Everyone needs a road trip, every now and then. And if it involves going back to the place of your childhood home it becomes more of a time-travelling expedition. That’s what it felt like when my son, CJ, and I went back to Wisconsin last month to retrieve the last of my parent’s belongings from storage.
Rather than let it be a melancholy experience, we planned to make it a fishing trip, with the primary objective being to pull some big northerns out of the Embarrass River in Caroline (population 270), the once idyllic farm-town where I grew up. We were psyched. I’d been telling CJ, and his sister Amanda, stories of glory stalking the mighty pike since they could listen. I showed them pictures. Repeated the stories. Many times.
We flew from Denver to Madison direct for less than the price of our lunch at DIA (beers are expensive at airport restaurants). We wanted to steel ourselves for the flight, in case we had to duke it out with the flight attendants (we were flying the friendly skies of United). Everything went well, though. This time.
Our little red economy car was waiting in the rental lot, and soon we were at my sister’s place, just after she got home from work. She took us to a great BBQ/Smokehouse/Brew Pub in Fitchburg called The Thirsty Goat. We had ribs. Yeah. Then we hit Walmart for some fishing gear and licenses, because we were going to head “Up North” to Caroline first thing in the morning, and we planned on hitting some rivers along the way. As many as we could.
When Julie left for work we hit the road also. By mid-morning we stopped at our first spot that looked promising on the map: Duck Creek in Wyocena (population 768) on Hwy 22 in Columbia County. The water was sparkling and flush. There was a public boat ramp and parking spaces just below the bridge, and Grande Cheese had a big, shiny dairy operation just across the road. I felt at home. I always do when I return to Wisconsin, even after all these years.
We’d rigged up the poles the night before and had our little tackle boxes loaded with all the essentials. We were using casting lures and crankbaits on steel leaders, going after fish with big teeth. CJ landed a decent sized black bass (smallmouth) while I snapped some pictures. A nice, elderly lady came out and told us we should try fishing just below the bridge because “that’s where they dump the Christmas trees,” and people were having luck there. Even some walleyes, which were second on our list. We talked for a while, as strangers still can in small towns, and she gave us some good advice on bait and technique, all the while drawing on a cigarette that never left her lips. I could never do that when I tried to smoke. It always burned my eyes.
We took her advice and within a few minutes CJ was yelling and his rod-tip was bouncing. The old Christmas trees were still yielding some presents. He landed a very respectable bass, this one a largemouth, and we felt the beginning of something epic. With mission accomplished we got back on the road, grabbed some Sun Drop, string cheese and sausage sticks at a convenience store that also sold live bait (now I really felt “home” in Wisconsin) and headed for the next blue, squiggly line on the map – the old-school paper ones that are confounding to fold.
Soon we were in Pardeeville (population 2,115) and there was water everywhere. This is the headwater of the Fox River, one of the few in the world that flows north in the Northern Hemisphere, going through Lake Winnebago and the Fox Cities before dumping into Green Bay, the body of water between Door County and the rest of Wisconsin (the thumb and hand; if you look at a map you’ll see what I mean.) We stopped at another convenience store (which also sold live bait, as well as tackle, beer and hard liquor) and asked the young(er) lady behind the counter where the fish were. She told us more than most websites could, and spoke from first-hand experience. Turns out the bluegills were hitting on Park Lake, so we gave it a try. We casted small spoons and jigs from the bank and waded out where we could, but the wind blew a storm across the water so we got back on the road and high-balled north, the clouds breaking before us as we headed to the next blue squiggly. The land went from Illinoisesque flatland to the rolling hills and moraines carved during the Wisconsin glaciation. Few places like it in the world of geology.
Montello (population 1,495) in Marquette County is a town I’ll always remember from our many family trips to Madison, where my mom grew up and most of her family lived. It has a waterfall at the downtown intersection and two rivers run through it – the Fox and Montello. It’s also the home of Wisconsin’s largest tree, which I didn’t know growing up but just discovered on Wikipedia. We fished the Fox just below the dam, but didn’t have any of the walleye spinner-rigs everyone else was using so we didn’t stay too long. It’s a pretty spot, but a decomposing carp on the river’s edge made you not want to breathe through your mouth.
It was getting close to noon and we were still not halfway to Caroline, so we got back on the road and barreled on to Wautoma (population 2,218) in Waushara county, which Dad always said was halfway; and he would know because he drove this road a lot when he went to school at UW, and then visited my mom during weekends in the summer. We decided to not fish any more rivers until we got to the mighty Embarrass, to give us time to rent a motel room and get some minnows before the northerns have their dinner, which is late afternoon/early evening. But first we needed to get some lunch. Sun Drop, string cheese and sausage sticks go only so far.
The next town was Wild Rose (population 725). I knew they used to serve a good lunch at the historic Wild Rose Hotel; and you could sit on the deck and watch the ducks cavort on a little mill pond that had a functioning watermill. With food close at hand my mind drifted to the past, and I recalled good times from younger years. A story came to mind, and went out my mouth.
Me: “I used to date a girl from Wild Rose when I was in college.”
CJ: “Oh yeah?”
Me: “Yeah. Know what her name was?”
CJ: “No. What?”
Me: “Yeah. Know what we called her?”
