Thursday, August 6, 2015

Wisconsin, Part 1: Dells and Door

Wisconsin is a gem of a state for road trips that doesn't get enough play on the travel scene. Living in Chicago has afforded me several trips there over the last twelve years, and each visit has been unique and intriguing. In fact, my time in Wisconsin has been so jam packed with awesomeness that covering it all will take not one, not two, but three blog posts. 

This entry will deliver a taste of Wisconsin's quirk and charm as we explore Wisconsin Dells and Door County. In part 2, we'll take flight and do some extreme sports in Sturtevant, and we'll snag a wife in the process. We’ll get weird at House on the Rock and go to Milwaukee to snarf cheese and brats in Part 3. Wisconsin, here we come! 

Wisconsin Dells

My first trip through Wisconsin was during my cross-country road trip with my friend Cein in the summer of 2000. We intended to just pass through the state, but we got sucked in by the many billboards advertising kitsch and adventure in the Wisconsin Dells.

There were many options for a diversion, including mini-golf, go-karts, amusement parks and novelty shops. We chose Robot World, an attraction we were sure would provide plenty of entertainment.  

Looking back, I can definitively say we could have made a better choice. We thought we would get ironic and fun, but we ended up with ironic and boring. The robots were plastic and cheesy, and while there were other attractions (such as the electric chair simulator shown below), they were juvenile and bland.

There’s certainly a reason why Robot World is no longer among the many destinations in the Dells. Fortunately we were able to get rid of the bad taste Robot World left in our mouths by stopping at Wisconsin's Largest Cheese Store. Yum!

I got a second chance to explore the Dells when Mrs. Tires and I visited in the summer of 2007. The memories of that trip are fond, but the photos have been lost to time. Going into that visit, I was much more educated on our many entertainment options, and much more impressed with the region as a result. The area offered a special kind of family-centric fun, as it sported a multitude of amusement parks, dinner shows, water sports, boat tours and other novelty destinations.

We stayed at the Baraboo Hills Campground, which offered adorable, moderately priced cabins with fire pits, which allowed us to sit around the campfire and enjoy some s’mores on more than one occasion. The campground was located at one end of the main drag that went through the heart of the Wisconsin Dells. If we didn’t have our excursions already planned, we could have stirred up all kinds of joy by just cruising the strip.

As it was, we had an agenda for the weekend that started with a day at an amusement and water park called Mount Olympus. We chose Mount Olympus over the other theme parks in the region because it featured not only outdoor rides and water slides, but indoor versions of each as well. This came in handy, as after two roller coasters, the skies opened up and it began to pour buckets. As the rain fell, we scampered into the indoor section of the park. The rest of the park joined us. The indoor rides weren’t as impressive as the outdoor ones, but it was better than losing a whole day due to rain.

The storm lasted a couple of hours, and most of the patrons left the park before it ended. This meant shorter lines for the outdoor rides once we were able to access them again. Mrs. Tires and I went crazy on the roller coasters and rode each one several times.

After our day at the theme park, a restaurant called Crabby's hooked us with an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet and reeled us in by throwing in a pirate show. We should have been more selective. The food was 'meh' at best, and the pirates were animatronic Disney knock-offs that ended up being boring buccaneers. We had a fine time, but I can't recommend Crabby's to others.

The next day we took in some nature via Devil's Lake State Park. The park centered around the sparkling, picturesque Devil's Lake, and featured simple hiking trails and lovely beaches. It didn't knock our socks off, but it was a great way to experience the Wisconsin wilderness.

After exploring the park, we hit up Pirate's Cove for some mini-golf. Simply put, it was among the best mini-golf courses I've ever played. It had five different courses, each of which featured just the right amount of challenge while being infinitely enjoyable.

Our final stop that day was the Ho-Chunk Casino. We had zero luck there, as we stuck to the slot machines and essentially ended up depositing our cash, pressing a few buttons, losing it all and leaving. At least we got a few laughs out of the casino's name.

During our final day in the Dells, we rented some kayaks and paddled down Mirror Lake. Other than an awkward moment wherein we got tangled up with some fishing lines, we had a wonderful time. It ended up being one of the best things we did all weekend.

The Wisconsin Dells offer something for everyone. Most of the action there is geared towards families (I'm looking forward to bringing the little one there someday), but there's fun there for all ages. With so much to do, it's impossible not to have a great time in the Dells.

