Posts Tagged ‘Minnesota

03
Feb
16

Wisconsin: What’s not to like? (Okay, so there is ONE thing.)

In case you’re new to my corner of the Internet and/or haven’t been following this column for the past three years, the Jarhead and I are relative newcomers to Wisconsin. We moved here in 2009 after relocating about every two or three years for the past twenty-four.

That’s not hyperbole. Take a look at my resume if you don’t believe me. Based on how many jobs I’ve had and in how many states, it would not be unreasonable to wonder if I have a problem with authority or commitment. Or if we’re on the run from the law. Or in the Witness Protection Program.

It’s tempting to think I’m exaggerating. Especially, it seems, for folks who have lived in the same town their entire lives. To them (or you, if you’re among them) the idea of having lived in more than ten dwellings in eight states is daunting if not unfathomable. In fact, the very thought of moving to another HOUSE makes many of them weak in the knees—never mind moving to another city, state or country. So when they find out just how many times we’ve packed and unpacked our stuff and how many homes we’ve had to buy and sell, they tend to get short of breath and start having heart palpitations.

It only gets worse when they find out that we’ve never spent more than one day touring homes before buying one of them, and have always bought one of the first six we’ve seen. Because most of these folks will have looked at between 30 and 60 homes before deciding to buy their first, and those we’ve met who would like to find a different one will already have spent years looking before finally pulling the trigger or giving up the hunt.

Talk about a waste of time. I mean, as much as I love looking at houses on HGTV, I do NOT want to spend days, much less years looking for a place to live. Find me five to ten options, and I am happy to look, compare, and then choose from among them the one that suits me best. Just as I don’t need to see every head of broccoli in the grocery store in order to choose one to cook for dinner, neither do I need to see every house on the market—today, tomorrow, and next week, month or year—in order pick one to live in for the next few years or so.

In fact, never the type to do things half-way (or the easy way, for that matter) we bought our current home—a Midcentury Eyesore, to be exact—before the old one even sold, and started contributing to the local economy by purchasing the tools and materials we would need to fix it up way before we understood everything that needed fixing. In short, we went all in. And we’ve never regretted it.

And why would we? Wisconsin is wonderful. The people here are the most personable in the country.

By that I don’t mean Wisconsinites are nice. Minnesotans are nice. We’ll smile at you and open doors for you, and insist that you take the last of whatever’s available at the sample stand at Cub Foods (which counts as nice EVEN if we know there’s something fresh coming out of the toaster oven in 90 seconds, by the way.) But as many have observed, our niceness seems rather deliberate—as if we want you to like us, if only in passing, or we’re hoping it will stop you from killing or maiming us.

But Wisconsinites aren’t just nice. They’re not necessarily even all that polite. They’re actually very direct and honest which is refreshing—if somewhat disconcerting—to someone who is accustomed to indirect speech and habitual courtesy. More importantly, they’re warm and personable—as if they are really glad to see you.

But it isn’t just the people and their warmth that makes Wisconsin great. Or the cheese. There is also the scenery, the parks, the pace—which is perfectly situated right around brisk but never reaches frantic—and the fresh, clean air. And it probably doesn’t hurt that Milwaukee, Madison, and most of our relatives are close enough to visit but not close enough to see every day.

In fact, about the only downside to living in Wisconsin is having to deal with some really lousy drivers. I say this because among these warm and personable people dwell some of the most confounding operators of motorized vehicles I have encountered in my life. Chief among my complaints in this regard are those who underutilize their directional signals; those who turn right or left or go straight from the wrong lane; and those who can’t seem to fully grasp the purpose of a passing lane.

Of these, the underuse of turning signals is the least infuriating. Sure, it’s frustrating when the driver in front of you starts to brake for apparently no reason when you’re going 55 on an open road—especially in broad daylight—and continues braking past four or five possible turns before simultaneously putting on his or her signal and executing a left. But it’s not as bad as getting into the left lane behind a sedan whose driver decides only after the light has turned green that he/she would like to turn right, forcing you to sit idle as he/she waits for traffic to clear so he or she can switch lanes while kicking yourself for taking that route in the first flipping place. And while it can be annoying to sit at a stop sign waiting for a vehicle coming from the left to pass only to have it suddenly, and—again—without signaling—turn onto the very same street you are on; this pales in comparison to almost being fatally injured because a driver chose to come straight through an intersection from an oncoming lane that is designated for left turns only.

