The Midwest

Wednesday, 25 September 2013 15:30
Print Email

Stormy sunsets were the normA six state blitz through the upper Midwest.


First off, apologies to my readers for the gap in coverage for a bit there. There were a few different reasons for that, some of which related to me feeling like I wasn’t getting enough good content to put up a post, and some of which related to me not finding a good place to sit down and write. I have sort of a vague feeling that I did the Midwest the wrong way…the west coast and the Pacific northwest were very easy places to road trip—you couldn’t drive 100 yards without stumbling across some sort of magnificent natural feature or amazing vista. In contrast, it seems that you have to hunt a bit more in the Midwest for the good stuff, otherwise you just end up driving through endless fields of corn and soybeans. Unfortunately, between trying to hit a few scheduled stops and feeling like I should pick up the pace a bit to get to the east coast in time for the fall leaves, I did not really spend the time and effort necessary to uncover the good stuff out in this area of the country, and while I did have a really good time traveling through it, I do feel like I’ve left a whole quarry’s worth of stones unturned. That being said, here’s what I did get to do…

I left my stop in Grand Forks early in the morning and started my drive through Minnesota by heading northeast. I drove through some very pretty country and little towns along the way, and eventually ended up right at the Canadian border at International Falls. Once I arrived, I got a taste of what was to prove to be a daily occurrence throughout my Midwest adventures—nasty weather. It thundered and poured down rain to the point that I had to pull over for a bit and wait it out, as the wimpy little windshield wipers on the roadster couldn’t keep up with it. Naturally, right after that the sun came out and everything cleared up, so I headed back south and found a campsite near Embarrass Lake, where I was not embarrassed, but I was pretty wet. Due to my rain delay up north, I ended up setting up the tent in the dark, too, but beyond that it was a nice setting and I got a good night’s sleep there.

Lovely Independence Falls, MN The weather did make for some occasionally good sunsets And by "good", I may mean "a little weird"

 My mission for the next day was to visit the home of my good friend Dana Bartholomew, Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota. I had heard stories about the area for years from him, and he’d also sent me some suggestions for spots to visit, so I headed that way on a bright sunny morning.

Hoyt Lakes is a pretty small town right on the western edge of a huge swath of national forest land. It actually kind of reminded me of the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, as it was fairly flat and sandy, with a lot of scrub pine and dozens of little lakes and ponds. The area has a long history of iron mining, and there were “We Support Mining!” signs on just about every other front lawn. Iron mining in Minnesota has a long history, and the iron deposits were actually discovered in the mid- to late 1800s by miners looking for gold (which is also there.) The area produced about 60% of the total iron output in the US from the turn of the century into about the 1980s, but the supply of high grade ore peaked around the 1950s and steadily declined from there. By the 1970s, high grade ore mining was just about dead and the area was in economic decline, but then they turned to “taconite”, which up until then had been considered low grade ‘waste’ ore at about 25% iron content.  A process was developed to mine taconite, crush it into powder, extract the now-powdered iron using strong magnets, combine the resulting powder with clay and water, and roll it into marble-sized balls that were then about 70% iron ore and could be processed as if they were high grade ore. It wasn’t enough to restore the region to its former levels of production—there’s not enough ore left in the ground to do that—but it maintained a mining industry there, and trainloads of taconite pellets head out of the region every day.

A giant chunk of taconite in the middle of Hoyt Lakes A close-up of the ore A wall in a nearby small town

I pulled into Hoyt Lakes and hit my first stop, “The Weld Shop”, where Dana’s uncle has a welding business.  He didn’t know I was coming, so it was kind of a surprise when I walked up and said “Hey, do you know Dana Bartholomew?” and then explained that I’d driven out there from Vegas and Dana said I should stop by. His uncle was great, and we sat down in the shop and chatted for a while over some coffee.  At one point, the conversation turned to local fishing, and I mentioned that I was hunting around for a good spot to throw a line in nearby.  “Heck,” he said, “you can come fish off my dock if you want. You’ll catch some fish there.”

Entering Hoyt Lakes Not Hoyt Lakes, but there was some neat scenery getting there

With that, we drove a couple miles over to his place, where he pointed me at the dock, gave me some live bait (nightcrawlers and leeches), and then headed back to work. My luck with the live bait was considerably better than I’d been having with lures along the way previously, and although the fish weren’t exactly huge, I did catch a lot of them, mostly perch and sunfish.

I did catch bigger fish than this Mmmm, leeches and nightcrawlers... A common sign in the area

After terrorizing the local fish population for a while, I hopped back in the car and started making my way in the general direction of Lake Superior. Since I had a little bait left, I stopped a couple more times at some other lakes with similar luck. I even got some smallmouth bass on surface lures at one spot, which was fun, as those were the biggest ones I’d hit so far at about a pound each.

