The Great Canadian Tour Begins

Bruce Peninsula – Park #1

Inspired by Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation, we are visiting as many national parks as we can.  And we’re going to throw some learnin’ in as well.

Bruce Peninsula National Park is located at the end of, well Bruce Peninsula just outside of the town of Tobermory.  The park is 125 sq km or 30888 acres stretching across the peninsula so that you can visit both the north and south shores.  The peninsula contains part of the Niagara Escarpment and was designated as part of the Niagara Escarpment UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.  The 843 km (524 mile) Bruce Trail, the oldest and longest hiking trail in Canada also runs through the park, beginning in Tobermory and ending in Niagara.  There is a wide range of plants and animals found here, including the endangered Massassauga Rattlesnake.

It also has a sister park in the Fathom Five National Marine Conservation Park which is home to some incredible diving and snorkelling as the water is unbelievably clear.  Last year we took a boat tour to Flowerpot Island and the boat passed over some shipwrecks that looked like they were right under the surface.  We decided to forgo the boat tour this time and spend more time exploring the park on foot.

First things first, after the long drive and lots of hiking ahead, I needed to fuel and stopped at Little Tub Bakery.  I left a short time later cradling a couple of slices of pizza that I had devoured before we got to the park.  Hey they were small so I had to get two.  And a blueberry tart for later.  And some bread to take home.

For some reason, both times we visited this park was around Canada Day weekend and this year with free national park passes being literally given away, I should have expected the crowds.  However, I thought that I was being clever by going on the holiday Monday when I figured most people would be heading back to their homes.  If that was the case, there were still lots of people in the park.  In fact, when I went to go into the main entrance at Cyprus Lake on the north side of the peninsula, there was a long line up of cars.  Then when I got to the booth, I was told that they were trying something new this year and issuing timed parking permits.  Each permit was for a total of four hours on a first-come basis.  I had to ask why this was and it was to prevent people from spending all day there.  I always thought that they wanted people to spend time in parks but I guess they also wanted to speed up visitor turn-over.  Cyprus Lake seems to get the majority of visits because of The Grotto, a cave that begs exploration.  The last permit available was for 5:00 pm so after thinking about it for a second, I took it.  Seeing as how it was not even noon, we had some time to kill.

I decided to go to the south side of the peninsula and was quite surprised to see there were plenty of spots in the one small parking lot for Singing Sands.  The south side of the peninsula is remarkably different from the north side: the land is less dramatic and eases into the waters of Lake Huron while the north stands in stark, craggy defiance of Georgian Bay.  There was a small beach with lots of people enjoying the sun but we continued past them and soon found that we were by ourselves on the rocky shore of the lake.

The water surrounding the Bruce Peninsula is that shocking shade of blue that is usually reserved for Caribbean islands.  It was a hot day and the cold water was a wonderful contrast.  The best part was the almost complete lack of any bugs.  Nary a nibble was felt by anyone.

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If you look long enough, you’ll find these in National Parks.  The chairs.  The dogs are passing through.

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Jack enjoying the water.

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Leo looking majestic.

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Leo photobomb.

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Pack photo!

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Wish I knew what this was.

We found some interesting plants that I had never seen before and I kept my eyes peeled for snakes.  We didn’t see snakes but I did see a large leech swimming in a shallow pool.  Leeches, the ticks of the water (shudder).   The dogs had a blast jumping and and out of the water.  Leo discovered his inner water dog and started chasing after sticks into the water.  Jack would wait until Leo brought it in and then try and take it from him.  Jack seems to have adopted the motto “Work smarter not harder”.  Piper kept to herself for the most part, until she wanted attention and then she leaned her soggy body against me.  Although she did try to get the stick from Leo a few times.

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Get the stick!

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Even Piper can get in on the fun.

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Leo pounces!

As we walked back to the parking lot, there is a boardwalk through some marshland.  I thought that we would walk that way to use up time since we had plenty before we could go to the north shore.  However, after taking about ten steps onto the boardwalk, I saw some brown rumps out in the grass.  Deer…must be deer.  The dogs and deer are not a good combination so we backed away and continued to the lot.  I saw a family with some small children and mentioned the deer to them in case the kids wanted to see them.  When we reached an open area, I looked back to see if the deer were still there.  They were…no wait…those aren’t deer…it looks like…no…ostrich?  Emu?  Definitely not deer.  Well don’t I feel the fool.

I shrugged it off and walked back to the car, loaded the dogs up, and drove into Tobermory.  It’s obviously a town that is sustained by tourism and the streets were packed with people.  People that apparently don’t believe in looking both ways before they cross the street.  And paid parking everywhere.  So irritating.  We parked the car and sauntered over to Tobermory Brewing Company.  What better way to ease some anger than with a locally brewed beer.  Yaaaaaa I’d have to leave the dogs on the outside of the patio.  Which wouldn’t be so bad if the patio were at ground level.  It wasn’t.  Grrrrrrrrr.

OK no beer.  A few doors down is the Sweet Shop so we went there and I got an ice cream cone to help me think.  Chocolate and peanut butter if anyone is wondering.  Once I’d finished the ice cream we started walking around, beginning through the marina.  After almost getting walked into by more than a few people that seemed intent on walking into me even though we were at the side of the sidewalk and not spread out all over the place, we headed out of town.  The park’s visitor centre is at the edge of town and you can reach the Bruce Trail behind the hotel.  At least the people we met there were friendlier and didn’t try to run us over.  Then it was time to make our way back to Cyprus Lake.

Back into the line-up we went and even though I was early, I was allowed to park in a nearly empty lot.  We followed the signs that directed us towards The Grotto.  When we emerged from the trees to see a small crowd of people lounging on the rocks at water’s edge, I thought that since there weren’t anymore Grotto signs that we had arrived and that I had mis-interpreted what we were looking for.  Nope, turns out we were at Indian Head Cove and that The Grotto was a few more minutes down the trail.  I actually don’t mind that we didn’t get there since I’m sure it would have been even more crowded and the rocks were hard enough to scale to the cove especially with my two senior citizens.

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Monks on the cliff.

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Is it just me or is she smiling?

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Look at all that blue.

We sat on the edge of the water for a little while, me enjoying the breeze and the water and the dogs enjoying the attention from everyone around them.  Finally tiring of the squealing of children, we climbed back up to the trail and continued south.  Soon we left all the noise behind us and found a quiet stretch of rocky beach.  The rocks here were Leo-sized and made walking a bit more challenging so it was slow going.  Once we got back to the trail proper, it was a much easier walk.

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A moment of peace.

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Jack always seems to know when the camera is pointing at him.

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A section of the Bruce Trail.

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When we arrived back at the lot, I was torn between walking another trail or heading back home.  The dogs decided for me when they all flopped back into the dirt.  They were tired and had had a busy day so I got them back into the car.

Now I had wanted to eat fish and chips as the fish would have been fresh from the lake but I did not want to go back into Tobermory again.  There is a food stand outside of the park that is legendary for fish and chips (Lone Wolf) but it was closed.  The last time we had passed through the area, I had stumbled onto Katemma’s Diner and had the most amazing burger.  I figured if the burgers were great, then fish and chips would be on the menu.  So I drove there and was a little disappointed to see that fish and chips were not on the menu.  Darn.  I guess I’ll just have to console myself with a burger.  And yes I would like bacon and cheese with that.  The back patio was a wonderful place to sit but this late in the day, it was a little too chilly for me so I planted my butt on some rocks in the front parking lot and inhaled that burger and fries.

This burger is by far the BEST traditional burger I have ever eaten and I have eaten a lot of burgers.  It is beefy and the texture is fantastic.  Seriously, if you are a fan of burgers then you must go there.

Feeling satisfied and a little embarrassed that I didn’t share my burger with the dogs, we set back out down the road and found ourselves driving along the south shore of the peninsula.  The first thing you notice is how calm the water looks.  The second is that EVERYONE waves as you drive by.

I stopped the car at a small parking area and let the dogs out for one more play.  OK I’ll admit it: the light was so gorgeous that I wanted to take advantage of it for a few more pictures.  Leo and Piper went exploring but Jack pretty much plopped his butt down and waited for us to come back to him.  He’s an expert at conserving his energy.

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Sun setting over the shore shore.

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I love this pic of Piper.

Finally, with the light fading and a bunch of tired dogs, I strapped everyone back into the car and made the trip home.

One park down.

HOW TO GET THERE

Take Highway 6 once you get out of Owen Sound.  There are several signs on the highway for the park.  Cyprus Lake Road is the first road as you’re driving north.  It will be on your right and will take you to the north shore which includes The Grotto and Indian Head Cove.

A little further down Highway 6 and on your left, you’ll find Dorcas Bay Road which will take you to Singing Sands.  The parking lot is on the left side of the road and then you cross over to go to the beach and trails.

If you continue north on Highway 6, you’ll find the visitor centre before you enter Tobermory proper.  If you follow the highway straight through town, you’ll find the ferries to take you on tours of the islands and to Manitoulin Island.

All of the campgrounds are on the north side of the peninsula and there are both drive-in and backcountry sites.

WHAT TO DO

Hiking is obviously a big draw.  Some of the trails were wide, level, and covered with crushed gravel or hard-parked dirt.  Part of the Bruce Trail that runs along the north shore was rounded rock so would not be good for a stroller or anyone who has trouble with their balance.  The most difficult part was climbing down to Indian Head Cove you have to pick your way down slabs of rock.

The water can be frigid and sometimes the currents make swimming treacherous.  Canoeing and kayaking are other popular ways to enjoy the water.

Bring lots of bug spray and sunblock.

WHERE TO EAT

There are plenty of different restaurants in Tobermory.  However, aside from The Sweet Shop at 18 Bay Street and the Beavertails stand in the marina, I have done most of my eating outside of town.  I will say this: the ice cream at The Sweet Shop is wonderful.

Little Tub Bakery at 4 Warner Road (on the left side of Highway 6 right at Warner Road) makes some great pizza and the baked goods are lovely.  There’s also Harvest Moon Organic Bakery at 3927 Highway 6 which makes some really good organic baked goods.

For fish and chips, I would recommend Lone Wolf which is at 5992 Highway 6 before you get to Cyprus Lake Road.  The food is cooked in a trailer so it’s all outdoor seating.  Be prepared for mosquitoes.

At 7178 Highway 6, you’ll find Ancient Cedars Cafe.  Just keep your eyes peeled for the golf course and swing on in (get it?).  They have a decent vegetarian and vegan selection.  When I went there last year, I ordered the burger bar and built my own burger.  The burger was good.  I liked that I could sit on the patio with the dogs and the staff were super friendly.

But if you’re looking for a burger, then you want Katemma’s Diner at 607 Pike Bay Road and is about 30 minutes south of Bruce Peninsula National Park.  There is indoor and outdoor seating and the back patio is large and well-shaded.

The Long Road Home

I took the opportunity to relax after the constant travelling of the previous days.  Since I usually go later in the season, all of the work preparing the cottage is done before I arrive.  I half expected to be putting long hours helping to get the cottage ready for the summer but fortunately I had arrived too early.  Darn.  So I had a few days to do nothing at all.  The boys “helped” grandpa as he puttered around and if grandma sat on the couch, well Piper was right there with her.

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Dock life.

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The boys helping grandpa.

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Piper in full cottage mode.

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Ever have that feeling you’re being watched?

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It took forever to get this.

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The view from the cottage.

Since my grandparents live so close to the Canada/U.S. border, they do the majority of their shopping in Rousseau, Minnesota.  A couple days after I arrived, grandpa went to buy some groceries and came back with an interesting story that the border guards told him: a car with Ontario plates had some crazy story about driving up from Louisiana and going back to Ontario.  Apparently they thought they had a real live wire of a car and that something was being smuggled because the story just didn’t make sense.  Until the driver mentioned where they were going.  I had no idea I had caused such a stir but I’m glad that I gave some folks some entertainment.  I know that they had told my grandpa this because he told me parts of the conversation that I hadn’t told them about.

