Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In Minnesota, the Morgan discovered Pipestone

Pipestone County Courthouse made of local stone in the Beaux Arts style.
Pipestone, Minnesota is a town many tourists simply pass-by. This is too bad. It is close to two interstate highways: I-90 to the south and I-29 to the west. A decade ago, in 2001, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota recognized Pipestone as among the ten most endangered historic properties in the state.

Centre: First National Bank with arch
The little place has more than a dozen architecturally stunning buildings faced with beautiful local red stone. Seventeen buildings are constructed with red Sioux quartzite giving Pipestone the largest concentration of Sioux quartzite buildings in the state. Most of these were built in the 1890s and visually relate to each other in height, scale and style. There are examples of Richardsonian Romanesque, Neoclassical and Italianate styles intermingled with simpler structures.

Wind turbine sighted above trees.
Once, this quiet little town of about 4600 was a bustling, thriving community served by four different railway lines. It was a thriving transportation and shipping hub with 20 trains a day. Possibly business is coming back. My wife and I sighted at factory just outside town that was making giant blades for the wind turbines popping up all over the American West.

The original Richardsonian arch is gone.
The little town is a gem and but during the '40s, '50s and '60s it was an appreciated gem. It attracted a steady stream of tourists each summer, with interest peaking during the annual Song of Hiawatha Pageant based on Longfellow's poem. With a cast of 200, the pageant was famous for its lighting and costuming. I'm sorry to report that the final curtain came down on the long-running event in 2008.

But Pipestone still has heritage Pipestone — the cluster of century-plus buildings in its downtown core. And Pipestone still has pipestone — the special stone that gave the town its name. Only native Americans now quarry the unique, local stone used for making ceremonial pipes.

My wife and I stayed at the historic Calumet Inn. It wasn't expensive and it shouldn't be. The inn is one of those places that is trying hard but you get the feeling that cash flow is a problem. The little inn didn't even have a proper hotel parking lot. This was no surprise as century hotels were built before the advent of the car. At that time, guests simply walked from the train station to the hotel. We parked the Morgan on the street. The downtown's quiet and parking was not a problem.

Our room in the Calumet Inn.
Pipestone needs more tourists and the Calumet Inn needs more guests. The inn is centrally located and a perfect spot to stay if you are visiting Pipestone for a walking tour of the architecturally unique town.

Click the link and check out the inn and the various packages offered. The little inn wants, no needs, your business.

Pipestone National Monument

Outside of town, the Pipestone National Monument was established in 1937, restoring quarrying rights to the Native Americans. During the summer, natives conduct cultural demonstrations such as traditional pipe making. Craftsmen, many third or fourth generation pipe makers, carve ceremonial pipes using the unique stone from the Pipestone Quarry located within the park.

Visitors are encouraged to take a three-quarter mile (1.2 km) self-guided walk to view the pipestone quarries and a waterfall. A trail guide is available at the visitor center.

About 260 acres of the area has been restored to native tallgrass prairie. A larger area of restored tallgrass prairie and a small Bison herd are maintained by the Minnesota DNR at Blue Mounds State Park, 20 miles (32 km) to the south.

Pipestone Quarry: George Catlin       Smithsonian Museum/Renwick Gallery

The town's Carnegie Library is just a short walk from the Calumet Inn.
One warning: I love little, forgotten towns. Towns so unappreciated that many of the residents don't even appreciate them. Pipestone may well be one of those places. I find such places "romantic." You might find these places simply boring.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Morgan Adventure

My Morgan in the Badlands of South Dakota.
It was the end of May, 2010, when I tied a large suitcase to the back of my Morgan, asked my wife to squeeze into the passenger seat, and slid myself behind the old, cracked Bluemel steering wheel of my English roadster. We were heading off on an almost six week tour of the United States and Canada.

A little more than a year earlier I had lost my job as a newspaper photographer for The London Free Press. There was a layoff with a buyout offer attached. I took the bait, the company took my camera, I walked out the door. Almost a year and a half later, the stock market had recovered somewhat, my retirement looked a little more secure, it seemed safe to hit the road.

