See more at Bill Steigerwald's PG blog "Travels Without Charley."
BARABOO, Wis. -- I don't know what John Steinbeck saw in the Wisconsin Dells that was so "enchanting," but I sure didn't see it.
I drove the same route last weekend that he did on his "Travels With Charley" trip in 1960. Steinbeck and poodle Charley went north on U.S. 12 from Chicago past Madison, past this impressive little tourist town and past the strip of garish motels, amusement parks and waterparks that are said to have inspired Chicago mobster Bugsy Siegel to steal the idea for his plans for Las Vegas.
Steinbeck saw no more of the "Wis Dells," as the road signs say, through his windshield than I did. He didn't take a boat ride on the Wisconsin River and enjoy 15 miles of pristine river and hemlock forests or gawk at the river's tall sandstone cliffs that were carved by Ice Age glaciers on their most recent visit.
He didn't ride Wisconsin's rapids -- that's "dells" for us uni-linguists (after the French word "dalles," which means "a fast-moving stretch of water"). And he didn't stop at one of the many waterparks on U.S. 12 and elsewhere that make the Dells the alleged waterpark capital of the world.
I didn't do any of that touristy stuff either as I continued to doggedly retrace Steinbeck's 10,000-mile circumnavigation of America without a dog to slow me down. But on the afternoon of Oct. 9 it seemed as if everyone within 150 miles had decided to drive up or down U.S. 12 to peep at the fabulous fall colors or visit Devil's Lake, the beautiful state park in the exurbs of Baraboo.
It's not hard to see why Devil's Lake is the most popular state park in Wisconsin. A relatively small and shallow lake created by glaciers, it's surrounded by cliffs as high as 500 feet and has miles of hiking/biking/skiing trails, hundreds of campsites and two small sandy beaches.
On a perfect fall Saturday afternoon, I drove over from the arts fair that was occupying several streets in downtown Baraboo to check out the lake that everyone I met said I had to see. Using the North Shore entrance, I tunneled through a forest of red, orange and yellow oak, ash and maple trees until the compact 360-acre lake appeared in the middle of the Baraboo Hills.
The trees were so thick they hid the people and the cars they came in. It seemed like half of the 1.6 million people who visit the park each year were already there. It took me about 20 minutes just to drive into and out of the small park, and I didn't have to wait in a line of 12 cars to buy a parking ticket.
The grassy lakeshore was teeming with families and couples. But if you wanted to be alone you could get in a kayak or a (non-carbon-spewing) boat or scale a cliff that, thanks to all the hard work of those glaciers did 10,000 years ago, is made out of some of the hardest rock on the planet.
Devil's Lake is reason enough to spend half a day in greater Baraboo, but there's more. Based on the classy fall arts and crafts festival I saw on its downtown streets, the city of nearly 12,000 knows what it's doing. Its business district looks healthy, and its side streets are filled with lovely homes.
The tourist draw in downtown Baraboo is the Al. (don't leave out that period) Ringling Theatre. A beautifully restored movie house built in 1915 by Albert Ringling of Ringling Brothers Circus fame, it was designed like a grand French opera house with a fancy drapes, plasterwork and a ceiling fresco.
The "movie palace" where Lionel Barrymore and Mary Pickford performed has been faithfully restored to its original grandeur by a community effort and still shows movies like "the Wizard of Oz" on Saturday afternoons.
It's no accident that a Ringling Brother forked over $100,000 to build the town's theater. The Ringlings were raised in Baraboo during the second half of the 1800s and started their famous business there before taking it around the world.
Baraboo used to be the home base and wintering headquarters of what became one of the largest circuses in the world when it merged with Barnum & Bailey in the early 1900s. Ringling's former facility now houses the Circus World Museum, where you can find exhibits, circus wagons, artifacts and the planet's largest library of circus information. The museum complex was closed when I blew through town, but during the summer it puts on daily circus performances.
Albert Ringling -- who used the period after Al. to distinguish himself from his other brother Al (Alfred) -- had his mansion in Baraboo on the stretch of U.S. 12 that cuts through town. Steinbeck passed that stout brick house in his pickup truck-camper combo 50 years ahead of me on his way north.
When I walked by it on Oct. 9, the Elks of Baraboo, who've owned the mansion since 1936, were out on their front lawn selling brats to the hordes streaming over to Baraboo's arts and crafts fest. They were raising money to fix the mansion's leaky "ruff," someone said.
When I stopped to take some photos, I made the inevitable Pittsburgh connection. It turned out that the hulk in the Vikings cap grilling the brats worked for the company that distributes the Steelers' No. 1 psychological weapon, the Terrible Towel. It's always a small world when you're from Pittsburgh and on the road -- even in a place called Baraboo.