The Great American Road Trip Part 1: Midwest

Somewhere in Missouri, en route to Tulsa

Somewhere in Missouri, en route to Tulsa

“Killerfemme, where have you been this summer?” “Where haven’t I been?” I think, at this point. I’ve spent the past three months visiting 17 states and 23 different cities on a book tour to connect with DIY and handmade business owners to promote my first book Grow: How to take your do it yourself project and passion to the next level and quit your job! Besides getting to meet rad creative people all over the country, I’m really grateful that Grow gave me a reason to travel to places I hadn’t been since 2002, the last time I took a cross country road trip, like Columbus, Ohio and Indianapolis, Indiana. It also took me to places I’d never been before (and hope to go back to) like Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Omaha, Nebraska.

Art changes everything in Minneapolis and everywhere.

Art changes everything in Minneapolis and everywhere.

In front of Mickey's Dining Car in St. Paul, Minnesota

In front of Mickey’s Dining Car in St. Paul, Minnesota. Open 24 hours a day for nearly 70 years!

The lure of the open road has been immortalized in American literature and culture, with John Steinbeck to Jack Kerouac being some of the most prominent. Of course, as an angst ridden teenager I was deeply influenced by the later and wrote a whole faux road trip novel at age 15 having barely left Maine or and only visited New York City once. This summer I was really excited to set out in mid-July to “middle America,” or “fly over country” as it is so dismissively called by some ignorant coastal souls. This trip was hardly a drug-fueled whim like those of my beatnik brothers (are you kidding? I was driving! I hardly had a drink!), but a journey with the explicit purpose of promoting Grow. I wrote about what I learned about DIY and craft business on the Grow blog, but of course, one can’t work 24/7. So here I wanted to share some more personal images from the lovely places I visited.

Nice neon! Madison, Wisconsin

Nice neon! Madison, Wisconsin

One of the best parts of the trip was the opportunity to connect with friends I had met through publishing zines and the underground, punk community over a decade ago. Some of them I had figured I’d never see again, but instead, here they were, living full, beautiful, inspiring lives. For me, seeing these women again showed me why the concept of DIY has remained so compelling: when you are committed to making something, adding value to your community, and forging a genuine connection with other creatives, those relationships last.

Zine Grrrl reunion at Quimby's in Chicago: Nicole Wolfersberger, me, and Rebecca Ann Rakstad

Zine Grrrl reunion at Quimby’s in Chicago: Nicole Wolfersberger, me, and Rebecca Ann Rakstad

Ohio river crossing, Cincinnati, Ohio

Ohio river crossing, Cincinnati, Ohio

I shouldn’t have to say it, but the Midwest suffers a bad wrap from those on the coasts, even though so many people living here are from there. It’s a diverse place and full of history. It contains key locations along the Underground Railroad (don’t think that walking across the Ohio River from Kentucky to Ohio didn’t give me chills), to battles fought in “Indian Country”  over questions of slavery versus freedom and Native sovereignty in Kansas and Oklahoma, to current events, as Detroit declared bankruptcy just days after I visited (it’s not my fault!).

Grow workshopping, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Grow workshopping, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Steakfinger House, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Steakfinger House, Tulsa, Oklahoma

The Midwest is also breathtakingly beautiful. Though it may not boast the drama of the Rocky Mountains or the Pacific Coast, it has a sky that stretches on forever, rolling green fields, and dusty roads that scream, “Take an adventure, America!” While I am a reluctant American, spending two weeks in the Midwest reminded me that I am very much of this country. I appreciate the pioneering and the “Can do, make to” spirit of the people I met in my travels.

Train crossing on the Oklahoma/Kansas border

Train crossing on the Oklahoma/Kansas border

Little Freshie, fresh slushie in 101 degree Kansas City, Missouri

Little Freshie, fresh slushie in 101 degree Kansas City, Missouri

Also, breaking news: Brooklyn, NY and Portland, OR are no longer so original or special. Do you think I had to give up fair trade, cold brew coffee or organic, local produce while I was on the road? Quite the opposite! Cities and small towns all over the US are bursting with local goodness and it’s exciting to feel like “local flavor” actually means something again.

