Lessons learned while driving 3,000 miles

People who love to travel might not care that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, unless it’s after sunset and there are no motel vacancies in sight.

This fall, I put more than 3,000 miles on the odometer by taking a hunch on a few unknown side roads. I winded around Grand Traverse Bay in western Michigan, rolled from one glacial hilltop to another in Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest, shadowed the Mississippi River in Iowa and Minnesota.

Those miles don’t include a ride across Lake Michigan on the S.S. Badger carferry, a horse-drawn wagon tour of Mackinac Island, or a train ride to Chicago from Harvard, Ill.

Plush forests slowly turned into orchards and cornfields, dotted with roadside produce stands. The maneuvering from one small town to another usually was a pleasure.

Views were majestic at Pike’s Peak State Park in Iowa, where the Wisconsin River empties into the Mississippi. One grand estate followed another, closer to home, during a look between the lakes of Oconomowoc.

There were visits to Chicago and the Twin Cities, too, invigorating glimpses at another pace of life and all of its unique possibilities.

Here are random observations, the extremes of an eventful and active autumn.

Timing is everything. That pertains to concert tickets, hotel prices and your life in general.

I made an eleventh-hour decision to see Paul McCartney at the United Center in Chicago this fall. The concert tour had been a quick sell-out, but a new block of prime seating was released 11 days before the show.

Extra seats sometimes become available when promoters return tickets, or because a stage takes up less space than expected. Just keep your eye on www.ticketmaster.com, up to a day or two before a show date, and be ready to act quickly.

My guy and I were in Chicago on a Tuesday. That’s when admission to the Art Institute of Chicago is free, so we took a gander at its Monets and van Goghs. Admission usually is $10.

Thanks to www.orbitz.com, our room at the formerly grand and once-notable Congress Plaza Hotel was $99, a good value for downtown, even though the accommodations were slightly more tired looking than we were around midnight that night.

As a contrast, my $57 Best Western rate in St. Ignace, Mich., from www.expedia.com, sure sounded good until I saw various versions of “2 for $36 on the water” signs at other places, upon my arrival.

Always have a contingency plan. It’s particularly important with regard to public transportation. Sometimes schedules change or routes are discontinued, depending upon supply and demand.

After waiting a half-hour at a Chicago bus stop for the No. 19 United Center Express, which was to arrive every 12 minutes, we hopped the No. 20 – more stops but same direction.

A one-day visitor pass, for $5, gave us unlimited access to the city’s rail and bus routes. For more, go to www.transitchicago.com or call (888) 968-7282. Be sure to ask for a map of routes.

In Minneapolis, I waited (then walked) an hour on Nicolett Mall before giving up on a Friday afternoon city tour by trolley. I had expected to see a trolley every 30 minutes.

The next day, the trolley’s route was delightful for its dozen riders. But the last tour ended at 3:30 p.m., earlier than the times on printed material.

Lesson: Confirm tour start and end times, especially during off-season months, and particularly if you want to hop off of one tour vehicle, to take in an attraction, then catch the next one.

Traffic jams, jellies and cranberries. The biggest stop-and-go pace that I encountered this fall was on Monroe County EW. It took 45 minutes to crawl three miles into Warrens for its annual Cranberry Festival.

Lucky me. Locals say it can take more than an hour to go this far. The festival is the largest of its kind in the world.

But saying that you go to Warrens for the cranberries is kind of like saying that you subscribe to Playboy for the great articles. Sure, there are wonderful cranberry concoctions here, but the real draw seems to be the three miles of crafts, antiques, junk and produce for sale.

Vendors from 28 states sell anything from jars of pickled eggs to rabbit-lined earmuffs, emu oil to life-sized scarecrows. Porcelain dolls. Elk sausage sticks. Even metal shopping carts with wheels, to haul it all, are for sale here.

Items are unusual and affordable. Foot traffic slows to a overcrowded shuffle by noon.

With respect to the cranberry industry, this event also attracts the Food Network and Ocean Spray’s corporate office. The former interviewed cranberry recipe contest winners this year.

The latter introduced new cranberry products (including white cranberry apple juice).

Next year’s festival is Sept. 26-28 Warrens is eight miles north of Tomah, off of Interstate 94. For more, go to www.cranfest.com.