For some reason, thousands of lights wrapped around sultry-weather palm trees…
don’t suggest Christmas or winter wonderland to me in quite the same way as a traditionally decorated evergreen.
A live oak decorated with oversized ornaments comes close,
but it’s still no match for the festive vibe that envelopes New York City during the holidays,
where everything is bigger…
Not that there’s anything wrong with lit palm trees.
Nevertheless, there is a tradition in Naples, Florida that dates back to 2009, when tiki torches first illuminated the town’s 170-acre botanical gardens.
Since then, the holiday light show has evolved to “to accentuate the plants themselves and their textures, silhouettes and natural beauty,” according to Ralph Klebosis, event productions manager.
While some of the displays were fascinating unto themselves…
photographing the event pulled me in a completely different direction after I noticed a pulsing plant projector.
If this event is about night lights, then why not capture the light source and paint with it, I mused? And so I did. The images are a product of serendipity, and represent a different take on Nights of Light.
All the same, artificial light could never improve on Mother Nature!
Leah and I were yearning for a satisfying hike through the mountains of New Mexico that we’d yet to explore. While we were happy hiking the Tecolote Trail in the Sandia Mountains–which offered pleasant panoramas of the desert floor stretching nine miles to South Mountain, and views of Sandia Crest that had us wishing we could stay longer–
…the whipping wind that swept across the overlook killed any notion of lingering along the mesa top to enjoy the spots of fall color that recently dotted the evergreen terrain.
However, the following day, a stroll through Albuquerque’s Old Town…
brought us to a photography gallery that showcased Southwestern landscapes and introduced us to Tent Rocks.
“That place looks cool. We should go there,” I asserted.
“I agree, but how do you know if we can even get there from here?” Leah questioned.
After consulting Google, I learned that Tent Rocks was a National Monument located within the Pueblo of Cochiti, only an hour north of Albuquerque.
The following day, riding north on NM-14 (part of the scenic and historic Turquise Trail National Scenic Byway), we took a left turn onto NM-301, a rutted, dusty road connecting to NM-22.
We approached the earthen wall of the Cochiti Dam, a controversial water management project approved by Congress in 1960, and finished in 1975 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Stretching 5 miles across the desert, and rising 250 feet above the Rio Grande, the resultant lake flooded sacred lands and fields belonging to local tribes for centuries.
We continued west on NM-22 for two miles before arriving at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. We pulled up behind seven parked cars–each one waiting to pay five bucks to the BLM park ranger stretching his legs beside the fee station. Our SUV idled a minute or two, but the line was at a standstill.
The sign post beside us forecasted a 30-minute wait-time from our current position.
“I’m gonna take a walk,” and Leah was out of the car, working her way to the front of the line.
The news arrived in under a minute…offering a Trail Guide.
“All 94 parking spaces are taken,” Leah explains with a hint of exasperation. “They probably arrived when the gates opened at 8am.”
“Okay. So that was two hours ago,” I respond, admitting the obvious. “It says here on the map that the trail is 1.5 miles in and out, so hopefully, a lot of people should be on their way out by now.”
“How long do you think we’ll have to wait here?” asks Leah.
“According to the sign, it’s a 30-minute wait,” I assert.
“Smartass!” she hurls.
After 20 minutes of anticipation, I noticed movement in the ranks! Two cars in front gave up the wait and U-turned, leaving us in sixth place.
Silly people. If only they had waited a few minutes longer. Soon after, a rash of cars passed us on the way out, and we were on our way, cruising through four miles of dip-after-dip, tribal land road, before reaching the parking zone.
While Leah and Carrie (Leah’s daughter) waited in line for the only outhouse in the vicinity, I caught up on my reading at the trailhead.
As interested as I was to learn about New Mexico’s volcanic eruptions and its pyroclastic flows, I was itching to get on the trail and weave through the slot canyon.
The canyon walls were so narrow in places, that only one person could navigate the labyrinth at a time.
It reminded me of the way that road crews monitor traffic on a one way road…
…and it was vaguely reminiscent of a similar protocol at the fee station and toilet.
Of course, with so many early hikers already on the trail and now turning back, it made for several occasional stops, and many pleasant exchanges along the way.
However, when the canyon finally opened up, we were greeted with a greater appreciation of what seven million years had done to the place.
Even the trees seemed magical, managing to stand in the shadow of such uncertain footing.
Once we reached a clearing in the trail, we began our 630-foot ascent to the mesa top, giving us a better perspective of our lair,
and freeing us from all obstructions,
until we could gaze across the Jemez Mountains,
and remind ourselves, once again, why it’s always a good idea to wait one’s turn in line.
“$450 for a balloon ride?! You’ve got to be kidding” I exclaim to the Rainbow Ryder rep on the phone.
“That’s the price, sir. We are the exclusive balloon ride provider for Balloon Fiesta, unless you’re willing to fly outside the ‘Albuquerque Box’,”she managed.
“What’s the ‘Albuquerque Box’?“I ask.
“It’s a weather phenomenon peculiar to Albuquerque,” she points out, “where the lowest winds move in one direction, while the higher winds are moving in the opposite direction. That way, our pilots can take advantage of the different air currents–by floating higher or lower, and returning you close to your original launch point.
“Uh, Ohh-kay,” I shrug, “and that’s worth $450?”
“That’s the rate for a balloon ride during Balloon Fiesta, sir. And I only have a few openings left for Saturday and Sunday,” she warns.
“Your price is sky high,” I offer, “so I’m gonna have to think about it.”
And the call is over.
I turned to Leah. “Looks like my balloon ride went from bucket list to “fuck-it” list.”
And that was a drag, since Balloon Fiesta is the largest gathering of hot-air balloons in the world, with more balloons lifting off together (mass ascension) than anywhere.
