Beams in the little blue bus // Baraboo photographer
It was maybe 600 miles into our trip when my husband Erik turned to me and asked, “Why doesn’t everyone do this?”
We were driving on some two-lane country road in the middle of Wisconsin. His left arm was deeply tanned from days hanging out the driver’s side window of our 1971 Volkswagen camper bus. He was looking in the rearview mirror at our kids, who were having a tickle fight, or playing I Spy, or curled up against each other sleeping, or asking when our next ice cream stop would be… I don’t remember.
“Everyone tells us they want to do this,” he continued. “Why don’t they?”
The easy answer is that not everyone has an Erik. He spent every weekend since the spring thaw laboring on the bus in our little downtown driveway, just to get it road-ready.
But more than that, he leans into life in a way I often wish I could. When I imagine us breaking down in a 43-year-old vehicle in the middle of nowhere, he sees himself popping open the rear engine hatch and getting to work, then getting his family back on the road.
When I see us driving down a dark road with no where to stay that night because we didn’t make reservations, he sees us being buoyed by serendipity, finding safe harbor in amazing places. And damnit, he’s almost always right.
Erik is driven by adventure. I am, more often than I’d like to admit, driven by fear. I think that’s the case with most people who say they would love to go on a road trip up the California coast with no plans or reservations, like we did a few years ago. Or a 1,300 mile trek across the back roads of Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Some part of them would love to. Some part of them feels a yearning for the unexpected and for new life experiences.
But a bigger part of them is afraid. It’s that part that conjures excuses — work, kids, expenses, planning. We all have those excuses. And they’re bullshit.
I am here to tell you that you can put your kids and some camping gear in a car, load a cooler with fruit and sandwich fixings, pack your road atlas, and go. It will be cheap and it will be amazing. And you’ll never regret the adventures you did have, you’ll regret the ones you let pass you by.
We started our trip by traveling to Door County via Montello, Ripon and the outskirts of Green Bay.
One of our first destinations was the Rippin’ Good cookie factory outlet, which my kids recommend if you’re ever in Ripon. It’s a nondescript place but the cookie samples are approximately the size of half a cookie, so if you are a sneaky cookie-loving kid, you can eat about five cookies for free before your parents check out.
In Door County we stayed at a basic 60s-era motel in Egg Harbor because I was working a wedding. It was a clean and simple place to sleep, which was all we needed. Egg Harbor had a beautiful hilltop view of the harbor and at least one good ice cream shop (we are major ice cream connoisseurs while vacationing… and otherwise, if I’m being forthright).
Our favorite Door County town was probably Fish Creek. There were refurbished old buildings filled with cute shops and restaurants. My clients highly recommended Wild Tomato pizza and it was flat-out incredible. We also loved Not Licked Yet for its homemade burgers, fruit-filled popsicles and delicious sundaes. They also had a playground and a creek to play in, which was a great place to take a break with the kids.
The kids swam in Lake Michigan in Sister Bay and it was very cold, but we loved the nice public beach and picnic area.
On our way out of Door County we camped at Potawatomi State Park. It’s a beautiful park if you like being in the woods and recreation like biking and hiking, but there isn’t a beach. We climbed the rickety 1932 overlook tower (the 4-year-old climbed it twice) and pretty much had the place to ourselves on a Sunday night. Very serene.
We didn’t make it very far before the bus started sputtering and couldn’t get above about 30 mph. In a normal vehicle this would be cause for concern, but in a VW bus, which has an engine built like a lawnmower and about as much horsepower, it’s par for the course. Erik got his tool bag and his hippie manual out from under the seat, and got to work. Lucky for the rest of us, we broke down in Dycksville, a town that claims to have 538 residents but does, for certain, have an awesome old burger stand called The Frosty Tip. We had ice cream and burgers while Erik sweated it out, then we got back on the road. “I did it!” Erik exclaimed not far on the other side of Dycksville. “We’re actually accelerating up a hill. This baby is running better than ever.”
That night we camped at the Tilleda Falls campground in Tilleda. I paid extra to upgrade to the stream-front site, and after eating dinner under a tarp during a thunderstorm, it cleared and we got to listen to the falls through the bus windows all night long.
Next we cut up to far Northern Wisconsin, scooted across the border to Ironwood so the boys could say they had been to Michigan, and made our way through tiny old mining towns, avoiding deer and one big black bear crossing the back road, before arriving in Ashland on Lake Superior. We knew we wanted to get up early to make it the rest of the way to my parents’ place in Minnesota, so we stayed in a simple motel overlooking the lake. TripAdvisor offered a lot of great options for dinner, but with three road-weary kids we chose Frankie’s Pizza, obviously a local landmark that was beyond casual, affordable and really pretty fantastic.
After dinner we stopped at a Cold War-era playground that I was so excited to discover. It had all the sort of equipment I remembered from my childhood that they just don’t make anymore: metal slides that sear the backs of your bare legs on a hot summer day, simple teeter-totters, marginally unsafe metal climbing structures fashioned to look like missiles and tanks… because why not, right? The kids had a blast.
We spent a while at my parents’ home on a lake in Northern Minnesota, photos I’m leaving out now for the sake of brevity. We ventured home through the Twin Cities and then along the Great River Road. Climbing the bluffs along the Mississippi while a train of cars formed behind us and exploring the little old river towns was a fantastic way to end our trip. And that night at home, we talked each other to sleep imagining where our little blue bus will take us next.