The Next Step

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I don’t want to say it’s over. The very notion reminds me of that scene in National Lampoon’s Animal House:

Bluto: Over? Did you say “over?” Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!

Otter: Did he say Germans?

Boon: Forget it, he’s rolling.

Bluto: And it ain’t over now! ‘Cause when the going gets tough… [thinks hard] The tough get going! Who’s with me?

That being said… it’s time for a new chapter. A few posts back I mentioned Michael’s knee problems. He’s in so much pain that he can’t hike or trail run, and sometimes even walking too far will put the hurt on him. We didn’t quit our jobs and chuck it all just to go for a drive.

But as Bluto said, nothing is over until we decide it is.

After seeing an orthopedic specialist in Michigan, we made the decision to come back to Colorado for his MRI. I’m so glad we got to see Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

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That beauty is what sustained us on the three day drive to Colorado.

Northern Wisconsin was pretty, and Iowa was okay, I guess. I mean, I got Michael to Whitey’s Ice Cream in Iowa City. Never heard of Whitey’s? Not too surprising – while there are 10 locations, all of them are in Iowa or Illinois.

The very first Whitey’s opened in 1933 in Moline, Illinois, and quickly became famous for its extra-thick shakes. Back in the late 1980s my sister went to college in nearby Rock Island, and that’s how I learned about the existence of Whitey’s.

What’s the big deal about this place?

You know those shakes you can get, the super thick ones with Oreos or Butterfingers added? They’re called a Blizzard at DQ and Concrete Mixer at Culver’s and a Spoon Bender at Good Times. It’s a candy bar shake.

Whitey’s invented the candy bar shake. (They were the first to add high-speed mixers to make their candy bar shakes extra thick, too.) And back when my sister was in college, Whitey’s was the only place you could get such a thing. Even better? Back then, you could bring in your own candy bar.  So if you wanted a Whatchamacallit shake but Whitey’s didn’t have that candy bar, you could hand one over when you ordered. They’d chop it up and throw it in there for you.

So even though I can’t do ice cream anymore, I wanted Michael to have the experience. He got himself a Kit Kat shake and said it was delicious.

As a side note, when we first arrived in Iowa City I used Google Maps to find this ice cream shop. I typed in “Whiteys” and hit go. Google Maps sent us to a trailer park.

Well played, Google. Well played.

Our campsite that night was a free spot outside of Wayland, Iowa. This was one strange little site. It was flat and all, and quiet. When we arrived we saw four trailers parked there… but no cars. The outhouse had two toilet seats. It was right on a river… the Skunk River, which lived up to its name. Or maybe that was the nearby chicken houses.

Anyway, it was a free site and nobody bothered us, so I can’t complain too much. We moved on the next day, camping at Twin Lake Wildlife Management Area, just west of Lincoln, Nebraska. This was a nice little site. A popular night fishing spot, so we got a lot of curious looks and waves from the locals. But we had a beautiful sunset and pleasant temperatures overnight.

I relished that sunset. Stretched out in the tent, enjoying the cool night air. Tried to memorize a few details as I made coffee the next morning. I knew this was the last night of our trip. The last night of our awesome setup, the one we spent so much time perfecting. And while it made me sad, I also experienced a lot of gratitude.

It’s been the most amazing 13 months. We’ve seen some incredible things. Done incredible things. I mean, we went swimming in Yellowstone National Park. We spent 5 weeks in Moab, Utah. I can still taste those delicious Palisade Peaches – there was a lady selling them on the side of the road on the way in to town, and we bought at least one 5-lb bag per week.

We spent part of the winter in Fayetteville, Arkansas, helping out Michael’s parents, but we also joined the awesome Crossfit Commence gym.

We made it to the Florida Keys, which is a little poignant now, after two hurricanes ripped that area apart.

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Sunset at Long Key State Park

We traveled west through Texas and into New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Sadly, we said goodbye to our faithful companion, Elvis, on May 19.

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He was a good dog. We had him cremated and still carry his ashes with us.