Door County

Mrs. Tires and I are always on the lookout for a new getaway destination, especially when it's within driving distance of Chicago. Door County fit the bill and then some. Located on a peninsula on the east side of Wisconsin, this charming destination offered lots of character and charm. We made it the destination of our Memorial Day trip in 2008. 

Door County's traditional meal is called a fish boil. There are several restaurants in Door County that offer fish boils, so we went for the one with the latest available reservation. That ended up being the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek. We were pleased with our decision, as the fish boil there was as much a show as it was a delicious meal.

We arrived at the White Gull Inn just in time to get a spot near the fire pit. Shortly after we sat down, a portly older gentleman named Russ began prepping the cauldron. After filling it with water and dropping large chunks of fresh fish into the pot, Russ lit a fire underneath and tended to it until a bonfire erupted underneath. It was getting chilly when the boil started, so we were glad to be near the fire. As the fish cooked, Russ told us about the rich history of the fish boil, as well as a few details on the preparation and cooking process. The fish were cooked with Wisconsin-grown red potatoes and salt. When the fish were almost done, Russ added a stream of kerosine to the fire, which created an impressive pyre that pushed the fish oil out of the cauldron. 

With that, it was time to eat. As we made our way into the main dining room, we noticed we were the youngest people there by far. Mrs. Tires and I were in our late 20s at the time, and while we were joined by a few people in their 30s and 40s, the majority of the patrons were senior citizens. No bother. Everyone was in a great mood after witnessing the boiling process, and there was a sense that everyone belonged. 

We were served a delicious meal, with the fish and potatoes being the main course. The fish was tasty, but boney. It was a real challenge to eat around the bones, even after we took the waitstaff up on their offer to de-bone the fish for us. Still, the meal was a hit and the experience was wonderful. 

After the meal we headed to our hotel, the Peninsula Park-View Resort. It was a gem of a hotel, a charming, family-owned establishment with several adirondack chairs adorning a quaint outdoor community area. The hotel also offered beautiful gardens, a swimming pool, fancy locally-roasted coffee, and free usage of their collection of bikes. What's more, it was located right across the street from Peninsula State Park, one of the top destinations on our list that weekend.  

It was gorgeous the next day, and we were excited to use the hotel's bikes to go for a ride around the park. We borrowed two of their heftiest bikes, which ended up being wimpy beach cruisers. Still, we were all smiles as we entered the park. We had no way of knowing what was waiting for us further down the path. 

The trail in the photo above was the most forgiving we'd encounter all day. As we cruised along, we ventured into the forest. This led us to much more difficult terrain, and soon the path was taking us over rocks, roots, stumps and unwieldy terrain. The bikes could barely handle it, and neither could we. Making matters worse, the forest was infested with mosquitos. This added an extra level of irritation to our already harrowing experience. Occasionally we'd get off our bikes and walk them, but when we did that, we'd get attacked by the mosquitos. When we'd reach our breaking point with the bugs, we'd get back on our bikes and attempt to move forward. This type of progress was difficult and occasionally impossible. The be-eaten-alive-or-die-trying-to-avoid-it routine continued for a good hour or so, and we got more and more upset as we progressed. It reached full-meltdown mode more than once. The ride ended up being a classic misadventure, and one that we would laugh about when the journey was relived as part of our wedding vows. 

Eventually we made it to the end of the trail and wound up on the beach. The shoreline was tranquil and inviting. There were several kayaks for rent there, but we had a kayaking adventure planned for later that day. We sat on the beach and watched the gentle lake waves slowly lap up on the shore as we calmed down after our horrible biking trip. 

We found an alternate route through the park that brought us back to the hotel without navigating any forests. It ended up being a great route, as it brought us by a couple of cool lighthouses. I used to see lighthouses all the time while growing up in New England, but they are understandably pretty rare in the midwest. 

Eventually we made our way back to the hotel. We had a couple of hours to kill before our next adventure, so we spent some time occupying the aforementioned adirondack chairs and chatting with other hotel guests. Once again we felt a bit out of place, as everyone we encountered was significantly older than we were. Nonetheless, we enjoyed our time lounging, and before long, it was time to get going again. After a delicious pizza dinner at a local restaurant and bar, we headed over to Door County Kayak Tours, where we had a reservation for a guided sunset kayaking expedition. 

The tour was great. The water was calm, the weather cooperated, and our tour guide was fantastic. She entertained us with stories about being a kayaking guide, including cluing us in to a ritual she and her fellow guides participated in frequently - naked sunrise yoga. She led our group to a great spot to watch the sunset, and we relaxed and floated as we watched the last signs of daylight disappear over the water.