I stopped for lunch in Finland, MN at a little spot Dana recommended called “Our Place”. As it was mid-week and I was there a bit after lunch hour, I was the only guy in the joint, which was full of knotty pine, moose antlers, and beer signs. I had the special (open face turkey sandwich), chatted with the bartender for a bit (who was a little mystified that I’d seek out Finland as a destination for a road trip), and then made my way down the road to the lake.

The Great Lakes are really huge, and Lake Superior is the biggest of the bunch. It’s actually the world’s largest freshwater lake by surface area, the third largest in the world by volume,  and easily the largest overall in North America. At home when you think “lake”, you think of something where you can see the trees on the other side. Standing on the edge of Lake Superior is like standing at the edge of the ocean—it’s big and blue, it’s got waves (albeit little ones), there’s big ships travelling on it, and it extends well out past the horizon.

I stopped at an overlook area called “Palisade Head” just north of Duluth, where there were enormous granite cliffs that dropped about 350 feet to the lake. Geologically, the lakes are the result of lava flows from ancient rifts forming basalt deposits as much as 10 miles thick that pushed down on the earth’s crust as the rift continued to pull apart, forming a huge depression in the earth. Retreating glaciers during the last ice age 10,000 years ago filled that depression with melt water, forming the Great Lakes. (More or less—there’s quite a bit more detail to that story.) It was pretty neat to be able to recognize signs of glacial polishing on the rocks at the top of the Palisades—it looked just like the glacial scarring I’d seen in Canada earlier in the trip. Weird to think that 10,000 year ago, there was ice over a mile thick right where I was standing (and no lake).

It's like "glaciers were here" graffiti A look down the Palisades toward Duluth Looking north. Check out the clarity of the water.

I headed south from there to Duluth, where the whole eastern side of the city was dedicated to shipping on the lake. Interestingly, this is sort of where two parts of my trip collided for the first time. Both the US Interstate Highway System and the Saint Lawrence Seaway (the US half, anyway) were finally accomplished by Dwight Eisenhower by the end of his administration.  Although both ideas had been around for decades before Eisenhower got elected, he finally got the interstate highway system the funding it needed through the Federal Highway Act of 1956, and formally authorized funding for the US portion of  the Saint Lawrence Seaway in May of 1954 by signing the Wiley-Dander Seaway Act. I’ve been using the federal highway system quite a bit lately, and Lake Superior is the western end of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which provided a way to get big ships from the Midwest all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. This transformed trade and transit of goods in the US and Canada, as you could get all that Midwest and central Canada grain and ore right onto barges rather than having to truck and train it across half the continent. I know that’s seriously geeky, but that’s what I was thinking while looking at the giant General Mills grain elevators on the shores of Superior in Duluth.

A little portside scenery There were some great old warehouses Some of the grain elevators along the port

Leaving Duluth, I drove straight down to Eau Claire, WI and got a room for the night. That was just a pitstop on the way (and one of the many towns with French names; legacies of the French fur traders) as my eventual goal was Madison, WI to see some old colleagues and to have a visit with Tim and his wife Connie, who are more members of the Roadster army.

The first stop was at ETC’s lighting factory to see Fred Foster . We had a good time catching up, and we took a walk around the factory. He showed me some pretty amazing things in their test lab with new LED lighting technology; whole new ways to think about lighting from the crazy level of control over every aspect of the light that LEDs and computers give you—color, intensity, you name it. I would say more about it, but they’d probably send an ETC ninja out to kill me. Anyway, they’re doing some really fantastic things, and Fred is always a pleasure to talk to, so I was glad I could swing by.

My next stop was in Belleville, WI, just south of Madison to hang out with Tim and Connie at their house for a couple days. Tim is from the Datsun Roadster discussion forum on the internet, and he dropped me a line about a month ago to let me know that when I was in Wisconsin, I had a place to stay and/or work on the car, so I took him up on it. They are great, generous, friendly people, and I got my official introduction to Wisconsin in the traditional manner—cheese and beer, and lots of it. Afterward, Tim grilled steaks and chops for dinner, and we all got to know each other over a hearty Wisconsin meal.

All of the major Wisconsin food groups Wisconsin wine. Who knew?

 The next day, there was a local car show a couple hours south of town in Illinois. There were a few other Midwest Roadster guys that Tim knew who were going down to check it out, so he and I made the drive down there through rural Wisconsin and northern Illinois to meet up with them. It turned out that including me, we had six Roadsters show up, which is practically a mini car show on its own. I knew several of the guys by their alias from the message board, and it was good to meet everybody in person. As usual, all the Roadster guys were friendly, funny, and outgoing…seems to be a trend.

