Monday, March 28, 2005

When you're on the road as much as I am, you need to keep your eyes peeled for unusual sights--and today, I've seen plenty. By 7:30 this morning, I had already seen Wisconsin's largest tree, a cottonwood 23 feet in circumference and 138 feet high, in Montello. Not only that, but I also drove by Wisconsin's deepest natural inland lake, Green Lake, which is 236 feet deep at its deepest point. (There's a lake near Black River Falls that's 350 feet deep, but that's not a wonder of nature, it's a wonder of engineering--a manmade lake.)

You don't generally see those sorts of things on the Interstate, so I always enjoy those trip segments that take me off the well-traveled path. I come from a long line of well-traveled-path-avoiders--as a kid, my family always stopped on our travels to read the historical markers that are everywhere on Wisconsin's highways, and I still stop to read them today . . . when I have the time. So I've seen the world's largest black bear, an almost eight-foot-high, 665-pound specimen now stuffed and mounted in a roadside display in Glidden (in a case right next to the world's largest pine log.) As a result, Glidden calls itself the Black Bear Capital of Wisconsin. The bear was taken on November 22, 1963--which means that the seven hunters who were required to drag him out of the woods doubtless were among the last people in Glidden to learn of an even bigger news event that day. And I have seen the mysterious bow-and-arrow outcropping near Hager City, a prehistoric symbol that has defied all attempts at explanation. It's thought to be of Indian origin, but nobody knows for sure.

I don't mind traveling through little towns like Montello or Glidden, if I have time. The state highways generally go all the way through, and while there's a temptation to wonder how the hell people end up here in the middle of nowhere, I have to remind myself that my hometown probably looks like the middle of nowhere to a person from Hager City. Some of these towns are on the way to becoming nowhere, though. While a town like Green Lake can capitalize on its proximity to water (and the high-priced lakeside real estate that comes with it), other towns struggle. The difference between towns that are making it and towns that are dying might be the presence of a grocery store--as distinct from a convenience store--with a real meat aisle and a produce department and shopping carts. Once your grocery store closes, you have crossed a line and, things being what they are these days, you aren't going back.

A convenience store is not the same thing. Convenience stores are like plants in rocky soil--they find a way to thrive even when nothing else can. I should probably write a book on convenience stores, because next to the car stereo, a good convenience store is a travel accessory I couldn't leave home without. The good ones have a fountain (Pepsi, please, and not Coke), restrooms with more than one stall, and a decent selection of baked goods, for next to Diet Pepsi, these trips run on cookies and the occasional donut.

(Speaking of which, Krispy Kremes have become ubiquitous in convenience-store world, but the chain's vaunted financial troubles tell the truth about the product--they're good, but not as good as everybody had heard they were before they tried them. They're 75 or 79 cents apiece most places--way beyond what I'd pay for anybody's donut--but Krispy Kreme outlets in metro areas like Chicago or Detroit often price them at 49 cents, in which case I'm on them like a duck on a junebug.)

Long before Krispy Kreme moved north of the Mason/Dixon line, convenience stores were already a long way from a rack of smokes and a few bags of chips, the only refreshment choices available during my long-ago gas station employee days. Nevertheless, convenience stores are getting more sophisticated all the time by adding more elaborate menu items. While I'm generally in favor of food, I wonder how many travelers like me are buying, say, soup. Bit hard to eat in the car.

If I were king, in addition to mandating multiple-stall restrooms and Pepsi products, I'd make one other rule: people buying lottery tickets in busy convenience stores should have to go to the back of the line. I fully support your right to play the lottery--but I really don't think I should have to wait while you play your dollar scratch-offs in line, one at a time, so you can buy another if you don't win. This morning I had to wait for a couple who were buying Powerball tickets with whatever money they could scrape up out of their pockets--"Wait, I found another quarter, so we can get four dollars' worth." I sensed that the lottery was not only their retirement plan, it may have been a source of income.

I suppose that attitude marks me as a snooty Dane County liberal, but I'm covered in signs that mark me that way already, chief among them my "Republicans for Voldemort" bumper sticker and the Atlantic Monthly or Harper's under my arm when I stop for a meal. I am in western Wisconsin at the moment, the most liberal of the state's rural regions, so these markers probably don't put me in any danger up here. I'd be likely to get more looks in the redder eastern regions, but even there I wouldn't be in the kind of jeopardy sparked by the game Texas liberals used to talk about playing. Back when Democrat Ann Richards was governor, a group of people would drive out to Waco with bumper stickers that said "I'm the queer Ann Richards sent to take away your gun" and then try to get back to Austin--the winner being the one who got back alive.

This trip is not entirely a car trip--after a couple of days in small-town Wisconsin, I drive to Minneapolis, park my car, and fly to St. Louis for a few days. (It may be the first flight I've ever taken with no connecting flight to make.) In the 1980s, when George Carlin was suggesting that life is mostly about the pursuit, display, and storage of stuff, he observed that the trip within a trip is one of the most difficult things in life. You have already picked out the stuff you can't live without for several days, now you have to pick out a subset of the stuff to take with you on this additional trip. "Supply lines are getting longer and harder to maintain," he said. I'm feelin' you, George.

More road news, and perhaps even some of the political bilge you have come to expect from this low-rent website, later in the week--if the hotel web access holds out.

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