This April, I made the mistake of traveling to Milwaukee by train. The mistake was neither the destination nor the service rendered by our nation's passenger rail service: it was that I didn't have much means to bring any souvenirs home with me. As a foodie with a mild interest in fermented beverages, my eyes glistened at the bespoke brews, unique cheeses, and Germanic sausages not readily available in Michigan.
I vowed to make amends -- and fortunately, I had my chance last weekend. Not only did I have time to pursue German-American food and drink in a city with a German twist, but I also had a German-American sedan at my disposal: our Four Seasons 2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI.
I picked up my friend Chris, a car nut with an affinity for beer honed during a semester of college spent in Germany, at his house in Milan, Michigan, late Thursday evening. After loading his belongings in the trunk, we topped off the Passat's 18.5-gallon tank to "zero-out" before our trip, and set off on our way. We headed south to Toledo, Ohio, before picking up the first of many toll roads that led us into suburban Chicago, where planned to stay for the night.
The beauty of the Ohio Turnpike is in its speed limits: it's no autobahn, but unlike most other Ohio highways, 80/90 is posted at 70 mph instead of 65. Despite my lead foot, we vowed then and there to maintain posted speeds in the name of legality and fuel economy. We abided by this mantra, save for one stretch at the Indiana border, where a deluge of rain forced us to slow to a 50-mph crawl, as the Passat's Hankook OptimoH426 tires seem a little hydroplane-happy in heavy precipitation.
After a night of rest in Elk Grove, Illinois, we headed north into Wisconsin. Were we only to visit Milwaukee, a beeline north on I-94 would have made sense, but a colleague tipped me off to another waypoint worth visiting: New Glarus, a small village located southwest of Madison. I'd been told New Glarus was something like a little Switzerland, and was also home to the best brewery in the state.
Both points were quickly proven true. If the hilly terrain surrounding the town doesn't scream Switzerland, the city -- founded in 1845 by Swiss immigrants -- certainly does. Many buildings were built to traditional Swiss architectural standards, and restaurants -- including the Glarner Stube, which we hit for a spot of lunch -- serve up traditional German and Swiss dishes (try the pasteli with a side of rosti, if you have a chance). Just down the road from the village's epicenter lies New Glarus Brewing Company, an independent craft brewery perched atop a scenic knoll. I'm not the biggest beer enthusiast, but I quickly fell in love with the champagne-like finish of the Totally Naked seasonal lager, along with the unique Belgian Red, which blends cherries into the mix during the brewing process. As neither is available outside of Wisconsin, I felt the need to bring a few bottles home with me to enjoy at a later date. I wasn't the only one who felt this way: a family from Illinois, driving a Passat TDI identical to ours, had their trunk completely filled with cases of brew.
From there, we headed north through Madison -- pausing to ogle the imposing state capital building -- before winding our way east towards Milwaukee. Thanks to a late (and large) lunch, we elected to postpone our plans of seeking traditional German cuisine upon our arrival, and simply slithered into a local burger-centric joint for dinner. We weren't that hungry, and neither was the Passat: despite logging nearly 520 miles thus far, our fuel gauge still indicated we had a third of a tank left, and plenty of range to go.
Saturday, we hit Sprecher Brewery in Glendale a suburb just to the north of Milwaukee proper. Admittedly, I was in this for something other than just the beer: the root beer. First launched as a means of giving something to kids who toured the factories alongside their beer-sampling parents, the root beer itself has grown into the company's best-selling product. I came to love its sweet, vanilla-ish taste back home in Michigan, but buying direct from the manufacturer has its benefits: I paid nearly half what I'd cough up back home.
