Aug 162015

Earlier this evening, John and I returned from a quick-but-memorable trip to Wisconsin for a summer reunion with some high school friends. Last summer I reunited with these same friends after 40 years of absence, met their significant others, and got acquainted with a couple of family dogs. You can read my post about that get-together in Reuniting 40 years later if you missed it previously. We vowed at that time to “do it again,” and one of the women, Bev, volunteered to host the 2015 gathering at her country home in Burlington, located in south central Wisconsin.

Five Friends

Left to right (circa 1974): Bev, Deb, Judy, Linda, Pat

We packed our bags and headed east on Interstate 80 after work Friday evening, and arrived at the hotel in East Troy about 12:45 a.m. Not even 12 hours later, we were on our way to the home of Bev and Bryan. “This year we’ll be surrounded by corn,” pointed out Bev in her invitation. Because she knew the house would not be visible from the road, she tied balloons to a sign, pointing everyone in the right direction.

Balloon markers

Bev and Bryan’s 21-acre property is surrounded by cornstalks, with corn bordering the curving driveway on both sides. The feed corn is grown by her nephew, reducing the size of the lawn that is still large enough to require the use of a riding lawn mower. A combination of trees and cornstalks also provide enormous privacy in the back yard. The grass is actually much greener than the photo shows. I had some difficulties photographing the yard in the bright sunlight and probably should have waited until later in the afternoon.

Back yard

We were amazed to see sandpiper cranes feeding in the shaded part of Bev and Bryan’s back yard.

Sandpiper cranes

I was standing inside the house when I snapped this picture, so it isn’t as clear as I’d like it to be. I suspect, however, that if I had taken it while I was outside, the cranes would have flown off in a big hurry!

Bev prepared a feast for all 10 of us, while Bryan grilled up a storm of hamburgers and hot dogs.

Bev prepares a feast

After a delicious lunch and dessert, great conversation and much laughter, we gathered in the living room to take photos. We started off traditionally, splitting up into girl-and-boy groups, just as we did in grade school.

Five Friends in 2015

Left to right: Linda, Judy, Deb, Pat, Bev

Five Men Behind a Couch

Left to right: Jeff, John, Jeff and Nicky (dog), Bryan, Mike

But then things got a little bit out of hand. Our only excuse is that we ate too many sugary foods. Even Deb and Jeff’s dog got into the act, donning a pair of sunglasses with a little help from Jeff.

The Five After Too Much Sugar

Here we are again after ingesting too much sugar. Left to right: Linda, Judy, Pat, Deb, Bev.

Five Men After Too Much Sugar

Left to right: Bryan, Jeff, John, Jeff and Nicky (the dog), Mike

It was sunset before our gathering broke up, with three couples heading back to their homes in the Milwaukee area, one couple driving back to Illinois, and John and I driving back to our hotel in East Troy. Before we left, Bev presented each high school friend with some monogrammed note cards and a handmade bracelet. I thought both were a gracious touch, but also that we should have presented Bev with a gift, not the other way around!


As we said our farewells to Bev and Bryan, she provided us with a recommendation for breakfast the next morning at a cafe called Simple, located in Lake Geneva. This turned out to be a wonderful suggestion. John and I ordered a delicious garden omelet made with egg whites, mushrooms, fresh spinach, gruyère cheese, roasted tomatoes and sweet red peppers.

Breakfast at Simple Cafe in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

All around, our quick trip to Wisconsin and back this weekend was worth repeating. I hope all 10 of us, as well as one other friend and her husband who were unable to join us this year, will get together again next year. Neither John nor I have ever attended an official high school or college reunion, but a small gathering with some close friends is the perfect way to celebrate old memories and make new ones.

© 2015 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Jul 252013

There’s a story in my husband’s family that dates back to when John’s father still lived. There was nothing that appealed to him more than a Sunday afternoon drive. One afternoon he asked local neighbors Gary and Maxine to join his wife and him for a ride to get some burgers. When they were 30 miles south of Stevens Point, Gary turned to his friend and asked, “Where are we going?” The answer lay one-and-a-half hours south at Monk’s Bar & Grill, located in the city of Wisconsin Dells.

“You never knew where you’d end up when your dad was driving,” John’s mom said.

One time one of his car trips landed John’s parents in Canada, long before the days you needed a passport to cross over the U.S.-Canadian border.

We repeated his parents’ journey to Wisconsin Dells while we were visiting John’s mother earlier this month, all the way down to Monk’s, where we had burgers and fries.

