Brace yourself for lots of posts about this year’s Pict Family Road Trip. Long time readers of this blog may recall that in 2016 we took two weeks and drove from Pennsylvania as far west as Chicago before pivoting back and returning to PA. Reaching Chicago in a week felt ambitious then. What then do you think about the fact that this year we had to drive as far as Chicago by the end of our first day? Yup. What we took a week to do two years ago we did in a single day this year. It’s not just because we are utterly crazy – though there is that – but because we needed to reposition ourselves in order to make the rest of our plans work. It was a loooooooong day of driving and it really felt long but the kids were absolute troopers and didn’t rage or rebel once.
We spent the night in Munster, Indiana, our bellies full of deep dish pizza. The first proper, official day of our vacation, therefore, found us in Gary, Indiana. My 11 year old is a Michael Jackson fan so we, of course, were compelled to visit his childhood home. The house is privately owned so can only be viewed from the street but it was worth a brief detour to see it just to appreciate how modest Jackson’s beginnings were. I have lots of siblings and grew up in a somewhat over-crowded house but the Jackson household must have been bursting at the seams. It is quite fascinating to reconcile the flashy, lavish-living man Jackson would become to how humbly his life started out and to ponder over the relationship between his alpha and omega states of being.
After departing Indiana and whizzing through a corner of Illinois, we were in Wisconsin. This was my first time in Wisconsin and meant I could claim* it as my 31st state. When I think of Wisconsin, I think ‘Laverne & Shirley’, beer, and cheese. The latter was our chosen theme for the day. I am both a cheeseaholic and lactose intolerant – not the best combination but it means I am also a tad obsessed with cheese.
We headed to Monroe and the National Historic Cheesemaking Center, which proved to be a much smaller scale than we anticipated. The museum was tiny and centered around the mid-19th Century Imobersteg cheese factory. It proved to be the most perfect welcome not just to Wisconsin but also a lovely, gentle start to our road trip. When we stepped inside the museum, we were greeted by an ensemble of chipper elderly women. One of these, Joanne, was assigned to be our guide and she was wonderfully warm and welcoming and also a trove of information about cheesemaking past and present. We enjoyed our time spent in her company.
We learned about the Imobersteg family, immigrants from Switzerland, who determined to make their traditional cheese in their new surroundings. Inside their tiny factory, we were led through their process involving copper kettles, a special metal jacket to keep it at the perfect stable temperature, a harp to break up curds, presses, brine baths, and hot and cold storage. Joanne got the boys to act out various parts of the process, such as swinging the copper kettle on its arm. My favourite thing in the tiny factory was the funny little window hatch through which local farmers would pour their milk.
Inside the museum, we watched a video showing a modern cheesemaker replicating the Imobersteg’s process and creating an absolutely massive limburger cheese. We also saw various artefacts and Joanne informed us about the arduous process of becoming a master cheesemaker, farmers operating as cooperatives, and the cheese quality grading system. One of my favourite items in the museum was a one legged milking stool, the design of which was to permit balancing on steep slopes.
Obviously after learning about cheese we absolutely had to go and get some cheese so we drove a little further into Monroe and stopped off at an outlet and deli selling all manner of cheese and associated munchies. They had lots of samples available which the boys fell upon as if they were wolves after a lean winter. For the sake of my digestive system, I exercised maximum self-control, though I would be lying if that didn’t mean I still nibbled a few pieces of cheese. We bought cheese and crackers enough that lasted us days of on-the-road lunches.
We thought we should go and have a squizz at Monroe’s city centre and were pleasantly surprised to find a lovely town square. It was neat and shiny as a pin and was filled with independent stores, boutiques, and eateries. They also had a series of wooden sculptures placed around the square that were on an outer space and sci fi theme. The younger boys had fun running from one to the other which kept them moving in the afternoon sun.
We took a series of winding country roads past beautifully maintained farms and interesting dilapidated properties I would have loved to stop and photograph. We noted that even the grounds of the run down properties were well maintained. So much green! So much corn! The problem with being in a rural area, however, was phone reception. I did not own a smartphone until we emigrated to the US but I have assimilated and become dependent on it for navigation in unfamiliar places. It was, therefore, weird to be back to using traditional maps to plot our course to Dodgeville, our abode for the night. The problem, of course, is that traditional maps can only get one so far. When it comes to locating things at street level, a map book is no use. We, therefore, took a while to find our hotel even though Dodgeville is far from a sprawling metropolis. The kids loved the hotel pool and the fact that they could walk to get dinner and explore instead of getting back in the car – at least until the next morning.
*My rules for claiming a state are that I have to accomplish two out of three things while within its borders: sleep, eat, or pee. Therefore, while I have been in both New Mexico and New Hampshire, I am not permitted to claim and count them because I only did one of the three things in each. I am as strict with applying my rules as I am obsessed with visiting all 50 states.