If you find yourself in Michigan this summer and want a little theater, folk music, and maybe some good carp fishing, try Lansing. It isn't a resort town--Lansing's 80 miles from the nearest Great Lake--but rather a year-round city and a college town, so it has more culture than places like Saugatuck and Traverse City.
In the 1840s, the Michigan legislature was looking for a new home. The British had captured Detroit during the War of 1812, so the lawmakers wanted to move the state capital a bit farther away from Canada. Some legislator with a sense of humor suggested the little settlement at the meeting of the Grand and the Red Cedar rivers. He was joking, but when his colleagues looked on a map, they saw the site was nearly halfway between Detroit and Grand Rapids, the state's biggest cities. Thus Lansing was drafted. In 1855, the state built an agricultural college east of town, and in 1895, Ransom E. Olds and Frank Clark started building a curved-dash, gasoline-powered carriage in a workshop down by the Grand. Ever since, most Lansingites have been employed by one of the three c's--cars, campus, and capital.
The politicians of 1847 weren't weathermen, so they didn't notice that Lansing was in the grayest part of the state, the spot where the clouds thrown up by Lake Huron and Lake Michigan bump together and smother the earth under mackerel skies. January is a grim month here. But they have a saying in Maine that's also true in Michigan: "If you can't stand the winters, you don't deserve the summers." As you read this, Lansing is in the midst of three months of Eden that almost make up for the chilly purgatories of winter, spring, and fall. A forest city, it's a hundred shades of green. The long, damp mornings are heralded by mourning doves, which coo until the sun burns off the dew. In the evenings, the light doesn't leak out of the sky until ten o'clock.
Lansing is one of the biggest folk-music markets in the country. It's full of three groups with a proven weakness for acoustic guitars: professors, lesbians, and earnest mainline Protestants. Garrison Keillor brought A Prairie Home Companion to J.W. Sexton High School before it got popular enough to fill theaters, and he still has Lansing folkie Joel Mabus on his show from time to time. The best-known folk presenter in the area is the Ten Pound Fiddle (517-337-7744), which hosts performances at East Lansing High School, Erickson Kiva on the Michigan State University campus, or the Unitarian Universalist Church, depending on the popularity of that week's act. Named for a Scottish folk song and modeled after British folk clubs, the Ten Pound Fiddle hosted Suzanne Vega and Nanci Griffith when they were on the way up.
Elderly Instruments (1100 N. Washington, 517-372-7880) is the midwest's number-one outlet for banjos, dulcimers, mandolins, fiddles, and Holly Near CDs. It's also the place where local musicians go to die. Elderly is staffed by burned-out guitar players in their late 20s and 30s who've given up on the touring band thing but are still trying to hang on in the music business.
In 1999, East Lansing began a three-year run as host of the National Folk Festival (517-351-2735), a carnival of homespun music, dance, and crafts. This year's festival runs from August 11 through 13, and the town is already sweating over the imminent arrival of Beau Soleil, Boukman Eksperyans, Dallas Chief Eagle, and Hula Hulau a Keali'i o Nalani. Artisans will be on hand selling a variety of items, including Finnish-American rag rugs, Michigan maple syrup, models of Great Lakes ships, and Polish wycinanki paper cuttings.
Lansing is also one of the top ten book markets in the country, and it's worth visiting Barnes & Noble (2299 W. Grand River, Okemos, 517-347-4200) just to see the neon sign in the parking lot. When the book chain took over the space from Schmidt's, a failed grocery store, it gave in to local pressure to preserve the "Schmidt's Lady," a woman pushing a shopping cart, appearing to walk as the neon flits from leg to leg. The Schmidt's Lady still walks proudly, her shopping cart now full of books.
The city is arty enough to support the BoarsHead professional Theater (in the Lansing Center for the Arts, 425 S. Grand, 517-484-7800). Started in 1966 in a converted barn in Grand Ledge, the BoarsHead was the proving ground of William Hurt. After Hurt hit it big, he remembered cofounder Richard Thomsen with a small part in Broadcast News. The theater's selections have become more conservative in recent years (this season's productions included A Soldier's Play and The Cripple of Inishmaan), which is sad, because the BoarsHead has premiered dozens of plays, including Strange Snow, which was made into the 1989 Robert De Niro movie Jacknife.
