Land of Tee Shirts, Tattoos and Salt Water Taffy

It seemed like a mission of mercy. Despite being the same youthful age as me (stop laughing), and despite having been born and raised in Wisconsin, my longtime friend and pillion passenger of choice, Ann, had never been to the Wisconsin Dells. That’s right, never been there. Of course this meant we had to go there for a few hours of fun and adventure. So I bribed her with the promise of a genuine rubber tomahawk if she agreed to go there with me and on a beautiful Sunday morning, I motored up to her place on Miss Scarlett and we headed west on Wisconsin 16 to a place I have known since early childhood.

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For as far back as I can remember, folks could always gauge how close they were getting to the Dells by the quantity and frequency of billboard advertising along the road. Down in the Chicagoland metro, for example, you might see one such billboard as you head from point to point, nowhere near the Dells. If you follow Interstate 90 out of Illinois and into Wisconsin, you’ll see more. And more. And more, until you finally arrive in a touristic frenzy to go and experience different ways to spend your money.

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It’s like that along the state highways, too, only a lot less crowded and a lot more scenic. Also less stressful. Our fellow drivers/riders seemed happier and more courteous than did their Interstate-running counterparts. Even the billboard advertising seemed less aggressive, although they still increased in number and frequency as we got closer to our destination.

When we arrived, we weren’t exactly in a touristic frenzy, but I was anxious to show Ann around. We found an open parking space just off Broadway, which is the main drag in downtown Wisconsin Dells, shed our riding gear, and set out on foot. Ann had carried along a comfortable pair of walking sandals, which seemed like a really smart idea to me as I spent the day walking around in leather boots. In nothing flat we were assaulted by the sights, sounds and smells of downtown. Frenzied tourists scurried in every direction. There were many families, but also couples, young and old, and the occasional group of teenagers and twenty-somethings.

When I was quite young, I had an aunt who had never married and worked in a public school system. During the summers, she would regularly toss me and my sisters into her station wagon and take us places. Sometimes we would be gone for two or three weeks, but sometimes only for a day or two. Such were our trips to the Wisconsin Dells. We never went to the downtown shops or attractions, which my aunt collectively referred to as junk. Instead we always did three things: the Dells Boat Tours, the Tommy Bartlett Water Show (as I believe it was called then), and the Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial. Just about everything else was declared too dangerous (go carts, roller coasters, WWII Ducks, etc.) or fell into that junk category. The Indian Ceremonial was discontinued in 1997, but even if it hadn’t been, the show began at sundown, way too late for this Sunday outing.

I would really have loved to take Ann to the Tommy Bartlett Show, because even though she had never seen it, in a previous life Ann had known Tommy Bartlett. How cool is that! But alas, somewhere along the line, they stopped offering an early afternoon performance. The earliest show was at 4:30 PM, which after allowing for show duration, parking lot exit, travel back to Ann’s, eating something (one would hope), and traveling back to the other side of Chicagoland, would have had me getting home well after midnight. That wouldn’t have left me in very good shape for work a few hours later. So with that option gone, our agenda was fairly easy. We were there to eat, take a boat ride, and walk some of the downtown shops.

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As it was already approaching noontime, we opted to start with lunch. I had heard good things about a place called Monk’s Bar & Grill. Well let me tell  you, those good things were well founded. The service is prompt, the staff is as helpful and friendly as any you will find, and the food is quite tasty. Ann and I both ordered the bacon cheeseburger. Hers was medium rare and mine medium well, but both were as juicy as all get-out, and flavorful, too. It’s nothing fancy, mind you—it is, as the name implies, a bar and grill—but I wouldn’t hesitate to go back or to recommend this place to friends.

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With full tummies we headed out and began walking toward the west end of downtown, toward the Dells Boat Tours docks. We passed many tee shirt shops, candy stores making and selling fudge and taffy, arcades, tattoo parlors (I don’t recall seeing those when I was young), fun houses, haunted houses, and more. Most of the people we passed on the street seemed happy to be there. Some of the parents looked a little tired. I’m sure there was also an angry tourist or two somewhere in that sea of humanity. There always is.

