A Little America & Canada Road Trip

Sunday, 28 August 2022

With British travel journalist Simon Calder I made a classic North American road trip, five days and 1,148 miles from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Fargo, North Dakota. In name at least in a classic American road trip car as well, a dark blue Chevrolet Malibu. Although they’re manufactured in Kansas City the Malibu is an identikit front-wheel-drive car, at the Alamo Rent-a-Car park in Milwaukee we had a choice of two Malibus or a very similar Nissan Something-or-Other, naturally I took the Chevy.

▲At the wheel in Manitoba, heading north from the US border towards the Trans-Canada Highway.

▲ In fact my US travels started in Chicago, I met Simon in Milwaukee, but the immigration queue at O’Hare International Airport was the only bad experience on the whole trip. I stood in this endless line for 2-1/2 hours before I finally fronted the immigration desk and 30 seconds later entered the USA. I’m pretty sure that’s the longest line to have my passport stamped that I’ve ever endured. In contrast the queue at London Heathrow Airport when I flew there after this trip was about 30 seconds. Heathrow doesn’t have the best reputation for speedy arrival formalities, but in many years of flying there it has never once been anything remotely as bad as Chicago in August 2022.

The reason for this absurd experience? Incompetence I guess, but you can put it down to not enough immigration desks and a drearily slow immigration process. Most foreign arrivals have to be fingerprinted which can be an inefficiently slow. Perhaps my B1/B2 Visa saved me this further delay, I’m not eligible for the cheaper and easier ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) because of recent visits to Iran, Sudan and Yemen. Travel to any of those countries disqualifies you from getting an ESTA. I’m not sure if my recent trip to Somaliland would count as Somalia and add to my black list. The O’Hare time wasting was compounded by not having automated passport inspection machines like Heathrow or at many other advanced nation airports. My experience is that at US airports where automated equipment is available it’s still extremely slow.

Endlessly inching forward towards the desk was made worse by a total lack of information about what was going on. After an hour and a half I passed a police officer who very politely – and accurately – told me it would probably take another hour. The personnel wearing bright orange waistcoats with ‘Can I Help You’ in multiple languages on the back were absolutely no help at all. Obviously the experience would be much worse for old people or people with disabilities who would have difficulty standing up for several hours. Or for people with small children. And there were no toilet facilities until just before the desks.

▲ Enough of the one thumbs down experience of the trip. In Milwaukee we stopped by the Bronze Fonz, an homage to the Fonz character in the 1974 to 1984 sitcom Happy Days. This Harley rider was also posing for a selfie with the Fonz and the Harley Davidson Museum, Harleys are manufactured in Milwaukee was another city experience. In fact it was the second motorcycle museum visit in less than a month, click here for the Benelli Museum in Pesaro, Italy.

▲ Next stop was at the Milwaukee Art Museum on the shores of Lake Michigan. At 10am every morning the museum’s wings swing gracefully open.

From Milwaukee we drove north to Green Bay for a sporting visit to the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame. Despite a population of only just over 100,000 the Packers are, according to Forbes Magazine, the 27th most valuable sporting franchise anywhere in the world. With a capacity of 81,000 the team’s Lambeau Stadium could almost accommodate the entire population of the city. They could also risk suffering hypothermia, Green Bay is noted for bitterly cold winter weather. In the 1967 ‘Ice Bowl’ game the temperature dropped to -18°F, that’s -28°C. One fan died of exposure during the game.

▲ Wall painting in Eau Claire, Wisconsin

Our stop in Eau Claire was unplanned, as we drove west I read in the new August 2022 edition of Lonely Planet’s USA guide of Eau Claire scoring ‘favorable national publication comparisons to Austin and Portland for its inspiring hipster vibe’ so we decided to stop there for the night.

▲ Checking the front desk vinyl record collection at the Oxbow Hotel

Furthermore we found rooms at Eau Claire’s Oxbow Hotel which was not only ‘funky’ and ‘hipster-inspired,’ but also offered Senior Citizen discounts. Senior Citizen and hipster are not usually words that are closely associated. That hipster inspiration included a record player in every room and a collection of 33-1/3rpm long play records to borrow from the front desk.

▲ From Eau Claire we drove north to the Lake Superior port of Duluth where, with perfect timing, we arrived just as the Aerial Lift Bridge elevated to let a ship pass under. The bridge originally opened in 1905 as a ‘transporter bridge,’ but was converted to an ‘aerial lift bridge’ in 1929. You can Google the definitions! In October 2021 I made a visit to Lindisfarne Island in the north of England, a trip which also took me to Middlesbrough where the Transporter Bridge dates from 1911, although unfortunately it has been out of operation since 2019.