There's really no reason to be indoors in the summer, since Lansing is rarely hot enough for air conditioning. In the city, one of the best outdoor hangouts is by the Brenke Fish Ladder, a sculpture with cascading levels, which fish jump when swimming upstream to spawn. It's a great place to catch salmon. Nearby Grand River Bait & Tackle (536 E. Grand River, 517-482-4461) hosts a carp-fishing derby every summer and has published a list of carp recipes. Also, try the Potter Park Zoo (1301 S. Pennsylvania, 517-483-4221), which lies on the nearby Red Cedar River. One of the city's largest mammals is Elvis the Bison, who lives alone in a pasture at the Carl G. Fenner Nature Center (2020 E. Mount Hope, 517-483-4224), a preserve with a network of cool, sheltered trails beneath the pines and tamaracks.
Oldsmobile Park (505 E. Michigan, 517-485-4500) is the home of the Lansing Lugnuts, the Cubs' Class A farm team. The Big Lug, one of the team's two mascots, has been described as Barney the dinosaur with warts, and the Lugnuts' logo is a grimacing bolt. The Chicago couple who founded the team were trying a little too hard to honor Lansing's automotive heritage. Even the mayor said he'd have to get used to the name. Sports Illustrated was blunter: it once declared the moniker "This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us."
If Michigan passes the Personal Responsibility Amendment, decriminalizing the "responsible" use and possession of small amounts of homegrown marijuana by adults, Lansing will be the best-prepared city in the state. I counted four head shops in the area, including three on Grand River Avenue, across from the MSU campus. The old dude of the bunch is Su Casa Boutique (1041 N. Cedar, 517-487-9090), which opened in 1974, advertising itself by hiring Cheech and Chong impersonators to do radio spots on a local album-rock station. Su Casa survived the "Just Say No" era by concentrating on its core market: stoners in beat-up sports cars, who are going to inhale no matter how much the Partnership for a Drug-Free America spends on advertising. Located in a converted house in Old Town, Lansing's arty neighborhood, it sports a misleading "Police Hall of Fame" doormat on its porch. Inside, you'll find the usual bongs, glass pipes, and stash boxes, along with Harley-Davidson scarves, a selection of wedding rings, and Indian-inspired silver jewelry. Su Casa is also the exclusive local dealer of Tommy Chong's "Urine Luck" system, which guarantees it can help you pass any drug test.
No trip to Lansing is complete without a trip to a Quality Dairy (call 517-319-4100 for locations). There may be a route that goes from one end of town to the other without passing a QD, but finding it is as tricky as solving the four-color problem: the phone book lists 23 stores. Besides selling the heartiest doughnuts in town, QD also sells milk in bags. You fit the bag into a pitcher, then snip off the end for pouring. Favorite son Earvin "Magic" Johnson once worked at a QD in Lansing. After he joined the Los Angeles Lakers, the store designed the "double dribble donut" in his honor.
Johnson is one of several celebrities to come out of Lansing, and better yet, one of the few who admit it. Steven Seagal was born here, but decided it was cooler to claim origins in Detroit. Malcolm X spent his childhood in Lansing (he was two when his family moved there), but left with some bitterness after his father was pushed under a streetcar, his mother was committed to the state mental hospital, and he was sent to a juvenile home. (In the Spike Lee movie, you can see the word "Lansing" on the streetcar as it speeds across the screen.) In his autobiography, Malcolm says that if he'd stayed, he'd have become a "brainwashed black Christian" working a "menial job." Lansing honors him nonetheless. The El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz Academy (2130 W. Holmes, 517-394-6446), which occupies Malcolm's old elementary school, offers a curriculum emphasizing African-American history and culture. You can also visit the historical marker at the site of Malcolm X's childhood home on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Vincent Court.
For a glimpse of Illinois' earliest city, get on the Stevenson and keep going for about five hours. Pass Joliet, Bloomington, Springfield, Litchfield, and Troy. You're almost there. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is just a few miles west of Collinsville, a town of about 23,000 with more than a dozen hotels, in case you decide to stay overnight. (It's not in the present-day town of Cahokia, Illinois.) The 2,200-acre site contains the ruins of the most sophisticated prehistoric native civilization north of Mexico, which flourished from about 700 to 1400 AD. It was named a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1982. In the spaghetti bowl of interstates east of Saint Louis, almost any exit will get you there.
