Posts Tagged ‘Wisconsin

03
Apr
18

10 Reasons to Love Weyauwega: The Ponies!

France has the Eiffel Tower. Italy has Vesuvio. And Weyauwega has its ponies. It has a lot of other things, too, but today we’re going to talk about the ponies.

To be clear: I don’t mean ponies in the technical sense of the word, which (according to our old pal Wikipedia) in the singular–pony–officially refers to smaller, compact breed of horse with a slightly thicker mane than the average equine. Nor do I mean ponies in the fantastical sense of the word, which (according to my formerly five-year-old daughter and a significant number of her peers) lovingly refers to a smaller, highly prized breed of plastic one-toed ungulate with resplendent, multi-color manes and tails, symbols called “cutie marks” stamped on their butts (which are simultaneously the most adorably deceptive and politically correct synonym for livestock branding you’ll ever read here or anywhere) and a diverse and devoted following of obsessed fans.

Rather, I’m using the word ponies in the diminutive sense, as one does when saying kitties to refer to cats, puppies to refer to dogs, or bunnies to refer to rabbits. Or like when someone uses the phrase ‘playing the ponies’ to make off-track betting sound less like gambling or to jokingly convey to the detectives on Law & Order that someone else’s harmless pastime may be in fact a serious problem.

You may be surprised to find horses included on a list of reasons to love Weyauwega. Especially since Weyauwega is geographically part of the Midwest (as opposed to the Old West or the Wild West) and doesn’t have a significant number of living, breathing horses within its borders, the town has a relatively high number of non-living, non-breathing horses adorning its streets, signs, and other fixtures. The perhaps unsurprising explanation for the ubiquitous equines is that the city leaders—past and present—wanted to recognize the importance of horses to the history of the community by adorning the place with images of them at work and play.

Incidentally, a similar phenomenon occurred with respect to the Native Americans who originally lived and traded in the area. Although the city leaders chose to recognize the importance of Native Americans to the history of the community by giving it a Native American name and, later, by designating the Indian as its high school’s mascot, there are proportionally fewer living, breathing Native Americans residing here (.2% of the population, to be exact) than there are images or likeness of them around the community. I’m not suggesting that the disappearance of the horses or the Native Americans are in any way connected, but I won’t be seeking recognition from my newly adopted city any time soon, lest I disappear and/or wind up replaced by signs, statues, or swizzle sticks bearing my likeness.

The first ponies I’d like to present are these four lovelies.

Hitching Post Ponies 3Hitching Post Ponies 1

Hitching Post Ponies 2

Resembling hitching posts, they stand, two by two, on the north and south ends of the central crosswalk on Main Street. Their metal bases are cast in the same shape as many of the lamp posts lining Main and Mill Streets, and are maintained thanks to the generosity of Weyauwega citizens, businesses and civic groups.

Speaking of lamp posts, if you ever get the chance to see Weyauwega for yourself, you’ll want to be on the lookout for these beauties.

Light Post Pony 1Light Post Pony 2

As you can see, these ponies can be found, accompanied by a buggy and driver, atop many of the lamp posts along the main drag as well.

While you’re in town, you may as well drive around enough to see this pair of ponies.

Water Tower Pony

They appear on the west side of the city water tower on the north side of town. In addition to this team of ponies and its carriage, the tower also bears several images that are of cultural significance to the city, just as totem poles of the Native Americans bear carved images that are/were of cultural significance to their communities. For the Wikipedia photo of the water tower, click here.

If you can spare the time, head east on Main Street and hang a right onto Lincoln Street. From there it’s just a few blocks before you reach the entrance to the Weyauwega Senior Village (aka my future home) where stands the sign bearing another pretty pony.

Senior Village Pony

If instead you head north from Main on Mill Street, you will find the city’s largest pony.

Civil War Pony

He or she is part of the Taggart Civil War Cavalry Monument donated by George W. Taggart. According to the Weyauwega Historical Society, Taggart was a veteran of the American Civil War and the First Wisconsin Cavalry, who presented this statue to the City of Weyauwega in 1931.

The final photo in this post WAS going to be of a gorgeous, life-size bronze statue of a horse rearing back on its hind legs. Unfortunately, after spending more than 9 years at the corner of Main and Pine Streets, the statue is suddenly and inexplicably gone.

That’s right. Hoping to provide a photo of the amazing and detailed creation for this blog, the Jarhead and I drove over to the corner of Pine and Main streets only to discover the sad, sawed off remains of its wood and metal mount sticking out of a berm beside the sidewalk.

Pony Stump

I seriously could not believe my eyes. Or my luck. For more than 9 years, folks driving through downtown Weyauwega couldn’t miss the blooming thing and then days—perhaps even hours—before I’m scheduled to capture it for posterity—boom! It’s gone.

