It is just over 450 miles from Duluth, Minnesota to the western suburbs of Chicago. Growing up in the former and but coming from a family built around the latter, I cannot count how many times I’ve made that drive. It is not a particularly thrilling ribbon of road; while the Northwoods of northern Wisconsin and the rolling hills around Madison are pleasant, they don’t stand out in any obvious way, and as with most any freeway in this country, there are long stretches of blah suburban sprawl. But it’s a drive I’ve made so many times that even the most indistinct farmhouses and office buildings lining the road take on a certain familiarity. With familiarity comes comfort, comfort lends itself to repetition, and before long, improbable traditions are born.
There’s the cheese barn in Tomah, where we always stop for a hunk of 5-year cheddar; there’s the rest area near Black River Falls with a hiking trail up a convenient bluff—the perfect way to get one’s legs moving after several hours in the car. Sadly, the Rocky Rococo’s Pizza Parlor is no longer in Wisconsin Dells; it wasn’t particularly remarkable pizza, but we always stopped there anyway, and now have to improvise, either by heading on to another Rocky’s in Madison or going to the sit-down pizza place up the road with the fantastic giant moose atop their delivery cars. (The Dells are still an attraction in themselves, being one of the most impressive monuments to American consumer kitsch this side of Vegas.) There’s the ABS Beef billboard with its witty slogans, the offbeat coffee shop in Eau Claire, and the Illinois border, always a welcome sight despite the looming tolls and inevitable construction clogging up the last hour or two of the drive.
In southern Wisconsin, there are places that have a deeper place in my psyche than merely passing amusement. There is Madison, where my parents met and went to school; even though I’ve never lived there, it still brings out all the nostalgia of a former home. No summer is quite complete without an afternoon basking in the sun on the Memorial Union Terrace, or wandering up State Street in search of the most obscure possible culinary experience. (“Nah, we went to one of the Afghan places last summer; let’s try the Nepali restaurant this time.”) I see a lot of Madison in myself: a mix of Midwestern homeliness and university life (including both its intellectual and, um, “less refined” delights), interested in both the wider world and every move of the local sports teams. (I adopt the Badgers for sports in which my alma mater doesn’t compete.) It all adds up to one of the most vibrant small cities this country can offer, and on this road trip, it’s always a reassuring sign to see the capitol dome rising above the skyline.
After filling my granola quota in Madison, a short drive south takes me past the place where our old Honda once broke down and on to Edgerton. Edgerton is a town of some 5,000 residents, and in many ways couldn’t be further from the cosmopolitan pretension of Madison. To the passerby, it’s no different from any of the other towns lining the freeway, and the one or two facts one might learn of it—home to the world’s largest Culver’s restaurant! home of an annual “Tobacco Days” festival!—hardly inspire the casual driver. Further digging might reveal some things that might intrigue a few people: say, the home of children’s author Sterling North, or perhaps the intriguing political dynamics of a town halfway between lefty Madison and its industrial southern neighbor, Janesville—the hometown of Congressman Paul Ryan. Still, Edgerton seems exactly the sort of town people imagine when they hear the words “flyover country.”
But Edgerton will always be more than that: it was where my first memories were formed. I wasn’t born there, and it proved a fairly brief stop, convenient for its location between my mother’s graduate program in Madison and my father’s work in another Wisconsin town. I don’t know anyone who lives there anymore, and the memories are so distant that I only barely recognize the landmarks. What remains is a profound sense of rightness, one that comes rushing back when we make a pit stop at the old gas station, swing past the handful of places I remember: the house with the little creek in the back yard, a land I claimed as my kingdom; the school where I tormented my kindergarten teacher by making her look up the names of bizarre dinosaurs while other, more sensible children picked normal spelling words; the park with the pool whose water slide I was never quite tall enough to use; the library with its card catalogues; the daycare where I’d sit in the kitchen on a cot with pile of books during naptime because I couldn’t sleep.
On my most recent drive along this route, down from Duluth to Chicago with my mother to visit her mother on Mother’s Day, we listened to a book on disc, as we often do on these road trips. Our selection this time was Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. It was an ideal book for this drive: a story of pioneers that takes its time, buried in so much rich detail that one can zone out along the road for a spell without missing much, but also drift back in to find a sudden gem of brilliance. It is the story of a retired history professor who, at an advanced age, finds himself divorced and unable to relate to his own son, alienated from the modern world he lives in. Lost in the present, he returns to the past, and sets out to write a fictionalized family history, following his grandparents across the American West. It’s a very long book, so we only made it halfway through, but the incisive opening passages were all I really needed to set my mind thinking about the past.
Perhaps Edgerton is the reason why, despite a lifelong fascination with the countries whose cuisine one finds lining State Street, I am still most at home in Middle America. Perhaps it is why I can take these apparently plain little towns and see not a cultural waste, but a diversity just as rich as that of any other place, all hidden in the details and waiting to be discovered. It is almost certainly why my own lurching attempts to write fiction always come back to places not so very different from Edgerton.
I try to be suspicious of nostalgia. It can lie, make us believe we should go back to a past whose faults have faded from memory, leaving only a false, pleasant haze. But we also shouldn’t dismiss it as irrational; instead, we need to reflect on it over time, recognize that it ties us to things that are part of who we are, and things that are worth carrying forward. There is value in any history if we read it carefully, and that is exactly what that drive across Wisconsin invites, no matter how distant my life may wander from it.