By the time we got to Oregon, a heat wave was gripping the west. When we visited the Hoh Rain Forest in August it was 90 degrees. And then there were the fires. Our visit to the Canadian Rockies was cut short because of the horrible visibility. I still got some stunning photographs, though.

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And now we’re on to the next adventure. We’re back in Colorado for a little while – Michael had his MRI and he definitely has a torn meniscus. But with our crappy health insurance, we need to wait for open enrollment to move forward on that front.

Our next step is to relocate to California. So really, the adventure continues. I’ll keep you all posted. Stay tuned!

Our Overlanding Kitchen

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We often get asked about our setup and how we cook on the road. Since Michael is a chef by trade, and I have been known to enjoy a good meal, there was no way we were going to live on energy bars or gas station food while traveling.

I’ll put up a post soon that shows our storage platform in more detail, as well as all of the things we keep back there. For now I’ll just focus on our kitchen.

Our setup has not changed much in our almost 14 months on the road…

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This is an under-the-bed storage bin. We chose it because it fits the dimensions of the storage platform we built for the back of the truck. The lid of our bin is hinged, so we end up with what we call the front half and the back half.

GoGoTacoNegroThe front half contains the things we tend to use on a daily basis, like the silverware packet, our pots and pans, plates and bowls, chef knife, and the coffee. Our other kitchen items – the cast iron dutch oven and the Camp Maid stuff – live in a compartment in the storage platform.

I can’t remember why we keep the coffee in the kitchen and not in the pantry with the rest of the dry goods. I do know it’s a lot simpler for me, the maker of coffee every morning.

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The back half contains the lesser-used items like tea, extra salt, the cutting board, aluminum foil, and towels. The tea saw a lot more use back before summer – and the heat wave we found ourselves in along the west coast.

 

GoGoTacoNegroThe silverware packet contains a few other items, like our only measuring cup (for oatmeal) as well as our spiralizer and that container of Nuun, which is an electrolyte drink tab that I put in a big cup of water first thing in the morning. I tend to wake up thirsty but plain water first thing can taste a little gross (I can’t be the only one who has this problem, right?). I picked the strawberry lemonade flavor because it’s pretty light and I don’t tend to burp it up later.

On to the things we cook with.

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Our 10″ chef knife (with cover) and steel.

 

 

 

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And our pot/pans.

 

 

 

Yep, that’s all of it. One pot, one cast iron skillet, and one non-stick skillet. (Along with the not-pictured and less-frequently used Dutch oven.) Because space is at a premium in the kitchen, these items nest together along with our two plates and two bowls. The coffee filters live underneath the GSI collapsible drip cones.

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With just these tools Michael has created some truly amazing meals.

When we pack up, the kitchen goes in first – meaning it’s all the way in the back. Vera, the world’s most irritable stove, goes in next, and then the container of dog food. I’m sure Bailey appreciates that his food always comes out first.

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Our table (shown above) goes on top of all those things – we flip it over and the leg, held in place with a piano hinge, folds up.

It’s a pretty good system, and we’ve had plenty of time to get it dialed in. I have generally found that organization is key – even more so when you live in a tiny space.

 

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

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First things first:

Unfortunately for us, Michael’s been having some trouble with his knee lately. Kind of since around May, actually. He’s been doing some trial and error stuff, taking ibuprofin when necessary. But while the pain might come and go, it never seemed to go away entirely.

He actually went to Urgent Care way back in Lake Tahoe, although the doctor there just gave him a referral for a specialist. Unfortunately the earliest available appointment for the Lake Tahoe specialist was 3 weeks out.

He soldiered on, but for the past three months Michael hasn’t been able to do as much as he liked. Remember when we hiked 6 miles in Mt Rainier National Park? Well, he walked in pain for almost a week afterward. Trial and error sucks.

So since we’ve been hanging out in northern Michigan, waiting for the rain to clear off, I asked my parents about their orthopedist. Which of course they have one – my mom just had her knee replaced a couple of months ago. My dad made a couple of calls and luckily their doctor had an opening.