Leah sensed my disappointment. “Maybe it’s cheaper if you found an outfitter outside the box. Would you still be interested?
“I think I could manage to get excited,” I lamented.
After a flurry of phoning and pricing, I secured a dawn launch on Saturday for $250 with World Balloon, albeit on the northwest side of town, miles away from the Fiesta.
Launch day bears all the markings for a picture-perfect take-off: early air temperature hovers in the mid-40’s; the wind is streaming from the north at 8 mph; and the sky is clear as shimmering water.
A group of fifty men, women, and children are sub-divided into five, and assigned to a pilot and his balloon crew. Each chase van carries two wranglers, ten passengers, and a trailer packed with gear. We congregate at a barren football-sized lot, and watch as five balloons are prepared for flight.
Baskets are unloaded,
The burners are tested.
With dawn breaking over the horizon, the balloon is unfurled, and rigged to the basket.
An industrial fan blows cold air into the mouth of limp polyester, and behold, the balloon takes shape.
Roy aims the burner flame into the mouth to heat the air,
and eventually expands the envelope to fullness.
The buoyant balloon rights itself,
and the six of us scramble inside to bid adieu to terra firma, and gently float away…
…one step ahead of a second balloon.
All the while, balloons below…
…are preparing to follow our Airstream (wink wink, nod nod).
Our pilot, Roy pulls on the burners,
carrying us to 5000 ft. above the treetops,
where a birds-eye view of the valley below,
reveals a cityscape punctuated by fantastic dots of floating colors.
Yet closer inspection reveals the full dimension of a multi-colored mushroom gliding through an azure sky.
After forty-five minutes of soaring and dipping through neighborhoods–arousing excitable dogs,
and adoring children–
Roy is tasked with finding a landing site along our flight path–wide open and away from wires–and accessible to the chase team who’s been following us since our launch. After a few false starts, we locate a large house devoid of landscaping, and gently settle back to earth.
However, a chain-link fence lines the perimeter, and a locked gate gives us no way out. A woman from Birmingham, AL vaults over the side of the basket and runs to the front door to alert the owners to unlock the gate, but nobody’s home.
So it’s back in the air, with the van in pursuit, until we mobilize at a strip mall.
After a quick exchange of passengers (six out and four in), our balloon is re-released with its second set of aeronauts,
drifting higher into the blue yonder.
Fifty minutes later, the vacant parking lot beside the church provides the perfect setting for a second re-entry.
Whereupon, the balloon is quickly collapsed,
and packed away, until next time.
Back at base camp, it was time for a champagne toast, and a recitation of the balloonist’s prayer:
I loved it, and I’d do it again. I guess that makes me a balloonatic.
Pittsburgh is best known as the “City of Bridges,” boasting a world’s-highest 446 spans.
Its residents have been crossing its rivers and hills before the French built Fort Duquesne at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers in 1754 to protect their access to the Ohio Valley.
After the British advanced, defeating the French and Native Americans, they established Fort Pitt in 1761.
As Pittsburgh industrialized during the 19th century, so did its transportation network, and the bridges soon followed, connecting many of the elevated neighborhoods scattered throughout the vicinity.
In fact, the “City of Bridges” moniker could easily be replaced with the “City of Hills,” given Pittsburgh’s challenging geography, for there are hills galore (North Hills, East Hills, South Hills, West Hills, Middle Hill, Upper Hill, Spring Hill, Summer Hill, Troy Hill, Polish Hill, Squirrel Hill, and the Hill District); and there are heights aplenty (Northview Heights, Brighton Heights, Crafton Heights, Duquesne Heights, and Stanton Heights); as well as a variety of lofty-sounding communities (Highland Park, Mt. Washington, Southside Slopes, Beechview and Fineview).
For me, growning up in Stanton Heights was a constant cardio workout of hiking and biking in my neighborhood. I still recall schlepping up Greenwood Street’s countless steps on my way home from junior high at Morningside Elementary School. And climbing those hills in an unforgiving winter frequently required fortitude and a layer of thermal underwear, which was sure-fire bait for bullies.
Characteristically, Pittsburgh’s reputation for having the largest collection of steepest streets in the world underscores the importance of living close to a world-class medical center (UPMC)…
whose headquarters, coincidently, occupy the US Steel Building–the tallest tower of Pittsburgh’s skyline.
It had been a long time between visits to Pittsburgh, so Leah and I relocated the Airstream to an RV park north of Pittsburgh for a few days, appropriately named Mountain Top Campground…
and determined that a trip to Mt. Washington was a natural first stop for a lasting look at my hometown from the best possible vantage point.
But rather than drive to the top, we parked in a lot and rode the Duquesne Incline as tourists–
one of two remaining from the original 17 funiculars that Pittsburgers once relied upon to ease their commute to the heights throughout town–
for an unparalleled lookout of the Point.
After an overpriced lunch at The Grandview Saloon (poached pear salad for $14), we followed Jennifer (our GPS) to Canton Street,
in search of America’s steepest street in Beechview.
Although it’s only one block long, climbing the 37% grade behind the wheel of my F-150 was somewhat disconcerting. Aside from the bumpy ride over cobblestones, the angle was so severe, I could barely see the road beyond the windshield.
A 37% grade! I can’t even imagine what it would take to climb Canton Street during a winter storm…unless you’re a mountain goat.
But there was one last road phenomenon I needed to check out before we explored the cultural side of Pittsburgh. I had heard about a gravity hill near North Park that sounded like a too-good-to-be-true myth that needed busting.
When I reached the intersection of Kummer and McKinney, I made a hard left around the STOP sign onto McKinney Road, and passed an Audi that was there to perform the same miracle-manuever.
Leah and I patiently waited off-road, watching the Audi repeat the same experiment… over and over again…until satisfied.
And then it was my turn.
