Saturday, May 9

Three stamps and a ton of riding fun!

Last Saturday, I left early as I had approximately 500 miles to cover before the St. Croix Falls, WI visitors center and the Upper Mississippi River Valley visitor’s center closed in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Interstate would be my friend for much of the trip, but I’d planned on riding state highways and some local roads for large sections of the journey.

The weather differed dramatically from the previous weekend, which rained virtually the entire weekend. This Saturday already seemed wonderful in comparison. Still, I put the heated jacket on low and felt comfy cutting through the crisp, cool morning air. I would be covering some of the same ground from last week having ended that trip empty handed –not one national park stamps to show for my efforts. This was a new day. Saturday morning traffic was light, just the way I like it. I had packed some snacks and had a light breakfast before departing. On this trip, I would focus on riding one. Being a tourist would have to wait for another day. If I’m going to make a valiant attempt at the Iron Butt National Parks Tour, I’ve got to accept some realities. I need 50 stamps from 25 states in one calendar year. Now, I’ve tried to work this out mathematically and I keep coming up short. I know the obvious things like concentrating my trips in the east. But still, time to enjoy some of these beautiful roads is a huge desire too. My heavy riding is restricted to weekends. I figure I can get in about 1000 miles for a weekend ride. So far, I’ve fallen short, with 616.7 for the first weekend and 948 miles that I will log for this weekend. This means that I’ll use the superslab for these quests more often than not. Fortunately, some of these locations are remote enough that one has to do some heavy mileage away from the interstate as I would learn about getting to St. Croix Falls, WI.

The trip out was uneventful and just plain enjoyable. Jesse Owens hummed the entire way. Seems like the more I ride this bike, the better the ride gets. I do feel one with this bike. I feel that it fits me perfectly; I sink into it and we blend together. On the SV650, after about 350 or so miles my legs would often begin to feel a bit cramped. A stop and a stretch usually did the trick. On the ST, this just doesn’t happen. The leg is extended just a wee bit more and it makes a mammoth difference.

The roads to St. Croix Falls are scenic, remote and actually breath-taking in parts. State highway 35 that follows the Mississippi River is quite wonderful. When I arrived in St. Croix Falls, WI I had planned to rush inside the Visitor’s Center, get my Passport book stamped and be on my way back south to St. Paul. But the Ranger there had other plans. He was a nice gent that reminded me of Barney Fife on the Andy Griffin show. We chatted about the Passport program and given that this was my first stamp, I felt compelled to buy something to celebrate. I settled on a lovely blue heron pin. As I was leaving, he asked me if I wanted to see a video of the St. Croix River. I really didn’t. But not only looked forlorn, he looked rather lonely there all by himself. He made the St. Croix River sound important. I didn’t have the never to say, “I just want the stamp.” I really did need to get to St. Paul before that visitor’s center closed and it was supposedly closing in a couple of hours. I asked the Ranger if it was possible to get to St. Paul before it closed. I could easily go on Sunday as I was staying in St. Paul for the evening. But that would mean waiting for the place to open on Sunday and getting a later start than wanted for my return trip home.

In his most Barney Fife voice, he told me that it closed at 9pm. I was stunned! The website said it closed around 5. He volunteered to call them to check and sure enough they were open late. I had no reason now to rush out. In fact, this slowed down the whole trip in a good way. I felt myself relax.

Besides, if I’m going to visit all these places, I should at least spend a few minutes learning a few things about these historical sites. I sometimes think that the folks who work and volunteer their time in these places do a lot of waiting around for visitors to show up and when they do, they’d like to introduce them to what the center is all about. I watched the movie. Fabulous! Well done, replete with wonderful scenery and many interviews of local legends, geologist, historians, and other experts who make the St. Croix River come alive. I must confess my ignorance. Before this movie, I possessed less than a thimble full of knowledge about the St. Croix River. I knew only that it met up with the Mississippi at some point. The movie taught me a lot about the river and the local’s love for it and determination to keep it clean and protect its native inhabitants. Before leaving, I hung around and took some pictures of the area.

