I had two free rental days from Hertz set to expire on August 31, so I took a brief but intense road trip to Duluth, Minnesota this week. I suppose I should have gone somewhere to do something rather than just driving around collecting counties, but nothing came to mind. Wisconsin isn't my favorite state, so my goal was just to collect counties and get it over with. My other objective was to listen to as many CDs as possible. I had a huge stack of CDs from my birthday and even Christmas that I hadn't listened to more than once or twice (at home I usually listen to downloaded concerts, but that's a topic for another time). Of course it was a profligate consumption of gasoline, but I figure I may as well take such trips while I still can.
I got a ride to Hertz from my wife so I didn't have to schlep my backpack full of CDs there on foot. I'm sure I could have, but I didn't want to start my trip all sweaty. They offered me a Chevy Impala, but I asked for something with better mileage. They gave me a 2007 Ford Focus sedan, so I enjoyed spotting the minor differences between it and our own 2006 Focus hatchback. I headed toward Wisconsin via I-90, holding our I-PASS up to the windshield as I passed through toll areas. I stopped at the Wisconsin tourist info center for a state map, and then I kept going through Madison and north on I-39.
My route led through Plainfield, WI, but alas, a highway detour denied me a visit to the town associated with serial killer Ed Gein. In Medford, I saw a sign for a hair shop called "Cool Noggins." Personally, I think they stopped being cool when they attached outdated slang like noggins to their name. Then I drove through Colby, WI, where Colby cheese originated. Although the town is right on the county line of Clark and Marathon Counties, it is not where County Line cheese originated. In Ladysmith, WI (which I couldn't help calling Ladysmith Black Mambazo, WI), I passed a former Carnegie library converted into a bed & breakfast called Carnegie Hall.
A sane man would have called it a night upon arriving at the Motel 6 in Duluth around 8:30 PM, but the remote counties of Lake Superior's north shore were calling. First I went to a Country Kitchen for a meat lover's omelette and pancakes. It was a bit overwhelming for my first real meal all day, and the pancakes were a little burnt. Afterward I drove southwest to collect Carlton County. Then after a quick U-turn beyond the county line, I headed northeast to Cook County some 75 miles up the lakeshore. I struggled to stay awake, especially on the way out there. The lake was beautiful with the full moon shining, but the drive would have been even prettier in daylight.
When I got back to Duluth around 1 AM, I was amazed how deserted the freeway was, as well as how normally the few people on the highway were driving; in Chicago at that hour, some drivers would be pushing 85-90 mph and weaving across three lanes. I finally returned to the motel with more than 700 miles for the day, as well as 16 CDs in my "already played" pile.
I debated whether to get a wake-up call for 7:30 or 8:00 AM. I decided on 7:30, but it didn't matter. Despite my exhaustion, I had a terrible night of unsettling, violent dreams and restless sleep. I usually sleep better on the road than at home, but not this time. When I awoke at 6:30, I figured I might as well get out of Duluth before rush hour.
I've never been particularly nervous about bridges before -- aside from the fear of an accident bouncing me over the guardrail and sending me to a fiery death -- but I couldn't help thinking of the Minneapolis bridge collapse as I drove skyward on the gigantic I-535 bridge from Duluth to Superior. I followed U.S. 2 across northern Wisconsin and stopped in another Country Kitchen in Ashland for breakfast. I love their pancakes, and this cook made them perfectly.
I plotted a route to grab a couple of counties in Michigan's Upper Peninsula without adding too many miles, and it was a pretty drive through Ottawa National Forest. The leaves were already changing up there. I went through Watersmeet, "Home of the Nimrods." Although the school's Web site explains that a nimrod is a hunter, I am sure that opposing teams favor the word's other, less flattering definition.
I stopped for a "bladder buster" Coke, as my wife describes any cup 32 ounces or larger. I was already feeling very tired thanks to yesterday's high mileage combined with too little sleep. The only way I would make it home alive would be to consume immense quantities of caffeine-laden liquids. This meant I had almost constant bladder pressure, and that kept me awake as well. Whenever I stopped at a gas station to use the bathroom, I bought another tall cup. This strategy worked pretty well, but I was a bit concerned when it was only lunchtime and I still had 500 miles to drive.
I spent a couple of hours driving through Nicolet National Forest. Then I drove through Menominee County, all of which is an Indian reservation, on scenic Route 55. In Green Bay, I crossed another huge bridge and headed northeast to Door County. My wife has always wanted to go there, but I have resisted because I have a strong aversion to the crowds in popular tourist spots. I suppose that makes me a jerk for going there alone, though I only traveled a short distance beyond the county line.
By the time I got to Appleton, the drink-Coke-and-pee routine wasn't working anymore. I hate coffee, but I had little choice at this point. I stopped at a Mobil station, used the bathroom, and poured myself a cup. The woman at the counter said, "That's free if you buy a post crescent." A what? "A post crescent."
I was wondering whether this was some odd regional food, like a crescent roll of some sort. "Um, I'm not from here. I don't understand," I said dumbly. She explained that it was the local newspaper, the Appleton Post-Crescent. Ohhhhh... Many thanks to her for suggesting a way to get my coffee cheap plus a newspaper to peruse later when I was more awake. This was also the first store on the entire trip to carry atomic fireballs so I bought a bag.
Back on U.S. 41, I drank my coffee in big gulps as if taking bitter medicine. I really don't like the stuff (my mom later said I should have added things to make it taste good, but she didn't understand -- I don't want to like coffee). Sufficiently dosed, I started sucking on atomic fireballs. Then I came to a construction zone. Traffic was okay, and I scooted along at 60-65 mph without anyone around me. As I looked at those orange and white-striped barrels, I knew that without the coffee in my system, I'd be drowsily bouncing back and force between them.
Soon enough, I was navigating the freeways of Milwaukee. Then I drove south on I-94, and I was into the "home stretch." I stopped for gas at the Lake Forest Oasis, bouncing back and forth from one foot to the other as I waited for the tank to fill. I drove over to the restaurant area to use the restroom, and to my surprise, I didn't need another shot of caffeine to get home. I was probably more awake now -- a good 150 miles past my coffee stop -- than I was in Superior this morning. I got back to Chicago around 11:30 PM.
Overall, I did well for a two-day trip. I covered 1,460 miles to Duluth, MN and back, collecting 43 counties in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. It was enough to bump me up a spot on the list. Now I need only two counties in southwestern Wisconsin to finish the state. I also listened to 31 CDs along the way. Most incredibly, I managed to take an overnight trip without my laptop for the first time in years. Of course, in Duluth I was too tired to miss it much.
I didn't go to sleep until 2:30 AM. After only 4.5 hours of sleep, I returned the car first thing the next morning, paying only the $2.75 per rental fee mandated by Chicago. The 1.3-mile walk home was brutal -- my lack of sleep was catching up with me. My legs seemed heavy and I felt a little dizzy. When I got home, I went back to bed.