Austin, MN: Home of Hormel

I got a bit of a late start today.  I woke around 6, and headed up to the showers hoping to beat the crowd, which I did.  I went back to the tent and did my yoga and meditation practice, then wrote this morning’s post.  I was hankering for a decent latte, so I typed coffee into Google Maps on my phone and saw a place called Cahoots in downtown Angola.  I always like a chance to explore small towns, so I decided to add on the extra half hour it would take to drive over there and back to the highway.  It was a hazy humid morning, and the road from the park to town was lined with the typical strip malls and businesses.  The heart of downtown, though, is worth the visit.  It’s a charming 19th century Midwestern town with a circular center of quaint Victorian buildings.

Unfortunately, the road running to Cahoots was under construction, and everything was closed, so I walked back and stopped in at the Coachlight.  It was a swanky loungey sort of place, empty except for one customer sitting at one of the nice round tables setting up real estate appointments.  The young barista gave me her take on what’s wrong with the government (based on my exclamation that there is tax in Indiana on latte). She was good natured, and I encouraged her to run for office!

It was a pokey drive for the first half of the day.  The traffic from Gary to beyond Chicago was heavy even for a Saturday.   It was a peak moment for me to finally split off from 90/94 onto 90 proper, the road that will take me nearly all the way home to Washington. I hit it at 1000 miles at 2:00 this afternoon. Immediately, the road is different, grassier in the median, less traffic, more space.  Quieter.  This happens just past Madison, WI. My beloved, who has driven this route many times has always said, once you get past Chicago and Madison, you’re in the country. Dropping onto 90 was a breath of fresh air and a chance to pick up the pace.

At the Wisconsin Minnesota border, you cross the Mississippi early on its path south from its origins at Lake Itasca in MN.  It’s at its highest level in 20 years due to this summer’s heavy rains, and crossing it today was a thrill.  It was as wide and muddy up here as it is where it runs through New Orleans.  It gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “west of the Mississippi.”

I know that Montana is famous for its “Big Sky,” but the the sky in southern Minnesota is pretty spectacular.  In fact, all of southern Minnesota from the Wisconsin border west is gorgeous.  As I drove west on 90, the landscape was hilly and then emerald green with corn and I don’t know what all growing on both sides of the road. Towers of cumulus clouds rose up into the sky, and for 180 degrees as far as I could look both left and right there was nothing to break it.  Nothing but green and a thousand shades of blue and gray separated by two ribbons of black on either side of a wide median.

I stopped off in St. Charles for gas and a break.  It was getting to that point when the sheer movement of the trip was a little overwhelming. A drive like this is not unlike a long flight. There’s constant movement and at the same time complete or nearly complete stillness.  It’s meditative and a little straining. When I got out of the car, I could feel that the air had started to cool.  It was sometime after 4.  I put down the top and set off again. What a blessing to be intimate with the air that way.  I was engulfed in it.   At some point there were fields and fields of windmills, huge and white spinning like swimmers or pinwheels, mesmerizing, stretching as far as the eye could see.  It was like a dream, motion and stillness meeting, kissing, embracing, parting and then the same all over again.

As I drove, the sky got cloudier, and the clouds got darker.  The wind picked up.  It was exhilarating to speed along through this aliveness, one with the weather.  I was trying to beat the rain.  By 5:30, it was as dark as night and a fine rain had begun.  I had seen signs for hotels in Austin, and I sped past a neon sign that said “Vacancy: Exit Here.”  It would make a good story to say that I heeded that message and got inside before the storm.  But I went on  in search of a Super 8, which I thought would be a better bargain.  In the end,  in the pouring rain, I turned around and went back the two exits that brought me here.

I’m tucked away in a small “suite,” sort of a one bedroom kitchenette at the Rodeway Inn in Austin, MN, home of Hormel Meats and Spam!  You can smell its smokiness in the air. There’s a SPAM museum, the Hormel Institute and a Jay C. Hormel Nature Center.  I was able to park right outside my door, which was a help with the various small bags and food and water to bring in from the car.  The rain is pelting the front of the building.  Outside the bedroom window is a tree that breaks the view to the small road and the Shell station on the other side.  It’s a different kind of homeyness than last night.  I feel grateful for this slice of roadside America, for this room and the rain and the 1113 mile behind me.

SPAM Museum

SPAM Museum, Austin, MN



Night in Angola

Yesterday was the first day of my drive west. I did almost 600 miles in around nine hours. Pennsylvania is a wide state. I left Bryn Mawr at 8:13 and crossed into Ohio at 2:00. Route 76, which in Philly we know as the Schuykill Expressway that is typically clogged with traffic, in its west bound leg quickly opens up to farm land and then climbs into the Laurel Highlands. If you’re a person of a certain age, you might remember beer ads that used this phrase to tout the fresh water of its brew. I’ve forgotten the brand, but as I entered the tunnel that bears the Pennsylvania Highlands name, the sunshine and high clouds and verdant hillsides brought back a nostalgic memory of childhood.

Over the border, 76 West becomes the Ohio Turnpike, and the traffic becomes lighter yet. Ohio has beautifully designed modernist rest stops that are as airy and welcoming as its landscape. I remembered the Starbucks where my beloved and I stopped two winters ago when we did this trip together. It was uncrowded as the roadway, the only other patron a man in a Seattle tee shirt. I thought to ask him which way he was going, east or west, but he was wearing his ear buds and the fixed concentration of the solitary traveler.

I had set Angola, particularly Pokagon State Park as my potential destination uncertain if I’d make if this far. When I realized I was getting close sometime around 5:00, I called their reservation number to make sure they still had room. The attendant informed me that there’s a two day minimum on weekends. This was disappointing news, especially as I’d already called twice before during the week to talk to agents about the likelihood of getting a spot without reservation. I was quite disappointed with and decided to take my chances on finding camping by following road signs.

When the sign for Pokagon came along, I signaled and exited the highway. Driving into the park from the road, I relaxed into its slower pace and deep greenery. I paid the $7 out of state fee to enter the park and flowed the signs for the campground entrance past the wilderness preserve and the elegant lodge and restaurant. At the camping gateway, I was greeted by a vested volunteer with the question, do you have a reservation?

I told them that I had just driven the first nine hours of a cross country trip and was hoping to spend a night. She conferred with the staff at the gatehouse and they did indeed find me a spot.

The campground is large and well treed. At 6:30 it was smoky with dinners cooking and busy with bike and foot traffic. Families were gathered around picnic tables or sprawled in beach chairs, bathing suits and towels like prayer flags lining their sites. It was altogether a good feeling place. Safe. Green. And with a promise of peaceful sleep.

Even through my earplugs I heard a guitar strumming, s’mores making, laughter and the one very unhappy baby whose wails had earlier filled the bath house. Maybe she is teething. It can be a painful business this being alive. Her mother had spoken soothingly to her from the shower while also monitoring the tooth brushing of her two bigger sisters with their clean wet hair and fuzzy pajamas.

I drifted into sleep amongst these fellow campers and woke at dawn to songbirds and crows and a wood pecker somewhere off in the distance. I showered and did some yoga in my tent. It’s time for breakfast and breaking down my temporary shelter to get back on the road. Where will I sleep tonight?