The nudge to do an extended cross country road trip began well over a year ago. I talked a lot about the “idea” of it, but was never quite committed to it enough to firmly take it from the idea realm to the reality realm. I intended to do it summer a year ago, but other opportunities and distractions put it off. Beginning with 2015, I felt compelled to set a number of goals for the year, one of the big ones being “Take the Road Trip” and not just talk about it, or let other things going on in Asheville cause me to put it off again.
Just as I put that goal to ink, other factors were starting to present themselves, most notably a new friend, who is a “girl”, who has since become my “girl-friend”. I actually met Kim as part of the trip to Costa Rica in February that I lead in cooperation with LEAF International. And so we met by way of traveling together, and we eased into dating amidst my busy travel season when I was frequently gone for tour work and other personal travels. As we entered the summer in Asheville, it was really our first chance to put some extended time into the relationship. When I discussed my plans of a long road trip at the end of summer, Kim was supportive but justifiably concerned about my pattern of always scheming the “next” trip, and those trips typically being solo endeavors.
I had determined that I shouldn’t let the possibility of the relationship – either its success or failure sway whether I go or not. I should go for my own reasons, but neither should I expect her to just wait amid my wanderings. I quickly thought about the idea of inviting her to join me for part of the trip. This may seem like an easy call, but the “idea” of the trip, was that I would travel the back roads of America with El Guapo in the cock-pit, having an unplanned schedule, sleeping in the back of my Prius, eating, bathing, changing clothes as the mood or opportunity struck. Footloose and fancy free. Besides the space another person takes up, a girl might not want to “go along for the ride.”
But on the other hand, the way Kim and I enjoy doing things in Asheville is similar to how I would do a road trip – seeking out the local haunts, eating at mom and pop diners, enjoying public park space and local festivals. She’s very patient and communicative in response to both my indecisiveness and my “beat of your own drum” determination. She’s very sweet to both me and El Guapo, and she’s pretty low maintenance. And plus, she’s from Wisconsin, one of the states I know little about and planned to pass through. Thus determining that Kim would make both a good travel companion and “local” resource on the road, I offered to get her a flight back to Asheville if she would join me for the first stretch of the trip. She promptly agreed, but had one stipulation. She did not want to sleep in my car.
And so, let me finally introduce Kim LaViolette as part of the trip. Kim helped me find dog-friendly hotels and airbnb lodging for our route. She looked after El Guapo when I visited the Indiana schools, and she took just as much interest in decaying Gary, Indiana as I did. But when we entered her home state of Wisconsin, that’s when the road trip really became “our trip” and her influence made it a much more involved experience than I ever could have managed on my own.
We first stayed our first Wisconsin night with some of her old friends in Milwaukee. In addition to having a place to sleep, they gave us a tour for the evening – driving past the Miller Brewery, through downtown, along the Lake Michigan shoreline that’s lined with parks and bike lanes just like Chicago. We had dinner in the Third Ward, an old warehouse district that is now buzzing with restaurants and nightlife. Finally, we had some local pints in their eclectic neighborhood Wauwatosa.
Kim and I proceeded to Madison the next day to see the capital city and home to the University of Wisconsin. I’d heard a number of times that Madison is a cool progressive city, and while I could definitely see that it had a cool vibe, I found myself wishing its local “creative” side or underbelly was more visible. State Street and around UW had a lot of restaurants and bars, but it felt a bit commercial and touristy and relatively quiet (it lacked the buzz of student life since classes had not yet begun). It also seemed to be not as dog-friendly as Asheville. Driving around the perimeter of the capitol building, we were hoping to find an old warehouse district akin to the South Slope or River Arts District, but didn’t find anything that similar. Still, it felt like a nice, healthy city. We enjoyed dinner and drinks overlooking the lake at the Student Union Terrace, and on Saturday morning, the grounds of the Capitol turned into a huge, impressive farmer’s market.
From Madison, we drive some local highways through idyllic corn farms and red barns around Lake Winnebago and entered into Green Bay. Kim grew up in De Pere, a suburb of Green Bay. It just so happened that the night we arrived was the Packer’s Family Night – where the Packers scrimmage each other and let their fans enjoy a fun night at Lambeau field. Kim’s family were able to get tickets for us to go. I doubt there is another sports team that has a greater connection to their fanatical fans. There’s little reason that the small city of Green Bay should even have an NFL team, other than tradition. And tradition they have in spades. It was amazing to see the turnout for the “family” event, and I was excited to be in Lambeau. Considering how the Packers totally choked in Seattle the last time they played, and missed the chance to go to another Super Bowl, I hope it’s a good season for them and their fanatical fans.
We had to leave El Guapo back at Kim’s parents house when we went to Family Night, but we made sure to return to Lambeau with him the next day. Anyone who knows El Guapo knows that he loves to “leap” and I didn’t want him to miss the chance to do his own “Lambeau Leep.”
Apart from the Packers and Lambeau, Green Bay doesn’t have much going on. Its downtown lacks the marks of a vibrant city. We barely found a place open to eat on a Sunday afternoon. But mostly we wanted to see Kim’s hometown of De Pere. We connected with one of her lifelong friends at a park on the Fox River, and drove around doing a tour of her former homes, schools, neighborhoods. While it didn’t have the creative vibe of what we enjoy in Asheville, it clearly had a safe and healthy wholesomeness to it. There weren’t many big fancy houses, but there wasn’t a “poor” side of town either. All the streets were wide and well kept. It looked like a great place to grow up.