Most confounding of all, however, are the drivers who view passing lanes—those rare and beautiful features of the rural landscape that were designed, I’m sure, to preserve the collective sanity by making it possible for one to overtake slower drivers on single lane roads without risking life and limb—as their own personal race tracks. On virtually every trip I’ve made between southeastern Minnesota and the Fox River Valley I have become an unwitting competitor in a drag race against someone who had been driving sub-50mph for the better part of the previous hour.

Maybe that’s why they’re so friendly in person; they’re making up for that fact that, behind the wheel, they’re dangerous.

It bears mention here that not all Wisconsinites are bad drivers, and even those who are don’t count among the world’s worst. Having lived on both coasts and in Italy, I can attest that this distinction belongs to suburban Philadelphians. Technically, suburban Neapolitans are just as bad, but they’re sexier with it. Like leather and miniature cars, vehicular incompetence just looks better on Italians.

A significant difference—besides the languages—between bad drivers in here and those near Philly and Naples is that you expect Neapolitans and Philadelphians to be bad drivers. Around Philly—where some have raised rudeness to an art form—bad driving is but one aspect of a general lack of courtesy. I won’t pretend to understand this since Philly is supposed to be the City of Brotherly Love, but it goes a long way toward explaining why someone will cut you off and flip you the bird for being in the way in the first place.

In the case of Naples, bad driving is also an aspect of the general approach to life. Although they are not a rude people, Neapolitans are impatient and intensely competitive, and this translates into what looks like rudeness to Americans (especially Minnesotan-Americans.) Not wanting to wait their turn, they will cut in front of you not only on the road but also in line at the store—and attack you verbally if you attempt to stop them or return the favor.

It is with this in mind that I am so profoundly confounded by some of the drivers in Wisconsin. Given how genuinely warm and friendly they are in person, I’m at a loss to explain the utter lack of sense, awareness and courtesy they show behind the wheel. It’s positively fascinating—in a circus side show, or Unsolved Mysteries kind of way.

Still, if being surrounded by bad drivers is the price you pay to live here, I can accept that—although apparently not quietly.

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09
Oct
15

Road Trippin’ 2015: Circuitous Logic

The road between the Denali turnoff and Fairbanks is remarkable in that it is entirely unremarkable from a topographical perspective. With its winding rivers, grassy marshlands, random forests, and scrubby brush land, the area looks pretty much like northern Minnesota or Wisconsin. In fact, were it not for all the fireweed and the unfamiliar town names and road numbers gracing the signs along the way, the route we took to Fairbanks could have passed for any number of highways connecting the northern part of any Midwestern state to its nether regions. Still, it was uncharted territory for the two of us, and we were thrilled to have the chance to see it up close—even if it looked a lot like home.

Although the topography was relatively familiar to our eyes, other aspects of the geography were not. In fact, now and then it would feel as though we’d entered a land that time forgot—like when we would run across a house featuring four different types of siding or a tri-color roof that looked more like a shed or a kid’s fort than a dwelling. In any other setting, such a sight might suggest poverty or malfeasance. But out here, where resources are scarce, a house of many hues is not so much a reflection of one’s income or iniquity as evidence of one’s ability to improvise, overcome and adapt. Many in the so-called civilized world like to talk about the environment and conservation, but the folks who live in the sticks of Alaska take the concept of reduce, reuse, and recycle to a whole new level. Whether they do so by choice or by necessity, one has to admire their ingenuity.

Contrary to what some might believe, I did not spend the bulk of the drive waxing poetic about the virtues and vitality of the inhabitants of Alaska’s interior. If I had, no doubt the Jarhead would have set aside his distaste for talking to strangers and stopped off somewhere to borrow a strip or two of duct tape. But since he was napping (ostensibly) most of the way and thus would not have heard me anyway (or would have pretended not to) I kept such thoughts to myself.

There were times, of course—especially when we would go miles and miles without seeing another car—that I wondered if we were making a huge mistake in venturing out on our own without an atlas or a firearm. But whenever such a thought would occur to me I would remind myself that the people who live in the interior do so for a reason, and therefore are less interested in us than my ego would have you believe. Not to mention the fact that the folks who are up to no good are likely to be packing more firepower than whatever we could have brought along for protection.

And so instead of contemplating who might be looking to murder me (and when, where, and how) I considered what I had learned about Alaska so far on this trip that was unlikely to be found in your average textbook or on even the most thorough of travel websites. One thing that came to mind was the subtle rivalry that apparently exists between Alaska and Texas, as evidenced by all the items bearing the phrase “Let’s cut Alaska in half and make Texas the THIRD largest state” or some variation thereof. With both states being famous for their size and their oil, I suppose it’s only natural that they would compete with one another, but I found it odd that two places that are so different—and so far apart—would even bother.