CJ: “No. What?”
Me: “Wild Rose. She was a lot of fun.” (respectfully speaking)
CJ: “Oh yeah?…Are we almost there? I’m hungry.”
Me: “Yeah, we’re almost there.” And then we were.
Unfortunately, the historic Wild Rose Hotel was no longer serving lunch, or breakfast, or dinner, because they had lost their food service license for some reason (sometimes it’s best not to know why.) But the place was just too magical to walk out of without buying something, and the bartendress seemed like an old friend (it wasn’t Rose, though). Cans of Miller High Life were $1.50, so we ordered a couple and looked at the vintage wooden and mirrored back bar. Now CJ became conversational.
CJ: “What’s that?”
Me: “What’s what?”
CJ: “That” pointing at a handwritten sign on the antique cash register: Shake of the Day $1
Me: “Bar dice game.”
Me: “You pay a buck, shake a dice box and you can win money.”
CJ: “Really? How does it work? Never heard of it…”
Me: “Most small bars Up North have it, but they all have different rules.” The bartendress took over on cue.
Bartendress: “I’ll show ya, honey.” And just like that my son entered the wonderful world of Up North Wisconsin bar games. He rolled three times and didn’t get five of a kind, but he was hooked. I saw myself in my son, two generations connected by a leather dice box slammed on a bar. The time-space continuum extended into the 21st Century.
We got back on the road and soon we were in Waupaca County, the last county before entering Shawano County, where I grew up. We passed through the unincorporated town of King (population 1,750) where the Wisconsin Veterans Home was originally established by The Grand Army of the Republic in 1887. It’s where my next-door neighbor, who was a WW II veteran and helped me net my first big northern, had spent the last years of his life. My 4-H club stopped there on a field trip once to pay our respects. I’m glad we did that.
The next settlement was Manawa (population 1,371). They were in our high school athletic conference, our primary rivals in football. They usually stomped us because they had three brothers on the team who were as big as lumberjacks and probably had facial hair in junior high. It was also the home of the Midwestern Rodeo, which my mom took a carload of us to – once (she got a little ticked because we physically forced my younger brother to moon cars on the way home). The Little Wolf River runs through it, and we passed the dam that created one of the bigger mill ponds in the area.
The land started becoming very familiar as we motored through the town of Waupaca (population 6,069), named after a Native-American chief of the Potawatomi tribe. We were getting very close. Small dairy farms filled the humid air with the smell of manure, and we found ourselves behind a horse-drawn Amish buggy as we turned onto the smaller Hwy 110. The Amish started settling in the area when I was in high school, and were welcomed and admired for their craftsmanship with wood and hearty work ethic. The horses were huge and didn’t seem to mind automobiles. Wearing blinders probably helped. It’s worked for me, sometimes.
A few thousand more revolutions of the tires, endless commentary by yours truly and we were in Marion (population 1,260), where I went to high school. We stopped at the hangout of my youth, the bowling alley, but it looked nothing like the place where I spent so much time and energy growing up; so we left after having a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon (they no longer had draft beer! Too expensive to keep the lines clean.) When we said we were going to get a motel room the one (other) patron in the bar said that we might have trouble because there was a car show in Clintonville (population 4,559) that weekend, and the few hotels in the area might be booked up.
Undaunted, we drove to the Cobblestone Inn just inside the Clintonville city limits on Hwy 45, past a gathering of Amish to an empty parking lot. We had beaten the car show hordes, evidently. The motel was built long after I had moved from the area. It was clean and smacked of the 21st Century, with a small fitness room, mini-store and a bar that seated half a dozen souls. This is where my brother, sister, my kids and I stayed for my mom’s funeral two years earlier. We didn’t linger, though, but went straight into town for minnows and refreshments at the convenience store that had always sold minnows and refreshments. They weren’t the big shiners we used to trap in the river as kids, but we bought the biggest dozen river chubs they had and headed for Caroline, known affectionately as Peaceful Valley, ten miles away. It was approaching mid-afternoon and the weather was welcoming, with the thick, sticky, mugginess of humidity born of Great Lakes and forests in the American Midwest, the northern tropics. Home sweet, sweltering home.
Returning to my hometown of Caroline has been bittersweet for the last thritysome years, a pale shadow of what it was when I was an imp. Instead of the bustling farm community where my family had operated a cheese factory since 1912, across the road from the feed mill and dam, down the street from the John Deere implement on Main Street, which, at one time in the 1960s and early 1970s, had an auto body shop, two grocery stores, a bar, a bank and a hardware store (where I bought my first of everything), all of which were now gone, either razed or rotting. In their place were rusted out cars, being sold for parts it appeared, by whom I couldn’t tell. All that remained on Main Street was the post office, a supper club, the old gas station that did auto repair and restoration and sold vintage and used cars, and a convenience store/printing company that operated out of the old implement shop. The Caroline Ballroom, where I attended many wedding receptions and 70s rock shows, had burned down and was no longer evident, trees having grown through the concrete slab of the magical hall where I had sneaked beer, flirted with girls from different towns and received my first black eye (a good one!). I have so many stories of that place. It’s where I witnessed my first shooting. Those places are always special.