Of course, the specialist took some x-rays but said he’d need an MRI to make a diagnosis. And their MRI facility, part of Munson Medical Center, said they could get Michael in two days later. At 5:45AM.

That sounded great – at first. Here’s where I need to add an important detail: our bare-bones health insurance doesn’t cover much more than doctor visits. So for this MRI we’re on our own.

Michael called Munson’s billing department and asked them what our cash price would be.

$2400.

You read that right. Over two thousand dollars for an MRI.

Michael decided to call around (the Traverse City area has three MRI facilities) to see if any of them could give us a better price. Best we found was $1100. Better, but it still sounded a little high.

On a whim, Michael looked up an MRI facility in Lakewood, Colorado, and called them up. Their price? $450.

Of course, making this happen is not as easy as it sounds. You can’t just call up an MRI facility and make your own appointment. A doctor has to do it for you. And when we asked our Michigan doctor’s office about it, the scheduler there said, “Ummmm…. I’m not sure I can do that.”

So we had the office fax everything over to Michael’s previous GP back in Longmont. And when they have all the information, we’ll ask them to call the Lakewood place and make an appointment.

But the rest of that is another story, for another post. For us, it was time to check out Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The weather cleared – finally! – and sunny skies were in the forecast.

Since we drove across the UP on our way to see my parents, we had a pretty good idea of where to go this time: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. There is a lot to do in this area, but with Michael’s knee acting up we tried to keep the hiking to a minimum.

Our first stop was an area called the Log Jam, which was actually a sandy cliff with a lot of poison ivy. Still, I got a nice picture of Lake Superior.

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Plus, we got to learn about logging in the UP, which went on year round. Yep, even in winter.

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The wheels were used in summertime, the sleds (on the left) in the winter, when loggers would put water down on the road at the end of the day. The water would then freeze overnight, making the heavy sleds easier to pull.

Our next stop was the Au Sable lighthouse. First constructed in 1874, this lighthouse helped illuminate one of the more dangerous stretches of Lake Superior.

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The shoreline along Pictured Rocks (about 42 miles) hold the remains of several shipwrecks – including three that have partial remains washed up on shore.

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I know, it’s almost disappointing. I was expecting more, too. But these were wooden ships that went down in the 1800s. I read that what’s left, what you’re seeing, is actually sections of the hull. This image might help:

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No? Well, it didn’t for me either. But I sure had fun photographing the wood and the giant nails.

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We had to hike out to the lighthouse – about 3 miles or so roundtrip, and on an access road. Still, at the end Michael’s knee was hurting so we didn’t hike to much else that day. When we reached the town of Munising, though, we did walk the 800 feet out to Munising Falls. There are 199 named waterfalls in the UP, so we figured we should go to at least one of them.

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While in Munising, we headed over to the office for Pictured Rocks Cruises. You can hike along the cliffs of PRNL, but the best way to see the rocks is from the water. And as luck would have it, there was still room on the 6:30 (sunset) cruise. It would mean getting back to our camp site well after dark, but Michael said it wouldn’t be a problem. So we went for it.

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The line for our boat (above) didn’t look that long but by the time we got on board, all the seats on the right side of the boat were taken. This was a problem for me. See, on the way out (when the light would be best), the shoreline would be on the right side of the boat. I didn’t want to have to fight for space to get my pictures.

Undeterred, I waited until we were underway, then stood at the back of the boat, on the bottom deck. I had to lean over the railing a bit but I took all the pictures I wanted with nobody else in the way. A few others people joined me but for the most part I had the deck to myself.

I took hundreds of photographs. This cruise was a photographer’s dream! Sorting and editing all the images took several days, though…

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This is Miner’s Rock, and it shows the caves and holes that form in the soft sandstone due to wind and water erosion. Yes, that’s a viewing platform on top. Pictured Rocks has miles of hiking trails and backpacking sites.

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The colors come from minerals found in the layers of rock.

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This is Lover’s Leap, one of the more famous formations at Pictured Rocks. I don’t know who’d be crazy enough to take that leap – it’s a 50 foot drop and the water underneath is only three feet deep.

