Thursday, December 27, 2012

Wherethehellarewe, Wisconsin

One weekend, at the last minute, my future partner and I decided to take a road trip. Picking me up at work in a rental car late Saturday afternoon we headed northwest. 5 hours later we arrived at our destination, the town of Prairie de Chein, on the Mississippi river, the border between Iowa and Wisconsin. It was October and the midwest had been basking in a freakish warm spell. For the last week high had been in the mid to upper 80's. People were out in droves. As we drove down the main road all the hotels and motels sported signs reading "No Vacancy". In desperation, my partner, leaving me in the car, went into one of the largest hotels to ask where we might get a room for the night.

Returning to the car he tells me what he has found out from the woman at the hotel desk. There is not a single room available in the town. They have been sending people to Dubuque, 90 miles away, although they are not sure if there are rooms available there. She has told us that if our car seats recline we can sleep in the car in the field across from the hotel. If anyone questions us tell them she said it was alright for us to do so, giving us her name.

After a few more minutes of fruitless searching my partner suggests that we return to the hotel and ask the woman if she will rent us pillows and a blanket for the night. Our seats did not recline but the back seat folded down which would make the hatchback a small, cramped and hard but serviceable place to sleep for the night. Upon entering the hotel the woman says "I'm so glad you came back! I found you something!" She handed him a piece of paper with a name and phone number on it. We go to the local casino boat and using the pay phone, cellphones were not ubiquitous then as they are now, dials the number. Speaking over the din of the casino and adjoining lounge he jots down the directions he is given. They go something like this.....

Head south on County Road 91. When you see the big rock on the left turn right. After you cross the second wooden bridge you'll see a barn and a farmhouse, that's the old Miller place. Turn right, go about 2 miles and you'll see the motel of the left. We were in the country.

When my partner says we will be arriving late so how will we get in the man at the motel replies, "It will be the last door on the left on the first floor. I'll leave the key in the lock." We were definitely in the country.

The casino boat sat in the river, which is technically Iowa. In Wisconsin, two feet away across the gangplank that connected the boat to the shore, gambling was illegal. After a period of unsuccessful gaming we crossed the gangplank and simultaneously the state border, returned to the car, said a prayer and headed south on County road 91.

There are no lights on these quiet county roads. Our headlights provided the only illumination. The need to pee became unbearable so we pulled over to the side of the road. As we "answered natures call" we looked up and were mesmerized by the star filled sky. We never experience that many stars at home as the city's glare overwhelms their more delicate brilliance and the beautiful, intricate patterns they create.

Following the directions we were given we do eventually come upon a small two story structure. There was indeed a key in the door of the last room on the left. The interior decor of the room resembled the interior of the ramshackle trailers envisioned by Hollywood set designers that are sometimes featured in slasher movies, fake wood paneling, poor, worn country reproduction furnishings and all.We were not there for the decor, we are there for the bed. Especially considering that it was the only one available for miles in any direction., We tucked ourselves in and fell fast asleep.

The next morning, after settling our bill with the owners; the ones that had provided us with the excessively rural directions of the night before; we began to wind our way thru the farm fields and small towns of Wisconsin. The tiny hamlets struggle for claims to fame, which are proudly provided to you on signs as you enter each one. "Home of the 1963 State High School Champion Falcons", "Home of Miss Wisconsin 1953" and my personal favorite, "The Wild Turkey Hunting Capitol of the World." Think about it, really, who is going to challenge that claim? Who else would want it? One towns overlong explanation is, not the place where the first Gideon bible was left, but the place where the two men first discussed the idea of leaving the bibles in motel rooms nationwide.

We traveled through the bright fall colors enjoying the warm autumn afternoon. We passed cows tranquilly grazing in fields, it was Wisconsin. We stopped at a farm stand and purchased gourds, jams, cider and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Stopping at the border we bought the obligatory cheese before crossing into Illinois and heading home.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Illinois neighbor to the north is the state of Wisconsin, known as "America's Dairyland". I sometimes say, only half jokingly, that as you leave they check your car at the border to ensure that you have purchased cheese during your stay. In truth, there are shops selling a variety of cheese products at all state border crossings.