But enough reverie, and to the river. The mighty Embarrass, where the south and middle branches come together at the top of the pond formed by a dam which was now doing its darndest to keep a balance between the water above and the water below following the spring rains. It was fierce. No swimming here. We drove past my childhood home and decided we had enough time to check a small creek outside of town where I had always landed some nice, native (orange-fleshed) speckled trout, (aka brookies). We drove north out of town and turned onto a beat-up road that took us to Loggermans Creek, through thick woods and swamps. Mosquito country. Wood ticks, if you wandered too far. Bugs. Damn bugs. I’d rather deal with bears.
But the bugs weren’t bad and there were no bears when we stopped at the one-lane bridge, lowering Canadian nightcrawlers on single hooks tied directly to the line. We removed the steel leaders and went into stealth mode, because trout are smarter than most local fish, I think. Tastier too. Possibly the most noble of fishes that ply the murky waters of Central Wisconsin farmlands. But they would have nothing to do with CJ and me that day. The water was high, so they must have had their fill of food at the moment. After catching only a shiner (which we kept for northern bait) we thought we’d check the river at Weasel Dam. We passed what had been the Weasel Dam Tap, a country tavern in an old schoolhouse when I was a kid. A popular spot for snowmobiling in the 70s, with a pot-bellied wood stove and a barrel of peanuts greeting the intrepid. Many stories of that place…
As everywhere else, the water was high and the river was rushing at a level that forbade entry, the rapids ripping like I had seen a few times before. “Stay out of there!” a voice in the back of my head screamed, as I recalled having to be rescued from a rock by the Town of Grant volunteer fire department a mile downstream on a canoeing trip with a Deliverance twist. There were three of us on that rock for over an hour as the sun started setting after a heavy June rain. Then there were two, my girlfriend the other. Two little kitties stuck, as if in a tree, surrounded by Niagara Falls. But, that’s yet another story…
So back to Caroline we went, and parked our little red rental car near the Quonset hut that had harbored our canoe, rowboat, riding lawnmower, bicycles and so much more. Where I’d broken a bone in my hand, punching the steel door when it failed to close properly (it never gave me that problem again!). We started hauling gear down to the river over grass I used to mow, past the plot where my mother had a garden, where I ‘d almost lost an eye playing with cornstalks (that story is already written and submitted to another publication). We went to the bank where I caught my first Big Fish – a northern just over 30”. A lunker. That’s what we were after. Fresh water barracuda. The ultimate predator of the mill ponds. Fearless, always hungry. Mini-Jaws.
Yet, again, the river would not yield. Too much water. Too early in the season. Too much rain. Too much was against us, and we had no strikes; we struck out. (It’s fishing, not baseball. It’s fishing, not catching. But it was fun, my son and me, sitting on the bank, adrenaline coursing through us like the current before us.)
“Damn fish!” I cursed. “Damn, darn, damn, stupid fish!”
“It’s okay, Pops. We’ll get em,” CJ comforted. “Maybe it’ll be better in the morning.” He’s a trooper, and doesn’t get as discouraged as his crotchety old man.
“A’ight den,” I said. “In that case, do you mind if we go to the cemetery? I’d like to pay my respect to my folks.” It was getting on to evening, and I didn’t want to lose the light.
Well, of course no one would say no to that request, unless they were a real scuzzball, which my son is not; so we grabbed the gear and were off.
The Caroline Cemetery sits on a hill across the street from the old grade school that my sister and I attended. It was shut down shortly after for lack of students, so the younger students, including my brother, went to Marion Elementary, where each grade had its own teacher, as opposed to two and then three grades per teacher as was the case for Caroline Elementary. I don’t know anyone who went through a similar situation, but I’m sure there were a few such schools in those days, in these places.
My parents’ headstone was in our family’s plot, as it should be. This time both inscriptions were carved, the writing balanced in the reddish-pink granite. I noted the feldspar, quartz and mica, three minerals composing granite that I recalled from college geology classes. I liked geology. Still do. I knew granite was an igneous rock, meaning it came from volcanoes or other faults in the earth’s surface that allow the magma to escape above the mantle, different minerals crystallizing at different temperatures during the cooling process to give granite it’s mottled, grainy beauty – and its durability. It’s a hard rock, like marble, as opposed to a softer sedimentary rock such as sandstone or limestone, which are easier to carve but quicker to wither in time and weather. Marble is a good material for headstones, with a smoother appearance and many wavy variations. But it’s a metamorphic rock made when limestone is compressed for many millenniums by the weight of new organic material accumulating on the earth’s surface over the course of time. Limestone is composed of fish and other marine life skeletons that gather on the bottom of ancient seas and oceans, long gone and getting buried by time and dirt. There must not have been many ancient seas or oceans in this part of Wisconsin (glaciers, though) because granite seemed to be the predominant headstone material. But, I digress…
CJ and I wandered about the cemetery looking at all the names of families I grew up with. He asked questions and I answered as best I could. But I won’t attempt to inject that into this story that seems to have no end. Visiting your parents’ grave is a solemn, private affair and I respect that. We all should. Let’s let them rest in peace. Suffice it to say that the memory of those moments is much more vivid than anything else that occurred on the trip.
My old grade school, however, is not afforded this protection. It’s not a grade school anymore, but the parking lot was as full as I’d ever seen it. I had to find out why.