I inched toward the STOP sign, and held the brake till I shifted to neutral. Leah stepped out of the truck to record the event on her iPhone. I hesitated for a moment thinking how crazy this seemed. Of course, the truck can’t possibly roll unhill. It goes against the fundamentals of science!
When I came to my senses, I released the brake, and the truck began rolling backwards. It was not what I expected!
I’m not a civil engineer, and I’m not a geologist, so I don’t have a reasonable explanation why the truck drifted backwards, so I consulted the experts:
According to Wikipedia, “a gravity hill is a place where a slight downhill slope appears to be an uphill slope due to the layout of the surrounding land, creating the optical illusion that water flows uphill or that a car left out of gear will roll uphill.”
So I was on a hill that made down look like up?
How weird…but then it occurred to me that Donald Trump runs the country the very same way, and “the 37%” who follow him, must be living on their own personal “Canton Street,” unable to see the road ahead.
Detroit has been working overtime on a public relations campaign to scrub the grime off its tarnished reputation and buff the rentability of its landmark towers. A downtown resurgence is helping to restore the luster of a once-burgeoning city that grew into an industrial and economic juggernaut during the first half of the 20th century, but became a municipal pariah after accruing $20 billion of debt since the 1950s.
In its heyday, Detroit was a magnet of opportunity, attracting new residents from all American sectors with the promise of manufacturing jobs. Consequently, its population swelled to 2 million.
The collapse of the city’s automobile industry was the catalyst for Detroit’s demise. Racial tensions culminated in riots in 1967 that led to a mass exodus, and Detroit shrank to a third of its size. Vacant lots and abandoned buildings became the norm. Ultimately, the city went bankrupt in 2013–the largest debt of its kind for an American city.
Today, Detroit is rebounding, but not without new growing pains. City leaders hope to strike a balance between renewed economic confidence and building a future that is more inclusive of long-term residents who have suffered the most.
As it’s explained by Pete Saunders for Forbes Magazine:
…A partnership between city and state government, business leaders and the city’s philanthropic community led an innovative effort to restructure the city’s debt, estimated at $19 billion.
Private investment in downtown Detroit, already on the upswing prior to the bankruptcy filing, continued to trend upward. Last fall’s opening of Little Caesar’s Arena, part of the larger District Detroit business and entertainment area, the construction of a landmark mixed use development on a former iconic department store site, and the recent acquisition by Ford Motor Company of Michigan Central Station all demonstrate the accelerated pace of development in the city.
Detroit’s Midtown area, also just north of downtown and home to many of the city’s arts and cultural institutions and Wayne State University, has been the site of dozens of new mixed use developments with hundreds of new units designed to attract Millennial urban dwellers.
Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, the city’s oldest neighborhood and one that’s grown in trendiness over the last half-decade, is set to receive more investment in commercial and residential development, pushing its recent successes to the next level.
Detroit’s development resurgence is being tied together by a brand-new streetcar line that opened last year, the QLine. The 3-mile streetcar connects downtown with the adjacent neighborhoods where activity is taking place, and there are hopes that the line could expand further outward and gain additional branches.
Leah and I took a walk around downtown to see for ourselves. First, we stopped at an Art Deco-styled landmark building celebrating its 90th anniversary.
A short walk to the Detroit River brought us face to fist with an homage to Joe Louis.
Nearby, the Spirit of Detroit was undergoing a makeover.
We crossed E. Jefferson to arrive at Hart Plaza to gaze at Michigan’s Labor Legacy.
Walking a short distance to the Detroit River brought us views of Windsor, Canada as once imagined by slaves making their escape through the Underground Railroad.
In the distance, stands the Ambassador Bridge–the busiest crossing between U.S. and Canada–with 10,000 commercial vehicles making the trip daily.
Beyond Dodge Fountain, the GM Renaissance Tower rises from the International Riverfront.
A walk along the riverwalk delivered us to the GM Wintergarden, where a life-sized model of a Chevy Silverado was made entirely of Legos.
It took 18 master builders over 2,000 hours and 334,544 “bricks” to complete. At 3,307 lbs., the sculpture stands at half the curb weight of its legitimate counterpart.
Equally as impressive, and no less the engineering feat, the Fisher Building has been referred to as “Detroit’s largest art object.”
Finished in 1928, the 30-story building was financed by the Fisher family from the sale of Fisher Body Company to General Motors.
Albert Kahn’s opulent 3-story barrel vaulted lobby…
decorated in paint…
and marble by Géza Maróti is considered a masterpiece.
Alfred Kahn also spent time up river on Belle Isle (an island park originally designed by Frederick Law Olmstead in the 1880s), where he designed America’s first Aquarium and Conservatory in 1904.
Another part of Detroit’s revitalization effort included the construction of Ford Field, the domed home of NFL’s Detroit Lions,
conjoined with Comerica Park, home to baseball’s Detroit Tigers.
Detroit has been hailed as The Comeback City, emerging from Chapter 9 with a new vibe that seems to be drawing people back to a city that was broke and broken, and considered unliveable only six years ago. With continuing investment and broad community suport, the prospects for Detroit are bright,
Leah and I are winding down our Great Lakes circumnavigation 200 miles south of Lake Erie, where a hundred or more local and distant celebrants have gathered in Ligonier, PA to party with Tiff and Jim on their 25th wedding anniversary.
Appropriately, it was Ligonier and the surrounding Laurel Highlands where Leah and I broke our Airstream cherry. It was the cusp of winter/spring; it was the day after Leah’s 60ish birthday; and it was my first day of retirement.
We dug ourselves out of a major New Jersey snowstorm, and loaded up the Airstream and the F-150 with a year’s worth of gear and courage. Our maiden voyage left us white-knuckled as we precariously cruised the backroads to find Tiff and Jim’s country house in darkness. That was 29 months ago.
