Need Some Fudge? Visit The Wisconsin Dells, The Midwest’s Most Delightfully Tacky Resort Town

You don’t have to leave the Midwest to catch a glimpse of the Roman Coliseum, the White House, the Kalahari Desert and the fabled windmills of Mykonos. Nope, all you have to do is take a road trip to the Wisconsin Dells, one of America’s delightfully tacky resort towns, where you can travel the world without venturing very far off the Wisconsin Dells Parkway.

I’ve lived in Chicago for years but have somehow managed to avoid visiting the Dells, the region’s quintessential summer weekend getaway place for families, until I finally experienced the place in all its tawdry glory while on a camping trip at nearby Mirror Lake State Park. Sophisticated city types mock places like the Dells, which is chock-a-block with mini-golf, wax museums, water parks and every conceivable type of tourist trap imaginable. But I have a soft spot for tourist traps. You could even call it a morbid fascination.

So I found myself cruising the Dells honkytonk strip on Memorial Day, notebook out, jotting away like a visitor from another planet. I wanted to take in a lumberjack show, while eating a “lumberjack meal” (whatever the hell that is) at a place called Paul Bunyan, but alas, I was told the lumberjacks don’t report for duty until the weather gets warmer. (Aren’t lumberjacks supposed to be tough?) How about a BigFoot zipline tour? Not for $89, I thought. The Polynesian Water Park, the Timbavati Wildlife Park, a 50-foot-tall Trojan Horse roller coaster and the “Top Secret” Upside Down White House all peaked my interest but I was too cheap to pay to bring my family of four into these places. (And why are there directions on the White House website for a place that is supposed to be “top secret?”)

I read in the local newspaper that tourists spend more than $1 billion dollars a year on these and other Dells attractions. But based upon my informal calculations, made while walking down Broadway, arguably the tackiest street in the Midwest’s tackiest town, I’d estimate that tourists spend at least two or three billion on fudge in the Dells each year, maybe more. Perhaps a local person can confirm this for me, and dear readers, please feel free to weigh in on this phenomenon in the comments section, but are there really five – count ’em five – fudge shops on one side of this street? I don’t know if I was hallucinating, but in between lengthy, illegible missives on Captain Brady’s Showboat Saloon and a Feed-And-Pet-the Deer- joint, there is this comment in my notebook: “Four – no five fudge shops! On one block!”

I don’t know if any academics have ever delved into the phenomenon in a dissertation or published paper, but I’d like to know what came first – the fudge or the tourists? Do people want fudge while they’re on vacation or do they simply indulge in the stuff because it’s there? No clue, but if you want fudge, by all means, consider the Wisconsin Dells for your next holiday. You’ll be spoiled for choice.

Aside from the fudge, I’ve noticed that tourists also like torture museums, and the Dells has a sorry example of one of these places as well. I’ve seen torture museums in all kinds of touristy places all around the world. Most of them are obvious tourist traps, but when found in places where torture was once widely practiced, they at least make some sense. Now I’m not an expert on the criminal justice system of Wisconsin, but as far as I know, torture has never been a regular part of the Wisconsin Dells experience. That is, unless you consider sitting through hokey magic shows, “duck tours” or the Wisconsin Opry Dinner Show torture, which some might.

I took my kids to Circus World in nearby Baraboo, more of an old-school indulgence than the contrived, new fangled attractions of the Dells, but didn’t spend a dime on any of the tourist traps in the town. Next time, I plan to visit the Lost Mayan Temple, ride the Trojan Horse roller coaster, take in the lumberjack show and have some fudge, preferably while dressed like a gladiator inside the Roman Coliseum. If anyone knows which of the Broadway fudge shops is the best, please drop me a line.

A Kid Friendly Midwest Getaway: See The Freaks At Circus World In Baraboo

circus worldFive years ago, when my wife and I had our first child, our lives as travelers changed. We still hit the road just as often as before, but now we find ourselves seeking out zoos and playgrounds and children’s museums and a host of other kid friendly attractions that we never would have visited during our childless years. Most of the time, I acquiesce to the child-centric activities more or less kicking and screaming, and although I enjoy watching my kids have fun, 3- and 5-year-old boys aren’t exactly well known for showing gratitude and appreciation, so I sometimes wonder if the kid stuff is worth it.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, we treated our boys to the one kid-focused activity we’ve never tried before: a circus. These days, many of the larger traveling circuses perform in large arenas, which hold little appeal for me. I wanted to bring my kids to an old-school circus performed under a big top, and I found what I was looking for at Circus World, in Baraboo, Wisconsin, about three hours northwest of Chicago, and just 10 minutes from the tourist trap insanity of the Wisconsin Dells.