The Caroline Elementary school that I attended is now an American Legion post, specifically the Blashe-Peters-Tober Post 456. I had thought it was named after fallen veterans from the Vietnam War, but I was wrong. When CJ and I walked through the doors that I hadn’t passed beyond since 1971, I noticed that the gym/cafeteria was full of people milling around tables decorated for an event, that there were people going in and out of the middle classroom, which had been for 3rd and 4th grade but was now a bar, and that everything else looked eerily familiar – except for a large display case that took up much of the hallway. That wasn’t there when I went to school, so I drifted to it, CJ on my 6 o’clock. What I saw was an impressive display of military memorabilia and hardware from the families of the three fallen servicemen who served in World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War. For some unknown reason, it affected me as much as seeing the gravestones of my family. I’ve always been a bit of a history buff, which often seems to center around wars. This was a museum of the personal affects, military accoutrements and explanations of the items, including uniforms, photos, letters, infantry rifles and everything else that you could imagine a soldier, sailor, airman or marine would carry into battle. I got choked up. This time CJ didn’t ask any questions. I think he was a little choked up too.
I won’t try to explain everything I saw. I never served in the military, but have tremendous respect for everyone who has. My father was in the Army Reserve for a one year stint (during peacetime in 1961-1962) at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. I was there, too, but I don’t remember anything but the pictures (I was one and two years old). He had fond memories of the camaraderie, going down to Mexico, seeing (meeting?) Ann-Margaret at a USO function, and running over tarantulas that would lie on the warm asphalt when they were doing nighttime patrols in Willys Jeeps (the big, hairy spiders went pop!). He had encouraged me to join when I started growing long hair in the 70s, even saying that he could help me apply to West Point, but changed his tune when some of his buddies came back from Vietnam. I don’t know what they told him, but he lightened up on trying to get me to join the army. Probably a good call.
I told CJ as we approached the door to the bar, “I probably won’t know anyone, so we shouldn’t be here long. If I do, then I don’t know what…” He just nodded and followed me, still covering my 6. I opened the door and we walked into my old classroom, which was bustling with adults, sitting at the bar and tables and going in and out of a back door that wasn’t there when I was a kid. I looked around and didn’t recognize anyone, so we grabbed a spot at the bar, looking out the big windows at people playing horseshoes and the pond below. We didn’t get too many stares and ordered a couple of beers, served in small tap glasses I hadn’t seen since leaving Wisconsin. Three sips and they were empty. At only 75 cents, we thought we could afford a few more. We began to feel comfortable and probably could have blended in, if we would have been wearing more camo hunting gear, beards and added a few pounds. After a while, someone came up to me and asked me who I was, in a friendly manner. I said, “I’m Kurt Buss. I grew up here.”
“Kurt Buss! I know you! D’you remember me?” He was excited, and I recognized the voice, in a timeless kind of way; but I drew a blank. I apologized and asked his name, and when he told me it was like we were back on the high school track team, goofing off in the back of the bus on the way to a meet. I introduced him to CJ and pretty soon a small crowd surrounded us, with my newfound friend saying who I was, and lots of dudes in camo and beards saying, “I remember you! Remember me?” The voices sounded familiar, but the beards disguised the faces I knew long before being touched by a razor. A few more tiny glasses of whatever was on tap, and it was a rush down memory lane.
No matter how old you are, in Peaceful Valley – and other small towns, I would imagine – you’re still identified by who your father is. I’m 56, but to those folks at the Legion, even the one’s much younger than me, I was still “Stubby’s boy.” One of, anyway; and damn proud of it, too.
Pretty soon shots of blackberry brandy were being poured and one was placed in front of me. I hadn’t had blackberry brandy since I used to steal the bottle from my grandfather’s car for adolescent camping trips. I’d more or less sworn off hard liquor after years of not realizing that it didn’t bring out my better angels. Besides, I was driving and didn’t want to take any chances. I knew better, but I downed it – just for old times’ sake – and was surprised how smooth it was. The bartendress explained that she kept the bottle in the freezer which made it go down like iced-lightning. She showed me the label. It was Polish, I think. I didn’t recognize it. Much better than the hooch I liberated from gramps; but I stopped at one. CJ had another one or two. He was assimilating to the Wisconsin Northwoods with considerable aplomb. A chip off the ol’ block. He mentioned that the beer and shots weren’t having much of an effect on him, and I said that I felt the same way. We agreed that it must have been the altitude difference from Colorado, but didn’t push our luck. We had a great time with the good people in American Legion Post 456, but headed out when the opportunity presented itself. We came to hunt northerns, not get drunk at my old grade school.
We crammed back into our little red rental car and wandered back to the motel. The next morning came quickly. Sunlight and humidity greeted us in the parking lot, still void of the car show hordes.
By 10 am we were back on the bank of the mighty Embarrass, behind the house where Santa visited us, oh so long ago. A notification on my phone reminded me that this was the anniversary of my first big fish, caught at this exact spot forty-eight years prior. The dock that I caught the fish from had been replaced by a sturdier unit, and CJ asked if I thought it would be okay for him to fish from it. I said that it would, and soon he had a minnow under a big red and white bobber floating right where I had caught my fish.