Monk's Collage

Most people who visit Wisconsin Dells associate it with theme parks and boat rides, gift and souvenir shops, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum, Tommy Bartlett’s Water Show, too many sweet foods to describe, and countless amusements.

Dells Collage

If you visit “the Dells” over a summer weekend, be prepared to bring your wallet, for everything has a price unless you just want to look through the shopfront windows. John and I visited the Dells for a day with his mom, so we took in only a fraction of what the area has to offer. We played mini golf at Timber Falls Adventure Golf, taking time to feed the donkeys and goats, and flattening a penny to take home as a souvenir.

Mini Golf Collage

The highlight of our day, however, was exploring a 10-mile stretch of the Upper Dells of the Wisconsin River on a two-hour Dells Boat Tours ride. At 435 miles, the Wisconsin River is the longest river in the state and, according to the brochure that Ken the boat pilot and his assistant, Madison, sold us, is considered one of the hardest working rivers in the world, with six flood control dams and 21 hydroelectric dams along its route. While there is no doubt that a Dells Boat Tour is a commercial venture run by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, it follows the tradition of the original river pilot and guide, LeRoy Gates, a raftsman who charged visitors a fee for guiding them through the Narrows of the Upper Dells while they rowed and he talked. Gates, who wore a top hat and a dress coat, ran his business successfully for nine years. That spirit of enterprise is alive and well today from the moment you get your photo snapped before you board a tour boat to when you exit the boat and collect a package of photographs for a fee at the same location.


The Upper Dells is noted for its scenic beauty, with outcroppings of sandstone cliffs and narrow canyons. The Wisconsin Dells are one of only four places in the world—New York, Switzerland, Germany and Wisconsin—where you’ll find this type of sandstone that is so soft and porous that tree roots can grow 40 to 50 feet inside it before they locate water to nourish the rest of the tree. Bank swallows from Venezuela migrate each year to the cliffs to dig nests into their sides. The sandstone represents bedrock from the Cambrian period over 500 million years ago, when much of the planet was covered by desert. The word “dells” originates from the French word, dalles, a description of the flat, layered, or slab-like characteristics of the sandstone.


Much of what we learned about the Wisconsin Dells was narrated by Madison, a first-year student at the University of Wisconsin-Steven Point. This is his third summer as a tour guide, and he told us how much he loves his work.

“I even get to drive the boat sometimes,” he said.

Madison Collage

Madison pointed out that though the water of the Wisconsin River looks dirty, it is actually very clean. The river is colored brown by the tannic acid found in the bark and roots of tamarisk and oak trees floating down the river coming from northern Wisconsin and Michigan. Native Americans used to rub tannic acid on animal skins to tan or preserve them.


When you take one of the Dells Boat Tours, you are taking a trip back into time as the river pilot tells tales of the Upper Dells. About 14,000 years ago, a large ice lake gave way, allowing the glacial waters of Wisconsin to flood through the area, cutting out gorges and leaving behind cliffs. These gorges formed the Narrows, treacherous areas where the Wisconsin River narrowed to only 52 feet and the water was so shallow that it formed deadly rapids and swirling whirlpools where a man could drown if he was pulled under. In the mid 1800s, lumberjacks floated logs down the Wisconsin River every spring on rafts to the sawmills north of the Wisconsin Dells; a number of them lost their lives along the way. My husband’s great-grandfather, Edward John Nolan, in fact, was one of these lumberjacks. By the end of the 19th century the railroad replaced rafts for transporting logs to the sawmills. When the first permanent dam was built in 1909, it raised the level of the river about 20 feet and decreased the dangers of the Narrows at the same time.


Native Americans tell their own story of how the Dells formed. Long ago their fathers lived far away and were starving. They prayed for guidance in the grotto of the Green Dragon, and sent the dragon on a journey to find a solution. The Green Dragon arrived in the Land of Ice and Snow, where he could find no food. His heart was so heavy that he stopped to rest, and the beating of his heart was so loud that it carved grooves in the earth where he lay. The Green Dragon crept south, and as he did so, the ice melted and his tail left behind channels of water. Where he clawed his way forward, water filled the impressions and formed lakes. As he traveled, the dragon spat out the game he had eaten before his journey—deer, bear, turkey and sturgeon—and the green quills from his body fell off onto the rocks, forming the seeds of a forest. The banks of the river are forested with hemlocks, and white and red pines.


