Backbone State Park, Iowa


Corey and Henna gazing out from the CCC built boat house at Backbone State Park

A couple of days before a possible teachers strike and immediately following one of the most nauseating presidential stories of all time (thanks a million Trump, you smug creep you), we headed to the foothills of Iowa’s “Little Switzerland.” Founded in 1919, Backbone State Park is named for a massive rocky ridge that extends over the very pretty Maquoketa River. A scant 400 million years ago this rock lay below a tropical sea which explains the marine fossils that litter the area. The park spills over a large area and although relatively well marked, it is definitely missing a visitor’s center. So we mostly stumbled around before finding a small cave which only Henna was brave enough to explore.


Water, sun, and changing leaves; who could ask for more in October

We camped at South Lake where late at night we heard two owls calling to each other. Our loop (in the 30s) backed into a nice stand of trees with a trail that ran parallel to the water. What we enjoyed most though was stepping back into our camping roles. Back home life moves fast but out in the country, with no real plan and nothing we had to do, it felt right to sit back and watch the trees color themselves silly. Best time of our mini-road trip was playing Frisbee right before packing up the tent with a slow breeze blowing the leaves down like rain. The morning fire was still smoking and in that moment I honestly did not care if we went on strike, who the next president might be, or if the Cubs made the World Series. OK, I lied about not caring if the Cubs made the World Series. But it still felt mighty good to be back on the road.


Backbone State Park is about 4 ½ hours from Chicago. Driving from the east, we recommend taking the very scenic Route 3 from Dubuque. Besides South Lake there are a few other campgrounds both in the State Park as well as the surrounding area.


Hibbing, MN


Bob Dylan’s childhood home

I am a huge Bob Dylan fan. Huge.  Which is why I am writing this from his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. The family and I just did a walk by his boyhood home, albeit very discreetly.  I didn’t want to be one of those tourists that stalk old haunting grounds of famous people. So I begged Noel to put the camera away so we could just blend in. But I have to admit, I am one of those people. I got a thrill being on the steps where MLK gave his I Have a Dream Speech then felt an incredible sadness standing at the ledge where he was shot down. I felt a similar feeling walking Dylan’s hometown.


The hotel where Bob Zimmerman (Dylan) had his Bar Mitzvah

Bob considered himself a gypsy of sorts and concocted and crazy stories of his childhood. But Dylan’s boyhood was both normal and stable and deeply entrenched in this area.  So the idea that he roamed these streets, slept in that house and developed his history here makes me feel connected somehow.  While travelling, the idea of home and place is more vivid for me.  As we move further from home and all things familiar it puts you into a sort of out of self-place.  All the things that help to define you are gone, and your free to be something new. So meeting people, hearing their stories, sharing your own is one of my favorite things.  Finding out how folks end up where they do is very intoxicating so when we meet people, the first question is “Where are you from?”, which always begins a conversation of history, or the reason they got where they are.  Usually the answer is for love, but there were other crazy stories of adventure.  We have met and heard many stories along this trip, and usually the farther we get the more I realize how similar we all are.   One reason why I love Dylan is that his songs are steeped with tales about all kinds of folks. At first glance the words might seem disjointed and out of place, but if you take a deeper look they become a rich tapestry. Same is true for our own stories because as different from each other as they might initially appear, there is still ultimately at least one connecting thread. So, very soon we will be back in our home.  With our people.  Continuing our story.  Although it’s always fun to step outside of oneself, my second favorite thing about the journey is coming back home.      


The only Dylan display we found in Hibbing. It was in a library basement behind a locked door. We had it to ourselves and were told to shut off the light and lock the door behind us when we were done.


Looking down Howard Street in Hibbing, MN




Where We Circle Southern Illinois Like a Turkey Vulture

There are few places less uncovered by Hennacornoelidays than Southern Illinois. The actual boundaries of Little Egypt (as this area is sometimes known) are a little vague. Generally speaking though, it is defined by the Mississippi and Ohio which come together at Cairo to form Illinois’ most southern point. The top lid is less clear but probably lies no further north than Effingham (a good four hours south of Chicago). You may still be in Illinois, but just try to get a Chicago newspaper or find a Cubs fan. Both are near impossible to do and any conversation reinforces the fact that most of this area rests further south than Richmond, Virginia.

