Dec 21, 2023

Scenes from the Lawrence Welk Birthplace, Strasburg, N.D.

Picture yourself cruising through the rolling hills and farmland of southern North Dakota early on a late summer morning. 

The sun is still rising and the dew has yet to completely evaporate.  Passing cars are few and far between. 

Then, suddenly, without warning you pass this sign near a quiet intersection with an otherwise barely noticeable gravel road.  What would you do?  Would you speed up and try to get away as quickly as possible?  Would you simply be amused by the happenstance and continue on, accepting that it’s past “tourist season” to visit?  

Or would you do what this commoner did, find the nearest spot to turn around and check it out anyway?  Of course, you would! 

Oct 25, 2023

Finding Fort Mandan and Lewis and Clark’s trail

One of the things I enjoy most about a loosely planned road trip is stopping at points of interest along the way which I either knew very little about or didn’t even know existed beforehand. It didn’t take me long on my drive on U.S. 83 (aka the Road To Nowhere) to make such a stop – just over an hours’ drive south from Minot, N.D., in fact.
The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center seemed to be a “can’t miss” site on the right side of the road. After all, which historical figures and famous trespassers are more important in North Dakota’s formative history? 

Sep 20, 2023

Driving the Road To Nowhere – North Dakota

When it comes to road trips, I’ve lived most of my life by the motto that getting there was half the fun.  In other words, the travel from Point A to Point B can be just as memorable as the destination.  This is especially true when you’re perfectly fine without having a set destination at all. 

That was my thought process when I set out to choose a route for my first solo road trip in many years.  I wanted to go where few others would think to travel.  I also wanted to have a true sense of solitude on the highway, where I could be alone with my thoughts for hours at a time.  So, after a combination of modern-day Google searching and old-school researching good ol’ Rand McNally, I decided to conquer what has been coined by fellow travelers as the “Road To Nowhere” … or at least most of it.

Officially designated as U.S. Highway 83, the Road To Nowhere stretches from the Canadian border just north of Westhope, N.D, to its southern terminus at the Mexican border crossing in Brownsville, Texas.  Yes, there are zigs and zags along the way, but until the route takes an abrupt turn along the Rio Grande at Laredo, it’s a fairly consistent north-south trajectory. 

How it became known as the Road To Nowhere is pretty apparent if you look at the route long enough.  The vast majority of the highway runs through some of the most sparsely populated parts of the country – the heart of the Great Plains and the Texas panhandle.  How few people live there?  Consider this:  The largest city between my starting point at Minot, N.D. and my end point at Laredo, Texas is Abilene, Texas, with roughly 125,000 people.  The distance on U.S. 83 between Minot and Abilene is about 1,240 miles.  In between, there are just five cities with a population greater than 10,000 – Bismarck, N.D. (74,000), Pierre, S.D. (14,000), North Platte, Neb. (24,000), Garden City, Kan, (28,000), and Liberal, Kan. (19,000).  

I chose my jumping on and jumping off points based on the amount of time I had to not just driver the route, but get there and back. 

Sep 8, 2023

A commoner drinks (and dines) at Neumann’s Bar, North St. Paul, Minn.

To be a well-traveled commoner, one’s travel research beforehand may come from many different places.  For instance, when I began researching my first solo road trip in many years to drive the length of U.S. 83 (aka “The Road To Nowhere”) from the Great Plains to the Mexican border, I knew I might have to use some unconventional resources to find a few good pitstops on my way to my jumping off point in Minot, N.D. 

Fortunately, I had received a book called “Bucket List Bars” as a gift – a great guide to historic dive bars across the United States.  Within that book, one pub in particular in North St. Paul, Minn., spoke to me due to its historical connections to Hamm’s beer.  So, I knew I couldn’t pass through the Minneapolis-St. Paul area without stopping at Neumann’s Bar.      

Serving since 1887 (yes, even during Prohibition when the “official” drink was “near beer” and the speakeasy upstairs provided other options), Neumann’s was founded for the main purpose of supporting the nearby Hamm’s Brewery.  It was common practice in the 19th Century for breweries to support or even operate their own saloons to sell their own products.  Good way to cut your distribution costs, no doubt. 

