Reliving some of our best USA visits

2020 was meant to be a positive year of change. In early January we placed our house in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire on the market, with the hope (expectation?) of a quick sale. Instead, it’s a year on hold.

By the end of 2019 we had already decided (after pondering this decision for a couple of years or more) to leave the Midlands and move north to the Newcastle upon Tyne area, to be closer to our younger daughter Philippa and her family: husband Andi, and sons Elvis (8) and Felix (6).

Steph and I are not getting any younger (70 and 71, respectively) and we decided that if we were going to make a move, we’d better get on with it while we had the enthusiasm, and continuing good health. Newcastle is almost 250 miles from where we currently live.

Back in January we thought we might be in Newcastle by mid-year, early autumn at the latest. That was before Covid-19 reared its ugly head. We are now in lockdown, and will be for the foreseeable future. Heaven knows when we might eventually push through with a sale.

So, with the expectation of this house move, we had already decided not to make our ‘annual’ visit to the USA (and road trip as in past years) to stay with our elder daughter Hannah and her family in Minnesota: husband Michael, Callum (9) and Zoë (7). Instead, they had decided to join us all in the Newcastle area for a two week vacation from early August. That’s also on hold until conditions improve and is unlikely now until 2021.

Since retirement in 2010, Steph and I have been making these US visits, and taking another holiday here in the UK, such as to Scotland in 2015, Northern Ireland in 2017, Cornwall in 2018, and East Sussex and Kent last year. As followers of this blog will know, Steph and I are avid members of both the National Trust and English Heritage. Alas, those day trips are also on hold.

Anyway, to cheer myself in the absence of any holiday breaks this year, I decided to look through the various blog posts I have published about many of the places we have visited in the USA—shown on the map below—and then give you my top five choices. As you can see from the map, there are several regions of the USA that we’ve not yet explored: Colorado, Utah and Idaho, southern Midwest, and southern states.

The dark red symbols indicate various national parks or other landscapes we have visited. Each has a link to the relevant blog post. The green symbols show cities where I have spent some days over the years.

It’s very hard to make a choice of my top five. But here they are, in no particular order (the links below open photo albums):

Having said that, Canyon de Chelly really is my No. 1, and I would return there tomorrow given half a chance. So why not include the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone in my top five? They would certainly be in the top 10.

We have been so fortunate to have had such great opportunities to travel around the USA. And we look forward to many more, filling in some of the gaps as we go.

I hope you enjoy looking at these road trip sites as much as we did visiting them over the past decade.


 

Relaxing in Minnesota

Following our epic drive in mid-June from Maine to Minnesota (after already having crossed Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, and explored parts of western Maine for six days), Steph and I settled into a couple of weeks of relaxation with our elder daughter Hannah and family in St Paul, MN before heading back to the UK on 10 July.

My son-in-law, Michael, is – like me – a beer aficionado, and keeps a well-stocked cellar of many different beers. It’s wonderful to see how the beer culture has blossomed in the USA, no longer just Budweiser or Coors. I had opportunity to enjoy a variety of beers. Those IPAs are so good, if not a little hoppy sometimes. However, my 2018 favorite was a Czech-style pilsener, Dakota Soul from the Summit Brewing Company based in St Paul.

Relaxing in St Paul was also an opportunity catch up with some of my blogging, while Steph spent time in Hannah’s garden making sure everything was coping with the very hot weather. Notwithstanding the regular watering, we did experience a couple of quite spectacular downpours the like of which I haven’t seen for some time.

And our lively grandchildren, Callum (eight just two days ago) and Zoë (6) kept us on our toes. For one of the two weeks we stayed in St Paul, I was their summer camp chauffeur, dropping them off at the bus just after 8 am each day, and picking them up late in the afternoon. We were also ‘babysitters’ over six days and five nights. That’s the first time we’ve taken on this role; it was the first time that Hannah and Michael left the children with grandparents for more than just an overnight stay, while they celebrated their 40th birthdays with a visit to California’s Napa Valley.

Outcome? I think Callum and Zoë survived us – no permanent harm done!

There’s quite a lot of ambiguity associated with looking after someone else’s children – and they know it! Even though it was made clear to both that ‘Grandad and Grandma were in charge’, you’re often faced with situations asking yourself how Mum and Dad would react. Obviously we haven’t looked after small children for more than three decades since Hannah and Philippa were small. Although we had TV in the 1980s, there were no video games, or subscription channels like Netflix offering up a continuous menu of cartoons.

Both Hannah and Philippa had quite a large circle of friends within easy distance of home, some just a few doors away. So whenever the weather was fine – or even if it was not – one or the other would be round a friend’s house, or the friends at ours. It’s a sign of the times but ‘play dates’ have to be arranged for both Hannah’s and Philippa’s children. This is not only a reflection of busy lives for Mums and Dads, but also that no friends live next door.

We had fun with Callum and Zoë, although they might not perhaps reflect well on the occasions when I had to ‘lay down the law’. We went bike riding (they did the riding while we followed on foot), and explored the fascinating glacial potholes at the Interstate State Park 53 miles northeast from St Paul beside the St Croix River at Taylors Fall.

Afterwards we spent time at a splendid children’s playground at Stillwater. We ate out one night, went out for breakfast on the Sunday, and had a BBQ. Here are some more photos of that outing.

Grandma Mary (Michael’s mother) took the children to the Minnesota Zoo one day so Steph and I could enjoy a day at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (here are the 2018 photos), somewhere we have visited a couple of times in the past.

Beautiful echinaceas, a typical species of the prairies

And any visit to St Paul would not be complete without checking out the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory at Como Park (map).

We’ve been going there since 2006 when it was the venue for Hannah and Michael’s wedding. The floral displays change with the seasons, and we always enjoy seeing what the gardeners have prepared for their many visitors. This summer’s display was much more subdued compared to other years.

May 2006

December 2007

July 2016

June 2017

June 2018

I would certainly recommend a visit to Como Park  if you’re ever in St Paul. There is also a small zoo and fun fair, very popular with the children.

The Mississippi River is just 50 m from Hannah’s front door, but at least 50 m below. There are some lovely walks and parks along the river, Hidden Falls Regional Park, about a mile from Hannah’s, being one of them. But the river was high this year, with flooding closing several of the walks nearby. The St Croix River at Stillwater was the highest we have ever experienced.

Beside the Mississippi at Hidden Falls Regional Park.

The St Croix River at Stillwater. That’s Wisconsin on the far (east) bank.

Finally, this commentary about relaxing in Minnesota would not be complete without mention of Hobbes, a lovely ginger rescue cat who has his moments, going from sweet and docile to full on attack mode at the drop of a feather. But over our time at Hannah and Michael’s he did begin to relax with us and, more often than not, this is how he spent much of his time.

Massachusetts to Minnesota (4): heading west through NY, PA, OH, KY and IN, then on to MN

Leaving Niagara Falls via the Niagara Scenic Parkway on the Sunday morning, we headed south, skirting Buffalo and the eastern shore of Lake Erie towards Pennsylvania, and the Allegheny National Forest. Our destination was Canton in Ohio, just south of Akron, a journey of 313 miles.