Today, we are seasoned road warriors who have grown in confidence, and somehow avoid repeating our original mistakes. Instead, we make new mistakes, which keeps us on our toes.
Circling back to Ligonier after three months of Great Lakes coastal roads has also given me time to reflect on the places I traveled, the things I’ve seen, and the moments I captured.
What follows is a snapshot retrospective along our route:
This is only the beginning for us. Stay tuned for more travel follies…
Leah and I had set up camp near Muskegon, MI with plans to visit Grand Rapids for an evening concert with “Weird Al” Yankovic. Being one hour away, we decided to make a day of it and explore the Grand Rapids area, but we needed an activity to keep us occupied until late afternoon, and it had to be captivating. After an internet search, all roads led to Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.
Not knowing what to expect, we packed a lunch and set a course for what Trip Adviser informed us was the #1 attraction in Grand Rapids. With over 2800 reviews, who were we to argue with such a consensus. Upon arrival, our first impression was the immensity of the property (158 acres), And the bigness was becoming bigger with new construction all around us.
Apparently, Frederik Meijer was a big success. Who knew? Turns out, Fred was a supermarket magnate worth billions, and this park was to be his legacy–with an endowment fit for a world-class museum, and subsequent listing by 1,000 Places to See before You Die as one of the “30 Must-See Museums” in the world.
There is an impressive conservatory on the grounds with flora from every climate and environment, including a trove of carniverous plants,
but it was a beautiful day and we were there to walk the Japanese gardens…
and celebrate Meijer’s devotion to outdoor sculpture.
These are a few of my favorite things…listed alphabetically by artist:
Our time through the park went quickly. We walked over 2 miles, and returned to the parking lot to find hundreds of people tailgating behind the amphitheater, awaiting Lyle Lovett’s evening performance. Had we not made previous plans to see “Weird Al,” it would have been the perfect venue for another songfest from Lyle (seeMusic City, USA).
We must return some other day…after checking the concert calendar first.
There’s very little to write about Frank Lloyd Wright that scholars haven’t already written.
His affinty for nature, his indefatigable energy, his genius for design, his eagerness to experiment, his immense ego, his appetite for women, his dedication to family–it’s all been revealed and discussed in numerous books and lectures. But it’s also apparent from walking through his Taliesin estate in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
Leah and I would have preferred the immersive, 4-hr Estate Tour, but when I checked on-line for tickets, only one ticket was available when I needed two. It seems that no tour exceeds 21 people, matching the number of seats on the shuttle. Instead, we opted for the 2-hr Highlights Tour.
We boarded the bus at the Visitor Center–
orginally designed by Wright in 1953 as a restaurant and “gateway” to Taliesin, but Wright’s death in 1959 stalled any further construction until his former apprentices completed the building in 1967.
The ride took us past Midway Barn, Uncle John’s farming complex,
on the way to Hillside, the site of the home school he built for his Aunts Jane and Ellen Lloyd Jones.
Currently, the building is occupied by a time-shared architecture “Fellowship”–funded by the Taliesin Foundation–that occaisionally gathers in the Assembly Hall,
and takes meals in the Fellowship Dining Room,
before returning to the 5,000 sq. ft. “abstract forest” Drafting Studio.
We finished up at Wright’s intimate, 120-seat Hillside Theater–originally intended as a gymnasium, but converted by Wright to a cultural space after determining that the arts were more important than sports–
and reboarded the bus for a brief blast of air conditioning and quick trip to Wright’s home studio,
where we browsed through a drafting room filled with “Usonian” models, like the Willey House from 1934,
and assorted personal artifacts.
The house was noticably cooler, thanks to geothermal plumbing installed during the third re-build. We rounded the studio from the outside,
walked across a mound with views of the restored Romeo and Juliet windmill,
and traversed the gardens,
before re-entering the house through the expansive living room,
filled with wonderful flourishes, like glass-cornered windows (which Wright would ultimately perfect at Fallingwater)…
built-in table lamps,
and integration of sculptures that survived the previous two house fires.
Roaming through Wright’s personal bedroom (because he was an insomniac), we discovered no door, a wall of windows without window treatments, and original electric- blue shag carpeting.
The terrace offered glorious views of the Wisconsin River and Tower Hill State Park,
and Unity Chapel in the distance–
the site of Wright’s maternal family’s burial plots, his stone marker, and his empty grave.
As our driver passed Wright’s man-made falls,
our docent passed along a local story of intrigue and scandal:
During March 25, 1985, under cover of darkness, Frank Lloyd Wright’s body was exhumed from his Unity Chapel resting place by his oldest granddaughter, Elizabeth Wright Ingraham, and moved to a burial site at Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
She claimed to be fulfilling the dying wishes of her grandmother and Wright’s widow, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, whose ashes were united with her husband’s within a memorial wall overlooking Paradise Valley. The event sparked outrage around the globe from associates and friends who argued that the architect would have desired to spend eternity at Unity Church with his family.
Even now, Spring Green residents hope that one day their favorite son will get his ash back to Wisconsin.
Long before kitsch and water parks ruled the region, visitors from around the world traveled to the Dells to marvel at the iconic sandstone formations carved by a glacier that plowed through Wisconsin approximately 15,000 years ago–leaving behind a 5-mile gorge struck from rock that’s older than anything on earth.
Word of this discovery spread quickly, attracting Leroy Gates, a lumber rafter with a notion that promotion would bring tourism to the river he loved, and earn him a buck or two to boot. In 1856, Gates offered the first guided boat tours of the Dells of Wisconsin, and made sure everyone knew it.
Supposedly, Gates and his associate guides would sit under umbrellas sipping lemonade, while the guests would paddle their boats up river to destined attractions…
until steamboats took over in 1873.
Fortunately, landscape photographer H.H. Bennett was there to capture it all–taking souvenir photos of the tourists, and landing a place in history as “the man who made the Wisconsin Dells famous.”
