Each year from 2003 to 2013 my wife, my son, and your humble writer headed out on a long road trip to anywhere but here. My wife and I like to seek out new lifeforms and civilizations, and then we photograph them into submission. I create a travelogue partly for fun, partly for writing exercise, and partly for personal future reference in those hopefully distant years when my aging brain begins deleting memory files without warning. My wife keeps meticulous scrapbooks in her own fashion, but retaining my own impressions is kind of important to me, too. Someday I’ll look back on this and think, “Ah, yes, I remember when I used to be able to type, before arthritis turned my hands into insensate stumps.”
Our 2014 road trip represented a milestone of sorts: our first vacation in over a decade without my son tagging along for the ride. He’s now an official adult and a sophomore in college who’s developed his own ideas about how he prefers to spend his downtime between semesters, and he’s by no means under direct orders to attend our outings. By the end of one particularly serious discussion over dinner in Jamestown, NY, we all knew and agreed our 2013 road trip would be his farewell tour with us. We were cool with that, if a bit emotional in our respective ways.
I’m finding it tough to follow that delicately phrased paragraph with a declaration of “2014 EMPTY-NESTER PARTY! WOOOOOOO!” But. Well. There it is and there we were. When the summer of 2014 arrived we were fully prepared to shift gears from “family vacation” to “romantic getaway”. Without gloating too loudly, of course, and in our own jointly unique fashion.
At my wife’s prodding, I examined our vacation options and decided we ought to make this year a milestone in another way — our first sequel vacation. This year’s objective, then: a return to Wisconsin and Minnesota. In my mind, our 2006 road trip was a good start, but in some ways a surface-skimming of what each state has to offer. Something about the atmosphere, creativity, and Midwest nuances spoke to me in ways that are hard to articulate. I don’t want to say “like Indiana, but smarter” or “like Illinois, but kinder”. There’s some proper analogy a few millimeters beyond my grasp. All I knew for sure was, I wanted a do-over.
To shake things up a bit, because every sequel has to be different and bigger in some way, we added an overnight detour into one state we’d never visited before. In yet another milestone for the occasion, this was also our first vacation in I-don’t-know-how-long that included zero stops at McDonald’s.
Sure, many couples with this sort of freedom would make a beeline for the nearest beach, book passage on a cruise, or max out their credit cards on a Paris dream trip. We have our own agenda. Finding creative ways to spend quality time together. Searching for tourism options that wouldn’t occur to our peers. Digging for gems in unusual places — sometimes geek-related, sometimes peculiar, sometimes normal yet above average.
We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.
Unfortunately, the first half of Day One was spent escaping Indiana and then creeping inch by inch through impassable, nerve-deadening Chicago gridlock. Once again our old nemesis, Illinois road construction, had reared its ghastly head. I lost track of how long we languished on I-90, wishing in vain that all the other cars would pull over for my benefit. We had plenty of time to survey our surroundings, but we’ve seen Chicago more than a few times by now. We didn’t see much newness, except for cloudier weather than usual. Willis Tower stood tall above it all anyway.
We were starving by the time we reached the Wisconsin border. We were dozens of miles away from where I’d hoped to have lunch, but I wouldn’t last that long. Thus we scrapped those potentially elegant plans and settled for quick repast at the Culver’s in Pleasant Prairie, where we’d also dined in 2006. Further down the road, though, I picked up dessert somewhere else.
Kenosha is home to Mars’ Cheese Castle (recommended slogan: “Mars Has Cheese!”), one of several interstate havens selling myriad forms of that world-famous Wisconsin cheese to tourists who want to taste what the big deal is.
Mars has statues! They’re keenly aware of road-trip aesthetics and aptly decorated for the 24/7 occasion. Just the same, you are expected to respect the mice’s boundaries.
Mars has a full-service bakery, a restaurant, a wide selection of candy, and various dairy products, including but not limited to cheeses great and small. Kids can also pick up a farm-animal puppet, take it home, and create their own one-act puppet plays about the cheese manufacturing process.
Local entrepreneurs are allowed tiny stands where they can offer their own relevant wares, especially snacks. We chatted with one as we sauntered through the aisles from one photo op to the next.
One caveat: if you plan to stock up on novelty perishables, don’t forget to bring a cooler. I totally did. It was our only major packing oversight. The ambitious cheeseholics among you are gonna need a bigger cooler.
Caution: Wisconsin is Packers turf and their fans are many. Proceed with caution.
Without a cooler for proper cheese hoarding, the only thing I bought myself was a bag of handcrafted toffee snacks from the aforementioned entrepreneur. Nice lady, scrumptious product.
To be continued!
[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for future chapters, and for our complete road trip history to date. Thanks for reading!]