Along the Niagara Scenic Byway, there are two impressive bridges across the Niagara River on I-190.

There was little traffic around Buffalo, fortunately, even though it was a fine morning for Father’s Day. Soon enough we were outside the city limits and heading south into Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania was a ‘new’ state for us (as were OH and IN), and I particularly wanted to travel through the Allegheny National Forest.

We travel on the interstates as little as possible, taking US highways and county roads in preference. You get to see a lot more of rural America that way. But roads are none too wide with few places to stop. And certainly no easy stops for photography. So on these two days we have little to show, photographic-wise, for our long days on the road.

The next morning we had an early start as we decided to cover the whole route that I’d planned, some 447 miles south through Ohio, crossing the Ohio River into Kentucky, before crossing the river again further west into Indiana to reach our next destination, Bloomington.

The drive through OH took us through some delightful towns and villages, and productive agricultural landscapes. Although we saw road signs to be aware of Amish buggies on the road, we only saw a couple.

Somerset is a small town about 110 miles south of Canton. In the middle of its impressive town square (which had a very English feel to it) there was a statue to a famous son of Somerset, Union General Phil Sheridan.

We also passed by Dover OH, home to infamous Confederate guerilla leader William Clarke Quantrill (I just bought a biography to read), and also Bainbridge, home to the first dental school in the USA, opened in 1825.

Eventually we reached the Ohio River at Aberdeen OH. The Ohio is a very impressive river and as I commented in a post after last year’s road trip, its flow is greater than the Mississippi. No wonder that rivers like the Ohio were used to open up the interior of the country.

This is the bridge that carries US68 into Kentucky. We crossed a little further west on the William H Harsha Bridge, carrying US62.

Aberdeen is also the terminus of Zane’s Trace, the first continuous road through Ohio, from 1798.

Crossing into northern Kentucky, we were less than 50 miles north of where we had driven through the state in 2017. Then it was over the Ohio again, and into southeast Indiana. Our good friend and former IRRI colleague Bill Hardy (a native born Hoosier) told us that we should see the southern part of the state, since the northern half was flat and rather uninteresting, maize upon mile of maize. He was right. The drive into Bloomington was delightful in the early evening sunshine, with Highway 46 weaving through the trees, up and down dale.

After a restful night in Bloomington (yet another Comfort Inn!) we set off the next day for the penultimate sector of our trip that would take us to Ludington on Lake Michigan in the state of that name. This was another long drive, over 400 miles, north to Gary IN, and then wending our way north along the eastern shore of the lake.

Just over the state line into Michigan we stopped to have a quick picnic lunch at a rest area (and Michigan information center) on I-94. We were very impressed with the amount of tourist literature and maps available at the information center; Michigan certainly knows how to sell itself.

Just north of the state line we took a short detour to Warren Dunes State Park. Lake Michigan is like a vast internal sea, and along its shores, certainly the eastern shore, there are huge sand dunes, now covered with mature woodland. The sand is extremely soft, and hard to walk across. Just like being at the seaside, and although the day was overcast, enough brave souls were enjoying beach to the maximum.

This is Tower Hill Dune that rises to more than 230 feet above Lake Michigan.

Then it was back on the road again, heading for our last night stop of the trip, at Ludington, before taking the ferry across Lake Michigan the next morning to Manitowoc on the Wisconsin shore.

The ferry, SS Badger, across Lake Michigan is operated by LMC – Lake Michigan Carferry. Badger is the last coal-fired ferry operating in the world.

It is 393 feet long, and has a beam of almost 60 feet. It was built in 1953 in Sturgeon Bay, WI. Its sister ship, Spartan, has been laid up in Ludington for many years. Originally the ferries carried rail cars.

The 60 mile crossing of the lake takes four hours, but you gain 1 hour moving from Eastern Standard Time to Central Time. As it was a Wednesday in mid-June, before the height of the tourist season, the boat was far from busy. The slow, easy-paced crossing was just my opportunity to catch up on some sleep, in readiness for the final push into the Twin Cities from Manitowoc across Wisconsin, some 321 miles.

We were at the dockside a little after 07:30, and they started to board the vehicles shortly afterwards for an on-time departure from Ludington at 09:00. Vehicles are driven on board by company staff. So before we sailed we had a good look around the vessel.

Soon enough we were headed out of Ludington harbor.

And before we knew it, Manitowoc was coming into view, and everyone was getting ready to disembark.

I had planned a route across Wisconsin that took us from Manitowoc through Stevens Point on US10. We took I-43 north for a couple of miles or so, then came off to take US10, only to see a sign stating that the road was closed some miles ahead. With that, I changed the settings on my satnav to take the quickest route to St Paul, rejoining I-43 around Green Bay, and west on Highway 29, until we joined I-94 west of Chippewa Falls for the final 75 miles into the Twin Cities. Highway 29 was a nightmare. Although a dual carriageway (a divided highway) it just went on and on, unrelentingly, in a straight line across Wisconsin. However, we did arrive to Hannah and Michael’s almost an hour earlier than anticipated.

Thus ended our 2018 road trip across twelve states: MA, VT, NH, ME, NY, PA, OH, KY, IN, MI, WI, and MN.

In nine days we covered 2741 miles, plus another 477 miles in Maine itself during the six days we stayed at the cabin. We used 133 gallons of gasoline, at a cost of $384 ($2.89/gallon, less than half of what we would have to pay in the UK for the same amount of fuel), at an average consumption of 24.19 mpg.

I’m already planning for 2019; Georgia to Texas through the southern states seems a distinct possibility.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

See the other posts in this series:

Massachusetts to Minnesota (1): the first three days in MA, VT and NH

Massachusetts to Minnesota (2): a week in Maine

Massachusetts to Minnesota (3): onwards to Niagara Falls

Ten days, eleven states (7): Revisiting the Twin Cities

St Paul, Minnesota is almost a second home. I’ve been visiting there regularly since 1998 when Hannah, our elder daughter, transferred from Swansea University in the UK to Macalester College, a private liberal arts college in St Paul. Incidentally, Macalester is the alma mater of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Hannah settled in St Paul after graduation, completed her graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, married Michael, and home is now complete with our two American grandchildren Callum (who will be seven in mid-August) and Zoë (five last May). So you see, Steph and I have many reasons for returning to the Twin Cities.

St Paul was the destination of our 2800 mile road trip from Georgia, beginning in Atlanta on 31 May and lasting 10 days, and covering 11 states. It was a great trip, but I was somewhat relieved when we pulled into Hannah’s driveway on the Friday afternoon, having covered the final 333 miles from Iowa City, looking forward to almost three weeks with the family and exploring favourite haunts, and hopefully discovering a few new ones. We are less familiar with the other half of the Twin Cities, Minneapolis (and currently in the news for all the wrong reasons), that lies on the opposite bank of the Mississippi from where Hannah and Michael’s home is in the Highland Park area of St Paul.

