The Great River Road, Part 4: Minneapolis, MN to Prairie du Chien, WI

I started out thinking of America as highways and state lines. As I got to know it better, I began to think of it as rivers. – Charles Kuralt

August 25, 2015 – Day 4 – Minneapolis to Frontenac State Park, Minnesota

 We disconnected our Honda Fit from its RV mother ship and headed toward Minneapolis, the first of four large cities on the Great River Road. While many know Minneapolis for its art, theaters, and outdoor recreational activities, I mainly know it as the home of the Twins, Vikings, and Prince. With no agenda or must-do list (other than to find a “raspberry beret from a second-hand store”), we decided to park the car downtown, get out, and just start walking. We immediately noticed the 7+ miles of glass-enclosed skyways that link various downtown buildings. So we went up some stairs, entered the skyway system, and randomly traveled around the seemingly never-ending maze. The idea to have shops, restaurants, and businesses of all types connected along the skyway is brilliant, especially for a city with cold, snowy winters. It reminded me of the Crystal City Underground in Virginia, except it’s larger and above ground. We spent an hour speed walking around the labyrinth, darting in and out of corridors, and passing over city streets down below. At one point we stopped and took a picture of the Minnesota Viking’s new stadium, which is under construction. Little did we know that less than 24-hours later, a construction worker would die after falling from the roof while working on this project.

Vikings New Stadium
Vikings New Stadium

After googling “best Minneapolis lunch restaurants”, we walked another mile and crossed the river to Kramarczuk’s East European Deli, a legendary Ukranian eatery. In the late 1940s, skilled sausage maker Wasyl Kramarczuk and his skilled baker wife Anna left Ukraine in search of the American dream. They founded this Minneapolis landmark restaurant, and lunch was indeed legendary, the best meals on our journey thus far. Lil Jan had the Varenyky, aka pierogi…dough dumplings stuffed with meat, cheese, and potatoes. I ordered the polish sausage sauerkraut dish, as my dear mother would have wanted me to.  Both dishes were wonderful. While there, we met a nurse and her grandmother from Canada. They were interested in moving to Florida so we gave them suggestions based on our 7 years of experience living there. As we were finishing up a superb, borderline romantic sidewalk lunch on a beautiful sunny afternoon, Lil Jan was stung by a bee and dropped her glass of water on to my plate. Startled, I looked down, as the few remaining sausages floated across my plate, like rafts on the nearby Mississippi River.

Kramarczuk's Deli, Minneapolis

Kramarczuk’s Deli, Minneapolis


Lil Jan and her doughboy decided to work off lunch by walking through Pillsbury Park, and then out onto the point for a beautiful view of Saint Anthony Falls and its lock and dam. The walk to the point has a number of interpretive displays on how locks and dams work. As I stood alone on the point, I looked up at the massive I-35W Saint Anthony Falls Bridge, which stood in front of me. I wondered what it would have been like to be standing on that point on the afternoon of August 1st, 2007. On that tragic day, during the busy rush hour, the bridge’s predecessor suddenly collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145. The National Transportation Safety Board cited a design flaw of a too-thin gusset plate as the likely cause of the crash. What would it have been like to witness this tragedy? How would I have responded? Would I have jumped into the water to try to save people? Or would I have rushed to the school bus carrying 63 children, which was resting precariously against a guardrail of the collapsed bridge, near a burning semi-trailer truck? Or would it have been enough to simply dial 911 and let the professionals handle the unfolding situation? Most of us like to think that we would rise to the occasion and do something heroic; but what would we actually do? I also thought about the victims who woke up that morning, unaware that this would be their last day on earth. Were their family relationships in a good place? Had they left anything unsaid? Were they right with God? We just never know when our time will come.

Saint Anthony Falls & I-35W Bridge

We returned to our RV, hooked the Fit up to it, and headed southeast toward Wisconsin. We decided to spend one final night on the Minnesota side of the river at the beautiful Frontenac State Park. Please see our next blog for a review of the Frontenac State Park campground.

August 26, 2015 – Day 5 – Frontenac State Park, Minnesota to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin

 After a restful night at Frontenac State Park, I got up early for a solo hike around the park, while Lil Jan opted to work on her Ladies Day lesson. (She’s speaking at a women’s retreat in Nashville, Tennessee in September.) We then headed out and crossed over the Mississippi River to Wisconsin, to begin one of the most scenic stretches of the Great River Road. There are a series of small quaint river towns (Prescott, Stockholm, Pepin, Alma, etc.) that offer history, antique shopping, and amazing views. One highlight for us was having lunch at the Stockholm Pie & General Store, which was named “One of the 100 Best Places to Eat in America” by Roadfood Guide.

"Top 100" Roadside Eatery, Stockholm Wisconsin
A Top 100 Restaurant in America

A little further down the road we entered the town of Pepin. On the outskirts of town, a little girl was born in a log cabin on February 7, 1867. Later she would write a book about her early childhood experiences in Pepin… “Once upon a time…a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin in a little gray house made of logs.” The book was Little House in the Big Woods and the author was Laura Ingalls Wilder. Like Charles Lindbergh, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s early formative years shaped the person she would become. As she looked backed on her early years on the frontier, she wrote, “It has been many years since I beat eggs with a fork or cleaned a kerosene lamp. Many things have changed since then, but the truths we learned from our parents and the principles they taught us are always true. They can never change.” There’s a lesson there for parents…and children. Another thing we can learn from her is that late bloomers can be great bloomers. She didn’t begin her writing career until she was sixty-five. She had only planned to write one book, Little House in the Big Woods. But it was an immediate success, and children who read it wrote to her begging for more. She said, “I was amazed because I didn’t know how to write. I went to little red schoolhouses all over the West and I never was graduated from anything.” She ended up writing eight books before passing away in 1957. Of course, those stories would come to life in the 1970s television series, Little House on the Prairie. A big fan of Laura Ingalls, Lil Jan insisted we pay a visit to the replica “little gray house made of logs” that Laura grew up in.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's Wayside Cabin
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Wayside Cabin
The Loft Where Laura & Mary Slept
The Loft Where Laura & Mary Slept

Only four days into our journey along the Great River Road, we’ve already been inspired by the people we’ve met, both living and dead. Today, we’re glad the Kramarczuk’s immigrated to the U.S. and opened a restaurant. We’re hopeful the two delightful Canadian women we met are able to find a new home and life in Florida. We’re thankful for the first responders and others who helped save lives following the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. And we’re glad that, at age 65, a woman took the time to write a book about her experiences growing up in a log cabin in Pepin, Wisconsin.

Laura Ingalls…at 17 & 69

Later that evening, we rolled into Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and took up residence in our new home, the Wal-Mart parking lot, with several of our trucker buddies. Whenever I start to feel manly like my fellow “big rig” drivers, Lil Jan brings me back to earth by reminding me…we’re pulling a Honda Fit.

Big Steve

An Especially Good Stretch of the Great River Road

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