Being more accustomed to regional rivalries, such as exist between Minnesota and Wisconsin, I would have expected to see merchandise with trash talk directed at Canada, perhaps, or at least the Yukon. Consequently, a rivalry between Alaska and Texas made about as much sense to me as would a rivalry between beef jerky and Laffy Taffy.

A more fitting rivalry for Alaska, in my view anyway, would be Minnesota. Both states are known for their harsh winters and hardy residents, after all, and until Alaska came along and stole its thunder, Minnesota was home to both the northernmost point in the United States and—according to my friends at Wikipedia—more square acres of wetlands than any state in the nation. In addition, both are populated by hunting, fishing, hockey, and snow machining enthusiasts, and both attract their share of tourists. And still, despite all these ingredients of a rousing rhetorical grudge match, I have yet to see even a one tee shirt or coffee mug in either state speaking mockingly of the other.

Then again, having been to the Lone Star State three times without seeing any evidence of an adversarial relationship between it and the Land of the Midnight Sun, I’m inclined to think Alaska’s war with Texas might be a one-sided argument. Either that, or Texas handles its enemies the way I do mine: by pretending they don’t exist.

Near the end of the day’s drive, I learned something else about Alaska: The suburbs there look pretty much the same as the suburbs in every other state. In fact, if I hadn’t been awake for the entire drive—if instead I’d been chloroformed, thrown in the trunk, driven around for several hours and somehow managed to escape the vehicle while my captors stopped for coffee or to use the restroom—you could have told me we were in Burnsville, Green Bay, Fredericksburg, or even Philadelphia and I totally would have bought it. At least until I noticed the road signs. And maybe a license plate or two. But up to that point, surrounded by buildings bearing the names of nearly every single restaurant, clothing store, and home improvement center to be found orbiting every city in the lower forty-eight, you would have had a hard time convincing me we were in Alaska.

As they saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” With that in mind, we pulled into the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Inn, tossed our bags into a room that looked exactly like every other room in every other Hilton Garden Inn in every other city and, after a brief stop at Walgreens, set out to find a place to eat whose sign did not end in bee’s, back, or bucks. This was a bigger challenge than one might guess since, those that weren’t part of a chain often looked a bit like the houses I mentioned a few paragraphs ago.

Eventually, though, we found a place called Brewster’s where we enjoyed “Great Food, Great Alaskan Spirits” just as their slogan promised. Specifically, we enjoyed their simply-named, signature appetizer, Steak Bits, which are tiny chunks of steak simmered in a sort of savory broth and served with garlic toast. And when I say enjoyed, I mean it. It was the most delicious and different treat we’d sampled in a long time. And the rest of the meal was no slouch either. To top it all off, our server apparently recognized the Jarhead’s military bearing and, without prompting, offered us a military discount. It was all almost too good to be true. And yet, it was.

The next morning we set off for the Arctic Circle, which, according to LaVon’s map, was just a few miles off the highway between Fairbanks and North Pole. Although we didn’t expect to be greeted with the kind of fanfare one might receive upon completing a marathon or winning a Grammy, we were at least hoping to take a photo and earn some bragging rights.

Two hours and countless miles later, however, the road terminated at a resort at Chena Hot Springs. Having seen nothing in the way of a sign or symbol referencing the Arctic Circle along the way, we were more than a little bit confused. Had we misread the map or simply missed a turn? Had LaVon’s memory failed her when she was drawing the map that morning? Or could the phrase “a few miles” means something different to one former Minnesotan than it did to others?

Sadly, there had been no one to ask about the location of the Arctic Circle as we made our way to Chena Hot Springs, and once we got to the point where the road terminated it seemed a moot point. So, after giving Oscar-worthy portrayals of a couple of paying customers while strolling around the resort in search of a restroom, we turned the rental around and headed back to toward the highway.

We never did find the Arctic Circle, but we did make it back to Fairbanks and on to Glennallen via North Pole and Delta Junction. Along the way, we stopped off at several state parks and scenic overlooks to admire all the rivers and other natural wonders to be found along the way—including two moose, one moose calf, scores of bison and one semi-suicidal elk. At one stop we found and photographed no less than a dozen types of mushrooms—more than I had ever seen in one place other than a field guide. Despite our futile attempt to find the Arctic Circle, it was a great day.