Celebrating a tour well done, Omaha, Nebraska

Celebrating a tour well done, Omaha, Nebraska

However, I also found myself enjoying some mass produced pleasures, like the fact that you can get 20 different kinds of iced tea for under $2 at a “gourmet” gas station like Quik Trip (thought I just got black, unsweetened tea). I mean, thank you, America, this iced tea kept me awake through some long drives and was delicious to boot. So, if you ever think, “Should I visit Tulsa? Or Omaha?” the answer is emphatically,
“Yes!”

Morning, Omaha, Nebraska

Morning, Omaha, Nebraska

This tour brought to you by vats of Quik Trip Iced Tea

This tour brought to you by vats of Quik Trip Iced Tea

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North by Midwest

Minocqua, Wisconsin

Being from the East Coast I feel that I was raised with a bit of snobbery where the Midwest was concerned. It wasn’t that it wasn’t nice, it was just that there was very little reason for me to go there. Besides airport stopovers in Chicago and Minneapolis when my mom and I would fly west to visit family in California, Wyoming and Colorado as I child, I never spent any time there. That changed in my earlier twenties when, the course of one year, I drove across the country three times. I got to explore Minneapolis, Madison and Chicago and found that hey, these are really nice places with a lot going on! But still, my snobbery remained in a small corner of my heart.

Afternoon walk on the Bearskin State Park trail with bonnet handmade by Donna S. White and Cachemire et Soie sunglasses by Jimmy Fairly

This fall I had the opportunity thanks to work to revisit my beloved Detroit, as well as Chicago and quick stops in Milwaukee and Minneapolis. The highlight of my trip, however, was three days in Minocqua, in the north woods of Wisconsin, about a 5 hour drive from Milwaukee.

Fall in Minocqua, WI

I was there for a day-long gathering of arts service providers, but had some extra time to appreciate the landscape.  I had no idea that the north woods is a huge summer destination for residents of Chicago and Milwaukee. The desk clerk at the hotel told me that the town of Minocqua has a year-round population of 5,000, but that swells to over 70,000 during the summer. I came right between fall foliage and holiday season and the Waters, a large, old time feeling log-cabin resort complete with indoor water park, was nearly deserted. No matter. I enjoyed my in-room fire place and having the hot tub in the water park all to myself.

Lobby at the Waters, Minocqua, WI

When I wasn’t working I found myself with plenty to do. My first night I enjoyed a hearty dinner of sandwiches and locally brewed beer overlooking the lake at Minocqua Brewing Company and the second night specially prepared Bratwurst at Otto’s. Otto’s is filled with treasures that the owners have brought back from all over the world, including beer steins and authentic suits of armor. That is when I remembered, “Oh yeah, this part of the midwest is still very German! That town further south from here named Rhinelander is no coincidence.”

Otto's in downtown Minocqua, WI

The north woods is home to many talented artists who are excited about their communities and dedicated to their work. One place that serves as a gathering place for local, national and international talent is the Campanile Center for the Arts, whose Executive Director also runs Loon Land Trading Company, a store full of north woods goodness.

Trestle bridge on the Bearskin State Park trail

A major highlight was a late afternoon walk on the Hiawatha and Bearskin State Park trail. Located along a disused railway line, it begins in Minocqua and passes over two, beautiful wooden trestle railway bridges. I loved the sun reflecting off the lakes, where I watched fishermen bringing their boats in for the day, and met year-round residents out walking their dogs.

As I looked around me the landscape and the trees reminded me of a place I know very well: Maine. It’s about the same latitude, has the same industries (tourism, logging, farming), and the same kind of vegetation, as well as hard working people who are filled with ingenuity. In fact, playing my Maine card was a smart idea, as my host announced, “She’s a real person, she’s not from New York! She grew up in Maine!”

Also, apparently I’m not the only one who loves this region, because the New York Times just ran an article about the north woods “supper clubs” in last weekend’s travel section!