There are many Native American tales associated with the Wisconsin Dells. One of the rock formations along the river is know as Black Hawk’s Profile, not because his tribe dwelled there, but because the leader and warrior of the Sauk and Fox Indians fled to the area to hide after a terrible battle at Bad Axe River in 1832. Legend tells that Black Hawk leaped across the Wisconsin River at its narrowest point to escape his pursuers. This 52-foot-wide stretch of the river is called Black Hawk’s Leap.

Blackhawk's Profile

All of the boats that are part of the Dells Boat Tours fleet are named for historical figures who played a role in the Wisconsin Dells area. Our boat was named the Joliet in memory of Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, French explorers who followed the Wisconsin River to what they thought they would be the West coast but instead turned out to be the Mississippi River. From the Native Americans who guided them, these two men learned the term “Meskousing” for the river, which over time became “Ouisconsin” and eventually “Wisconsin.” The Wisconsin Historical Society believes that Wisconsin means “River of Red Stone” or “River of the Great Rock.”


The fact that the Dells are in such great condition, historically speaking, is largely the result of the preservation efforts of a Depression-era entrepreneur named George Crandall, who said, “No one can own the Dells. He can only be a custodian for a time.” Crandall observed that the boat piers and resorts developing along the banks of the Wisconsin River were destroying the landscape of the Dells. Over time he purchased so many tracts of land in the area that he ended up owning most of it. He tore down old buildings and reforested the area. Upon his death, his heirs turned over more than 1,200 acres of Wisconsin Dells land to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation with the stipulation that it be kept in its natural state. Today that same land is owned by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which allows only limited access and has named the land a “State Natural Area.”


Passengers of Dells Boat Tours disembark at two points on their journey, one of which is Witches Gulch, a gorge through which a trout stream flows and continues to carve new patterns into the sandstone. Prior to the mid-1800s, access to the area was blocked by debris and a waterfall. However, a clever photographer named Henry Hamilton Bennett visited the Gulch during winter on ice skates, and chiseled his way through. Eventually he partnered with a local steamboat captain to build walkways into the area that have been in use (and of course updated) since 1875. When you visit Witches Gulch today, you use a boardwalk that tunnels through the openings in the cliffs. The sandstone is cool and damp to the touch, and the rock formations are awe-inspiring.

Witches Gulch Collage

The second place where your tour boat docks is along the shoreline where Stand Rock is located, a flat slab of rock that is impaled on a 47-foot-tall layered sandstone pedestal. Stand Rock is the most famous of all the rock formations in the Dells, immortalized by H. H. Bennett when he snapped a photo of his son, Ashley, in mid-air as he jumped a five-foot gap from a cliff to the top of Stand Rock. Bennett, the inventor of stop action photography, asked his son to jump the gap 17 times before he achieved the shot that earned first place in a national photography contest held in New York. Bennett, who moved to the area and became enamoured of the Dells, bought a tintype photography studio from the river tour guide, Leroy Gates. Over the years, he photographed the Wisconsin Dells frequently, which brought visitors to the area. He also befriended the local Ho-Chunk Indians and photographed them, documenting their culture.


Until the 1940s, when insurance companies expressed concerns, visitors reenacted the jump between the cliff and Stand Rock that Bennett’s son made. Today trained dogs make the jump instead, with a safety net below. While we were there, we observed a German shepherd in action.

At the Stand Rock shore landing are interesting rock formations, among them Visor Ledge, where descendants of the Ho-Chunk danced Native American ceremonial dances.


Many of the famous sandstone formations were named by Bennett, who sold the images on post cards.  Among the formations is the Junior Chimney (shown below), which is a smaller version of the second-most photographed formation, Chimney Rock. Both resemble the stick-and-mortar chimneys used by pioneers.

Junior Chimney Collage

In 1938 the water crested four feet above the top of Giant’s Shield, which looks like a warrior’s shield.


The last remaining resort built along the shores of the Upper Dells is Chula Vista, which is Spanish for “beautiful view.” You can see the stairs leading to the resort in this photo.


The name of the Sunset Cliffs speaks for itself. You can imagine what they look like at sunset, with the light glinting off them.

Sunset Cliffs Collage

At the head of the Upper Dells are sandstone cliffs called the Palisades, which were named after the Palisades of the Hudson River that borders New York and New Jersey. If you look at them closely, you can see how they represent a picket fence, which is what a palisade actually is.

Palisades Collage

Our two-hour journey through the Upper Dells of the Wisconsin River went quickly—perhaps too much so—but was thoroughly enjoyable and provided the capstone event of our day trip. Apparently you can book a dinner cruise on one of the Dells Boat Tours. Who knows? Perhaps we will do that one day.