It occurred to me that this was also the same time that I had tied into the big northern, having just gotten home from church when I was eight years old. This was good karma. I felt the planets align as we ate the leftover ribs which we’d kept in a cooler. The cycle of life was coming full circle and I drifted into a daydream, seeing the frozen pond where we town kids learned to ice-skate before the days of snowmobiles. The place where my dad and his friends swam as youths when there was still a rock-pile boom in the middle of the pond, from the log sluicing days of long ago. I suddenly remembered a story he had told me of swimming out to the boom with other kids, when a boy swimming next to him started to go under. “I couldn’t do anything because I was out of breath,” he had said. That boy drowned. If my father had tried to save him he probably would have drowned also, and I wouldn’t be. Rivers are terribly unforgiving. I learned that lesson as well several times in my life. I don’t take chances anymore when it comes to water. Not worth it.
Noon passed and we still had no fish, no strikes and the ribs were gone. It just wasn’t to be. Not on this trip. Reluctantly, we gathered our gear and loaded it back into the little red rental car. We were meeting an old friend in Green Bay later that afternoon to see the Packer Hall of Fame and get a fish fry. It was Friday. My brother was heading down from Minneapolis to Madison the following day for a mini family reunion. The Caroline expedition was coming to a close. We made one last stop at the site of what had been the F.R. Buss & Co. cheese factory, now nothing more than a slab of broken concrete with trees growing through it, just like the Ballroom’s memorial on the adjacent property. The planets were slipping out of alignment as we slipped out of town.
We just couldn’t give up on the fish, though. I had assured my son that we would catch northerns. Big ones. We had one last shot. The manager of the motel that we’d stayed in said her brother was having luck just below the dam in Clintonville, on the Pigeon River. I’d never fished there, but since we had to go through Clintonville anyway, we decided to give it a shot. Again, to no avail. The fish gods were not smiling upon us on this trip, so we vowed to return and grabbed a burger lunch at an art-deco bar named Cindy-B’s downtown. The only other patron was an elderly man having a bottle of Sun Drop (much better than the stuff put in cans because it was still made in Shawano according to the original recipe, and had pulp.) We got to Green Bay and checked into the Ramada Plaza just off Oneida Street not far from Lambeau Field. CJ, Amanda and I had stayed here two years previous when we came for my mom’s funeral. We had tried to visit the Hall of Fame then, but it was closed for renovation. This time we got in.
Walking among the various exhibits from the days when Curly Lambeau (and George Calhoun) first founded the team in 1919, we soon forgot about the fish. I had come of age at the end of the (Vince) Lombardi era, with Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke and all the other greats. They were legends. Then, the 70s and 80s passed before (Mike) Holmgren brought the title back to Title-Town (and the Lombardi Trophy back to Lambeau Field) with Brett Favre, Reggie White and all those other, newer greats. This is hallowed ground for Cheeseheads. We walked in solemn admiration and awe. How could you not? My only disappointments were that there was no picture of what the stadium looked like in the days of my youth, when it was a no-frills aluminum horseshoe before the modern, mega-million dollar renovations, and that Jerry Kramer was not inducted (Jan Stenerud is, but Jerry Kramer isn’t? WTF?) Some things in life make absolutely no sense whatsoever. So off we went to the fish fry at Anduzzi’s Sports Club on Holmgren Way (across from Brett Favre’s Steakhouse on Brett Favre Pass), where the fish is lake perch, as it should be. Then back to the motel, hot-tub, comedy channel and a good night’s sleep. The breakfast buffet had scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, as well as orange juice, coffee and yogurt. We gorged ourselves. My appetite seems to increase when I return to Wisconsin. My thirst as well. Must be something in the air, I don’t know…
For all practical purposes, the fishing part of the trip was over as we left central Wisconsin and headed south to Madison, loading up for the last time with Sun Drop (cans), string cheese and sausage sticks. The sky grew overcast and it began to rain. Small farms became large fields and the dirt went from black to red. Rolling hills and maple trees were replaced by bland expanse. The glaciers had melted before they reached this area. We pushed on to Madison, dropped off the little red rental car and picked up the moving van just before the shop closed. Driving suddenly became less fun.
We were hungry, and it was hours before my brother would arrive and my sister would be off work. CJ and I looked at each other and simultaneously said, “Let’s go to State Street Brats.” So, we did.
When I was growing up my family always went to Madison for several days in the summer, and stayed at my grandparent’s wonderful, magical red brick house on Lake Mendota, near the locks at Tenney Park which connected Mendota with Lake Monona, where Otis Redding’s plane crashed in 1967 and stilled that amazing voice. My grandmother always told us to write down three or four things that we wanted to do, and she would take us there – in her white Mustang convertible with a firetruck red interior. These were my “city” grandparents, and they opened a new world to us. I would be a different person if not for these visits, I’m sure of that. At the top of my list was the Brathaus (now State Street Brats), where I’d order a red brat (smoked on site) with brick cheese, sometimes two if I didn’t waste stomach space on French fries. The other places I always listed were the Vilas County Zoo, the Chocolate Shoppe ice cream parlor off Johnson Street where they had a flavor called Blue Moon, and the Maple Bluff County Club for the outdoor swimming pool and endless shrimp cocktail on the dinner buffet. We didn’t have country clubs and swimming pools in the Caroline area; just supper clubs and the river with its dam. I’m not complaining. That’s just the way it was. Still is. And that’s a good thing.