Morgans are often called "the last of the true British sportscars." Still made today in Malvern Link, Great Britain, the Plus 4 model that I drive has a history going back to the early '50s and a look with roots in the mid '30s. I've had mine for 43 years and a lot has changed since I bought it new in December of '68.

Back then a Morgan was a simple car on which any mechanic could work in a pinch. Today an old Morgan is somewhat of a mystery to many mechanics. I asked my wife's mechanic if he'd feel comfortable working on my Morgan's twin SUs. "No problem, " he quickly replied. "The only thing that would give me pause," he continued, "would be old carburetors. I don't know a thing about old carburetors." 

He was right. He didn't. Twin SUs are carburetors --- two of them! (A history of SU carburetors can be found here.) I found another mechanic.

As you can imagine, taking a Morgan on a cross-country tour today is an adventure. You have a better chance of finding an old farmer familiar with a sputtering Morgan with its Ferguson tractor heritage than finding a young mechanic comfortable with old-fashioned mechanical stuff.

I carry a box of spare parts on the shelf behind the seats. I figure an old farmer will appreciate the stuff. I certainly don't have a clue as what I should do with a set of points or a new distributor rotor. (It is said that one reason that Standard Vanguard cars sold so well in Australian farming communities was because the engine parts were interchangeable with the farmer's tractor.)

The little roadster got a clean bill of health before leaving.
As insurance against problems, before leaving for the States I had the oil changed, the car greased and the rad coolant topped up. The little roadster was inspected by the Beers, Martin and Steve, and it passed inspection. The Bolton, Ontario, car shop specializing in Morgans declared my roadster fit to tackle a 7500 mile adventure.

I also visited the CAA before leaving and loaded up on maps, lots of maps, maps of every state and every province on our itinerary. And then I bought a GPS so that we wouldn't need the maps. Mix maps and my wife together and the result is divorce. The GPS was marriage insurance.

And so, on Saturday, May 29, we struck out. Shortly after leaving the GPS struck out. It stepped up to the plate and took a swing at telling us how to get to Sarnia from London and proclaimed: "Go north, young man!" I guess our GPS has never heard of Horace Greeley. The correct answer was, "Go west, young man!"

All the way to Sarnia our GPS insisted we get off the 402 and head north. While in line at the border, I took the time to reboot the damn electronic navigational genius ---  not! This time it wanted to head for I-94. This seemed reasonable and so once through customs we headed for the Interstate.

But the ETA, estimated time of arrival, seemed wrong --- hours too late --- and I was getting concerned. My gut told me we should soon be heading west for Clarkston and our B and B; my GPS disagreed. I rebooted it again or maybe I should say that I re-rebooted it. In a moment it was re-recalculating and in another moment it was commanding us to turn right in 200 metres. Gads! We darted to the exit and off the freeway heading west.

Our first stop: Clarkston, Michigan. A cool America town.
Less than two hours out of London and I was deciding to risk my marriage and ask my wife to consult a map. She quickly determined that this time the GPS seemed to be right. She agreed that maybe she should keep an eye on the little electronic navigational boob. This was not a happy development.

In less than thirty minutes we were in beautiful downtown Clarkston, Michigan. Clarkston is a bedroom community of Detroit, but unlike Detroit, Clarkston is successful. We stayed at the Millpond Inn. This is a B&B that an old friend from my art school days recommended and which I, too, heartily recommend.

Heritage flooring salvaged from Detroit
An interesting feature of the heritage home were the old wooden floors worn from decades of use and thousands of footsteps. It turned out that the floors were old but they weren't original. The floor boards were salvaged from fine heritage homes being demolished in Detroit.

This was the only B&B at which I tipped. The breakfast served at the Millpond Inn was not only good it was huge. Our host, Joan, went all out. I could not get over the selection. I had a little of everything: Omelets, fruit, pancakes, homemade bread, tarts and more. I waddled from the table. This lady earned a tip.