Soon enough, the rest was over and it was time to return to real life.  I packed up the car, said goodbye to my grandparents, and we hit the road.  We weren’t on the road long before I decided I needed something to eat.  Not quite sure why, I just did.  So we stopped at Nite Hawk Cafe in Whiteshell Provincial Park.  I ordered a cup of coffee and the buffalo chicken wrap which came with fries.  The wrap was really good with enough spice from Frank’s Red Hot to just balance out the twang of blue cheese.  After the food, we took a much deserved walk through a trail that starts at the parking lot.  When the footing started to get really sludgey, we turned around and got back in the car.

Normally when I start to feel the mid-drive slump around Vermilion Bay, I stop at the Comfort Table Bakery but this time the neighbouring Fort Vermilion was open.  My eye was caught by the signs that said “dog-friendly”.  Well we had to check out what that means.  True to it’s name it is built exactly like a fort, complete with a wooden palisade  There is a cafe and a gift shop and places to sit inside as well as a covered patio.  There’s also a playground inside so it’s a great spot to stop for kids to burn off some pent up energy.  The dogs were allowed inside the fort but not inside the buildings.  But they do have trails that lead out of the back of the fort so we took the opportunity to go for a stretch and burn off our pent up energy.  The terrain was just rough enough to be interesting but did not require huge feats of athleticism.  It’s a nice place to stop if you’re passing through, especially if you have children.

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Fort Vermilion.

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The view from the top.

I had foolishly hoped that we would be able to camp but more rain and falling temperatures dashed any chances of that happening.  I was able to get a room at Voyageur Motel and even though it’s not in the nicest part of Thunder Bay, it was clean and served our purposes just fine.  The only complaint that I had was that the walls seemed to be a bit thin.  I heard some, shall we say, unusual sounds when we were getting settled and seeing Piper looking in the same direction, I obviously wasn’t hearing things.  Part of me wanted to go banging on their door and either ask to turn the volume down on what sounded like an adult movie or find the woman who sounded like she was starring in said movie and tell her that if he was really worth the noise, they’d have been done by now.

When I woke up the next day, it was raining even harder than it had been the day before.  The drive between the Thunder Bay and home can be done in either one long drive or over two days.  I figured that since the weather was so yucky, I would try and do it in one unless we were able to get away from the clouds that seemed intent on following us.

I drove around Thunder Bay looking for a place to get breakfast but since it was a Monday, most places were locked up.  I was going to eat at a place that was highly recommended called Hoito but the line of people told me it wasn’t going to be a quick stop and with the rain continuing to fall, I’d be stuck either leaving the dogs in the car or eating in the car.  Luckily there was a cafe just up the street called Calico Coffeehouse.  It’s a really cute space and the morning glory muffin was outstanding with a good americano to wash it all down.

Aside from a few short walks in the break in the rain, we stayed in the car.  I did see a moose on the side of the road and stopped to take a photo and hopefully scare it away from the road.  Yes you read that right: I wanted to scare it away from the road.  Highway 17 is a major road and the thought of the moose wandering in front of a car had me scared.  Fortunately my little car standing on the shoulder seemed to make it wander farther into the bush.moose

I had to stop for gas in Wawa and that was when I realized that I had never seen the Canada Goose in Wawa.  It’s a large statue of a Canada Goose at the visitors centre as you drive into town.  I’m not going to lie: the thing creeped me out a bit.  I think it’s the eyes.  But then we stopped at Mina’s Kitchen, a trailer on the side of the road.  I ordered the burger with bacon and cheese and fries.  They were very good.  It helped to get over the goose’s creepy factor.

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It’s all in the eye…

Finally the rain stopped and I pulled off the highway to let the dogs run along the shore of Lake Superior.  Even though it was mid-May, there were still piles of snow in the shady spots.  I was engrossed with trying to climb some rocks when I happened to look behind me and saw an older gentleman with his dog.  I was somewhat stumped.  I mean, there were plenty of places for him to stop and he happened to stop right where I was to let his dog out.  And seeing as his dog wasn’t the friendliest, I couldn’t figure it out.  Unless he was just looking for someone to talk to.  We exchanged pleasantries and then we climbed back into the car.  snow

And then as we were passing through Sault Ste. Marie, I saw three giant cows.  Yes giant cows.  And a sign that said “Holy Cow’s Ice Cream”.  You know I stopped.  And you know I left with an ice cream cone of chocolate peanut butter and salted caramel.  After that was the long push home.

You know when you’re getting close to your destination and you just want to get there so you don’t stop (because you’re full of ice creamy goodness) except for gas and pee breaks?  That was the last bit of this trip.

At 1:25 am we arrived home after driving 9093.2 km.  As one person put it, the ending was bittersweet.  I was glad to be home and glad that we had arrived safely.  I was glad that we have been able to share this trip.  But there’s always that bit of sadness that comes with the end of each trip.

And even though the inspiration had been “Feasting on Asphalt”, I was happy that I hadn’t re-created the trip, that I had found different places, walked different trails.  Even with the ticks and the rain and the flooding and the nights spent in the car, it was a trip that can only be described as epic.

Oh speaking of ticks, don’t think that I escape completely unscathed.  I thought I had managed to avoid all ill-effects since the heads of the ticks were so tiny.  Well I was wrong.  Little red marks soon turned into small itchy swellings.  There’s nothing quite like sitting in your chair at work and trying to scratch a tick bite on your backside and hip.  I must have looked like a dog scooting my butt in the chair.  It does make for some interesting conversations with co-workers that’s for sure.

The Headwaters

This trip was inspired by the second season of the television show “Feasting on Asphalt”.  We are following the Great River Road that runs along the Mississippi River from Venice, Louisiana to the headwaters in Itasca State Park, Minnesota.  When possible we will stop at locations featured in the show, however time has found many of them closed.

We woke to another grey, cool day and after a short walk and the dogs had their breakfast, we set out.  Fortunately the Daily Dose was close by and they did not mind me sitting outside on the patio with my dogs.  The americano was very good and the breakfast panini outstanding.  I even had a little treat of the chocolate caramel square after my breakfast which I ate in the car as the rain started to fall.

It seemed like we were chasing the clouds as we continued up the road as the sky wasn’t getting any brighter.  When I saw Cafe Pawz, well I thought I had hit the jackpot of dog-centric cafes.  And that I would be able to get another hit of caffeine with the mutts.  Nope.  There was a big sign on the door that said no pets.  Talk about mixed messages.  Turns out, the cafe is inside Becker Furniture World.  I guess the “pawz” is an homage to the hunting culture as there were plenty of stuffed animals around the store.  The coffee was good but the best part of the cafe were some of the stickers I saw there.  That and the fact that the women’s restroom is also a severe weather shelter.  That threw me for a bit of a loop.

The Great River Road became much more difficult to navigate as we drove through Minnesota since it wasn’t as well marked as it had been in other places and with the river getting smaller and all the lakes to detour, the road also winds a lot more.  I found myself backtracking and no doubt missing large sections so when I saw a visitor’s centre, I stopped in to try and get my bearings and give the dogs a stretch break.  Imagine my surprise when I saw a giant Paul Bunyan statue.  We went for a walk around the centre and took the obligatory photos before continuing on.

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Hi Paul.

Finally I turned down the road for Itasca State Park.  As I was paying for a vehicle permit, I will admit that I was tempted to find a campsite but the wet weather that had been with us for the trip promised to stay with us for some time longer.  And it looked like the temperature was going to drop as well so with no places that I could find nearby, this was going to be a short visit for us.

I was surprised that we did not see anyone, not even other vehicles as we drove through the park.  We stopped at the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center to find that it was locked up; I guess we were visiting before the busy season and that was fine by me.  We set out down the short (800 yards) trail to the headwaters and saw a small statue called Heartwaters-Caretaker Woman.  It’s a beautiful brass sculpture of a woman releasing a basket of turtles.  I found this really interesting article about here.

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Heartwaters-Caretaker Woman

The trail is short and very easy to hike and as you round a bend, the trees open up and the lake appears before you and to the right is a small rock dam with the beginnings of the Mississippi River.  The only indication of the significance of this spot is a sign carved into what had been a tree trunk.  Of course the webcam at the end of the trail kind of gives things away too.

We waded into the water and then when I stopped to take some pictures, I realized that I should have brought my tripod.  So we walked back to the car, got the tripod, and walked back to the lake.  And still, not a soul was seen.  There weren’t even any animals after we had scared off two ducks when we first arrived.

I stood in the middle of this unassuming stream and looked out over the lake to see ponderous clouds hanging in the sky.  Here I was, after how ever many days on the road, having driven the length of the legendary Mississippi River.  A Strong Brown God, Old Muddy, whatever you call it, it had been our companion and our destination.  A trip that I had waited a decade to take had finally been done.  I felt a touch of sadness and satisfaction all at the same time.  Then a wave of contentment washed over me as I watched the dogs splash around in the water.

Since there was nothing and no one to bother, I let the dogs have a little run.  Maybe it was because he hadn’t had much off-leash time or maybe because this place felt like home, for what ever reason, they had a blast running in and out of the water and chasing each other around.  Leo and Jack had a big wrestling match and even Piper got in on a game of chase.  I let them run until they all started to slow down and we made our way back to the car.

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One of my favourite pics from the entire trip.

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Where it all begins…or ends.

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Pack photo.

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Piper having a swim.

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Boys will be boys.

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After a thorough towelling, they all started to jump back in the car.  Then as I was drying off Leo, I happened to notice something on his front leg.  Since that leg is white, it shows up really well if something doesn’t belong.  Like a tick.  Like two GIANT ticks and I picked them both off as fast as I could.  They hadn’t started feeding yet and just looked like they were trying to find a good place to dine (shudder).  I looked over the other dogs and didn’t see anything on them.  And these ticks were big enough, I’m sure I would have seen them easily.

The drive to my grandparents was relatively uneventful.  Figuring out where I was going was a bit problematic as the cell signal was really weak so I just started heading in a generally north direction until I was finally able to get a signal.

When I got to Rousseau, I knew that the border was close and then I had a moment of panic.  This crossing is a small one and I wasn’t sure what the hours were since it was starting to get dark.  Fortunately, it was open until midnight so I was lucky that way.  I drove up to what almost amounts to a shack and waited as the border guard came up to my passenger window.  He was really pleasant but he seemed to have a hard time understanding why someone from Ontario would be coming up from Louisiana to go home back to Ontario via Manitoba.  I explained the trip to him a few times but he seemed to have a hard time believing me.  And I maaaaaaaay not have been as good with keeping receipts as I usually am so there maaaaaaaaaaaay have been a few things that I didn’t declare because I had totally forgotten them.  Like peach salsa.  And cider.  And root beer.  And wine.  Then I told him I was going to visit my grandparents and told him where they live and that seemed to clear everything up.   In short order, we were continuing north.

Here’s the thing with southern Manitoba: there are a lot of deer.  And I do mean A LOT.  I cannot remember how many I saw on the side of the road and I was on edge the entire time, pretty much until I parked at the cottage.  Grandma was still up so the dogs were able to get their snuggles, and I ate a very late dinner before we collapsed into bed.  Unfortunately I always get put in the room with two twin beds and the dogs seem to think that they need to be in the same bed as me.  So either I end up twisted and stuck against the wall or I move to the other bed and then have at least one dog and sometimes all of them follow me.  Of course sometimes I wake up to look across the room and see Piper sprawled out in her own bed.  This time, all three of them had to squeeze onto the bed and I was surrounded by the sound of deep breathing as I fell asleep.