The angry tourist hadn’t expected to spend so much money, didn’t think it would be so crowded at a major tourist attraction in the middle of summer, doesn’t know why they had to sit in traffic just to spend more money, and on and on and on. And it isn’t enough that they are miserable. They want everybody to share in their misery, too, especially the people who are working their tails off at all the establishments. I once watched a father with two small children in tow give a restaurant cashier the riot act as she rang up his bill—the food wasn’t worth the money; the rolls were stale;the service was slow—all at the top of his lungs, as his two very small children looked on and an entire restaurant full of people did their level best to pretend not to notice. Just go home, angry tourist. Thank God they are so few and far between.

We soon reached the west end of downtown, we bought tickets for the Upper Dells Boat Tour, descended a long stairway to the docks, and after a brief wait, we boarded our boat, the Red Cloud, for a two-hour tour of what had originally brought people to this area, the natural beauty of its land and water.

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It seems to be the same at beautiful vacation destinations across North America. Wherever people flock to see Mother Nature’s greatest hits, somebody will be there to sell them tee shirts and a vast assortment of genuine souvenirs, many of which are probably made in China.Then come the fun houses, fudge shops, wax museums, water parks and so forth. Not that those things aren’t fun, but aren’t they the wholly fabricated polar opposite of why people began going to places like Wisconsin Dells, Niagara Falls, Gatlinburg, and Myrtle Beach in the first place?

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We made our first shore landing at Witches Gulch. We walked through the cool air of the narrow canyon. Whirlpools and rushing water could be seen and heard beneath the walkway. There is a particularly narrow point that used to be called Fat Man’s Misery. The narrow place is still there, but the sign is gone. I can’t help but wonder if some fat person, or maybe an organized fat people’s rights group of some sort, got offended and embarked upon a crusade to have the sign removed and the name banished.

At the end of Witches Gulch lies a snack bar, souvenir stand and restrooms. People were lining up at each of them. When I came out of the men’s room, I spotted Ann leaning on a rail, looking across the way at a flowing stream and a sign that read “STAY out of the WATER!” She was smiling fiendishly and suggested that we needed a photo. I laughed nervously and offered to take the picture. For the record, her foot never actually touched the water.


Our second shore landing was at Stand Rock, a towering sandstone formation several feet away from a ledge. For years, tourists have come here to see a trained dog leap from the ledge to Stand Rock and back again. The photographer H.H.Bennett, whose photography of the Dells area first drew tourists—to whom he then sold postcard souvenirs—photographed his son making that leap, in order to promote his new shutter technology. As I understand it, that image is now in the public domain, and I share it here (below Ann’s video clip) with that understanding.

This photograph taken and published in 1886 by Henry Hamilton Bennett.

After seeing the dog leap, we followed a different and very beautiful path that led us back to the boat, but not before leading everybody to a snack bar, walk-in gift shop, and restrooms. By now you may be wondering whether or not I made good on my bribe and got Ann a rubber tomahawk. Truth be told, we never saw one. We saw plenty of rubber-tipped spears, but she showed absolutely no interest in those, so we just continued on.


All shenanigans aside, we enjoyed the Upper Dells Boat Tour immensely. Both Witches Gulch and Stand Rock are very beautiful places. I enjoyed seeing it all again, but even more so, I enjoyed bringing Ann to see it for the first time in her life. She saw things that made her smile and that smile just made my day.

By the time we returned to the downtown area, it was time for me to take Ann home, so that we could enjoy a quick bite together before I continued another 150 miles to my own home (for a round trip total of 461 miles for the day). In case you’re wondering, those miles mean nothing to me compared to what our friendship means to me. Besides, nobody shoots better photos and videos for me than Ann does.

Did she like it? Yes, Ann liked it, but she also said that she didn’t feel deprived for not having gone there as a kid, because the places she did go to in the summertime were (and still are) golden to her. But what about all that neat touristy stuff? I think Ann said it best.

“You know I loved Witch’s Gulch and Stand Rock, along with the boat ride. That boat ride is so much more than a tourist thing. It really brings nature to the masses.”

And she is exactly right. People originally came here to see the area’s natural beauty. The tourist trap components came later and have evolved over time. For many, many years now, the Dells Boat Tours have taken people to see why Mother Nature has drawn people there since the beginning.

It had been another awesome day of fun and adventure. Thanks for hanging with me.

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