Part 1 in a series: How would you picture roving harems of wild mustangs on the beach at North Carolina’s Outer Banks? We visualized equine muscle and sinew stampeding across sun-drenched sand, hooves flashing to fend off predators and rivals, fiery eyes, flaring nostrils. We were wrong!
Every mighty river has a humble beginning. The Mississippi runs wide, deep and muddy for most of its 2,300 miles, draining 31 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Yet it begins as a babbling pour-off suitable for wading at Minnesota’s Lake Itasca. Who knew?
MontaraManDan’s visit to the clear-running source of the Big Muddy was conceived as a side trip on the road to North Dakota with his Big Brother.
Why North Dakota? Because it’s there. And we both wanted to knock it off of our respective bucket lists. (Big Brother has now visited all 50 states! MontaraManDan’s tally stands at 49.) Unfortunately, we neither hunt nor fly fish. We’re not even barflies. So, the headwaters evolved into the destination and North Dakota into an afterthought as we finalized our trip.
After meeting up in Minneapolis, we began our trip across the the land of giant Adirondack chairs with a daylong drive out of Duluth along the northern shore of Lake Superior. We enjoyed easy hikes along cascades at Gooseberry Falls and Temperance River state parks, as well as a stop at Split Rock Lighthouse. MontaraManDan neglected to bring his passport so we didn’t bother driving as far as Canada.
Water from the ruddy cascades draining into Lake Superior at Gooseberry Falls and Temperance River overlay a beautiful cobblestone bed of rounded red, blue, orange and gray stone as the streams slip into the calm clarity of the lake’s shallows.
With 37,200 square miles of surface area, Superior ranks as the No. 2 freshwater lake in the world by that measure. And it isn’t always calm. Split Rock is one of more than two dozen lighthouses that dot the tricky shorelines of Lake Superior. The lake’s shipwrecks are legendary, inspiring at least one song.
Though retired from active duty decades ago, the historic lighthouse, light-keeper quarters and grounds are immaculately kept and open for tours, featuring docents dressed in period costumes. The costuming is so effective MontaraManDan initially thought two of the docents were mannequins as he walked the grounds.
The route to the headwaters of the Mississippi from Duluth took us along a series of state highways through the North Woods of Minnesota. We chuckled as we crossed the Mississippi at least once on our route. Arriving at Itasca State Park at lunchtime, we were pleased to stumble across Douglas Lodge. The lodge restaurant featured a menu packed with local delicacies. MontaraManDan sampled the tater tot hot dish and Big Brother, who tries hard to stick to a plant-based diet, resorted to walleye. It’s tough to avoid meat when dining in the North Woods.
The stop at the headwaters was Big Brother’s idea. Mom had fondly recalled her visit as a child in the 1930s, so if it was good enough for Mom it was good enough for us. A short walk from a visitor center placed us at a 40-foot-wide pour-off lined with boulders and navigated with varying degrees of dexterity by children wading in the cold water. Neither Big Brother nor I are known for our dexterity, so we used a nearby bridge for our crossing.
If the headwaters look a bit engineered, blame the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which dredged the channel, drained a nearby swamp and installed the boulders — all for the sake of tourism — shortly before Mom’s long-ago visit. Some argue whether Lake Itasca actually qualifies as the headwaters. Nicollet Creek begins as a spring and feeds into the south end of the lake, and a second stream flows into Itasca from Elk Lake, which is fed by two other streams. But no matter. If the CCC and Mom say Lake Itasca is the primary source, of the Mississippi, who are we to argue.
Mission accomplished, we headed for Fargo. Upon arrival, we asked the hotel desk attendants to recommend “things to do” while we were in town. After spouting off a short list of bars and roadhouses, they were stumped. So, we headed downtown to sample some local tavern cuisine. We stopped at a number of hostess stands along Broadway, looking for plant-based options without success. We finally settled on dinner at the Toasted Frog, where MontaraManDan enjoyed bison pot pie and Big Brother selected a vegetarian pizza.
After a long, rainy drive back to Minneapolis the next day, we paid a visit to Mall of America, the iconic 4.2 million square-foot attraction that features more than 520 shops, an aquarium and Nickelodeon Universe, a family friendly indoor amusement park with three roller coasters. We’re just about as interested in shopping as drinking, so we visited the mall as gawkers rather than participants. Mom would have thrilled at our restraint.
We particularly enjoyed perusing the signature Crayola and Lego stores. Minneapolis has a large population of Somali-Americans and immigrants dating to the 1980s, and we also enjoyed seeing that community out in force at the amusement park, many of the women and girls in colorful head scarves and gowns, celebrating the end of Ramadan with a day at the amusement park.
This trip was never really about North Dakota or the headwaters of the Mississippi River. The driving idea was for two brothers separated by seven years, disposition and a continent to get to know each other a bit better as we settle into our respective retirements.
And bond we did, gabbing nonstop for three days about our childhoods, families, faith and careers, and sharing our once and future hopes, dreams and fears. Big Brother noted we’d probably spent more one-on-one time together in just three days than we had across the many decades that have passed since he graduated from high school in 1969. Maybe ever.
It was time well spent. After all, every mighty relationship has a humble beginning.
Note: Thanks to Big Brother for snapping our lead photo for this post.
We made the trip this year with our own personal Pterodactyl, formerly known as our oldest grandson. The 4-year-old spent the weekend self-identifying as an extinct flying reptile, so who were we to argue.