Baraboo is ground zero for circus enthusiasts. It was here on May 19, 1884, that the five Ringling Brothers – Al, Otto, Alfred, Charles and John – staged their first circus act. There were 21 performers, a small tent, a hyena and three horses in the act. Tickets cost 15 to 35 cents and they soon took their act on the road, pulling into small towns all across the country with their hand-carved circus wagons, advertising strong men, bearded women, ferocious animals and the like.

Circus World is both museum and circus, and before the circus started, we took some time to check out the museum, which tells the story of how the Ringlings turned their little circus into a global juggernaut. The Ringlings were the offspring of August Rungeling, who emigrated from Germany to Milwaukee in 1848. He changed his name to Ringling, married and had 11 children, three of whom died in infancy. The five brothers got into the circus act, with Al, the oldest, serving as the ringleader. He married a snake handler from Iowa and could balance a huge plow on his chin unsupported.

In 1918, the brothers bought out Barnum & Bailey, their chief rival, and the business evolved into a national railway show. They got rich and used some of their money to build lavish homes and other buildings, including the gorgeous Al Ringling Cinema, which still stands today in downtown Baraboo. (The museum doesn’t mention the fact that just one Ringling heir still lives in the Baraboo area today, and he’s in prison for sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy.)

A stroll through the museum’s collection of old circus posters and the even more interesting hall of circus wagons gives one an idea of how un-politically correct circuses were back in the day. Any sort of deformity could be turned into an attraction – a short-armed man was called “Seal Boy,” and various posters advertised bearded ladies, East Indian dwarves, “Giraffe-necked” women from Burma, sword swallowers, an Egyptian Giant and a “Man Without a Stomach,” among many others.

In the pre-television era, going to a circus was a common form of entertainment, especially for people who lived in smaller towns. Popular circus acts became household names across the nation. For example, some 40 million Americans saw a gorilla from the Belgian Congo named Gargantua the Great.

After watching a magic show, we scored front row seats under the big top, and settled in to watch the show. The first act was a woman in her 50s or 60s who was dressed up like a pop star in oversized white sunglasses, a gray wig and a revealing, open-backed shimmery, sequined costume. She brought out “the world’s only performing Persian cat” and a slew of “Afghan dogs” that performed a variety of jumps, tricks and dances. It all seemed preposterous to me, but my sons, who were devouring an industrial size portion of cotton candy, were transfixed.

The dogs were eventually replaced by a comically effeminate Columbia contortionist wearing eye makeup and a three-sizes-too-tight gymnast costume. I had to avert my eyes as he contorted his body one way and other, looking as though he was about to break a limb at any moment and resisted the urge to leave altogether when he actually fit his entire body inside a small, clear box.

The next performer was a comically buffoonish character who did a slapstick routine revolving around his supposed inability to jump on a trampoline. I thought it was ridiculous, but when I looked over at my sons, they were roaring and squealing in delight. I don’t think I have ever seen them so happy.

Next, we were introduced to Spirit, the “world’s smallest performing show pony,” as the PA system blasted the ludicrous “My Little Pony” theme song and an older woman in a garish Hungarian folk costume led Spirit around in circles.

The final act of the afternoon was easily the most preposterous. A woman wearing a feathered Indian headdress and a far-too revealing sequined costume brought out a host of little monkeys on leashes and proceeded to coax them into jumping from platform to platform, 20 feet up in the air. Her male counterpart was a Greek looking man with a unibrow who looked like Pete Sampras might if he lives to be 110. When the monkeys dawdled, he whacked them on the asses to get them to jump, and after they’d done their standard jump a few times he said, “Now we’re going to see if they can jump 12 feet. We hope they can make it!” I was rooting for the monkeys to go on strike, but it didn’t happen.