If you want to take the officially recommended route, get off I-55 at exit 10 for I-255 south, then quickly leave I-255 at exit 24, Collinsville Road. Turn left onto Collinsville, following the white-on-brown signs for the state historic site. You can stop in the immediate neighborhood if you need to purchase asphalt, used tires, discount carpet, or a chance on the horses at Fairmount Park (9301 Collinsville, 618-345-4300). Monks Mound will appear on your right. Turn into its parking lot, or left onto the road to the Interpretive Center.
If you've got some extra time and enjoy a good roadside attraction, you could instead get off I-55 at exit 15, IL Route 159. Proceed south on 159 for about five miles and you'll reach the Brooks Catsup Bottle (618-345-5598), billed as the "world's largest catsup bottle." The 170-feet-tall structure was built in 1949 and restored in 1995. To get to Cahokia Mounds from here, turn around and go north on 159. Take a left onto Main Street, which goes through downtown Collinsville. Next, turn right onto IL Route 157 and continue until you hit I-55. Take I-55 south, pass the site, and then double back. Look up and to the left at mile eight for a quick cameo of the north side of Monks Mound. Get off I-55 at exit 6 onto southbound IL Route 111. Turn left (east) at the stoplight for Collinsville Road. You'll pass a reconstructed woodhenge on the left and picnic grounds (once a drive-in movie theater) on the right before reaching Monks Mound on your left and the road to the Interpretive Center on your right.
Monks Mound is the focal point at Cahokia: it covers 14 acres and rises 100 feet, making it the western hemisphere's largest earthwork. Thankfully, it sports a new stairway with a railing so visitors can climb the 154 steps to its flat top without hurting themselves or the mound. Five woodhenges have been found at Cahokia; the third was reconstructed in 1985 at its original location. Wooden posts set in large circular pits align with the rising sun several times during the year, most notably at solstices and equinoxes. This summer you will also be able to observe excavations in progress--a trench in a later mound, number 34, is being reexcavated and the route of the western palisade wall is currently being traced.
In 1989 the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency opened the new Interpretive Center, replacing an old building that had been falling apart. The walls were cracked, the roof leaked, and mice and birds had begun to move in. Archaeologists planned the new center's location on the assumption that there had been no Cahokian houses on the spot, but they were wrong. Outlines of the buildings in the prehistoric neighborhood unearthed by construction are visible in the front courtyard. The building is expensive and exquisite. It offers more information in more ways in less space than any museum I've visited. Don't miss the moving introduction, the three-dimensional site map, the village diorama, or the drive-in-movie replica showing short features on archaeology. It's open daily. Admission is free, though the suggested donation is $2 for adults, $1 for children.
There's no substitute for being there, but the virtual traveler can make do with two good Web sites. The official site of the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, cahokiamounds.com, offers visitor information, directions, a virtual tour, access to the museum store, and links to recent articles in U.S. News & World Report and the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch. The contract archaeology program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville opened a site (siue.edu/CAHOKIAMOUNDS) in April that includes graduate-student papers, a discussion forum, and a gallery of photographs of Cahokia Mounds and of work done there during recent archaeological field schools.
For the bookish traveler, the single best introduction is Cahokia: City of the Sun by Claudia Gellman Mink. Concise and handsomely illustrated, it's the museum shop's best-seller. A new and readable account coauthored by Biloine Whiting Young and veteran Cahokia archaeologist Melvin L. Fowler, Cahokia: The Great Native American Metropolis, contains more detail and is organized around the experiences and personalities of archaeologists who have worked on the site. Their undying feuds would make an anthropological study in itself.
