Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Deity's Disproportionate Interest in Basketball and/or Squash, and Other Observations From the Road
Greetings from Coon Rapids, Minnesota, a Minneapolis suburb which, despite its rustic name, has neither coons nor rapids anymore, and is in fact franchised generica as far as the eye can see. My thanks to all who kept the level of discourse astoundingly high during my recent scarcity. You don't even need me anymore, really.

I make the trip up to the Twin Cities from Madison four or five times a year, sometimes more, and a trip like that can quickly become a blank. Yet only a failure of curiosity or imagination requires a person to think of the trip as dull. Here's what there was to notice along the way:

--From the west side of Madison, U.S. 12 gets you to Interstate 90/94 at Wisconsin Dells. Before you get to Baraboo, you climb the Baraboo Bluff, which is steep enough to have different weather at the top--often it’s much cooler there than down below.

--After Baraboo, you reach the south edge of Wisconsin Dells. For most of a hundred years, it’s been Wisconsin’s premiere tourist trap, although it’s a lot more subtle now than it used to be. Instead of doing it with T-shirt shops and Indian ceremonies, it traps tourists today with giant waterparks and movie multiplexes that make it unnecessary for visitors ever to poke their heads outside their climate-controlled cocoons to see the original attraction, the Dells of the Wisconsin River.

--Farther up 90-94, standing right next to the highway, are the rock formations that are symbolic of Juneau County. They must have been part of the islands in some giant antediluvian lake, but now they stand exposed to the wind as it whistles across the sandy, open spaces of central Wisconsin.

--Up toward Black River Falls you skirt the edges of cranberry country. Cranberries and potatoes love the sandy soil in central Wisconsin. It used to be said that there was something else in the soil of central Wisconsin, madness both latent and not, described memorably in Michael Lesy’s weird and disturbing book Wisconsin Death Trip, which was made into a weird and disturbing film a few years ago.

--Beyond Black River Falls, the topography gets more rugged where the glaciers didn't reach. The interstate crawls up, down, and through the hills past Osseo, up toward Eau Claire, past Menomonie, and on toward Minnesota. There are some lovely rural vistas up this way--the highway rolls away in the far distance and lopes up the next hill, as cows graze on the hills alongside.

--There’s poetry on the map in western Wisconsin, which is the home of several hyphenated school districts that go way back. You drive through at least three of them along the interstate: Osseo-Fairchild, Eleva-Strum, and Baldwin-Woodville. Go a bit farther west, off the interstate, and you’ll find Melrose-Mindoro and Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau. The people who created the latter knew something about poetry: the district is made up of the towns of Galesville, Ettrick, and Trempealeau, but they realized that “Galesville-Ettrick-Trempealeau” wouldn’t scan nearly so well.

--“Trempealeau” is the loveliest county name in Wisconsin. It’s pronounced “TREMP-a-low,” and it’s a lovely place, too, tucked between the Mississippi’s picturesque east bank and the hills. But on the poetry scale, it gets some competition from Minnesota. The TV last night was scrolling counties affected by weather warnings, and it mentioned Blue Earth, Yellow Medicine, Faribault, and Kandiyohi.

--Once you get to St. Croix County, within 20 or 30 miles of Minnesota, you feel like you’re climbing a very gentle slope on your way to the border. You’re certainly traveling through a place that’s on the move--St. Croix is the fastest-growing county in Wisconsin, as the suburbanization of the Twin Cities continues eastward. East of Hudson, condominiums are blooming in fields that grew corn and hay a year or two ago.

--After passing Hudson’s sprawling stretch of generica, Interstate 94 drops you quickly toward the river that marks the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota. It’s not the Mississippi--it’s the St. Croix River. It’s very wide here, and the river bends around the point at which the I-94 bridge crosses it. The view of water and sky is spectacular on both sides of 94.

--Almost immediately after crossing into Minnesota, you start climbing again, out of the valley of the St. Croix. There’s a pause in the suburbanization for a moment--the first mile or two of Minnesota seems more rural than the last two miles of Wisconsin. But pretty soon the condos and strip malls bloom again. You can take the measure of the sprawl when you arrive at Interstate 494/694, a loop which at one time represented the outer limits of the Twin Cities. No longer.

--After a few miles on 694 North, you come to the suburb of Mahtomedi, which seems incongruously Arabic in an area settled mostly by Scandinavians. It’s pronounced “mah-toe-ME-die” and not “mah-TOM-ed-ee,” which was my initial guess, and it's actually derived from two Indian words, mato and mde, meaning "gray bear lake." Its location along what's now known as White Bear Lake means it's always been a vacation spot, from the chautauqua days of the 1880s to the gangster days of the 1920s, when some of the most famous names in crime used to hang out--and hide out--in the region.

--Later on, when crossing into the suburb of Ramsey (the fastest-growing city in Minnesota), you notice that you are driving on Dysprosium Street, perhaps the least euphonious street name in America. But the next street over is Barium Street, and a look at the map reveals Helium Street, Iodine Court, Cobalt Circle, Argon Street, and streets named for krypton, potassium, tungsten, xenon, fluorine, and vanadium. As some cities name their streets after presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Jackson) or trees (Elm, Oak, Maple), Ramsey has named its streets after elements. It's likely that the city (and nearby Ramsey County) were named for Minnesota's first territorial governor, Alexander Ramsey, but a chemist named Sir William Ramsey won the Nobel Prize in 1904 for discovering the so-called noble gases--which include helium, krypton, xenon, and argon.

There's history and curiosities wherever you go, not just along the roads lesser traveled, or the ones not taken. You just can't let yourself be fooled into failing to look.

Quote of the Day: From a sign outside a motel near Wisconsin Dells: "Jesus Wants a Balanced Court." You can't make this stuff up.

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