Today, Dells Boat Tours continues the tradition on the river…
with a fleet of 17 vessels that carry half a million passengers year after year.
Captain Bob piloted our riverboat north through the Upper Dells,
while First Mate Abby called out the names of rock sculptures famously characterized by H. H. Bennett:
After manuevering through the Devil’s Elbow…
Captain Bob turned into a slot canyon discovered–and affectionately named Witches Gulch by Bennett. Apparently, the name was intended to be sinister and provocative. His strategy was reinforced by similar names inside the canyon, such as:
Eventually, Bennett built a tie-up dock, threaded a boardwalk through the canyon walls, and created a photography concession at the terminus. We were about to see why, as Captain Bob eased toward the mooring.
Abby tied up the riverboat,
and we walked the boards,
for a closer look at the beauty of ancient splittered sandstone turned emerald,
and the waves of light and darkness.
Next, we cruised across the Wisconsin River to the western shoreline to visit the Dells’ most precious formation,
made famous by H.H. Bennett’s photograph of his 17-year old son, Ashley leaping onto the column from a neighboring cliff in 1886.
We gathered under the rock for an equally impressive demonstration by a trained German Shepherd from Juneau County…
that jumped the 5-foot gap without hesitation.
We completed the trail back to the boat, passing other impressive formations along the way…
until it was time to reboard the Marquette and return to the tour operator’s dock. As we cruised back under sunny skies, boat traffic on the river had blossomed.
Locals were enjoying the river to beat the heat,
which was way better than any water park would ever be.
After searching for an escape from the plethora of water parks and souvenir shops in Wisconsin Dells, we settled on a hike around the quartzite cliffs overlooking Devil’s Lake. With temperatures climbing through the 90s amid an epic upper midwest heat wave, the lake was a winning getaway for hundreds of families cooling off in the water, but not for us. Reports of swimmers itch concerned us, and we scratched it off our list.
We sought hiking guidance from the Visitor’s Center, and learned of a steep trek up the southern end of the east bluff that would lead us to a flat ridge loop. The hike was demanding, stepping up and over a talus field of rock-hewn steps cut from car-sized boulders that crumbled in the wake of a glacier that shaped Wisconsin 30,000 years ago.
Miraculously, the moraine was raked and solidified by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and a trail was born.
The heat and humidity was taking its toll on us, and we were feeling our age. It was disconcerting to see millenials ambling up the bluff at twice our pace, but we perservered with patience and caution. Halfway up, our first reward was Balanced Rock…
which offered spendid views of the beach.
Continuing our climb to 500 ft above the lake, we reached a forested plateau with trails running in multiple directions. We carried on toward Devil’s Doorway, the park’s signature rock formation…
forged from Cambrian sandstone as old as 1.6 billion years,
and today, an irresistable climb for teens with mountain goat skills.
It was a mad scramble during the descent, and the perfect place for forgotten walking sticks.
Although the loop was under 2 miles, terra firma never felt better under our weary legs.
We arrived at Bayfield Harbor for a sunset cruise across Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
The skies were flat with soft, diffused light, virtually eliminating all late afternoon shadows.
I had my doubts about a sunset, but at least the water was calm. We boarded the Archipelago, Apostle Island Cruises’ newest vessel–a 65-foot, 150-passenger catamaran,
and soon got underway on our 2½ hour-cruise.
There are 22 Apostle Islands grouped within the archipelago,
and according to Captain Mike, we would be running by half of them on the way to Devils Island, the furthest outpost and the geological jewel of the Apostle Islands archipelago.
Just starting out, we passed Basswood Island, the site of Bass Island Brownstone Company Quarry, operational from 1868 to 1893. The bulk of the cut stone was shipped across the Great Lakes, destined for Chicago residences, but the stone stacked by the shoreline never made it off the island. It’s a reminder of a time when buildings seldom exceeded seven stories.
The quarry company went bankrupt after demand for brownstone was replaced by concrete and steel.
Continuing along, a pair of eagles nesting high in the pines was an unexpected thrill. Last year, 20 eagles were counted within park territory. This year the count has risen to 42.
Before leaving Basswood Island, Honeymoon Rock figured prominently off the northeast shore.
One of the greatest concentrations of black bears in North America is found on Stockton Island. Sadly, we found only trees and a rocky shoal.
When passing Manitou Island, we were lectured by Captain Mike about several of the fishing camps that originated in the late 1800’s.
Cabins and sheds are still standing at the southwest corner of the island.
After cruising through the channel for a half-hour, we arrived at Devils Island, the northernmost point of land in Wisconsin, and notable for the sea caves which undercut the shoreline.
We idled twelve feet from the rock formations for a closer look at the honeycombing…
While the overcast skies precluded any possibility of brightening the scenery, the balanced light offered views into the caves that otherwise would have been defeated by sunlight and resultant higher contrast.
Captain Mike promised one last photo opportunity before returning the Archipelago to Bayfield Harbor. He was referring to Raspberry Island’s lighthouse, once known as the Showplace of the Apostle Islands.
As we trolled along the stone wall, we were greeted by the lightkeeper.
The National Park Service completed renovations of the 1906 structure in 2006.
On the return trip, Captain Mike asked passengers if they knew the origin story of Apostle Islands’ name. A few volunteers tossed out some theories. One guest suggested that there was something religious about the naming. Another guest offered that the area was first mapped by the Jesuits, so that explains why they gave it a holy name.
I thought the insight was interesting but unreliable, since there were 12 Apostles, for 22 islands. Could it be that the Jesuits had been drinking too much Lake Superior moonshine and seeing double?
But photographing Devil’s Island sea caves was a fleeting, yet near-religious experience… with ironic overtones.
Seemingly, Duluthians have only two seasons: winter and summer. During the 2018- 2019 weather calendar, city residents shoveled snow from October 10 to May 9, breaking a record dating back to 1884. Temperatures were moderate for the remaining months of the year.