So why do we keep coming back? It is part nostalgia. Corey and I honeymooned here almost fourteen years ago in the same cabin where I typed up these thoughts. Henna sat up for the first time here and in this cabin we have also searched for Easter eggs, listened to owls hoot at night, cowered by a television to track powerful storms headed our way, and walked the trail immediately outside a little bit further into the woods each visit.

But the area has a strong pull on us as well with each visit a mix of the old and the new. Very few things here are carefully marked and most visits involve a lot of time spent looking at a map. We are also happy to say that even GPS finds the area a bit dense and listening to it might cause the traveler to wander in circles. Return enough times and one begins to see each visit exists in fact as a circle with each trip overlapping the last.  For this adventure we circled the familiar while stopping at the new.

Pamona Winery

Those wine varietals you are accustomed to drink do not fare well in the Midwest. For that reason many of the Southern Illinois vineyards use hybrids resulting in wine that sort of resembles what you can buy a lot cheaper at your local grocery store. A few of the special vineyards, however, focus more on grapes that actually thrive in the thin southern soil. Pamona does it one step better by offering up a variety of apple wines. They are delicious with their Jonathon surprisingly tart and dry. Pamona also ages one in oak with the flavors reminding us a lot of Sake. The winery excels also in conversation and most visits include one with the owner, Jefferson Park native and self-described hippie George Majak who moved to the area in the late 1970s and had to initially learn to do without electricity. Things are more developed now, but the essential character of his place is a rugged retreat perfect for a picnic lunch or glass of Southern’s finest.


Little Grand Canyon

This was not the first time we hiked into the canyon, but it was the first time we successfully navigated the entire three mile trail. It involved a lot of wet rock scrambles with the trail often resembling a slowly moving waterfall. We also were fortunate to encounter a few hikers along the way many of whom had gotten lost somewhere along the trail. We heeded their advice and for that reason spent more time admiring the pock marked canyon walls and less time arguing over which way to go.

If you attempt this trail search out the terrain for white diamonds marking the trail and know that a few key junctions do not have said diamonds to guide you in the right direction. Also bring water and maybe hike your socks high and/or wear pants to help defend against the bugs.

henna at the lgc              waterfall


Longbranch Café & Bakery

We cannot believe it has taken us almost fifteen years to discover this vegetarian diner that is located in Carbondale across the street from the train station. The only thing better than the friendly people working there is the yummy food they serve. Henna recommends the Puerto Rican Black Beans and Rice. Corey and I both loved their home made hummus, delicious grilled cheese sandwich, and their made from scratch tomato basil soup. If you do not have time for lunch, grab something to go at their bakery.

Plaza Records

Our 3 new favorite words are “dollar record bin.” There were so many quality records to choose from I had to talk Corey out of renting a U-Haul trailer. The store also promotes local talent, has a small listening station, and can be found in Carbondale.

Lincoln’s Home: Springfield, IL


Lincoln's Home

Springfield is an interesting place. Not quite interesting enough to spend a full weekend but it has more to see than is possible in a day. Last time through we checked out the Illinois State Museum (free, a lot of fun, and next to the Capitol). Yesterday it was Lincoln’s home (also free and only a few blocks from Capitol).


Lincoln's Bed (replica)

Lincoln lived in the house as a successful lawyer right up to the moment he left for the White House (he learned of his victory while sitting in his front room). Some time after his death his son Robert deeded the house to Illinois and it was later taken over by the National Park Service. Most of the furniture are replicas but you do get to use the same banister as Abe (Henna was very excited over that one) and see the actual desk where he penned many of his speeches. The tour really does a good job of giving a sense of who Abraham was as well as the time he lived in. I especially enjoyed strolling from the block of 19th century homes that make up the National Historic Site to his law office (sadly just a plaque on a building). One block past there is the Old Capital which Lincoln knew well. It also is where Obama declared his intention to run for president.