With plenty of time to get to St. Paul, I took a scenic route--what a pleasure to ride free of the onus of getting there before it closed. I arrived around 5:15p.m. Two Rangers dressed like Smokey the Bear managed a booth inside the Science Museum. They were friendly and seemed to know immediately why I was there. The woman said, “Are you one of those….?” She couldn’t think of what to call me. The guy said, “Yes, one of those….” He was stumbled too. I explained that I was collecting stamps for a national parks tour. The guy, “Yeah, yeah the, the… “ He was still thinking. I mentioned the Iron Butt group and they both perked up. I asked if they get a lot of them coming in. “No,” the guy responded, “Not a lot but when they do come in they are memorable—they are a unique group.” I didn’t ask him to elaborate. I could tell from his expression that he thought them to be an odd bunch. “They are a determined group,” he said—or something like that. We all chuckled. I chatted with them and they told me what to visit in St. Paul, where Rice Park was (almost right outside their front door) and that I should take in a meal at Minnehaha. The name struck me as hilarious but I contained myself.    

I walked around St. Paul for a long time and I had an interesting encounter. I was taking a picture of the Landmark Center, an ancient, huge gray stone building downtown. I glanced at an African American woman across the street waiting at a bus stop. Before I could take more than a few pictures, she was at my side. “Hi, are you a photographer?” I said, “Well, I’m visiting and just taking a few pictures.” She said she found it interesting that I was taking pictures of that building, which she thought was a fine building but not something she’d probably take a picture of. She said that when she visited Europe, she noticed that they had many such pictures in architectural books she thumbed through and that’s why she thought I must be a photographer. I asked and she told me a little about the social history of St. Paul, which she prefers over Minneapolis. “St. Paul is more family-like, it’s more like a small community . Minneapolis is more like a big urban area. You see a lot of black there but they are poor, not like here where you just don’t see much of that on the streets.” When she learned that I was from Chicago area, her face flashed instantly. “I lived in Markham—I was born there and lived there until about 20 years old.” Markham is a suburbs close to where my suburban home is located. When she learned I had ridden a motorcycle to St. Paul, she was incredulous. I had to assure her that it could be done by me, a lone woman. She was like meeting a long lost cousin. We had surely walked some of the same Illinois ground. We talked nearly 30 minutes--what a small world.

I found my hotel easily—only four miles from the Science Museum. When I reached it, I realized that I hadn’t had a meal all day. I had my usual GORP, water and juice but that was about it. I was starving. The hotel clerk recommended a Thai restaurant next door. I tried it. I left it happy and with a full tummy. As I walked to the hotel, I could feel the effects of the day slowing my steps. It was now nearly 10:00pm. I prepared for bed, turned on the weather channel and I remember turning on the Kindle to read ZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzz

Sunday morning

I wanted to leave early. The weather channel said it would be another great day—even better than Saturday. If lucky, I was going to capture two stamps. One in Harpers Ferry, IA (Effigy Mounds National Park) and another in West Branch, IA (Herbert Hoover National Historic Site). This amounted to more than eight hours of riding and roughly covering 382 miles to reach these sites. And, this didn’t include getting home! The day’s total would be approximately 594 mile and 11 hours, 40 minutes of riding. I decided to play it by ear.

The ride to Harpers Ferry, IA was only 190 miles but it took a bit over 4 hours. I went the scenic route. Rode to La Crosse and moved to the WI side to follow the river. On the previous trip, I rode WI state highway 35 heading north. This time I was heading south. The river looked anew, bright, lively and inviting, and not the gray, misty and cold place of the previous week. Rt. 35 is simply beautiful. One passes through small towns like, Red Wing, MN, (yes, home of the Red Wing shoes that many motorcyclist swear by) and Winona, MN, Genoa and De Sota, WI. Speed limit is greatly reduced in these small towns and from the looks of things, I strongly recommend not going a mile over the limit. Besides, it allows one a good, long look at towns were time seems to have stopped. It is easy to understand why I feel like a tourist attraction here. There just isn’t a lot of diversity so folks are curious, which brings me to a few interesting people I met along the way.

