On Thursday morning I had been to 33 states. Not much more than 24 hours later my count was up to 36. Only 14 to go, not bad. This increase came about via a flight to Madison, Wisconsin and then a road trip into the northeastern corner of Iowa and the southeastern corner of Minnesota. It was basically a journey through the “Driftless Area,” land that was unglaciated during the last Ice Age and therefore is considerably less flat than the midwestern stereotype.
My adventure began with a ride to Ronkonkoma station (ugh!) on the LIRR, followed by a train to Jamaica, then the E train subway to Roosevelt Avenue, and finally a LaGuardia Express bus to the airport. It sounds confusing but actually is fairly seamless. Even though there’s no extra fare, the express bus is much quicker than the former, multi-stop bus route to the airport. While waiting at the airport I was able to track the progress of Hurricane Matthew by looking at the departure boards. Flights to South Florida had been cancelled by the time I arrived, and over the three hours or so I was at the airport I saw the cancellations spread northward into Orlando and Jacksonville. My flight to Madison wasn’t affected, of course.
The flight itself, on a Delta Airlines regional jet, was quick and uneventful. My seat was just as good as on a “mainline” jet. After landing at the relatively small but very modern-looking Madison airport, and picking up state number 34, I got a rental car, a Nissan Altima, which to my surprise had New York license plates. The car was pretty nice, although the pushbutton start took a bit of getting used-to.
After exploring downtown Madison a bit and then spending the night at a Days Inn south of the city, I set out early Friday morning for the road trip. My route generally followed US-18 west through Wisconsin, passing through farming country with some towns. Just before reaching Iowa I stopped at Wyalusing State Park, on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, to visit the monument to the passenger pigeon. I had read about this years ago in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac and had always had a strange urge to visit. The park office had a 150-year-old stuffed passenger pigeon in a glass case, one of only about 25 mounted specimens in the world. They also sold T-shirts and sweatshirts, but unfortunately none of them featured our extinct feathery friend.
I crossed the river into Iowa, state number 35, and spent a couple hours more or less meandering on back roads. I finally parked in the small town of Waukon, and walked around a bit. What I figured is that just driving through a state without stopping really isn’t enough to count it. While looking at the war memorial in front of the Allamakee County courthouse I noticed that a county resident died in the 1983 invasion of Grenada. Allamakee County has a population of 14,000, probably lower 33 years ago, and there were only 19 US deaths in that mini-war. Talk about bad odds!
From Waukon I drove the road along the west bank of the Mississippi north into Minnesota (state no. 36). There wasn’t a whole lot to see in the Gopher State in the 15 miles or so until the next bridge, just a couple of very small towns. Nonetheless I made my visit official by stopping at a bird-watching platform and a convenience store.
Around 4pm I crossed back into Wisconsin at the city of LaCrosse. Although it wasn’t a large city, maybe a third the size of Madison, traffic was surprisingly heavy. Finally I got onto I-90 for the 120-mile drive back to Madison. Mostly I was just interested in getting back to the Days Inn, but I made one stop, at the Ho-Chunk tribal gambling casino in Wisconsin Dells. I somehow won $20 playing penny slots, but it was a rather depressing venue, full of fat old people who reeked of cigarettes.
As my flight on Saturday wasn’t until noon I had the chance to explore Madison a bit more. My already favorable impression of the city got even better. It’s definitely a nice city. As the nonstops to LaGuardia don’t operate on weekends I had to get a connection in Detroit. That is one enormous airport! The flight from Detroit to LaGuardia was very bumpy, but short enough that it didn’t matter. I then reversed the multi-state trip back to Ronkonkoma and my ride, though I had to stand the entire way on the LIRR due to crowds returning from a comic book convention.
All in all it was a pleasant diversion, seeing three new states. A couple of stereotypes are true: there are a whole lot of cows in Wisconsin and a whole lot of corn in Iowa (and plenty vice versa too). As for the third state stereotype, I only spoke with one person in Minnesota and therefore cannot say that Minnesota Nice is a real thing.