The monkeys made it and while the whole farce seemed exploitative and just plain dumb to me, I couldn’t deny how much my sons had enjoyed the spectacle. On the way out, we filed past a guy holding a huge snake, asking $10 for a photo, and my 5-year-old son, Leo, was uncharacteristically grateful.

“Dad,” he said. “Thank you so much for taking me to the circus!”

$56 A Night To Pitch A Tent? Happy Memorial Day Weekend!

tentSince when did camping become expensive? I live in Chicago and have spent a ridiculous amount of time researching places to camp over the Memorial Day weekend in the last two weeks. If I had planned ahead, booking a campsite would be quick and easy but we tend not to plan very far in advance, which makes travel during holidays complicated and sometimes expensive.

We wanted to camp at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin this weekend, but alas, there are no tent sites available on a weekend there until August 30 (!) and a host of other state parks in that region, including Mirror Lake, Rocky Arbor, Buckhorn, Governor Dodge, Lake Kengosa, Wildcat Mountain and others, are also sold out for the holiday weekend. Most of the state parks in Wisconsin charge just $12-15 per night for tent sites, though they have a three-night minimum stay on holiday weekends and a $9.70 reservation fee.I checked into some private campgrounds around Wisconsin and was floored by some of the prices. A place called Baraboo Hills wants $56 per night for a basic tent site with water and electric (the most primitive site they offer) and they are actually sold out. And other more basic campgrounds are nearly as pricey – at Fox Hill the price is $41 per night, Jellystone Park Campground in Fremont wants $45 for tent sites, the KOA-Wisconsin Dells charges $40 and up and Sherwood Forest will set you back $43, plus 10.5% sales tax. Most places have a three-night minimum for the holiday and most, even some of the priciest ones, are sold out.

Capitalism can be an ugly thing when you’re trying to plan a last minute trip on a holiday weekend, along with 8 million other Chicagoans and at least a few million Cheeseheads. The bottom line is that the camping season in this part of the country is very short, and comparatively few people camp during the week, so campgrounds have to make their cash on the few peak weekends they have to work with.

Last summer, I stayed at a private campground near Devil’s Lake that charged twice the price of the state park, which was sold out. And although it was adequate, it wasn’t as nice as camping in the park itself. Private campgrounds often offer a lot more amenities than the state or national parks, like swimming pools and play areas, but if you’re just looking to commune with nature, you’re often paying more to camp at a place that may not be as beautiful and serene as a state or national park.

But while Wisconsin clearly underprices their state park campgrounds at just $12 or $15 a night for most basic tent sites, Illinois prices some of their parks much more aggressively. I looked into camping at Starved Rock State Park, near Ottawa, in the north-central part of the state, but they charge $35 per night for a basic tent site with a three-night minimum on holiday weekends, and were sold-out anyway.

Neighboring states charge less to camp in their state parks this weekend – Indiana charges $20, Michigan $14 and Iowa as little as $9. But every park with positive reviews on Campfire Reviews and other sites within a 3-4 hour radius of where we live seemed to be sold out for this weekend, even though the forecast looks iffy for most of the region. I thought I’d hit paydirt when I found a tent-site at a place I’d never heard of called the Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area in Kewanee, Illinois, but before I clicked the reserve button I noticed the fine print: there was no way to drive to this tent site. With a wife and two little boys in tow, I don’t think we’re up for trekking out to a site with our coolers and gear in tow, so it was back to the drawing board.

I kept looking and finally found a site at the Roche-A-Cri State Park in Central Wisconsin. I couldn’t find a single review from anyone who’s camped there online, there are no showers and we got the last tent site available, located right next to a pit toilet, but it’s a bargain at $14 per night ($12 per night for Cheeseheads, three-night minimum stay).

If you’re looking for a place to camp this weekend, I highly recommend you use the city search function on the Reserve America site, since it allows you to see what’s available near a given zip code or town. And check back frequently, because cancellations do pop up. Also, check You Tube, because there are plenty of helpful campers out there who have documented what the various campgrounds in the Midwest look like.

Be prepared for three-night minimum stays and prices that might be higher than you’re expecting. And if you want to camp at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin next Memorial Day weekend (May 23-26, 2014), mark your calendars – you can book starting on June 23 of this year. But please don’t, because I’m certain I’ll forget and will be scrambling to find a place to camp (and complaining about high prices again) at this time next year.