Today, Neumann’s Bar claims to be Minnesota’s oldest continuously operating bar, and I’m extremely happy to report from first-hand experience that their support of Hamm’s beer remains very strong.  

Jun 22, 2023

Why Trader Vic’s may be on its last sea legs

"I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic’s.  His hair was perfect.” – Warren Zevon, “Werewolves of London” (1978)

When you think of iconic restaurant or bar brands, few have had the longevity or the name recognition of the original “tiki bar”Trader Vic’s.  By offering its patrons enormous tropical cocktails and a fun, South Pacific vibe, Trader Vic’s grew from its origins in California in the 1930s to a worldwide name during the height of tiki bars’ popularity in the 1960s.  Through careful placement in upscale hotels (primarily Hiltons), Trader Vic’s put its Polynesian mark on most major cities in the United States and overseas, with more than 25 worldwide locations at its peak.

Fast forward to Dec. 31, 2022:  After nearly 60 years in business, the Trader Vic’s located in the London Hilton on Park Lane, the one presumably and famously referenced in the Warren Zevon song, closes for good.  Meanwhile, in the United States, only three Trader Vic’s locations remain, and one of those is merely an airport kiosk in San Jose, Calif

It can easily be argued that the Trader Vic’s brand is struggling to say the least.  And if my experience at the Trader Vic’s I visited in Atlanta a couple years back is any indication, I think I know why.

Our purpose for staying in Atlanta on this trip was merely to serve as a layover on what amounted to a two-day drive to Orlando, Fla.  Frankly, neither Punky or I had much interest in staying in the heart of Atlanta, but something in particular made us decide to book a night at the Hilton downtown.  To our surprise, it had a Trader Vic’s.  Another classic chain to cross off our bucket list, we thought. 

You can only imagine how quickly the disappointment took over once we actually got there.  For starters, the location of the restaurant did it no favors.  For some reason, this Trader Vic’s was put on the bottom level of the hotel, and access from the main lobby was limited to only or two of about six to eight elevators.  It was a time-consuming endeavor just to reach the place.  Granted, this is more of a design flaw of the hotel, but it doesn’t start the Trader Vic’s experience in Atlanta off on a very positive note. 

Apr 13, 2023

A commoner dines at Superior Seafood and Oyster Bar, New Orleans, La.

If there’s one street outside of the French Quarter that serves as the cultural artery of New Orleans, it may be St. Charles Avenue.  Stretching from the Central Business District through the Garden District, past the universities of Tulane and Loyola and ending past Audubon Park at the intersection with Carrolton Avenue, St. Charles Avenue has it all, including plentiful businesses and residences of all shapes, sizes and condition.  And, everything’s easily accessible on the famous St. Charles streetcar line.   

It’s no wonder, then, that despite countless trips to New Orleans, I continue to discover new and amazing places on St. Charles Avenue almost every time I visit.  One of my most recent finds:  the Superior Seafood and Oyster Bar.    

Mar 14, 2023

Saloon or museum? Why not visit both at Oogie and JJ’s in Glenarm, Ill.?

Central Illinois Small Town Bar Tour – 2023 Edition

After two highly successful stops in Breckenridge and Bulpitt, and stops in Pawnee and Auburn that are a bit more blurry in the memory banks, our daylong small-town bar tour of Central Illinois concluded just south of Springfield.  In Glenarm, technically. 

There, on the frontage road formerly known as U.S. Route 66, was the Lucky Moon Saloon.  Or so we thought. 

Well, as pictured at the top, the entrance still resembles a modern-day saloon on the outside, or at least a large shed decorated to look like a saloon. 

But as fate would have it, the old Lucky Moon is no more.  Welcome to the bar now known as Oogie and JJ’s Bar, reopened under new ownership as of August 2022.  

Mar 6, 2023

County 5 defines ‘dive’ in Bulpitt, Ill.

Central Illinois Small Town Bar Tour – 2023 Edition

For the second stop on the 2023 edition of our Central Illinois Small Town Bar Tour, tour guide Danielle and Greg guided us along the county highways of western Christian County, south from Edinburg and directly in to the heart of beautiful Bulpitt, Illinois.  At the main intersection with Illinois Route 104, we found our destination – County 5 Bar & Grill.  

