We don’t have the dough for a big vacation this summer, so we’re spending time doing what we love: exploring the Midwest.
We just got back from a long weekend in Galena, Illinois and Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Both towns are in the Driftless region of the Midwest, an area (primarily Wisconsin, though it also includes a bit of Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota) that is known for its natural beauty and unique topography. The landscape is a result of it having been untouched by glaciers when they were last moving over much of the rest of the region. The material (silt, sand, gravel, boulders) that glaciers leave behind is called drift, so the region is driftless.
Despite having spent almost all of my life in the Midwest, I had never been to this particular corner of it and was overwhelmed by how beautiful it is. A rolling agrarian landscape dotted with farmhouses and cows and sheep. Ridges and river valleys. It reminded me of central England, and at times even of Iceland.
We started our adventure in Galena, a 19th century (former) port town that has been beautifully preserved. At one time the Galena surpassed Chicago in population and importance, but now the river that once brought steamboats and trade to Galena is reduced to a stream. The former glory of the city is evident everywhere, and in fact the town seems to be experiencing a bit of a new kind of glory. The charming curved main street that followed the form of the river has now been turned over to tourists, which means it is mostly fudge shops and places that sell flavored olive oil or hand-painted signs that say “Live, Laugh, Love” or something. Businesses seem to be booming judging from the lack of vacant storefronts on main street. I might not go to Galena for the shopping, but the beauty of its natural landscape and well-preserved architecture has me eager to return.
We stayed at the Aldrich Guest House, which I can’t recommend highly enough. I am generally wary of bed and breakfasts (especially in the Midwest!) for a variety of reasons. Often they are so visually offensive to me that the deal is broken on first glance. The faux Victorian fantasyland style (doilies on every surface!) that most of them have adopted bums me out. Also, they tend to be in rural locations and as a gay couple, you gotta be careful. Anyway, the Aldrich is owned by a friendly young couple who picked up their hospitality training in Chicago. Which means you get private bathrooms, individual temperature controls, and a truly delicious breakfast. The owners are super knowledgeable about the area and about the beautiful home they renovated and decorated in a way that manages to satisfy both me, and people who are harboring those Victorian fantasies.Judging from the group staying there when we were, the place seems to attract an interesting, friendly, and eclectic group of people. Also, Abraham Lincoln stayed in the home, which I really loved learning, especially having recently read the beautiful Lincoln in the Bardo.
In Galena, we had a meal we liked at Log Cabin Steakhouse, a Greek steakhouse that opened in 1937 on the main drag. Service was charming, food was satisfying, and the space was cozy. I look forward to returning. We also had some bad meals in Galena (though always friendly), so I guess you gotta be careful or do better research than we did.
After a night in Galena, we drove up to Mineral Point, Wisconsin, a small town in the southwestern part of the state known for its art scene. The main street is full of galleries, art studios, and antique stores—there is even an art school in town. I was totally charmed by Mineral Point. It is one of the friendliest places I have been. The kind of place where everyone makes eye contact with you and says hello. By our second day we were already running into locals we’d met the day before and catching up with them. We stayed in a beautiful 19th century cottage that had been thoughtfully updated and was super comfortable, it is also highly recommended. My favorite shops in town were Mayday press, a super hip print/graphic design studio that sells its well-designed line of paper products. I liked The Foundry Books, which specializes in “Haiku plus Wisconsin & Western Great Lakes Rare, Out-of-Print Books, Maps & Materials”. I also genuinely enjoyed all of the ceramic studios and galleries we visited. I came home with three new pieces of pottery that I really love. We had some great meals in town, including satisfying pub food at Brewery Creek and solid wood-fired pizza at Popolo. We spent a nice evening drinking wine and listening to music with locals at Esperanza, a recently opened wine bar. And I liked the good vibes at Cafe 43, a coffee shop in town that was gearing up for an upcoming Pride celebration. The Mineral Point Farmers Market which takes place on Saturday mornings in a local park was great, and we scored some pretty stellar local grains from Meadowlark Organics.
Mineral Point is also a good central location for exploring more of the Driftless region. We spent some time in Spring Green, where I loved Arcadia Books, which is a stellar bookshop and cafe. And then, of course, there is the famous (infamous?) House on the Rock which kind of needs to be seen to be believed (but I think the photo below gives you a sense). Unlike anything I have ever seen. I loved it.
On the way home we stopped in New Glarus and had one of the best breakfasts in recent memory at Cow & Quince. Perfect in every way. I also picked up some nut horns at New Glarus Bakery, which is a place I have grown to love over the years. It is an old fashioned bakery making quality products. Those nut horns are so good.
It was a great weekend. I always come home from trips like this glad that I live in the Midwest. It really is best.
But wait! I almost forgot the best part:
Somewhere near Dodgeville, Wisconsin, in the middle of farmland, I discovered my favorite cheeseburger, possibly ever, at the Pleasant Ridge Store. I can’t stop talking and thinking about it. The simplest thing really: some good beef, maybe with a sprinkling of seasoning salt, a hearty amount of Wisconsin cheese and a grocery store bun with sesame seeds. No toppings. No condiments. Perfection. It is a burger I will be dreaming of until I am lucky enough to return.