DAY 1: COURSE SOUTHEAST
After exploring the Minneapolis area for almost a week, Monday of week no. 2 was the time to see a little bit more of Minnesota and also to cross the river and pay a short visit to the state of Wisconsin. The final destination on the other bank was the city of La Crosse and thankfully, there were some nice American towns along the way. In other words, many opportunities to stop every once a while and compensate for sitting in the car – even though the view was just beautiful. Also, after weeks (in NC) of entire dependence on buses, roller blades and my feet, planning my trips and paying for them, it was nice to experience the freedom of a car – especially (and thank God!) as it was not me doing the driving – and follow a well-designed itinerary prepared by my hosts.
On the way to La Crosse, our first stop was Lake City, which I faultily assumed to be located on the shore of a lake. However, it turned out that so called lake Pepin was a more of broad section of Mississippi rather than a lake. No matter what, the city’s marina was a nice place to stop at and take some pictures of. Hadn’t it been so cold and so windy, I would have considered it a very nice stop.
It did not take us terribly long to reach our next destination: National Eagle Center in Wabasha. I understood it was one of only few places where the USA’s national bird can be bred and I liked this educational stop very much. First, it was warm inside, second (and more importantly), I had never seen so large live birds and finally, I learned a lot and I was never bored. In total, they had three bald eagles there and none of them had very happy destiny – their lives in wilderness included car accidents and lead poisoning. Thanks to the help from the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, they survived and hopefully were helping their relatives out there, in the real world.
One of their eagles’ was called Angel and she was the eagle from the Minnesota licence plates. I always thought it was “just an eagle” – like any bird in any textbook, so after a few visits to the beautiful land of lakes, I felt pleased to reveal the truth and meet the model for the licence plate eagle. Am I ahead of some Minnesotans now? An essential part of our visit was about an hour long presentation about bald eagles – from their anatomy, behavior and breeding, to threats they faced in the past and still do. The height of the talk was Columbia (named to remember the space-shuttle disaster) feeding on a rabbit. I was surprised how red the meat was – I bet it must have been a wild rabbit. Although the volunteering lady was funny and easy to understand (very important for me!), which made her lecture very enjoyable, I cannot avoid little criticism. Again, I had to handle an excessive use of the word cute. I am tolerant to this one when there is a kids audience but I do think that primarily adult audience can handle more complicated vocabulary. Because of her enthusiasm, however, I forgive her cute vocabulary as well as two minor mistakes I believe she made.
Toward the end of the day it was time to cross the river and visit the city of La Crosse for the second time in my life. The main goal was to meet B, who was a very nice companion and also a tour guide. A short walk along the river gave me another chance to freeze (after not so successfully trying to adapt to the North Carolina heat for weeks) but also some hope for nice pictures. A little tiny walk through the city was equally enjoyable and a nice appetizer before the supper at The Old Crow. Thankfully, it was B who suggested this American Gastrobar for tonight – I do not think I would have dared to go inside without a recommendation from someone who has spent 4+ years in the city. I am not saying the restaurant looked discouraging or something like that, the name just made me super cautious – in other words, to expect a witch’s hideout with bats and spiders, suspicious vials and a pot with boiling poison, and a black cat somewhere in the corner. I was then almost disappointed not to find any of those. Their salad was a nice good night meal and probably my first healthy food in a week.
DAY 2: COURSE NORTHWEST
Tuesday morning was a rather cold one (at least to me) but the blue sky promised some sunshine – I felt better immediately. The breakfast at the motel was another reason for a good start of the day: coffee and hot chocolate, Belgian waffle, an old-fashioned donut and even one single healthy item on my menu – yogurt. Having so much good fuel, I was set to be driven back to the Metro area. Thankfully, it was not a straightforward car ride but we had some stops on the way again: three this time.
First of them was the city of Winona, specifically the Minnesota Marine Art Museum located there. The main attraction was the temporary exhibit called Ocean Soul, a collection of underwater pictures by Brian Skerry, a National Geography photographer. Even if it had been the only exhibition in the museum, it would have been worth visiting. Dozens of large photographs were divided into four sections, depending on the “type of water” they came from: cold, cool, pristine and tropical. I liked every single picture and absolutely failed to pick my favorite one. A bright yellow fish peeking out of a soda can, a large manta ray flying by, attraction of colorful corals, baby seal looking so vulnerable in the infinite land of ice and snow – all of them and many many more photographs showed the diversity and beauty of oceans, and challenged my decision for a career in the lab.
While the Ocean Soul was my favorite exhibit, there was much more to see in the museum – another photography exhibition and several collections of paintings: Views of Mississippi, American art and work of European artists (C. Monet as well as early painting of V. van Gogh). The paintings did not necessarily include water motives but my top three did. Those were two pictures of sailboats “in action” and a picture with a sailboat resting in a navy port. Unfortunately the rest of art on display remained rather ununderstood by me and the only outcome probably was learning that paintings look better when observing them from a distance. However, I did appreciate to see the famous Washington Crossing Delaware. Though it was not the large canvas (that is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY) collections), this piece nevertheless hang in the White House for three decades. Kinda special. I though it was funny that such a historical moment was captured by a German painter. And even worse, he did not avoid some mistakes. First, the (current) US flag in the picture was not officially approved until some time after the crossing. And second, one of the guys accompanying Mr. Washington did not actually join him centuries ago. I am glad I learned something unusual and had a chance to see this piece of art.
The following city to pay a short visit to was Red Wing, located right on a railroad and at the Mississippi’s bank. It was a rather short stop but long enough to allow us to eat the lunch in the Levee Park and check the famous St. James hotel. Besides the hotel, there were three restaurants, a few stores as well as (probably) some conference rooms in the same building.
The third and final stop was for the sake of refreshment only: dairy store in Hastings. It looked like they sold milk, cheese and other dairy products – possibly from local farmers – and I therefore decided to expect a good quality ice-cream, too. For a single dollar, one could have a cup (my volume estimation was some 300 ml) literally loaded with ice cream. What truly made it special was that customers poured the ice-cream from the provided machine themselves and mixing the flavors was apparently OK. Having said all that and impressed by the unusual house rules, I was not sure I liked the ice-cream’s taste so much. What I knew for sure, however, was that my pancreas would run out of insulin soon.
The region of Minnesota-Wisconsin I could explore over the two days was definitely a beautiful land. I sure was glad too see several charming American cities on my way as well as breathtaking views on the Mississippi river while traveling from one city to another; and moreover with minimal effort from me. I also appreciated the chance to gain new information about the US national bird and a couple of cool facts worth remembering about the famous painting. However, I am afraid that the most memorable moment was the time I could spend admiring Mr. Skerry’s photographs – both on display and in his book available for browsing.