Riding U.S. 51 with state’s tourism secretary

My passport is full, and so is Jim Holperin’s, but we never left Wisconsin.

The state tourism secretary let me tag along as he drove the 300-plus miles that make up the new U.S. 51 tour of 15 communities, Hurley to Beloit. Wisconsin is the first of six states to turn this highway into a tourist attraction, and the effort already has gained national media attention.

“Wisconsin has always been a drive-to tourism state,” Jim told business owners in Minocqua. “This is a way to harvest the horsepower of several communities.”

The point is to fill a “Passport Wisconsin” with a stamp from each participating community. The passport lists where to go and what to see. It is not meant to be a thrill-a-minute excursion, but a way to better understand the state’s diversity of culture, character, history, economics and terrain.

There are the attractions, and then there’s the road. The route embraces the nuances of Wisconsin as well as the stark contrasts of its urban and rural, Northwoods and agricultural landscapes.

It is about our sense of humor and identity: Hurley’s giant corkscrew, Beloit’s big can of chili, the planet’s largest loon (in Mercer) and biggest penny (in Woodruff).

It is about the unusual crops that earn farmers a living: the ginseng near Wausau to the cranberries of Eagle River and tobacco of Edgerton. Amish farmers use horses in the fields. Others use machinery that costs more than their house.

It is about having easy access to natural beauty, be it the Bearskin-Hiawatha bike trail, between Minocqua and Tomahawk, or the 150 miles of snowmobile/ATV routes in Iron County.

It is about paying attention to the roadside as well as your driving, and not getting a cell phone connection for miles. It is about having a red fox cross your path in one town, or seeing a hawk soar.

One farm sells maple syrup. Another has a quilt shop. There are cosmopolitan pursuits, too – fine art and dining, boutique shopping – but not always where it is expected.

Our passports likely were the first to be filled, says Darien Schaefer of Wausau, who spearheads this project. Since recent Associated Press and USA Today coverage, he has been fielding e-mail inquiries from Europe as well as both U.S. coasts.

It’s too early to say whether U.S. 51 will turn into another Route 66, regarding its tourism depth and affection, but one thing is clear: Most of our 15 communities want company. A lot of goodness and goodwill go along with the enthusiasm.

These are people who are proud of where they live. They are excited to be part of a six-state project that encompasses people of a similar spirit, in places they have never seen.

“For some communities, this is the closest they’ll get to fame,” Jim told civic leaders in Portage, calling this “a project with tremendous potential – very few regional projects have this reach.” (An exception is the 18-city venture along lakes Michigan and Superior — www.wisconsinharbortowns.org, 800-554-1448.)

There are challenges. Some places need to better define their identity. Some need to make sure attractions are open when people are likely to visit. Websites need to be functional. Directions need to be clear and accurate.

The Wisconsin Passport contains dozens of ideas about where to stop along U.S. 51, but it is simply a summary. Other worthy places, people and events in the smaller communities include:

Hurley – The Anton-Walsh Bed and Breakfast is operated by Gene Cisewski, who loves to cook and is a local history buff. That means he knows about the town’s lurid past as a red light district, when prostitution was the only way for a woman to earn a good income.

Breakfasts include his signature pudding (made with wild rice and cranberries) and meats such as juniper berry sausage. www.anton-walsh.com, 715-561-2065.

Manitowish Waters – More artists have begun to call this remote area their home, and studios are open during the Northwoods Summer Art Tour, July 28-30. This back roads tour has 20-plus stops. Art techniques are demonstrated, and it isn’t all about chainsaw wood carvings.
www.northwoodssummerarttour.com, 715-277-4224.

Recommended lodging options include Voss’ Birchwood Resort, rustic but charming, full of nostalgia. Family owned and established in 1910, with an ice cream parlor and an inviting dining room that overlooks Spider Bay. 715-543-8441.

Tomahawk — Harley-Davidson provides work to hundreds in the area, and plant tours occur during the Fall Ride, Sept. 14-17, which turns the area into a little Sturgis. About 40,000 attend; it’s about street dances, Harley demos and raising money to fight muscular dystrophy. www.tomahawkfallride.com, www.gototomahawk.com, 800-569-2160.

A good choice at the downtown Pine Tree Supper Club is The Spirit (or daily variations of it), which is ham, asparagus and mushrooms, served open-faced and slathered with white sauce and melted cheese. Also on the menu: locally made wines, chokeberry to dandelion. www.pinetreesupperclub.com, 715-453-4235.

Merrill – Two sides of this city’s personality show up in a big way next month. The Central Wisconsin Polka Festival, June 16-18, takes over the Lincoln County Fairgrounds. Many of the dozen bands come from other small communities, Ringle to Butternut, Trempealeau to Pulaski. 877-907-2757.

Rodeo Days, just one week later, is at the same location, with bands and a cowboy church service as well as professional rodeo performances and mounted shooting demos. www.lincolncountyrodeo.com, 877-90-PARKS.

Wausau area – Mosinee introduces a new and free event in River Park from Aug. 18-20. The Little Bull Falls Logging Festival will include raft races, an old-time lumberjack contest (that means no power equipment) and four levels of competition in horseshoe throwing. www.mosineechamber.org, 715-693-4330.

Wautoma – On the outskirts is Pine Ridge Farms, upscale lodging for people who love trout fishing, bird and deer hunting. “Adding a touch of class to the outdoors” is the business slogan; fine dining fare includes wild game. www.pineridgefarms.com, 920-787-5519.

WestfieldMiracle Bakery is operated by Julie Breneman; she and husband Greg spent time in Africa as missionaries. That’s why business décor includes African art as well as antique tools and toys. Besides sweets, breakfast and lunch are served. 608-296-3919.

Stoughton – The Dane County community calls itself the place where coffee breaks began, a fact that will be celebrated with an Aug. 19 festival. The biggest bash, though, is in mid May and about Norwegian heritage. Stoughton’s Syttende Mai is the largest such celebration outside of Norway. www.stoughtonwi.com, 888-873-7912.

Edgerton – Native Sterling North, whose book “Rascal” became a Disney film in 1969, would have been 100 years old this year. Community tributes will include a book festival on Oct. 21. www.sterlingnorth.com, www.edgertonwisconsin.com, 888-298-4408.

Larger cities on U.S. 51 have much to brag about, too. Madison’s new Museum of Contemporary Art has a classy rooftop sculpture garden and restaurant. Artists have produced 39 unique versions of the ’57 Chevy, in miniature form, to enhance downtown Janesville as public art. Too new for Beloit’s U.S. 51 listings is the American Industrial Art Museum, overlooking the Rock River downtown.

For more about Wisconsin’s U.S. 51 tourism project, see www.explorehwy51.com or call 866-HWY-51-WI. There are prize incentives for getting passports stamped, and for nominating “The Best of Highway 51” lodging, dining, shopping, architecture and scenery.

The top vote getters will be a part of future promotions.

“People are grateful for guidebooks such as this,” Jim noted, in Manitowish Waters. “It gives people another reason to travel in Wisconsin.”

What will be the impact of high gas prices? People will still travel, he predicts, but they’ll spend less on something when they get to their destination. Studies show that shopping is the first category affected, then dining.

For other ideas about Wisconsin road trips, see the 33 “Gas Beater Getaways” that are newly posted at www.travelwisconsin.com. The compilation is in response to higher gas prices, and a new AAA conclusion that the average cost for vacationing in Wisconsin is $228 per day for a family of four.

That is the 33rd lowest average nationwide, comparable to Iowa. For Illinois, it’s $271 per day.