Callum finished the school year on the day we arrived, and Zoë didn’t complete her final childcare year at the St Paul Jewish Community Center until the following Wednesday. For the first three days of that first St Paul week we had Callum to ourselves, and both of them for the Thursday and Friday. So we had to find some fun things for Grandma and Grandad to do with them. The second week they went off to summer camp.

We visited Camp Butwin to check it out. Then the following Monday, it was Callum and Zoë’s first day. I was on drop-off and pickup duties!

Stillwater
Stillwater, a small town on the banks of the St Croix River (the state line between Minnesota and Wisconsin), some 27 miles east from Hannah’s home, is one of our favorite places. I first went there in 2004 with Hannah and Michael, and heard my first Lake Wobegon monologue from Garrison Keillor as we sat in the car park beside the river.

It’s a pleasant riverside town, that will become even better once the new bridge over the St Croix River is opened in August. This bridge will replace a narrow, 80 year old lift bridge in the town center.

Being a main route over to Wisconsin, much heavy traffic currently passes through the town center; this should disappear after August. No doubt to the relief of Stillwater residents and presumably many businesses. But will the diversion away from the town center take away some passing trade? Probably not, as Stillwater has its own attractions for visitors.

Stillwater high street has numerous antique and souvenir shops, and bookshops. One gift shop, Art ‘n Soul, on the corner opposite the lift bridge, sells beads, mainly crystals. Every time we visit Stillwater, Steph (an avid beader) has to pop in just to check things out.

On the hillside above the town there is an excellent children’s play park, and Callum spent a very enjoyable hour amusing himself on all the apparatus.

The St Paul-Minneapolis Light Rail
Opened in June 2014, the Green Line of Metro Transit connects downtown St Paul with downtown Minneapolis, passing through the campus of the University of Minnesota. On a very cold June day in 2014, we queued up to take the first train from St Paul on the Green Line. Then the heavens opened, and we beat a hasty retreat to the car parked nearby. This was our first opportunity since then to ride the Light Rail.

Callum and Zoë couldn’t keep still, and I warned them about standing up while the train was moving. It travels at quite a lick, as the clip below shows, and the cross-city journey takes about 40 minutes.

On the return from Minneapolis (we’d met up with Hannah and Michael in downtown Minneapolis for lunch), and as we were approaching the Capitol/Rice St stop, there was an almighty bang, and the driver slammed on his brakes. We’d hit a car (with five passengers, including a baby) that had apparently tried to run a red light. Within minutes we were surrounded by police cars, rescue vehicles, the fire service, and ambulances. One woman was taken to hospital although did not appear to be seriously injured. For our part, Callum and Zoë happened to be sitting when the impact occurred. No-one was hurt on the train.

While St Paul exudes ‘old money’ and extravagant mansions along Summit Avenue, downtown Minneapolis is the bright and brash commercial center. Skyscrapers gleaming in the sunlight, reflections, and on one building, celebrating a local boy made good. Who? Nobel Laureate (for Literature) and sometime troubadour, Bob Dylan.

Local boy made good . . .

The McNeely Conservatory at Como Park
This is one of St Paul’s jewels. It is always a treat to see what delights the seasonal planting design brings. So, it is no surprise that we had to visit once again this year.

American Swedish Institute
Midsummer, and we headed off to the American Swedish Institute, just off E 26th St in Minneapolis. It was a very hot Saturday, so we were glad to be able to tour the Turnblad Mansion, the focus of the institute today. Built by newspaperman Swan Turnblad at the turn of the 20th century. It’s ostentatious but so elegant, and a delight to view. I was fascinated by the Swedish ceramic stoves, known as a kakelugn, in many of the rooms. I didn’t have my Nikon with me, so the quality of the photos I took with a small Casio is less than I’d like. Nevertheless, they do give you an impression of this beautiful building.

Although I’d never been to the American Swedish Institute before, I was ‘familiar’ with the Turnblad Mansion, as I mentioned to one of the volunteers, John Nelson. The mansion featured in one of the programs by Tory politician-turned-TV presenter, Michael Portillo (he of the flamboyant trousers and jacket) about the Twin Cities, in his series Great American Railroad Journeys (a spin-off from his popular Great British Railway Journeys), and broadcast earlier this year on the BBC. I mentioned this to Mr Nelson, and he told me he had sat next to Portillo in the sequence where he dined at the mansion. He said he hadn’t seen the program nor met anyone, until that moment, who had!

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
This was our third visit to the arboretum. Again, we enjoyed a tour round the ‘Three Mile Drive’, discovering new landscapes where we didn’t stop last year, and renewing our acquaintance with those we had see previously only on the Autumn.

The St Paul waterfront
Finally, we took advantage of the excellent weather to explore the walks along the Mississippi close to where Hannah and Michael live, at Hidden Falls Regional Park, and beside the Downtown area of St Paul.

Finally, of course, we had time to sit back, relax and just enjoy being with Hannah and Michael and the grandchildren. And, of course, the addition to the family: Hobbes the cat!

All too soon our 2017 visit to the USA was over, and on 28 June we headed back to MSP to catch our overnight flight on Delta to AMS, with a connection to BHX. It’s three weeks today since we came home. It seems a lifetime ago. But there’s always next year!

 

 

Ten days, eleven states (6): The mighty Mississippi, or is it?

It’s not even the longest river, as such, in North America. From its source at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota (that we visited in 2016) until the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi is 2320 miles long.

The Missouri, on the other hand, which joins the Mississippi near St Louis, MO, flows eastwards for 2341 miles from its source high in the Rockies of western Montana before it reaches that confluence.

One of the other main tributaries of the Mississippi is the Ohio River, at a mere 981 miles, yet its flow is much greater than the Mississippi, and at its deepest point, near Louisville, KY, it is over 130 feet deep. That’s some river! The Mississippi and its tributaries drain almost half the land mass of the the United States.

The Ohio joins the Mississippi at the southernmost point of Illinois, Fort Defiance, just south of Cairo, an almost abandoned town that looks like it has suffered one flooding event too many over the years.

Cairo was, apparently, the prototype for Charles Dickens’ ‘City of Eden’ in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit (which I read recently as part of my 2017 Charles Dickens challenge) published serially between 1842 and 1844. Dickens visited the USA in 1842. He was not impressed with Cairo; neither were we.

We left Cave City, KY just before noon on the Wednesday (Day 8 of our road trip), heading to Troy, IL, and then to follow the Mississippi north through Missouri, Iowa, and southern Minnesota to St Paul. This is our route from Cave City to Iowa City.

Before reaching Fort Defiance, we had already crossed the Tennessee River, which joins the Ohio River near Paducah, KY. Just before Paducah, we turned west and reached the banks of the Mississippi at Wickliffe, just down river from the confluence.

There are two impressive bridges crossing the Ohio and Mississippi. Seeing the enormity of these constructions makes you really wonder at how much an obstacle these rivers were during the westward expansion of the settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today the Mississippi alone boasts more than 130 bridges along its length.

The Cairo Ohio River bridge on the left (5863 feet) and the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge on the right (5175 feet)

Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark camped here in 1803, and it was a strategic location during the Civil War, for obvious reasons commanding the approaches upriver to both the Ohio and Mississippi.