If you want to see how Cahokia fits into the big North American picture, historian Lynda Norene Shaffer's Native Americans Before 1492: The Moundbuilding Centers of the Eastern Woodlands covers Cahokia extensively and is much harder to put down than its title would suggest. Fowler is also the author of The Cahokia Atlas: A Historical Atlas of Cahokia Archaeology, which includes an exhaustive and sometimes heartbreaking mound-by-mound review. For an up close (if not always personal) view of the most beautiful and the most gruesome finds at Cahokia Mounds, fresh off the presses is the very technical and authoritative The Mound 72 Area: Dedicated and Sacred Space in Early Cahokia, by Fowler, Jerome Rose, Barbara Vander Leest, and Steven Ahler, published by the Illinois State Museum as "Reports of Investigation, No. 54."
It's easy to get hooked on this place, and Cahokia aficionados can look forward to more. Architectural historian Sally Chappell's Cahokia: Echo of the Cosmos is due out from the University of Chicago Press next year. She says she had no plans to write a book when she and her husband stopped by the site a few years ago on their way to a blues festival in Saint Louis. They spent three days at Cahokia Mounds. And Visualizing the Past: A Landscape Interpretation of Prehistoric Cahokia by Rinita Dalan, George Holley, William Woods, Harold Watters Jr., and John Koepke is ready for publication. This team has been using noninvasive remote-sensing techniques to probe the Grand Plaza and Monks Mound. In February 1998 they found an entirely unexpected layer of rocks deep inside the mound. What are the rocks doing there? Woods says, "Your guess is as good as mine." As Fowler puts it in the conclusion of The Mound 72 Area, "We have only the smallest fraction of the understanding necessary to do justice to this superlative site and the people who lived there."
Typical Springfield cuisine can be summed up by one word: deep-fried. Even the French toast at the Inn at 835 (835 S. Second, 217-523-4466), an elegant and comfortable bed-and-breakfast, is served hot from the fryer. Sure, you can find Italian and Thai restaurants in the capital city and sip cappuccino in a cyber cafe, but why would you when you can taste local history?
Springfield is the undisputed birthplace of the artery-clogging, multilayered horseshoe, a concoction topped with cottage or french fries. The horseshoe originated at the Leland Hotel in 1928 under chef Joe Schweska, though some accounts give partial credit to men who worked in the kitchen under him, specifically Steve Tomko. The first horseshoe consisted of toast on a sizzling platter, topped by a horseshoe-shaped cut of ham, perhaps a fried egg, cheese rarebit sauce, and finally, cottage fries placed to represent nails. By 1939, Schweska reported that he was going through six gallons of the sauce a day. "He came up with the recipe with his wife, Elizabeth," says grandson Tom, 41. "We ate horseshoes long before anybody heard about it. Dad was making them for us and grandpa made them for my dad."
The hotel is no longer, but the horseshoe remains. (There must be a lesson in there, but I'm not sure what it is.) The shoe comes in many varieties, which is good because I don't eat mammals. I sampled three horse- or smaller-size ponyshoes in two days. The best horseshoe, according to the weekly Illinois Times, can be found at Red Coach Inn (301 N. Grand Ave. West, 217-522-0198), thanks to its sauce and selection of meats. However, I found the sauce on my lunchtime chicken ponyshoe pale and uninteresting. At another well-known restaurant, Norb Andy's (518 E. Capitol, 217-523-7777), the seafood ponyshoe featured gelatinous globs, which I suppose were tiny shrimp. The turkey horseshoe late one night at Bernie and Betty's Pizza (1101 S. Spring, 217-522-1821) came with bland sliced turkey covered with rich spicy sauce and blistery crisp fries. On my way out of town I stopped in at Maid-Rite (118 N. Pasfield, 217-522-1821). Open since 1924, it claims to be the country's first drive-through restaurant. The only horseshoe came with mammal, so I went for the $1.49 cheese fries, a disappointment. The sauce was more redolent of cheese food than actual cheese. The vanilla shake, for the same price, was thick pleasure. I concluded, wholly without adequate evidence, that the only way to get good cheese fries in that town was to order a horseshoe at Bernie and Betty's, which, by the way, was named the "People's Choice" in the first Springfield Horseshoe Showcase in 1993.
