A Hipster’s Guide to North Central Iowa



A few beers in at Single Speed Brewery (Waterloo, IA)


For the twentieth time Corey and I left Chicago in order to spend a Summer away from home. Henna of course is also with us but this is only her fifteenth time tagging along (16 if you count the time she was in Corey’s womb). And what did I learn from the experience? Well today I learned that Waterloo, Iowa has been taken over by a band of benevolent (we hope) hipsters.



Expect a lot of camping this summer, but tonight we chose AC and a comfortable bed


Maybe a dozen years ago we would have been camping tonight but with this humidity… forget about it. After a brief flirtation with Dubuque we stumbled upon a former John Deere warehouse in Waterloo that has been repurposed quite nicely by Marriott into an affordable Courtyard. Our hotel room ceiling have to be at least 12 feet tall and are supported by the original columns which are almost as wide as they are tall. We could have spent the night wandering the John Deere museum (well, if it was open we might have; this is still Iowa so everything pretty much closes around 5). Instead we checked out Single Speed Brewery which, of course, is also located in a former factory. Over Brussel sprouts roasted in hoisin sauce and flat bread sourced with local goodies we toasted our amazing luck stumbling upon this Pilsen of north central Iowa. Then we stumbled back to our room ready to begin again tomorrow.



Even the Waterloo bathroom stalls are hip!


Athens, OH


It’s been awhile. But it was nice returning to always hilly Athens, Ohio. The place has changed without changing and yes that does make sense. To me anyways. Besides walking aimlessly around campus (where I regaled Corey and Henna about my storied years at Ohio University) we also spent time hiking in nearby Hocking Hills State Park. If only I had spent more of my college years there instead of at The Pub…..


cemetery at OU

A short walk from campus is an early 19th century cemetery where several escaped slaves and Revolutionary War Veterans rest.


OU Graffiti

What is one person’s graffiti is another’s college tradition


Henna in the Tiny House

Our tiny house for two days. Only 3 miles from Court Street it was nonetheless deep in the hills and a fun place to wait out the rain.

Sign at Hocking Hills State Park

Waterfall at Hocking Hills State Park


Narrow Gorge

Early Spring rain made for high waters and running waterfalls. 

OU Green Gate





Detroit, MI


new artist

Where once was a good size home is now a giant artist easel


Detroit is like any other post-apocalyptic city except that instead of zombies they got themselves some hipsters. Across the abandoned landscapes (whole city blocks with nothing more than a bunch of crumbling buildings and maybe one decent brewery) they nest, biding their time before the next art gallery moves in.



Greek Pride parade in downtown Detroit


on the water

Along the waterfront on Detroit’s People Mover



Our digs in Detroit. We were a bit nervous moving in and then quickly fell in love with the artist loft.






Our view off the back deck



Corktown mural done

Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood which at one time was home to thousands of Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine. Today it is home to a distillery, a great Udon noodle place, a used record store, and other similar fun places.


Detroit’s pretty cool. Never thought I would say that. For two nights we crashed in the upstairs of a former bar that has since been converted into an artist’s loft. Our landlord was next door in a former bank with windows only on one side of the building. From the street it all looked just another couple of abandoned buildings sitting in the ruins of a once great city.



The Conservatory located on Belle Isle Park. Belle Isle Park’s main attractions (which include the country’s oldest aquarium, the conservatory and a nature museum) are only open a few days a week. So mostly tourists wander the island to gawk at building they are not allowed to enter.


In 1950 Detroit had approximately 1.8 million citizens. Today there are a little more than 650,000 people remaining in the city. That type of wholescale flight is going to leave a few empty buildings (by most counts at least 70,000). And into this void come the artists, urban planners, chefs, urban farmers and other dreamers all looking to lay claim on a new vision.  

Rise up!

They got tourists too. Some wander off to the obvious sites like the former Motown Studio and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Others roam the hinter land in search of art, food, used records and the other necessities of life. We did a little bit of both and cannot wait to return to take in some more. Long live Detroit.



One of the most impressive museums in the world, the Detroit Institute of Arts houses Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” frescoes as well as collections from both European masters and more contemporary artists. 





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!