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Summer road trip, girl style

From the banks of the Tallahatchie to the headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi River, and lots of sights in between

My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them ~ Jack Kerouac

 

You would have thought someone was dying or going overseas to fight a battle in hostile territory, but that was not the case. Not even close. Lilli, my six year old daughter, and I were going on a road trip.

We’re off to adventureland

My parents were teary eyed when we kissed them goodbye. They cautioned me, a 41-year-old woman, not to talk to strangers, pick up any hitchhikers or accept any help from good Samaritans. Even my older brother texted a few miles into the trip and said, “People are crazy out there. I know. I’ve met them!”

And with that, we were on our way. Destination: Blackduck, Minnesota. Minnesota? Really? Who takes a road trip to Minnesota? Friends and family asked that a lot. It’s simple really. A friend working there for a season invited us up to take a look around and see new places and experience new adventures, so we did. It was an added bonus that we were going to be able to see the very beginnings of the vast and lengthy Mississippi River.

We packed the Tahoe and set out early on a Wednesday morning with one goal in mind: make it to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, by nightfall. That would be about the halfway point of the entire journey up to Black Duck. Lilli’s being the typical “are we there yet” kind of rider meant we would need to break the 17 hour trip up into two days of smooth, leisurely sailing.

Getting there is half the fun

We love Memphis; so the first gem of the day was getting into the city, seeing the Pyramid on the horizon and crossing the Mississippi River. Memphis has always been magical to me, especially downtown. I’m fascinated with Beale and its dirty, low down, bluesy appeal, along with its street performers and stale beer smell. It’s the nostalgia as well. My parents met there back in the early 60’s, fell in love,  and started their lives and their family there, during a time when civil rights struggles were at their peak and Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Memphis. Some people love it and some hate it. I love it and, frankly, if Memphis was good enough for the King of Rock And Roll, it’s good enough for me. 

The Pyramid now serving as the Bass Pro Shop on the Mississippi River

The Pyramid now serving as the Bass Pro Shop on the Mississippi River

The next biggie on the itinerary was St. Louis. I had not planned any portion of the trip using a map or atlas, nor checked online for mileage, major highways or any sort of direction, for that matter. My thinking was as long as I had Google maps on my phone and service, we’d be fine. So once we got outside of Memphis, our lives were in the hands of the Lord and whatever Google supplied us with.

The weather was brilliant that day. We rode, for the most part, with the windows down and sun roof open, with the scent of freedom and total abandonment in the air. Goodbye mundane routine. Goodbye daily grind. Hello open road and copious amounts of coffee! We sang, we cheered, we danced. In fact, we did whatever was humanly possible within the confines of our seatbelts and within the realm of the law.

We rounded St. Louis, not driving directly through, so it was a kind of “move along, folks, nothing to see here” thing. It simply served as a mile marker. Iowa was what we were aiming for. 

Iowa, a state I had never really even considered, was a delightful surprise. Soft, rolling fields of corn lined the entire road before us. It was Americana. Iowa is the picture of America that you want foreigners to see. White farm houses, each and every one with a silo, all settled in between fields with rows meticulously lined up.

Another pleasantry of Iowa was the rest stop we came to right before we got into the heart of Cedar Rapids. Lilli said it was the best rest stop, hands down, she had ever encountered in all her six years of living. So you know it was good.

Lilli's favorite rest stop, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Lilli’s favorite rest stop, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Cedar Rapids is a beautiful metropolitan area with a lovely downtown and an art museum, all nestled between the banks of the Cedar River. As we crossed over the river, we noticed a large modern sculpture called the Tree of Five Seasons. Apparently, Cedar Rapids has a fifth season, which is the time to enjoy the other four. Good enough, we were impressed. 

Five Seasons sculpture located on the river in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Five Seasons sculpture located on the river in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa

 

 

 

 

 

With 550 miles logged, we made our Cedar Rapids goal  and ended Day 1, safe and secure in a comfy AmericInn Hotel. They had a fantastic pool that Lilli could not wait to get into. Unfortunately, we had arrived after pool closing time.

The first swim of the day, Cedar Rapids AmericInn

The first swim of the trip, Cedar Rapids AmericInn

 

We are not in Mississippi any more

The next morning, I had to wake Lilli up extra early. Her mission was to rise early and get in the pool before hitting the road again to make our destination. That and nothing else mattered to her. Thus, the day began with her morning swim followed by everyone’s favorite continental breakfast of a hotel waffle and coffee. And we were off again.

Day 2 on the road. It was another clear day, perfect for road tripping, with the sun beaming down and we two hyped up on our starter coffee. Next milestone, Minneapolis! It was smooth sailing, everything going along as planned. More singing, dancing, snacking and Lilli occasionally taking cat naps that would last no longer than twenty minutes, tops. Our excitement grew; mine, because I knew I was soon to see my dear friend, and Lilli’s because she couldn’t wait to get to the next swimming pool!

Crossing over from Iowa into Minnesota went completely unnoticed. Either the Google maps lady had me taking an out-of-the-way, off the beaten path route or maybe there was road work, but I never saw the first “Welcome to Minnesota” sign. In fact, the scenery gradually changed from the corn fields to more wooded areas, but still, no sign. Eventually I took notice of the license plates and decided we must have been in Minnesota. A stop at a Dairy Queen confirmed.

