Day 43: Fort McCoy, Wisconsin
The Fort McCoy campground is open to the general public, and I would camp there again in a heartbeat. The campsites were quiet, spread out, and adjacent to a military base. It was off-season, so the campground was about half full, and the summertime fun stations had been closed: canoes, paddle boats, and a small beach on a murky pond. Chesky and I went for a run around the campground, and then sat in the sun next to the trailer enjoying the warmth. Chesky spent almost all day staked out, standing in the sun and sniffing the air, watching the world go by. He loves a warm sunny day.
I spent all day writing and catching up on my banking and tax issues. I answered some emails from people who wrote in. One woman told me she enjoyed the weekly summaries, and encouraged me to keep writing. It was a wonderful email, and much needed.
Day 44: Fort McCoy, Wisconsin to Lake Eau Galle, Wisconsin
Chesky has a new morning routine which is helpful: he refuses to come out of his little Vizsla cocoon until the temperature in the trailer is greater than 68 degrees. This gives me time to read the news, write some notes, and have a cup of coffee before being dragged out in the cold dark morning to see to his bathroom needs.
I stopped at a dog park in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and the people were very friendly and talkative; more so than anywhere else I have been in the US. When I arrived, a diverse group of three were having a heated discussion about a sports team unfamiliar to me, so Chesky and I walked laps. By the time we were done, a new group had arrived and were inquisitive about Chesky and the trailer.
I crossed over the Mississippi River twice today, and drove through Minnesota for the first time.
I took the “Great River Road” northwards from the bridge at LaCrosse. On the Minnesota side, houses sat on bluffs overlooking the river; the Wisconsin side was flat and swampy.
Once back in Wisconsin, the drive to reach Eau Galle was stunning and some of the largest industrial farming I have seen. Every hill I crested and in every direction I looked, a large farm with two or three tall silos stood in the middle of a corn field.
Winter was fast approaching: leaves were long past peak and most had fallen, rendering trees barren and stark. I drove along under gloomy winter skies, the trailer rattling behind. The wind whistled over the fields as I wound my way up and down over the gently rolling hills.
At a lonely crossroads, I saw only corn in all directions and no other sign of human occupation. A falcon swooped down from a high branch, intent on something in the cornfield. I am reminded how vast and open America is, how much space we have. Space is a commodity that most rural people take for granted, and those in cities crave.
Day 45: Lake Eau Galle, Wisconsin
Chesky is very high maintenance pet: he needs hours of exercise each day and demands a great deal of attention and care. He makes the trip difficult at times: I can’t sleep in, I can’t go shopping, I can’t leave him alone for more than a few minutes. Yet he also he gets me out of bed and out into the cold dark morning, he forces me to go for walks in places I normally wouldn’t, he brings me to dog parks in neighborhoods off my travel route and helps me engage with diverse people.
Without Chesky, this trip would be a lot less work and a lot less interesting. If you watch the Instagram feed, you can probably guess what happened next: the very last thing you want to happen to a dog you live in very close quarters with.
Chesky had two off-leash romps that fateful day. The first was just after sunrise, and he ran wild around the campground on a loop trail. He chased some deer but was wary of their speed and size. That afternoon, I drove to the lake. The parking lot was empty, so I let Chesky run free and we went hiking on a trail into the woods along the water. He rooted around in the woods, racing from place to place, always ahead.
As I turned a corner and started to climb, I was assaulted by a terrible smell. It was all around, as if the ground were covered in rotting deer poop and someone had just opened a duffle bag containing a young bear’s festering hockey equipment. The smell was so bad, I turned around and went the other way. I was worried some kind of wild animal I was not familiar with was loose in the area.
Chesky seemed fine, but he’s always either racing by me at full gallop or off in the woods. A few minutes later, he crested a rise on the trail ahead of me and stopped dead. I knew immediately something was up; he never stops. He stood alert, staring down into the valley on the other side. Then, tail between his legs, he turned and ran fearfully towards me.
I know how he looks when he sees deer (not at all afraid), so it was something else. Whatever it was scared him badly, and Chesky is only afraid of two things: predators and blow-up Christmas decorations. At that moment, the smell returned: the musky odor from the previous trail. I thought a bear was coming for us.
I hightailed it back to the car, emerging into the sunlight in the parking area feeling a little silly. I should have gone to see what the danger was, at least. But I didn’t want to confront a bear in the woods alone with no one within miles. And the horrible smell… it was all around me.
The horrible smell… was Chesky.
He smelled like a bear had died, fell into a vat of fish oil, decayed into a slush of hair and excrement, then was eaten by a deer and pooped out while a skunk walked by. I have smelled musk before, but this was on a whole new level. At first, it was so overwhelming that it was difficult to identify, but as skunk musk ages, it becomes more apparent.
I took Chesky back to the campsite and tied him up outside the shower block, then ferried warm buckets of water out to him (which he loved until he got cold) and tried to scrub the smell out to no avail. The offensive oils clung to my hands and clothes and the insides of my nostrils. Internet research suggested vinegar, which angered Chesky to no end but worked wonders for the smell.
Most of the afternoon was lost in dealing with the skunk issue, so I ended the day restless and bored. Chesky and I were both feeling a little glum, and spent the evening pouting and ignoring each other.
