In early July I took a weeklong road trip to the Upper Midwest. Why would I go there? After all, these are what many people consider flyover states. Well, I like that part of the country. There’s something essentially American about it. This time of year, the fields are intensely green. I like to find a lonely spot on a dirt road, turn off the engine, feel the wind, and listen to the birds. And the people are wonderful.
My start and end point was Kansas City. The airfares there were the lowest among the cities on my itineraries. I also wanted to do a barbecue comparison (see separate post).
If you’re interested in my trip report, read on. If not, be patient: I’ve got some very cool content coming soon.
- July 8, Los Angeles to Kansas City, Delta Flight 5693, Embraer 175 regional jet. Scheduled 11:15 a.m.; actual departure 12:16 p.m. Scheduled arrival 4:44 p.m., actual arrival 5:29.
- July 15, Kansas City to LA, same flight number, same aircraft. Scheduled 5:33, left on time. Scheduled arrival 7:10; actual arrival 6:56.
Both flights were completely full. The 175 is probably the most comfortable regional jet. There’s no entertainment provided, although wi-fi is available.
Rental car: Kia Soul. Despite its hip, boxy shape, the Soul had less interior space than my Hyundai Elantra GT hatchback. It also had a weaker engine, although handling was very good. The radio had a funky operating system that I didn’t like. As is common these days, the rental car cost more than the plane ticket.
I drove a clockwise loop through the upper Midwest, passing through nine states. My farthest point was Ironwood, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula just across the bridge from Wisconsin. I mostly drove the back roads – the “Blue Highways” featured in William Least Heat Moon’s book of the same name. You won’t find America on the interstate.
My overnight stops were:
- Overland Park, Kansas (Kansas City area)
- Lincoln, Nebraska
- Jackson, Minnesota
- Ironwood, Michigan
- Cedar Rapids, Iowa
- O’Fallon, Illinois (St. Louis area)
- Independence, Missouri (Kansas City area)
Rather than offer you a long description ofeach day, I’ll provide some general conclusions. I like visiting the Midwest, but let’s face it – the scenery is mostly cornfields, and it doesn’t change a whole lot from Kansas to southern Minnesota.
Here are my random observations:
- Summertime in the upper Midwest brings violent thunderstorms that are no fun to be caught in. I studied the Weather Channel every day and found it wrong more often than not. I was supposedly in the path of Armageddon about half the time, yet didn’t get rained on once!
- What I did experience was major heat and humidity. St. Louis on July 14 was the worst – 97 degrees with humidity about the same. It took my breath away and fogged my glasses and camera whenever I got out of my rental car.
- People were friendly and hospitable everywhere I went. Everyone says hello. In LA, if a stranger says hello, you put your hand on your wallet.
- I saw no panhandlers or people with cardboard signs at intersections or offramps. I don’t know if or how that’s significant.
- The population was less diverse than I’m used to. In other words, just about everyone is white.
- About half the men, including farmers, wore shorts. I brought a pair just in case and wound up wearing them every day.
- Summer is fly and mosquito season.
- The most scenic part of the Midwest is what geologists call the “driftless area” and chambers of commerce call “coulee country.” It’s an area that the ancient glacier missed and didn’t flatten. It consists of northwestern Illinois, northeastern Iowa, southeastern Minnesota, and western Wisconsin as far north as Eau Claire. The Mississippi River flows smack dab down the middle of the region; there are steep bluffs along both sides. Cities in this area include Dubuque, Iowa; Galena, Illinois; La Crosse, Wisconsin; and Winona and Red Wing, Minnesota. See photo below.
- Another scenic area is the shore of Lake Superior, stretching from the Canadian border north of Duluth, to northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s UP. Cruising along that shore would be a very nice road trip. This area is great for camping, boating, fishing and canoeing.
- Dawn arrives very early, and sunset comes relatively late. That’s hard on photographers looking for the “golden hours” at the beginning and end of each day. Otherwise the light tended to be flat.
- The Midwest was the last part of the country to accept foreign-made vehicles. That’s changed completely. You see imports everywhere. This doesn’t apply to pickups. That market seems well-divided between Chevy, Ford and Ram trucks.
- This year’s corn and soybean crops are very healthy. This was the general consensus of the farmers I talked to.
- There’s been a tremendous growth of wind turbines, especially in Minnesota and Iowa. Frankly, I find them unsightly. One farmer in Iowa said the turbines in his county were accepted at a time when the price of corn was low, and farmers made more money leasing that land to the power companies. Now, the price of corn is high, and farmers wish they could get rid of the turbines.
- There’s always a lot of road construction in summer.
- The small towns in the areas I visited appeared to be healthy, with very few boarded-up businesses.
- My favorite small towns from this trip were New Ulm, Minnesota; Elkader, Iowa; and Carlinville, Illinois.
- I stopped at the Bily Clock Museum in Spillville, Iowa. Two Czech brothers built some of the most amazing clocks you’ll ever see. And for one summer, the great Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was a guest in their house and composed music there.
- I’ve always believed you can’t get good Mexican food east of San Bernardino. I was proved wrong by the Cancun Restaurant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
- I bought gasoline in Missouri for $2.49 per gallon on a day the average price in LA reached $4.50.
- The Gateway Arch transforms St. Louis from a drab Midwestern city into something special. I can’t take my eyes off that arch.
NEXT ROAD TRIP: September 8-15 to Atlanta