River selfies! We are standing at the tip of Fort Defiance, the southernmost tip of Illinois. Top: the Ohio River, with Kentucky on the far bank. Middle: the confluence of the the Ohio and Mississippi, looking south, with Kentucky on the left bank, and Missouri on the right. Bottom: the Mississippi River, with Missouri on the far bank over the Cairo Mississippi Road Bridge.

Leaving Fort Defiance, we headed north along the Mississippi, on IL3 until Red Bud, when we headed north and skirted around St Louis to the northeast to reach our next stop at Troy, IL.

The following day, the penultimate one of the trip, took us from Troy all the way north to Iowa City, mostly along the banks of the Mississippi. I can’t deny I faced the 43 miles from our hotel on I-270/70 around the north of St Louis with some trepidation. Although it wasn’t quite as busy as I had feared, there was some careful navigation and changing lanes constantly to ensure we headed out in the right direction. Eventually we reached our exit and headed north on MO79, having crossed the Mississippi to cross into Missouri, and then the Missouri River.

Just over 40 miles north from where we left I-70, the road ran parallel to the Mississippi, and just a few meters away. Having been on the road for a couple of hours, and looking for the inevitable comfort break, we stopped in the small community of Clarksville. There’s a lock and a dam at this point on the Mississippi, and just at that moment a large grain barge (probably empty) was moving through on its way north.

Clarksville has been flooded many times, and some of the riverside properties looked as though they wouldn’t be able to sustain yet another one.

At Louisiana, MO (about 36 miles north of Clarksville) we stopped to view the Champ Clark Bridge from a high vantage point. Built in 1928, this bridge no longer has the capacity for the traffic on US54. By the end of 2019 a new and wider bridge will be in place.

In southern Iowa, north of Montrose, we were reminded once again of the great migration westwards, of pioneers seeking a better life, in this case Mormons heading to Utah. In 1846, Mormons were hounded out of Illinois just across the river, at Nauvoo. The river is well over 1 mile wide here.

A bystander told us that the white building on the opposite bank in Illinois was a Mormon temple, now abandoned.

We turned inland at Muscatine, IA to spend our last night at Coralville, a suburb of Iowa City.

The following morning, we continued our route north across Iowa: flat, rather boring landscape, and mile upon mile of maize. Once we crossed into Minnesota, we turned northeast to Winona and the Mississippi once again. To the west of the town, there is access to Garvin Heights Lookout, some 500 feet above the river. What a view, north and south!

In this stretch of the river, it forms a series of wide lakes. North of Winona, we stopped briefly to view Lake Pepin.

Then it was time to push on, and complete the final 63 miles of our epic road trip via Red Wing and Hastings, MN. Leaving the Mississippi at Hastings and pushing westwards to wards St Paul, we finally arrived at the home of our elder daughter Hannah and her family alongside the Mississippi in the Highland area. The final three days were certainly a Mississippi adventure, although I never aspired to be a latter-day Huckleberry Finn.

The video below covers the final three days of our trip from Fort Defiance to the Twin Cities.

 

 

Ten days, eleven states (1): Almost 2800 miles from Georgia to Minnesota

Yes. That’s right. Eleven states in just ten days.

2764 miles to be precise. Ninety-four gallons of gasoline consumed. Almost 30 mpg at just USD209. That’s not bad considering we rented a Jeep Patriot SUV (with a Connecticut licence plate!).

I’d opted for a car rental through Rentalcars.com and chose Alamo as the best deal. Just USD357 for the actual rental, USD250 for the one way drop-off fee, and USD98 for roadside assistance cover and various taxes.

I had planned our route meticulously, taking in various sites and landscape features I thought would be interesting, and avoiding as much as possible any of the interstate highways. I bought Rand McNally road maps for all states except Virginia and Minnesota (we already had a DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer for MN). I checked precise US and State Routes using Google maps since the scale of the Rand McNally didn’t always show the road name. I even used Google Streetview to check the various intersections, and before we traveled I already had an image in my mind of the entire route.

I prepared daily detailed route plans on cards, which Steph used to navigate us across country from Atlanta to Minnesota, with each map marked at decision points corresponding to the route card details (you can just make out a series of circles on the map below).

Fortunately, US roads are very well signposted and road signs (e.g. US61 or GA23, for example) are posted every few miles. It was hard to go wrong, but we did on three occasions; nothing major, however. My first mistake was leaving the car rental center at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. I turned on to I-85N instead of I-85S, but was able to turn around within a mile. On two other occasions we made a turn too early, but realised almost immediately. Not bad really for such a long road trip. Nor did we encounter any road works that held us up, or any road accidents. We almost never saw a police car.

These four map links show the actual route we took over the ten days:

Atlanta – Savannah, GA – Greenwood, SC – Blairsville, GA
31 May – 3 June
Blairsville, GA – Cave City, KY
4 – 6 June
Cave City – Iowa City, IA
7 – 8 June
Iowa City – St Paul, MN
9 June

We stayed in ‘chain’ hotels like Best Western, Comfort Inn, Quality Inn and the like, about USD100 or so a night. In Savannah we stayed at The Planters Inn on Reynolds Square, close to the river and other historic attractions, and this was our most expensive at around USD230 including taxes and valet parking. Breakfast (if you can call it that) was provided in each hotel. For lunch, eaten by the roadside or at a scenic viewpoint, we picked up a freshly-made sandwich and with some fruit from the hotel, we had enough to keep us going until a substantial dinner in the evening. Surprisingly, we ate Mexican on three nights and had very good meals. There was even beer! Twice we ate at the nearby Cracker Barrel Old Country Store – reasonable food but no beer. Walking into our second Cracker Barrel in Troy, IL it was déjà vu; the layout of the restaurant and the store was identical to the one we patronised in Johnson City, TN.

Anyway, here is a summary of our epic road trip.

31 May, Atlanta, GA – Macon, GA, 82 miles
Our flight (DL73) from Amsterdam landed on time just after 14:15, and despite arriving at an E pier and having to walk the considerable distance over to the new F International Terminal for immigration and customs, then taking a 15 minute shuttle to the new car rentals center beyond the airport perimeter, we were on the road not long after 16:00. We were headed to Macon on I-75, some 82 miles southeast of Atlanta towards Savannah to spend our first night, and recover—to the extent possible—from our long day of travel from Birmingham (BHX), arriving to our hotel (Best Western on Riverside Drive) just around 18:00

Just arrived at Best Western in Macon

We had the room on the right of the balcony, overlooking Reynolds Square

1 June, Macon – Savannah, GA, 167 miles
Since we had only a relatively short journey to reach Savannah, and because I wanted us to get a good rest before setting off once again, we didn’t leave Macon until after 09:00. Our hotel in Savannah (Planter’s Inn on Reynolds Square) had contacted me that morning by SMS asking what time we expected to arrive and hoping to have a room ready then. Not only was our room ready at just after 11:00, but we’d been upgraded to a balcony room. Once we had settled in, we set off on a leisurely stroll around the historic riverside where the old cotton warehouses have been converted to restaurants and other retail outlets, as well as apartments.

