After finishing up grad school, I embarked on a road trip from South Bend, Indiana to San Francisco. I of course didn’t want to take the most direct route, but instead choose a much more circuitous route that led me through North Dakota, Glacier National Park (nearly at the Canadian border), and many other out-of-the-way-but-still-worthwhile spots (at least in my unique travel opinion).
The first stop from South Bend was Milwaukee, but because that happened to land at about 7am, there wasn’t much open. Though seeing the Pabst Mansion from only the outside (because it was quite early) was interesting and the waterfront area serene there wasn’t a lot to see or do. So onward to Madison.
Thanks to a great app, Roadside America, that describes itself as “A Guide to Uniquely Odd Tourist Attractions”; I found a restaurant that definitely fit that bill – Ella’s Deli. Between the robot that greets you, the animatronic dancing feet, and the flying Dumbo that flaps his ears, it was the most entertaining kosher deli I’ve ever been to.
Having never really been to Wisconsin before, I was of course excited to try the famous cheese curds. A farmer’s market set up outside of the capital building seemed like a great opportunity to try some that had very good reviews on Yelp. While this new delicacy (using that term loosely…) was quite tasty, it still just tasted like fried cheese to my unsophisticated palette.
Despite these rather odd adventures, the highlight of the day was definitely the National Mustard Museum, yes there’s actually a whole building devoted only to mustard. The lower level consists of a collection of 5,676 mustards from each state and throughout 70 countries as well as the theater area. There was a movie titled “A Spice of Nations” which explained the origins of mustard throughout the world and the process of making it. Apparently there are medicinal advantages to the condiment, who knew? The second level was the sales floor which sold an extremely extensive variety of mustards and allows you to taste any and/or all of them – not too shabby.
Continuing along similar lines of unique experiences the next destination was the SPAM museum located near the Hormel Packing plant in Austin, Minnesota. For someone who refuses to eat the processed meat product, it may be a surprising stop. However, in my negotiation class we negotiated a lengthy Harvard Business Review case based on the real-life 1985 union strike after negotiations between Hormel management and the United Food and Commercial Workers union leaders broke down. So after spending weeks acting as Hormel management, seeing the site was more intriguing. The museum itself was well-done including the product’s history, WWII Spamville (emphasizing that GI’s ate a lot of SPAM), and my personal favorite – a mock production site where you could assemble plastic containers of bean bag ‘SPAM’.
The half day in Minneapolis didn’t really result in any noteworthy activities. The bocce ball restaurant had a monstrously long wait to actually play and I couldn’t find the “mysterious small creatures” statues.
In my quest to visit all 50 states (currently I’m only missing Hawaii and New Mexico), North Dakota had yet to be checked off so was next up on the journey. Bordering Minnesota, Fargo was the first stop. Best known from the Cohen Brothers’ 1996 movie, the city actually very pleasantly surprised me. Though to be fair my initial impressions were solely based on the movie which hardly takes place in North Dakota, but instead mostly in Minneapolis and Brainard, Minnesota.
Fargo can be summed up by the word “surprising”. The visitor’s center seemed like the reasonable place to start, especially because it contains the famous “Woodchipper”. Not only was the staff extremely helpful, but also provided flannel hats to make the scene with the foot and the woodchipper a more authentic photo opp. The downtown area actually consisted of more development than I anticipated, but of course with a North Dakota flair, the Smiling Moose Deli is a good example. For some reason I assumed that Fargo would be a cooler climate in the early summer because it’s legendary frigid winters. However, that wasn’t at all the case. Memorial Day had temperatures at about 88 degrees. Also surprisingly, the visitor’s center claimed that the Dilly Bar was invented in Fargo, which necessitated an adventure to find one of the first Dairy Queen locations because I obviously I couldn’t pass up an excuse for dessert.
Driving the length of the entire state via Interstate 94, was a long and relatively uninteresting journey. Stopping at random spots along the way broke up the drive a bit. One such stop was in Jamestown for the “World’s Largest Buffalo”, which is exactly what you would expect.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park was the first National Park of many in the coming days. Though it is nearly on the border with Montana, the landscape closely resembles that of the Badlands of South Dakota with expansive rock formations of various shades of brown, tan, and red. The prairie dog towns along the 30 mile paved loop were a cute surprise, as the little guys were quite active burrowing and romping around.
Glacier National Park is near the border of Canada and is described as one of the most beautiful national parks in the country, and thus was worth going so far out of the way on my road trip. Despite being early June, a lot of the park was still closed due to snow. I actually just saw a clip on the news that Glacier just received 16 inches of snow in only 24 hours – in mid-June. Even though I only got to see a portion of the park it was still worthwhile; snow-capped mountains among a national forest. A couple mile hike to see a lake formed by an avalanche was cool, but unfortunately the wildlife consisted only of a few pretty persistent and hungry chipmunks.
After Glacier I ventured to Great Falls, Montana. After being named #1 bar worth flying to by GQ magazine in 2003, the obvious nightlife choice was the Sip-N-Dip Tiki Lounge inside the O’Haire Motor Inn. This was no typical bar. Complete with an octogenarian piano player, Pat, and of course the glass wall between the bar and the swimming pool where a mermaid swims around presumably for tips.
Yellowstone is the big draw in Wyoming, and for good reason. The nearly 3,500 square mile park has everything from mountains, lakes, geysers, thermal pools, and wildlife. By staying at the Old Faithful Inn, I got to see the sunset over Old Faithful, a geyser that true to its name erupts “faithfully” every 90 minutes or so. However, a much rarer geyser eruption, Beehive, was a more impressive sight. At nearly 200’, it’s significantly higher and more powerful. With the right sunlight, a rainbow even appeared.
Just south of Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons are another national park with beautiful sights. The mountains are great, but the definite highlight was the bear on the side of the road. Though it was likely only a teenager, it could still destroy a human – though the people getting out of their cars and walking closer to it apparently wouldn’t agree. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your views), a great YouTube wasn’t filmed that day.
Continuing the trend of daily visits to National Parks, Craters of the Moon was up next (though it’s a National Monument, not park). Though it’s only about 200 miles east of Boise, it more closely resembles the landscape of Hawaii. Craters was established in 1924 by President Coolidge in order to “preserve the unusual and weird volcanic formations”. Sounds about right… It consists of hardened lava flows and lava tubes, though unfortunately no live volcanoes.
The Biggest Little City in the World – Reno. 10am on a Sunday isn’t the most lively time to visit a locale best known for its second tier casinos. Wandering through the Circus Circus casino there wasn’t a lot of activity because apparently everyone was at the National Bowling Stadium just down the street. The USBC Open Championships (Bowling) was taking place and that place was pretty crazy. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the National Bowling Stadium, but it turns out there are multiple levels of bowling alleys and the Bowling Hall of Fame.
The final stop before San Francisco was Lake Tahoe. Unfortunately my mighty prius (with all 110 horsepower) had some trouble with the steep mountains to get up to the lake. Then once my glorified golf cart made it to the 6200 foot elevation, there happened to be a bike race going on with riders that didn’t seem to care about the vehicle traffic. And although it was too cold to actually go in the Lake, seeing the picturesque waterfront was cool but maybe not worth the hassle.