I load two cases of the nectar into the Passat before we head back downtown, where we stock up on a variety of groceries, including traditional brick and ultra-buttery butterkase cheeses, some white cheddar cheese curds for Chris, and traditional weisswurst sausage -- a delicacy I came to love during auto show luncheons in Germany -- from Usinger's. Plans to dine at a local German restaurant for dinner fall by the wayside once we hear a boom from above. Little did we know Milwaukee was hosting an air show, and we're treated to the sight of a Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor fighter jet flying in formation with a vintage Lockheed P-38 Lightning. We waste most of the afternoon on the shoreline, basking in this hedonistic display of flying firepower before we realize it's now close to 5:00, and we must be on our way.
Most maps and navigation systems will tell you the quickest way back home to Michigan is to head south through Chicago. They're correct, but where's the adventure in that? We instead opt for the long way home, and plan a route north through Green Bay, into Michigan's Upper Peninsula, across the Mackinac Bridge, and back into the Lower Peninsula. Chris and I agree to swap driving shifts throughout the night, but before we do that, we listen to the Passat and fill up on the outskirts of Milwaukee. Our dalliances downtown have whittled us down to about an eighth of a tank. We put in about 16.12 gallons, meaning we've averaged about 41 mpg over the past 660 miles. Not shabby, considering just how large this "midsize" Passat truly is.
A funny thing happens on our way through Oshkosh: we see trucks. Lots of trucks. And not just any sort of truck, but large, all-wheel-drive, drab-painted military trucks. Oshkosh is home to the (appropriately named) Oshkosh Corporation, a truck-building firm that thrives primarily on defense contracts. You can't drive past a local truck stop without bumping into an 8x8 HEMTT transporter. You can't wander through town without seeing fields of factory-fresh FMTV troop transporters. And, if you know the right place to look in nearby Appleton, you can easily find brand-spanking new aircraft fire trucks, all ready to be shipped to customers in Angola, Argentina, China, and Spain. My inner three-year-old insists we stop for a few quick photos before heading back to the freeway.
Photo ops are scarce in the Upper Peninsula, although it's not due to a lack of scenery -- after all, quite a bit of M-35 rides right along the coastline of Lake Superior. It's more a matter of timing: after midnight, there's little to see apart from a never-ending sea of black. I slide behind the wheel in Escanaba, and set the cruise control at the posted 55-mph limit, and don't do much else other than steer and dim the brights when we occasionally encounter oncoming traffic. We finally wind our way into St. Ignace around 4:00 in the morning, and take a few moments to stare at the Mackinac Bridge's 8614-foot span from a lakeside park. $4 later, we're on the other side of the bridge, and heading home in the Lower Peninsula.
A brief stop to unload my wares in Brighton slows us down slightly, but ultimately, I drop Chris off back in Milan right around 9 in the morning on Sunday. We look haggard and feel exhausted, but we can't say the same of the Passat. It tirelessly hauled around three quarters of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour, and looked no worse for the wear. A low-fuel light came on as I drove home, so I stopped and filled up in Whitmore Lake. We'd traveled 746 miles since our last fill-up, and the Passat gulped down only 15.92 gallons. That works out to a whopping 46.9 mpg average for our second leg of driving. The Passat may have been laden with goodies on the return home, but the Upper Peninsula's 55-mph limits helped counteract the extra weight.
All told, we put nearly 1406 miles on the Passat, averaged roughly 43.9 mpg over the entire trip while driving with cargo at the posted limit, and spent a rather paltry $127.33 in fuel. That's less than I paid months ago for two Amtrak tickets to Milwaukee, and the Passat provided us the comfort of our own cabin, the convenience of our own climate controls and audio system, space for our cargo and groceries, and no interference from noisy passengers sitting around us.
Forget the train. Next time, I'll take the TDI.
Total miles traveled: 1406
Number of fueling stops en-route: Two
Number of restroom stops en-route Five
Gallons of diesel fuel consumed: 32 gallons
Calories consumed: ACHTUNG. Don't try this at home.
Average MPG: 43.9 mpg
Total spent on diesel fuel: $127.33
Total spent on toll roads: $15.05
Total spent on beer and food: Ignorance is bliss, ja?
Average fuel cost per mile: $0.09