Savannah oozes history (and Spanish moss) – a direct line of historical events from the early 18th century, when it was founded, through Colonial times, and the turmoil of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

2 June, Savannah – Greenwood, SC, 196 miles
We spent the morning in Savannah absorbing the Colonial, Revolutionary and Civil Wars history of this beautiful city. The weather didn’t look promising, with thunderstorms forecast, so we left the hotel by 07:30 and wandered through the various squares, parks and colonial streets for three hours, with just a small shower to bother us. After freshening up at the hotel and checking out, we were on the road again by 11:30, headed for Greenwood in the northwest of South Carolina.

The US17 route out of Savannah crosses the Savannah River over the fine-looking Talmadge Memorial Bridge, completed in 1991, 185 feet above the water.

We passed through a heavy rainstorm for the first 20 miles or so, but the weather brightened, and we stopped for a bite to eat beside the road in glorious sunshine. The road north was almost completely straight passing through small towns with names like Denmark, Sweden and Norway. There wasn’t much evidence of much agriculture, just some maize on this coastal plain with rather sandy soils. Communities seemed quite impoverished (according to the 2010 census it is the 7th poorest state). Nevertheless, the Southern Baptist (and some Presbyterian) churches and chapels stood in stark contrast. I’ve never seen so many places of worship so close together. There must be a lot of wicked souls need saving in South Carolina (and surrounding states) to require so many churches, often within just a few hundred yards of each other (or closer).

We were in Greenwood by 17:00, found our hotel, the Hampton Inn, and enjoyed steak and seafood meals at the Red Lobster outlet beside the hotel.

3 June, Greenwood – Blairsville, GA, 195 miles
Distance-wise this was never going to be one of the longest days, but I had planned our route climbing into the Appalachians through the Chatterhoochee National Forest on US60, a winding road among the trees.

We departed from Greenwood around 08:00 and made our first stop at the SC-GA state line to look over the Savannah River at Calhoun Falls. We had another stop at Cleveland, GA to tour the historic courthouse museum, and arrived in Blairsville by about 15:00.

Not wanting to go straight to our hotel, the Comfort Inn, so early in the day, we opted for a 55 mile round trip taking in some of the hills and forest to the north and east of Blairsville, arriving to Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia at 4500 feet, around 16:30 just in time to take the last shuttle bus to the summit, and down again. I decided not to walk the 1 mile descent from the summit to the car park because the average gradient was more than 14%, and Steph and I were concerned that I might hurt my right leg, which is still giving me some grief 18 months after I broke it.

4 June, Blairsville – Johnson City, TN 282 miles
This was our opportunity of really traveling through the Appalachians. I’d chosen to travel east along the Cherohala Skyway in North Carolina. We had expected some poor weather this day, so set off as early as we could get away in order to enjoy the early morning brightness. The Cherohala offers some spectacular views along the way, and we were not disappointed at all.

Looking south from the Cherohala Skyway over North Carolina

But the further east we went, the more cloudy it became, and by the time we reached US441 to cross the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it was raining quite hard and we didn’t really see very much at all. We took the side route of about seven miles to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point over 6600 feet. Couldn’t see a thing! But lower down on the north side, the weather improved and we did see something of the Smoky Mountains.

We then dropped down to Gatlinburg in Tennessee. If you’ve ever harbored the desire to visit Gatlinburg – don’t. What a tourist disaster! A narrow highway through the center of the town, tackiest tourist souvenir stores lining both sides, and even though this was early in the tourist season, there were throngs of people about. I’m glad we were only passing through. Then it was on to our hotel on the outskirts of Johnson City.

5 June, Johnson City – Charleston, WV, 380 miles
The focus early in the day was the Cumberland Gap, northwest of Johnson City by about 80 miles or so. Not long after leaving Johnson City, along US11, we passed through one of the heaviest rain storms I’ve ever experienced. I could hardly see in front of the car. But by the time we reached Cumberland Gap, the clouds had lifted somewhat, and the sun appeared.

The ‘Cumberland Gap’ is familiar to me from my skiffle days, as sung by Lonnie Donegan.

We went up to the Pinnacle Overlook, hoping to see the views over Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky – even as far as North Carolina on a good day. It was only a case of ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ as the clouds came rolling in, then dispersed. As a major pass through the Appalachians, the Cumberland Gap was strategically important for both the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War of the 1860s, and changed sides every so often. There is still evidence of military occupation high on the Overlook.

Looking north into Kentucky and the town of Middlesboro. The highway has just emerged from the tunnel through the Gap.

Then later in the day, heading east towards Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, we traveled along The Trail of the Lonesome Pine in Virginia. Until I was planning this trip, I wasn’t even aware that the Trail was a real entity, not after I’d heard Laurel and Hardy singing about it.

6 June, Charleston – Cave City, KY, 371 miles
Our destination this day was Cave City in central Kentucky where we planned to visit the Mammoth Cave National Park the following day. Heading west out of Charleston on I-64, we turned south at Morehead in Kentucky (about 110 miles west) to head south through the Daniel Boone National Forest.

We traveled some 125 miles along scenic highways and byways. Then we turned west on the Cumberland Parkway west of Somerset, KY for the rest of the day’s trip to make up some time and so as not to arrive to our hotel too late. However, Kentucky is divided into two time zones, so we gained an hour (from Eastern to Central Time) about 80 miles east of Cave City.

7 June, Cave City – Troy, IL, 367 miles
The Mammoth Cave National Park opened at 08:00, and we were at the Visitor Center not long afterwards. I had booked a tour of the Frozen Niagara cave some months back, at 09:20. This was a guided tour, the first of the day, and to a cave that was easily accessible. I didn’t want to contend with scrambling over rocks with my leg. In any case we planned to stay at the Park only until late morning as we still had the whole day’s trip of over 350 miles to make.

We enjoyed the cave, along with a group of fewer than 30 others. The caves are kept closed and it’s generally not possible to visit them alone. What amazed us is that the cave system, at over 440 mapped miles is the largest system in the world. The Park gets very busy during school holidays, and we were fortunate to have visited when we did.

Our next port of call was Fort Defiance at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and the southernmost point of Illinois. Most impressive.

Then we followed the Mississippi north towards St Louis and our hotel in Troy just northeast of the city, catching a glimpse of the famous Gateway Arch as we skirted the city center on the Illinois side of the river.

8 June, Troy – Iowa City, IA, 332 miles
Our plan was to follow the Mississippi north through Missouri into Iowa. Heading west around the north of St Louis we crossed both the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers close to their confluence. Heading north on MO79, we stopped at Clarksville to stretch our legs, and look at the dam and lock, where a very large combination of barges was being ferried northwards slowly against the current.

Further north we stopped also at Louisiana, MO to view the Champ Clark Bridge that connects MO and IL, from a vantage point high above the river.

Then it was on to our next, and last, overnight stop in Iowa City.

9 June, Iowa City – St Paul, MN, 333 miles
Our last day on the road, heading north on very straight roads, before crossing into southern Minnesota and crossing the Bluff Country eastwards to reach Winona on the Mississippi.

