Wisconsin Dells, WI
For our third day in a row, it was completely overcast here yesterday. It threatened rain, like it did the days before, all day long, but then seemed to hold it all in for the evening. Sure enough, last night around dusk, it started raining and didn’t stop all night long. It is now 6:30 AM and it is still raining intensely.
But while we could, we headed out yesterday for the tourist town of Wisconsin Dells. I have to admit I had never really heard of this place until we started planning this trip. If someone had told me that southern Wisconsin was a tourist trap spot, I don’t think I would have believed it. No-one ever suggested it as a go-to place when I was a kid.
But there it was, almost mesmerizing as we drove into the town. There must have been a dozen different roller coasters, a building that looked like it was upside down, a play area dotted with real helicopter shells, water parks, and, of course, motels and resorts and restaurants. Although a bit more open due to fewer tall trees, this place easily mirrors Gatlinburg, Tennessee - a
tourist trap of a town that kind of shocked us in the Great Smoky Mountains last year. If you are a family with small children, this kind of place has to be a real attraction. If you are old folks, like us, who are more interested in rock formations, water falls, and history, well maybe not so much.
But here we were, off on one of Joan’s rebellion items. For new readers, our trips are based, primarily on a bucket list of 210 National Parks that I have used as a guiding template for mapping out our travels. They are the spots that lay out the basic itinerary and are the primary points of interest on our travels. But Joan, having the broader and less rigid perspective on life and how to live it, has a certain ‘rebellion against the tyranny of the bucket list’. And so she, rightfully, gets to add ‘rebellion items’ to the itinerary representing the things she wants to see or do. Wisconsin Dells, having no National Parks, was not on my bucket list. But she added it as a rebellion item, and found what she advertised as a ‘boat ride on the Wisconsin River’
that she wanted to do while we were in this part of the country.
Now, in my mind a ‘boat ride’ means you get on some kind of tour boat at a dock somewhere and proceed to a leisurely guided tour up and down the river. Maybe there is an opportunity to buy a cocktail or lunch on board, but mostly you just sit on the side, listen to the boatmate narrate the travels, and take some pictures.
As we followed Gladys, our vehicle GPS to the destination, I became increasingly apprehensive - how was there going to be a leisurely boat ride in the midst of all this commercial tourist trap kitsch? My apprehension turned to near horror when we pulled into the parking lot. There on a big billboard was a sign advertising ‘Duck Tours’. The season has just started here, May 1, I think for most things. And this particular attraction had only been open for a day or two. No-one else was in the line to enter the ‘ride’ and so my nervousness increased even more. As we walked toward the ‘boat’ I realized what they were - old, repurposed, army amphibious vehicles. They
were designed to be both a land vehicle and a boat and could enter and leave the water just be switching a gear shift lever. That, I saw, was why it was called a ‘duck’.
So we enter this vehicle and find that there are just four other people, an Asian family that spoke little English and seemed to be even more confused than I was. At 11:00 sharp, our ‘Duck driver’, a cute nineteen-year-old named McKenna, arrived and began her patter. This was her second year working this job and this was her first day, and second drive, of the season. Her jokes were the corniest things I’ve heard in a long time, and Joan and I both gave into the moment and laughed continuously. I gave her a compliment and a tip as we left the ride.
So the ride was exactly what you might expect in a duck - in and out of the water. She drove us on a dirt path around the wooded area bordering the Wisconsin River. And then, with little warning, she steered right onto a sandy bank and into the water. A big splash nearly brought water into the boat
and everyone - all six of us - gasped.
The tour itself included multiple views of intricately layered sandstone formations along the riverside - something I don’t think I’ve seen before. According to McKenna, this is the largest display of Potsdam Sandstone in the world. She also showed us some of the local history, including huge ‘summer homes’ on the river and lakes and the site of a 2008 flood that took out four of those lovely homes. In the end, and despite, or maybe because, of the corny jokes, it was a pleasant way to spend an hour.
Back in town, I was in the mind of finding a Wisconsin Bratwurst, hearing that a beer and brat was one of the iconic things to eat here. And Google helped by finding the Brat House Grill, a few miles down the road. We got there and discovered it was housed in an old church building - supposedly the oldest public building still in use in southwestern Wisconsin - dating to the 1850s. I must admit, there is something delightfully sinful about drinking beer in a church! The beer was good, but the brats were the best - juicy
and full of flavor, and Wisconsin cheese. When in Wisconsin Dells, stop here for a very satisfying, and inexpensive meal. We even had cheese curds as an appetizer (this time they tasted a lot like fried mozzarella sticks, to be honest, but still good). So on my list of Wisconsin foods not eaten yet only remains frozen custard.
After lunch, we gassed up the car, and returned home for a nap. Then a final game of cards - just for the record, I won - and a light dinner of crackers and hummus. We got a weather service alert about rain starting soon, so took the opportunity to clean up everything outside and pack it up.
Our stay in southern Wisconsin ends today - we are headed south and east. It was a good stop, but the constantly overcast skies and the incessant nighttime rain literally put a damper on things. Colors, which I suspect are normally spectacular, were mostly washed out. And, although the hiking here in Devil’s Lake State Park is supposed to be spectacular, we weren’t able to take advantage of it, because of the mud. But you can’t control the weather, regardless of how
well you plan. Once again, if there is an opportunity for a second bucket list, I suspect this area will be on it and we’ll be back.
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