Ok, perhaps it’s at the intersection of Route 104 and Harley Babe Blvd. 

Feb 28, 2023

A commoner drinks at Whiskey Ridge Saloon, Breckenridge, Ill.

Central Illinois Small Town Bar Tour – 2023 Edition

If there’s anything that’s sure to break the monotony of winter in Central Illinois, I’d place my bets on a small-town bar tour.  There’s something about the tenacity of the taverns, dive bars and road houses found in and around these communities, villages and wide spots on the road that you have to appreciate.  They’re often the last of the original businesses keeping the town functioning and the town folk together.  Or, they may be revamped versions of longtime favorites, building on their legacy to keep locals coming and bring in new business.  Either way, when you visit one, you’re only a stranger for the first round.    

Punky and I love taking these daylong road trips, especially in February when the calendar gives us a couple of extra days off resulting in three-day weekends when we can beat the winter blues.  And that’s exactly what inspired what I’m calling the “Central Illinois Small Town Bar Tour – 2023 Edition.”  Together with our friends and tour guides Danielle and Greg (Danielle has vast knowledge of the backroads we were using, and Greg is allegedly part bloodhound), we mapped out a loose plan of attack and headed east out of Springfield on Ill. Route 29 toward our first destination – the recently opened Whiskey Ridge Saloon in Breckenridge. 

Feb 20, 2023

Frankie and Johnny’s – a true find in New Orleans’ West Riverside neighborhood

I love exploring New Orleans’ various neighborhoods.  Each one has something unique to offer, which is why Punky and I try to get a little more familiar with a different one on each trip we take to NOLA. 

I am also passionate about po-boys, which are perhaps the definitive New Orleans sandwich (sorry, muffuletta).  So, we also look for a new po-boy shop (or at least a menu with po-boys prominently featured) on each trip to the Big Easy. 

When you put these two interests together, it’s easy to understand what made our discovery of Frankie and Johnny’s in the city’s West Riverside neighborhood such a great find. 

Feb 9, 2023

A commoner dines at the Ishnala Supper Club, Lake Delton, Wis.

In Wisconsin’s food scene, supper clubs still rule as the ultimate dining experience.  And the king of them all may be the one perched high on the edge of Mirror Lake just outside of Wisconsin Dells – the Ishnala Supper Club. 

Jan 25, 2023

Northwoods nostalgia at River’s Edge Pub & Grub, Wisconsin Dells, Wis.

In a town that caters to tourists as much as Wisconsin Dells, Wis., sometimes it’s not easy to find the places the locals go when they want to dine out.  Fortunately, on our most recent trip to the Dells, Punky and I followed the Lake Delton shoreline from our resort to a place with a charming exterior that also happened to be one of the most popular hangouts for Wisconsin Dells residents.

Welcome to the River’s Edge Pub & Grub. 

Jan 18, 2023

Making the best of a weekend at Baker’s Sunset Bay Resort, Wisconsin Dells, Wis.

This is in some ways a story of a Wisconsin getaway that didn’t go quite as planned.  Punky and I had intended to take the Kiddo back to Wisconsin Dells for a long weekend of tourist trap fun combined with some much-needed rest and relaxation.  My job was to secure the lodging, which meant finding something family friendly that wasn’t loud or overcrowded.  Those megaresorts near the interstate and along the main highways were off limits.  But so was anything Punky or the Kiddo might have deemed too rustic. 

My Google mapping eventually led me to focus on the area surrounding Lake Delton south of town.  There, on the lake’s south shore, I chose Baker’s Sunset Bay Resort. 

Jan 10, 2023

A commoner dines at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern, Monroe, Wis.

I wasn’t sure a place existed that could be the perfect representation of Wisconsin life, but then I traveled through Monroe, Wis., one weekend on the way to Wisconsin Dells.  There, by a stroke of luck (and a desire to find a good lunch spot), Punky and I found ourselves on the town’s historic downtown square, and there it was in all its glory ...

... Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern.  Yes, a cheese store and a tavern, in one place.  Surely, you won’t find a better Wisconsin experience than that.  We knew we had to check it out.  

A commoner dines at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern, Monroe, Wis.

I wasn’t sure a place existed that could be the perfect representation of Wisconsin life, but then I traveled through Monroe, Wis., one week...