This is the great American Midwest with a bracing dash of weird: Where else will you find an albino muskrat, world-class waterslides, and a truly foul cheese?
In eight years of annual road trips, my friend Shawnda and I have never seen anything like the Garbage Plate atFranks Diner in Kenosha. We're at the counter, watching in horror as the cook fills plates with a heaping mishmash of eggs, ham, hash browns, and more. It looks like someone stepped on Paul Bunyan's omelet."
What's up, chicken butt?" asks our waiter. "Ready to order?" Franks is proudly sassy, and we're immediately dubbed the Magellans because we had to call twice from the road for directions. It's the kind of place where everyone feels at home. When we slap down money for the check, the patron next to us gets our change from the register.
Taking a tip from Jerome Pohlen'sOddball Wisconsin, a 2001 book that proves indispensable (if a little out of date), we meander over to Burlington. In 1929, two reporters made up a story about a lie-off between the fire and police departments. The following year, the Burlington Liars' Club contest was held for real. Plaques downtown honor the winning lies, such as one from someone in 1976 who saw a worm "steal the fur coat off a caterpillar" during a cold spell.
The sandwiches atThe Elegant Farmerin Mukwonago are blah, but the apple pie is the best we've ever had. We ponder buying a tub of frozen cherries, then think better of it.
Desperate to do something besides eat, we drive north to theHoricon Marsh State Wildlife Area. It's the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the U.S., as well as (according to the website) a Wetland of International Importance and a Globally Important Bird Area. Unfortunately, it's also a National Mosquito Refuge—the insects are biting us right through our clothes—and we have no choice but to abort our walk.
At theFountain Prairie Inn & Farms, an 1899 Victorian farmhouse in Fall River lovingly restored by John and Dorothy Priske, we take the two smaller rooms (of five total) and share a bathroom down the hall. The inn is airy and nice, not fusty and crammed with knickknacks like many B&Bs are. Dorothy is a sweetheart, and Shawnda develops a crush on Ace, the Priskes' manic English springer spaniel. We also get a kick out of watching the farm's Highland cattle in the pasture: They're magnificent creatures.
Dorothy directs us to James Street Dining Company in Columbus for dinner (it has since closed). My filet is delicious, and we both enjoy the pumpkin bread with spice butter. As we debate dessert, the waitress approaches. "I have to ask," she says. "Are you celebrating anything?" We later daydream possible answers: our third marriage, a prison break, National Pickle Month....
Back at the inn, we finally get to meet Dorothy's husband, John, who is also super friendly. He's sorry that he won't see us tomorrow morning, but he has to get up before dawn because it's "butcher day." When the Priskes say that Fountain Prairie is a working farm, they're not kidding.
Fountain Prairie Inn & FarmsW1901 State Rd. 16, Fall River, 866/883-4775, fountainprairie.com, from $99
Franks Diner 508 58th St., Kenosha, 262/657-1017, franksdinerkenosha.com, half Garbage Plate $7
Elegant Farmer1545 Main St., Mukwonago, 262/363-6770, elegantfarmer.com, pie $2
Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area N7728 Hwy. 28, Horicon, 920/387-7860, dnr.state.wi.us/org/land/wildlife/wildlife_areas/horicon
I wake up early and take many photos of the fog blanketing the pastures. Ace and I chill in the gazebo for 10 minutes, and then I return upstairs, where Dorothy has left a tray of coffee. She serves us breakfast in the dining room, and explains that most of the ingredients are from the area. The apple cider tastes more like apples than apples do.
Dorothy asks if she may join us for coffee, and we grill her about the restoration and what it's like to own a B&B. The Priskes have yet to start on the third floor; it turns out there's a ballroom upstairs. They clearly believe in the importance of farm life and local, sustainable food, as do Shawnda and I, so we're kind of embarrassed to tell her we're headed to kitschy Wisconsin Dells.
But first (kudos again toOddball Wisconsin) we check out the "Aliens and Oddities" exhibit at theMacKenzie Environmental Education Center. Inside what looks like a serial killer's shed is the field trippers' reward for putting up with the educational stuff: a hermaphroditic deer's one-antlered skull, an albino muskrat, and a two-headed piglet in a jar filled with formaldehyde. (Apparently, some kids once stole the jar so they could dip their cigarettes in the liquid and smoke them.)
We feed the ducks in the town of Lodi and then continue on pretty Route 113, taking the free ferry across Lake Wisconsin. In summer,Circus World Museumin Baraboo has performances and animal attractions, but it's September, so there's not much going on. We spend a half hour doing anything interactive: posing in wooden cutouts, trying on costumes, giggling at fun-house mirrors.
Wisconsin Dells is basically Las Vegas for kids—a strip of silly attractions and rides.
TheKalahari Resortis both corporate and giddy—imagine a Marriott having a midlife crisis. The resort's outdoor water park is closed for the season, but the indoor one has seven big slides and no lines. My favorite slide is the one I call the toilet bowl: You're whooshed around a funnel and then dropped through a chute into a pool. Rather than give in and let herself be flushed, as it were, Shawnda ends up doing a painful move we name "cleaning the rim."
Climbing all the slides' stairs is work, so we grab a bite atThe Cheese Factory Restaurant. We're surprised to learn it's a vegetarian establishment, but the linzer torte is out of this world. Shawnda brings custom-made T-shirts for every trip, and this year's say "Schlemiel and Schlimazel." Wearing Yiddish T-shirts to a restaurant with Christian books displayed by the door isn't ideal—or is it?