Lasting Memories Collage

© 2013 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Jul 082013

Last week we visited my mother-in-law in north central Wisconsin, making day trips to different destinations: the Wisconsin Dells, Marshfield, and Dells of the Eau Claire. We did so much in so little time, in fact, that I am writing separate posts to describe our doings. The trip from Iowa to Wisconsin, however, was a sightseeing activity in itself. We drove north on Interstate 35 all the way to Minnesota, then sliced across the southeastern corner of the state on Interstate 90 through Albert Lea. Finally, we crossed the Mississippi River to LaCrosse, Wisconsin before continuing northeast to Rib Mountain (near Wausau), where John’s mother lives. The three states—Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin—all share a piece of the Mississippi River Valley, yet are so unique that you can tell where you are by the geography.

At the northernmost point in Iowa, just before you enter south central Minnesota, there is a barn-shaped welcome center called Top of Iowa.


You’ll find restrooms and vending machines downstairs, but if you climb the stairs, you’ll discover sightseeing brochures, booklets and maps about every interesting spot in Iowa that you can imagine. Sprinkled throughout Iowa, in fact, are attractive welcome centers that provide free visitor information. There is also a gift shop called the Barn Boutique that features the work of local area artisans.

Top of Iowa Collage

When we have visited the Top of Iowa barn in the past, John has enjoyed a cappuccino in the coffee shop while waiting for me to finish browsing in the gift shop known as the Barn Boutique.


I always enjoy browsing through the crafts, which are made by local area artisans.

Barn Boutique Collage

The gift shop features beautiful, sturdy baskets woven by Amish families. Family members usually sign the underside of their work. I own several of these Amish baskets, although mine were purchased elsewhere.


I was amused by the book below and must admit that some of the expressions in How to Talk Midwestern do not sound altogether unfamiliar. Most Midwesterners won’t cop to speaking with a so-called accent, but I realized after relocating from southern California back to the Midwest (where John and I grew up) more than 20 years ago that we have a distinctive pattern to our patter, along with some interesting expressions that are not used elsewhere. Do you know what it means to live in the “boonies?” Did you know that a “guy” can mean anyone of any gender or age? That a mush mellon (or muskmelon) is a canteloupe, or that Monkey Ward is another name for the store called Montgomery Ward? (Does that store even exist anymore?) Did you know that Midwesterners sometimes swallow their vowels or consonants, saying “Floorda” for Florida, or “eve-nun” for evening? Natives of Milwaukee, where I was born, pronounce the city’s name as “M’WAW-kee,” eliminating the “l.” Many Iowans refers to their state as “AH-wah,” eliminating the “i,” or “EYE-wah,” eliminating the “o.”


We noticed that in north central Iowa, you’ll see vast stretches of farm and wind fields.

North Central Iowa Collage

As soon as you cross over into south central Minnesota, you continue to see farms, but you’ll also notice thick stands of trees, acting as sturdy wind breaks.

South Central Minnesota Collage

Much of the Midwest was at one time covered by glaciers, but as you descend into the Mississippi River Valley, the road on either side is edged with sedimentary bluffs and roadcuts of limestone, sandstone and dolomite, which represent areas the glaciers may never have touched. According to a sign posted at the Enterprise rest stop in southeastern Minnesota:

These rock formations were deposited by oceans which have covered the area several times in the past, the most recent some 70 million years ago. These types of stone are easily eroded by groundwater and there are numerous sinkholes and even caves to be found in the area.

Southeastern MN Bluffs Collage

Large cranes and construction debris provide evidence of a new interstate crossover being built in the vicinity of the Mississippi River between Dresbach, Minnesota and LaCrosse, Wisconsin.


If you stop at the welcome center in Dresbach, you can watch the river traffic.


Opposite Dresbach, on the other side of the Mississippi River, is LaCrosse, Wisconsin. As you drive along the highway, you continue to see farmland. One farm is prettier than the next, and in the background loom forested hills.





Both Minnesota and northern Wisconsin are known for their forests and lakes. I stopped in Necedah to snap this sunset shot of the lake. I had to do so quickly because the lake flies and mosquitoes swarmed.


Our journey from Urbandale, Iowa to Rib Mountain, Wisconsin ordinarily takes about 7-1/2 hours by car. It’s a full day of driving, in other words, but being able to enjoy the lay of the land—it’s a pretty drive anytime of the year—makes the time fly quickly.

© 2013 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.