Disappointed, the Jarhead and I drove all over town—arousing the suspicions of untold numbers of residents, visitors, and local law enforcement officials—as we searched every yard, driveway, street, parking lot and alleyway in hopes of discovering it standing with its front legs raised high in at its new home. But alas our efforts proved fruitless.

I’m hoping it was taken down for maintenance and due to be back on display later this summer. If so, you can count on me to provide a photo of it all spiffed up and clean. But for now, we’ll both have to settle for this street view image captured by Google Earth in 2009.

Pony 2009 Google St View

It doesn’t begin to do the subject any justice, but I suppose it’s better than nothing.

Meanwhile, thanks for tuning in again for 10 Reasons to Love Weyauwega! With any luck, the items I plan to discuss in the next post won’t disappear before I can photograph any of them!

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14
Feb
18

10 Reasons to Love Weyauwega: the Neighbors

It must be said that among all the moves we have made, the welcome we’ve received from our new Weyauwega neighbors has been one of the warmest. That’s not to say we haven’t been greeted warmly in the past. It’s just that when you move as many times as we have, you’re bound to run across some folks whose attitudes and actions make you wonder if you’ve chosen the wrong place to live.

Case in point: The first public official to greet us when we moved to our last house was a member of the Oshkosh Police Department, who drew his gun, commanded the Jarhead to freeze, and subsequently handcuffed, detained, and interrogated him right in the middle of our own driveway (for more on that story, check out Mistaken Identities  posted 10/27/14.)  Compare that example with the actions of the first public official to greet us in Weyauwega, who walked over from his place two doors down, told us we had quite a project on our hands, handed me a business card that identified him as the mayor, and invited us to come over for a beer any time we like. Talk about neighborly.

“Well of course he’s going to be nice to you,” you might be thinking. “He’s just hoping you’ll vote for him in the next election.”

But it’s not just the mayor. Last winter, the guy who lives just across the street from us plowed our driveway after almost every snowfall without our having ever asked. We would show up at the property planning to clear the driveway before the contractors arrived and work commenced, only to find it already cleared and ready to go. It took some investigation to figure out who was doing us this tremendous favor, and when we finally discovered who it was, we were even more grateful because this guy and his wife not only have lives and jobs of their own, they also have a toddler with a rare form of cancer. Again, talk about neighborly. I mean above and beyond neighborly.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have neighbors like ours. I recall a former colleague of mine once telling me that when she moved into her home, one of the neighbors welcomed her not with a smile or a wave but with legal action demanding that she trim and/or remove a tree that had been growing on the property for years before she ever bought it. And what’s even more shocking is this: not long after our son and daughter-in-law bought their first home, their neighbors came into their yard and literally tore out a 20 foot-long retaining wall while the ink was still drying on the closing documents. So not cool. So NOT neighborly.

Now, some may assume we’ve been greeted so warmly because Weyauwega is a small town. But having lived in my share of small towns—and in case you haven’t—I can tell you they’re not always what they’re cracked up to be. One can hope the folks there are all sweet and sunny like the Mayberry-ians on The Andy Griffith Show, or crazy and charmingly kooky like the Cicely-ians from Northern Exposure.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Because for every calm, reasonable Andy Taylor there’s a paranoid pain in the ass Barney Fife, and for every philosophical piano-flinging Chris Stevens there’s at least one Ed Gein (for more on THAT guy, check out Turnabout and Fair Play posted 3/21/16.) Besides, to suggest that these folks are neighborly because they live in a small town implies that folks who live in larger towns and cities less neighborly, which simply is not true.

But our new neighbors are top notch, and one of the best reasons to love Weyauwega!

09
Jan
18

Oh Why, Oh Why Weyauwega

According to industry experts, the average person moves about every 5 years or so, for an average total of about 12 times over the course of a lifetime. Like most military families, the Jarhead and I have far exceeded those averages, having relocated from one locale to another a whopping 12 times between 1985 and 2015, and having changed addresses within an individual locale 7 more times on top of that.

Impressive, I know. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Okay. That was a lie. I’m actually exhausted from doing the math.

You may recall reading some of these statistics in a post I published many moons ago that included other figures of an equally arresting and fascinating nature. Essentially I boasted that the Jarhead and I had just set a record for the longest time spent living in a single residence. At the time, I had expected to occupy that home for quite a while, and was looking forward to seeing just how high we would be setting the bar for that record if and when the time came to pick up and move again.

Well, if-and-when came a lot sooner than I expected. It arrived on September 6, 2017 to be exact. Although we had bought another home more than a year before that, it needed a lot of work and we weren’t entirely sure what we would do with it once the repairs and improvements were completed. Eventually, however, we decided it made sense to downsize and so, after 8 years, 10 months, 2 weeks, and 2 days in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, we officially became residents of (drumroll, please) Weyauwega, Wisconsin. In case you’re wondering and/or are not of the Cheesehead persuasion, it’s pronounced “why-oh-WEE-guh.