The car show itself was strictly a local thing, but like the one in Calgary where some amazing cars emerged from wherever they were hiding in Alberta, this show had more than its share of jaw-dropping vehicles. There was your usual bunch of Corvettes, Mustangs, and assorted muscle cars, but there were also a few honest-to-god AC Cobras, a Devin race car, an old Plymouth Superbird race car, a real GT40, a Ferrari Dino, one of the Cadillac LeMans race cars (!), and near and dear to the hearts of the roadster guys, a Datsun 240Z E-Production race car in pristine John Morton/BRE replica racing colors. To make the authenticity complete, it also had one John Morton there in the flesh, signing autographs. He actually took a stroll down to our end of the show toward the end of the day and hung out with us lowly Roadster guys for a while, regaling us with tales of racing the Roadsters back in the ‘60s and ‘70s and all the stuff that they had to do them to get them race-ready. He came up and introduced himself to me with a casual “Hi, I’m John—I heard you’re driving around the country”, and I thought to myself “Yeah, I know who you are, and how do you know that?”, but we had a nice time talking for a little bit, and he gave my car a pretty good walk-around, seeing as it was the only low windshield (pre-’68) one in the bunch.

The midwest roadster gang, with southwest refugee Superbird! Cadillac's LeMans car.
The 240Z in full battle mode John Morton (in the blue ball cap), Tim (in the middle), and me The Devin, an SS I think
 Ferrari Dino  Don't push there  The remnants of a bridge over the old track where the show was held

Afterward, we all went to a local pub and sampled some beer and big soft pretzels, then we all went our separate ways, ending the impromptu little car show. It was a nice drive back to Belleville, where we had another good dinner and then turned in for the night.

The next day, the weather was pretty ugly, ranging from drizzle to epic downpour.  I had contemplated doing a little work on the car while I had Tim’s garage available, but seeing as a) I didn’t have the parts with me, and b) I was still in ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mode, I opted to just get back on the road and get going. I said my farewells to Tim and his wife, and hit the road.

My sightseeing options were a little curtailed due to the weather, but in looking at the map I figured I was close enough to Iowa to add it to the list of states, so I headed slightly southwest and cut over the Mississippi at Dubuque and into Iowa. I drove south through the rain for a while, then jumped back over the river and into Illinois. My destination for the night was an Airbnb stay in Normal, IL (and yes, I picked that one mostly because I wanted to see what Normal looked like), but due to the weather, the drive was mostly a slog through cornfields until I got to my stay.

This was one of the more modest Airbnb stops thus far (although not as modest as the horse barn—I think that’s probably going to be the winner in that category for a while), and I was staying on a futon in the apartment of a young graduate student in meteorology, along with her two cats. I got to know the cats for a bit, and she and I talked about the weather (what with the meteorology background and all), and then I hit the futon.

The next day, I had plans to be in Dayton, OH to meet up with friends from Vegas who’d been relocated there by the Air Force. It was a pretty good drive from Normal to Dayton, and it looked like I was pretty much just going to blow straight through the rest of Illinois and all of Indiana to get there in time for dinner. I did just that, only stopping a couple times, once to check out old Route 66. It was kind of odd to have been close to both ends of that highway on this trip, once on the first day in Kingman, AZ, and now way up here near Chicago.

Getting my kicks a bit farther to the north this time The actual Route 66 in its current condition

Ignoring Indiana worked out OK from a timing standpoint, and I got to Dayton in time to eat, which is always a good plan. I was staying at my friends Kyle and Nikki’s house along with their two young children as well as another good friend from Vegas, Mary Catherine, who was there for a few weeks to do some training at Wright-Patterson AFB (she’s actually stationed in Boston now.) We had a good time catching up and generally reflecting on the weirdness of the fact that we were all sitting around a dinner table again, but this time in Dayton. Additionally, I had had some parts shipped ahead to their house for the car, and those had all arrived intact, so now I was contemplating whether or not to tear into it, as it was not a minor piece of preventative maintenance that I was looking at.

Everybody took off for work and/or training the next morning, leaving me to my own devices. I opted to do some minor maintenance on the car, including a little bit of de-squeaking/de-rattling some stuff that had loosened up, and a general once-over of suspension bits, brake system stuff, and anything else I hadn’t looked at in a while. I had also ordered a tire ahead to drop ship to a local tire place so I could replace the one that I’d flat-spotted in Washington when I had my ball joint problem in Waitsburg, so it was nice to have a round tire again. I also had a nice lunch with Mary, and we caught up on a variety of things.