After decompressing, we have dinner at theHouse of Embers, drawn like moths to the neon martini-glass sign. It's the type of spot that has photos of Ava Gardner and other beauties in the men's room; I half expect to see Louis Prima and Keely Smith strolling by our table. Shawnda gets into an exceedingly long conversation with our Polish waiter about how the big Wisconsin Dells resorts allegedly trick young foreigners into working for them. Shawnda, it should be noted, feels as passionately about labor issues as men of a certain age feel about Ava Gardner.
Kalahari Resort1305 Kalahari Dr., Wisconsin Dells, 608/254-5466, kalahariresort.com, from $149
Cheese Factory 521 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy. S., Wisconsin Dells, 608/253-6065, cookingvegetarian.com, torte $4
House of Embers 935 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy., Wisconsin Dells, 608/253-6411, houseofembers.com, ribs $13
MacKenzie Environmental Education Center W7303 County Rd. CS, Poynette, 608/635-8105, dnr.state.wi.us/education/mackenzie
Circus World 550 Water St., Baraboo, 608/356-8341, circusworldmuseum.com, $7 ($15 in summer)
After a regrettable breakfast at a forgettable restaurant, we turn again toOddball Wisconsin. It directs us to theForevertron outside Prairie du Sac. Tom Every owned a salvage business but craved more in his life, so he adopted the name Dr. Evermor and built a scrap-art extravaganza. Words don't do the Forevertron justice. One glance and you see a flock of birds; look closer and you discover they're all made out of old musical instruments. Dr. Evermor's work is a monument to the power of imagination and, perhaps, boredom, and I'm dying to climb all over it. That's forbidden, however, and anyway I'm not sure when my last tetanus shot was.
Taliesinis the house outside Spring Green that Frank Lloyd Wright built for himself and the woman for whom he left his wife and six children. We take the two-hour Highlights Tour ($52), which includes Taliesin and a building called Hillside. The guide refuses to discuss Wright's love life, but without personal or architectural context, Taliesin isn't very special. The guide hasn't just drunk the Kool-Aid; she's mainlined it. At one point, she compares Taliesin to the Grand Canyon—and then says Taliesin is more interesting: "You've seen one rock, you've seem 'em all."
In a village called Black Earth, kids are lining the streets, waving and begging us to honk. The Wisconsin Heights homecoming parade is about to begin! On one float, football players are sawing the Belleville-Albany Wildcats in half; on another, they're cooking them in a smoker.
At theMount Horeb Mustard Museum, I can't resist buying a yellow "Squeeze me" T-shirt. Shawnda, feeling ornery, puts her ketchup-loving friend Justine on the museum's mailing list. Based on a visitors bureau brochure, I book a room at Deer Valley Lodge. If we return to Mount Horeb, though, we'll stay at the cuteVillage Inn Motel("Just a little bedder").
We drive back to Black Earth for dinner atDavid W. Heiney'sand then hurry to the big game. As soon as we pay the $3 admission, the dark clouds open up. The band runs for cover beneath an overhang, and we sprint to the car, drenched but laughing hysterically. (Alas, Wisconsin Heights lost 22–13.)
Village Inn Motel701 Springdale St., Mount Horeb, 608/437-3350, littlebedder.com, from $43
David W. Heiney's 1221 Mills St., Black Earth, 608/767-2501, heineysdining.com, fish fry $12
ForevertronHwy. 12 (park at Delaney's Surplus), North Freedom
Taliesin 5607 County Rd. C, Spring Green, 608/588-7900, taliesinpreservation.org
Mustard Museum, 7477 Hubbard ave , Middleton, 800/438-6878, mustardmuseum.com
Sjölinds Chocolate House is a bakery as well as a chocolate shop; the Thompson family serves excellent coffee, quiches, and Swedish morning buns with lingonberry jam. I fall in love with the place.
We typically avoid cities, with their traffic and limited parking, but we want to say hi to John and Dorothy Priske, who sell their beef at theDane County Farmers' Marketin Madison. The market, which has a wonderful location around the state capitol building, may be even more of a yuppie-fest than the market I go to in New York City—one stand touts its mint as being "great for mojitos."
Everything I know about Limburger cheese I learned from Warner Brothers cartoons—it stinks. I've come to admire a strong cheese, however, and I wonder if Limburger is so different from a nice Époisses. Monroe is the place to find out: The sole remaining U.S. producer of Limburger is a co-op in town, and you can try it atBaumgartner's Cheese Store & Tavern.
At a communal table, we sit next to eight ex-Monrovians having a reunion. Limburger is similar to a typical French cheese, but while a little on a cracker is one thing, a big bite of it in a sandwich made with soft rye bread is overpowering. (The traditional raw onion would add texture, but at no small cost.) Shawnda and I wish we could try it with a baguette and an apple.
Baumgartner's sells shirts with a drawing of a waiter bearing a reeking Limburger sandwich; the text says "Pull my finger." I may be a schlemiel, but I learned long ago to decline that particular request.
Sjölinds Chocolate House219 E. Main St., Mount Horeb, 608/437-0233, quiche $4
Baumgartner's1023 16th Ave., Monroe, 608/325-6157, sandwich $3
Dane County Farmers' Market Madison, 608/455-1999, dcfm.org
Finding your way
Shawnda and I met up at Chicago's Midway airport, but Milwaukee would be easier. The Illinois turnpike gives little warning when a toll is coming, and at least one stop requires that you have change on hand. In Wisconsin, many county roads have letters for names, and we were never able to make sense of them, even with a map.
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