As we paddled back, our guide told us her friends were in a band that was playing at a bar that night. This got us excited to hit the town. We didn't get a chance to find out where the band was playing, so we ventured out to find some trouble on our own. Unfortunately, there wasn't much to be had. We poked our heads in a couple of bars, but they were pretty quiet,  so we ended up back at the pizza place, where we enjoyed a pitcher of beer before we called it a night. A pattern was emerging in Door County. Though it was a charming place, it was a bit too sleepy for us. 

We went back to the hotel early and raided the communal video collection, settling on Total Recall. I had never seen it before, and it made up for the otherwise dull night. 

The next day we set out to explore more of Door County. Most of the places that drew people to Door County were along one long main drag, so we started at the north end of that road and made our way south, stopping anywhere that caught our eye along the way. There were fruit and vegetable stands, cheese shops, wineries, farms, ice cream parlors and many other establishments, and we stopped at a delightful sampling of them. Door County is known for its cherries, and it offered many different items that used cherries in different ways. There was cherry pie and cherry wine, cherry cheese and of course raw cherries. I am not a huge fan of cherries, but I have to admit these were pretty damn good. We purchased some cherry wine and uncorked it later. It was terrible! 

The most memorable stop we made that day was at a small gift shop called Lakeview Gifts, which advertised clown gifts. I'm obsessed with clown stuff, so this place made for the perfect stop. When we entered the store, we encountered wall-to-wall clown merch. Clown paintings and photos were everywhere we looked, shelves were bursting with clown figurines and mugs, and unmarked boxes containing more clown merch were tucked into every corner. 

As we browsed, Edith Schmidt, the owner of the establishment, came out to greet us. She told us all about how she and her husband were former clowns known as Buddy and Bubbles. As we browsed, she continued to tell us stories from her clowning days, and she gladly shared the history of some of the items that caught my eye. She had many items that would have made great additions to my clown painting collection, but she was asking quite a lot for them. I expressed this, hoping she might come down on her asking price. She didn't, but pointed me to a couple of boxes with assorted clown posters in them, all of which were five dollars each. I started pawing through, and found a piece that stopped me dead in my tracks. I knew from the moment I saw it that I had to have it. It was a clown made entirely of different birds. There was even a key that explained which bird species appeared where. As I admired it, she educated me on the artist, a famous clown painter named Rusty. I confirmed the five dollar price tag and expressed how great of a deal it was, especially because it was signed by Rusty. This caught her off guard. She didn't realize it was autographed. She started backpedaling on the price, saying she should be asking fifty or sixty dollars for it. She went on about this for a while. Finally I decided to give in a little so I could make sure I'd get the piece. I offered her eight dollars. Sold! With that, we said goodbye. Mrs. Tires had to drag me out of there, as I could have perused the store for hours. The clown painting I purchased is still one of my favorite pieces. I had it framed and I display it proudly. Unfortunately, Lakeview Gifts is no longer standing, as Edith Schmidt passed away in 2013. RIP Bubbles!

We had one more Door County destination on the docket. After dinner, we cruised on over to the Skyway Drive-In Theater, a fully functioning drive-in movie theater. It featured throwback speakers that hung on poles that were intended to be pulled into the car window to deliver the audio. We were parked next to one of the working ones and tried it out for a while, but eventually we opted to tune into the designated AM radio station for superior sound quality. 

There was a double feature showing that night, Iron Man and Drillbit Taylor. We were only interested in Iron Man, but as it turned out, we did get two shows that night. Twenty minutes into Iron Man, it began to rain. Soon it was pouring like crazy. Thunder and lightning arrived shortly thereafter. For a while this was rather annoying, as even with our wipers at full-tilt, we could hardly see through the windshield. Eventually the rain mellowed out, but the lightning stayed. This ended up enhancing the experience quite a bit, as we enjoyed watching the sky light up while we watched Iron Man fly around the screen. It was a memorable way to see the film, and I think of it every time a new Iron Man movie comes out. 

The next day we said good bye to Door County and headed back to Chicago. On the way back, we worked in a round of mini-golf. 

Overall I really liked Door County. I stand by the notion that it was rather quiet, but despite that, there was an unlimited amount of charm , and it delivered a few memories that I will take with me forever.

Wisconsin, Part 2: Skydiving in Sturtevant
Wisconsin, Part 3: Milwaukee and the House on the Rock

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