▲ The Duluth Armory

Duluth is also noted as the birthplace of Bob Dylan and I made the obligatory – for any Dylan fan – pilgrimage to the house at 519 N 3rd Ave E where he lived until he was six years old. There’s nothing to see apart from a plaque over the front door and except for a trio of Dylan manhole covers there’s really no Dylan story along Bob Dylan Way, aside from the now derelict Duluth Armory where a young Bob Dylan was inspired by watching Buddy Holly perform. Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper were also on the Armory stage for the Winter Dance Party and 3 days later they were all killed in a plane crash. It’s the key event for ‘the day the music died’ in Don Mclean’s American Pie. I stopped by Buddy Holly’s grave in Lubbock, Texas on another American road trip, back in 1994

▲ The words that won a Nobel Prize, Dylan lyrics on the memorial at the Hibbing High School

It was only 76 miles from Duluth to Hibbing where Dylan grew up and there’s no shortage of Dylan memories there, starting with the Nobel Prize memorial installed in 2021 outside the school where he graduated in 1959. There’s a Dylan walk mapped out around the town, but although it’s much more thorough than the Duluth Dylan walk most of the sites are ‘used to be here.’ Today it’s a car park, an empty site or something entirely different from the Dylan days.

◄ Bill Pagel outside 2425 7th Ave E

The house where Dylan grew up, just a short stroll from the high school is a different story. When we stopped outside Bill Pagel, a year younger than Bob Dylan, was mowing the lawn. We apologized: ‘sorry you must get Dylan fans dropping by here occasionally.’ Oh yes’ he said, ‘but they’re no problem.’ And after chatting for a few minutes he announced ‘do you want to come in and look around?’ Well!

He’s a Dylan tragic and has bought both houses – Duluth and Hibbing – and the one behind the Hibbing house, where he lives. He’s working on restoring the Hibbing house to what it was like when Dylan lived there.

When he bought the house it actually had some of the Zimmerman family furniture still in it. He’s subsequently bought more Dylan stuff – like the document for the name change from Bob Zimmerman to Bob Dylan – or furnished rooms with appropriate furniture of the era. So he showed us around, ‘this is Bob’s bedroom, the bed isn’t original but the bedhead is’ etc. It’s remarkably like the McCartney and Lennon houses in Liverpool (I visited them in 2008) and he is trying to do something similar, but he hasn’t got the National Trust behind him and of course Hibbing has nowhere near the sort of visitor numbers Liverpool gets. So if you’re in Hibbing and would like to see the Dylan house give Bill Pagel a call at 01 608 217 5232.

▲ Simon Calder selling Greyhound bus tickets

Hibbing also has the Greyhound Museum, the iconic bus company was born here, and a huge hole in the ground marking the site of the Hill Rust Mahoning Mine. We turned north from Hibbing and drove up to the border with Canada where we crossed from International Falls to Fort Frances, remarkably still in the province of Ontario. We soon crossed back into the USA at Baudette and then back in to Canada again at the Sprague crossing into Manitoba. Next it was a west turn on to the Trans-Canada Highway towards Winnipeg.

▲ The longitudinal centre of Canada

But first we stopped right in the centre of Canada, well that goes well with my recent visit to the equator in Uganda.

▲ The Canadian Human Rights Museum opened in 2014 and is probably Winnipeg’s biggest attraction. Architecturally I could describe it as vaguely Bilbao-ish curves and rolls topped by the summit of the London Shard. It’s a wonderful building housing wonderful exhibits although I’ve got a feeling they’re somewhat overpowered by the building. As usual I’m saddened and outraged although somewhat to my surprise it’s a video about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycotts which brings the tears.

The C$351 million construction cost was headed by private philanthropists, but the big money came from the Government of Canada, then of Manitoba and then the Winnipeg City admin. During the development there were big arguments over whose atrocity got how much square footage.

◄ The new part of the Qaumajuq – Winnipeg Art Gallery – is also relatively recent and features features excellent exhibits of indigenous Inuit art. WAG does not stand for Wives And Girlfriends, the UK football acronym.

▲ In contrast the Manitoba Museum is rather old-fashioned, but quite terrific. It covers the whole natural and man-made history of the province with lots of very well stuffed animals and lots of other interesting displays particularly the replica of the 1650 Nonsuch, the sailing ship which launched the Hudson Bay Company story after a successful trading trip to Canada in 1668. Built 300 years later the replica was sailed to Canada after its construction.

At one time Winnipeg had a reputation as Canada’s most boring city, but in 2021 it made a Time Magazine World’s Greatest Places list. Despite which I still found it rather boring – museums and galleries apart. Even the supposedly happening Exchange District didn’t feel like it was really happening although I had a good local beer in the King’s Head and dined well at Peasant Cookery.

▲ So I turned south again and noticed this warning not to bring marijuana into the USA as I crossed the border into North Dakota, set the cruise control and cruised down to Fargo.

▲ Naturally I took a selfie in front of the actual woodchipper from the movie Fargo, on display at the Fargo Visitors Centre. They may be playing along with the movie that put Fargo on the map, but in fact like Eau Claire – two states to the east – the town centre had a definite hipster vibe, particularly at the Donaldson Hotel where I stayed. And where I got a US$20 parking ticket, I’d missed the sign about no overnight parking from Wednesday night to Thursday and then had a little trouble paying the fine because they don’t recognize non-US credit cards in Fargo. Never mind I still had time to look around the excellent Fargo Aviation Museum before I returned my trouble free Chevy and flew off to San Francisco via Denver.