Along the way: The Great Lakes, cities and cycling

We spent most of our time on the road up through early July in national parks, state parks, rural areas and small towns. And I discovered the TrailLink app, giving us maps to all kinds of local rails-to-trails cycling—really the best way to explore. But for a change, we parked the rig and took the train into Chicago for a couple of days; then hit a couple of other good towns in quick succession.

July 10-11: Chicago

"Crown Fountain," Jaume Plensa, Millennium Park

“Crown Fountain,” Jaume Plensa, Millennium Park

Chicago River, Architectural Boat Tour

Chicago River, Architectural Boat Tour

Chicago is a hell of a town. With only a couple of days and so many possibilities—I’ve only been here for work, and Bruce had never been—we visited with two main goals in mind: the Art Institute and blues music. But the weather gods continued to smile on us, so we had to take advantage of it. We took the architectural boat tour to soak up the river (green!), skies (blue), and skyscrapers (tall). Good decision.

You could hurt yourself trying to appreciate all the world-class museums here in a couple of days, or even just the entire Art Institute of Chicago.

"Screamin' Jay Hawkins," Karl Wirsum, Art Institute of Chicago

“Screamin’ Jay Hawkins,” Karl Wirsum, AIC

Willem de Kooning, Art Institute of Chicago

Willem de Kooning, “Untitled”, Art Institute of Chicago

But we love modern and contemporary art, and we happily drank in the de Koonings and Klines, Naumans and Newmans, Gerhard Richter, Donald Judd and Cy Twombly. Some Abstract Expressionists, German Expressionists, Fauvists, Impressionists, and a couple of other -ists. And even a surprisingly moving Magritte show. I could go on. Just as exciting is the public art in Millennium Park—probably my favorite place in the country to walk among contemporary sculpture and architecture.

The other museum that we sped down to see was the Museum of Science and Industry, because das U-505, a German WWII submarine, is beached there. Oh, and the blues club—frankly, a bit disappointing; not bad, but not very original.

July 12-15: Milwaukee, southeast and central Wisconsin

Elroy-Sparta State Trail

The Tunnel Trail

Frank Lloyd Wright, SC Johnson headquarters

Frank Lloyd Wright’s SC Johnson headquarters

With TrailLink in hand, we cycled a bunch of great trails: along the MRK railroad bed and the Root River trails around southeast Wisconsin. Then the Lake Michigan Pathway, a trail that runs up the lake into Milwaukee. Best of all was the Elroy-Sparta State Trail, better known as the Tunnel Trail, in central Wisconsin, with several very long old tunnels and 34 bridges.

"Refrigerator Pies," Wayne Thiebaud, Milwaukee Museum of Art

“Refrigerator Pies,” Wayne Thiebaud, MAM

We were attracted to the Milwaukee Art Museum on a rainy afternoon by their fantastic Kandinsky exhibition, mostly from the Pompidou in Paris. Once there, we also found their outstanding collection gifted by Mrs. Harry Bradley, who apparently didn’t have a first name of her own but who had unbelievable taste and timing, building a diverse collection of 20th century awesomeness, including Fauvists and German Expressionists; Picasso, Rothko, and Diebenkorn; Willi Baumeister, Harry Bertoia, Lucio Fontana. I really have a hard time knowing when to stop listing the artists I loved but believe me, I’ve edited here.

We did also find a little good weather around Milwaukee, so we could appreciate the original Cream City Brick buildings, and tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1939 SC Johnson Company headquarters.

July 18-21: Minneapolis

Frank, Chuck Close, Minneapolis Art Institute

“Frank,” Chuck Close, MIA

OK, Minneapolis isn’t exactly a Great Lakes city, but we zagged back that way because we didn’t want to miss it. An especially arts-focused town, I found myself really curious about why Minneapolis has such a creative flavor. I came across so many mentions of arts councils/foundations/projects/boards/initiatives. And someone—I think it was the excellent Felicia at the Hive salon, a pretty artsy place in its own right—told me it’s the top US city for arts funding.

Mill Ruins Park, Mill City Museum

Mill Ruins Park & Mill City Museum

I’ve always wanted to check out the Walker Art Center but it was undergoing renovations so it wasn’t very inviting, though the sculpture garden is a good wander. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts though is also a wonderful destination art museum—it’s way more exciting than its neoclassical facade suggests, with a diverse collection, a lively community and education focus (and it’s free—that’s pretty cool). A few favorite pieces here too—OK, I won’t bore you with them.

And it’s a dedicated biking town: Bicycling magazine says it’s the #1 Bike City in the US. In spite of the 95º heat we found ourselves exploring via a couple of great in-town trails, finding the Guthrie Theatre, Mill Ruins Park and Mill City Museum, St. Anthony’s Falls and locks on the Mississippi River, Frank Gehry’s Weisman Art Museum, and a bunch of leafy little parks. Old bridges. Industrial signs. Did you know there are 24 lakes in this city?

July 22-29: Lake Superior and the U.P.

Little Sand Bay, Apostle Islands, Lake Superior

Little Sand Bay, overlooking the Apostle Islands, Lake Superior

Sea Caves, Apostle Islands, Lake Superior

Can you see the kayaker down in the cave?

Wanting to dip into all five Great Lakes (and being ready for summer not in the city for a while), we headed north to the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior, a little-known, perfect summer haven that we heard about from Wisconsonites along the way. The islands were named by the French explorer Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix, after the 12 apostles (even though there are 22 islands—shouldn’t an explorer know that?). You can see why this is summer seashore heaven. We biked Madeline Island; and while, sadly, we didn’t get to kayak out to the sea caves near Bayfield, we hiked a ‘chutes and ladders’ trail out of Miner’s Beach to the overlook and peeked into them from above.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Ore Dock, Marquette Michigan

Defunct Ore Dock, Marquette, Michigan

Heading east, we stopped briefly in Marquette, Michigan, a town with a thriving mining and timber past, now mostly remarkable for a the old ore docks that dominate its harbor like the set of a fantasy movie; and for the many old mansions and commercial buildings that commemorate its late 1800s heyday, built of the remarkable, variegated local sandstone.

Further east on Lake Superior, the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore was a stunning surprise. And when I discovered that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow set his epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha, here, I posted some of his lovely verses with a few of our many photos of that most picturesque place.

Since I happened on some decent Wi-Fi here (an ongoing pursuit on this trip), I’ll stop here and publish this update. Next up: the sandy western Michigan lakeshore, and more Great Lakes summer sunshine!

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