We had other breakfasts that equaled Joan's for quality but not quantity. Thank goodness. I actually lost about fifteen pounds over the course of the holiday. If every breakfast had been like Joan's, I would have gained fifteen pounds.

Our GPS recommended this gravel road as the quickest route.
From Clarkston we traveled to Grand Rapids. We gave the GPS a crack at getting us there and it looked good at first. We were on very pretty country roads heading west. Then it directed us down a gravel road. I was puzzled. It was set to find us the quickest route and I found it hard to believe that the very dusty gravel road we were now on was the quickest route. Damn. Only the second day out and Judy was scowling over maps again. This was not good.

Judy did get us to Grand Rapids but this still was not good. Judy hates maps and maps hate Judy. Luckily the GPS had no trouble finding our B&B in the Heritage Hill District. Then again, who would have a problem finding the Brayton House, a 9000 square foot, twenty-room Georgian Revival mansion. The magnificent staircase alone was worth the price of admission. Wow!

The Meyer May House in Grand Rapids is open for tours.
Just a short walk away from our B and B was the Meyer May House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Unfortunately for us, it was closed. We'll just have to return to Heritage Hill to visit the May House.

There appeared to be another Wright designed home in the neighbourhood; This was the J. H. Amberg House. It was one of the commissions left unfinished by Wright when he ran off to France with a client's wife. Completed by another architect, it has the Wright look but it's not an officially designated Wright residence.

Heritage Hill District in Grand Rapids, MI.
The Grand Rapids Heritage Hill District is worth a stroll and, if interested, each spring a number of private homes and historic buildings are open for an annual tour. Check out the details of the weekend tour. Maybe we'll see you there. Judy and I've been to The Hill three times and each time the Meyer May House has been closed. We just have to return to Heritage Hill for the spring tour.

We left Grand Rapids before 8:00 a.m. heading for Muskegon, Michigan, aiming to catch the Lake Express. The modern ferries speed across Lake Michigan, docking in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Again we used our GPS and again we had problems. It got us to a spot on Lakeshore Drive that it claimed was the entrance to the ferry terminal. It wasn't.

This time it the fault didn't lie with the GPS. The terminal had a Lakeshore Drive address but was actually located at the end of a long drive. Even Judy found it a little confusing. If Judy couldn't get it right, how could I expect the GPS to do better?

The line waiting to board the Lake Express.
We didn't spend much time in Milwaukee but took off along the Lake Michigan coast and then headed inland for historic Cedarburg, Wisconsin.

We had reservation in the Stagecoach Inn. Supposedly Cedarburg is the perfect Midwestern American town. We heard that John McCain and Sarah Palin kicked off their post convention campaign tour in Cedarburg. Their handlers felt the downtown provided the perfect mid-America streetscape.

Rumour has it that McCain lost. I'm not surprised. Cedarburg was nice but it didn't come close to winning our award for the best preserved Midwestern town. It did win the best hype award. And the folk in Cedarburg were genuinely friendly. I'd go back for the people but not necessarily for the town. I might steer clear if McCain and Palin were visiting.

Cedarburg has a number of heritage inns.
The next day we were off for La Crosse, Wisconsin and the folks at the B and B in La Crosse warned us that our GPS would never find them. With Judy covering our GPS's back, I wasn't worried --- but Judy was.

Half way across the state are the Wisconsin Dells, a scenic glacially-formed gorge with striking sandstone formations. A popular tourist destination, the Dells have an estimated five million visitors annually. We took a break from sightseeing in the Morgan and took to the water to do some sightseeing from a boat.

The GPS got us to the boat ticket booth just fine. And more amazingly, it got us to our B and B without a hitch. I was happy and Judy was happy. Our maps, for once, stayed in the glove compartment. That night we stayed at the Four Gables Bed and Breakfast on the edge of La Crosse.