But when the last snow melted, the Northlanders traded their shovels and skis for bicycles and hiking shoes–eager to take advantage of the wealth of recreational resources in the vicinity. Leah and I sampled some of the more popular options during our recent visit.
The 70-mile Hinkley-Duluth segment of the Munger State Trail offers hiking, biking, in-line skating and snowmobiling on a fully paved road, cut through a forested ridge that follows a busy railway.
Leah and I cycled a scenic 8-mile stretch from Buffalo Valley Camping (our temporary home) to the Carlton terminus,
where the trail parallels Forbay Lake…
until it crosses a nearby St. Louis River dam release.
Lunch at Magnolia Cafe in Carlton gave us the energy we needed to pedal back to camp. Kudos on the cold-brewed coffee and gluten-free chocolate chip cookies.
With our energy restored, we drove to Duluth in search of craft beer. Despite a population center under 90,000, Duluth has earned a reputation as Minnesota’s capital of craft beer, boasting more than a dozen production facilities in the area that are eagerly taking advantage of Lake Superior’s pristine waters.
Fitger’s Brewhouse is the oldest and perhaps the most famous active brewery,
dating back to 1881…
with over 100 original recipes…
still brewed at its present location along the Lakewalk.
For views of the city, nothing beats Enger Tower, the highest point in Duluth,
and no better place to see where the city opens up to the sea,
while revealing its industrial underbelly.
The following day, we were looking for a short but moderate morning hike. All internet indicators pointed to Ely’s Peak, a popular trail reached by following the abandoned Duluth, Winnipeg, and Pacific (DWP) railroad corridor to the entrance of a 1911 railroad tunnel.
The trail was named after Rev. Edmund Ely of Massachusetts,
whose mission was converting the Fond Du Lac Native Americans during the mid-1800s.
From the tunnel to the top and back is 1.8 miles. The loop takes hikers on a 300 ft. ascent offering far-reaching views of the Fond du Lac Reservation and beyond.
We spent the afternoon touring Glensheen, a 20,000 sq ft. Beaux-Arts-styled mansion surrounded by a 12-acre estate…
built beside Lake Superior between 1905 and 1908 by Clarence Johnston, Sr…
for Chester Adgate Congdon and family.
The 39-room historic mansion is reknown for its design and craftmanship of the day…
and that almost nothing from William French’s orginal interior design has changed in 110 years–down to the furniture placement…
and the accessories that adorn the house.
But the most unusual part of the tour was what Nick, our docent would not share with the group when asked about the murders of Elisabeth Congdon and her private nurse, Velma Pietila.
Instead, we were referred to a brochure card with a disclaimer and few details.
It was a brutal crime that was sensationalized by the media, and still remains unsolved.
Leah and I concluded our day sitting in stadium chairs by the Glensheen boathouse pier, noshing on local food truck fare while listening to Charlie Parr, a local folk singer performing an evening of Minnesota moonshine music to kick off the 5th season of Concerts on the Pier.
It was the perfect way to end the day:
enjoying the sunshine and the breeze coming off the lake;
meeting and appreciating new people around us;
watching a mish-mash of vessels manuevering through an ad hoc harbor;
and being interviewed by Ryan Juntti, for WDIO’s 6:00 PM News.
After one month of travelling along Lake Ontario, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior in Canada, we crossed the border into Grand Portage, Minnesota to continue our Great Lakes circumnavigation through the States. We made Duluth our first stop.
Our reservations, made months ago, took us to Jay Cooke State Park–about 10 miles south of Duluth– where we planned to camp five nights through July 4th, but not without sacrifices.
RV enthuthiasts would agree that a level pull-through site with electric, water, and sewer is the norm for comfortability. But a site that also offers cable TV service with highspeed internet is the Holy Grail. Sadly, Jay Cooke was offering us a back-in site with 30 amp service only…for three nights. The other two nights, we were assigned to a primitive site inside the park with no amenities. This was the best Jay Cooke State Park could offer, considering the popularity of the park and high demand for the holiday week.
Originally, we called around to other area campgrounds and RV parks hoping for better accomodations, but found no availability anywhere else. By default, we accepted our fate and placement at Jay Cooke, and considered ourselves fortunate to find any place at all to park our Airstream during Independence Day festivities.
We crossed the border into Central Time, and surrendered an extra hour of daylight in exchange for arriving at the park office during operating hours, and giving Leah one last chance to modify our reservation.
Not a chance; the park was completely booked! We were directed to site 38 for three nights, and redirected to site 66 for the balance of our time.
After 40 minutes of queueing to fill our tank with fresh water, we eventually found site 38 down a very narrow access road lined with crowded spruce trees. No matter how many times I tried, and I tried, I couldn’t swing 28 feet of Airstream plus bicycles into a shallow site without sacrificing my truck to the evergreens. Simple physics wouldn’t allow it.
Leah sought a refund, while I investigated last-hope possibilities, nearby.
As if by magic, I called Darren at Buffalo Valley RV Camping, only a few miles away, who minutes ago received news of a cancellation. And just like that, we had a new address…with electricity AND water.
The following day, Leah and I strolled along the first two miles of Duluth’s 7.5 mile Lakewalk, stretching from Canal Park through Leif Erikson Park to Lester Park.
Starting out at Canal Park, I was drawn to Duluth’s iconic Aerial Lift Bridge that guards the entrance to Superior Bay,
supported by two sentry lighthouses that jet out to meet Lake Superior.
Originally conceived as America’s first transporter bridge in 1905, passengers and freight were ferried across in a large gondola.
In 1930, the bridge was reimagined with a vertical lift,
and continues to operate much the same way to date.