They no longer offer brick cheese as an option for their flame grilled brats. As I said, some things in life make absolutely no sense whatsoever. That’s just the way it is. And that’s not a bad thing. Many people are offended by the smell of some brick cheese, especially the foil brick which smells like Limburger, or an outhouse. Tastes good, though. I think. (My dad told stories of putting chunks of Limburger on the engine blocks of friend’s cars, and pulling outhouses off their pedestals with pick-up trucks, and smearing peanut butter in gas station bathrooms. He had his stories too.) So, CJ and I sat back and relaxed, and I thought of all my previous visits to this iconic sausage restaurant near the UW campus. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Madison without coming here, and my kids know it well. Ah, the stories, the endless stories…
We drove the boxy moving van to my sister’s place, and soon my brother arrived. He was excited to be back in Madison, I could tell. He spent many years going to school at UW, eventually earning his law degree. He knew the town better than most, and was eager to show us his old haunts. We cracked open a beer and did some quick catching up when one of us said, “Do you know what today is?” Yes, we knew. It was two years, almost to the minute, that our mom had passed away. We three siblings were there as she drew her last breath at the hospice less than a mile away. We held up our bottles and toasted her wonderful memory, holding quiet and remembering her in our own way. I believe her spirit is reunited with that of my father’s in the next dimension, and they were watching over us then, as they watch over me now, wondering if I’ll ever finish this story. But, as I said, this wasn’t a trip for melancholy, and my parents wouldn’t want us to tarnish this occasion with sadness. That wasn’t their style. So, we headed back down to the Capitol Square, for the next part of our adventure.
Julie offered to be the designated driver for the evening, and we piled into her car. Thank you, Julie. I won’t list all the places we hit, this story is already getting too long, but we ended up at The Tornado Steakhouse where they serve a 28-oz. ribeye, thick enough to trip a horse. We exercised one of the Seven Deadly Sins: gluttony. My favorite deadly sin. My brother introduced my son to the Old-Fashioned cocktail, a Wisconsin favorite. CJ was getting schooled in the Midwestern ways. I stayed with my old frienemy, Mr. Beer, and tried to harness my better angels. It was an evening for the books, the moon casting a pale, green glow on the Capitol dome through the ever-present wetness in the air. When we took my brother to his room at the Edgewater Hotel the bar had already closed. So we went back to my sister’s, gorged like gorillas in the mist.
The next morning we woke, CJ and I a little tattered, like horses run hard and put up wet. Road trips can be that way, and this was no exception. We met my brother at the storage unit to get the last of our folk’s possessions. That was the purpose of this trip. We guzzled Sun Drop to satiate the hangovers, as I had done so many times working at the cheese factory when I was in high school. I had been down this road before and knew the way. My brother headed back to Minneapolis, and Julie took us to Perkins. Scrambled eggs, hash browns and sausage patties finished the job the Sun Drop started, and CJ and I began to feel human again. We returned to my sister’s place and slowly packed our things. Then a bit of rest. Much needed, much appreciated.
The final event in Madison was a cookout at my aunt and uncle’s, and one of two cousins would be there, in a house on the other side of Lake Mendota, as rich in memory as that of my grandparent’s place. They were going to grill brats, which you can’t overeat in the Cheesehead state, like lobsters in New England. On the way we stopped at my favorite food store in the small parts of the world I’ve visited, Brennan’s Market, which specializes in Wisconsin cheese, wine, fresh fruit and vegetables. It’s the only place I can find aged foil brick that reminds me of the product we sold in our cheese factory’s salesroom, and I’m eating some now, as I desperately try to finish this story. The buttons on my keyboard are getting greasy with stench, but I don’t care. The older you get, the less you care about these things. It’s a blessing.
The food was excellent and the conversation stellar, as my aunt and uncle recounted stories of their globetrotting travels, richly deserved after spending careers dedicated to education: my aunt having taught English at business colleges and my uncle a tenured professor of nuclear physics and then medicine at UW. They encouraged my desire to be a writer. Most folks don’t. Most folks think it’s a silly endeavor. I think those people are silly. Silly, silly willy-banilly. That’s what I say to those folks. There.
We headed back to Julie’s and watched Monty Python movies (now those are silly!), and I fell asleep on the couch, still just a few inches too short for my frame; but I knocked off quickly nonetheless. I dreamed of my bed back in Colorado. And my dog, Rambeaux. And my parents. And the muddy, little rivers of central Wisconsin.
Colorado has some amazing rivers as well, cutting canyons through sandstone and granite as they tumble out of the mountains. But there’s nothing quite like the lazy rivers of central Wisconsin, meandering through cedar swamps and farmlands, dammed in every town.
