June 27, 2007

Beyond the Frontier

I've never been very adventurous when it comes to my travels. I like to plan, I like to know where I'm staying and where I'm going. Loosey goosey usually spells trouble for me.

But I knew I had to go to Minneapolis for business this weekend so I thought I would do some Minnesota exploring - namely, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, or, as much of it as I could cover in a day and a half before I had to work. 

Not being much of a road trip gal (no cross-country travels for me), I was having a hard time approximating where I would end up to stay for the night and how long it would take me to get from place to place. So when I arrived at MSP on Friday around 1:30 p.m., I set out on the open road without a care in the word - or a bed to sleep in.

Things went well until I was in Diamond Bluff driving along Wisconsin's Great River Road on my way to Pepin, and it started to rain just as my Garmin GPS system's battery died. I called Alamo Roadside Assistance, but they were absolutely useless - they were telling me the fuse in my car had to be replaced, when in actuality, I figured out there was a short in the power source cord. I was days away from an Alamo rental center and I couldn't figure out where to even buy a replacement GPS, so as I was explaining my situation to the Alamo guy, I started to realize how dire it was. I really nearly lost it on the phone, screaming expletives and telling him that he'd better be prepared to be the last person I ever spoke to, if something happened to me...Miles from nowhere, all alone, no help on the way, no place to stay the night...

Pepin, WIFortunately I bucked up and relied on all the maps I'd brought with me from the extensive online research I'd done. I found Pepin, WI - birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder - relatively easily, and although all the scenic overlooks on the way were completely fogged from the storm, I enjoyed the overall scenery. I made sure I stopped by the reproduction of the original log cabin where she lived (Little House in the Big Woods) on my way out of town.

The weather cleared up in time for me to drive along the Mississippi River on a gorgeous byway, and even cross it at one point. I had planned to make the drive down to Iowa that night since everything closes at 5 and I couldn't get anything else done, but I saw signs for Preston, MN and decided to try visiting the cave there before sundown. Turns out that closes at 5 too but I was lucky enough to see a blue sign for the "Historic Jailhouse Inn" and, intrigued, took a detour to find it.

Preston, MN

It's a charming inn, the former Fillmore County Jail, now turned into a B&B. They put me in the single Fan Room, where Sheriff Christian Petersen resided from 1873-1878 - and for only $82/night, it was a steal compared to the Super 8 or Microtel I figured I would crash at that night. It didn't really seem like an old jailhouse but it was certainly themed that way so I enjoyed the gimmick. Besides, Preston turned out to be a cute little town, and I had a great steak dinner at the Branding Iron Supper Club that night with a gorgeous view of the sunset (and a fantastic, hearty complimentary breakfast the next morning).

Since I didn't make it to Iowa the night before, Saturday morning I took the half hour drive along the Amish Byway to Burr Oak. (I decided to skip Preston's Mystery Cave and even Harmony's Niagara Cave to make sure I would have plenty of time to make it all the way to Walnut Grove before 5.) Burr Oak (pronounced by locals like "baroque") is the historic site of the Masters Hotel, where the Ingalls family lived and worked - there's a similar storyline in the TV show, but like many other facts from the books, it mangled it all up with factual inaccuracies.

After that it was back on the road for a three-hour drive in my sporty, speedy Pontiac G-5 (in "Blue Streak Metallic") through the Minnesota cities, towns, and prairies of Rochester, Mankato, Springfield, and Sleepy Eye (where I missed out on the depot museum that closes at 4) - all while going about 82 mph. I saw one cop car the entire trip, in Preston. Nowhere else did I see a sheriff, state trooper, security guard, anything. And boy did I deserve to be pulled over - though some folks were passing me...

Plum CreekWalnut Grove turned out to be the piece de resistance, with a great museum (and lots of fun TV show-related pop culture memorabilia), an original local jail cell from the time period, and...drum roll...the actual Plum Creek (as in, On the Banks of Plum Creek). The old Ingalls homestead is now private property but the family lets you drive through and see what remains of their old dugout home by the creek, which you get to by crossing a wooden bridge among the plum thickets and prairie grass. I know I'm a total geek, but my heart skipped a beat when I saw it.

I'm bummed that I didn't get to go all the way over to De Smet, SD - which is really the holy grail of Laura Ingalls Wilder stuff since she spent most of her time there, and several books take place there - but it was too far for this trip and my poor back was killing me already from all the driving. Instead I drove another three hours back to Minneapolis, and was quickly faced with the harsh reality of city traffic and potential speeding tickets upon my arrival.

After two margaritas at MASA in downtown Minneapolis with my work friends, I went to bed early, and as I laid my head on my corporate hotel pillow, I could still see the long stretches of road ahead of me, and feel the vibration of paved county highways beneath me...

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