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Olson: Leave the beaten path

My resolve to skip the Interstate on the trip home grew with each traffic backup we passed on our way north.

It was Sunday, the end of the Fourth of July weekend, and as half of Illinois headed south from lake houses and camping trips, I was driving my family to the Wisconsin Dells. There they would meet my in-laws, who would take them to their final destination of Eau Claire, Wis.

I was going back south after the handoff. But there was no way I would be doing it in the bumper-to-bumper traffic I saw in the southbound lanes. Being stuck in traffic seems to become more unbearable in the middle of nowhere.

Instead, from the Dells I headed south on U.S. Route 12, crossed the Wisconsin River in Sauk City, and picked up Wisconsin Highway 78. It’s a hilly and winding road that offers some great vistas of rural Wisconsin.

There are also many cows, an alpaca or two, and occasionally the heavy smell of fertilizer – but that comes with the territory.

The road took me south through small towns and farm country to Argyle, a small town where my grandfather was born, making me wonder how much had changed there in 90 years – would he recognize the streets and buildings? From the looks of it, I was sure he’d remember some of them. 

From Argyle, I took Highway 81 east for miles across more openness before it finally dropped me in Beloit, a town I saw for the first time as something other than as a name on a big green expressway sign and a Hormel factory. It looked as inviting as many mid-sized cities do with the grass and trees in full summer bloom.

The drive home was different from the trip up, where I know the tall pole signs and landmarks by heart after years of passing them at high speed. It was different from the last leg home on Interstate 39, where when the traffic finally broke up, it was hit the gas and go.

It was 20 miles longer than the conventional route, and even if I didn’t save any time, I surely saved some aggravation. No one cut me off or tailgated. Aside from a construction backup in Sauk City near the Wisconsin River, it was smooth sailing the whole way. And the Cubs game went into extra innings.

Really, the only thing that might have made it more fun was if I’d had a motorcycle instead of a minivan.  

No matter. There’s often something to be said for the scenic route, and if you haven’t taken that summer road trip yet, it’s worth trying a route that your GPS would never recommend.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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