The Road Less Traveled

Central Park in New York City

Central Park in New York City

This past weekend, I took a trip to NYC for an investment conference. I got a chance to visit Central Park for the first time (the park was very nice, and I enjoyed my stroll, but was glad I do not live and work in the Big Apple).

On the way home, my plan was to fly back to Minneapolis with a stopover in Chicago. Once I was back in Minneapolis, I was going to do a quick change out of my suit, jump into my 4Runner (which was fully packed with canoe and outdoor gear), and head down the Mississippi Valley to meet some buddies for a weekend of fishing, hiking, and paddling in the bluff country of Wabasha, MN.

Unfortunately, my stopover in Chicago didn't go as planned, and my flight was eventually cancelled (but United didn't bother to inform us of the cancellation until 10:00 p.m.). So, without my carry-on bag (I was forced to check it at the gate when United must've thought the flight was going to go forward) and no hope of getting on another flight until the next day (the customer service line was already five football fields long!), I decided to rent a car and hit the road!

My well-worn guide through Wisconsin's Drfitless Area.

My well-worn guide through Wisconsin's Drfitless Area.

Fairly tired, annoyed, and downright grumpy with the situation, I got on I-90 to LaCrosse, WI. As I drove by unending construction pylons, I got out of my funk and decided to make lemonade out of the lemons United Airlines had given me. Rather than hammer down I-90 and arrive in Wabasha exhausted, grimy, and gearless, I decided to take my trek off the interstate and into the hilly, unglaciated region of southwest Wisconsin. Filled with twists, turns, wooded hills, and quaint farms, this picturesque area seems to be unfamiliar untraveled to many people in the upper Midwest. I followed US 12/14 west out of Madison, then cut off to follow State Hwy 60, which is labeled as a Wisconsin Scenic Byway.  State Hwy 60 follows the lower Wisconsin River to Prairie Du Chien. From there, I headed north on 35, up the Mississippi River Valley to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, a jump across the Big Muddy to the Minnesota side, and up Hwy 61 to Wabasha. With such immense natural beauty and feelings of nostalgia throughout, this is an area we recommend to everyone for a local getaway (it was cloudy and rainy when I was driving through, but it was scenic nonetheless).

Along the way, I made a few stops. Knowing I'd need something to keep me warm while fishing and hiking the bluffs of Wabasha, I stopped at a couple of thrift shops where I outfitted myself for only $10 with a like-new thick fleece jacket and a trucker's cap that would send hipsters into an irony-fueled frenzy. Thrift shops can be goldmines for outdoor clothes and gear at incredible prices! For years, I've been finding outdoor treasure at these stores, and this visit didn't let me down.

Making my way farther along the driftless route, I stopped at Carl's Paddling Shop in Lone Rock, WI. An unassuming shop off County Hwy 14, I'd heard of Carl and his shop for years, so I was excited to stop in and chat with Carl. He's a great guy with fantastic canoe knowledge, and his shop offers an interesting collection of unique canoes (check out the photos below), including hand-made lapstrake boats, wooden canoes, a folding Russian kayak, a wooden Olympic-style racing kayak, and many others.

Carl's Paddlin' Canoes
Carl's Paddlin Canoes

All along the these river roads, there are endless possibilities for hunting, fishing, camping, exploring, and other outdoor fun. There are touristy spots along the entire Mississippi River as well, but also plenty of authenticity in the less traveled areas. Next time you're looking for a quick getaway or a fun family trip to explore a new outdoor area, check out the Mississippi River Valley. The Great River Road website can help you get started--it includes information about stopping points all along the Mississippi River, from Minnesota to Louisiana.

My drive through the driftless area of Wisconsin and up the Mississippi to Wabasha definitely broke my crotchety mood. Ripping through the countryside helped make lemonade out of lemons. So, the next time life decides to change your plans for you, try and make the most of it--a dose of the outdoors will likely make it better!