One couple creates a new way to travel: She plans the first day's adventures (and keeps them a secret), the next day he does the same, as they wander across Wisconsin.
The initial mystery of the trip -- Where's our first stop? -- was over after two hours. My wife pulled into a restaurant parking lot in Baldwin, Wis.
I hadn't known where we were headed, but I knew what was coming next. We waved off menus, clear about what we wanted.
Two tall mugs of A&W root beer. Just root beer. At 10 a.m.
"This is the best time to have a root beer. The mugs are the frostiest," said our waitress, cheerfully, not scolding us about our nutritionally deficient order. And then we got back in the car; I was clueless about our next destination.
That was by design. This was the Wisconsin Mystery Tour.
I made up most of the rules for the WMT several weeks before. We would spend the week entirely in Wisconsin. We would hold a coin flip the night before we left, with the winner planning the first day's itinerary and driving, and then we'd alternate days as tour guide for the rest of the trip. The guide need only disclose the day's final destination, so the other can start planning the following day.
Those were the basics. The spirit of the WMT, my wife and I agreed, was that the T stood for tour, not torture. I shouldn't make Robin golf every day I was in charge, and Robin shouldn't subject me to nothing but sushi lunches and rummaging through bead stores.
Robin agreed to the premise. We're planners and organizers by nature, so winging it felt a little like taking a test without studying. We didn't leave the planning all to fate, however. Robin made a take-one-of-everything raid of maps and brochures in the visitors information center in Hudson a few weeks before the trip. We studied up on Wisconsin's natural and man- or cow-made wonders, and we planned to take the info with us in a big wire basket.
The night of the coin toss, I fetched a shiny new penny and Robin, being the trusting spouse she is, asked to examine the coin to make sure I wasn't pulling something. We asked our dog, Jerry Springer Spaniel -- remaining behind in a posh kennel during this trip -- to witness the toss as an impartial judge. He yawned.
I flipped the coin and Robin correctly called tails. She went into her victory dance and I fell to my knees -- not in anguish but in prevention, because the now-intrigued Jerry assumes anything dropped on the floor is food.
The next morning as we prepared to leave, we held the first daily ceremony of what would become known as the Transference of Power. As the tour guide gets the car keys, they must announce that day's last destination.
"Today's final stop is ... Minocqua," Robin said, taking the keys.
"Is that in Wisconsin?" I said, grabbing the wire basket.
Day 1: to Minocqua
After our root beer in Baldwin and a stop in Chippewa Falls for the Leinenkugel Brewery tour and some lunch, we push on to Minocqua and the Wildwood Wildlife Park and Nature Center. Robin is in heaven as bunnies nuzzle around her feet and while she looked at other animals, billy goats casually strolled up and tried to eat her purse. The living areas are spacious and creatively designed; the only creatures needing stricter confinement are a group of mostly late-teen boys with Australian accents, moving from exhibit to exhibit and taunting the animals.
We find a reasonably priced motel on the edge of Minocqua, and our conversation with the front-desk clerk steers us to Rynan's Lakeside Restaurant for dinner. It's a tiny place, with as many parking spots along the dock for boats as there are for cars in the lot, but the burgers are delicious. The setting is even better: The lake is calm, the sun is setting and a bald eagle periodically passes by overhead, scanning the water to make his dinner selection.
Day 2: Minocqua to Sister Bay
It's my first day as tour guide, and already I realize I'm going to have to break the WMT's rule of staying in Wisconsin. Today's route into Door County is passing within 20 miles of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and Robin is a Troll -- a native Michigander who grew up under (or south) of the Mackinac Bridge. She's never been to the UP, and if I don't let her at least stick a toe across the border, I'm tour guide non grata for the rest of the week.
She realizes, as we keep driving east instead of veering south toward Green Bay (the city), that we'll be soon be in Menominee, Mich., overlooking Green Bay (the body of water). We eat lunch at the Serving Spoon, with a beautiful view of the bay.
"I'm so excited," Robin said. "I'm having a Kenny Rogers moment." (This, in our family, represents the pinnacle of thrills. When Robin was much younger and a huge Kenny Rogers fan, her mom took her to one of his concerts. Robin got so excited, she threw up before he sang a note. Fortunately, current references to Kenny merely mean she's happy and are not a warning to duck.)
After lunch we head southwest toward Lambeau Field, which I'd been told was a must-see, no matter where your football loyalties lie. The Lambeau tour and Packers Hall of Fame were fascinating -- did you know the Packers had a good team even before Brett Favre? -- and the football equivalent of visiting Vatican City for the Packers faithful.
We eventually enter Door County and arrive at Fish Creek, which is bustling with tourists and has few motels with no vacancy signs. We decide to eat and spend the night in nearby Sister Bay.
Day 3: Sister Bay to Sister Bay
We've already become enamored with Door County. The mystery of the WMT is no longer where we're going next; it's who will have to be the vacation Grinch and make us leave.
Robin takes us for the day to the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula, known as the "quiet" side, with fewer tourists and more natural beauty. We watch snorkelers at Cave Point County Park, hike to the Cana Island lighthouse and get sand in our toes from a beachside stroll in Whitefish Dunes State Park.
Day 4: Sister Bay to Egg Harbor
Well, I'm not taking us out of Door County. We head for the tip of the peninsula and take the 30-minute ferry trip to Washington Island. Our guide on the Cherry Train tour tells us there are 700 year-round residents of the island, and they have one of everything: one veterinarian, one grocery store, one four-lane bowling alley. They also have an ostrich farm run by a former employee of Ringling Brothers who is licensed to raise exotic animals. He has a water buffalo, kangaroo and a bear he feeds by putting a stick of ostrich meat in his mouth and "kissing" the bear.
Once back on the mainland, we go to a traditional fish boil at Pelletier's in Fish Creek. It's a special occasion: We sing "Happy Birthday" to Matthew the Fish Boil Guy. The teenage girls standing near us sing particularly loudly, vying for his attention; Matthew looks to be in his late 20s, is ruggedly handsome and plays with fire, making him irresistible.
Our fascination is more culinary. The whitefish, brought to a final boil with a dramatic billowing of flames, is scrumptious.
Day 5: Egg Harbor to Sister Bay
Robin isn't making us leave Door County, either. Damn. I had promised friends in Milwaukee that we'd visit Friday, and that's tomorrow. I'm stuck with being the vacation Grinch.
But before that happens, we ride bikes under a canopy of towering trees through Peninsula State Park. Door County has the most lighthouses and most coastline of any county in the United States, and we're doing an impressive job of seeing most of it.
Day 6: SB to Wauwatosa
We reach the Milwaukee area in midafternoon. We tour the Mitchell Park Domes, a conservatory with distinct climates represented in each of the three domes, but it's now late enough in the day that rushing through the Milwaukee Art Museum as planned no longer seems doable before meeting our friends for dinner. We hoof around the Historic Third Ward killing time, then stumble upon a tour at Lakefront Brewery that starts within the half-hour. The tour is untraditional -- it starts and ends with a sample.
Day 7: Wauwatosa to home
Our final day is all about getting home. We're out of time, almost out of money and we miss our dog.
Was the WMT format a success? Robin says she'd do it again, and I ask why.
"Because I got to be in control," she says, laughing, waving her arms in some sort of mock, power-mad gesture.
I'm not sure I would, at least for such a long stretch of time. I felt a pressure to please each day I was in charge. I was more relaxed and actually liked the days Robin planned better.
But then, any ambitious travel strategy can be improved by giving in to a simple pleasure. A morning root beer isn't such a horrible way to start the day.