Thursday, August 13, 1992...

A long day on the road, from southern Iowa to the current end of US 61, an hour north of St. Paul. The highlight of the morning's drive was the Davenport, Iowa waterfront: a casino riverboat had just left the dock and was merrily blowing its whistle, the bridge and river glistened in the morning sun, and I parked next to John O'Donnell Stadium, an aged gem of a minor league park which made me think about a possible summerlong trip through the minors. Then I turned north to Dubuque, through more picture-perfect farm country, and across the Mississippi River into Wisconsin.

Southwestern Wisconsin's an underrated road-trip destination. The state's biggest tourist trap, Wisconsin Dells, lies outside this area, but the five-star House on the Rock is the best single stop. The House on the Rock is isolated and expensive, but worth the trip from anywhere -- a dozen ordinary attractions rolled into a single 3-1/2 hour assault on the senses.

The tour begins in the House itself, where Frank Lloyd Wright meets the Orient atop a magnificent rock outcropping. Its furnishings hint at the bizarre sights ahead: a pneumatically-operated music machine, countless stained-glass lamps and windows, and the world's largest fireplace, its immense bellows containing dozens of ornate glass paperweights. The last stop in the House is the Infinity Room: 218' long, projecting 156' above the valley below with no supporting pillars. From the House, visitors enter the Streets of Yesterday (a miniature replica 1880s town, each room containing twice its authentic quota of furnishings), the Music of Yesterday (entire mechanical orchestras in fantastic setting, each playing a classical composition at near-rock concert volume).

And the tour's not even half over! Next comes the Heritage of the Sea Room, its model ships dwarfed by a 110' sea creature battling for its life in the center of the room. From this dark vision, the visitor turns a corner to find the world's largest carousel, an 80' diameter, 35' high, bright red behemoth with over 18,000 lights. Hundreds of half-naked mannequins hang from the surrounding walls. Then comes the Organ Room, where catwalks sprawl past a maze of copper pipes and theatre organ consoles. In the next room, a custom-built, 60' cannon towers over two multi-tiered doll carousels.

Need more? How about a room full of miniature circuses? Row after row of fully furnished doll houses? Replicas of the British crown jewels? Suits of armor? Antique-style firearms? All here, along with much, MUCH more. There's no way to get through it all in less than three hours, or with much under a mile of walking.

Dickeyville Grotto, Dickeyville, WI

On a smaller scale, US 61 alone features the Dickeyville Grotto, shrine "to the unity of two great American ideals -- love of God and love of country," constructed from stone, mortar and all manner of bright shiny the local priest during the 1920s), as well as the photogenic Igor the Rat in front of a cheese shop in Neillsville and the Old Style Beer "World's Largest Six Pack" in La Crosse. Quite a collection for only 120 miles!

World's Largest Six Pack, La Crosse, WI

61 crosses the Mississippi once again at La Crescent, Minnesota, following the river along the Wisconsin line for another hundred miles. At Winona, I got a lovely view of the town and river from a park on bluffs 550' above the road, then "turned over" the odometer: 100,000 miles in barely three years This will kill the resale value... [Ha! I was still driving that car in 2001, when it passed the 250,000-mile mark. By the time I replaced it, even thieves wouldn't take it.] 61 becomes a four-lane divided expressway entering St. Paul, meanders down local streets, then divides once again on its way northeast. I stopped at my motel in Stillwater to unload the car before turning toward Duluth, looking for the elusive end of US 61.

Within the past few years, Minnesota's reclaimed the last few hundred miles of 61 from the Feds, redesignating it as State 61. But it's almost impossible to tell where the change takes place. US 61 joins I-35 at Wyoming, Minnesota, but the shield vanishes about 30 miles later, at Exit 165 (Rock Creek). State 61 picks up here, but it's not the same. I'll rejoin 61 in Duluth for the scenic section when I pass by on the US 2 leg of the journey, about a week from now.

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