The old Capital

We then took a bit of Route 66 before heading home.

Circus World Museum: Baraboo, Wisconsin

Greatest Show on Earth

Greatest Show on Earth

From the late 1880s through the early 20th century, the sleepy town of Baraboo became a whole lot more interesting in the winter. This was when the Ringling brothers took the circus (elephants, side show attractions, and a lot of sequins) back home to rest up for the next season. After the circus combined with Barnum and Bailey they moved out of Wisconsin and left behind a bunch of buildings including those used to house elephants, ponies, and costumes. In 1959, it was opened to the public as a museum and is now a sprawling complex with the pretty Baraboo River bisecting the grounds. In addition to the tasteful displays that document life in the circus, the place also offers a crazy large collection of Circus Wagons which are packed tight in an airplane-like hanger with refreshingly little related information provided. You just squeeze in between the painted wood and gape at the incredibly detailed depictions of the natural and unnatural wonders of the earth. Being fall, we had the place to ourselves and it was not hard at all to imagine excitement these wagon would create when rolling into some sleepy mid-western town.

Most interesting cocktail party ever

Most interesting cocktail party ever

What we did not see where a lot of people at the museum. I guess this is a constant problem with one bored employee stating that the place was always in danger of going broke. Even with the daily magic shows and animal attractions (we missed the former and the later was done for the season), the museum has trouble competing with all the waterparks and wax museums (all much closer to the pricey Dells resorts than Baraboo which is a good thirty minute drive away). But I am not worried for their future at all ’cause there will always be a place for the Greatest Show on Earth.

In training

In training


A Cool Fall Destination: Hixton/Alma Center KOA, Wisconsin

KOAs are kind of hit and miss with us. The worst are impersonal, crowded, and a few yards from the expressway. They serve a purpose (showers, laundry, and saving money come to mind) but we do not miss them when we leave. There are a couple of special ones, like the one a few miles south of Mendocino, California that do the system proud. Last weekend, in north central Wisconsin, we stumbled upon a new favorite.

Walking around the campground

Walking around the campground

Honestly this is one of our favorite campgrounds (private or public). What made it special were the little things (like the countless decorations put up by the owner’s grand daughter) that went along with the bigger attractions such as the quiet little trails leading to viewpoints of the surrounding valley. There is also a not so clearly marked trail that leads to three distinct rock shelters. A lot of people have camped on this land and the faint petroglyphs hint at a culture 10,000 years past. Many stone tools, arrow heads, and other artifacts have been found in the area and some of them are displayed in the laundry room.

The Dwyer Rockshelter on Silver Mound (located within the campground)

The Dwyer Rockshelter on Silver Mound (located within the campground)

Our cabin was heated (which was a good thing because it was in the 30s the first night we stayed). Some of the cabins (called lodges) have bathrooms but ours did not. The shower/bathroom area, however, was clean and next door. They also had two camper sinks (yeah!) and the tent sites are very large and private. And while bigger attractions like the Sparta-Elroy trail are a good hour away (the price we paid for staying somewhere a few miles away from an expressway) the surrounding area does have it charms. Like a ton of gourds, apples, and pumpkins to share. At one place there was a field, a drop box (a dollar a pumpkin), and a couple of scarecrows watching over the scene. Another farm involved a couple personally welcoming each visitor and offering everyone a spot of coffee or a sucker depending on their age. The inside area proudly displayed a “Kindergarten Hall of Fame” with photo after photo of smiling little faces holding their favorite gourds. Their dog was friendly too and followed us around the place. At the Cain Orchard we, and two other families, were given a tractor pulled tour of the farm. It was all blueberry bushes (a beautiful fall red), golden harvested fields, and brightly turned trees in the distance. The apples were a delicious after thought.

View from cabin

Our cabin

If you want to go this season, you better hurry cause they close down soon. The heated pool probably makes this a good summer place to hang out too. Follow this link link for more information.


A Few Summer Ideas

At the request of a friend looking for somewhere sort-of wild to go camping this summer, I listed a few places a day’s drive from the big city. My bias for the summer is north (mostly because I hate heat and humidity). Do you have a favorite summer camping spot? If so, let us know in the comments.