Wine in Cheese Country

This trip was inspired by the second season of the television show “Feasting on Asphalt”.  We are following the Great River Road that runs along the Mississippi River from Venice, Louisiana to the headwaters in Lake Itasca State Park, Minnesota.  When possible we will stop at locations featured in the show, however time has found many of them closed.

I slept like a rock and when I woke up the next morning, I was eager to go for a walk and explore the park a bit.  Ohhhh were the mosquitoes bad when we emerged from the tent and I quickly packed up and we headed back to the Great River Road.  When we came to a town called Prairie du Chien I had to stop.  I mean, what a great name for a town to visit when travelling with a carload of dogs.

It is a small town with a great little cafe called Simply Coffeehouse.  I parked the car on the road out front and went inside to order some coffee and perhaps some food and was delighted to see the menu that had a wonderful breakfast sandwich.  I also saw something on the menu that had me intrigued:  white coffee.  I had never heard of such a thing before but since I was trying coffee during the entire trip, I decided to stick with the americano and I was not disappointed.  Even better was the patio out back where I would be able to sit with the dogs and eat.  So I moved the car to the parking lot at the back of the building and as I was setting up with the dogs, the staff brought out my order.  I sat at one of the tables and enjoyed the food and a lovely americano.  The dogs had ignored their breakfast at camp and continued to ignore the meal I poured out for them since breakfast was obviously more interesting.  And they were getting tons of attention from a slow stream of people entering the cafe.

After I had finished my meal, I took the dogs for a short walk around town to stretch our legs and get some kind of exercise before heading back to the car.  I decided to grab a white coffee to go but when I stepped inside, I was shocked to see how busy the cafe had become since I had first arrived and we hit the road without the extra caffeine.

As we continued to follow the river, I noticed the sky ahead of us was an imposing grey.  We we driving onto drenched pavement and soon we found ourselves catching up with the storm.  Perhaps we were just trailing a system for the duration of our trip.  It was too bad because Wisconsin is such a lovely state to drive through and it would have been nice to get out for some exploration.wisconsin road1wisconsin road 2

When I saw a sign for World Famous Dawg House Depot, I had to stop and check it out.  Hot dogs and dawg in the name?  I figured it was a given that we had to stop.  I parked the car and then saw a boat ramp leading into the river.  Well with a brief break in the rain, I decided to take the dogs for a stroll to check out the water.  Just as we were walking out of the lot, a train decided to run along the tracks between the Great River Road and the Mississippi River.  The dogs did not seem to care one bit about the huge mass of steel screaming by them.  Even Piper, who hates large trucks, calmly watched the cars go by.  And then we got to the river.  I did not see anyone nearby and there would be no way for anyone to sneak up on us so I took the leashes off the dogs to let them sniff around.  I had foolishly hoped that they would maybe wade in to their knees and come out.  Riiiiiiiiiiiiiight.  Part of me was dismayed to see them all chest deep in the river but seeing how much they enjoyed their dip, well that’s why I have a seat cover and lots of towels in the car.  Besides, there were hot dogs to eat which meant time for them to dry.

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Piper seems less than concerned about the train.

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dawg house 4boat rampboat ramp1We went back to the hot dog stand and even though I wanted to get a BUNCH of things on the menu, I finally went for the Chicago style hot dawg: a hot dog on a pretzel bun.  I love me some pretzel buns which was what had me tempted.   With a good layer of saurkraut and some mustard and ketchup, I devoured the hot dog.  It was very good.  Different from our hot dogs from Jack’s Cosmic Dog in Charleston and I think I preferred it a bit more. The owners came out and we ended up sitting there talking for close to two hours.  They are both dog people and road trip warriors who told me about their wintering spot in Alabama so they were naturally curious about the girl with all the dogs in a car with Ontario license plates.  With the nearby road calling to me, I wanted to get going but they were so nice I could have sat there for hours.  Jack glued himself to the husband’s leg and Leo somehow ended leaning into my side while Piper kept the wife’s feet warm.  The funny thing is, I never even got their names.  Finally I loaded the dogs into the car and was about to put the car in drive when I heard a whistle and a tap on my window.  I rolled the glass down and the husband asked if I could drive and eat as he pushed an ice cream treat into my hand.  Chocolate ice cream covered in chocolate.  I will find a way to eat it.  This couple are some of the real characters that make road trips so special.  Oh and the hot dogs are really good especially when washed down with an ice cream treat.

We emerged from the cover of the clouds and continued along the road.  I was in my own little world so it took me a little while to register that I was seeing signs for wineries.  Wineries?  Well that’s a stop right up my alley.  Besides, when one thinks of Wisconsin, I don’t think wine usually comes to mind so I wanted to check out what Wisconsin wine is like.  When I saw that we were passing close by Danzinger Vineyards, I followed the road to the top of a large hill in the town of Alma.

I popped in about half an hour before closing and was asked if I wanted to have four free samples or ten for $5.00.  When I asked if I would be able to take the dogs for a walk after the ten samples to…you know…mull over the tasting, the staff member (who told me she was new) looked to the children sitting near the counter.  I  assumed they were family of an owner or manager or something.  The one young girl just barely managed to look up from her phone to say “no dogs”.  I mentioned that I would keep them on leash and again, more firmly, she replied “No.  Dogs.”  OK then.  I’ll just have a few of the samples and probably end up buying less of the vineyards products.

Now, where I live in southern Ontario, we have three wine producing areas.  Probably the most famous and well-known is the Niagara peninsula area.  Recently, Prince Edward County has had a wine boom which is surprising when you see how rough the terrain is.  The Lake Erie north shore area is now producing some excellent wines.

The wines were quite tasty and I left with a bottle of Marquette and a bottle of Deep Currant.  To be honest, I was surprised at how good the wines were.  Even though some of the wines were not totally to my taste, it wasn’t that they were bad, just not something that I preferred.  When I left the tasting building, I noticed a sign for the Great River Road Wine Trail.  There is a wine trail that leads through this area.  I’m sorry…what?  A wine trail in cheese country?  Does it get any better than that?!  I mean seriously!!!

As the weather had gotten nicer and a bit of a breeze kept the mosquitos at bay, I took the dogs for a walk in a nearby park.  What an amazing view of the river and I took the time to get some pictures of the dogs.almawisconsin 3

Finally I was able to put my camera away and we continued upriver.  Until I saw Nelson Creamery.  And a sign that listed cheese, wine, sandwiches, ice cream, and coffee.  Some of my favourite things in life.  I wandered around the shop but just picked up a bag of cheese curds.  And then I got to the counter.  They had cups of ice cream for dogs.  Well if the dogs were getting ice cream then I had to have ice cream too.  I left with three little cups of ice cream with dog cookies clutched in one hand and my chocolate ice cream cone with a bag of cheese curds in the other.  I brought the dogs out of the car and let them enjoy their treats while I talked to a woman who had stopped to visit with them.  I figure if I’m chowing down every chance I get, then it’s only fair that they get treats too.

As we continued north, I munched on the bag of cheese curds; a fitting dairy dinner.  We crossed into Minnesota and when I saw a visitor centre, I let them out for a walk break.  And the light was really nice for some photos so I just had to take the opportunity to capture my little darlings.  I ended up talking to some couples who were catching Pokemon until the light was almost gone and then started looking for a place to stay.

minnesota

Looking lovely in the dusk.

minnesota1

Piper deep in thought.

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Jack looking majestic…as usual.

minnesota3

Leo in a moment of calm.

With the chance of rain and a drop in temperature, it was going to be a hotel for the night.  Finally I booked a Red Roof Inn in Minneapolis and began making my way there.  I tried to check in but the woman at the counter told me that I didn’t have a reservation.  I was tired by this point.  I just wanted to fall into bed and sleep so I was a little peeved that there was a problem with my reservation.  The woman let me use the phone to call Expedia and just as the phone was finally answered by their customer care, she asked if I could have been booked at another Red Roof.  Wait…there’s more than one nearby?  Ohhhhhhh nooooooooooo.  Sure enough, I was at the wrong one.  Dammit.  So back in the car I go.

Fortunately the other Red Roof Inn was fairly close by and sure enough, it was the one that I had booked a reservation.  Now when I was booking the hotel, I’ll admit that I wasn’t really paying too much attention to the specifics of the room.  So when I checked in, I realized that I must have clicked on the accessible room.  I felt awful.  I don’t need an accessible room so I went to try and switch to another room.  I mean that’s worse than parking in an accessible parking spot.  The staff told me that there were several open for the night so no one was going to get turned away since I wouldn’t be able to switch to another room.  I kind of doubt her assertion that she couldn’t change my room but since there were lots available, I decided to let it go even though I still felt like a grade A ass.

I got everyone settled and went to have a shower.  Except I couldn’t figure out how to make water come out of the shower head.   Seriously.  I tried everything, I moved everything, I twisted and I think I almost bent the faucet trying to do something.  Perhaps my road weary brain just wasn’t functioning and there was a very easy solution.  I mean I could have called the front desk to explain the shower but finally I just laid down to get my head under the tap to wash my hair and contorted my body to get as much as I could under the tap.

By the time I got washed off, the dogs had taken up most of the bed.  So the contortions were not done until I had twisted myself around the snoring dogs and fell asleep.

Gold on the Road and Gold in a Glass

This trip was inspired by the second season of the television show “Feasting on Asphalt”.  We are following the Great River Road that runs along the Mississippi River from Venice, Louisiana to the headwaters in Lake Itasca State Park, Minnesota.  When possible we will stop at locations featured in the show, however time has found many of them closed.

I slept really well that night, no doubt a combination of a poor sleep the night before, a long day, and wine slushie.  And even though I was up early, for me anyway, there were several people up before me and out on the water behind my campsite.  I couldn’t see what it was through the thick stand of trees but I think it was a small tributary and not the Mississippi River.  As the dogs seemed content to lounge a bit longer, I left them in the tent while I went to have a quick shower.  I noticed that I had been a little light with the sunblock and had a lovely shade of pink on my left arm; the unmistakable mark of the road traveler.

jack tent

I don’t wanna Jack today.


leo tent

Why do you do this to me?


piper tent

If I don’t look at you, you’re not talking to me.


sunburn

Mark of the road warrior.

I was deep in that spaced-out shower state, OK not really since I was barely awake, when I glanced down at my thigh.  It took me a second to process what looked like a new freckle.  OH JEEZ LOUISE NO!!!!!  My blood ran cold.  There in all its tiny glory was a tick.  My arm grazed my hip and I felt a bump.  Suddenly the water felt like a million little feet running along my skin.  I braced my right hand on my back and tried to twist to see my hip when it slipped in the soap and stopped on my, shall we say, very lower back area.  ANOTHER ONE.  Thankfully I was alone in the shower building as I’m sure it would have sounded like a lot of groans and splashing.  In actuality I must have looked like a dog chasing its tail as I kept twisting around to see the unseeable parts of me.

Realizing that I was asking for either a fall or a visit to a chiropractor, I stopped and took a deep breath before I reached to the very lower back area hoping that it was just another piece of vegetation.  The little bump pulled away easily enough and for a split second I felt relieved.  Until I looked down and saw a small lone star tick pinched between thumb and forefinger.  Crap.  I broke Rule #1 when it comes to dealing with ticks: never leave the head embedded.  I was optimistic that since the ticks were so little that either I couldn’t see the head or the head was so small that it wouldn’t cause any issues. Like an infection.  I thought about just washing off and going back to my tent where I had tweezers to remove the ticks but in that moment of almost-panic, I just brushed the other two off.  Had they been the larger ticks from home that I’m more familiar with, I would have gone for the tweezers. At least that’s what I tell myself and not that I had a mini-meltdown.

I finished washing off the soap, checking for any more hangers-on, and then went back to the tent where I went over the dogs.  They had none.  I had three and they had none. Oh well.  I guess that since Piper and Jack had each had some in Natchez, it was only fair that I joined in the fun.

