Road Trip 2018 #3 – Along the Mississippi

After departing the House on the Rock and partaking of a cheese and cracker picnic in the car, we journeyed through places named Gotham and Kickapoo and past scores of splattered raccoons to wend our way towards Wisconsin’s share of the Mississippi River.

We had been reliably informed by the internet, various guide books, and by people we spoke to, that the Great River Road – the drive up the side of the Mississippi River – was spectacularly beautiful and that we would be bowled over.  Well, spoiler alert, we were not.  We were instead disappointed and found ourselves wishing we had taken a speedier route in order to buy ourselves more time at the other end of the day.  It may well be the case that the Minnesota side of the River is stunningly scenic and full of breathtaking vistas.  Since we were on the Wisconsin side, however, I can only relate our unanimous opinion that the views were disappointing and the experience deflating.  For much of the route, we could not even see the river from the road, either because of distance or because of visual blocks.  The kids were not at all impressed with the decision making of their parents.  We had many miles of grumping.  This was the first time seeing the Mississippi for our youngest two sons so we found a couple of places to pull over for them to have a proper look.  The first was overlooking a railway embankment and was a pretty grotty view but we thankfully found a second, more scenic spot.

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We stopped off in La Crosse for a comfort break and because I had two bits of “Roadside America” I was keen to see.  The first of these was a giant blue baby hatching from an egg.  The sculpture is by an artist named Wolfgang Auer who hails from a German city twinned with La Crosse.  It is made of fibreglass, is 9 feet tall, and I think I read it is supposed to represent the vulnerability of parenthood – though I may be misremembering.  It was originally sited somewhere else in the town but we found it at its new home in the grounds of the town hall.

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Our second stop in La Crosse was at the Brewery Company to see the World’s Largest Six Pack.  These are actually storage tanks built in the 1960s and subsequently painted to look like cans of beer.  A board in front of the six pack informed us that they hold 7.3 million cans worth of beer, would stretch 565 miles if those cans were lined up, and that you could give one person a six pack of beer each day for over 3000 days just from the contents of these tanks.  A statue of Gambrinus, the King of Beer, was across the street but the road was too busy so I did not cross over to visit him.  Besides, it was time to hit the road again.

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Our destination for the evening was St Paul.  We arrived so late that we did not even countenance doing anything beyond seeing the city skyline.  The kids didn’t even make use of the hotel pool.  Still, it meant I claimed Minnesota as my 32nd state.

Road Trip 2018 #2 – House on the Rock

I am an incredibly obsessive planner when it comes to our vacations.  Mr Pict and I plot out our route and then I set to work researching the possible things to see and do along the way, drawing up detailed spreadsheets as I do so.  I usually generate 18 to 20 sides of paper per spreadsheet.  Sometimes I even colour code the spreadsheets and draw up corresponding colour coded maps.  Yes, I am a control freak and this degree of planning suits my way of being.  However, it also enables me to be flexible.  If I have a long list of possibilities then I can adapt to something unpredictable, such as bad weather or a child breaking an arm, move away from the thing we planned to do and find something else to place in its stead.  With all of that over-planning, therefore, it does not often happen that I stumble across something unexpected.  That, however, is precisely what happened on the second day of our road trip.

It had not remotely appeared on my research radar but, as soon as Mr Pict and I flicked through the pamphlet in our hotel lobby, we were smitten with the idea of visiting the House on the Rock.  We, therefore, binned the plan we had for the first half of the day and decided to go.  Mr Pict and I love history, unusual architecture, and eccentricity.  House on the Rock offered all three in abundance.  It reminded me of the Mercer Museum and the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, both of which I loved.  We trusted that the property would offer enough variety to engage our kids and set off.  We had not even entered the building and purchased our tickets before we were all smitten with the place.  The road into the property and the car park were lined with bonkers gigantic vase like sculptures covered with crawling dragons.

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House on the Rock was designed by a wealthy eccentric man with hermit inclinations named Alex Jordan.  An apocryphal story suggests that Jordan embarked on his building as a reaction against a snooty Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Taliesin is nearby.  It is definitely the case that Jordan’s design aesthetics don’t have much in common with those of the famed architect but it was an incredibly fun and fascinating building to explore.  As its name suggests, the house is perched on top of a rock.  Originally one dwelling, Jordan kept extending it so that it became an elaborate maze of a building stuffed to the brim with all manner of antiques, replicas, nick nacks, and random collections.

The original dwelling house itself was pretty weird.  There were narrow, twisting corridors opening up into living spaces, lots of rock walls, and cosy little nooks here and there.  The rooms were dark but the spaces seemed like they would be relaxing and comfortable to hang out in.  I could well imagine lying on one of the banquette sofas with a good book and a roaring fire.  There were beautiful Art Nouveau glass pieces, oriental style cabinets, and lovely metalwork.  There were also mechanical orchestras and string instruments playing music dotted throughout the property.  A big hit with the boys was the Infinity Room.  It juts out from the building and stretches for about 220 feet without having any supports beneath.  While it made me feel uneasy, the kids enjoyed the fact they could feel the room moving when they bounced.  They also liked the optical illusion of the room stretching out to the horizon.

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A Streets of Yesteryear section reminded we Potterphiles of Diagon Alley.  It was essentially a reproduction 19th Century street with store fronts filled with displays of collections.  I loved the coloured glass bottles glowing on the shelves of the pharmacy window while the kids loved the Sheriff’s office that included jars containing hands and a head on a desk.  There was also a massive and elaborate calliope at the end of the street.  Along with our tickets, we had been given tokens and the kids were able to use these to make some of the machines work.  Our youngest son popped a token into the calliope and was enthralled to see it working.

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The most incredible section had a maritime theme. The centre of the vast, tall room was dedicated to an absolutely massive model of a squid battling a whale.  It was completely kitsch but also utterly impressive.  By moving onto different levels of the room, we could take in the detail of different areas of the model but it was impossible to stand far enough back to take it all in.  It was completely bonkers and we loved it.  There was also an automaton octopus that played The Beatles’ ‘Octopus’ Garden’ when a token was popped in the slot.  Surrounding displays in the same room exhibited various maritime items, such as beautifully crafted model ships, scrimshaw, and a diving suit.

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Yet another room was dedicated to a huge carousel.  It apparently contains 269 carousel animals.  I did not count them but I noted all manner of zoological beasties and mythological critters.  There were also hundreds more carousel animals on the walls and ceilings and accompanying them were mannequins.  The whole effect was weird and creepy and a bit dizzifying.  Another smaller carousel featured dolls and it was definitely creepy to look at.

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There were still more collections of creepy dolls, Faberge eggs, dolls houses, circus models, cars – including one covered in ceramic tiles and a steam-powered hearse – a model of Titanic, the inner workings of a huge clock face, taxidermy, rooms full of gigantic musical dioramas, a full size mannequin orchestra, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse dangling from the ceiling, a diverse array of puppets, all manner of automata, and armour for an elephant.  House on the Rock was definitely not a case of “less is more” and proof that there can be “too much of a good thing”.  We reached a point, probably four fifths of the way through, when our brains just could not absorb any more and when we started to feel the effects of being over-stimulated.  Our 11 year old rounded a corner to see a whole room stuffed full of arms and militaria with no exit in sight and collapsed on the floor in protest.  We, therefore, rushed through the final section of the House, which felt a lot like navigating a maze, and were relieved to pop out into the fresh air, bright light, and tranquility of the Japanese garden.  Overwhelming though it was, the House on the Rock was an amazing place and we were certainly glad we had decided to ditch Plan A so we could visit.

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Road Trip 2018 #1 – Say Cheese!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.