Driftless

This past weekend I made that road trip again, this time only as far as an idyllic little town west of Madison. It is a lush, green country draped about the steady marches of sandstone hills, untouched by the glaciers that leveled the rest of the upper Midwest. It feels old; it is old, and though change does come, it comes at its own pace. In a few places the virgin oak savanna endures, though nowadays it is mostly a relic of the past, still tucked away off a winding ribbon of road. The farms hidden away in the valleys carry on in a peaceful slumber, and the Main Streets are more than some talking point repeated by a politician in desperate search of folksy cred.

Of course, I can’t help but see it through colored glasses. So much of my story starts in and around Madison. That story isn’t always a happy one, and it feels incomplete in several ways as well, a sense recently reinforced by a second rejection of Badger red and white.  I probably won’t ever share my parents’ alma mater, with money and friends winning out over nostalgia. And yet somehow my Wisconsin roots still somehow tie me to the land there in a way no other place can. One side of my family comes from a farm I was never a part of and can’t really go back to; the other owes its considerable strength to its people, not to any real place. I may seem a Duluthian to the core now, but until fairly recently I was torn, never quite sure where I was from. (More on that in a couple of days.) Memory here runs deep, even as new developments go up and the people move on. It is still that enchanted garden of childhood, where all of nature has a soul and wonder still seems commonplace, distant enough that each visit is a novelty, yet close enough that it isn’t too hard to remember the details.

There are plenty of tangible ties that bind. There’s the quintessential Madison: Farmer’s Market on Capitol Square, or a walk up State Street for a bit of summer bliss on Memorial Union Terrace. The thunderclouds roll in and out on humid summer days, but somehow, the weather is always perfect in the center of the city, and the lakes offer some respite from the sweltering heat. A bratwurst off the grill, a bag of cheese curds, a beer, fruits and vegetables reminding that their ilk are not all created equal: some taste so much crisper, so much more real. A curious little observation from the latest trip: even the parking ramps have their own smell. And, of course, the endless people-watching in this city full of curiosities.

Too much of that? Head west. The place I know best is Mount Horeb, a quaint town of Norwegian and troll kitsch that somehow still manages to welcome in a world-weary cynic, both in its small-town feel and its easy access to Madison. A town where one can wander up from a worn but cozy motel to a coffee shop or a bar named The Grumpy Troll. But there is so much more out here. Glacial Devil’s lake, otherworldly Parfrey’s Glen, parks atop the highest bluffs and caves beneath them, the Wisconsin River. New Glarus; Mineral Point. A hill or a stream or a stand of trees tucked away in some recess of childhood memory, a back corner that barely seems like the same life. Bob Uecker on the radio, the bugs splattering all over the windshield, and a few miles stuck behind a tractor or some other slow-moving piece of farm machinery. American Pastorale.

This time around, it’s a high school graduation, yet another event that pulls me back into youth. The moment comes. A moment where the mind, perhaps aided by the sticky heat and a bit of beer, imagines a world that could have been. In the past it’s been a source of anguish, but no more: now it simply is. Reality blurs into something that defies everything we’ve come to know, and even if it is only a fleeting instant, it endures, lingering without overstaying its welcome. An anchor, a reminder that we humans, for all our dreams and aspirations, are always part of a story whose authorship we can’t quite control. Roots may bind, but they nourish in a way nothing else can. We may be stuck with them, but we do have some measure of control over how we interpret that list of facts of who we are and where we come from. Finally, I’ve managed it, even as it  all fades further into the summer haze.

The world of enchantment may be gone now; it may never even have been. Just something that only exists in a nostalgic corner of the mind. Chasing those waves for their own sake will only bring about frustration. But they are no lie, and when they do come along, spontaneously, they are to be cherished; affirmations that, whatever it is we’re doing here, it’s a delight. And then, recharged, we can cycle back out for a night of revelry, too deep in to even be conscious of that reverie, the disparate strands of our complicated selves becoming one. As it should be.

(Driftless II)

Forward, and into the Past

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.