Just south of the Iowa-Minnesota state line we passed through Cresco, IA which proudly advertises itself as the birthplace of Dr Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution in wheat and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 1973, who I had the honour of meeting when I worked at IRRI.

In Winona, we took a short diversion to a scenic overlook about 500 feet above the river valley and had a spectacular view north and south.

Then we set off with added determination to arrive to Hannah and Michael’s in the Highland Park area of St Paul by late afternoon, and the end of our enjoyable 2017 road trip adventure.

Here are the individual blog posts about the various places we visited:

A sign of the times . . .

When I was a small boy, more than 60 years ago, I never saw any police officer on the streets carrying any sort of weapon, other than a sturdy truncheon. Regular use of firearms was unheard of in British policing, although I’m sure the police always had access to firearms if needed, provided the appropriate authorisation was given.

Sadly, it’s not uncommon now to see many police officers carrying side-arms, automatic weapons even. The increased threat of terrorist attack means that many public buildings, airports or railway stations are now patrolled by armed officers. And of course many police officers also carry a Taser to incapacitate dangerous suspects.

Of course it’s very different on the other side of the Atlantic. Firearms are regularly used by police and there has been a spate of incidents recently when police in several cities have shot African Americans following, it seems, minimal or no provocation. And, several mass shootings. Access to guns and the US Second Amendment has become a big issue in the presidential campaign. Did Donald Trump actually hint that Second Amendment supporters shoot his rival Hillary Clinton? Unbelievable!

Easy access to guns is something we are not just used to here in the UK. So, imagine my surprise recently during our mini-break in northern Minnesota, and stopped for coffee in the small town of Walker. Steph and I had gone into a coffee shop, and as we enjoyed our beverages, I leafed through several magazines and advertising brochures that were sitting on the table beside me.

Here were a couple of flyers advertising a million dollar gun sale at a local store, Reeds, that happened to be across the street from the coffee shop. Every type of weapon you can imagine was up for sale, and many other bizarre and obnoxious accessories as well. I couldn’t help myself. I just had to take a photo or two on my mobile.

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We receive flyers and other advertising as inserts in free newspapers in the town where we live in England. But there are for furniture sales, new savings deals at one of the local supermarket, and the like. No guns!

Now northern Minnesota is hunting and fishing territory. But who needs an automatic rifle or worse for hunting? Who needs to go hunting in the first place, anyway?

So with my spirits rather dampened, we went for a walk up and down the street, and found a shop that specialised in beads and beading accessories – a major hobby of Steph’s. As she looked through all that was on display before choosing a range of beads, I had a look around the premises at all the tourist souvenirs. I couldn’t help taking photos of these two signs, and left the shop with a smile on my face.

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Photographing the Summit-Selby neighbourhood of St Paul

20160916-003-minnesotaOver the years we have got to know our way around St Paul, Minnesota, quite well. Minneapolis (the other half of the Twin Cities) less so. The grid system of tree-lined avenues and streets makes it quite easy to navigate around the city, with a significant number of avenues running west to east from the banks of the Mississippi River to the Cathedral Hill district.

Two avenues, Summit and Shelby, actually converge at Cathedral Hill (map), and from the steps of the magnificent Catholic Cathedral of St Paul, you can enjoy a panoramic view over the downtown area of St Paul, from the Minnesota Capitol (currently being renovated) to the northeast and the Mississippi to the southeast.

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Looking east on Selby Ave towards the Cathedral of St Paul.

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The downtown St Paul skyline, with the state capitol to the left, and the business district to the right. The Mississippi lies just beyond the business district.

So, a couple of weeks ago, Steph and I decided to drive over there, to take a walk round, and for me to do some photography. It has been six years since we last wandered round there. Our eldest grandchild, Callum, had been born just a month earlier in mid-August 2010, and while Hannah (our elder daughter, his mother) had a hair appointment, we pushed Callum around in his pram. Respite for the new mum, first grand-parenting responsibilities for Steph and me.

16 September past was a bright but overcast day, perfect for photography because there were no harsh shadows to complicate matters.

For the past seven years I have been using a Nikon D5000 DSLR. I bought it in the Philippines a few months before I retired, and I’ve been very happy with it. It had an 18-55 mm lens fitted when I bought the camera, and around 2012 I acquired a 200 mm lens. Now, while I liked that telephoto, it wasn’t very convenient having to constantly change lenses for just ‘that’ shot. Often, I just didn’t bother.

However, a few days before we flew to Minnesota for our latest visit at the beginning of September, I treated myself to an all-in-one lens, Nikon AF-S Nikkor 18-200 mm 1:3.5-5.6 GII ED lens – an early combined birthday and Christmas present. So our Summit-Selby wander was a good opportunity to test some of its capabilities.

I decided that some shots of the cathedral, both wide angle and telephoto from the same location would be quite interesting, and here are some of the results.

The Summit-Shelby neighbourhood is rather lovely, but expensive. Along Summit are some of the grandest houses that I have ever seen; and some more modest ones too. It’s also a neighbourhood famous for the great and good of St Paul who settled there over the past century or more. Authors F Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) and Garrison Keillor (A Prairie Home Companion) both lived in the neighbourhood at one time or another.

In fact Keillor once owned a bookshop underneath Nina’s Coffee Cafe on the corner of Selby and Western Ave N, a well-known and popular meeting place in that neighbourhood (he has now moved to another venue on Snelling Ave near Macalester College).

These are just a few of the properties that caught my attention as we walked around.

And on the corner of Summit Ave and Western Ave N, there is a delightful small park, Cochran Park, with an elegant fountain with abronze statue of a running Native American with his dog at his feet.

All-in-all, an excellent morning’s exercise, coffee break, and photography. I look forward to many more opportunities.

 

Can’t see the wood for the trees . . .

During our visit to Minnesota in September 2015, we visited the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (owned by the University of Minnesota) with Hannah and Michael, and grandchildren Callum and Zoë. Being a year younger than today, we had to get back home so they could have a post-lunch nap. So we really only had time to see the various gardens closest to the Oswald Visitor Center (click here for condensed visitor guide and map)

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Steph and I returned to the Arboretum almost a month ago, and this year we took the Three Mile Drive around the site. There is so much to see, and the various plantings are laid out splendidly. The crab apple collection particularly caught my attention.

So rather than try to wax lyrical about the Arboretum, I’ll let you follow the links I’ve made here to the various websites, and let my photos speak for themselves.

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Meandering beside the mighty Mississippi in Minnesota

minnesotaWe have been visiting Minnesota regularly for almost two decades, with the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul our main destination.

One geographical feature dominates the landscape in the Twin Cities: the mighty Mississippi. It bisects the metropolitan area, with Minneapolis on the west bank, and St Paul on the east. Since a decade ago, our elder daughter Hannah and her husband Michael have lived just a few blocks from the Mississippi. In April this year they moved to a new house along the banks of the river – although at least 50 m above the water, so no danger of flooding there as the river flows through a limestone gorge.

In this short video that I took on take-off from MSP last week, our Delta flight banked to the west, and followed the Mississippi northwest over the center of Minneapolis, and the rapids between the Central Ave SE bridge and that carrying I-35W.