The Dells are worth a stop. We took the northern tour

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Read the Haggler on "Travel Protection"

While waiting for me to get my blog on travel to Japan off the runway, check out this link to a really interesting, and important story if you are a traveller, on "travel protection." This story is by The Haggler, David Segal of The New York Times. The Haggler is a new column in the NYT.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Japan, a destination with something for everyone

In July, 2009, my nephew, Bob, and his wife, Tinette, spent a week in Japan. Not surprisingly, they had a great time; surprisingly, it was not all that costly. He and his wife enjoyed a 15 course crab dinner and it wasn't expensive by Chicago standards — 4275 ¥ each, and that included drinks!

Over the past few years, Bob and Tinette had accumulated enough American Express reward points to cover their round-trip flight to Japan and the majority of their hotel expenses. Credit cards, wisely used, can pay nice dividends. I may write more on the benefits of credit cards on Rockin' On: Money.

They flew United Airlines, from Chicago O'Hare to Narita International outside Tokyo. The cost of the 17 hour flight was about $1600 U.S. round trip for two. (I looked at yelp and found 81 customer reviews of United with the airline having an overall rating of two-and-a-half stars — not great.)

Getting from the airport to Tokyo was easy. They took the N'EX (Narita Express), departing directly from Terminal 1 and reaching Tokyo Station in only an hour. The Narita Express departs hourly during the day and every half hour during peak periods. Before leaving home you can check the JR-East website to familiarize yourself with their service.

Suica Card: Keepsake design.

They opted for the Suica/N'EX card, a money-saver also useful in Greater Tokyo and available only at the Narita Airport to those holding non-Japanese passports. Have your passport handy when purchasing cards. The fare to Tokyo in an ordinary car is 3500 ¥, while an upgrade to Green (first class) is 1500 ¥ extra. This sounds like a lot but today it amounts to only $15.38 U.S.

Use the Yahoo Currency Converter to change the amounts given in Yen to U.S. Dollars. I am giving most amounts in yen as the exchange rate constantly fluctuates. For accuracy, do the conversions yourself.

The Suica pass is a JR-East (Japan Railway East) prepaid IC card that allows you to pass through JR-East ticket gates with just a quick touch of your card to a sensor, your fare is automatically deducted. The card is valid on most railways, subways, and buses in Greater Tokyo and can be recharged unlimited times. One warning: you can put the original card purchase on your credit card but later recharging must be done using Japanese Yen. The original design of the Suica card makes it a vacation keepsake and if you return to Japan within ten years, you will find your card still active. One other warning: guard your card — it will not be re-issued in case of a loss. Losing a card is like losing money, in fact the card is accepted as e-money at shops carrying the Suica symbol.

It is always a bonus to know someone living in the country you're visiting. Tinette had a nephew teaching English in Tokyo. He knew the city. The role playing photo shoot offered by the Studio Mon Katsura was well advertised in the major hotels but it was Tinette's nephew's coaching that convinced Bob and Tinette to take the plunge. Using their Suica cards, they reached the studio via the JR Harajuku St. (Takeshita St. exit).

Geisha: Tinette becomes a geisha.

It took an hour to costume Tinette as her make-up was extensive and detailed. In the end, she was a traditional, white-faced geisha. Preparing Bob went faster; he was a samurai and samurai don't wear make-up. The cost was 23,000 ¥, 18,000 ¥ for Tinette and 5,000 ¥ for Bob. This is more money than I spend on holiday silliness but I have to admit that, everything considered, it was not expensive and their final photo is pretty cool.

The studio staff allowed Bob, an amateur photographer, to take pictures of his wife having her make-up applied. The staff was very professional, and it was clear they were used to making tourists feel at ease. They even allowed Bob to take pictures of his wife as she was transformed into a geisha.

Dai-ichi: great hotel, great location

Bob and Tinette stayed at the Dai-ichi Hotel in Tokyo. This is more hotel than I would consider but when I heard the price I was pleasantly surprised — a room for two starts at 20,500 ¥, or about $200. A few years ago, my wife and I stayed right on the beach in Nice. We got a bargain on the room, and we found a fine hotel was a great way to take the edge off a long journey. I can entertain the notion of staying at the Dai-ichi for my first few days in Tokyo, especially if I could find a discount. A little pampering while recovering from jet lag is welcome.