 

boys tent

They wait until I tell them they can leave.


3donuts

Breakfast of champions. I may have taken this with one shoved in my face.

For some reason, I had the urge to make my own coffee so I set out my little camp stove to boil water as I began to break camp.  I noticed a white truck that was slowly driving around to the campsites and figured it was the ranger checking on permits.  Sure enough, he stopped at my site and asked if I had a permit.  I mentioned that I had gotten in after everyone had left and there were no permits in the box.  “Uh huh,” with that “suuuuuuure you did” look was the response I got.  Perhaps because my coffee had not brewed yet, and perhaps because I was nursing a slight sunburn, and perhaps because I had just pulled three ticks off while contorted into shapes that would make flipping Cirque du Soleil take notice, I almost almost let the inside voice out: “Oh really?  I could have been out of here before you even knew I existed. Poof puff of smoke like.  For crying out loud I went and paid for a site in Natchez that gave me ticks LITERALLY for days and you’re busting my chops about paying for a flipping permit?!?!?”  Fortunately I just smiled and filled out the permit.

He left and I made my coffee.  In case you’re curious, I have a collapsible cone filter that rests on top of my mug.  Add the grounds and pour over the water and soon you have a delightful cup of coffee to enjoy with leftover donuts.  You can’t let donuts sit for too long after all or they go stale.

With donuts safely packed away (in my belly), a coffee in hand, and camp packed up, we headed out down the road.  We drove right next to the Mississippi River which was a nice change from when we first started out in Louisiana and were driving next to levees.  It’s also much less built-up and a pleasant place to stop to let some travelling dogs out to walk around.  Of course even this far north, the flooding was still severe enough to cover over roads and a few of the parks that we had stopped at were off limits because of the water level.

illinois sign

You can actually see where we are.


illinois flood

Well there’s your problem…

We crossed into Iowa and drove to Muscatine looking for “The Clamshell”, one of the “Feasting on Asphalt” locations.  It wasn’t there anymore so we stopped at Riverside Restaurant instead.  I left with a waffle, another coffee, and the dogs got some loving at the front (of course).  Then we drove to a park at the side of the river to enjoy breakfast.  As I parked the car, I noticed a man setting up a smoker nearby.  I looked around, trying to surreptitiously figure out if there was something going on as I found a shady picnic table.

The waffle was really good with a nice crispy exterior and a soft chewy interior.  I added a little bit of butter and just the barest hint of syrup and I was in waffle heaven.  It was a warm sunny day and we had finally escaped some of the humidity, there was a nice breeze blowing off the Mississippi River right in front of us, and the smell of smoke kept the air perfumed with the smell of barbecue.  I just had to find out what was going on.  That and a creepy guy that I’m pretty sure was higher than a kite was wandering in the area and I figured that at least if I was moving it would be harder for him to approach me.  I wasn’t worried that he’d try anything but the thought of having to push him in the river or having to pull him from the river made me want to move on.

waffle

Doesn’t look like much but it was so tasty.

I told the man with the smoker that it smelled amazing and he told me he was getting ready for a graduation party.  If that isn’t the most awesome grad party I don’t know what is.  I was a little sad that there wasn’t any to sample but having crushed four donuts and a waffle thus far, it probably was for the best.

We continued on along the river.  I’m not quite sure where I was when I looked to my right and saw a massive golden dome in what looked like an industrial area.  It took me totally by surprise especially since I never saw a sign to give any indication of what it was.  It looked way too pretty to be a factory.

dome

Well there’s something you don’t see every day.

We drove on until I saw Bellevue State Park and we stopped for a short hike.  As we were far above the river, we were able to enjoy some spectacular views.  Unfortunately the lack of a breeze and the thick trees meant that we were feeding the local mosquito populations, especially Leo with his thin coat and large patches of black.  The dogs had a quick run around that soon turned into lazy sniffing which told me they wanted to move on.  So we did.

riverview

You lose perspective of how big the Mississippi still is until you see it from up high.

We stopped at Kalmes Restaurant in St. Donatus and I was hoping to sample Luxembourg -style noodles.  I mean, they looked really good on “Feasting on Asphalt”.  And even though the internet said they’d be open and the sign on the door said they’d be open, they were not open.  Darn.  So back in the car we went.

We crossed into Wisconsin and were following the road north when we came to Potosi.  At first I was struck by what a cute town it was and HOLY CRAP THEY HAVE A BREWERY!!!!  Quick turn into the parking lot of Potosi Brewery, a hustle through a patio, and into the side door.  Yes I can bring the dogs onto the patio (SCORE!), yes I can order food to go so I can sit on the patio (Double SCORE), yes we have several beers on tap (excited hopping from foot to foot).  I was handed a menu and so many things called to me but the brisket sandwich seemed to be calling the loudest.  I sampled a few beers then settled on the golden (Good Old Potosi) and went out to the patio.  It is one of the nicest patios I have ever had the pleasure of sitting on.  There was a waterfall streaming out of the rock face behind the patio with a koi pond at the base.  It was nice and shady, a welcome respite from the heat of the day, especially for this northern girl.  The tables weren’t crammed in next to each other, I’m sure partly because the patio wasn’t technically open yet.  And even though it wasn’t open, one of the staff brought my food out to me and stayed for a minute to play with the pups.  And several people that were passing by took my lead and also joined us on the patio  It was just way too nice to sit inside.

The verdict on Potosi Brewery: YOU MUST GO.  The food is outstanding, the beer is incredible, and the people are just ridiculously nice.  When I popped back inside to tell them how much I enjoyed the food, I noticed growlers for root beer and had to ask about it.  I’ve noticed that alcoholic root beers are showing up all over the place but this is one that’s non-alcoholic and after tasting a sample, I left with a growler in hand.  I’m not a big fan of re-visiting places but this is one place that I would go back and spend some time really exploring.

potosi4

A patio with a waterfall demands that you stay.

Having made the mistake more than once of waiting too long to start looking for a place to spend the night, I decided to stop when I saw the signs for Nelson Dewey State Park.  I’ve lost the “get a bit further down the road” gamble a few too many times on this trip already.  So when I pulled off the road, there was a sign that says you have to get a vehicle sticker and if you’re camping go find a site then come down and fill out a permit for the site.  I didn’t see the permit box as we drove in and we drove up to the sites and sure enough, there were a bunch open.  So I drove back down to the front to see if I could find the permit box.  I did find the box which I had passed as soon as I drove in, but then I had forgotten to remember the site number, so I drove back up to the site that I picked, set up the tent (checking for ticks as I did), and drove back down to the entry and filled out the permit info then drove back up to the site.  And for some reason I decided that I wanted to have a fire so I passed by our site, bought a bag of wood, and finally parked the car.

Usually I don’t have fires when I’m camping because, well I’m not sure.  I like fires and I like sitting around fires.  I think it’s because when you’re by yourself you have to sit there and watch the fire.  And since you’re not supposed to transport wood from one place to another you have to use it all up.  However, the dogs all seemed exhausted and were content to flop down rather than explore so we were going to be up for a while.  I didn’t even bother running their leashes to their tie-out since no one was camping near us any way.

camp

Hey Piper.  You’re so far away.  Leo is chowing down.  And yes Jack usually grabs a seat at the table.

I had brought a blanket just for them to act as a base layer for their sleeping blankets.  I got the idea from Jamie at Hiking Girl with Dog and the dogs really seemed to like it.  Except Piper who seems to have no faith in my fire-tending skills.  As soon as it was lit, she got as far away as she could.  In fact, if she could have squeezed under the fly of the tent I’m sure she would have.  What’s funny about that is  that I heat my house all winter with a wood stove so there’s always a fire going.  It may have something to do with the fact that I once set a skillet on fire in said wood stove.  But that’s another story.

Once the fire had burned out and were were all dozey on the blanket (yes even Piper eventually joined us) we crept into the tent and were all snuggled up and asleep.

I Ate my Weight in Donuts

This trip was inspired by the second season of the television show “Feasting on Asphalt”.  We are following the Great River Road that runs along the Mississippi River from Venice, Louisiana to the headwaters in Lake Itasca State Park, Minnesota.  When possible we will stop at locations featured in the show, however time has found many of them closed. 

It was a rough night for sure.  Piper insisted on sleeping with her face next to mine on the back of the seat.  It sounds really sweet and it is…until she snorts and you get dog snot all over the side of your face.  And then there’s Leo who may be little but he sure likes to take up a lot of space.  I found myself perched on the edge of the seat pressed up against the door more than once with Leo resting comfortably next to me.  Then there’s Jack, the always watchful guard dog.  Any sound from close outside and I’d hear a low rumbling growl from the seat next to me.  When the sky started to grow light, I gave up on any thoughts of sleep and took the dogs for a walk around the campground.  I was still a bit confused as there were no individual sites marked but as we were moving on, I wasn’t too concerned.  It seemed like a nice campground and was well above the flooded river.  I poured food out for the dogs and once they had eaten their breakfast, I loaded them back into the car and we headed back into town.  When we got to the road, I saw the sign for our refuge for the evening: Randolph County State Recreation Area.

We made our way back to the Great River Road and just as we were about to cross the Mississippi River again, we found a statue for what I imagine would be Chester Illinois’ greatest export: Popeye the Sailor Man.  That’s right, Popeye’s creator was from Chester.  Well I’m not a fan of canned spinach (shudder) but I am a big fan of baby spinach and that’s close enough for me.  As I was taking photos of the dogs, a farmer’s market was being set up in the lot of the visitor’s centre behind us and we scanned the early offerings.  I left with a beautiful basket of strawberries and I was busily devouring them as soon as we were back on the road and headed into Missouri.

popeye

Well hello sailor. The dogs are more interested in the market being set up.


chester

The river from the edge of Chester.

Strawberries alone will not keep a person fuelled and with the less than fulfilling sleep I soon found myself in desperate need of caffeine and I made my way into Perryville.  Coffee beckoned but I was met by roadblock after roadblock.  What kind of villainy stands in the way between this intrepid traveller and the much needed boost of coffee?  The banners and posters proclaimed that I had arrived in the midst of Maydays.  Had I been planning on staying for a day or two, I would have hung around.  Alas, that was not in the plan and I parked the car as close as I could and walked to Villainous Grounds.  Imagine a sweet coffee chop and comic book store all rolled up in one place.  It was like heaven to this nerd traveller and I lingered longer than I needed to chat with the locals.  I learned that there was going to be a solar eclipse in August and Perryville was in the middle of the path of the eclipse so come August, the entire town will be crammed full of people.  Farmers have even left fields unplanted so they can rent out space for tents.  Brilliant if I do say so.  With a chocolate cheesecake latte in hand (a-freaking-mazing), we were soon back on the road and headed for St. Louis.

Now Feasting on Asphalt went through St. Louis twice: in the first season, they stopped at Ted Drewes for frozen custard.  We had also stopped at Ted Drewes on the way through last September.  In the second season of Feasting on Asphalt, they stopped at several donut shops because apparently the citizens of St. Louis LOVE donuts.  I also enjoy donuts so this was going to be a donut visit.  I decided that we would stop at three donut places: two that had been featured on Feasting on Asphalt and a third to be determined.

As we were heading into St. Louis, and what promised to be donut nirvana, I saw a large park so I decided to give the dogs a bit of a stretch.  I had planned to keep them on leash, but when I saw signs that said dogs have to have a leash not on leash, well they went for a run.  If you’re going to have ambiguous signage, folks like me are going to take advantage of it.  We didn’t wander too long because it was getting really warm.  As the dogs were re-hydrating, I planned out my visits and when I saw a place called Ex Cop Donut Shop that was an obvious starting point.  How could I not go to a place called Ex Cop Donut Shop?  I strapped the dogs back into the car and off we went.