The time with Kim’s family was very nice. It was very relaxed and the three nights we spent there gave us a nice break from the road amid a string of nights spent at different places. Her parents were very welcoming, didn’t make either of us feel like our relationship was on display or being examined. El Guapo may have faced greater scrutiny since they have NEVER had a pet, inside or outside the house. Even though their nice house is one of the most spotless I’ve been in, El Gaupo behaved himself well and won them over – particularly Kim’s father who doted on El Guapo and would probably get his own dog if he had permission.
After our relaxing time in Green Bay, Kim and I hit the road again to venture in to regions that even she was not familiar with. We drove into Michigan’s UP (Upper Peninsula) and saw nice waterfalls near the Porcupine Mountains and Bessemer as the rivers flowed over the steeper ravines leading down into Lake Superior. This was our one night where we did not have pre-arranged lodging and we agreed to play it by ear. I began to become concerned when the nearby campgrounds were either full or closed, and all the roadside motels we inquired with were full. But serendipity smiles on us when we happened upon a free roadside campsite on a back road, with a view of the stars and the sounds of a rippling river.
Before heading back into Wisconsin at Ironwood, we stopped for breakfast at real-deal diner “Ben’s Place” where we seated ourselves on some barstools near some locals with thick accents drinking coffee and talking about whatever was on their mind. Kim and I quietly winked at each other and knew we’d stopped at the perfect place. We love hometown diners.
We continued along the shore of Lake Superior toward the Apostle Islands. We took a car ferry to Madeline Island where we camped at Big Bay Town Park, located along a 1.5 mile street of fresh water sandy beach separating a natural lagoon inland. After setting up the tent, we inflated my Stand Up Paddle Board and hit the waters with me, her and El Guapo on it. Winds made it tough to move fast head on, but we explored the inland Lagoon, and then she relaxed on the beach while El Guapo and I paddled along the shore of Lake Superior. It was a beautiful day, capped of by a beautiful night. There happened to be a meteor shower that night, and it was a perfectly clear night with little town lights to compete. The stars were brighter than I’ve ever seen them in NC. We returned to the beach at night and sat in the sand while counted the falling stars. Some even left trails of stardust behind them as the zipped by.
The next day, while our gear set out to dry from some surprise overnight rains, we enjoyed some hiking around the lagoon and I took the SUP back out on Lake Superior, in part to “bathe” in the perfect waters rather than putting quarters in the pay showers at the campground. We packed up at noon and headed to the other side of the peninsula that form the Apostles. We hiked out along the shoreline trail that takes you to overlooks of the sea caves. Kayakers visit the caves from the waters below, but the views from the trails above were very impressive. I kept El Guapo leashed to be safe. He seems to have a good sense of heights, but all it would take would be the sight of a chipmunk or squirrel and he’d loose all good judgment.
After a couple nights of camping around Lake Superior, we headed south inland and arranged for a couple nights “bedding” via airbnb around Eau Claire. Our two nights couldn’t have been more different. At the first place, the guy had written explicitly in his description to expect no comforts or amenities, and that the old family farm where he lived was extreme redneck. But it was dog-friendly and I figured if things were really bad, it would at least be somewhere where we could set up to camp again. So I booked it for a grand total of $10/night. We met up with Kenny in Colfax, at the local bar “The Outhouse” which was fairly full of a mix of local folks (and dogs, so we promptly fetched El Guapo from the car and brought him in as well). When I asked if they had any “craft beer” he said, “Oh you won’t find any of that here.” After I had a “local” drink (Old Milwaukee’s Best), we learned Kenny was there to meet up with a guy who helped him collect deer ticks so that he could run DNA diagnostics tests on them for his inventions. We followed Kenny out to his place, and I have to say his descriptions were accurate, as his two houses were, one in the process of being built, and the other in the process of deterioration, and the land in between scattered with all manner of house and farm clutter. But Kenny gave us the best of all – his camper, which was clean and cozy. Kim and I slept a peaceful night in it, though deferred not to use his open air outdoor shower that he was very proud of. The next night we were in a manicured home in a manicured suburban neighborhood. Both experiences were wonderful.
The reason we went to Eau Claire is that’s where Kim went to college (at UWEC). She hadn’t been back since she graduated 13 years ago, but she had a few friends who were still in the area and she got a chance to meet up with them. She enjoyed showing me some of her old college haunts, and was also surprised to see how fixed up the downtown, and the campus had become. Like UW, it was still summer break and classes weren’t in session, so there wasn’t much activity on the streets, but it still made a good impression of both old local joints and a renewed downtown with greenspace and public art.
We were in Wisconsin for a little over a week, and I have to say Kim’s time with me on the trip has really enhanced the experience and I’m very happy she came along and is a flexible and accommodating traveler. This morning, we drove into Minneapolis and I dropped her off at MSP to fly back to AVL. It’s now the evening; Kim is now back in Asheville, and I’m now in central Minnesota preparing for my first night alone with El Guapo, and my first night doing the road trip as I originally envisioned – sleeping on an air mattress in the back of my car. I think I’ll sleep comfortably, but I’m not sure how well my mind will settle. Not really feeling the “footloose and fancy freeness” of the road at the moment. Feeling a bit alone now as I set off westward into a big unknown.