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Another well-known image, Chapel Rock can be accessed by water or by the 2.5 mile Chapel Trail. This rock formation was once connected to the mainland by a rock bridge, but that bridge collapsed in the 1940’s. If you look closely you can see the roots of the tree atop Chapel Rock, connecting it to land.

The sun set on the way back, and only then did I rejoin Michael up on the top deck. I’m so lucky that I have such a patient husband, you know? The kind who doesn’t mind spending most of a sunset cruise by himself. He showed me that he got some great shots with his phone and everything.

Pictured Rocks was well worth the wait.

Northern Michigan Is Not On Fire

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We arrived in Elk Rapids, Michigan on Sunday, August 27th, after a long and rainy day in the truck. Okay, it didn’t rain all day, but close enough. Taco Negro arrived in Elk Rapids looking halfway clean.

My parents confirmed that the weather in northern Michigan (and the UP) would continue to be rainy for at least the next week. So we took the opportunity to check out the Elk Rapids area.

Where my parents live is actually a couple miles north of Elk Rapids. Their house is not on Lake Michigan but it’s pretty close – a five minute walk brings you to a one of the neighborhood’s private beaches.

A 10-15 minute walk in the opposite direction brings you to an even bigger neighborhood beach, although this one is open to the public.

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All the beaches in the area are sand beaches. That might sound like a strange observation, but in Colorado most of the “beaches” there are made up of rocks. This has been a lovely change. The water was not as cold as I expected. I haven’t been swimming yet, but barefoot walks on the beach quickly became routine.

Bailey has been loving his new access to water. We now take him to the close-by beach every day. Sometimes twice a day, if the first session didn’t wear him out enough.

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So while it has been raining here daily, as you can see from the photos, it hasn’t been raining all day every day. Pockets of sunshine made for great outings.

We drove up to nearby Charlevoix to see their little downtown, as well as pick up dinner (walleye) from John Cross Fishery. There is no website, but my mom said this guy is locally famous so I guess he doesn’t need one.

Charlevoix has a unique location – right in between Lake Michigan and Lake Charlevoix. There is a really pretty harbor right next to the main drag and boats can get from one lake to another by passing underneath this bridge.

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Looks a bit low for sailboats, right? As you might have guessed this one’s a drawbridge.

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I didn’t hang out long enough to figure out if the drawbridge operated on a schedule or not. My dad thought it was every half hour.

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Before the bridge went up, we did see boats lined up on the Lake Michigan side. A pretty spot to wait, if you ask me.

It took a couple more days for the weather to clear out. But September 1st looked like a sunny day with temperatures in the 60s, so we made the 2-hour drive up to Mackinaw City and took Bailey with us onto the Star Line ferry over to Mackinac Island.GoGoTacoNegro

Don’t ask me why the city and the island are spelled differently, I don’t know. I do know that it’s pronounced like the city.

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Mackinac Bridge. Also pronounced like the city.

Mackinac Island sits in between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan, in between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron (although it’s technically in Lake Huron), an area called the Straits of Mackinac. About 500 people live year-round on this island of less than 4 square miles.

The name can be traced back to Michilimackinac, which was how the French traders pronounced the Ojibwe name for this island. (It means “big turtle.”)

It’s long been a vacation spot, but Mackinac Island’s big claim to fame is that cars are banned here. People get around by foot, bicycle, or horse.

That’s right, there are a lot of horses on Mackinac Island. That’s how the heavy lifting gets done.

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The garbage “trucks” are big carts pulled by draft horses. Horse-drawn flatbed carts deliver supplies and luggage from the ferries. Horse-drawn carriages take people to hotels – some are taxis, but the bigger hotels have their own.

We had Bailey with us so we didn’t rent bikes. We were tempted though, when we saw that we could rent a Burley trailer for just $8/hour. But we weren’t sure if Bailey would like riding in a trailer, and at any rate we enjoyed walking. We went first over to a spot called the Ice House for lunch – they had outdoor seating and dogs were welcome. Bailey got lots of compliments on being so well-behaved.