We were pulling into the lot of Ex Cop Donut Shop.  The sign said that it should be open.  It wasn’t.  I’ll admit that I threw a little bit of a temper tantrum.  There may have even been some choice language.  OK.  Next place.

Donut Drive-in was one of the places on Feasting on Asphalt and I was happy to see that they were fairly close by.  It was also close to Ted Drewes and it was a hot day…There was a short line-up out the door of Donut Drive-in but it moved fairly quickly.  Then it was my turn and even though I had been standing in line and eying the donut selection, when the young man behind the counter asked what I wanted, I panicked and asked him to just give me half a dozen of what his choice.  When I took the box from him, I momentarily questioned my sanity.  What the hell was I thinking?!  But when I snuck a peek as I walked back to the car, the smell of yeasty sugary goodness was like a comfortable blanket. I brought the dogs out of the car and we sat on the grass under the closest thing to shade we could find.  I ate two donuts so fast that I couldn’t remember what they were.  They were good.  Very different from the light offerings in Natchez; these were much more dense and substantial and more like a traditional donut.  Feeling satisfied, I looked up the hours for Ted Drewes and sadly they were not open yet.  I’ll confess I wasn’t too disappointed as there were more donuts to eat and we set back out on the road to World’s Fair Donuts.

donut drivein

I should have taken photos of the goods.  Call it donut brain.

World’s Fair Donuts is in a bit of a tricky spot to get to especially with nearby construction but we successfully navigated our way into the parking lot.  When I walked in, I was surprised when I was greeted by a rather rotund bulldog at the door.  She looked as though she had developed a taste for donuts as well, a dog after my own heart.  Having taken the edge off my donut craving, I asked the woman at the counter to just give me two donuts.  She seemed a bit surprised by the request but she soon handed me a bag and said that she thinks I’ll like these.  I went to get the dogs and we again sat on in a shady patch of grass at the side of the property and I opened my bag.  One glazed number was filled with a jam, strawberry I think.  It was good but there was barely any jam inside so it was just a small divot of flavour.  Now the other donut was interesting: it had a definite lemon flavour and what seemed like some kind of a crunch on top.  It was really good.

As I let the donuts settle, I scanned for the next stop and when I saw Vincent Van Donut my mind was made up.  I guess I’m a sucker for fun and whimsical names.  When I parked the car next to Vincent Van Donut, I felt a sort of familiarity and I paused to look around.  For some reason, the area reminded me of Toronto with kind of an artsy area in the midst of gentrification.  I’m not sure if that’s accurate but it didn’t matter; there were donuts to be had.  Then I stepped inside and realized that the vibe was more like Ottawa and Suzy Q donuts for these were artisnal donuts staring back at me from inside the cases.  Large offerings of sweet donuts next to savory donuts beckoned but I settled for a maple bacon donut, the last one.  And an americano to wash it down.

While the dogs were eager to help me, the maple glaze had a bit of cayenne pepper which lent a delicious kick but I felt would wreak havoc on little puppy tummies so I gave them teeny nibbles of unglazed donut and little bits of bacon which seemed to ease their hurt feelings.  It was a struggle to swallow the last few bites but I managed.  With the coffee clutched in hand, I took the dogs for another short walk, partly to check the area but mostly to ease my sense of total gluttony.  It was a very short walk as the day was getting hotter.  We stayed on the shady side of the streets but soon retreated to the comfort of air conditioning as we headed out.

When I saw the Cahokia Mounds were a short distance away, I crossed back into Illinois.  These were the largest mounds of the Mississippian culture left and if I had been impressed by the second largest mounds at Emerald Mound, well then I had to check out the largest.

Blew my mind.  Mounds rose up from the flat ground on either side of the highway and then I saw Monks Mound, the largest of them all.  The steady stream of people going to and from the top of the mound was in direct contrast to the other mounds we had visited.  There were even people using the stairs to work out.  We hiked to the top and I paused to admire the view and give the dogs a chance to sniff and rest a bit before we went back to the parking lot.  There was next to no shade at the top except the little bits found under benches so we didn’t linger too long.  There was far more shade in a stand of trees next to the lot and we sat in the grass as I encouraged the dogs to drink as much as they wanted.  Of course they would rather socialize then drink so I eventually gave up and we got back into the car.

mound3

It doesn’t really look like much but do you see those people on top in the middle?


mound 1

Taking a break at the top.


mound4

Looking back at St. Louis.


mound2

No wonder people use these for a work out.

I was going to stop in Alton because, well it’s Alton.  But I just couldn’t bear the thought of eating anything at that point and it was so hot I wanted to keep the dogs in the cool car for a bit longer rather than go traipsing along more hot concrete.  So we continued on.alton

And then we got to Nauvoo.  Not only does it have a fun name, but it is also home to Illinois’ oldest winery which had been featured on Feasting on Asphalt.  I owed it to everyone to stop.  Several things made me happy that we stopped: they sell wine, they serve wine, and dogs are allowed on the patio.  I sampled a few wines and selected a sweet concord.  Then I learned that they used the same wine to make a slushie.  My ears perked right up.  A wine slushie!?  I practically tore the door off the hinges when I left the store area and went to the bar area in the next building.  I ordered my slushie and then decided to get a pizza, chicken bacon ranch please.  I took a table on the patio in between the two buildings, surprised and delighted that I was the only one out there, and retrieved the dogs.  After guzzling some of the water I poured out for them, they were soon flopped out around me.  I’m really happy that they are so comfortable on patios but it made me wonder if I take them to too many patios.  I shrugged the thought off as I took a sip of my slush.  When the pizza arrived, I was in patio heaven.

I had seen a sign for a state park and found it within walking distance of the winery. Had I thought things through, I could have set up camp and then walked to the winery.  It’s probably better that I didn’t do that since I would have just had more wine slushies.  There was no staff working, no permits in the permit box, and zero for cell reception to book online so I just went and found a site to set up camp.  There were plenty of available sites and none had reserved signs so I decided to chance it.  As I was slowly pitching my tent, I was dismayed to see that we had some hitchhikers: more lone star ticks from our campsite in Natchez, Mississippi.  Despite my best efforts to get them off the tent, when we all piled inside, I could still see some walking across the tent.  And even though it was still light out I was soon asleep, the long day and poor sleep the night before having taken it’s toll on me.  I think I may have even been asleep before the dogs.

Of Meat and Mosquitos

This trip was inspired by the second season of the television show “Feasting on Asphalt”.  We are following the Great River Road that runs along the Mississippi River from Venice, Louisiana to the headwaters in Lake Itasca State Park, Minnesota.  When possible we will stop at locations featured in the show, however time has found many of them closed. 

The damaging winds passed but the rain continued on into the morning.  I took the dogs out for a stroll around the parking lot but they are a delicate and finicky bunch when it comes to rain.  They have no problem diving into water if it’s on the ground but as soon as it’s falling from the sky, they seem to think that they are going to melt.  So while they recovered from the indignity of going out in the rain with bowls of food, I planned out the day.  Who am I kidding?  I looked for coffee.  And I found it with The Tamp & Tap in downtown Memphis.

We crossed the bridge into Memphis during a break in the rain and when I saw the Welcome Centre, I took the opportunity to stop and let the dogs have a bit more of a leg stretch.  Even though we had been next to the river, from our elevated vantage point, I was able to get a real sense of just how big this river was.  I mean, what better gauge of size than to watch full-grown trees float past you?  As we walked around the Welcome Centre, I stopped to speak with one of the staff and asked where we should go for barbecue.  When there is “Memphis-style barbecue” you have to eat it.  That’s just part of the rules.  He told me a few places but two stood out: Interstate (which was on “Feasting on Asphalt”) and Central.  Then I asked the all-important question: if you had to go to only one, which would it be.  The hesitation before he answered said it all.  He replied that Interstate was an institution but the food was better at Central.  Well friends, I think we know which one I went to.  After coffee of course.

memphis

We came ready to rock.

memphisriver

Trees in the Mississippi River for scale.

The parking situation around the Tamp & Tap, well let’s just say it leaves much to be desired.  I mean, there is plenty of places to park, if you don’t mind paying for it.  I risked a parking ticket when I left my car in the lot across the street and dashed inside, practically dancing from foot to foot as I waited in line.  When I mentioned that I wasn’t properly parked, she warned me that they are usually really strict with parking but they had already been by so I should be good for a few minutes.   And despite the fact that I was in a rush, I couldn’t help myself and asked if they had any specialties of the house and as she was rhyming off a list of prepared coffee drinks, my ears perked up at raspberry chocolate.  So I ordered one to go and practically bowled over everyone between me and the door, grateful to see that no one in uniform was anywhere near the lot. Downtown Memphis looked like the kind of place that I would have liked to wander around but the sky was a menacing grey so I punched in the address for Central BBQ and noticed that there were two and both were listed on bringfido.com as being dog-friendly.  I picked the one at 2249 Central since it had slightly better reviews and started the drive.

It was a short drive and soon we were in the parking lot.  For a brief moment anyway because a gentleman who was directing the traffic in the lot had us park across the street.  Navigating across four lanes of traffic was a bit of an inconvenience but I was hoping that it would be worth it.  What usually happens at Central is that if you were sitting on the patio, you would order food at the counter and then go sit down and it would be brought to you.  That wasn’t going to be so easy for me for a couple of reasons: there were a lot of people and I would have to find a place to tie the dogs where they would be close but still out of the way and about half of the patio had a heavy-duty tent around it so that meant walking through flaps and between narrow tables.  I must have had an expression that begged for pity because one of the servers told me to sit down and she would bring me food.  I practically hugged her right there and grabbed a table in the open area.  It took me a bit to figure out how to open the umbrella and almost as soon as I did, the skies opened up.  I sat in the chair, and into the puddle that was on it, to wait for my new best friend.  I ordered the platter with three different meats and two sides, confident that I would be able to eat most of it.  Well this time the food won.  I ate my macaroni and baked beans but I barely made a dent in the turkey, pulled pork, and brisket.  It was good but I found the meat was a bit dry and needed liberal dosing with the accompanying sauces. It was flavourful on it’s own but the flavour was kind of drowned by the sauce.  The macaroni and cheese was outstanding and was my favourite part of the meal.  I packed up what was left of my food and then spent way too long trying to get back to our car while standing out in the rain.

central

This round went to the meat.  From top left: mac n’ cheese, buns, baked beans, brisket, pulled pork, and turkey.

The dogs were so drenched, that when we did get eventually back to the car, I didn’t put their harnesses on until they had a chance to dry off since I was a little worried about them getting rubs from the straps.  I followed the placards for the Great River Road out of the city and while we passed by some beautiful homes, we also passed by some neighbourhoods that stood in stark contrast, with more plywood than glass and restaurants sporting bars across windows and doors.

It’s a shame that it rained as much as it did since it would have been nice to get out and explore.  It also would have been nice not to be a walking buffet for legions of mosquitos.  When we had to turn around to detour because of yet another flooded section of road and since there was a break in the rain, I took a chance to walk the dogs in what looked like a state park.  Yes we braved the mosquitos and the possibility of another downpour to get in a bit of a hike.  And it was quite a find when we stumbled upon Fort Pillow.

flood

Well we won’t be going that way then.

I had parked the car on what kind of looked like a parking area but no signs to indicate as such.  We followed a well-marked path but there wasn’t much in the way of signage to tell us what was ahead at least not like most parks that we have been to.  When I did see signs for Fort Pillow, I expected to see maybe a sign and a drawing of what it would have looked like, not the fort re-created complete with a tent and guns.  There were signs posted that explained that the fort was positioned over an area of strategic importance over the river, thus allowing control over boat traffic as well as the history of the fort.  Considering how well it had been restored, I would have expected to see more people there or at least more signs for it.  As it was, we had the whole place to ourselves and I spent longer than I expected, poking around and reading everything I could.  If you’re a history buff, this is a great place to spend some time to reflect and really appreciate how these forts were constructed and what it would have been like to live there.  In downtown Toronto, we have Historic Fort York which is huge but probably not reflective of how many other forts were constructed.  When I was tired of being a blood donor, we headed back to the car and continued on.

pillow sign

Words of wisdom.

pillow gun

The dogs checking the firepower.

pillow

The land side of Fort Pillow.