We’re on the road at 8 am, now in the present tense, with our payload of material possessions: my parent’s personal effects, the fishing gear, leftover steaks, Julie’s homemade cinnamon rolls, the remaining Sun Drop, string cheese and sausage sticks, with the realization of a failed hunt for the almighty northern. Damn, stupid fish! We get on Hwy 151 and head for the border, leaving Wisconsin as the sun breaks the clouds and a rare, blue sky greets us, beckoning us West. We stop at a couple small rivers trying one last time to catch something big before we leave our licenses’ jurisdiction, but again we are denied. The two rivers we visit are not worthy of our limited time: The Dodge Branch near Dodgeville (population 4,693) where an abandoned steel bridge reminds me of so many others I’ve crossed, and the Little Platte River (unrelated to the Platte that we would follow later in the day, in a land still far away and flowing east, not west) outside of Dickeyville (population 1,061). These are utilitarian trickles of water, lumbering through treeless farm fields and poisoned with the agricultural runoff of fertilizers and pesticides, brought to us by companies like Monsanto, manufacturers of Round-Up and other carcinogens. But, we have to try. And, we fail. Again. So we stow the fishing poles and get back in our clumsy moving van. That’s it. Done. Stupid fish!
Then, there it is. The mightiest river in the land. The vertical Mason-Dixon line that divides our country geographically, separating the old world from the new: The Mississippi River, esquire. Big Muddy. Mark Twain’s playground and the waterway to the Big Easy. We dip down the bluffs and cross the longest bridge of the trip, and just like that we’re in Dubuque, Iowa, a workhorse river town that has seen its best days flow by. There is nothing to distract us now but 831 miles of asphalt. We find a classic rock station on the radio and I stand on the gas pedal. The earth is dark and rich in the Heartland. It smells of pigs and corn. We need breakfast, so we stop at a greasy spoon in Monticello (population 3,796) called Darrell’s, possibly named for the brothers on Newhart. It’s a hearty breakfast in hearty farm country, and as we leave they are setting up the lunch buffet of broasted chicken, pork sausages on sauerkraut, mashed potatoes with country gravy, sweet corn glistening in butter, meaty pizzas and just about every kind of concoction you can make with mayonnaise. Soup and salad, too. For the heart conscious.
We roll on, assisting the earth’s rotation by spinning our tires beneath us. We get on interstate highways. No Amish horse-buggies here. At Iowa City we bank right onto I-80 and head due west. Straight shot to Colorado now. Hours pass. The conversation is a little subdued. Our goal is to make it into Colorado, but that’s a long way off. The van drives like a brick, not as zippy as our little red rental car. The seats don’t recline so CJ can’t catch any shut eye. Radio stations fade in and out. The engine has a governor on it that won’t let the brick go faster than 77mph when everyone else is doing 80. Welcome to the suck. The weak link in the road trip. The gas gauge goes counter-clockwise quickly. Stupid brick! Damn, thirsty, clumsy stupid brick! I try to occupy my mind… My head starts nodding…
We stop for gas, again, in western Iowa. CJ offers to drive. I immediately accept. Thank you, sonny. We head toward another long bridge and another storied river, the Missouri. I think of the Lewis and Clarke expedition of 1804-1806, when Thomas Jefferson dispatched Meriwether Lewis to put together a group of thirty some men to search for the fabled Northwest Passage, to the silk and spice markets of India and China. At that time it was believed dinosaurs may still exist in these lands. Stephen Ambrose tells the story very thoroughly in his book Undaunted Courage, one of my favorites. My dad sat next to Ambrose in a class at UW because students were seated alphabetically. I wish they would have become life-long friends so our families could have grown up together. Gone camping and told stories around the fire. But that didn’t happen, and neither did the fabled Northwest Passage. Some things, I guess, just aren’t meant to be.
We enter Omaha, Nebraska. A sign over the bridge says The Good Life, a state motto; but it immediately starts to downpour in a thunderstorm. Buckets. I-80 goes through the city instead of around it and we double down on bad luck by hitting heavy traffic. CJ pushes the brick, though, and we break on through to the other side. When the weather clears we are greeted with the big blue sky of the West, no clouds and abundant sunshine. The trees disappear and so does the humidity. I open the window and in pours the smell of rubber tires over wet asphalt, the aroma of the road. We’re symbolically closer now, next state Colorado, 350 miles ahead. The brick rolls on…
I’ve driven this route many times. We used to go to Caroline for Christmas when the kids were little. Santa was good to the kids at grandma and grandpa’s house Caroline, and there was always a better chance for a real, white Christmas. One year we returned through an ice storm on I-80 and that was the end of the Christmas road trip to Wisconsin. It wasn’t worth risking it all. It never really is.
We get new energy and I start telling CJ stories. Again. We recall the trip he and I made with my dad’s Chevy S-10 pick-up, when pops no longer needed it and offered it to me if I’d come and get it. That was in July, nine years earlier. My dad didn’t believe in air conditioning. I thought we were going to die of heat stroke coming across the plains, but we didn’t. I still have the truck. It runs like a champ. That was the last time I’d driven across Nebraska, but it quickly seemed perfectly familiar. Lincoln, York, Grand Island, Kearney, Gothenburg. We skirted along the Platte River (the real one), and I thought of the trappers and pioneers who came West on the Oregon Trail, through Pawnee and Cheyenne territory, when we all still got along. That was a long time ago.