Being on the road, I hadn’t cooked anything in a while, so I thought it might be nice to make some dinner for them to thank them for the hospitality (as well as remind me how to cook.) I tried to pick something that I could make a lot of so there’d be some leftovers for later, so I went for jambalaya, and stopped at the world’s largest Kroger grocery on the way home to pick up ingredients and some wine. We also made some chocolate chip cookies while the other stuff was cooking, much to the delight of three year old Landon (who consumed an amazing amount of cookie batter.)

Dinner was good and filling, and afterward we talked about whether or not to dig into the car, and whether Kyle could get off work to help me with the repairs or not. This was not a small repair; I’d be going after the ugly noise in the transmission, which would mean pulling the engine and transmission out of the car, tearing down the transmission, finding the guilty parts, and putting it all back together with the new stuff. After a bit of discussion (and realizing that this would probably actually be quite a bit of fun), we decided to go for it.

The next morning, we dove right in, and all things considered, it went pretty well. After a quick pitstop at Harbor Freight Tools to get a chainfall, we had the motor out and the transmission on the bench in a couple of hours. By a stroke of good fortune, the bad part in the transmission that was making all the racket was the front bearing on the countershaft (I had guessed input shaft bearing; glad I bought the rebuild kit with all of the bearings in it), which meant that I didn’t have to tear apart the entire thing; I could just pull off the bell housing and the front half of the gear case and then just pull the bearing out from the front. Amazingly, that’s just how it went—using a little gear puller that Kyle had (with some slight modifications to get it to fit), the bearing came right off the shaft, and then using a 1” socket as a makeshift drift, the new one tapped right on, and that was that. I re-assembled the transmission, we filled it with gear oil, dropped it back in the car, put the engine back in, re-attached all the manifolds and carbs and whatnot, and it fired right up, but this time with a very quiet transmission. After putting the hood back on, Kyle and I went for a little trip around the block (Kyle drove, with no small amount of giggling), and all was good—about nine hours start to finish, and I had a much healthier transmission in the car.

Happiness is a round tire Hood off, bunny suit on. Let's go. My 16,000 mile bug collection
Some minor mid-trip maintenance Getting into my work The culprit--bad countershaft bearing
It looks so innocent in this photo... Discussing strategy with Kyle I deal with the carbs while Kyle puts in the de-bugged radiator


Mary and I had lunch again the next day, and then I was off to Kalamazoo, MI. (I know, I just had the car mostly disassembled the day before, and now I was driving hundreds of miles away. That’s the romance of the road; sort of the inverted version of Cortez burning the ships when he hit Veracruz.) I ticked the “Avoid Highways” box on the GPS and just let it take me wherever, which turned out to be lots and lots of cornfields and little farming towns through Indiana (where a potato harvest was in full swing—truckloads and truckloads coming out of the fields.) I hit Kalamazoo right around sunset, where I’d lined up a Best Western (Airbnb places still being pretty scarce around there), and turned in. The car ran great, and it was really nice to not be constantly listening to little sounds coming out of the transmission and wondering if it was about to eat itself. About the only casualty from the major work was that my oil pressure sending unit had developed a small leak, but I’d figure that one out later.

Apparently a good harvest this year. An unfortunately named high school mascot

Next stop: The great state of Michigan, home of one of the most matter-of-fact state mottos in the country, “Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice("If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.")


#1 lectacave 2013-09-26 11:12
Getting your kicks, that's funny! Another wonderful post, Scott. I'd like to sign up for a geology lesson when you get to NYC!
#2 TravelDuoAD 2013-09-26 11:45
Alan grew up near Kalamazoo. Are you headed to the UP? Starting to get cold this time of year but still pretty. Leaves should be starting to change. If you get near Ann Arbor you should swing into Zingerman's Deli. Fantastic food and a gourmet grocery for some nice treats. It is one of our favorite places. We had them cater the wedding in Ohio...even if it was 3 hours away. It was worth it. If you make it try the Chocolate Cherry bread...
#3 laceytrynn 2013-09-27 17:34
i love the sunset pics, amazing colors... and how was the WI wine?
#4 danabart 2013-09-28 20:14

Thanks so much for taking the time to swing through Hoyt Lakes. I'm sure you made my uncle's day and gave him something to talk about for a while. It brought tears to my eyes, but you know how sensitive I can be.
#5 admin 2013-10-28 20:17
Thanks for the travel tips...unfortun ately, I posted this a little late, so I was already out of the area. And the WI wine was OK--not spectacular, but drink-able. And I'm sure it's not the first time I've brought tears to Dana's eyes. :)

Only registered users can post comments.