I have a friend who grew up in, and whose family still lives in, Oshkosh, a city famous for the clothing company which carries it's name. It is a relatively small city in both physical size, 24 square miles, and population, around 66,000. It contains a number of historic structures, primarily due to the wealth generated by the timber industry in the late 19th and early 20th century, including a modest home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

My friend's family lives on a county road, yet still within the borders of the city. The home was part of a dairy farm, it is Wisconsin after all. A second home, a classic example of the Arts and Crafts movement, was rescued by the family from demolition during an urban renewal project. It sits next door to the original house on the property. There is a hay barn and the dairy barn, some of the milking equipment still in place. The grounds around the homes and outbuildings are well manicured. The rest of the property has been allowed to return to it's former state of prairie grasses and wildflowers. Wild hares and mice thrive in the tall grasses. Hawks float overhead. My friend's father and I once stood at the edge of the wild growth watching two adult hawks teaching their young to hunt.

My friend once told me the story of the house. Originally a much older home stood on the site. Apparently the husband who owned it was constantly telling his wife he would build her a new home to replace the old one. After postponing construction time and again the wife's patience wore out. She took a sledgehammer to the house causing so much damage that tearing down and rebuilding was the only option. What resulted was the charming one and a half story home that stands today.

The upper floor, where the bedrooms are located, is a cozy space of sloping ceiling lines and dormer windows. The mix of furnishings, punctuated by country antiques, makes the home feel comfortable, loved and lived in. Off the master bedroom is a deck built on top of the home's first floor mud room. The mud room is the entrance to the house. It opens into the kitchen, which is the heart and soul of this home. There is a front door the the house as well, but I can truthfully say that in all my visits there I have never seen anyone use it. The dining room has built in cabinets in it's corners showcasing a collection of transfer printed pottery. Racks containing a collection of silver spoons hang on one wall. A small book lined study sits at the back of the house. Out the living room's window cows can be seen grazing in the field across the road. Alas, the last time I was there this bucolic scene had begun to morph into the tract homes of a subdivision. In the basement a bar and pool table share space with the family's Christmas decorations.

Each year the Experimental Aircraft Association holds an event called AirVenture. People flying in from all over the world to display their small aircraft gives the city's municipal airfield, for this one weekend each year, the distinction of being the busiest airport in the world. Oh those magnificent men in their flying machines! My first visit to Oshkosh was to experience this aeronautical spectacle. 5 of us, plus their son, descended upon this hapless family that weekend. We took over the upper floor of the house, his parents graciously giving up their bedroom, sleeping on the sofa bed in the living room. I went to the air show knowing almost nothing about experimental aviation. I left knowing that it was a venture entirely out of my price range. The visit ended with a Sunday family lunch of hearty country fare prior to our drive home. 3 generations of this wonderful family graced the table that afternoon.

Subsequent trips revolved around the family's annual fall barn dance. Shopping at Goodwill and antique malls filled the afternoons. On occasion short visits to a local lighthouse were made, as a constant fellow on these trips is fond of them. He was fonder still when he discovered that this particular lighthouse carries his last name. Further investigation revealed that he is distantly related to the family that owns and maintains the structure.

In the evening the dance commences. It is a major event in the area and draws a large crowd. As it is Wisconsin there is a fair assortment of Packer's attire on display. The scene is peppered with guests sporting combinations of Green and Yellow and G's and B's. Hay bales provide seating, plank tables groan under the weight of kegs of beer and plates of candied apples. Jack o' Lanterns, carved by the lighthouse lover, flicker and two stepping couples fill the floor.

One dance of the night is reserved for the hosts, the parents of my friend. After over four decades of marriage the look they shared as they moved across the dance floor to the strains of "I Only Have Eyes For You" displayed a deep and abiding love that is beautiful, inspiring and enviable.

I wander outside. The barn blocks out the lights from the house and grounds as we sit behind it. I enjoy the crisp, fresh coolness of the fall night air and look up through the darkness at the multitude of twinkling lights in the broad, crystal clear, midwestern sky. I could not live in the country, but it's a great place to visit once in a while!