After lunch we walked over to the gigantic green lawn in front of the Mission Point Resort. And it was a lawn – I didn’t see a single weed. There were lots of chairs, though.

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I saw lots of goose poop but no geese. Apparently they use a dog to chase the pesky birds off every morning.

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In case you’re wondering what the view from those chairs…

Yeah, we sat there for quite a while.

 

 

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And don’t worry, Bailey and I got some snuggle time too.

 

 

 

After our day on Mackinac Island the weather deteriorated, with spotty rain showers every day. But we dodged the showers to visit several local farmer’s markets – I’ve been eating the crap out of sweet corn, tomatoes, and a delicious local variety of apple called a SweeTango. My parents also took us down to Traverse City, about a 30 minute drive south from their house, to check out something called the The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

Let me back up a step. Because first of all, I think Outside Magazine missed the mark when they chose Grand Rapids for one of their top 25 towns of 2017. Traverse City is an amazingly cool place. Lake Michigan is right on the town’s doorstep, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, all the beaches here are sand. Traverse City’s downtown area is full of coffee shops, bookstores, boutiques, and restaurants.

And then there’s the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. The name is a mouthful, I know, but the history of this place is remarkable. It began in 1885 (after a three year construction period) as the North Michigan Asylum. At its peak, this huge, self-sufficient mental hospital was called the Traverse City State Hospital and housed 3,800 patients and 800 staff. (You can read more about their history here.)

The idea behind the grounds here was to give the patients something pretty to look at, referred to as the “beauty is therapy” theory, instead of being locked in little windowless rooms all day. Who’d a thunk it?

The hospital closed in 1989 and the property sat vacant until about 2000. Renovation on the property began in 2002, although some of the buildings deemed “non-historic” were demolished. The largest building (over 300,000 square feet), known as Building 50, has seen the most restoration and is now home to shopping, dining, and living spaces. There’s even an apartment complex for the 55-and-over crowd.

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This is one corner of Building 50. Believe it or not, the spires on top of this building were part of what was, in the late 1800’s, a state-of-the-art ventilation system. Large fans would force air through underground tunnels and up flues in various parts of the building, exiting at these spires.

We wandered around Building 50 for over an hour, poking through antique shops, jewelry stores, and a bookstore. We had lunch at The Underground Cheesecake Company, which was okay. It’s hard to say nice things about a place when the girl working the counter replied to my question about what was in the chicken pot pie soup with “I don’t know,” followed by silence.  I tried again, asking if there were dumplings or anything in it. “I don’t know,” she repeated. “I didn’t make it.”

Really? That’s it? Christ, I did customer service work for years and I’m telling you, it’s not that hard.

Anyway. After lunch we wandered around some more, stopping for coffee at Cuppa Joe Coffee. They knew their stuff and the coffee was excellent.

The grounds of the old asylum are open too, and there are more dining and shopping options outside.

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You can see from the above photo that in spite of the long name, The Village at Grand Traverse Commons is pretty popular. And since more buildings are being renovated, I expect that popularity to continue.

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The weather is supposed to clear up, though, and this weekend we’re going back…. to the UP.

Langford, SD to Elk Rapids, MI

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I’m still a little suspicious that our campsite at Tschida Lake was illegal, mostly because it was just so nice. So many birds, so much water. I kept asking myself if we were really in North Dakota.

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Still, I’ve heard for years that the Dakotas are some kind of barren wasteland so I had low expectations as we made our way towards eastern South Dakota.

Once again I was pleasantly surprised. Everything was so… green. And yellow. We drove past acres of corn, sure, but also acres of sunflowers.

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Is South Dakota the sunflower capital of the US or something?

We started our trek across the midwest with a stopover in mind: Langford, South Dakota. This tiny town is about 45 minutes or so from Aberdeen, South Dakota, and is currently home to one of Michael’s oldest friends, Rob, and Rob’s wife, Heather.