Dinner And Bikes 2013: An Annual Tour To Grow The Bicycle Movement

There’s a lot of talk about bikes these days. From single speeds in New York City to nighttime tours in Guatemala City and the bike share in Paris, the discussion of bicycles as a real means of alternative transportation is taking hold in a big way.

But talking about bikes in cycle centric hotspots like Portland, San Francisco and New York is only part of the step. As with anything, getting more people on two wheels means getting people engaged all over the country. And that’s where Dinner and Bikes comes in.

The annual month-long tour is a traveling combination of bicycle inspiration, vegan food and pop-up bookstores that brings people together to get inspired about bicycle transportation. If you’re a bike junkie, it’s hard to resist.So what do you get from a Dinner and Bikes evening? A gourmet, vegan and gluten-free buffet dinner prepared by Joshua Ploeg, a presentation by Elly Blue on transportation equity and the everyday bicycling movement, and a near-complete excerpt from “Aftermass,” Joe Biel‘s forthcoming documentary about the history of bicycling in Portland. This year, they’re hitting up the Midwest and Northeast, with over 30 events from Michigan to New York. You can find the full schedule for May and June here.

Elly took time to answer a few questions about the tour and the inspiration behind it. And in perfect nomadic traveler form, she answered them on an Amtrak train somewhere between Portland and Chicago.

What was the inspiration for Dinner and Bikes?

In 2010, Joe and I did a tour called Bikestravaganza around the Western US. It was similar to what we do now, but just the two of us talking and showing movies about bikes. The idea was to energize people about bikes, show them a little of what we’ve seen is possible, and also let them know that Portland’s bike-friendly streets weren’t this huge, unattainable goal, but that in fact our achievements could easily be matched or surpassed by any city or town that wanted to. It went great, but one big problem was that the event was always during dinnertime. Everyone was hungry including us! We invited Joshua to join us the next year and it all fell into place.

Why bikes?

When I first started bicycling, it was liberating and it’s continued to be so at a personal level. Culturally, though, it’s about as good as it gets as far as a movement goes. With bikes, everyone wins and there’s no problematic temptation to put someone else’s happiness or livelihood secondary to your cause, as is the case in a lot of other social movements. Also, even when people are vehemently anti-bike, they usually change their mind once they start riding. So even when it’s polarized, it isn’t really. That photo of Senator Schumer smiling as he rides down the cycle track he fought so hard to prevent? That’s why I do it.

How do you decide which places you visit/where you host dinners? Why the central/northeast for the 2013 tour?

It’s an inexact science. As we go on tour, people’s friends in other cities hear about the events and get in touch to invite us to their town. I keep track of all the invitations in my spreadsheet, and then Joe and I go out to breakfast with an atlas and a notebook and create a route that we can do in a month that incorporates as many of those cities as possible. Then I set to work filling in the gaps. I believe the impetus for the Midwest/Northeast route is the result of invitations from folks in Michigan and DC. Next year I already know where we’re going: up and down the eastern seaboard, Maine to Miami. People should get in touch if they want to talk about doing a stop.

Having traveled around the country talking about bikes, how do you think the attitude towards bikes differs by region?

People who are deeply involved with their local bike scene read a lot of the same blogs and articles, so there is some unity in the movement. But local attitudes generally differ quite a bit, and in unexpected ways. A lot depends on the culture, layout and politics of a city. Some cities have a culture of being polite, so even if most people don’t understand bicycling, they don’t mind waiting a bit till it’s safe to pass the person riding in front of their truck. In other cities, there’s some kind of hostile force against it, maybe driving culture or city planning or the police – which oddly enough often has the result of catalyzing a far stronger bike movement.

What was the most surprising location you have visited in terms of their support for cycling?

Over the last four years, I’ve learned not to be surprised. Everyone’s got their stereotypes, like only big cities like bikes, or only small cities, or only liberal cities or secular cities or gentrified neighborhoods or cities with lots of young white creative class people. None of these things are true. People like bikes who have started bicycling already is the only generalization I can make. Once you get riding and have just the barest amount of community and infrastructure to support you, there’s no turning back.

Is it true that you travel only by train and by bike?