When we travel to the USA, Steph and I try to make a road trip, short or long. In 2011, it was the Grand Canyon and other canyons of Arizona and New Mexico. We were drawn to the Minnesota Riviera in 2012, and the Oregon coast, Crater Lake and the redwoods of northern California in 2013. 2014 saw us trek across the Great Plains from Minnesota to Yellowstone National Park, and last year we took a mini-break by train in Chicago.

Because of the ongoing rehabilitation from my leg injury earlier this year, I didn’t want to make a long road journey. But we decided to take a mini-break, just 3½ days (and a round-trip of 750 miles) to the source and headwaters of the Mississippi River north of the Twin Cities in northwest Minnesota.

What is the source of the Mississippi?
The source of the Mississippi was controversial for almost a hundred years in the 19th century, until, after a thorough hydrological survey by Jacob V Brower in 1888, Lake Itasca was confirmed as the source. Lake Itasca had been claimed as the source by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in 1832.

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Our first day itinerary, of about 260 miles took us northwest to Nevis, where we had booked bed and breakfast accommodation at The Park Street Inn, a house built in 1912 by banker Justin Halvorson who came to the town to set up a bank and devlop this region of Minnesota.

We spent almost the whole of our second day in Itasca State Park, touring the park by car, and stopping wherever the fancy took us. But our prime objective was the source of the Mississippi.

Our destination on the third day was Grand Rapids, no more than about 75 miles by the most direct route from Nevis. We took almost 200 miles! On the last day, Thursday, and with the weather deteriorating (there had been flash floods in the Twin Cities overnight) we headed back to St Paul by the most direct route.

Lake Itasca State Park
We entered the park at the south gate, and stopped at the Jacob V Brower Visitor Center to pay our USD5 park fee, and see the various exhibits about the park, its establishment in 1891, and the history of exploration of the Mississippi headwaters.

We took the road north along the lake to the source of the Mississippi as it leaves Lake Itasca, as a small stream bubbling over a small rapids, to begin its journey of more than 2000 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.

I would have liked to cross the Mississippi on foot, but didn’t dare even make an attempt, although I made it across a log bridge just 50 feet or so down from the rapids. And Steph only made it to the middle of the stepping stones. The gap between two stones was just too wide for her to feel comfortable and, in any case, one broken leg in the family was more than enough!

The Mississippi flows north out of the lake. Just a little further on, the park road crosses the river, no more than a stream ten feet wide, but with an auspicious sign alongside.

We followed the Wilderness Road right round the park, stopping every so often to admire the scenery, views of the lake, the Fall colours in the trees, and the old-growth red and white pines (the remaining stands of these in the state).

At the headwaters of the Mississippi there is an interesting set of displays about the river. This one caught my attention.

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It’s interesting to note that the Mississippi is not the longest or largest (in terms of flow) of the rivers that drain the overall  watershed. The Missouri is longer; the Ohio flows stronger. And other rivers, like the Arkansas, join the river further downstream. The Mississippi and its tributaries drain about half the United States!

Although we even made it to the Aiton Fire Tower (over half a mile on foot uphill from the nearest car park), and even though other visitors told us that there was a magnificent view of the forest from the top, at 100 feet high, that was too much for my head, and more than enough for my leg. We made it to just the fourth floor.

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Our itinerary from Nevis to Grand Rapids took us via the small Schoolcraft State Park, named after Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Here the Mississippi is already 50-100 feet wide.

Then the landscape drops noticeably into Grand Rapids where the Mississippi becomes a raging torrent and its power already harnessed by the building of a dam and creation of a lake to power paper mills.

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Judy Garland – born in Minnesota, not Kansas!

Who’s from Minnesota?
Grand Rapids is the birthplace of Frances Ethel Gumm. Frances Ethel who?

Judy Garland to you and me, who was born here in 1922, but moved to California four years later. There was a museum a couple of blocks from our hotel. We passed it on our way south.

When I looked up information about Judy Garland, it crossed my mind to find out who else famous hails from Minnesota, or spent significant time there. I’d seen a sign to the ‘Charles Lindbergh homestead’ at Little Falls on the drive north where Lindbergh spent much of his childhood. Lindbergh was the first pilot to make a solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

Minnesota has quite a number of famous sons and daughters, including Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale (politicians), F Scott Fitzgerald and Garrison Keillor (writers), the one and only Prince (musician), and James Arness (actor, Gunsmoke), among many others.

We like Minnesota. The people are laid back, typical mid-West I’m told. The state has lots to offer, perhaps not as famous as attractions in many other states. Nevertheless, it suits us just fine, as it seems to suit Hannah and her family.

 

 

 

¿Cómo está?

Steph and I enjoyed our 2016 visit to the Twin Cities in Minnesota. The weather was great, and since we had the daily use of a car, we could visit several places that are on our favourites list.

como-logoAmong these was Como Park Zoo & Conservatory, that lies a couple of miles north of I-94 on Lexington Parkway in St Paul. We’ve visited Como Park for many years, especially its beautiful Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. In May 2006, our elder daughter Hannah married Michael in a lovely ceremony conducted in the Sunken Garden wing of the Conservatory where the most wonderful floral displays are planted throughout the year. We’ve visited in the Spring, mid-Summer, early Fall, and in the depths of Winter when we spent Christmas with Hannah and Michael in 2007. I placed a few photos from these visits in a story I posted last November.

On our recent visit three weeks ago to Como we were pleased to see that several changes had been made to the Conservatory since our last visit.

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The planting was much more subtle this time, light pinks, blues and mauves in general. But always that sense that the gardeners had thought things through very carefully. And as you enter the Conservatory you are greeted by a heady atmosphere of the most beautifully scented blossoms.

Outside the Conservatory are the Ordway Gardens, a collection of bonsai specimens and a Japanese garden.

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The Conservatory was built in 1915, and to celebrate its centennial a water garden was constructed outside the entrance to the visitor center. What a beautiful addition to a special place!

Having taken in all that the Conservatory had to offer, we had a very welcome cup of coffee in the visitor center, then headed off into the zoo. Many of the animals were taking a midday nap, but we did get to see the orangutans, giraffes, and flamingos.

So, if you ever find yourself in the Twin Cities, and have a few hours free—whatever the Minnesota weather—do visit Como Park and breathe in the botanical displays of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. You won’t be disappointed.

A bridge too four . . .

There’s water everywhere, notwithstanding all the lakes that characterise Minnesota. It’s not for nothing that Minnesota is known as ‘The Land of 10,000 Lakes’.

The Minneapolis-St Paul metro area (the Twin Cities) is surrounded (almost) by water. I’m talking about rivers. Large rivers.

The mighty Mississippi River bisects the cities. The Minnesota River is a southern boundary to Minneapolis. And the St Croix River is the state line between Minnesota and Wisconsin just east of St Paul, and its confluence with the Mississippi is just south of St Paul.

The Twin Cities (and surrounding areas) have their fair share of bridges – road and rail – that cross all of these rivers. There are twenty six highway bridges across the Mississippi, eight across the Minnesota River, and five across the St Croix (and another being constructed to relieve Stillwater of its congestion at the Lift Bridge.