If you bring a Pterodactyl to Yosemite, be sure he has a comfortable place to fold his wings and tuck his beak for a good night’s sleep. We chose a roomy Air BNB in North Wawona. Good thing, since Pterodactyl also brought along his parents and brother, Baby T-Rex. Great Grandma came, too. We all slept well after a long day on the road.
Pterodactyl awoke more interested in Grandpa’s traveling collection of antique Matchbox cars than magnificent vistas and waterfalls. (Pterodactyls LOVE old Matchbox cars.) But once the breakfast cinnamon roll kicked in, we managed to nudge the preschool pterosaur out the door and down the trail to Wawona Swinging Bridge.
Pterodactyl hopped confidently up boulders and, with an assist from grandpa, back down again. Pterodactyl enthusiastically explored the banks of the cascading Chilnualna Creek while Daddy hovered an arm’s length away. Pterodactyl bounced across the swinging bridge above the swirling, churning South Fork Merced River with such confidence and enthusiasm that he left the adults breathless.
Back at the cabin, after lunch and Baby T-Rex’s late-morning nap, we clamored into our cars for an afternoon caravan to the Yosemite Valley. Pterodactyl would have flown but the cinnamon roll had worn off and his peanut butter and jelly sandwich left him sleepy. (Pterodactyls LOVE PBJ sandwiches but not crusts.)
We arrived at Tunnel View with Baby T-Rex refreshed and Pterodactyl deep asleep, pointy beak tucked gently beneath leathery wing, talons retracted. The adults marveled anew at one of our favorite views while Pterodactyl slept. Baby T-Rex was more interested in the giant tour buses populating the parking area, thrilling with each new arrival. (Baby T-Rexes LOVE big buses.)
Pterodactyl never did rouse enough for a soar from the rock wall at Tunnel View into the Valley, but the heavy mist pouring onto hikers at the base of Bridalveil Fall a few miles down the road got his attention. Pterodactyl quickly backtracked down the trail to escape the damp veil. (Pterodactyls do NOT like to get wet.) Tethered to Daddy’s back, Baby T-Rex was not so lucky. He emerged from the mist with water dripping from his hair and face, much to the amusement of everyone – except Baby T-Rex.
One great thing about a day of adventure is that Pterodactyls fall asleep much faster at bed time. (Pterodactyls do NOT like bed time.) So, the next morning we once again all awoke refreshed, this time for a day at Yosemite Falls.
Fueled by scrambled eggs and strawberry yogurt, both Pterodactyl and Baby T-Rex arrived at the falls trail ready for action. The adults came, too. Grandma and Great Grandma stopped for a “classic” mother-daughter shot with the upper and lower falls visible through a break in the trees. But Pterodactyl was intent on finding adventure. (Pterodactyl’s LOVE adventure.)
A dark cave made of boulders from a long-ago rock slide caught Pterodactyl’s eye. Clasping a stick in his talon for protection, he bounded across smaller rocks and into dark corners. He found a secret passage to daylight in the back of the dark cave. He waved at Baby T-Rex, who thoughtfully munched a cookie in the confines of his stroller, perhaps contemplating the odds of getting wet were he to join the caving adventure. Daddy shadowed Pterodactyl in the darkness, guarding against a sprained wing or skinned beak. Both emerged unscathed. (Mommy LOVES when Pterodactyl and Daddy emerge from an adventure unscathed.)
Further up the trail at the base of Yosemite Falls, the prevailing mist-soaked downdraft was kinder than the damp shroud encountered the day prior at Bridalveil. Pterodactyl avoided the mist completely with a well-timed dash across the bridge at the base of the fall, talons clicking loudly across the decking. Baby T-Rex chewed on a cookie anxiously as Daddy whisked him past. Mommy and Grandpa weren’t so lucky, thanks to a damp father-daughter photo op in front of the raging fall.
Pterodactyl and family meandered with the flow of Yosemite Creek toward the Merced River and Yosemite Village for a late lunch. Baby T-Rex was content to enjoy the flowing water while munching on yet another cookie. Pterodactyl stopped to liberally muddy the water with his stick. At lunch, Pterodactyl discovered that cheese pizza with no sauce makes a passable substitute for grilled cheese. (Pterodactyls do NOT like pizza sauce.) What did Baby T-Rex have for lunch? Not much. He was full of cookies!
Swinging bridges. Soaring mountains. Dark caves. Raging waterfalls. You might think it would be hard to top Pterodactyl’s big weekend at Yosemite. But you’d be wrong. A stop at the Jelly Belly Factory in Fairfield, CA, on the way home was the topper. Turns out Pterodactyls LOVE jelly beans!
After a dry and sunny winter, the irrigated orchards of the Central Valley may boast California’s only “super bloom” this spring. And it’s show time on Fresno County’s Blossom Trail. Continue reading “Catch Spring Fever on Fresno’s Blossom Trail, the ‘Super Bloom’ Less Traveled”
Half the fun of visiting Big Sur is the drive. And the newly opened bridge at Pfeiffer Canyon means the good times are back, at least as far as Gorda. For now, think of Highway 1 southbound from Carmel-by-the-Sea as a curvaceous 65-mile cul-de-sac with a view. It was so nice we drove it twice. Continue reading “Road Repairs Restore Big Sur Thrills South to Gorda; Where is Everybody?”
NOTE: We’re sorry to report that shortly after posting this story we discovered that Z Pie had closed several weeks earlier. But there are still plenty of fruit pie options on the road to Tahoe. Enjoy!
Lots of travelers enjoy stopping for a sweet slice of fruit pie at an Apple Hill orchard on the road to Lake Tahoe. But the most unique pies in the region just may be the savory variety available at a tiny pot pie restaurant not far away in Placerville.