Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A Sense of Place

One of the real benefits of traveling the lesser highways and byways, versus cruising the impersonal freeways, is seeing the reality of life in each locale. This is important to me when I travel. A person can cross the country by freeway and really see very little except the same freeway off-ramp clusters of businesses again and again.

Oooh, look, kids! Another gas station with a Subway sandwich shop attached to it. Oh, and there’s another Best Western with air conditioning, a heated pool, free wireless internet and a deluxe continental breakfast. Funny—we saw one just like it in the last town. Wow, a McDonalds! I wonder what the Happy Meal toy is today…

I like to get a sense of the place when I travel. I want to see what life is actually like for the people who live there. What is normal? What is there only for the sake of the tourists? What makes each place unique from all others? What would a person miss, if he were away from his home too long? What would he long for? What would he be happy to get away from?

These things can’t be seen from the freeway.

When we were in corn country a couple of weeks ago, I had the kids get out of the car and duck into a corn field, slip several rows in, and walk up and down the rows. That is different than just driving past field after field from the comfort of a vehicle.

Walking down back roads in rural Indiana, the hum of the cicadas and the sticky heat were our constant companions.

Last night, we had fish for dinner, recently caught in Lake Superior, just fifty feet away. You should have fish when you are on Lake Superior. It gives a sense of place. Today for lunch, we had pasties, the traditional Scandinavian meat and potato-filled pastry pockets. The kids, though hesitant to try something new with a strange name, enjoyed them tremendously. You should have pasties when you are driving across the U.P. (Michigan’s upper peninsula, for those of you scratching your heads here).

We did take our boat tour of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore today. We sat on the top deck and enjoyed the breeze and the screeching seagulls while we admired the breathtaking scenery. Our boat passed so near to some of the cliffs that we could almost reach out and touch them. Awesome is an overused word, but it is the only one that came to mind as I admired the sandstone formations, streaked with boldly colored mineral deposits. The kids will remember this morning. The multi-sensory experience instills a sense of place that will not soon be forgotten.

We are driving through Wisconsin as I type (will transfer to the blog next time I get an internet connection). It is as lush and green as I expected it to be, gently rolling hills dotted here and there with old barns and dairy cows. It may seem odd, but I want to roll the windows down occasionally and breathe in the unmistakable smell of a dairy farm. Crazy, I know.

We just passed through Ashland, Wisconsin. What a cool looking older town! It is big enough to have everything you could need, but small enough to be quaint, and filled with old brick and stone buildings in the old downtown, all painted with huge, elaborate murals. We liked it, all of us.

Leaving Ashland, we came upon a turnout with a little shed in a parking lot where a small line-up of cars and pedestrians had gathered. The sign on the shed declared, humbly, that it contained a pump to an Artesian well. The water inside ran freely, and we got in line with the others to fill our water bottles. The water was the purest, sweetest water we have probably ever tasted, and ice cold from deep underground. This was just a simple little roadside thing in everyday Ashland. Several people were there filling five gallon jugs. This is their drinking water. We would have missed it, had we stuck to the freeways.

I didn’t set out to write such a lengthy essay on sense of place, though. Really, I just wanted to make a quick note on what I’ve begun to call “living lawn ornaments.” I’ve seen two prime examples in the past couple of hours. The first one was a statue of a rooster out near the road in someone’s front yard. He was a pretty thing, shimmery black feathers that had a greenish cast to them, with a perfect red comb and waddle. It wasn’t until I was nearly past him that he cocked his head and I realized that he wasn’t a statuette at all. Thus, the term living lawn ornament was coined. Some people have to go out and buy cute little country-ish things to decorate their yard. Others come by them naturally.

Only half an hour later, Andy and I noticed a woman working in her flower bed near the side of the road. She was a sturdily built woman, with what you might call good birthing hips that probably served her well several decades back. What made us chuckle was not the woman herself or the fact that she was gardening. We snickered quietly because she was bent over double at the waist with her generous backside squarely facing us. She looked exactly like the painted wooden lawn ornaments we’ve seen and laughed at, the ones designed to look exactly like her—a large woman bent over gardening. We struggled to contain our laughter, so we wouldn’t have to explain it to our young passengers in the back seat. We never did see the woman’s face.

So that’s it. I set out to record the living lawn ornaments phenomenon that one can only experience by straying onto the back roads.

Reality. Check.


Note: I haven’t been missing out on the scenery by sitting here with my laptop. That would be terribly hypocritical, wouldn’t it? Fortunately, I type by touch.