The Dai-ichi is located next to the Ginza district and it is also within walking distance of the historic Imperial Palace. Although they planned on taking a day to visit Kyoto, they booked their room at the Dai-ichi for their entire time in Japan. This allowed them to travel light when they deked over to Kyoto for a day and a night. Me, I'm cheap. I'd trundle about with my backback or luggage to save some 20 thousand yen.

Ginza: Matsuya

I'm not a shopper and my idea of a great holiday is one where I don't go shopping. But my nephew and his wife insist the famous, upscale Ginza shopping, dining and entertainment district is not to be missed. My nephew, an architect, says just the rich mix of buildings alone makes the district worth a visit. He got up early on a number of days in order to walk from the hotel to Ginza and take pictures of the many varied buildings before the city was fully awake.

If you can pick your day, try Saturday or Sunday afternoon when the central Chuo Dori is closed to traffic, creating a large, temporary pedestrian mall from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. from April through September. The rest of the year the traffic closure ends an hour earlier at 5 p.m. Places to go: Kabukiza Theatre (opened in 1889), Sony Building (latest Sony electronics), plus department stores galore - Ginza Wako, Hankyu, Matsuya, Matsuzakaya, Mitsukoshi, Printemps, and Seibu. Again, the Ginza area is easily reached using a Suica card.

Harajuku: Visit Sunday afternoon.

A true don't-miss-this is the district surrounding Harajuku station on the Yamanote Line. Every Sunday, young Japanese dressed in a variety of costumes congregate in the Harajuku area. The Jingu Bridge, a pedestrian crossing joining Harajuku to the Meiji Shrine area is a main gathering point.

One of the neatest things you'll encounter is cosplay in which cosplayers wearing costumes re-enact scenes from movies, television shows, music videos, and other sources. The cosplayers are quite inventive, often more inspired than imitative. The '50s style greaser outfits, Takenokozoku, were once were quite common but have been waning in popularity in recent years.

The cosplayers don't gather in any number until at least afternoon, so if you arrive early take a detour over the Jingu bridge to the Meiji Jingu Shrine in Yoyogi Park, one of the city's largest parks.
Afterwards, have a crepe at one of the area crepe stands for a sweet treat.

While in Yoyogi Park, Bob and Tinette stopped to listen to an older Japanese gentleman performing.
Unlike park musicians in North America or Europe, this gentleman did not have an open case in front of him or an upturned hat in which to drop donations. He was out enjoying the day and playing essentially for himself. If you wanted to stop and enjoy, you were welcome but no donation was asked for or expected.

Speaking of food, Tokyo is a food lover's paradise. It did not matter where Bob and Tinette were, the food was simply great. In Tokyo they stumbled upon a small restaurant specializing in crab that was tucked away under a railway overpass and over a Mos Burger outlet — Mos Burger is the Japanese equivalent of McDonald's except the portions are reportedly a little smaller.

Their crab dinner beat having a Mos burger but then it did cost a little more. Even though there were about fifteen courses, the bill only came to about 8750 ¥ including drinks.

Kamakura: the Great Buddha

Armed with their Suica car, Bob and Tinette made a day trip to the Great Buddha of Kamakura. The Great Buddha is a short 5-minute walk from the Enoden Railway Hase Station, the third station from Kamakura main station.

The massive bronze statue is more than seven centuries old, more than 11 metres high, and weighs about 93 tons. If you look carefully, you will notice horizontal lines running through the statue body and face. These are the visible joints where the individually cast sections were brazed together. Entry to the grounds is ¥200 for adults, ¥150 for children and for an extra ¥20 one can go inside the statue. It is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., except in winter when it closes at 5:30 p.m.

Shinkansen: Take a Bullet Train.