By the time we landed in our room—having stopped at the first place we found with a vacancy—we were more than ready for bed. Which is good because we had few other options. Having arrived at 8:51 to a restaurant whose staff had decided to close at 8:45 instead of 9, we were unable to procure a hot meal, and thus had been forced to choose between something from the cooler and whatever could be found at the convenience store we’d passed two miles back on our way into town.

In addition, as none of the outlets in our room were tight enough to maintain a circuit or hold a plug, we were unable to use any electronic device other than the television that was mounted in the corner of the room near the ceiling and whose cords had been carefully run through the wall with the goal, one assumes, of thwarting a theft. Consequently, the Jarhead was forced to position the nightstand in such a way that would hold the plug in the outlet so I could run my CPAP and not die from lack of oxygen. Likewise, he was able to arrange a chair, the refrigerator, and microwave—MacGyver style—so we could charge our phones and run the box fan that provided the white noise I needed in order to sleep in a remote area with funky electrical systems and employees who resented their patrons.

On the upside, there was a Jacuzzi tub in the room from which one could see the television and imagine it falling from its perch and landing somewhere in the vicinity of one’s knees. Even after the Jarhead pointed out that for the TV to fall into the tub it would also have to break loose from its power source I was completely disinclined to give it a try. Given my lack of faith in the facility’s wiring and my general aversion to death by electrocution, it just made more sense to avoid using water altogether.

Instead, we hit the rack and watched reruns of Forensic Files and Unsolved Mysteries until the Jarhead had nodded off and I was left to imagine all the possible crimes to which I could fall victim before daybreak. Naturally, I would have preferred to imagine myself awakening to a bright sunshine and travelling joyfully to Valdez, but we all know that isn’t how this mind works. Nevertheless, at some point I decided I’d rather be killed in my sleep than face whomever might come through the window or door, and switched off the tube and waited like Will Smith in “I am Legend” for morning.

28
Aug
15

Road Trippin’ 2015

For the second time in two years, I set aside my fears and phobias this month, and agreed to accompany the Jarhead on week-long adventure to parts heretofore unknown to us. Although this trip did not involve Canada or the Rockies—unless you count flyovers—like our 2013 journey, it did carry an element of risk to mind, body, and soul.

But nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say. So rather than sitting at home waiting for death to find me in the pool, in the tub, or at my desk, I crossed my fingers, tossed my hiking boots into a suitcase—along with enough clothes to impress both Ginger AND Mrs. Howell—and headed north to Alaska by way of Minnesota.

To be fair, much of the trip was not unknown to us, as it began with a six hour car ride from Oshkosh to Minneapolis. If you think 6 hours is an excessive amount of time drive a distance that would ordinarily take only 4 ½, you would be correct and can therefore cancel any plans to have your head examined. If instead of your own mental wellbeing you were concerned with our driving and/or navigational skills, it should ease your mind to learn that we took the scenic route.

Yep, for reasons known only to him, the Jarhead decided he wanted to take his time and travel to the Twin Cities by way of Tomah, La Crosse, and Rochester. Although he will deny it, I suspect he chose I-90 over I-94 for the simple fact that he has travelled the I-94 route—back and forth—twice since Memorial Day and simply wanted a change of pace.

As long as we were taking the circuitous route, we decided to drop in on a good friend of mine whose house stands but a mile or two off of the highway between Rochester and Minneapolis. As I expected, we caught her a bit off guard, but as it had been months since we had seen each other, I felt it would be worth surprising her even if she was already in her pajamas. And, oh, how I would love to provide a photo of that moment she warily opened her front door! But since I don’t want that visit to be the LAST time she speaks to me, you’ll just have to imagine how shocked she was to find us on her porch. (Sorry, T. Lo!)

From there we continued on our trip to Minneapolis where, the next morning, we took an unforgettable trip down memory lane on our way to the airport. This seemed a fitting way to begin our journey since the Jarhead and I recently celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary, and because apart from Oshkosh, the longest we have lived in any one location over the course of our three decades together was the three and a half years we spent in the Twin Cities.

We started this segment of our trip with a drive by Lake Nokomis. Lake Nokomis figures prominently in our lives since it is where my friend LaVon and I used to spend hours walking and, later, pushing babies in strollers. Although it is also where my mother’s relatives used to hold their family reunions when I was a kid, it is probably better known to my immediate family as the place where El Noble learned to ride a two wheeler in April of 1991, and where he subsequently found himself up to his chest in ice-cold water about a half an hour later.