As it was getting late, I started looking for a place to sleep.  We were in an area towards the north border of Tennessee and there was little in the way of hotels but I did start seeing a lot of signs for campgrounds.  With options pretty limited and no call for rain over night, I set out to try and find them.  And I did.  Problem was a lot of those campgrounds were under water.  Crud.  Then I turned down one driveway, convinced that this would be the one.  It was dark but it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve set up my tent by the light of my headlamp.  I saw piles of leaves across the driveway but that’s to be expected after a flood.  What I didn’t realize was that those leaves weren’t in piles but were covering tree limbs until BAM.  To say that the language was colourful would be an understatement.  So there I was trying to back up and I just kept hitting more branches and limbs as I attempted a 98-point turn and continued back down the road, really hoping that every noise my car made was my imagination.  Of course the noises go away when you turn up the music.

flood2

I seem to be seeing this a lot.

By this time, we were in Chester, Illinois which, as near as I can tell, has only one hotel.  So I went there to see if they had any rooms available.  And there were.  With the room fee and the pet fees it would have only been just over $200.00.  I tried to barter at least the pet fees down.  I mean $25.00 per dog is a bit much but with no luck.  So finally I just asked if there was somewhere I could park the car.  He told me that he wouldn’t mind if I parked the car in the lot but there was a campground nearby that shouldn’t be flooded because it’s on a hill.  With the directions burned into my brain, we set out to find this campground.

And we did find it and sure enough it wasn’t flooded. I drove around to get my bearings but the sites, or at least what I thought were sites were not well-marked so I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at especially in the pitch dark.  By this time I was too tired to really care.  And too tired to eat anything.  In fact, I hadn’t eaten anything since we left Memphis.  I put some food and water out for the dogs before they all hopped back into the car and into their sleeping spots: Leo in the front seat with me, Jack in the front passenger seat, and Piper sprawled across the back seat.  Needless to say, they were asleep long before I was.  I guess Piper was a bit out of sorts since she usually snuggles with me so she kept her nose tucked into the crook of my neck.  It’s sweet until she did the boxer snort and sprayed the side of face face with snot.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, Leo kept shifting next to me so I ended up trying to contort around him.  Heaven forbid the dog isn’t comfortable.  I think Jack passed out the second he curled up.  I’m so jealous of that.

Ticks, Fried Chicken, and Pig Heads

This trip was inspired by the second season of the television show “Feasting on Asphalt”.  We are following the Great River Road that runs along the Mississippi River from Venice, Louisiana to the headwaters in Lake Itasca State Park, Minnesota.  When possible we will stop at locations featured in the show, however time has found many of them closed. 

I did not sleep well that night.  Every time something brushed against my skin, I imagined I was being overrun by an army of bloodsucking ticks.  At one point during the night I had to step outside the tent to…errrr…check the perimeter (the downside of having a bladder the size of a walnut).  With this being a primitive site, I normally would have gone far from the area but with no clear trail away from camp and very little in the way of cover from my neighbours, I went as far from my tent as I dared.  Which wasn’t very far.  And as soon as I got back inside, I checked myself all over.

When I opened my eyes, I saw more ticks climbing across the top of my tent in the growing light.  I decided that we would stay inside as long as possible and began packing up as much as I could.  I was getting dressed when I thought I felt something, and this is going to sound weird, down the back of my pants.  I literally froze as my mind started racing.  This is as close to a transcript as I can safely write because there was a lot of colourful language running through my head: Oh no.  Lower back…nope…butt…oh maaaaaaaan…OK OK don’t panic.  OK phone you can use your phone and figure out where it’s at and then…wait how am I going to remove it?  Am I going to have to use a mirror in the shower room?!?!  Aww come ON.  It was as I was trying to figure out how to contort myself to remove a tick from my backside that I realized it was a leaf.  Somehow a leaf always ends up down the back of my pants.  I checked the dogs over and sure enough they had beasties: Jack two, Piper three, and surprisingly Leo had none.  I decided to wait until we were at the shower shed to take the ticks off since there was a paved parking area which meant less chance of more hopping on.

I don’t think I have ever broken camp so fast.  I was spurred on by the ticks that I kept brushing off the fabric of the tent, and me, to get everything away and it seemed we were set to go in no time.  I felt bad about not taking the dogs for a walk so we went down the road, staying as far out of the grass as we could and walked around the closed off campground.  I wanted to see what it was like and it was quite nice indeed.  It would have been a good place to stay although I doubt it would have changed the tick situation.  I drove to the shower building and went over the dogs really well.  They are on a flea/tick prevention program but these little vampiric spiders were not going to be attached for longer than necessary.  Once everyone was bug-free I had a bit of a quandary: do I leave or do I go to the park office and pay for my spot?  I was tempted to just leave but then that little voice in my head that knows right from wrong and that park fees support the park and keep up the maintenance and even though I could have been bled dry it’s still the right thing to do.  So I went to pay for my spot.  As I was talking to the ranger, I was asked what was the biggest difference between Mississippi and Ontario.  I mentioned there were a lot of ticks. ‘Oh yeah,” chuckled the ranger.  “We have a lot of them”.  Understatement of the year.

I munched on the last donut (still can’t believe I ate five donuts the day before) as we headed out of Natchez State Park.  I saw a sign for the Natchez Trace Parkway which is an historic scenic route, and turned to follow it.  If you’re in the area, take it.  Drive the Trace because it is just so darned pretty.

When I saw a sign for the Emerald Mound, I decided to stop and check it out.  It’s not flashy in any way as it is just mounds of dirt that were created to support temples and ceremonial structures of the Mississippians (see below).  It turns out that Emerald Mound is the second largest mound in the United States after Monks Mound in Cahokia, Illinois.  There is one main mound and then two smaller ones on top of the main mound.  I hadn’t realized that there was entire mound trail that runs up the Mississippi River.  If you’re not a lover of history I could see why it would not be high on a list of things to see.  But stand at the top of this mound and look around.  This was created by hand.  There was no machinery involved.  The amount of effort and manpower needed to make the mound is astounding and there was this connection to the past that I hadn’t expected.  It’s like that moment when you go to a museum and you realize that all of these things you’re looking at were once prized possessions, were once people with hopes and dreams and fears.  There was a strange feeling to this place and I wanted to both linger and leave.  We did stay for a little while before we made our way back to the road.  I wanted to give the dogs a good walk but they also seemed to sense that there was something to this place and were a bit more subdued than I would have expected them to be.  I even dropped their leashes when no one else was around (shhhhhhhh don’t tell) but they just trotted along beside me.emerald mound sign

mound

That is one of the smaller mounds on the main mound. Do you see the couple on the stairs? How’s that for scale?

And then after a short drive down the road, we were at the Old Country Store in Lorman, Mississippi, a restaurant that had been featured on “Feasting on Asphalt” and supposedly had the best fried chicken in the world.  The building looked a little rough outside and not much better inside but hey, I was there for the food.    There’s a seating area inside and I was met by a woman at the front.  I explained to her that I had dogs with me and asked if I could make a plate and sit outside.  She hesitated and told me I’d have to speak with Mr. D.  She walked me to the area where the food was and there sitting at the cash register was Mr. D, also known as Arthur Davis.  I recognized him immediately and waited patiently while he finished joking around with the people in line ahead of me.  And then I stepped up to the desk.

You know how they say you should never meet your heroes?  I would say that you should never meet anyone from TV.  I told him that I was from Ontario and heard he had the best fried chicken and I wanted to try it but I had my dogs and was hoping I could eat outside.  “You can’t bring dogs in the restaurant.”  Ummmmm yeah.  Kinda figured that.  Then he asked if I wanted the buffet or a plate.  This was breakfast and lunch for me so naturally I went for buffet.  He nodded his head and told me that I could eat outside.

I was a little put off by the change from laughing and joking to not but oh well.  Maybe it was me.  Maybe not.  I stopped caring once my gaze fell upon  a golden pile of chicken at the hot table and I loaded my plate.  I went heavy with the veggies to kind of make up for the fact that I had eaten very little of them the day before and then went outside balancing my plate and a large cup of swee’tea.  I got the dogs out of the car and tied their leashes to the railing at the side of the stairs then I perched on one step and used another as a table.  I bit into that first piece of chicken and it was as though I had never eaten chicken before.  It was crispy and not overly seasoned, the meat was moist and flavourful.  Needless to say, the chicken was the first thing to disappear from the plate.  I heard a noise and looked to see Mr. D come out the front door.  This is amazing I called out.  “I know” was the response.  I guess when you have people coming from everywhere to say the same thing, it gets a bit old.  He stood out there for a while and I suddenly wondered if he thought that I was feeding someone else or feeding the dogs.  At first I felt a bit insulted but then I realized that is a very valid concern.  I didn’t let it bother me when I went for my second plate.  I drove this far for chicken and dammit I was going to eat chicken.  And vegetables because I have to.

As I was working on the second plate, some of the staff came outside, again to check on me.  I guess they didn’t figure that someone like me could put away as much food as I did.  Well joke’s on you guys because I can.  I waddled my way inside to pay and I again found myself in front of Mr. D.  You know when you have that really awkward and strained conversation?  The kind where you think “we should just stop this because it’s that awkward”?  That was the conversation we had when he told me that he had gone on a long road trip into Canada.  I mean, we were on the same wavelength about driving because you can see everything but it was just so strained.  Here’s my verdict on the Old Country Store: if you’re anywhere near there, you HAVE to go.  Don’t go for the decor or ambiance.  Go for the food.  It is so worth it.  Oh and in case you’re wondering, yes the dogs had tiny samples of the chicken.  Those teensy bits that cling to the joint that you just can’t bite off.  The pieces that would normally have been left on the bone and tossed so I don’t feel bad about it.  They were a little peeved that all they got were those bits but they’re lucky I didn’t suck the bones dry.

Oh were my guts aching when we left so when I saw a sign for another mound site at Winterville Mounds, I took the opportunity to get out and walk the dogs around.  While the mounds were smaller, there were quite a few of them and the woman at the visitor centre explained the history of the site pretty much as soon as I walked in the door.  I could only visit about half of the site because some of it had been damaged by flooding but it was still a nice place to stop.  If I had been looking for a place to picnic (which I most certainly was NOT), this would have been a great place.  Not only are the lands around the mounds well-mowed and flat but there is a lovely little pond with lots of trees for shade and plenty of benches in the area.  With my tummy in slightly better shape, we headed back out.

point

I have no idea what this is pointing at besides up.

As we headed into Rosedale, the first thing that struck me were some gravestones right next to the road.  And I do mean right next to the road.  No fence at all just some areas mowed out of the tall grass.  Then we found Joe’s Hot Tamale Place – White Front Cafe, another “Feasting on Asphalt” location.  I had never had hot tamales before and I was looking forward to changing that.  I bounded inside and laid my eyes upon the menu.  Ohhhhhhhh boooooooy.  Bundles of three, half a dozen, a dozen….my mind spun.  I asked Miss Barbara Pope what I should get since I wasn’t sure how filling they were.  She had appeared on “Feasting on Asphalt” but I didn’t say anything about how I recognized her because that just seemed kind of weird and groupie-like.  What I hadn’t realized was how soft-spoken she was and I felt like a bull in a china shop especially when she stepped behind the counter.  I was looking at the menu and when I turned back to her, her head was almost at my waist.  I did a bit of a double take and even looked behind the counter to see that, yes the floor was a step down.  I felt like a lumbering monster as I ordered my dozen hot tamales.  Hey if she said that she can eat a dozen how could I do any less?  And since this was later in the day it was shaping up to be my dinner.

