After a fun week spent with family and friends in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, it was time for my wife and I to repack the Jeep and head back to New Jersey. Rather than racing home, however, we thought we would meander our way, stopping to explore some cool sites along the way. This is the first of three posts that will capture our drive home… perhaps I should rename this series “Go East, Young Man.”
Becoming a Midwesterner
The Saturday after Christmas saw a significant ice event cover the Twin Cities area, crippling the region for most of Saturday morning. By mid-afternoon, the roads had thawed enough for us to head into Minneapolis to visit with friends (although the drops of water on the hood are actually ice pellets that are frozen in place). I was also able to grab a photo of the “Welcome to Minnesota” sign.
On the Monday before we were scheduled to start our return drive, a winter storm rolled into the Midwest, dumping several inches of snow on the ground. It was also our first opportunity to thoroughly test the Nokian WR G4 SUV tires we had recently mounted on my wife’s Jeep Grand Cherokee. Between the Jeep’s all-wheel drive system and the tires, it felt like driving a tank.
The Nokian tires handled the snow and ice well, providing excellent starting traction, drama-free braking, and excellent control on curves and turns. Or, to put it in my wife’s words while she drove in the snow: “Weeeeeeee!!!”
I learned that in the Midwest, these road conditions are considered “fine.” Snow is a way of life in Wisconsin and Minnesota and people carry on with their tasks, just driving a bit more carefully in the winter weather. I think I earned my first “Midwesterner Winter Merit Badge.” The Drive Home: Day One
Day one of the return drive began in Wisconsin and ended in Rockford, Illinois.
Our drive began early on New Year’s Day as we headed down snow-and-ice covered roads. Talk about a winter wonderland!
Our first stop was the town of Red Wing, Minnesota, to check out a noted roadside attraction- the world’s largest boot! Unfortunately, as much as I enjoy any “World’s Largest” site, this one will have to wait for another time, as the headquarters of Red Wing Shoes, which houses the boot, was closed.
Disappointed, we decided to stop for a cup of coffee and regroup. Caribou Coffee is a Midwestern coffee house chain, and this Caribou location is housed in Red Wing’s old train station. Built in 1906, this building was once a depot for the Chicago Great Western Railway.
From Red Wing, our next destination took us along the Great River Road. Developed during the 1930s, the Great River Road is actually a series of roads that follow the path of the Mississippi River through ten states (via Wikipedia).
Our route took us past Lake Pepin, which sits between Wisconsin and Minnesota. Fun fact: water skiing was invented here in 1922 (although probably on a day a little warmer than this one!).
The road was easily one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. The bluffs, the curves of the road, and the Mississippi made for a scenic drive.
We pulled off the road at a scenic lookout and looked in awe at several eagles soaring in the air.
I felt like I was on assignment for National Geographic! The Mississippi River is the primary route for almost half of all birds in America to fly north to Canada during their yearly migration. Warmer water temperatures in the Mississippi mean that eagles have remained in the area far later into the year than usual.
A dark shape in the trees caught my eye – this immature bald eagle was watching for prey. The white head, which we associate with the bald eagle, only develops after 4-5 years of life (via the Center for Conservation Biology).
Seeing those magnificent birds was the perfect introduction to our next stop: the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota!
Established in 1989, the National Eagle Center seeks to promote education, research, and preservation of these magnificent raptors. The Center has also rescued several eagles, who are all now permanent residents. This is Columbia, who was adopted in 2003, after being discovered on the side of a road with a broken wing. Columbia also had lead in her system, which can be highly poisonous to eagles in even small levels.
This is Was’aka, who has been at the Center since 2009. He was found with a tumor over his left eye. The tumor was removed, but it necessitated removing his left eye as well. Was’aka could not survive in the wild, and instead is part of the educational program here.