From Lake Nokomis, we continued north toward Lake Street. Along the way, we spent twenty minutes looking for the duplex where we lived for about a year—since neither of us could recall the address—and another ten discussing what was different about it and why it had taken us so long to find it. We also paid a visit to the four-unit brownstone we lived in before moving to the duplex, and the building next door where LaVon lived when we first moved there. These two were much easier to find owing to the fact that we remembered they were situated on 11th Avenue somewhere between Powderhorn Park and 38th street.

After another discussion about the changes we observed to the two structures and the neighborhood, we continued north to Lake Street and followed it east toward St. Paul in search of the big old Victorian whose second floor we occupied when the Princess was conceived. As was the case with our first two former dwellings, we had to circle the neighborhood a few times because we couldn’t recall the street address.

Although it still took us longer to find it than we expected, the task was made easier by the fact that we knew it was located at the corner of its block on Marshall Avenue, a few blocks west of Snelling. Even with that much intel, we still missed it the first two times we passed it and, due to the volume of traffic in the area, did not have the chance to get a good look. Thus, we could neither assess nor admire it as we discussed all of the memories we had of the place. Even without the benefit of the visual aid, however, we had a pretty good laugh recalling the time El Noble came to us crying after discovering that, unlike his friends who lived downstairs, he was not African American.

Having visited our fourth Twin Cities residence only six or so years ago—and lacking the time to travel there and back before we needed to be at the airport—we decided to forego a drive to Windom Gables and headed for the highway. From there, it would be a short drive to the terminal, an even shorter walk to security, followed by a LONG walk to the gate, and an even longer flight—to Anchorage…

09
Dec
13

Road Trippin’ VIII: The Journey Home

Given that the seventh and final leg of our journey involved the longest drive, you might think there would be much to say about it. But just like the first day of our trip, we were on familiar territory and had planned no stops other than for food and fuel, which meant there wouldn’t be much to talk about unless something tragic or unusual occurred. Fortunately, that did not happen. Instead, we passed a pleasant day as quickly and efficiently as we could with the goal of spending the night in our own bed.

To be fair, the trip wasn’t entirely unremarkable. For example, on this day, the Jarhead decided not to hog the driver’s seat. It probably helped that he knew I was familiar with the route and was unlikely, therefore, to miss a turn and get us lost. It may also have helped that we were passing some of the flattest and straightest terrain this side of North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Iowa, and would be willing to do the speed limit or better. A more likely explanation, however, is that, having stayed up late watching TV and eating junk, he was less interested in driving than he was sleeping. Whatever the case, we did spend the entire day driving and succeeded in making it back to Chez Diersen before bedtime. To my intense relief, the kids and the cats were all alive and well, and none the worse for having spent the week alone.

Looking back on the previous posts and the comments I’ve received from readers, it occurs to me that I may have given folks the impression that North Dakota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Minnesota don’t have much to offer the travelers and tourists in their midst. In fact, there is more to see and do in the upper Midwest and south central Canada than can be discussed in eight blog entries, and you could spend a week in each state and every province and still not see and do it all.

For example, in South Dakota alone there are the Black Hills, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, the Corn Palace, and the Mammoth Site at Hot Springs. These did not receive a mention because we did not visit them this year since, one, we have visited them all once or twice on other trips and, two, our primary goal was to make it from Wisconsin to Idaho by way of the Canadian Rockies within a week. The same is true for Yellowstone National Park, Big Horn National Forest, and a multitude of state parks and cave systems.

That said, if you haven’t already done so, be sure to visit them as you make your away along I-90. We did so last back in 2011, and here is some of what we saw then:

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If you have the time, you especially should not miss the Mammoth Site at Hot Springs where you will see where the remains of various mammoths and other creatures have been found, studied, and preserved. It’s off the interstate by about an hour, but it is well worth a visit not only because it gives you such a sense of what we know about prehistoric North America, but also because it helps you appreciate how much more we still have to learn! For more information about this fun and educational place, visit www.themammothsite.com.

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Animal lovers, meanwhile, should be sure to check out the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. I have yet to visit this one, but it comes highly recommended by equine enthusiasts like my friend and fellow writer, J.S. McCormick. Founded in 1988 by Dayton O. Hyde, the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary offers tours ranging from two hours to three days. They aren’t cheap and reservations are required, but if you love horses, it is not to be missed. To learn more about this amazing place, visit www.wildmustangs.com.

Well, that about covers it. I hope you’ve enjoyed the adventure and, perhaps, been inspired to make a road trip of your own. Meanwhile, thanks for playing along!

 




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