I paid for my tamales and drove back towards a sign that we had seen for a park.  I thought it would nice to sit in some shade, enjoy my tamales, maybe go for a short walk and enjoy some of the sunshine.  I crested the levee and as I started to drive towards the gate I was so lost in my thoughts that it took me a second to understand what I was looking at.  A gate.  Across the driveway.  And water behind it.  Ohhhhhhhh the road was flooded.  Hmmmmmm time for a Plan B.  I reversed back up the levee and pulled off to the side of the road that ran along the top.  I brought the dogs out of the car and after offering them water, I sat in the grass with my container of hot tamales and set to eating them.  So what is a hot tamale?  It’s a mix of highly seasoned cornmeal and pork that is wrapped in corn husk and boiled in a flavourful broth.  You can eat them by either unwrapping the husk to reveal an almost sausage-like roll or push up on the bottom and slurp them out the top.  I made an absolute mess eating with my hands but it was just so gosh-darned fun.  Then I switched to a knife and fork. I got plenty of stares from the people that drove by but I’m used to it by now.  The tamales were really tasty and I enjoyed them.  I wanted to share with the dogs, and they wanted me to share with them too, but I had a feeling they would just be too spicy for little tummies.

I groaned my way back into the car and set out back down the road.  Unlike Louisiana, the Great River Road is really well marked in Mississippi and we had no trouble navigating into Arkansas at Helena-West Helena.  We stopped at the Welcome Centre to get our bearings, and some photos of course.  There was a good-sized strip of grass next to the Welcome Centre and I let the dogs have a play there.  After Leo had his obligatory roll, he started to play tug of war.  With Jack’s leash.  While it was attached to Jack.  I sat on the grass and watched them pull each other around as Piper snuggled up to me.  As the boys were getting their sillies out, I started looking for a hotel for the night since the forecast was calling for rain.  Actually the forecast was for “quarter-sized hail and damaging winds”.  I think I’ll pass on camping out in that.  I saw that there was a hotel just down the road and started driving…it should be right here…nope map says I passed it…OK U-turn…noooooooo…hmmmmm…back around……..no hotel…but there is a sleep centre.  Well that’s just great.  I’m looking for a sleep centre too.  Just one where you pay some money to sleep for the night.  With nothing else nearby, we kept heading upriver.arkansas

Now I have a feeling that when they were mapping out the Great River Road, someone said, “Hey do you think they’ll follow all the signs?” because at one point we turned off the paved roads and were soon crunching along a dirt road at the top of the levee.  At first I wondered if we had missed a turn but no, there was a sign up ahead.  As we approached the sign, I saw a little beagle-looking dog out on the road by himself.  Me being me, I stopped to see if he had a collar and he ran away.  I shrugged it off and brought the dogs out for photos next to the sign.  For some reason I looked back and saw the beagle with two other, much bigger, dogs making their way towards us.  I’m not sure what their intention was but if the beagle ran away before and now he was coming to us…well I didn’t want to stick around to see why they were up to.

arkansas levee

The Great River Road along the top of a levee.  Piper noticed the dogs approaching.  The boys didn’t.

As if that wasn’t weird enough, the road finally turned off the levee and met with another road.  I stopped to make the turn then realized I had seen something out of the corner of my eye and backed the car up.  No my eyes had not deceived me: I had seen two pig heads on spikes.  Well there’s something you don’t see every day.

pig head

You never know what you’ll see on the road.

The road then led us through a tangle of forests and swamps.  In some places the road had been so flooded that I had to back up and detour around it.  There weren’t too many places to get out and hike and with the failing daylight, I wasn’t too inclined to be out in places I was unfamiliar with.  I was sure that we had left the alligators behind but I wasn’t so sure about snakes so discretion won this round.  It’s too bad because it was a stunning section of forest.  However when I got out to snap some pictures, I was promptly eaten alive by mosquitoes.  Snakes, mosquitoes, and ticks…oh my.pondpond2.jpg

Eventually, we got to the Red Roof Inn in West Memphis and it was not too long after that the rain and damaging winds began so I was glad that we had a solid roof over our heads.  Oddly enough, I wasn’t the least bit hungry when I went to sleep.

Starting Upriver

This trip was inspired by the second season of the television show “Feasting on Asphalt”.  We are following driving the Great River Road as it follows the Mississippi River from Venice, Louisiana to the headwaters in Lake Itasca State Park, Minnesota.  When possible we will stop at locations featured in the show, however time has found many of them closed. 

It was time to leave New Orleans and start making our way up the river.  I was tempted to return to Morning Call for another round of beignets and cafe au lait but I found another place on the way out of the city that had highly recommended pancakes, and I love me some pancakes.  So with the car packed up, out we went.

We sooj found ourselves at Russell’s Marina Grill.  Not only did I see a marina but I also saw a large and shady patio, perfect to enjoy breakfast since the humidity was already noticeable.  After I confirmed that the dogs were allowed on the patio, we quickly got ourselves settled.  Usually when I go to a new place, I’ll order what the server recommends but when my eye caught sweet potato pancakes with bacon crumbles, banana, and peanut butter, well all I can say is game over man.  They were insanely good and so filling.  It was almost a fight to finish the plate but I did it.  And washed it all down with an ok stream of coffee.  We walked around a little bit so the dogs could stretch their legs and I could make room in my belly and then to the road (insert dramatic arm point here).

pancakes.jpg

You can’t see the bacon and banana because they’re inside the pancake.  Yummy.

Now when I had researched the Great River Road, I had thought that there would be placards clearly marking the route.  I had possibly seen one as we were heading into New Orleans but had not seen any since.  And did not see any as we left the city so I had to guess which roads to take.  And for the most part it was easy since I just kept the levee on my right.  Every so often I’d lose sight of it and then take the next right and I’d be back.

There was one stretch of road where I could see a trail running along the top of the levee.  I wanted to take the dogs for a walk but all of the driveways to the top looked as though they were private.  Finally I saw one that didn’t have any signs posted at the road so I turned to go up.  Well they put the “No Trespassing” sign at the top.  Darn.  As I was backing up, well I missed a pothole.  Or rather I hit it.  Hard.  There’s nothing like that solid thump of hearing the underside of your car hitting concrete to really get your attention.  Hmmmmm

I drove down a little bit further and saw a sign for a library on the opposite of the road from the levee so I parked in there and did a surreptitious check to make sure nothing was leaking and then got the dogs out for a walk.  Piper has a bad leg and sometimes if she sits too long it stiffens up so frequent short walk breaks are in order.  She starts out with a bad limp but after a little bit she loosens right up.  We made a beeline across the road to go to the levee but with no shade and a midday sun it was soon too hot for all of us we returned to the park next to the library.  The park had lovely old trees that kept us as cool as they could and the dogs had a long drink.  Leo, of course, rolled.  We were parked next to a couple having lunch and we were soon chatting away like old friends.  Southern hospitality strikes again.  I asked them which side of the river we should drive up and was told that the other side was more metropolitan with lots of places to eat.  This side was more commercial and the food would be more like what the locals eat.  Well then, we’ll be staying on this side I thought as I loaded the dogs back into the car.

Even though I wasn’t really hungry, I had to stop at B & C Seafood Market in Vacherie since it had been featured on “Feasting on Asphalt”.  There was no outdoor seating so I was going to have to get my order to go.  With a bag of cracklins in my hand I studied the posted menu before I finally decided on the two most southern things I saw: fried okra and fried alligator.  I sat outside with the dogs and enjoyed the cracklins as I waited for our order.  And what is a cracklin?  Deep fried pork skin.  Oh yeah.  Pretty darned tasty.  Once my order arrived, I sat on the ground at the front of the building in one of the few shady spots and popped open my containers of food.  The okra was good but it lacked the crispy coating that one would expect from something fried.  Having never had alligator before I didn’t know what to expect.  It didn’t taste like chicken.  The only thing that came to mind was that it tasted like a dried out pork chop.  The mustard sauce that came with it was nice.  Our little picnic got quite a few stares from people walking by.  I’m used to it by now.  The dogs maaaaaaaay have had a little sampling of alligator.  And you know they tried the cracklins.  With the food situation taken care of, we were back on the road.

We were driving a particularly desolate stretch of road on top of the levee when I saw what looked like a pullout so I parked the car and we went for a walk.  It was obvious that the water wasn’t normally as high as it was at that moment.  I had heard that there had been serious flooding the week before but up until now I hadn’t seen any signs of it.  Now here I was looking at the tops of trees poking out of the waters of the Mississippi River.  I was tempted to let the dogs go for a swim but our new friends from the library had mentioned that alligators were thick in these areas and even though I didn’t see any signs of them, we stayed well back from the waters edge.

levee

A section of the Mississippi River.  Water looks a bit high to me…

It was a little after 6:00 pm when we crossed a bridge into Mississippi and found ourselves in Natchez.  It was such a pretty little town but I was there for more than sightseeing: I was there for donuts.  And I found them.  I found them at The Donut Shop, another “Feasting on Asphalt” location. The takeout window had these little jewels displayed for all to see and I stared at them in anticipation while I waited.  Finally I stepped to the window and ordered a half dozen donuts.  I was taken aback when all I got back were six plain donuts but I hadn’t specified any of the other flavours so that was my fault.  Then I felt the box in my hand.  It was warm.  The donuts were warm.  I felt my mind reeling at this and I scurried to the car, the box clutched in my arms like a football.  I stared at the crusty goodness as a shaking hand withdrew the first donut.  I bit into it and almost shed a tear as it practically melted in my mouth.  It wasn’t a cake-style of donut and more like the Krispy Kreme style.  But better.  Oh so better.

I was planning to spend the night at Natchez State Park and I had finished four donuts by the time I passed the gate.  That’s right.  I crushed four donuts.  I read the rules for the park as I wiped the glaze from my face.  As we had arrived after 5:00 pm, we could go find an available camping spot and then pay for it in the morning.  However, since only one of the two campgrounds was open, I wasn’t sure what my odds were of getting a site.

We passed the primitive campground first and when I peaked in, I saw there was only one tent so that was going to be our back-up plan.  I’m glad we had that plan because all of the other sites were taken.  I drove back to the primitive campground and I noticed that they weren’t kidding; there was nothing there except for a few fire rings and picnic tables.  It’s ok; I’m a country girl, I’ve spent time in the backcountry.  No problem.  The other campground had all the facilities that I would need in the morning.  It’s all good.

I got the dogs out of the car and set up their tie-out and water before I started to pitch the tent.  I felt something on my leg and looked down to see a tick.  Now my friends, I’m pretty good with most animals.  I have no problem with spiders, I can handle snakes, I empty my own mouse traps.  No problems.  Ticks….well ticks give me the heebee geebees in a way I can’t even begin to explain.  I think it’s the way their bodies swell and turn a disgusting shade of dead-skin grey after they’ve fed on you (barely suppressed shudder).  I briefly considered packing back up and trying to find a hotel but I just couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t let these tiny bloodsucking bugs make me leave.  I got everything set up as quickly as I could and even though it was still light out, the dogs were trying to get into the tent.  I thought about making something to eat but every time I felt something on my skin, I imagined it was an army of ticks so I ate another donut and we all crawled inside.

That last donut may have been a mistake because with all the fried food, my guts were not happy.  In fact, my stomach felt like a solid knot.  I tried to ignore it as I looked over the dogs for hitchhikers and then practically killed my data plan looking up the ticks.  These were different from the big ticks we have at home.  These were tiny and appeared to be Lone Star Ticks, so named because they have a single white dot on their bodies.  Fortunately they were not known to be carriers for Lyme Disease which made me feel a bit better.  Small comfort as I tried to ease an achy tummy and watched ticks crawl across my tent in the fading light.  All I could think about were those movies where the good guys are in a house and they know the enemy is outside… Yup does not make for pleasant dreams at all.