Ludington State Park (Michigan Coast, about 6 hours away)

Ludington State Park

Ludington State Park

This is a new favorite place for us and we have yet to sample it in the summer (this is what we wrote a few months ago). Summer here should be a lot of fun too ’cause it has a big lake for contemplation and a smaller one for swimming and canoeing. There also is a lighthouse, bike trails and rentals, and a pretty cool nearby town.

Kettle Moraine South Unit (near Whitewater, WI. About 2-3 hours away)

Henna and her friend Nicole at Kettle Moraine South Unity

Henna and her friend Nicole at Kettle Moraine South Unity

Along the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin, this park was awesome for us and several other Edison Park families one late May weekend. It has a great lake with a smallish but decent enough sandy beach, good fishing, and a roomy campground that lacked electricity (yeah, more stars at night) and plumbing (I swear the nicest vault toilets ever). The park is known for mountain biking which people do on the cross-country ski trails.

Sparta-Elroy Bike Trail Area(Northwest Wisconsin; 3 hours away)

Situated in the Driftless region of northwest Wisconsin (the area of Wisconsin not flattened by the glaciers) the area boasts a very long, mostly flat crushed limestone bike trail that weaves in and out of the hills. So you bike a few miles through farmland then come into a small town where you eat some ice-cream before hopping back on your bike. Along the trail there are three tunnels with one so long that it is pitch black in the middle. Closer to Elroy there is a great private campground that also offers bike rentals.

Near the Sparta-Elroy trail

Near the Sparta-Elroy trail

South Haven Area, Michigan (2.5 hours away)

Covert KOA

Covert KOA

Not a big fan of the very noisy and crowded state parks around South Haven. As a good alternative, try this wonderful family run campground. You are going to have to drive to the beach, but they have blueberry picking and a very nice pool to go with their wood lodge like facilities. Last time we camped the bugs in the tent area were pretty bad, but maybe it was just the season. The cabins make a nice alternative and have AC. If you go, check out the scene at St. Joseph (very cool public beach and a so-so Children’s Museum).

Pike’s Peak State Park (North East Iowa, 3-4 hours away)

View from Pike's Peak

View from Pike’s Peak

Named after the same Pike whose peak in Colorado exceeds 14,000’, this peak is not quite as tall. But the views of the Mississippi are pretty cool. And the ancient burial mounds making up Effigy Mounds are something that has to be seen to be believed. Again, our only experience here is in the fall (where the Great River Road’s foliage has to rival anything in Vermont), but Summer is likely just as good a time to visit. Noel

Happy Summer everyone and hope you find time to follow us on travel northeast all the way to Newfoundland!

City Museum (St. Louis)

City Museum Photo 2

There I was, gravity pushing me head down into a five foot drop that ended with a concrete slab, and I could not for the life of me swing my legs around to cushion the fall. Maybe a dozen kids were stopped up behind me in the tunnel as I tried and tried and to fit my feet under my chin. And just when I was about to yell for help I was able to just barely free my feet and then jump harmlessly to the ground. Henna followed me down (she of course had no problem whatsoever navigating her way within what is essentially a giant Slinky toy) then we climbed a few steps into a stripped down airplane. While a bunch of little children pretended to fly the Junker, I looked out the window at the greater St. Louis skyline. We did not allow ourselves to become too complacent, as there was still a giant slide between us and firm ground.

City Museum St. Louis

The place is not for everyone. I do not, for example, recommend that my mom venture anywhere near the museum (because she just might faint if she saw her eldest son and granddaughter stuck several stories high). And to be honest, it is not exactly the safest place around as we witnessed several people hitting their head on concrete overhangs (a wallet also fell a few feet from Corey who was minding her own business on the ground floor). But if you are not squeamish around heights (or sliding your way in and out of incredibly intricate man-made caves that extend upwards for close to a dozen stories), then you really need to check this place out.