The warm air prompted scores of beachcombers to scramble across the rocks in search of beach glass,
while a few brave souls channeled their inner polar bear by swimming out to “the cribs” in frigid water.
We followed the Lakewalk to Fitgers with a few notable detours along the way.
Free samples were irresistable at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, and star-gazing at Duluth Trading Company…
From a distance, Mt McKay is imposing, rising 1200 ft over Lake Superior and making it the largest of the Nor’Wester mountains. It gets its name from William Mackay, a Scottish fur trader from the mid-1800s, who lived for a time in the Fort William vicinity.
However, the Fort William First Nation, descendents of the Chippewa tribe, call the mountain Anemki Wajiw (ah-NIM-ih-key waw-JOO), meaning Thunder Mountain,
and consider it sacred land.
Mt McKay is a prominent landmark of the Fort Williams First Nation reserve, and offers sweeping views of Thunder Bay…
from its boardwalk overlook on the eastern plateau…
Leah and I drove up Mission Road to a toll house, where a First Nation member collected $5.00. She advised us to hike the western trail to the flat cap for more commanding views, and encouraged us to return in 3 days to witness a powwow of the Lake Superior chapters. She also offered a menu and invited us to visit her lunch counter in town.
The trail was narrow, steep and challenging with shards of shale scattered over rocky formations. We took our time.
After a weary climb of 40 minutes, we welcomed the cooler air around us as we crossed onto a plate of volcanic rock formed over 1,100 million years ago.
The bright sun promised a crisp and dazzling vista,
but it also seemed to energize the horse flies that soon regarded me as bait.
That’s when I knew it was time to retreat to the bottom of the hill, oh-so-gingerly over long drops onto loose shale.
Once we landed at the trail head, I had decided (after checking with Leah) that we should attend the powwow on Satuday.
On the day of the powwow, we looked for news on the internet. and it was everywhere. The council was expecting over 5,000 attendees over two days with plenty of drumming and dancing. Food tents and crafts stalls would round out the affair. The rules were simple: No Alcohol. No Drugs. No hiking. Have a Safe Time.
We drove to Fort Williams First Nation ice arena, where we met a yellow school bus that shuttled us the rest of the way. Only three days ago, the area was empty and quiet, but today, it looked like a parking lot next to a fairground with fringe tents and trailer camping.
Participants were gathering inside the spirit circle and adjusting their costumes, while spectators were filling the grandstands, and the royalty was assembling in anticipation of the welcoming ceremony.
It was a colorful and festive affair. A steady drum beat managed by eight drummers, accompanied a caterwauling chant of guttural highs and lows and occasional shrieks.
After a prolonged opening procession and invocation, Chiefs and Elders presented flags,
and then it was time to drum and sing and dance again. Grass dancers followed Elders…
who were followed by family members…
who also danced several times around the pavillion with their children…
showing off their feathers,
their elaborate ceremonial costumes…
and their elaborate moves…
After a couple of hours, Leah and I returned to the boardwalk for a stroll to the memorial,
where we discovered a trail to the right that hugged the cliff around the plateau. We hiked further along, scouting for poison ivy as we walked, and came to a clearing where three girls in training bras were sneaking cigarettes around a slab of concrete.
It was an amusing irony and signaled our time to return to the ice arena. The school bus that brought us circled the field–collecting passengers–and momentarily paused at a graphic display of Ojibwe insight and life lessons:
A high probability of intermittent rain had been forecasted throughout the day, which gave us very few options. Although we were snug in our pull-through campsite overlooking the northern boundary of Lake Superior from Neys Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, we were looking forward to exploring the stark coastal beauty of an area once known from 1941 to 1946 as Neys Camp 100–an internment facility for German POWs and Japanese Canadians.
Prevailing wind from the west had whipped up whitecaps across the water, and threatening skies promised to restrict our outdoor time, but we were determined to make the most of current conditions: buggy, chilly, yet dry.
A short walk to the Visitor’s Centre for sight-seeing suggestions proved useless since the door was locked–maybe from campground inactivity, I surmised. There was, however, an interesting park bench design overlooking the lake by Sean Randell.
With 144 sites covering 4 areas, Leah and I spotted less than a dozen occupied sites. Many of the seasonal campers left their trailer set-ups behind for greater comforts nearby. With electricity only provided at less than half the sites, we had the showers practically to ourselves.
We were determined to get a hike in, so we selected the 1 km Dune Trail loop for its brevity (in case of sudden rain), and our fascination with sand dunes by the lake. We followed each other single file through a skinny path snaking through a plantation of red pines and a forest floor of lichens, mosses, and herbs. But we never found the dunes–only rolling mounds of sand over soil. We began the hike with an interpretive trail guide corresponding to 7 markers, but mosquitoes quickly put an end to that. We found ourselves marching through the forest just to complete the loop. The roundtrip walk to the trailhead proved to be longer than the entire trail.
With a faint drizzle falling, we planned a 35-mile drive to Terrace Bay, following TransCanada Highway 17 west around the top of Lake Superior, but the truck refused to start. Earlier in the week, I was stuck in a parking lot under similar circumstances, but Leah located a Samaritan willing to give me a battery boost. Today, however, was a different mater. After shlepping a spare battery around America for tens of thousands of miles, I finally got a chance to use it.
The battery installation set us back half an hour. And then the sky opened up the moment I dropped the hood and climbed inside the cab. It was an auspicious moment in my life!
We finally arrived at Terrace Bay (pop. 1100) and descended an elaborate boardwalk to a high viewing platform that distanced us from Aquasabon Fall’s 100-ft. drop,
and the granite gorge that carries the spill water to Lake Superior.
Back at the boardwalk entrance, I stood alongside a millennial male. We were studying an oversized graphic together about the geological properties and commercial significance of the Falls.