No internet at the motel tonight here in Cumberland, Wisconsin, so I will have to post this all another day, but I just had to add this one thing, in light of all I wrote above about experiencing the reality of a place:

We came through Hayward, Wisconsin a couple of hours ago, a really great little town. The family voted for Chinese take-out for dinner, which we ate at a local park.

Because nothing says small town in central Wisconsin like Chinese take-out.


It’s Tuesday night late, now, actually Wednesday morning early, I suppose. Which time zone am I in?

Today was a fun day. We finished driving through northern Wisconsin and liked town after town we came upon. At first, I was trying to remember all of their names so I could list the more memorable ones here, but after a while, Andy and I just conceded the fact that we like small town northern Wisconsin in general.

We stopped in one tiny town, not a touristy place at all, when we noticed that the obligatory town cheese factory had some outside viewing windows where you could watch the process of cheese being made. The kids balked at first, claiming that they’d already seen cheese being made at the Tillamook cheese factory on the Oregon coast, but that is a HUGE place and this was so small and personal that we convinced them to get out of the car. It was really worth the stop. They were able to view the process from much closer up than we’d ever seen before, then went inside for samples and came out with a bag of cheese curds, a local delicacy. Just as we’d been warned, we couldn’t stop eating them once we’d opened the bag. Tasty. What is a trip through the dairy capitol of the country without cheese curds fresh from the cheese factory?

We drove on from there to the Twin Cities and found we had a family-wide crush on the city of St. Paul, Minnesota. We wandered around the massive Cathedral of St. Paul, took in part of a mass and admired the intricate, ornate art all around the walls and the huge domed ceiling.

After tip-toeing around the cathedral, we took a leisurely stroll down Summit Ave., where the largest continuous stretch of historic Victorian homes in the U.S. resides. What an amazing neighborhood. Elli preferred the ones mostly obscured by thick ivy. Andy liked one in particular that had some Craftsman lines and had just been completely restored to its original appearance. I fell hard for a trio of brownstones right in a row, but couldn’t choose a favorite. Tano liked one with huge Corinthian columns on the front. We all love interesting architecture.

From there, we drove a couple of blocks over to the capitol building and wandered around its marble halls. After exploring most of the building on our own, we jumped in with a tour group that we heard was about to go up onto the roof to see the golden statues that adorn the top of the building. We took a tiny metal circular staircase up and up, and finally emerged into the sunlight, far above the city of St. Paul. Freaky, but cooler than cool. The kids were loving it. Oh, and we found the official painting of Gov. Jesse Ventura, the former WWF wrestler and I took the kids' photo doing their best wrestling moves in front of it when no one was looking.

A hop, skip and a jump on several freeways and we found ourselves in Minneapolis, at the famous Mall of America. We went on a few amusement park rides, ate lunch, played in the Lego Imagination Station, and wandered around some of the shops. The kids had a good time, but I’m not much for malls, so I was ready to leave after a few hours. Honestly, I think the West Edmonton Mall, in Alberta is better.

We are now in Marshall, Minnesota, almost to South Dakota, to spend the night. Tomorrow, we will see Pipestone National Monument, and DeSmet (home of the Ingalls and Wilder families of the Little House fame), then make our way toward the Black Hills. Elli is glowing with excitement at the thought of seeing the Ingalls homestead. Good thing she still has a little souvenir money left.

Well, that’s all for now. We have a good internet connection at this motel, so I’ll publish this lengthy installment.


Scott said...

Man, Sherry - thanks. Makes me wish it were still summer for my brood. It also makes me think that next year the fam and I might just have to pack up and do some travels on the open road.

By the way, my great-grandmother, immigrant from Poland, had an Artesian well on her property. So many excellent memories. I'll have to write about it someday soon.

Eagle-eye Di said...

It sounds like you are enjoying alot along the way.By now you are probably beginning to feel the long ride home.The Black Hills are great to go into,enjoy one and all.Back roads are ok if you have the leisure time for getting home after awhile.Did you see my pink caddy sitting in the field on the way home?Oops that was along the express way I saw it.I checked on the price tag of the old pink caddy parked at the car lot here and was told they want 14,900.I think Chuck had better pass on wanting to buy that for me.Our prayers are with you as you drive the rest of the way home.

Mister Ed T said...

Interesing blog. But I'm a little disappointed!! No picture of the lady gardening. Ha! Have fun for the rest of the trip.

AmberJ said...

You are such an amazing wordsmith. I felt like I was riding in the car with you.