Since we began the process of moving to our newly adopted city, we’ve been asked the same question by many people: why Weyauwega?

Oddly enough, the majority of the people asking this question are themselves of the Cheesehead persuasion. In fact, 90% of those asking, “why Weyauwega?” are current or former residents of Weyauwega, with another 9.9% being residents of Oshkosh and other parts of the Fox Valley. The remaining .1% are from out of state and I mention them only to prove that I understand percentages and can add to 100.

At first I didn’t know what to make of such inquiries. Given the derisive laughter that accompanied some—okay, most—of them, it seemed as if the people asking the question weren’t seeking our perspective as much as offering their own. But having passed hardly any time there apart from the handful of hours we’d spent house-hunting up to that point, we had no clue as to what they might be trying to say.

So I would tell them the truth: We chose Weyauwega because it’s 30 miles closer to my dear Auntie Chachi (who was in failing health and who, sadly, has since died) without being further away from our son and daughter-in-law. In short we chose Weyauwega because of geography. Pure and simple.

It wasn’t a particularly sexy answer, but what was I going to say? That we were looking to cash in on the hot real estate market? That we wanted to pay more money for less variety at the local grocery and convenience stores?

I wasn’t about to say any of that to anyone–least of all a potential neighbor. Nor could I cite climate as the basis for our decision. Oshkosh and Weyauwega are only 30 miles apart, after all, and while I’m no meteorologist, I suspect they share an atmosphere. So I stuck with geography.

The reactions to our explanation were mixed. Most people nodded in amusement or smiled in a way that suggested we were naïve. Or maybe stupid. Or even crazy.

A few, however, appeared mildly offended. I imagine they were expecting us to wax romantic about the many virtues of their fair city, like the views, the lake, the boating, and the fishing. But unlike my brothers, we don’t fish or own a boat, and the only views to be seen from our place were the backyards of the homes behind and beside ours, and the feral cats who routinely hunted, mated, and defecated outside the condemned house across street.

A few others posed follow up questions, such as, “What are you going to do there?” and, “Make meth?” Which, I suppose, is an option. But unlike my brothers, we don’t know how to…

I’m just kidding. My brothers are hard-working, upstanding, law abiding citizens. Besides, if one of us were going to wind up making meth, it is far more likely to be me. Everyone knows I’m the bad seed.

Again, I wouldn’t know how to respond. Like the previous questions, I suspected these were less about our personal employment goals than a comment on the economy and/or job prospects in and around our adopted community.

Combine that with the fact that we didn’t really KNOW what we were going to do. As the proud owners of a beige 1950’s ranch with urine soaked hardwoods, bad plumbing and rotten subfloors, which we’d only bought after forcing our realtor (aka El Noble) to show us every single 3-bedroom fixer-upper and/or foreclosure that came on the market within the city limits, we didn’t have a firm plan other than to fix it up and sell our current home.

We briefly considered selling the new one instead. Especially after my Auntie died two weeks after we’d bought it and I no longer needed to live closer to her. But the new house was smaller and had fewer stairs, and the Jarhead and I aren’t getting any younger.

So we decided to forge ahead with our plan to move to Weyauwega. The Jarhead would keep working. He’d just have a longer commute. Unless he decided to retire.

After that, who knows? Maybe we’ll start a business flipping houses. Maybe we’ll get an agent, buy some musical  instruments and a big bus, and go on tour like the Partridge Family. Suffice it to say: we’ve got options.

And now—eighteen months and thousands of gallons of plaster, primer, and paint later—we know exactly what we got into, and have a far clearer picture of what Weyauwega has to offer.

Take the name, Weyauwega, for example. It doesn’t look to me like it should be hard to pronounce, but for some folks apparently it is. So much so that there are articles and videos all over the internet that include it as one of the Wisconsin towns that out-of-staters most often mispronounce. Check out one of my favorites by clicking HERE! Stick with it til the end, and ye shall be richly rewarded!

Although the folks in the video are Texans, the difficulty isn’t necessarily related to proximity. The men in my family were all born and raised in a state with towns and streets with names like Hiawatha, Minnehaha, Winona and Shakopee, but they still have to say “Weyauwega” three or four times before they get it right.

Hard to pronounce or not, it’s still a cool name. According to Wikipedia, Weyauwega means ‘here we rest’ because “the town’s origin was a stopping/resting point between two rivers when Indians had to portage their canoes.”

