu, the newest treatment. If all goes well, I will be able to cut back my annual injections by 50%, getting one every eight weeks rather than every four. This first shot of Beovu was my fortieth eye shot, so you can imagine how pleased I will be to have the number of total injections rise more slowly in the future. I took the rest of the day off, mostly because my eye remains dilated after the injection for at least eight hours.
We repacked the car and headed for Minnesota by 9 am on Wednesday, looking forward to stopping at a Starbucks. By the time we found one in a highway rest area in Belvidere, IL, it was almost an hour later, and the Starbucks was closed.
We got coffee, that’s the important part. There were very few people in the rest area, most all wearing masks.
The highway north through Wisconsin surprised us with road work and traffic. Rte. 90 is the main route from Chicago to Minneapolis, but I didn’t think that many people were traveling. Oh, yes, it’s the early end of the July 4th weekend! Maybe that’s it. Jonathan did most of the driving, as he usually does, but I helped.
We passed the striking rock towers at Castle Rock, WI, then crossed the Mississippi (see the top of this post), and arrived at our new house in Rochester, MN, just after 2 pm. We unpacked a bit and then went to find the grocery store, a big Hy-Vee with a fine selection of items. By the end of that expedition, we were ready to sit still for a while.
Our Rochester place is much larger than we need, but a snafu just a few days ago left us searching for anything available, and this was it. The house is comfortable and has air conditioning, essential in the heat and humidity.
Our new schedule is to get up at 6 a.m., drink coffee, then have an outdoor field trip before the day becomes unbearable. So far so good. The Quarry Hill park in Rochester is full of trails that are empty in the early part of the day. We saw a variety of birds, including a broad-winged hawk (new!), and were home by ten.