Closest to where our daughter and her family live in the Highland Park neighbourhood of St Paul is the Mississippi River Bridge. Or should that be the Intercity Bridge, the Ford Parkway Bridge, or even the 46th Street Bridge? Its official name is ‘Intercity Bridge’, but at both ends there is a plate stating that the name is ‘Mississippi River Bridge’.

The Intercity Bridge, looking north from the Lock and Dam 1. Photo downloaded from the Minnesota Department of Transportation website.

Work began on this beautiful bridge in 1925, and it was completed two years later. It connected Minneapolis with the Ford Motor plant on the St Paul side of the river, now closed and demolished.

The following five photos were taken from an information booth above the old hydroelectric plant.

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The Ford Motor plant is on the eastern side of the Intercity Bridge. Below the bridge is the hydroelectric plant that provided power for Ford.

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Now that the trees have matured along the banks of the Mississippi, there are few clear views of the bridge from the banks, even from the viewpoints.

The next bridge upstream is the Marshall Avenue bridge, and can just be seen from the Intercity Bridge. Our daughter Hannah now lives just beyond the river bank treeline on the right of these photos, on Mississippi River Boulevard.

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This is the view today of the hydroelectric power station, the dam and lock below the bridge.

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About a mile further down river is Hidden Falls Regional Park. The road drops steeply down the bluff to the water’s edge. And there you get a real appreciation of the majesty and power of the flow of the Mississippi, even though it’s over 1200 miles to the ocean at the Gulf of Mexico.

Just over the Intercity Bridge on the Minneapolis side is Minnehaha Regional Park, and the beautiful Minnehaha Falls. On a visit to St Paul at Christmas 2007 we saw these Falls under very different circumstances: completely frozen. But not yesterday.

 

Gardens, apples and pumpkins

For one weekend last September, I almost felt like a ‘latter-day Johnny Appleseed‘. I hadn’t seen so many apples in a long time, nor been apple picking before. Seems it’s quite a family outing sort of thing in Minnesota, towards the end of September, and especially if the weather is fine—maybe an Indian Summer day even.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

Steph and I flew to the USA on 10 September to spend almost three weeks with our daughter Hannah, son-in-law Michael, and grandchildren Callum and Zoë in St Paul, Minnesota. And we still can’t believe how lucky we were with the weather this vacation. Almost every day for the entirety of our stay (including a side trip to Chicago), the weather was bright and sunny, hot even with days often in the low 80sF.

The first weekend in St Paul, Hannah and Michael took us to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (part of the University of Minnesota), around 23 miles due east of Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport, along I-494 W and MN-5 W. There are miles and miles of roads and trails to explore, but with two small children of 5 and 3 in tow, we limited our visit to a walk through the various glades and gardens close to the arboretum’s Oswald Visitor Center (map).

Hannah and Michael had taken Callum and Zoë to the arboretum on 4 July, when there was an impressive display of Lego sculptures around the gardens.

On the Sunday of our second weekend in St Paul, we met up with Hannah and Michael’s lovely friends, Katie and Chris and their daughters Nora and Annie, to go apple picking at a farm in the valley of the St Croix River (that joins the mighty Mississippi just five miles south), about 30 miles southeast from their home in the Highland district of St Paul. Thanks to Katie for several of the photos below.

The Whistling Well Farm offers several apple varieties for picking, as well as pumpkins and pot chrysanthemums for sale, and chickens to feed.

It’s a great place for the children to explore, and to get thoroughly wet. There was a heavy dew!

Having ‘exhausted’ possibilities at Whistling Well Farms, we journeyed just a couple of miles west to Afton Apple Orchard, to take a trailer ride around the orchards and pumpkin fields.

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What a lovely way to enjoy the company of family, especially grandchildren.

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L to R: Hannah, Zoë, Michael, Callum, Steph and me.

 

 

 

Lakes and leaves – spending time in the Twin Cities

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity of visiting many of the ‘great’ cities in the USA: New York, Washington DC, St Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago (most recently). But the city (or should I say cities) I have visited most over the years are the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul in the heart of Minnesota.

And for good reason. First, when I was traveling to the USA in the early 1990s, the international airport in the Twin Cities (MSP) was the hub for Northwest Airlines (now absorbed into Delta), and was the most convenient way for travel from Manila in the Philippines into the USA.

Since September 2008, however, St Paul has been home to our elder daughter Hannah. After completing two years of her 3-year psychology and anthropology degree at Swansea University in the UK, she asked us if she could transfer to Macalester College in St Paul, a highly-respected—but small (maybe 2000 undergraduates)—private liberal arts college that counts former US Vice President Walter Mondale and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan among its notable alumni. The most recent winner of the Man Booker Prize for an original novel in the English language is Macalester professor Marlon James.

So, over the years we have visited many times and come to know and appreciate the Twin Cities, although St Paul is the half of this metropolitan duo that we know much better. There’s a vibrant community, and the cities have something for everyone. It’s pretty laid back, but I guess you could say that about Minnesotans in general. Maybe that’s why I like Minnesota so much.

Among the things I like are the breakfast diners (I like the Grandview Grill on Grand Ave, just below Macalester), some of the best ice cream I’ve tasted anywhere at Izzy’s on Marshall Ave, and only St Paul can boast the Fitzgerald Theater, home of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.

But what sets the Twin Cities apart, for me at least, are the numerous lakes dotted around the Minneapolis side, and the tree-lined avenues everywhere. In fact, it’s hard to imagine cities that are more leady. And taking into account that Minneapolis-St Paul was founded on the banks of the Mississippi River, and on the ‘edge of the prairie’, the amount of tree planting over a century or more is implrsssive. Certainly the avenues are lined with some of the most impressive specimens I’ve seen anywhere, often up to 100 feet tall.

In the (speeded) video clip below, our recent return flight to Amsterdam took off from Runway 30L to the northwest, climbing over the Tangletown and Linden Hills districts of Minneapolis, over Lakes Harriet and Calhoun, before turning right, and heading northeast over the Mississippi just north of downtown Minneapolis, and continuing over the norther suburbs of St Paul.

There are some pretty fancy properties around the two lakes, but you can’t see them for the trees. It would be the same if you landed from the west or took off to the east and had a view over St Paul, which lies on the eastern bank of the Mississippi. Trees everywhere. And of course north of the Twin Cities, the landscape is dotted with lakes large and small. Not for nothing is Minnesota known as the state of the Thousand Lakes.

Hannah and her family live between the Macalester-Groveland and Highland districts of St Paul, just three blocks from the mighty Mississippi. Steph and I have mostly visited during the spring or summer months, so we get to see everywhere at its best in terms of flowering and in leaf. And this is what so impresses us as we take our daily constitutional down to the bank of the Mississippi and along boulevards lined with the most impressive trees. And of course there are some very fancy properties along there as well.

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The view from the Ford Parkway bridge crossing over the Mississippi River, and looking north towards the Marshall Avenue bridge. Hannah lives just three blocks east of the river.