A little more than halfway across Nebraska is the city of North Platte, where the two main branches of the Platte River come together from their headwaters in the Colorado Rockies. The south branch starts in a mountain basin known as South Park (home of the irreverent, animated tv show) and flows through Denver, where there are kayak parks in town so you can practice your skills before going into the mountain canyons – if you’re crazy enough to tempt the whitewater, which I’m not – anymore. The north branch starts in another mountain valley known as, you guessed it, North Park, one of Colorado’s premier Gold Medal trout fisheries, before going up through Wyoming and the town of Casper (which is not named after the friendly ghost cartoon of my childhood). North Platte is also where the sandhill cranes stop to roost on their spring migration north to Canada, Alaska and Siberia. It’s one of the biggest bird migration corridors in this part of the world. People come from all over to see the flocks of these beautiful creatures pour in and out of the sky, and their crazy dance moves on land.
But when we pass through the cranes are well on their way north; so we stop for gas, again, and I take back the driving chores. We need to find a motel in Colorado with a hot-tub, and CJ is better with cell phone research. I stomp the pedal on the brick as he starts clicking buttons. Nothing in Julesburg. Nothing in Sterling. The two closest towns in Colorado. We abandon our original plans and make a reservation in Ogallala, Nebraska, where I-76 breaks off I-80 and heads to Denver. It’s getting dark, and we’ve been on the road for thirteen hours. No need to push our luck, which wasn’t there for northerns.
We pull into the Stagecoach Inn as the big, orange sun drops below the western horizon, which it has done for as long as I can remember. We notice Colorado license plates on the vehicles as we drive to our room, with the iconic white mountains on a deep, green background. Lots of Wyoming plates too, with the image of a cowboy on a bucking bronc. Feels like home, back in the West. The air is relatively cool and dry as we throw what gear we need into our room. There’s off-sale beer at the adjoining steak house so we get some – beer, that is. We already have steak, waiting for us in our room, along with some golden cheese curds from Brennan’s – last of the Wisconsin gluttony. Damn. I think of Ponyboy Curtis quoting a Robert Frost poem in The Outsiders: “Nothing gold can stay.”
We hit the hot tub then crash in big beds with crisp, white sheets, sleep coming easily now. Suddenly, or so it appears, it’s morning, and we’re on the road for the last leg of our journey – a short jaunt of 221 miles. A cakewalk after yesterday. We cross the border into Colorado and are greeted by a familiar sign, an old friend: Welcome to Colorful Colorado. Thank you, Lord.
Suddenly, everything is sunshine and big blue sky, with puffy white clouds here and there but nothing to harbor humidity. Prairie grass erupts along the highway as we stop for gas in Julesburg, home of the infamous Battle of Julesburg, when Cheyenne, Arapahoe and Lakota warriors took revenge for the Sand Creek Massacre in lower Colorado after we all stopped getting along. “Nothing gold can stay.” You’ve got that right, Mr. Frost.
Me: “I think we’re gonna make it, CJ”
CJ: “Looks like it, Pops.”
Me: “That was a great trip, huh.”
CJ: “Yeah. Sure was.”
Me: “Know what would have made it better?”
CJ and Me (in unison): “If Amanda would have been here.” And that’s the truth. She might have caught a northern on the mighty Embarrass. She landed the biggest fish on a previous trip, twenty some years ago. We had it mounted, and it’s perched on my wall. I commandeered it during one of her many moves in college, thinking it might not survive otherwise.
We find a classic rock station out of Denver and soon we’re clipping past oil rigs in Weld County, last county before Larimer County, where we both live – he in Fort Collins and me in Loveland. We go through Greeley and suddenly I recall what it’s like to drive amongst people who don’t seem to like each other. We don’t stop, except for red lights and stop signs. Nothing for us here. Adios!
And just like that we’re in Loveland. Home sweet, beautiful home. I can’t pick up Rambeaux because it’s nap time at the kennel (I’m serious), so we head over to the motel parking lot where we caught the shuttle to the airport – which seems like a lifetime ago – and CJ grabs his car. He follows me to Fort Collins where we return the brick after topping off the tank for the last time. I pumped more gas in the last few days than I will for the rest of the summer (again, I’m serious). I toss the keys to the lady behind the rental counter after filling out the paperwork. “Here,” I say. “It’s all yours.” She says nothing in return. People aren’t as nice out here as they are in the small towns of Wisconsin. Not always, anyway. I prefer rural America, where the towns are in the hundreds and thousands, not hundreds of thousands.
We drive back to the motel in Loveland to get my car, and then just sort of look at each other.
Me: “What time you gotta be at work?”
CJ: “Not for a while, but I need to clean up before going in.”
Me: “Feel like doing anything?”
CJ: “Sure. Whadayou have in mind?”
Me: “You have your fly rod in your car?”
Me: “I hear there are some big browns in the Big T (Big Thompson River) at Fairgrounds Park. Wanna give it a try?”
CJ: “Hell yeah.” So off we go to the Big T, and fish among the homeless camps at the park where the kids rode the rides when they were young, before the flood of 2013 scoured it – but still no fish! We stow the gear for the last time on this trip and grab lunch at a bar where the kids’ mom worked for a while when we first moved to Loveland in 1986; and here, dear reader, is where this adventure comes to a close, as all adventures must. This horse has been run hard, and I put it up wet. Until the next escapade, I bid you adieu. And there will be more, I grant you that. As I said oh so long ago, everyone needs a road trip, every now and then.