The city is also the home of the cozy dog, whose creator, Edwin Waldmire, built and patented a better corn-dog holder so more of the sizzling oil could get at the dog at once. You can find it at the Cozy Dog Drive In (2935 S. 6th, 217-525-1992), on historic Route 66. As you can read in the meticulously written and drawn booklets by son Bob, founder Ed first saw hot dogs tucked inside corn bread on a family trip to Muskogee, Oklahoma, in 1941. A good idea, he thought, but they took too long to cook. Later an old Knox College friend came up with a recipe for a batter that wouldn't fall off during frying, and Ed was in business, selling what he called "crusty curs" on a stick, from the Amarillo Airfield, where he was stationed in 1945 and '46. When he settled in Springfield in '46 his wife urged him to use the gentler name "cozy dogs." He sold them on the beach and at the state fair, and eventually opened up three places in town and sent big bags of his batter mix throughout the country.
Now there is just the one restaurant, next door to the site of the original 1949 restaurant, which Ed's son Buz tore down in 1996 to make way for a Walgreens. Ed stepped down in 1975 and Buz took over. He's the one who made the decision to sell the lot and designed the new building, a low-slung white rectangle, which opened three weeks after the old place closed. It is, despite its newness, a homey place, and a shrine to family and individualism and community and Route 66. Some of the Formica tables are from the old place, including a decorated and signed Liars Table. In the corner you can look at and buy Cozy Dog and Route 66 memorabilia, most strikingly Bob's bird's-eye-view maps of Route 66--all of Route 66. Regular customers make the coffee themselves, which they drink from an assortment of mugs. A couple of them have keys to the place.
Buz is a boyish, confiding 52, with wide brown eyes and two master's degrees. Taking a break during a slow stretch, he's wearing a Cozy Dog T-shirt, drinking a mug of green tea, and smoking a cigarette. His longhaired 15-year-old son, Tony, is working the counter and drive-through.
Family history and Cozy Dog history are intertwined. All of Edwin's five sons worked at the restaurants, and so have Buz's six children. In the middle of the room is the Edwin Waldmire Memorial Library, a tribute to the father who died in 1993. It was assembled by Bob and has shelves of books by Thomas Paine, Will Rogers, Mark Twain, and Thomas Jefferson. Edwin was a United World Federalist, supporter of civil rights, and opponent of the Vietnam war. The perimeter of the place reflects Buz's politics, with bumper stickers high on the walls: "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." "Happiness is seeing Clinton's face on a milk carton." "Warning: Driver carries $20.00 worth of ammunition." "If you enjoy your freedom, thank a vet." A Vietnam-era vet who remained stateside, Buz says, "I believe everybody should have the right to defend their own life." He explains that people who travel at night or can't defend themselves otherwise could use handguns. He's always liked guns, has never killed anyone, believes strongly in the Second Amendment, and sells one or two handguns a month. On the back of his Cozy Dog Drive In business card is his other business: Cozy Supply's "Gun Nut" Guns & Ammo. Under his name, "Buz Waldmire, FFL-licensed & documented gun nut," it says, "Go ahead--buy a gun--make my day."
The border between Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, seven and a half hours north of here, is full of national forests, rivers and lakes, and hiking and mountain-biking trails. And if you wait until snow starts to fall, there are winter sports galore.
"The saying has always been, 'Hurley's where Highway 51 ends and fun begins,'" laughs Iron County treasurer Mark Gianunzio. At the turn of the century Hurley, Wisconsin, settled by Italian and Finnish immigrants, was a rough-and-tumble capital of the state's iron and logging industries. The town was legendary enough for Edna Ferber to make it the setting of her novel Come and Get It, her lumbering novel that was made into a 1936 movie starring Frances Farmer. During prohibition, Hurley served as a refuge for liquor runners and criminals, and through World War II downtown Silver Street boasted taverns, gambling dens, and bordellos. While Hurley has shrunk in size--the current population is 1,800--it retains the flavor of its past. Today it sustains 31 bars, including five "gentlemen's clubs" on lower Silver Street. The bars, which cater to vacationers, tend toward friendly, no-frills establishments.
People who hanker to recover the old flavor of Hurley--at least the G-rated parts--should head to the Iron County Historical Society (303 Iron, 715-561-2244). The old brick county courthouse, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is topped by a four-sided Seth Thomas clock circa 1922 and contains exhibits on farming, logging, and mining, including union activities.