We spent just 2 days in the Langford area but it was a lovely break from all that driving. Rob and Heather brought us to a place in Aberdeen called the Briscoe Building and if there was ever a time I was sorry I didn’t bring my camera, this was it. The historic Briscoe Building went up in 1910 and spent its first three years as a clothing factory. When the clothing company moved its headquarters to Minnesota the Briscoe Building became home to a candy factory and bakery. Our tour of the building made me want to write a book about it.

A couple of cool details: All the doors that separated the candy factory from the bakery were blast doors. And all the doors on the bakery side were these funny looking barn doors. Well, the doors themselves were steel but they were on slider tracks. The slider was also on a pretty steep angle. (See, this is where I kicked myself for not bringing my camera.) Anyway, apparently these doors would have been tied open with a rope and in the event of a fire, the rope would burn through and the doors would automatically slam shut.

Am I the only one who finds this kind of thing so fascinating?

With a nice rest day under our belts, we pushed on. Our next campsite was Bruno City Park in Minnesota. This was a free site and the park was quite nice… although it was right across the street from some kind or train depot. A diesel locomotive idled all night. That low rumble did get drowned out a couple of times… by passing freight trains. Earplugs are helpful but they weren’t enough to drown out those deafening whistle blasts.

Still, it was a free site. The next day we found ourselves in Ashland, Wisconsin. Armed with maps we’d picked up at the nearby Lake Superior Visitor’s Center, we decided to camp in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest that night and headed north on highway 13 to check out the area, as well as pay a visit to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Along the way we passed a little joint that was advertising their fish fry. I looked at my watch. No way, I said to Michael. It’s Friday!

He looked a little confused.  But he’s a southerner, you see, and the Friday Night Fish Fry was a bit of a foreign concept to him. I explained that in the midwest this kind of event is legendary. Kind of like a Louisiana crawfish boil, but midwest style. I even tried to sing Sigmund Snopeck IIIs “The Friday Night Fish Fry Song” until he asked me to stop. Maybe that’s because I only know the chorus, and the chorus just repeats it’s the Friday Night Fish Fry over and over. (Trust me, I looked on YouTube for this little gem. I couldn’t find it but Sigmund Snopeck III is a real artist.)

It was too early for dinner so we continued on, stopping in the National Forest Ranger Station in Washburn. The people there were super helpful, giving us suggestions on where to camp, and the best place for a fish fry: Patsy’s Bar and Grill, right there in Washburn.

At this point it was 4pm. Patsy’s opened at 4, but who eats dinner at 4pm? The problem was, our campsite was pretty far from the town of Washburn and we knew we wouldn’t drive back, even for a fish fry.

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Who eats dinner at 4pm? Lots of people, apparently, because at 4:10 pm we took up the last available spot in Patsy’s parking lot. We also took the last available seats at the bar.

 

The most common fish fry fish is walleye, but Patsy’s used locally caught whitefish, and it was excellent. I paired mine with a Moscow Mule because I was in the mood for a drink and because Michael was driving. After dinner we continued our drive north, stopping at Myers Beach at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

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Too bad we don’t have boats, as this is a great spot for kayaking out to the sea caves.

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I guess it’s important to note the clear skies here in these photos. Because overnight it started to rain… and that rain didn’t let up until we reached Elk Rapids, 465 miles away. More on that in a bit.

Well, at least it wasn’t too cold. I had seen posters for a Pow Wow on the Bad River Reservation, home to the Lake Superior tribe of Chippewa Indians. The Pow Wow was outdoors but we hoped the rain would clear off.

No such luck. Still, the Grand Entrance was held, even in the rain. I loved the drums and all the colors and the dancing.

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The rain continued all day. We checked the weather forecast and saw that this lousy weather was supposed to continue for the next week. Decision time. See, we had wanted to stop at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore along the way to Elk Rapids, but what fun would that be in the rain? In order to see the rocks, you actually need to be on the water.

We looked again at the map. Pictured Rocks is only about 4 hours away from Elk Rapids, so we figured we’d just go hang with my parents until better weather surfaced.

Time for one more long day in the truck.