Every time my mother called to check on us, she wanted to know where we were. I never knew the answer to this question. She was appalled. How could I not know where I was? Couldn’t I just read the signs? It was very difficult to explain to my mother that after entering Minnesota, there just weren’t a lot of signs. There were lots of trees. There were lots of lakes. And there were even lots of very large birds who had an affinity for staying in the road up until the very last minute, one of which one was a bit too slow and made solid contact with my windshield. But no, just not a lot of signs to disclose one’s whereabouts. Oh well, sorry Mom.

Blackduck, Bemidjii and  Babe the Blue Ox

Lilli in Blackduck, Minnesota

Lilli in Blackduck, Minnesota

We arrived in the small town of Blackduck around 6:30 that evening. We couldn’t have been any happier. The second day of driving all day long was a little tiring, even with the excitement building. Blackduck proved to be a sweet little town. One hotel, a diner next door, a charming little downtown area and a little square with, what else – a huge black duck statue sitting in the midst. I was happy.

An added bonus about Minnesota is that all of the trees are perfect Christmas trees. Fir trees are everywhere, and none have a branch askew. It’s like one huge Christmas tree farm, surrounded by beautiful lakes.

Blackduck is located along the northwest edge of the Chippewa National Forest and is 25 miles north of Bemidji, home of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. We spent the whole of a Saturday in Blackduck, attending a wood carvers’ show that was going on in the square. That day, we bought a gigantic bag of kettle corn from one of the vendors. We ate it all the way back to Mississippi; actually, I wish we had more.

kettle corn

Best kettle corn in America produced in Blackduck, Minnesota

We spent quite a bit of time in Bemidji, about a 30 minute drive from Blackduck, seeing the sites and eating. Eating on a road trip is very important. In fact, let’s just say lots of what we did was centered around food, period. What were we going to eat and when were we going to eat it. Each night we went to bed, we anticipated where we would find pancakes the next morning. Fish tacos in Bemidji? Yes, and they were great. Italian food in Bemidji? Yes, and it was fantastic. Taco Bell in Bemidji? Same as here in New Albany, just delivered with a different accent.

Paul Bunyan and Babe the blue ox, located at Lake Bemidji in Bemidji, Minnesota

Paul Bunyan and Babe the blue ox, located at Lake Bemidji in Bemidji, Minnesota

Bemidji has a beautiful lake and a fairly large college campus. They also have a fairly large statue of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. Note the gratuitous photo of us posing in front, ala cheesy tourist style.

Mighty rivers from little trickles grow

We had lots of little mini adventures, simply because everything was new and exciting, but the most thrilling and fabulous place we encountered during our entire visit was Itasca State Park. It was the best day ever! The park is located in three counties: Clearwater, Hubbard and Becker. It spans 32,800 acres. Nothing to sneeze at! It is so very beautiful, and it is where we found the headwaters of the great Mississippi River.

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Flora and fauna in the park

We knew we were about to step into the Mississippi

The Mississippi River begins its 2,552 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico right there in the park. There, at the very beginning of the river, where visitors can walk and wade directly into the water, it is amazingly clear and cool. It’s definitely not the muddy Mississippi at the origin. Beautiful stones, all colors and shapes, line the bottom of the waters. There were children and adults, alike, exploring upon our arrival. We loved every minute of it.

Testing the waters

Testing the waters

 

It’s hard to grasp that the mighty Mississippi River begins with a little meandering stream trickling from Lake Itasca, and winding its way through the woods there.

 

One of many lakes located at Itasca

One of many lakes located at Itasca

There is a lake hiding behind every tree in Itasca State Park- over 100, in fact. It’s difficult to describe; therefore, I have pictures. The lakes, for the most part, all seem to be very accessible, and we walked to the water’s edge on several stops. The wildlife is varied there in the park and includes wolves, black bears, deer, chipmunks and squirrels. While we really didn’t encounter a lot of those critters, we were aggressively accosted by quite a few of the largest mosquitoes I have ever seen in my life.

Alice In Wonderland sized mushrooms

Alice In Wonderland sized mushrooms

The tower afforded us a great view

The tower afforded us a great view

Bird's eye view from the tower

Bird’s eye view from the tower

While hiking and walking in the park, we found a great tower to climb, that gave us a bird’s eye view of the surrounding land. Heights are not really my thing, but I pushed through the fear, and when we finally made it to the top, it was worth it. The view was absolutely gorgeous and the breeze helped to drown out the sound of my heartbeat in my head.

 

 

Next on the horizon?

Though I’d never thought about going to Minnesota, this trip afforded me precious time with my daughter and the opportunity to enjoy sights and adventures we would have never otherwise experienced. I want to go back. I want to go back to Itasca State Park. Its sheer size prevents one from experiencing all it has to offer in just a day’s time. There is so much to see and so much to do.

I will spare you the details of our return to Mississippi. Just know that it was a journey filled with lots of snacks, lots of bathroom breaks, a few tears, a high number of cappuccinos and a great amount of pistachio shells being strewn across the interior of the Tahoe over two days’ time. Lilli and I loved our trip; who knows, next year, maybe we will do Route 66. One can dream.

I have an insane calling to be where I’m not ~ unknown

 

Melissa Coleman

August, 2015

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