by Kristin Machacek Leary
In one of my favorite movies, “The Wizard of Oz”, I was always captivated by the journey to Oz that Dorothy & Toto and their new found friends set out on. Each of them had different reasons for wanting to get to Oz, yet the experiences they faced while on their journey brought them closer than they had ever expected.
If you find yourself scratching your head wondering how this movie relates to motorcycling, read on, and you’ll see…
This summer, five other individuals and myself set out on a similar mission to that of Dorothy and her friends. The road we headed down was not yellow or even brick, it was black and asphalt, and it is called The Great River Road. What we thought to be our “Oz” was a river town called Galena, Illinois.
Now on to the journey…
The portion of The Great River Road that our group took (MN Hwy 61, connecting to Hwy 52 in Iowa) is a mere 470 miles of its 6,000 mile length. This route unlocks the Mississippi’s beauty and history which come much more alive when you are on a motorcycle. You are able to absorb the sights, the sounds, and the aromas of the River Road. And, at times, there is too much aroma when you pass by the numerous hog farms that line the road in northeastern Iowa.
Though ancient glaciers flattened most of central Minnesota, the advancing ice wall somehow missed the state’s southeast corner. It left undisturbed a landscape of soaring bluffs and deep, cool valleys, bounded on the east by the mighty Mississippi River, which runs wide and lazy even this far north. During the hot summer days, these valleys are incredibly refreshing. They provided our group with the outside air-conditioning when we desperately needed it. Additionally, the topography in this area is a motorcyclists’ dream!
This bluff-country tour follows the Mississippi’s course south from the historic river town of Red Wing, then it threads along beside limestone ridges that tower above the river. West of the Mississippi, green forests and farm fields cover the hills and valleys. As you continue southward towards Dubuque, Iowa and Galena, Illinois, spectacular river bluffs and rolling hills are your guide.
I had once heard a motorcyclist comment that this route is full of discovery. And he was right. We discovered the beautiful Riverboat Territory by traveling from Galena to Decorah, Iowa. We viewed some of the Mississippi River’s most scenic stretches, before swinging inland through the rolling hills and farm country of the Upper Iowa River Valley.
The glaciers bypassed this area where northeast Iowa and northwest Illinois converge, leaving hills and bluffs that some like to call “Little Switzerland”. (Personally, I think it’s quite a stretch to call this area “Little Switzerland”. It is a beautiful area, however, I did not see any mountains or sheer cliffs like one may associate with Switzerland. But to the Iowans, a large hill could easily be mistaken as a mountain!)
Our final destination of Galena delighted us. Its Victorian-style homes, unique stores and antique shops, and pampering bed & breakfasts reminded us of Stillwater, Minnesota, yet on a much larger scale. If you choose to make Galena a destination for yourself, bring along some extra spending money and an empty saddle bag to bring home all of your rare finds.
Galena did provide us with a great road on the outskirts of town. Lumberjack Road is a relatively remote, twelve mile twisty-curvy road. Its beautiful scenery was a thrill to ride. A ride that could easily be done several times without getting bored.
After three days, it was time to head back home on the Wisconsin side of The Great River Road. The scenery was spectacular as we had expected, and the farm fields and bluffs decorated our route nearly the entire way home.
To me, what distinguishes a successful motorcycle trip from those that are not, is not only the number of twisty-curvy roads and beautiful scenery, it is the company in which you share. Our group was comprised of six very diverse individuals with strong motorcycling skills, humor and wit that is incomprehensible at times, the flexibility to be the leader of the pack or just relax and be a follower, and the open-mindedness and desire to further strengthen these friendships.
One might argue that Galena didn’t end up being our “Oz”. Rather our Oz became the “journey” with our friends. Thank you to Tim, John & Margaret, and Chuck & Gail for making this journey down The Great River Road a success.