After leaving Chicago, we headed west, travelling through Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota. In 1976, we went direct from Chicago to Yellowstone National Park by Greyhound bus – a journey of 32 hours. This time, travelling by car, we had a more relaxed journey with some stops along the way.
We stopped twice in Wisconsin. First was Madison, the state capital. We thought it might be worth spending a couple of hours there, but ended up spending practically the whole day looking around. Madison is an attractive college town, and it helped that the weather had become gloriously warm and sunny. We circumnavigated the Capitol building, did a tour inside and then just wandered around taking photos – they were surprisingly relaxed about this. We then walked down State Street (not to be confused with the one in Chicago) to the University of Wisconsin, and followed a path along the shore of Lake Mendota. It was great to be able to wear summer clothes again, and to eat outside.
Our next stop was the small town of Wisconsin Dells. According to the Rough Guide, ‘Wisconsin Dells has a picturesque setting, but may appeal only to those who revel in tacky attractions’. The place certainly is extremely tacky (third-rate shops and theme parks galore), but we simply had to go there. Why?
In 1976, when passing through Wisconsin, we saw from the window of our bus a sign advertising ‘Wisconsin ducks’. What on earth were they? we wondered. Of course, there was no Internet in those days, so a quick search was not possible, and we had to wait 37 years for the answer to our question. The ducks are amphibious vehicles – some dating from World War II, others modelled on them – used to take tourists on a fun exploration of the Lower Dells, travelling on land and also on the Wisconsin River.
We signed up for a trip, and were persuaded to also take a (regular) boat tour of the Upper Dells. This proved well worthwhile, as we saw many fantastic rock formations while cruising in the sun, and also when we left the boat to do two short walks. The scenery on the duck tour was less dramatic, but the mode of transport was novel. Not only do we now know what Wisconsin ducks are, we’ve actually been on one!
We were in Minnesota less than 24 hours, and most of that time was spent driving or sleeping. We mean no offence to the people of that state, but it had none of the places on our ‘must see’ list. Further, the weather turned bad again as we crossed the border from Wisconsin. It rained most of the time and we even saw some patches of leftover snow on the roadside. Apart from eating and sleeping, we made just one brief stop as we travelled along the I90. In the small town of Blue Earth, we took photos of the Jolly Green Giant (don’t ask!), as a continuation of our ‘tacky’ theme.
At state borders, there is always a ‘Welcome Center’, where you can get maps and other information regarding the state you have just entered. We were surprised and disappointed to discover that the South Dakota Welcome Center was closed until mid May – the week after our visit. We made a virtue of a necessity by making an unplanned visit to nearby Sioux Falls, the biggest city in the state, in search of road maps. Fortunately the rain stopped, and we had a pleasant afternoon exploring Falls Park and the downtown area, where there was a lengthy and very varied sculpture trail. It meant that we were unable to press on further that day, but one of the things we love about travelling in the US is that you can change your plans (or make them up as you go along) because it’s always so easy to find accommodation.
The following morning we stopped at the town of Mitchell, to visit the supposedly unique Corn Palace. This is a large theatre-style building with the decoration inside and out consisting of corn cobs. When we were there they were preparing for a graduation ceremony. We enjoyed our visit, but asked ourselves how we would describe the Palace: was it tacky? Or quirky? Or simply corny?