The City Museum is the brainchild of artist Bob Cassilly and his ex-wife Gail Cassilly who purchased a vacant former shoe factory in order to sink an artistic anchor into a dying industrial part of town. Bob was relentless in this pursuit and over time he created a living, breathing art piece that doubled as a playground (the area benefitted nicely too as there now exist several condos and boutiques where once there were only abandoned buildings). Using as much discarded materials as possible as well as the remaining guts of the factory, Bob cluttered floor after floor after floor with giant turning devices, slides that only hint at where you might end up, and climbing apparatuses that allow children to coast along the ceiling and then into different floors. He also designed an amazing labyrinth of caves which both rise vertically as well as outward so that one can either ascend ten stories up or go a few yards to the side. A master of concrete, he filled these caverns with perfectly realized sculptures of animals, and mermaids, and whatever the heck else he thought would complete a subterranean dream. Outside the museum are several slides and rising tunnels that lead to things such as the aforementioned airplane. The City Museum also offers circus classes, an aquarium, an arts and crafts center, and a pretty nifty collection of recovered gargoyles and other things people threw away when knocking down classic buildings. And on the roof are a Ferris wheel and other goodies (which unfortunately for us did not open until mid May).

Speaking of closing, the place is closed on Sundays, but is open most weekends until midnight. Midnight! They even have a couple of bars, serve decent and not too expensive food, and offer gated parking across the street ($5 the day we were there). Sadly Bob died a few years ago while working on another project in an abandoned concrete factory north of town. But as long as his museum lives so does a part of him. Noel

City Museum

Yet Another Post About Starved Rock

Starved Rock PhotoJust an hour and a half west of Chicago is a lodge almost as old (and grand) as Many Glacier. However, unlike the Many Glacier lodge in Montana, Starved Rock Loge is open year round and costs about the same as a Holiday Inn Express. You are also a lot less likely to be eaten by a bear while hiking the trails (and are more likely to spy a bald eagle along with several waterfalls and canyons). You can go for the day, but if you have time spend at least one night at the Lodge for the full effect (like jostling with other visitors for prime fireplace access). Noel

Frozen waterfall at Wildcat Canyon

Frozen waterfall at Wildcat Canyon

Corey and Henna showcasing the patented HCN but descent

Corey and Henna showcasing the patented HCN but descent

By the Illinois River

Bald Eagle at Starved Rock

Hartwick Pines State Park

Relic from the past

There’s just something about an old growth forest. Not that long ago huge swaths of the North Woods and Michigan held massive trees hundreds of years old. So extensive was their reach that a squirrel might go three hundred miles without ever touching the ground (per some guy I was talking to at the state park). The lumber industry in Michigan was initially limited by river access. If there was no nearby river then it just did not make economic sense to cut down the trees. But then the rail road came (damn socialists!) and suddenly the distance to market seemed to shrink and the number of stumps increased. Lucky for folks living about eighty miles south of the Mackinac Bridge the loggers missed a swath and this area now makes up Hartwick Pines State Park.

Nature Girl among the pines

Nature Girl among the pines

Joining us on the chilly but beautiful day we visited the park were a bunch of bow hunters and a wedding party. The wedding party sprawled from the picnic area (and was warmed by an outdoor fireplace) to the accurately named Chapel in the Woods. I thought about asking them if they needed a minister but Corey begged me not to. Bow hunting season is not quite as perilous as the rifle season, but to be on the safe side we stuck to the trails marked closed to hunting. Besides a majestic grove of multiple century old pines, the state park also has quite a few deciduous trees. Some were flaming red, but most were a more muted yellow. They were simply awesome to walk around and under. There also is an interesting and somewhat understated Logging Museum.

From inside the Chapel

From inside the Chapel

We checked out the campground and found some nice sites there. The folks at the visitor center said the place gets pretty busy in summer (probably in part because Mackinac Island is only about an hour drive and a ferry away). After spending our morning outside it was time to start our drive south. Away from the lake the leaves remained colorful and there were just enough roadside stands to keep our tummies filled and our legs stretched. Somewhere close to home the leaves turned back green. Noel 10/13

Hartwick Pines State Park