The centerpiece of the Iron County Heritage Festival (715-561-4334), an annual town festival held July 28 through August 13 this year, is the Paavo Nurmi Marathon on Saturday, August 12. It's a hilly race from Upson to Hurley, begun in 1969 and named for a Finnish runner who won nine Olympic gold medals. There's a "Living History Walking Tour of Hurley" on Saturday, July 29. Costumed locals sing, dance, and impart the particulars of the county's past. The tour is capped off with sanitized fun at the Silver Dollar Saloon (23 Silver, 715-561-4439), one of the strip clubs.
During regular hours the "world famous" Silver Dollar presents dancers topless but for coverings (actually Band-Aids) over their nipples, as required by local ordinance. "Our girls aren't necessarily the prettiest but they're the classiest," insists manager Heidi Harsvick. "And our bartenders are the friendliest." The establishment takes its name from 72 silver dollars inlaid on the bar.
The sign out front of Minnow's (219 Silver, 715-561-5176) reads, "Where you drink like a fish & land the catch of your life." Robert Morzenti, the mayor of nearby Montreal, Wisconsin, owns the tin-ceilinged bar. Between beers, customers play pool, foosball, and darts.
Hurley was settled by Italian and Finnish immigrants. Operated since 1923 by the Fontecchio family, the Liberty Bell Chalet (109 Fifth Ave. S., 715-561-3753) once served miners, but expanded in the 1960s to cater to the ski trade and now specializes in thin-crust pizza with spicy sauce. Sherman Hart, a nephew of Al Capone, established the Sky Lawn Supper Club (seven miles south of Hurley on Highway 51, 715-561-3545) in 1960. The roadhouse is favored for its period feel--knotty pine paneling, a stone fireplace, and a cloverleaf-shaped bar--and the charcoal-grilled steak. It's $18.95 for the porterhouse, which comes with salad bar and soup. Hart, who retired and sold the restaurant, is the son of Capone's oldest brother, James, a straight arrow who changed his name to Richard Hart and became a prohibition enforcement officer and then a town marshal out west. Ralph "Bottles" Capone, another brother, built a home in nearby Mercer after years spent working with Al.
Little Finland (on U.S. 2 just west of Hurley, 715-561-4360) gives shoppers the narrowest window of buying opportunity--Wednesdays and Saturdays between 10 AM and 2 PM--but is a mecca for the stuff of Lapland and its neighbors. You can find Swedish crystal, wooden jewelry, colorful "four-wind" felt hats, and videos on how to speak Finnish, plus reindeer fur and goat rugs. Coffee and pie or biscuits are served.
Ironwood, Hurley's more prosperous sister city, sits just east across the Montreal River in Michigan. The downtown is distinguished by the Ironwood Theatre (109 E. Aurora, 906-932-0618), a 732-seat house opened as a silent movie palace in 1928. Actress Norma Shearer and comics Abbott and Costello made appearances at the theater during its heyday, but by the 1970s it had gone to seed. A renovation refurbished the original Barton organ and uncovered a mural of Apollo, which had been painted over in blue. Now the vertical, Chicago Theatre-style marquee advertises community-theater productions as well as traveling notables like Corky Siegel. The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra bows on July 5, with top seats priced at $20.
Manny's (316 E. Houk, 906-932-0999) was opened five years ago by the three Vokolek siblings, grandchildren of an Italian settler in Ironwood. Johnny Vokolek lent his expertise from managing a McDonald's, Anna contributed recipes, and Manny brought his experience as a bar manager in Hurley. The lasagna is pretty tasty, and if you like polenta, this is probably the only place in Ironwood to get it. If nothing else, Manny's affords a view and quick access to Ironwood's Hiawatha, named after Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha" and situated yards to the west in a public park. The 52-foot-high fiberglass Indian, which can withstand 140 mile per hour winds, was erected by the Ironwood chamber of commerce in 1964.