For their overnighter to Kyoto Bob and Tinette used Sunrise Tours JTB which offered two round-trip tickets on the Hikari Super Express Shinkansen, or Bullet Train, one night's accommodation in a traditional Japanese inn and all meals for only 30,000 ¥ each. If you'd like to forego the inn and stay in a more westernlike hotel, the price drops to about 23,000 ¥. One-way plans are also available. Pretty fair prices. I don't usually use tour companies but sometimes they can be great alternative to being completely independent.

The famous Bullet Train is unlike anything in North America. For Americans and Canadians high-speed rail is only a dream. But, if the Shinkansen is a peak into North America's future, the traditional Japanese inn is a peak back into Japan's past.

Ryokan: traditional Japanese inn

Their inn offered a traditional Japanese tea room experience. In small, intimate groups, guests were taken to the tea house. First, they took off their shoes and then everyone was forced by the entryway design to make a deep bow to enter. In the past this meant that whether you were a samurai or a peasant, all were treated equally and reacted equally.

The brew was a finely ground green tea that was steeped to a slightly thick consistency. Jellied sweets were eaten to prepare the mouth for the slightly bitter taste of the tea.

Kyoto was the country's capital for over 1,000 years and is considered by many to be the historical and cultural heart of Japan. (There is an interesting look at the history of Kyoto on Everything 2.) Bob and Tinette only spent a day in Kyoto. I would spend days. If I'm travelling halfway around the world, I'm going to savour the experience. None of this, "If it's Tuesday, it must be Kyoto," for me. That said, Bob and Tinette packed a lot into their one day.

Sunrise Tours JTB arranged the Bullet Train travel and Bob and Tinette's lodging but otherwise they were on their own. After checking into their inn, they chatted with a woman at the inn, telling her the places in Kyoto that they would like to see. In Japanese, so that any cab driver could understand, the lady wrote down some instructions and each destination; she gave the sheets of instructions to Bob and Tinette. They simply gave each cabbie a destination sheet and they had no problems.

Among their destination sheets was Kiyomizu-dera temple. The temple, high in the hills overlooking Kyoto is perched on 13-meter-high heavy wooden stilts and is nestled comfortably into the forest canapy. There are several other "national treasures" on the grounds, as well as waterfalls and other important historical sites. The waterfalls come as no surprise as they gave the temple its name. Kiyomizu means pure, clear water. Entry to the grounds is ¥300 for adults, ¥200 for children. It is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily all year long.

In the morning they were served a 12 course breakfast. This was a lot lighter than it sounds with the highpoint being specially prepared, individual omelettes. All very traditional. For their return train trip to Tokyo, they got a couple of incredible box lunches.

Personally, I have stayed away from thoughts of Japan. I believed it was out of my reach. After talking with Bob and Tinette, I am rethinking my position. In fact, I've started softening up my wife for a possible visit.



Another day trip from Tokyo was Nikko, famous for its shrines and beer. I think Tinette went to see the shrines and Bob to sample the local brew. They were unable to use their Suica pass on this trip.

Above is a meal the two enjoyed while in Nikko. It's soba, a kind of thin, buckwheat noodle, served chilled in the summer with edible mountain vegetables.

Bob shot all pictures using his Canon Powershot cameras: an SD 300 and a G9. The G9 comes in handy because its zoom lens has a longer telephoto setting than his other, older camera.

The New York Times ran an excellent piece on the town of Kawagoe, a day trip from Toyko, and which does such a good job evoking the Tokyo of yore that it is affectionately called Little Edo, a reference to the ancient name for Tokyo. Check it out.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Excitement to come


I'm surprised that you are even here. I have not advertised this site. As you can surmise, this will be a travel site. Give it time. Come back in a couple of months.


James Reaney, a columnist for The London Free Press, calls the dozens of colourful metal trees gracing downtown London "beautiful." These works of public art were created by Ingersoll artist Bill Hodgson and planted in numerous locations throughout the city core.
To see more pictures of these unique pieces check out Flickr and Wikimedia. For another but less postive take on these trees see From My Bottom Step. The London Free Press also did a short video on the tree installation.