Nope, we rent a car to travel from city to city. If we’re lucky, we get to go on bike rides in some of the cities. I am still trying to figure out how to do it all by train, but we would pretty much have to have a source of funding from outside the tour in order to make that happen. I see it as an opportunity to not totally lose touch with the car-oriented reality of most of the US.

Any top tips for traveling by bike?

I’ve only been bike touring a few times, but I will say it’s important not to run out of water, and always to talk to people.

Check out the Dinner and Bikes 2013 schedule here.

[Photo Credits: Dinner and Bikes, Elly Blue]

Falling In Love With The World’s Most Hyped Churros At Xoco In Chicago

churros at xocoI’m almost never game to wait in a long line to eat. But I joined a line stretching outside the door at Xoco in Chicago last Saturday because I couldn’t stand to hear another rave about the place without experiencing what all the fuss is about for myself. Xoco is a fast food Mexican place owned by former “Top Chef” master chef Rick Bayless, whom my colleague Laurel Miller once memorably described as an “all-around culinary badass.”

The place has a whopping 1,662 reviews on Yelp – 897 of them mention the otherworldly churros – and about the only people who pan it are those who can’t get a table. (There are only four restaurants in Chicago with more reviews on Yelp: Kuma’s Corner (burgers), Hot Doug’s (hot dogs/sausages), Girl & The Goat (New American) and Smoque BBQ.) I’ve been hearing about how unforgettably good this place is since it opened in 2009 – the place is a tourist attraction in itself – but was reminded that I needed to try it after seeing a write-up on it from Grant Martin in our budget guide to Chicago in late January.We arrived at 1 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, which is probably the worst possible time to try eat here. But the line moved fast and I actually needed the half hour or so to study the menu and the daily specials. I knew that I wanted a torta, a Mexican sandwich made on fresh bread from Labriola Baking Company (another great place to eat in Chicago’s western suburbs) that is cooked in a wood burning oven, but I was torn between getting the Choriqueso, which is made with homemade chorizo sausage, roasted poblano, artisan Jack cheese and tomatillo salsa, and the Baja chicken, which comes with homemade chipotle mayo, Napa cabbage/radish slaw and black beans.

xoco chicken baja tortaI went for the Baja chicken, my wife got the pork carnitas and we shared an order of churros with sides of chocolate and soft serve vanilla ice cream. The bill, with no drinks was more than $40, including a hot chocolate we bought for our boys. My torta was absolutely mouth watering. The bread is crusty, the ingredients are fresh and the rich salsa and creamy mayo are an excellent accompaniment to a sandwich that is just about perfect. My only complaint is that at $11, it should be bigger. In fact, it was so damn good that I easily could have eaten two of them.

But the reason why I’m already salivating at the prospect of returning to Xoco is the churros. Good lord, the churros. Forget about the crunchy, flavorless things you buy from a cart on the street or in a hole-in-the-wall Mexican bakery. Those things don’t even deserve to have the same name as the treats that are served up at Xoco.

They literally melt in your mouth and the flavor is so intensely sweet and cinnamony that it brings a smile to your face. Really, I challenge anyone to walk into Xoco in a terrible mood, eat a churro and see what happens to your demeanor. These damn things could bring peace to the Holy Land for crying out loud. My wife liked to dip them in the sinfully rich, decadent chocolate but I preferred the cinnamon/vanilla ice cream combo. How do you want your Powerball winnings – lump sum or yearly payouts? You can’t go wrong either way.

xocoAfter visiting Xoco in the city, I found out there was a Frontera Fresco with many of the same menu items a Norris Hall on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, only a mile from my house. I went there with my wife on a Friday at 1:30 p.m. and there was no line whatsoever. Even better, most of the tortas were $1 or $2 cheaper than they are downtown. I had the Cubana, which comes with pork loin and bacon, black beans, avocado, artisan Jack cheese, chipotle mustard, Morita chiles and homemade cilantro crema. It was pretty damn good though not quite as tasty as the Baja Chicken or the carnitas.

But the campus location, alas, has no churros. Damn them! But they do have soft serve yogurt – try the coconut – and some very tasty almond cookies and bread pudding. My verdict: Xoco is worth the hype, especially the churros, but if you hate to wait, head north to Evanston.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]