There was no particular hurry driving home from northern Iowa to northern Minnesota. I decided to take some old routes; roads we used to take because they were more scenic, but haven’t driven for years because US 63 was faster and easier with less curves.
It was a really hot day. Temperatures were already in the high nineties when we left Waterloo around noon. When driving in an air-conditioned car, it’s easy to forget just how hot it is outside. I pointed out to my wife, the thermometer on the dash board just reached one hundred degrees.
Heading north on US 63, I looked at the fields of corn. The stalks were starting to turn brown. It wouldn’t be long until those fields were full of combines picking corn. With bright lights on the machinery the farmers continue their harvest late into the night.
To get to the smaller rural roads we wanted, I turned off Highway 63 onto Highway 9; headed east toward Cresco, Iowa, home of Featherlite Trailers. Just past town, we turned north. We don’t travel that road very long before Iowa Highway 139 becomes Minnesota 139.
Reaching upward from the far side of a large cornfield was a bright white church steeple, but we never saw a road leading to it. Somewhere along this route, still in Iowa, I passed a private, grass-strip runway between two fields of tall corn. The orange wind sock indicated a light breeze. Not far away was a weathered barn with worn, faded paint and an old windmill stand with vines growing up the legs, all the way to the top. The blades were missing, but I doubt they would have been turning anyway – the overgrowth of vines would have them bound.
For a moment I dreamed of an old yellow Stinson biplane with a blue tail, buzzing the small town of Cresco - a Barnstormer. The pilot, wearing a leather helmet and goggles, with a white scarf trailing in the wind, waved vigorously from the open cockpit at the people on the ground. He was trying to lure them to the tiny airstrip, in hopes of giving them a ride and making a few dollars for the day.
A little farther up the road I smiled, seeing the sign at the state line. It was much older and smaller than those you’ll see on Highway 63 or I-35. It was a stone sign with a warm message; “Welcome to Minnesota.” After traveling for several days and passing that sign, no matter what road I’m on, I instantly feel like I’m almost home – even though we were still 325 miles away. Speaking of warm messages, the thermometer now read one hundred and three. The dog days of summer were here.
Not far into Minnesota, we came around a curve in the road. On the southern end of a field was a small pond. There were a few cows gathered in a narrow line of shade from large trees on the other side of the fence. The smarter cows were standing in the pond to keep cool. These cows knew how to beat the heat. So did the people.
In the small town of Harmony, Minnesota, there was an older man wearing a John Deere cap, sitting in the shade of a covered front porch. A lady sat next to him; each were in an old-fashioned white metal lawn chair. A small round table between them had a pitcher and two glasses. It looked like ice tea. I could imagine the sweat trickling down the cool glasses in the hot air, making puddles of water on the table top. I waved at them, as I wasn’t sure if they were just watching traffic, or the house across the street.
A group of young kids were playing in the front yard. The girls had swimsuits and the boys wore cut off jean shorts. They all ran, laughing and screaming; chasing each other as they charged threw the arch of cool water going back and forth, coming from the lawn sprinkler.
Memories of my own youth came to mind and just the day before, when I took my granddaughters for a walk. A neighbor was watering their lawn. The path of the water was encroaching on the sidewalk. We didn’t mind at all; we ran through the water, turned around as if we had forgotten something and ran through again laughing ourselves silly. Kids (and the young at heart) enjoy the benefits of lawn watering devices – it’s just a natural thing on hot summer days.
Road construction detained us for a few minutes, but we were in no hurry. We passed a farm with a freshly painted red barn. The color contrasted with the shiny, new black asphalt road and the bright yellow and white painted lines. It was beautiful.
In a yard on the right side of the road, clotheslines were weighted down, sagging in the middle, with laundry. All the clothes looked homemade and were shades of blue. Maybe an Amish or Mennonite family lived there. Other lines had bed sheets. When I was a kid, we used to hang laundry out to dry. It saved electricity by not using the clothes dryer. Many times, we had to rush to get the laundry in because it looked like rain was coming. The sheets off the line were never as soft as they are coming out of the dryer, but I don’t think any fabric softener ever matched the fresh smell of linens hung out to dry in the country air.
We turned off on route 52, then 16 and 43. The scenery is amazing and the road is fun to drive as it turns and winds, going up and down hills until it brings us into the small town of Rushford, Minnesota – home of the Creamery Pizza and Ice Cream – quite possibly the best pizza in the state. It was no coincidence our path brought us here. After pizza, we shared a dish of maple nut ice cream, then got back on the road again.
We passed through Winona, driving by houses we used to live in, and talked about a lot of good memories. We saw a lot of fresh fruit and vegetable stands along the road. Watermelon, cantaloupe, tomatoes and more – all a part of summer in the Midwest. Sweet corn seemed to be tapering off, and the strawberry stands were gone but soon it will be apple harvest and Minnesota grows some amazing apples!
We opted for another scenic excursion by going through Fountain City, then through the big hills and valleys into Arcadia, Wisconsin – home of Ashley Furniture. At one point, going up the bluff, the van thermometer peaked at one hundred and eight degrees outside. I questioned if it was really that hot. When I rolled my window down to put my hand out into the wind, it was hot! Hot, humid air gushed into the van. Ick! Some people like that real hot air, but not me. I quickly rolled the window up again.
Cattails were standing in wet ditches and at the edge of ponds. Their tall, thin brown heads were starting to show signs of late summer; looking weathered. Soon, they would burst, turning furry, then blow away. The teardrop shaped milkweed pods also looked close to opening. Light feathery seeds would emerge, floating through the air to plant next year’s crop. The further north we traveled, the milkweed became sparse, then there was none. Waves of delicate pampas grass swayed back and forth in the wind almost as if dancing to the music of the breeze.
As we followed Highway 93, then 53 into Superior, Wisconsin, the temperatures kept falling to the mid-seventies. By the time we turned onto Highway 61, the final stretch home, following the shoreline of Lake Superior, the temps dropped to 63 degrees. Ah…that’s more like it. With the AC shut off we opened the windows, taking advantage of the cool, fresh air coming in off the big lake. If my thermometer in the van is accurate, we went through a forty-five-degree temperature change in about six hours. That’s a lot.
When we got home, I was curious when the actual dog days of summer take place. According to what I read online, they ended about two weeks ago. Hmm. I guess when it comes down to it, Mother Nature has the final say over that Old Farmer’s Almanac.
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!