10 Midwest Trips You'll Talk About
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Visitors who trek out to Moore Ranch -- a 4,000-acre cattle spread 40 miles southeast of Dodge City, Kansas -- shouldn't expect a walk in the park. There are no hayrack rides, TV breaks or even an itinerary. It's the real deal ranch experience.
Moore Ranch offers a hands-on, authentic vacation, and chores might include repairing fences, gathering eggs from the chicken coop or taking care of the cows. The Moore family, who owns the ranch, guarantees just one thing: You'll be outdoors, on a horse and miles from anything even slightly resembling a city.
During weeklong "Adult Adventures" hosted by Milwaukee's Discovery World Museum, the guests on the S/V Denis Sullivan, a 19th-century schooner, are neither passengers nor experienced sailors. Rather, the Sullivan becomes a 137-foot-long classroom out on Lake Michigan -- part science lab, part history seminar and part sailing lesson. While on board, students immerse themselves in the full, stern-to-stern maritime experience.
Every day, students hoist the sails, scrub the deck and monitor the backup engines. Lively lectures and sea-chant sing-alongs fill the long summer evenings. The Sullivan stays in open water the whole week, making it easy to imagine being out on the high seas. "Once you've been out on the Lakes, you'll never see them the same way again," Capt. Hugh Covert says.
About 26,000 years ago, outside present-day Hot Springs, South Dakota, an Ice Age sinkhole trapped an estimated 100 young male mammoths. Millennia later, bulldozers clearing ground for a housing development uncovered the dusty bowl of tangled bones. Paleontologists, who get a little giddy talking about the site, guess it will take decades to unearth all the fossils.
Fortunately, for two weeks every summer, 12 volunteers get to come help excavate. They learn how to gently scrape ocher sediment off the bones. Larry Agenbroad, the dig's leader, leads paleontology talks, pumping up the group's enthusiasm for tusks and tibias. But he finds most volunteers don't need encouraging. "Everyone wants to be an Indiana Jones," he says.
It's late afternoon, and the cotton-ball clouds of midday have turned into a maelstrom of rain, hail and lightning. A row of camera-wielding tourists faces the dark sky with a single question: "Is this the storm that will produce a tornado?" Todd Thorn has led Texas- and Colorado-based Storm Chasing Adventure Tours for more than 11 years. Participants curious to see a real twister spend six days driving across storm-prone states such as Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska.
Todd can't promise tornadoes, but potential-twister-spawning storms are almost guaranteed. Guided by satellites, Todd's SUVs get as close as safely possible to the action. How close is too close? That depends, but he assures you'll hear, smell and feel the storm.
The Wright stuff
Pencils scratch, pages turn and dreams become blueprints at Frank Lloyd Wright's Oak Park, Illinois, studio -- but only four times a year. That's when the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust hosts its Architecture Fantasy Camp, where 12 lucky nonarchitects from around the country gather to try their hands at design.
Producing the next Fallingwater isn't the goal at the workshop, which lasts just four evenings. For architecture junkies, it's the equivalent of swinging Ernie Banks' bat at Wrigley Field. "The emphasis at the camp is process, not product," says Jan Kiekhefer, the trust's director of education.
The Bakehouse, an extension of Ann Arbor, Michigan's, legendary Zingerman's Deli, runs a teaching program called Bake! It's a flour-filled heaven for foodies. Despite the daunting curriculum -- four days, 12 types of bread and no electric mixers -- this carb-loaded getaway attracts participants from around the country.
At this bake-cation, assistants take care of all the measuring and cleanup. In fact, if a student dares to wipe a table, someone inevitably rushes over, pleading, "Don't! You're on vacation!" And you are. Zingerman's shoppers often cart home loads of goodies, and bake-cation alums do the same. The only difference is they made them themselves.
And on that farm...
If you bring kids to Room to Roam, a Wisconsin dairy farm outside Fountain City (100 miles southeast of the Twin Cities), expect some shrieking. You'll hear it when they chase chickens, scamper after farm cats, pick berries and feed goats, and you'll definitely hear it if they cross path with some of the farm's resident crickets.
Room to Roam wraps together a field trip, farmers market and country vacation. Families can spend their days helping out with farm chores, cook their own fresh meals or just relax in the quaint guesthouse. And should a rainy day strike, little hands will have a fine time thumping on the old piano.
Room to Roam, W656 Veraguth Drive, Fountain City, Wisconsin (608/687-8575)
For about 30 years, Murph ("The name's just 'Murph,' pardner," he says) has led overnight wagon treks across the Nebraska prairie. He starts in Bayard (23 miles southeast of Scottsbluff), and guests camp in modern tents in spectacular prairie hideaways. Murph, a former circus trick rider with a long beard, mixes Oregon Trail history with cowboy showmanship. He wows kids with pioneer artifacts and boils coffee for grown-ups. But even Murph can't upstage the trip's real highlight: waking up to a prairie sunrise.
Hard labor of love
The American Hiking Society's Volunteer Vacation at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is quite a bargain: $245 for a weeklong trip. There's just one catch. In exchange for lodging, food and free tours of the world's longest cave system, volunteers work on projects that the park cannot fund.
The program attracts retirees, recent college grads and homemakers. Besides repairing trails, visitors get to go canoeing, swimming and hiking -- and tour parts of the cave rarely open to the public. "They are giving us so much," park ranger and volunteer coordinator Larry Johnson says. "We want to make sure we give them something back."
Nearly 100 years ago, professors at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago founded Ox-Bow, a painting school right on Lake Michigan, 40 miles southwest of Grand Rapids. The school's summer curriculum includes 39 one- and two-week classes in drawing, glassblowing and other media, and the 115-acre campus remains an idyllic haven.
Ox-Bow welcomes students of all ages. Studios stay open 24 hours (the pottery crew even pulls all-nighters feeding the kiln), but students also linger over lemonade in the cafeteria. The vibe is almost magical, an intoxicating blend of feverish creativity and shoes-off tranquillity. After just a day soaking it in, the real world seems very far away.
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® May/June 2008.)