Escape Artists offers up a global discourse ranging from great finds close to home to adventures far afield. You'll find weekly travel deals here, too. Share your road wisdom, rave about great finds and rant about roadblocks that get in the way of a great trip.
Contributor: Travel editor Kerri Westenberg.
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The largest passenger steamboat in the world, the American Queen, is returning Friday to St. Paul, where it will board passengers who will mosey down the river to St. Louis. And I, the travel editor, will be among the lucky passengers.
Sure, the paddle-wheeler has been plying Mississippi waters for months now (It took its inaugural sail out of New Orleans in mid-April; Priscilla Presley smashed it with a champagne bottle in Memphis for its christening on April 28). But I had my reasons for waiting: I wanted to launch from a home port and, after all, time cures all glitches. I like sailing on a boat and with a crew that has a few miles under its belt.
The American Queen, built in 1995, sailed the Mississippi for the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. Bankruptcy grounded the boat, until the newly formed Great American Steamboat Co. came to her rescue. Since it purchased the paddle-wheeler last fall, the company has put $6.5 million into refurbishing her. The Victorian ambiance hasn't changed, albeit with new carpet and mattress.
I'm all in. I suspect you'll find me gazing at the egrets from what's called The Front Porch of America, sipping tea on the Main Deck Lounge, fueling my imagination in the Engine Room Bar and working off last night's dinner in the small fitness room. I am under the impression that a Mark Twain impersonator will aboard, and that I can follow our progress in the Chart Room. Whatever I encounter, I'll let you know. I'll be blogging about my experience every day. I hope you'll follow along.
From his computer screen in Fresno, Calif., retired teacher Patt Dodds is embarking on quite a trek: He's visiting all 87 Minnesota counties for his new blog, everycounty.org.
The blog is lovely, with nice photos, fun facts and maps -- all culled from the Internet.
"It takes me about three hours of on-line research per county and I'm doing this every Monday, Wednesday and Friday so it should take me about seven months to get from Kittson County in the northwest to Houston County in the southeast," Dodds, 62, tells Escape Artists.
Why is a Fresno guy who grew up and worked at two newspapers in Iowa so obsessed with Minnesota?
About eight years ago, in the pre-blog era, he and his son visited all 99 counties in Iowa. He'd been to the Twin Cities and Rainy Lake and "thought it would be fun to virtually get to know the state better. It's frustrating to only hit the highlights so I'm digging a little deeper."
To wit: He points out that Baudette was rebuilt after a 1910 fire and the Northwest Angle that juts up into Canada ended up in Minnesota because of confusion about the Mississippi River's origins during 1783 Treaty of Paris talks.
He's three counties into his tour with 84 to go, but Dodds is looking ahead.
"Texas has 254 counties," he said.
It's been a wilder summer than usual at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota. First up, a wildfire that came within half a mile of the center. Then a different kind of tension: On July 30, the introduced two wolf pups, Luna and Boltz, to the so-called exhibit pack, Aiden and Denali. All four wolves now roam the 1 1/4-acre main enclosure at the center. The young female, Luna, caused a stir when she temporarily refused to submit. You may cheer her feistiness, but that kind of rebelliousness can cause trouble for a new, young thing. Fortunately, she settled in, coaxed into submission by Aiden, who stood over her, nipped at her and put a leg on her back. She's a pro by now at submissive greetings, meaning that she'll roll on her back and look up at a more dominant wolf, but she'll growl if another threatens to take her food. That's my kind of wolf.
The pup's names, by the way, are the result of public opinion. After a naming contest, the staff chose four names per pup, which the public then voted on.
Knowing that not everyone can make it to Ely, the staff does everything in its power to enhance a virtual visit. Go to their site for diaries of each wolf, live cams and videos, including a detailed look at the day the pups were introduced.
California may lead the nation in reducing car emissions, but let's hope it doesn't set a wide precedent in this regard: turning over the day-to-day running of state parks to private companies. The Golden State plans to do just that at six of its state parks, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal, in an unprecedented move designed to keep the beleaguered parks open. The recent windfall from the California-based Facebook's IPO offering notwithstanding, the state's budget is spiraling downward, and its funding for state parks has dropped 20 percent since 2009. By contract, Minnesota's state parks are in growth mode, since the state brought 39,000 acres into the system when it purchased land for Vermilion State Park in 2008. Sure, budget concerns has slowed development there, where only two portions are open to the public. But there are plans, grand plans. I will soon visit the area, and a story about the new park and plans for its development will appear in the Star Tribune Travel section sometime in July. Stay tuned.
GRAFTON, N.D. -- Numbers, to some extent, define us all. We juggle PINs, social security digits, passport numbers, cell phones and passwords in our brains like some street performer or circus act. Well, I got a new one: No. 877.
Yep, according to the amiable clerk of courts, I became the 877th person ticketed in 2012 in tiny Walsh County, N.D. But what started with a whispered couple of curse words under my breath as state trooper Cashin (pun intended) strolled down the shoulder ended up not such a bad deal.
I pulled off the boring interstate south of Winnipeg looking for a diversion to break up the boredom and check out an old church in the dot of a town called Oakwood, N.D. On the way back to I-29, after rolling through a stop sign in the absolute middle of the flatest stretch of earth -- just east of Grafton -- trooper Cashin zoomed out of a farm field neatly sewn with a spring planting of wheat. He gave me a ticket for $20 and suggested we visit Lower Fort Garry in Winnipeg as he and his wife had recently.
Four miles later, we found the cool art deco court house built in 1940 out of rose marble and other smooth stones and stylish angles. The clerk laughed when I asked if I get the early bird discount for paying my fine within five minutes of my infraction. Outside, I learned that a half-dozen of Grafton's finest had mustered up for service on May 14, 1899 and died in the Spanish-American War trying to quell some revolt in the Philippines. Seems like an awful long way from home. The statue in their honor includes a quote: "No one stampedes the First North Dakota."
No one gets away with a Hollywood stop in Walsh County, either. But for $20, a self-guided tour of a nice piece of architecture with some history thrown in wasn't such a bad deal after all.
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