Is it any surprise I didn’t stop to take pictures of our lovely site?

Big Easy Meet the Big Smoke

Given the long day we had had, I was surprised that I wasn’t sleeping well past noon.  As it was, we were up at a reasonable hour and I was eager to get out and explore.  I was brushing my teeth as I was trying to plot our day when I felt something solid in the toothpaste froth.  With disbelief I realized that I was looking at a spall from the back of my tooth.  Not a little chip.  A full-on spall that ran the width of my bottom front tooth.  I couldn’t stop myself from running my tongue over what felt like a new shelf on my tooth.  I guess those peaches were a bit harder than I thought.  You know what cures dental ails?  Beignets!  That’s right.  One of the women that had been on our ghost tour in Savannah had told us that we just HAD to go to Morning Call.  So we went.

It turns out it was a short drive away in City Park.  With the address plugged into my phone, we soon found ourselves at the park.  And it is a big park with a sculpture garden and amusement park and botanical gardens.  Large trees kept huge patches shaded with drapes of spanish moss.  It was lovely.  Problem was I couldn’t find what I was looking for.  I wound my way down the many roads until finally I parked the car in the darkest spot I could find and unloaded the dogs to do some reconnaissance on foot.  Well I had been looking for a shop or a sign but the cafe was in what looked like an historic building with a large patio. It was well-back from the main roads and there was plenty of cover from plants and trees.  Yeah…that’s it.  Cut me some slack: I was un-caffeinated which does not help with navigation.

After I asked if the dogs we allowed on the patio (and they were), we sat in a cool corner and enjoyed the breeze from nearby Lake Ponchatrain.  The humidity was already building and having come from the colds of Canada, it was a bit of a shock.

I perused the menu then finally asked my server what “the” New Orleans breakfast was and with nary a pause he said “beignets and cafe au lait”.  Done.  And in short order, I was looking at a plate of soft doughy pillows and creamy coffee.  I had thought there would have been a generous dusting of icing sugar but as I was still feeling a bit full from dinner, I figured a little less sugar was not a bad thing.

The beignets (pronounced ben-yay) come in orders of three.  Each one was a little smaller than my palm and they were still warm when I bit into them.  A firm but yielding crust with a light interior, these little jewels of dough had such a wonderful flavour, especially with a little sip of the cafe au lait.  It wasn’t until I had finished the last one that I saw the large shaker of icing sugar on the table.  I was un-caffeinated when I sat down remember?

beignets

Breakfast is served

Across from where we sat, I could see part of the sculpture garden and I was excited to walk the dogs through there.  Until we got to the gate: dogs aren’t allowed.  I briefly considered “not seeing the sign” but I just couldn’t be that tourist that acts as though the rules don’t apply so we walked by and admired the artwork through the wrought iron fence.

We had to walk past the amusement park and lines of children that were filing in.  I have to say, we didn’t have many outings like that when I was in school.  Of course where I grew up, the nearest amusement park was over an hour away so it’s a bit more of an ordeal.  Some of the kids wanted to pet the dogs and a few even got pictures with them.  The dogs handled the attention really well and even caused a few squeals when the kids were at the receiving ends of some sneaky dog kisses.park

We walked around in the shade under some trees.  Leo took the opportunity to get a good roll in before we hopped back in the car and headed over to Magazine Street and the Garden District.  See, The Big Fisherman is on Magazine Street and it was one of the first places featured on “Feasting on Asphalt” so we went that way.  I still needed to get my crawfish after all.

I navigated through construction and one-way streets that still moved really smoothly and I thought about sending an e-mail to Toronto City Counsel to suggest that they take a few notes to maybe improve the traffic flow in Toronto.  I drove around and finally parked the car on a side street, shocked that there was no parking restrictions.  I mean, we were a block from Magazine Street and there was nothing limited parking. My mind was blown since I’m used to so many streets in downtown Toronto, even side streets, with parking metres.  But hey I wasn’t complaining.

As we were walking down Magazine Street, my eye was caught by a storefront as we passed.  Petcetera NOLA.  Hmmmmm the “Pet” part suggests a pet store so we wandered on in and were greeted by a call of “Babies” as the owner walked towards us with his arms wide open.  The dogs were in heaven.  There were fancy dog treats everywhere and they had a few samples of peanut butter drops.  A woman was there with her new French Bulldog puppy and this little thing just barked and growled at the dogs.  She was so tiny even Leo towered over her.  It was so cute I had to video her (it’s on our YouTube channel if you’re curious).

Once we had caused enough trouble with a sassy little puppy, we left and continued on to The Big Fisherman to find it…closed.  Closed on Tuesday and Wednesday.  Huh.  So if I had come yesterday instead of wandering the French Quarter, I would have been able to have my crawfish.  Darn.

When I looked around me, I saw that Dat Dog was a short distance down the road.  One of my friends had recently come back from New Orleans and had told me that I had to go.  And it was listed as being dog-friendly.  So that was where we headed.

We were on the north side of the street, preparing to cross to the south side at a set of lights and were stopped near some tables on the sidewalk that were next to a restaurant.  There was a woman sitting a table close to us reading and Piper kind of walked towards her.  Now Piper was not close enough to touch her and wasn’t lunging at her but this woman leapt out of her chair, pressed herself against the wall and yelled “No!”  Even Piper seemed to have taken slightly aback as I pulled her away.  I was really surprised by this.  I get that some people are scared of dogs.  And maybe she thought that Piper was approaching her.  Fair enough.  I try really hard to keep my dogs from people that don’t want to be near them out of respect.  Having said that, we walked towards this woman in the direction she was facing.  She was on a patio with no barrier.   If you’re that terrified of dogs, poke your head up every once in a while and check for one.  It’s not like we could sneak up on anyone with the squishy face crew that I have.  I tried not to let it bother me since I was really worried that I had done something wrong somehow.  I hate the thought that my snuggle bunnies would scare someone.

We continued on to Dat Dog and sat on the patio outside.  I read over the list on the menu of specialty hot dogs and toppings, then asked for the most southern thing on the menu and he suggested that I order the étouffée dog which is a hot dog with crawfish and mustard (hold the tomatoes please).  I was tempted to order fries as well but decided that I needed to save room for…whatever we found later.  The staff provided a big bowl of water for the dogs and soon my hot dog followed.  It was…good.  Just good.  I thought the mustard overwhelmed the flavour of the crawfish.  At least it was filling and I was glad that I didn’t order the fries.datdog

We left Dat Dog and we had walked less than a block when we came to The Bulldog.  I saw a puppy on the patio and thought “a nice shady pub patio is just what we need”.  If you’re just passing through the restaurant, you can bring the dogs with you which is nice because it gave them a chance to enjoy some air conditioning and a cool floor while I grilled the bartender about the beer.  I should note that they do not have table service so you have to collect your food and drinks yourself.  I selected a seat near the fountain at the back of the patio.  It was a lovely place to enjoy some shade and people-watch with a delicious local craft beer while the dogs sprawled out on the ground around me  There was a sign next to the fountain that said all donations go to local animal shelters.  I reached into my pocket and pulled out four quarters, laying them out on the table in front of me.  I picked up each quarter and held it out to each dog, letting them touch it with their nose before I tossed it into the fountain.  One quarter for each dog and one for me.  Yes it’s silly.  I’m OK with that.  fountain

We walked back to the car, which I found with none of the issues I had had the day before.  On the way back to our Airbnb, I noticed that we would be passing a seafood place with lots of positive recommendations.  The kind of place that the locals go to get seafood.  We had to stop.  I parked the car and strode into the restaurant/seafood market.  The place went silent.  It was like those westerns where the hero walks into the saloon and everything goes quiet.  There was no hostility, just the looks that said “you don’t belong here” since I was the only white person there. As if I’m going to let a little thing like that stand between me and seafood.  I ended up ordering a pound of crawfish, a pound of boiled shrimp, a small gumbo, and a chunk of corn and a potato.  What I got were separate plastic bags of shrimp and crawfish and corn and potato.  Not what I expected but I wasn’t complaining.

I took my bags of food and sat out on the patio outside my door and devoured it all.  As much as I like seafood, this was a lot of work.  If you’ve never had crawfish, imagine teeny lobsters with teeny tails.  And you have to crack open every tail.  It’s a lot of work.  And the shrimp were whole.  The entire affair was so messy that I was glad I sat outside and near a hose.  The gumbo was good but nowhere near as delicious as the gumbeaux from Sassafras the night before.  Finally, the last crawfish was emptied, the last shrimp peeled, and the last bite of gumbo consumed.  After cleaning up my mess, we went inside and collapsed for some digestion time.

But not for long.  We had one more thing to do and soon we were in the car heading back to the French Quarter for yet another ghost tour.  I parked the car at a lot with plenty of landmarks and we started walking to our meeting place.  The dogs were strutting down the streets, each one rocking beads, and getting plenty of admirers.  We were early so we took a slight detour to the levee where they stopped for a few photos.  We were looking across the street to Jackson Square when all of a sudden, I heard bagpipes from behind me.  I literally had chills run up my spine.  We waited there for as long as we could enjoying the performance.  The boys were more interested in the horse drawn carriages going past on the street below but Piper intently watched the man play with just the slightest wag of her stump.  Seemed appropriate that she would like bagpipes.riverbanksquaresquare2

Finally it was time to go to 723 St. Peter Street to meet with our tour group from  Haunted History Tours.  The ever growing knot of people on the sidewalk welcomed us…well the dogs anyway.  I checked us in and was handed a sticker that got us the 2-for-1 hurricanes that were included with the price of the tour.  I couldn’t leave the out on the narrow sidewalk and I huddled in the door, hesitant to bring the dogs inside Finnegan’s.  A wall of a man was standing at the door and I asked him if he was bouncing.  He shook his head.  Hmmmmmm. I glanced around me and when I couldn’t take any more shoving, we darted in to the back corner of the bar.  It was busy and it seemed like there was only one harried bartender.  Finally he came to our end and I ordered a hurricane and a glass of water.  He looked at me and said “two” as he began pouring.  I enjoy hurricanes and they go down REALLY easy.  But I did have a drive to make so I handed one of my drinks to some guys at the bar and shuffled the dogs outside.

We didn’t have to wait long before we met our tour guide, Jack.  I’m not good with names but for some reason I found this one easy to remember.  Unlike other guides we’ve had, Jack didn’t carry any aids other than a cane with a carved tiger’s head painted with matching white and black stripes.  In his heavy southern accent, he told us that when he grabs his tiger by the tail, we huddle up.  And then we set off.  At first, we stayed in the thick of things, passing by Saint Louis Cathedral and learned of the bloody history of Jackson Square.  Soon though, we found ourselves on mostly empty streets.  This tour also had a brief stop partway through at a pub where we could purchase libations and use the facilities.  At the end of the tour, I learned that some women had been filming Jack (the person) while we waited for the group to set off again.  When she reviewed it we saw a tiny blue light, like a laser pointer that moved around the screen.  It appeared to move completely independently of everything else and there was nothing that anyone could remember that could have caused it.  Jack seemed completely nonplussed by it.streettour

joan

Joan of Arc

After the tour, we left the group and walked back to the car.  I was tempted to stop for a late night snack and to watch a blues band at Cafe du Monde but one look at the crowd changed that plan.  Besides, a comfy bed and plenty of snuggles were waiting.

 

Oh and in case you were wondering, we’re from a small town outside of Toronto, Ontario and Toronto is often called the Big Smoke.  I thought it sounded better than “a small town girl with three dogs”.