Other restaurants in Ironwood include Mulligan's & Company (126 S. Suffolk, 906-932-4244). Joel Mulligan, a mailman, and his wife Linda, who manages the Ironwood Super 8 motel (160 E. Cloverland, 906-932-3395), converted some downtown office space into their restaurant two years ago. "We know what good food is, and we didn't see any around here," says Linda modestly. The soup and vegetable and onion-dill breads are homemade, and where else in town can you get Cornish hen? The interior features wicker furniture and a 24-foot-long bar; a Celtic musician performs most weekends. The homey Don & G G's Food & Spirits (1300 E. Cloverland, 906-932-2312) serves steak sandwiches, hamburgers, and blackened catfish prepared by "a real chef, not some 16-year-old kid," explains bartender Blaine Sprague. "We close at midnight, and there are no rowdies. We have that old Cheers feeling." Sweet-sauced pork ribs are reason to patronize Mama Get's (E-5964 Hwy. 2, 906-932-1322), an open, log-cabin-style restaurant with an outdoor deck in summer.
Summer and winter sports bring thousands to the Hurley-Ironwood area each year. Iron County, Wisconsin, alone has 450 miles of trails for snowmobiles and ATVs. Though the invasion of the land vehicles troubles some, it is welcomed and encouraged by most of the local businesses. The major annual snowmobile event, held the second weekend in December, is the Red Light Snowmobile Rally, highlighted by a tour in which participants play poker hands from one local business to another. In summer, fisherman troll the local lakes and flowages for walleye, perch, and bass. Tourists can also mountain bike on 300 miles of marked trails, though they should watch out for ever-present ATVs. Maps of these trails and the myriad lakes and rivers are available at the Hurley Chamber of Commerce (316 Silver, 715-561-4334).
The Hurley-Ironwood region is also known for its profusion of waterfalls. The greatest concentration of falls can be found north of Bessemer, Michigan. Take the 14-mile-long Black River Road through the Black River National Scenic Byway to its end point at Black River Harbor (906-667-0261) on Lake Superior, the only port in the lower 48 states operated by the U.S. Forest Service. You'll see several large waterfalls along the way. Well-marked hiking trails lead from the parking areas to five different falls along the Black River. The grandest of them--Rainbow Falls--comes after a half-mile hike.
Copper Peak (N-13870 Copper Peak, 906-932-3500) is not a peak at all but the site of the western hemisphere's only ski flying jump, poised on top of Chippewa Hill in Bessemer. The problem is that very few skiers are skilled enough to use the 469-foot-long contraption--Copper Peak saw its last ski competition in 1994. Not to worry, in summer visitors can take an elevator to the observation deck, then take the stairs up to the starting gate for panoramic views 40 miles in every direction. There's also a ski flying museum and mountain-bike trails.
Bessemer is also home to one of the strangest public monuments anywhere. From 1946 until 1984 Bessemer had its own power plant, an object of community pride. After the plant was swallowed up by the regional power company, the city took its old, four-cylinder diesel engine and plopped it in Bluff Valley Park (on North Moore north of U.S. 2). "The engine represents a better time, when the mines were running and the economy here was strong," says Bessemer city clerk Bruce Carlson. Now the engine sits under its own wooden shed, with a sign that reads, "Climbing on engine prohibited. Violators will lose park privileges."
While the Gogebic range of low mountains sustains several popular working ski hills--Whitecap, Big Powderhorn, Indianhead, and Blackjack--the one to visit if you care to help the industry is Mount Zion Ski Area (E-4946 Jackson in Ironwood, 906-932-3718). The modest hill, with nine runs and an all-day lift price of $10, serves as a training ground for ski area management majors at Gogebic Community College. "Mount Zion is our learning lab," says Randy Mezzano, director of the only such program with its own ski hill. "After graduation our kids work at resorts all around the country."
The Inn (104 Wisconsin Street in Montreal, Wisconsin, 715-561-5180), a white-clapboard bed-and-breakfast, occupies a former office building of the Montreal Mining Company, which once ran the world's deepest iron-ore mine. Rooms go for $55 to $85, depending on size and season and come with full breakfast. Simpler quarters can be had at the Star-lite Motel (Highway 51, one quarter mile south of Hurley, 715-561-3085), where rooms start at $25. The gnocchi and ravioli in the adjoining restaurant are worth a stop.