Latsch is a golden eagle who has been at the Center since 2016. Aside from their color differences, diet is a major differentiator between bald and golden eagles. Bald eagles hunt fish as their primary source of food, while golden eagles, like hawks, hunt small mammals (via National Eagle Center).
Three of the eagles began vocalizing to each other, and although noisy, it was a magnificent display and allowed for some great photos!
After leaving Wabasha, we crossed back into Wisconsin and continued along the Great River Road toward our next destination.
Along the way, we passed several Wisconsin historical markers. The program was established to highlight sites of importance to Wisconsin’s history. The signs, the left one from 1930, the right from 1975, commemorate Native American leaders and burial sites in this area.
Check out the frozen waves along the shore of the Mississippi! While the center of the river is not fully frozen, the closer to shore you go, the more ice you encounter.
We flew through Wisconsin and crossed into Iowa, a state that neither my wife nor I had ever visited.
We stopped at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque.
The museum focuses on life along and in the Mississippi. An aquarium hosts several fish and reptiles that swim beneath the river’s waves, including this Long-nosed Gar. Fun fact – the Gar can survive up to 24 hours out of water (via National Park Service).
These starfish looked like they were all partying a little too hard on New Year’s Eve.
Is this a strange form of seaweed? Nope. It’s a cassiopeia, also known as the upside-down jellyfish.
The museum also focused on the industry and innovation of Iowa. The Cooper Wagon Works, based in Dubuque, was known for building durable and reliable wagons. The emperor of China placed an order for wagons like this one in the late 19th century.
Another Iowa invention: the Snogo Snow Plow. Built in 1932, it was designed to clear snow from Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park ( I drove on Trail Ridge Road this past summer). This four-wheel drive plow could throw snow as far as one hundred feet from the road.
The museum also showcases the ships that plied the waters of the Mississippi River. This paddleboat, built in 1938, would push barges up and down the river. It now sits on permanent display.
The museum was once a boatyard, where ships were constructed. During the First World War, this boatyard built small ships to fight German submarines, as Dubuque was considered too remote for the Germans to attack. Much of the machinery of shipbuilding is on permanent display.
The top of the museum has an observation deck where you can see the Mississippi River and the shores of Illinois in the distance.
As we left, we stopped to check out this massive paddlewheel. Twenty-five feet in diameter, it weighs 32 tons! This paddlewheel comes from the William M. Black, a 277-foot long dredge that was built in 1934, and is now on display in the Dubuque harbor.
We got back in the Jeep and crossed the Julien Dubuque Bridge into Illinois.
Our drive would take us along U.S. Route 20, which begins in Boston Massachusetts and continues to Newport, Oregon. At nearly 3,400 miles, it is the longest road in the United States. It came into existence in 1926, and is one of the original major highways that existed before the Interstate Highway System was built. In Illinois, it traverses some very rural areas.
Although we were tired and looking forward to reaching our hotel, as we were passing through Galena, Illinois, we spotted a sign for a cool roadside attraction and pulled over.
This is the home of President Ulysses S. Grant. Grant moved to Galena in 1860, and the townspeople built the victorious Civil War commander this home in 1865. It is now a historic site and museum.
We raced the setting sun back to our hotel.
Despite being exhausted from the long drive, we stopped to take in a gorgeous sunset. After a few minutes, we were back on the road, heading to our hotel in Rockford Illinois.
The first day of our journey was fantastic. From learning about eagles, to seeing those majestic birds in the wild, to discovering new facts about a mighty river, to stumbling upon unexpected hidden gems, we took good advantage of our opportunity to travel on the road. If you are looking to visit the
National Eagle Center in Wabasha, it is open daily from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm, and costs $10 for adults, $9 for veterans, $7 for children ages 4-17, and children 3 and under can enter for free. The Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm, and costs $17.95 for adults, $12.95 for children ages 3-17, and seniors 65+ can enter for $15.95.
Thanks for coming along on the first day of our return journey, and stay tuned for further adventures!
‘Til next time.