Seems appropriate to me. Although I don’t foresee myself and the Jarhead doing a lot of portaging in the future, once he’s retired, we do expect to get our canoe on, and to do a lot of resting.

Well, that’s it for this episode. Be sure to tune in next time when I present—

The Top 10 Reasons to Love Weyauwega!

See you then!

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.

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.

21
Sep
15

Road Trippin’ 2015: Three Marketeers

Of all the ways a body can spend a Saturday, shopping would rank among my least favorite. Of all the ways a body can spend ANY day of the week, in fact, shopping would rank among my least favorite. To belabor the point, if I were to create a list of the ways I would deliberately and knowingly pass a few free hours, shopping would come in second from the bottom followed only by having handfuls of my hair ripped forcibly from my head. That assumes, of course, that one has already excluded NASCAR events, golfing, and reality TV from the list, and that neither Donald Trump nor Sarah Palin is speaking into a microphone somewhere.

And yet, there we were—David, LaVon, and I—on the morning of August 15th, strolling  from booth to booth, and later store to store, through the fog and drizzle in downtown Anchorage. We could have been on a boat watching dolphins and whales. Or on a ferry to Kodiak Island to watch grizzlies feasting on salmon. Or on a train bound for Whitter followed by a 26 glacier cruise. But no.

Clad in jeans and rain gear, and sporting hair that looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, I was taking one for the team. Primarily because the Jarhead loves markets and the market is only open on Saturdays, but also because it’s hard to see glaciers—much less whales and wildlife—through the fog and rain. And because, in that weather, my hair would have been a nightmare anyway.

So, despite the cold wet weather—which the Jarhead hates, though evidently not as much as he hates NOT shopping—we went shopping. Or, more accurately, we went window shopping. Because, although the Jarhead enjoys shopping, he enjoys the IDEA of shopping more, since it’s generally less expensive, and you never regret THINKING about spending your hard earned cash on home grown produce, Inuit folk art, or a new leather jacket.

Well, almost never. One notable exception occurred during our first trip to Anchorage and the Saturday market in 2005. It was June and one of the first booths we approached was offering fresh morels. The Jarhead is very fond of the elusive fungi, so he was tickled at the prospect of taking some home.

Not wanting to carry them around all day, however—especially if they could be purchased for a lower price at another booth—he decided to skip buying them on our first go around and to pick up a pound or two on our way back to the car.  Apparently he misjudged just how popular they would be among his fellow marketgoers, however, because by the time we finished our meander through the market there were no more morels to be found.

No such sorrow would befall us this time around, however. Ever the type to learn from his mistakes, the Jarhead vowed not to miss his next opportunity to take home the tasty treat. Fortunately there was no one selling morels in mid-August, or who knows how many duffle bags we would have had to borrow from LaVon in order to carry the precious cargo back to Wisconsin!

As it was, we had to borrow at least one bag to carry all the souvenirs we had purchased while we were there. Among these was a cribbage board that we bought as a gift for El Noble and unwittingly swiped right out from under the nose of a fellow Wisconsinite. Fashioned from an elk antler, the board measured over twenty-four inches long, and was perfect in terms of shape, color, and condition. We knew it would make a great conversation piece as well as a wonderful addition to El Noble’s man cave—provided we could get it home without crushing it or snapping off one of the spikes.

Little did we know—until we had already paid for it that is—that another customer had seen the item earlier, and had decided to come back to purchase it. And so we were a bit uncomfortable when, as the clerk was bagging it, a man approached the counter and asked about the item, which had been on display on the far table, only to learn it had just been purchased by the guy standing next to him. Visibly irked, he man turned to the Jarhead and offered to buy it from him. When the Jarhead declined, the man then looked him up and down and asked him where he was from.

Had it been me, I would have said “Birmingham” and made a few other remarks in a very convincing British accent in the hope of avoiding death or dismemberment. The Jarhead, however, opted to go the riskier route of responding truthfully and shaking the dude’s hand. That was the sporting thing to do, I suppose, since he admitted to being a fellow cheese head, but I wasn’t so sure—especially when, a few minutes later, after accepting the Jarhead’s apology, the guy nodded and said, “That’s okay. I know where you live.”

And people wonder why I’m so skittish.

Anyway, the rest of the day went about as smoothly as it could have given the weather. The Jarhead was glad he hadn’t hesitated on the cribbage board the way he’d hesitated on the morels ten years ago, and I was glad he hadn’t mentioned our last name or our street address to anyone who might want to find us.

A couple hours later, after trudging up and down the streets of Anchorage looking at various fur and leather items whose beauty and prices took my breath away, we enjoyed a meal at a popular local watering hole and then headed back to the house to freshen up. That evening we dined with a couple of LaVon’s friends, and then hit the sack to rest and recover in preparation for our very first adventure into Alaska’s interior!




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