From I-94, the trail of sleaze, cheese, and cherry bombs that transports you from Chicago to Milwaukee, you can see it all. First you pass an endless line of outlet malls--including the famed Gurnee Mills--with parking lots stuffed like so many bratwurst. Eventually you hit the Mars Cheese Castle, a strange roadside convenience store filled with cheddar that's way too orange. Then there are the myriad adult bookstores, a long strip of them, promising naughty delights and marital aids at every exit. Come early summer, the firecracker stands emerge from hibernation, their red-white-and-blue billboards boasting massive size and cannon power.
As you enter Milwaukee things take a very different turn: striking, hard-edged industrial architecture; church spires poking up alongside factory smokestacks; the snake and tangle of multiple convergent highways. Once off the interstate and into the neighborhoods, you'll notice that there seems to be a tavern on every corner, lending credence to Milwaukee's claim that it's the city with the most bars per capita. In Milwaukee, neighborhoods still feel like neighborhoods. Despite the inevitable creep of gentrification, rents are still low, and in various spots stellar independent businesses thrive.
Specializing in small-press literature and poetry, Woodland Pattern Book Center (720 E. Locust, 414-263-5001) is a one-of-a-kind nonprofit bookstore. Consider becoming a member so you can receive their beautifully designed mailings, which detail upcoming events, and get a discount on books, event tickets, and workshop fees. They're starting a yearlong celebration of their 20th anniversary, so it's a good time to check them out.
Peoples Books (2122 E. Locust, 414-962-0575) is a charmingly idiosyncratic bookstore with a large literature section categorized by geographic region. Specific emphasis is placed on books related to Native American literature and culture. The alternative medicine and Eastern religions sections are inspired, thorough, and full of unusual items. If you're lucky you'll visit on a day when owner Chris Chiu is there with his lovely husky, Nakita.
A vinyl freak I know makes a mandatory stop at Farwell Music (2218 N. Farwell, 414-271-9033) every time he visits Milwaukee. They have the best selection of used jazz LPs in town, along with plenty of hard-to-locate rock, a hefty selection of easy-listening (which seems to be a thriving market in Milwaukee), and various oddball items for fans of strange music. Prices are usually fair, and shocking bargains can sometimes be found. Just down the street from Farwell is Flipville Records (1936 N. Farwell, 414-272-1131), a two-tiered storefront crammed with old vinyl and antique toys. Though some not-so-rare "rarities" are overpriced, diligent digging can produce welcome results.
For more independent sounds from Milwaukee, you can pick up WMSE (91.7 FM) just north of Racine. This noncommercial station serves up exceptional programming and rivals large commercial stations in popularity. Check out Sonia and Kevin's blues show on Saturday mornings, the Big Band Show with Dewey Gill on Sunday mornings, or Hal Rammel's exhilarating experimental show, Alternating Currents, on Sunday evenings.
Jalapeno Loco (5067 S. Howell, 414-483-8300) is an informal, extremely affordable Oaxacan restaurant offering seven varieties of delectable homemade mole. Count them for yourself: mole oaxaqueno (my favorite), mole amarillito, mole rojo oaxaqueno, mole verde or pipian, mole coloraditos, mole mancha manteles (which intriguingly means "stained tablecloth"), and mole almentrado (a very rich one made from almonds). I haven't visited this new location right near the airport, but based on numerous trips to the former locale my bet is the warmth and hospitality haven't changed at all.
Kopp's Frozen Custard (414-789-9490 or see kopps.com for maps to their three locations) was founded in 1950 by German immigrant Elsa Kopp, and a half century later there's nearly always a line at these bustling fast-food establishments. As a rule, I hate fast food and I never eat hamburgers, but in my cosmology Kopp's doesn't count. In fact, I order up a butter burger nearly every time I'm in Milwaukee. Yes, you read it right: butter burger. If you lift up the bun fast enough you'll catch a glimpse of the quickly melting pat before it disappears into the meat patty. It sounds disgusting but adds that extra bit of tasty cholesterol you never knew you needed. Only in the dairy state. On the Kopp's Web site you'll find a listing of the current month's custard flavors. Vanilla and Swiss chocolate are always available and the additional flavor changes daily. As I have in the past, you might need to plan your Milwaukee visit around flavors such as raspberry, macadamia nut, or that Dreamsicle wannabe, orange la creme.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Terry Laban.