Day 46: Lake Eau Galle, Wisconsin to Camp Ripley, Minnesota
The trailer didn’t smell the next day thanks to the vinegar bath, but I had left the towel, Chesky’s blankets, and his harness in the car overnight. I almost passed out when I opened the door.
After letting the car air out for a while, I left the campground as the sun was coming up and was treated to some amazing light glinting off the frost on the ground. I am convinced Wisconsin is the Tuscany of America, where light plays tricks and gives the landscape an ethereal beauty. The area west of Eau Galle was poised at the edge of winter in a palette of earthy colors: light brown grass, evergreens dark, leaves faded brown and rusty red and burnt orange. It was a pleasant, sunny drive on a wide and smooth interstate towards St Paul.
Outside of the Twin Cities, we stopped at the excellent Otter Lake dog park. It was a bright, sunny morning, and the park was large and forested. In the next two hours, at least twenty other patrons were present at any given time. I met a Marine who told me the park was always filled with people, no matter the time or day. I did not see a single dog poop pile. Maybe they have secret security cameras set up.
Minneapolis is very diverse, with a large Asian population. When I looked at the city’s web page, it was translated into Spanish, Hmong, Somali, and Karen (the language of the Karen people who come from Burma and Thailand).
Leaving the Twin Cities and driving into northern Minnesota, I had a small bit of fear encountered when I venture into parts unknown. Northern Minnesota is outside of my rather large mental map. The afternoon was gray and the landscape flat. A disproportionate number of dead skunks lay on the side of the road. I felt pleased at their demise, given the inconvenience of Chesky’s folly and the continuing smell.
Day 47: Camp Ripley, Minnesota
I went to a dog park in Brainerd but Chesky wasn’t feeling sociable. He was intimidated by big, raucous dogs and kept trying to lead me to the exit. The park was small, with little room to explore and prone to territorial squabbles. The surrounding park was vast and empty and well-mown; the only patrons were at the postage-sized dog park, the rest of the fields lay dormant and unused.
On the road back to camp, full yellow trash bags were neatly tied up and placed for pickup, dotting the shoulder. I listened to a bluegrass station that ran an ad for homebrewing kits.
Day 48: Camp Ripley, Minnesota to Blue Mounds State Park, Minnesota
Leaving the military base, it was an overcast, gloomy late fall day. I saw signs for snowmobiles and cross country skiing. Leaves swirled on the road. The farms were older and dilapidated, and rolled hay sat rotting in the fields. Heavy forest cover with thin deciduous trees told a story of clear cutting no more than a generation ago. It was Sunday; as I passed through small towns they were busy with churchgoers.
The wind ripping across central Minnesota was constant and strong. Turbines dotted the landscape, rising high out of vast fields of corn interspersed with pig and poultry farms. A wind plant had turbine fins neatly stacked in enormous piles, like something left by aliens.
The Minnesota State Park I regrettably chose to stay in was having problems with e. coli in the water system, so it had no shower or wash facilities of any kind. The electrical system was so weak that I couldn’t plug my trailer in; it was the first campsite in 48 days. I returned to the office with the trailer still in tow to complain, but the ranger had locked the door and didn’t answer my knocks. I think he was hiding from me.
To make matters worse, the campground was next to a large and fragrant pig farm which employed some kind of thunderous heavy machinery throughout the day and night. I will not stay there again.
Chesky and I went for a quick hike in the setting sun to see the a cliff of quartz outcropping the park was named for. A herd of buffalo grazed nearby, too far to get any significant photos.
Day 49: Blue Mounds State Park, Minnesota
Either Chesky is unable to learn that a skunk will spray him, or he just doesn’t care. How else can I explain how he could get sprayed TWICE in the same week?
In the morning, I drove into Sioux Falls to pick up some tax forms and do business. It felt like the big city, except for the dead bear I saw on the outskirts. It was grisly: bits of gore and brown fur dotted the road and the head was still intact. I don’t think I have ever seen bear roadkill before.
Upon returning to the campsite, I was utterly and completely alone: no other campers, no one parked at the trailhead, and the rangers gone home for the day. It seemed silly to keep Chesky tied up, so I let him range throughout the campsite. When he returned to the trailer, tongue lolling and a look of glee on his face, I realized my mistake: somewhere off in the brush, that damn dog had found himself another skunk.
I shooed him out of the trailer, furious with myself. I knew skunks were everywhere because little black and white carcasses dotted the roads. I knew from Internet research that they lived near creeks and rivers just like the one our campsite was on. I just didn’t think my fool of a dog would pester one again so soon after his first dousing.
Since the campground had no water because of the e. coli problems, I mixed a bucketful of drinking water with vinegar and poured it over Chesky while he cowered in horror. He does not like vinegar or cold water one bit.
To cap off the night, the ranger locked the bathroom door so I no longer had access to a flush toilet. At first, I thought he had done it by accident, but I realized that he had to have been looking directly at my camper while turning the key. It made me wonder if the state employee had crossed the line from gross incompetence to maliciousness. I hope he trips over the skunk tomorrow.
The states this week, in two words:
MN: flat wilderness