I stopped at a visitors center in Prairie du Chien, a town I felt a tad more comfortable in given my previous stay there. I was directed on how to get to Effigy Mounds—it’s a bit tricky. The direction seemed a bit confusing so I programmed the GPS to take me to Marquette, IA where I’d surely see signs for the Mounds, which I did. My breakfast had worn off and I was beginning to tire. When I reached the center, I hung around some but had no energy to tour the mounds, which is really sad as I’ve been planning a trip here for years. This made me realize a hard truth. Collecting the stamps really is mostly about collecting the stamps when all I have are weekends. The way I see it is the parks and sites I visit will be noted as places to re-visit when I’m not on a clock so to speak. On some trips, I’ll surely have an opportunity to hang out as I did in St. Croix Falls. But given my limited weekend window, I can’t tour like I want to. I started thinking of my priorities. I had now collected three stamps. A fourth stamp would add approximately another 4 hours and getting home, another 4 hours. As I searched for a place to eat after leaving the Mounds, I thought of how satisfied I was already with the ride and how if I didn’t have pressing work due on Monday, I would take the day off and extend this trip.

I ate again at Culver’s (a restaurant that a week ago wasn’t even on my radar). Fries and milkshake—both are excellent here. The manager swore he had seen me in the restaurant before. I finally agreed with him even thought the Culver I ate in last time was in Rockford! We really don’t all look alike but I was too hungry to disagree. I ate while peering over a map and fiddling with my GPS. If I had a nickel for every double take someone did when seeing me there, I could quit my job!

Outside the restaurant, I fiddled with my GPS. I turned when I thought I heard someone call out. I looked and saw a couple walking in my direction. When they approached the man told me his name and introduced his wife. They said, “We’re photographers.” The man said, “I’d like to take your portrait.” Inside my head, I thought, “Yeah, right, I’m not falling for that.”
They said they were “watching” me in the restaurant. While they were talking to me, others left the restaurant and I guess because they say me talking to the couple, they felt okay about talking to me too. It felt as if the couple broke the ice for others. I don’t know. I just found it interesting that folks were coming to say something to me or comment on the bike or the GPS.
The couple and I exchanged pleasantries for some time and they told me where they lived in Prairie du Chien. They want me to stop by on one of my visits. Nice folks. Both are artists (photographers) and belonged to several organizations devoted to the arts. We traded contact info and later the woman sent me some links on their photographer friends and photography happenings in the area.

I left Prairie du Chien, feeling like I knew a little more about the place, having visited it now for two consecutive weekends. I took the scenic route home, traveling along US Hwy 18/52 south into IL. Quite scenic with long, quiet, lightly traveled roads. Because it was Sunday, I encountered many Amish families trotting along in their horse-driven buggies. In one, a kid waved at me. Once I reach St. Hwy 64, a very familiar rode, I always feel that home is near and I never mind that there are quicker ways to get there. I like 64.

At a rest stop, I sat on a park table, away from my bike and sipped ice tea and munched on trail mix. A car load of guys parked next to the bike and when they exited they eyed it closely. When they went inside the rest stop, I prepared to leave. Before mounting the bike, the guys had returned and we struck up a conversation after one complimented the bike. Turned out that they are all riders who live in Chicago. They were returning from a weekend of camping in the UP. One of them had just bought a used BMW and said it was a great bike. When I answered their inquiry on where I had ridden, one of them laughed and said to his buddies, “Hey, we’re going to have to step up our game. We need to catch up.” One of the others said, “I could ride that much if I didn’t have to work.” I resisted the temptation to tell him that I worked too. I understood his point. Working is the one thing that bothers me about the National Parks Tour. Work means freedom comes only on the weekend. How am I going to manage riding east and back in time for work on Monday is going to be difficult.

Given this, the “Tour” has shown me that it really is about the stamps. There is some great riding near these sites but I don’t feel like I have enough time to do justice to them. Yet, I’ve learned that it makes sense to hang around the visitor’s center a bit. It is strange, almost rude to burst in these places, collect the stamp and exit. I’m not certain if I’ll finish the tour or not. For now, that’s not the point. Don’t they say, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey, that matters most? Having a structure to my weekends has been fun so far. If I tire of it, so be it.

Well, it’s already Saturday. I need to go to bed for today I’m heading to St. Louis, MO. If I leave early, I can gather a stamp in Springfield, IL ( Lincoln Home National Historic Site (NHS) ) and a couple in St. Louis (Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and the Ulysses S. Grant NHS). If I’m feeling really up to it, I can also zip over to Vincennes, IN and pick up the George Rogers Clark National Historic Park (NHP) stamp. I will play it by ear for there are also some great riding roads in MO, like state highway 19 and 21. Hmmm….I just might skip Indiana altogether and check out those Missouri roads.

Ride Total: 948 miles