It’s 3:30 in the morning, dark, no sign of a sunrise. We slog through soggy marshland. April is not always kind. It’s cold, damp. What the hell are we doing here near Plover, Wisconsin in the middle of a freezing night? Finally, we arrive at a low building, a blind. If you stand to your full height, even mine!… you bang you head on the roof boards. We sit on low benches, peer through slits in the structure. Like a bunker on a battlefield! And then, daylight pops up like a mylar helium balloon let fly by a child with greasy fingers. I’d missed it, sunrise; maybe I nodded off… I look through the narrow window; there they are! Dozens of them. Prairie chickens! Dancing wildly, horny, moaning madly, revealing the full majesty of their gorgeous feathery sex apparatus!
What a terrific, comic performance! They puff out brilliant orange sacs beneath their throats, drum their little feet, dance furiously to attract a mate. Territorial males leap into the air to warn off other males, interlopers. Then attraction happens!… A successful male bows to a female. She shakes her ruffled feathers. It’s done. They’re married, or mated in non-anthropological speak! A field breakfast follows, including thick hash brown potatoes served from an enormous, deep-sided baking pan. And meaty things!
This was one of a several remarkable trips conjured by and taken with precious friends, Rob and Susie. All of them unusually different, and all memorable and filled with strange delights in the unique manner of each. Near Lansing, Iowa, we floated along the Mississippi witnessing great bird migrations. The were swans and masses of coots, goat prairies, bald eagles, even a mink foraging for food along a wing dam. Prior to this voyage, I’d never before witnessed swans in full flight. Never seen so many coots gathered together on a single slice of river… (“Coots” meaning birds. Not geezers playing checkers in coffee cafes and saloons!)
That Mississippi River journey may have given us the idea for another. We four rented a houseboat out of Alma, Wisconsin. Spent one evening in an inlet. Built a fire, sang “Old Man River.” Wonderful time. On the second night, after a day of prowling the Great River, passing magnificent-looking barge tugs, we beached ourselves between a pair of wing dams. In the middle of the night, we were roused twice, once by a thump, once by a passing barge urged slowly along by a brilliantly-lit tug, so beautiful in the darkness of the still river. The thump was, we thought, a tree branch that had lodged itself under our houseboat. Couldn’t budge the “branch” no matter how the four of us tried! Turned out to be an entire tree! Had to summon Captain Jack of the rental service and his powerful motorboat. He, too, couldn’t believe the size of the tree that anchored us to the shoreline. Spotted an eagle’s nest so large the four of us could have moved in with kitchen appliances and lounge chairs… maybe too a Murphy Bed!
In Mexico, we discovered a spider monkey preserve near Akumal. The four of us spent more than an hour interacting with the monkeys in a large, cage-like enclosure. We fed them snacks, and they, in turn, picked “artifacts” from our hair and skin (or whatever it was they found and ate!). Such wonderful groomers! Inquisitive but almost always gentle (save for a few little nips, occasionally)! The seafood restaurant was superior. The palapas-sheltered “Turtle Beach” was gorgeous to behold! The ferryboat trip to and from Cozumel was perilous, with huge swells on an angry Caribbean. We all thought we’d capsize and drown in the roiling azure soup! But (maybe you read about it in the Playa del Carmen Porque-Pescado!), we survived to sail another day… (Petitions of thanksgiving to Saint Elmo… ).
Most recently, we traveled to Starved Rock State Park in north central Illinois. A place of magnificent rock formations, waterfalls, streams and wildlife, including funny-looking tourists. Great hiking trails. Prior to our arrival, not far from the park, we stopped in Lasalle, near Lock 16, to ride an authentic canal boat powered by a single mule named “Mo.” By the by, we highly recommend Lock 16 Cafe in that charming community. Wonderful food, great people! Starved Rock (named for a Native-American battle site on which the vanquished were starved out of their stronghold!) is located on the shores of the Illinois River. The lodge and cabins are beautiful, welcoming and comfortable. What’s that? Oh sure, we’d go back there!
We’ve often thought about a possible Geezers’ Guide to Great Travel Adventures and Good Restaurants That Cater to a More “Seasoned” and Thus Discerning Traveler (Working title!). As a sampling, and to whet your appetite (you’ll please forgive the obvious attempt… ), you should try Greenfire in Rockford, Illinois. It’s on our “Big / Lots of Stars” listing of fine commercial cuisine. Here’s another… Cafe McGregor in McGregor, Iowa, just across the Big River from Prairie du Chien, WI. I think we liked The Blue Heron in Winona, MN where we stopped to dine during our auto excursion along the Great River Road. And, they have an Eagle Museum and (a kind of) sanctuary in Winona. Lots of information about the Mississippi River Eagle population, their comeback from near extinction. The place has a pet or mascot eagle that was wounded and now lives in quiet harmony with staff and visitors, and you can have your photo taken with the eagle. She likes people!
Adventure travel need not be confined to the young. Those who are fit and willing can experience great adventures. The trick is to explore the possibilities. The prairie chicken mating ritual, for example, is a marvelous experience. Ours was enjoyed on a chilly April morning from a blind near Plover, Wisconsin. The Mississippi River is a magnificent natural American resource, and a vantage point from which to see a great variety of wildlife, including swans, coots, bald eagles, even mink. House boating on the Mississippi is an unforgettable experience. The sight of great river tug boats plowing through the current, pushing their great barges loaded with commercial cargo is magnificent to behold. Compare that to noisy semi-trailer trucks spewing exhaust fumes on the nations’ interstate highways, and only one remembered vision will remain. We are a nation of outstanding national parks, it’s true, but many state parks are more than worth the time. A prime example is Starved Rock State Park in north central Illinois. Waterfalls, remarkable rock formations, hiking trails and rich with history, not to mention its location on the shores of the Illinois River. The point is, adventure travel is a treasure, and one that can be mined by anyone, at any age.