My neighbor had a cat perched on his shoulder wearing a harness with a leash. Suddenly, a light rain began to fall, spooking the cat. It leapt to the ground, surprising the host. He had control for a moment, but it squirmed out of his arms, and wriggled free of its harness. He dove for the hind legs, but the cat was too fast. It bolted 50 yards to the trees, and disappeared in the brush with his girlfriend chasing after it and screaming its name. We briefly watched in amusement, wondering if the cat would reconnect with its owners, but we had our doubts.
While in town, we filled the truck with $130 Canadian of gas, and searched for a lunch spot, but ended up at a Chinese Canadian restaurant in a strip mall just to use the internet. I had fried chicken balls (no joke), and Leah ordered dry-rubbed spare ribs. The food was as disappointing as a dead car battery and tasteless as a lost cat in the woods.
A stubby white lighthouse planted in front of the strip mall parking lot offered a view of Lake Superior. To Leah’s amazement, I passed on a picture of the tower and a view from the bridge.
The ride back to Neys was rainswept and uninteresting except for a cow moose that galloped across TransCanada Highway 17, followed closely by two calves. They hurdled the guard rail and instantly disappeared into the forest. Maybe they’ll discover the cat.
“But this one’s on the water, and not the desert,” I tease.
“I know that, smart ass, and it’s also harder to get to, so you need to be careful!” Leah lectures.
“Like I said, how hard can it be?” I reiterate.
We park the truck only minutes from our campsite at Agawa Bay, and enter the trailhead where we are met with a screaming red sign:
“Like I said…” drops Leah.
I deflect the dig. “Check it out.” I direct Leah’s attention to a different sign to our right–a red diamond hammered to a tree with a white arrow and 400 km on it.
“That’s where the trail begins. And according to that sign, we’ve already walked 20% of the trail!”
It’s true the trail is rugged and a scramble. The descent runs through a narrow chasm, over sharp boulders and bulging roots. But it’s only treacherous if wearing flip flops, which a student rangerette at the visitor’s center admits can be a problem with some hikers.
Halfway to our destination, a gash in the cliff exposes a 10 ft granite chunk mysteriously wedged between darkness and daylight.
In 15 minutes we arrive at a clearing of flat rock where the sky opens up to the water. A colorful cliff 15 stories high looms above us, grabbing my attention.
Leah is content holding onto a pipe rail that separates the adventurous from the cautious.
“Are you coming?” I ask.
“Down there? Not a chance!” Leah answers instinctively.
A short drop onto a wet ledge of granite sloping into Lake Superior takes added time, but planting my feet with measured steps is the best method for staying safe.
Knotted ropes threaded through embedded pipes are there to assist the daredevils who spill into 50° F water.
Once I get my footing, I can sidle across the ledge for a better look at the cliff face.
Venturing further out on the ledge, I meet Mishipeshu, the Great Lynx, who was empowered by the ancient Ojibways to control Lake Superior.
There are dozens of sacred drawings set in stone, dating back to the 17th century, but most are faded and nearly unrecognizable from eons of sun, water, ice and wind. Their message remains unknown, but experts reason that the pictographs depict historical events, and could signify manitous from shamanistic ceremonies.
I carefully manuever onto terra firma,
and we hike back to the parking lot.
“That was amazing, down there,” I exclaim.
“It was alright,” notes Leah.
“But you never got to see the pictographs,” I mention.
“That’s OK. You did all the hard work for me. I’ll just have a look at your photographs,” she laughs.
Of course, the Great Lakes are great; they constitute the world’s largest above-ground freshwater system in the world, containing about 18 percent of the world’s supply.
However, beyond its scale (larger than all the Eastern seaboard states combined), what about all the other awesome attractions that border its shorelines? Are they equally as great, or big, or best, or exclusive?
Let’s take a look:
Given the many possibilities for food around the Great Lakes, the area’s largest hamburger rests atop Burger King in Niagara Falls, ON.
And the largest hotdog can be found in Mackinaw City at Wienerlicious.
Both can be purchased with the world’s largest nickel…
the brainchild of Dr. Ted Szilva,
and on display at Sudbury’s Dynamic Earth.
Only one mile away, Inco’s superstack–the tallest chimney in the western hemisphere–rises 1250 feet atop Vale Inco’s Copper Cliff processing facility–the largest nickel smelting operation in the world.
Nowhere as tall, Castle Rock (commonly referred to as Pontiac’s Lookout) is a natural 200-foot limestone sea chimney…
overlooking Lake Huron and Interstate 75,
and considered the oldest lookout in St. Ignace, Michigan…until the Mackinac Bridge was built in 1957.
Spanning the Straits of Mackinac, and connecting the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, the Mackinac Bridge is hailed as the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere.
Although less of an engineering feat, the upside-down house, built in Niagara Falls, measures up to 1200 square feet of topsy-turvy, making it Canada’s most unusual landmark.
Nearby, at Niagara on the Lake, locals can tee up at Niagara Golf Club, the oldest existing golf course (albeit, nine holes) in North America.
In Midland, Ontario, a grain elevator looms over a Georgian Bay harbor, featuring North America’s largest historic outdoor mural created by Fred Lenz.
History also abounds at Colonial Michilimackinac–
a reconstructed 18th century frontier fortress originally garrisoned by the French during 1715, and later controlled by the British.
After 60 years of excavation, valuable relics from fort living continue to be unearthed, making it the longest ongoing archeological dig in North America.
One of the many buildings discovered and recreated inside the fort belonged to Ezekiel Solomon, a fur trader who has been celebrated as Michigan’s first Jewish settler.
And then there’s Niagara Falls, a natural wonder that needs little hyperbole.
While not the highest, or the widest falls, its combined falls (Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls) qualify Niagara Falls as the most powerful, forming the highest flow rate of any waterfall in North America.
While this “Great” list may not represent the best of all gilded attractions in the Great Lakes area to date, it’s the only list I’m likely to compile