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Entries in flat (2)


Blue Highways: Superior, Wisconsin

Unfolding the Map

We have crossed into Wisconsin, a state with which I am very familiar, as we continue our eastward trek with William Least Heat-Moon through the northern part of the U.S.  We'll breeze through Superior on our way south into America's Dairyland.  To find Superior, look at the map!

Book Quote

"On Superior Street I ate smoked cisco, then crossed the bridge above St. Louis Bay into Superior, Wisconsin, then down broad and empty Belknap Street running from the ore docks past old walk-ups and corner taverns, on to route 35, and out of the city."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 11

Downtown Superior, Wisconsin. Photo by "Thundertubs" and posted at Click on photo to go to host page.

Superior, Wisconsin

Wisconsin is special to me for many reasons.  For the first 22 years of my life, I was a California boy.  I rarely left California.  In fact, the only time I was outside of California in that time was in 1979, when my parents decided to take advantage of cheaper prices and bought a cruise to Alaska out of Vancouver, British Columbia, for our family. 

An interesting side note to that trip - when we took the cruise the Soviet Union had just begun to occupy Afghanistan and the ship we were to take, the M.V. Odessa, was a Soviet-flagged cruise ship with a huge hammer and sickle on the smokestack!  As a result, our vacation was not as cool as it was supposed to be, because the U.S. shut off ports and the iconic Glacier Bay to our ship except for the port of Skagway, Alaska.  All we could do was cruise om and out of the Western Canada fjords (which we could do because the ship had side screws allowing it to turn 180 degrees in one place).  I developed a heavy crush on our Russian meal server, Larisa (who kissed me when I left!  My heart still flutters remembering that!).

But I digress.  After college, I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  I lived there for nine years.  To date, besides California, I haven't lived anywhere else for a longer period of time.  22 years in California, nine years in Wisconsin, seven years (and counting) in New Mexico, six years in Texas, four years in Louisiana.  I anticipate, barring a complete life change, that my years in New Mexico will overtake Wisconsin sometime, but Wisconsin will remain special to me because it was my first break with what I knew.  Wisconsin gave me a chance to discover myself, address issues I never knew I had, provided opportunities for personal growth, and introduced me to new challenges.  Without Wisconsin, I would have never developed the adventure for travel and exploration that I did.  I wouldn't have thought about living anywhere else outside of California if I had not taken that step to live in Milwaukee's inner-city, volunteer in an inner-city school and for unemployed people, and make it my home.  It was a home that was very difficult to leave when I eventually did, and I still look back upon the state with a lot of fondness and wistfulness.

One thing I remember about Wisconsin, and Milwaukee in particular, is the corner tavern.  LHM mentions the corner taverns in Superior in his quote.  I don't know if Superior is like Milwaukee, but in Milwaukee you could live anywhere within the city, it seemed, and be steps away from a corner tavern.  In Wisconsin you'd see Pabst, Schlitz and Old Style signs beckoning you into the smokey environment within.  When I walked into a corner tavern, there was often four or five people at the bar, maybe 2 together and the rest drinking alone.  Sometimes there might be someone playing pool, darts, shuffleboard or some other gaming amusement for the patrons.  A TV might be on in the corner, showing the Bucks, Brewers or Packers, but silent, to make way for music from a jukebox.  Or the place might be silent save for the clink of the glasses.  What was a mystery to me was how these places stayed in business, because if I went back even months later, often the same patrons were there, and nobody else save for the one non-regular guy like me who was just looking to duck in and have a beer.

It didn't matter in the neighborhoods I lived in whether I went out my door and turned right or left.  At the end of any corner was the tavern.  It was a bar, but it was always more depending on what you needed.  It could be a shelter from the weather, a place to bide your time if you needed a place away, a psychotherapist's office if you needed to talk to someone, a place to meet friends, a place to meet potential dates, a place to forget the troubles of the world, or a place to rail about the troubles of the world with perhaps a sympathetic ear.  It was a place for politics, for religion, for love, and sometimes a place for anger and fighting.

Another thing I remember about Wisconsin was how guarded people were about themselves.  You could tell that Northern Europeans were the main early settlers of the state because everyone tended to avoid outbursts of emotion and anger, and were hard to read.  I didn't think about it much while I lived there, but it only made an impression on me when I had lived in Texas and New Orleans for awhile.  Texans are big and boisterous, filling up the space around them because there is so much of it and so much of them.  New Orleanians are outgoing and industrious people with an opinion on everything.  Ask a New Orleanian about the New Orleans Saints, the local professional football team, and you're in a for an hour-long discourse on everything that is good and bad about the team, detailed opinions on what the coach did well or did wrong, and prognostications on what will happen in the rest of the season or next year.

In contrast, we visited Door County, the long thin peninsula that stretches out from Wisconsin into Lake Michigan.  It is a beautiful area, especially in the fall when leaves are turning.  We walked into a shop and were perusing things, and my wife tried to strike up a conversation with the person behind the desk who was wearing a Green Bay Packers jersey top.  Brett Favre, the quarterback at the time, had just set the record for touchdowns thrown in a career.  "Pretty amazing about Bret Favre, huh?" my wife said.  "Yep," the shop owner said.  That's it.  Nothing else.  It doesn't matter whether the issue is something exciting or something deeply personal.  Wisconsinites tend to maintain a flatter aspect about things in general.

Which is why it is always surprising when you hear about major protests taking place in Wisconsin, like we heard of this past summer in the state capital of Madison.  Yet, Wisconsin has a history of political innovation, populism and protest that belies the pastoral images that comes with being "America's Dairyland."

For what they keep under their vests, Wisconsinites are very generous and very giving, but like I learned in Germany (which to me Wisconsin most resembles), it can take a while to develop relationships.  However, some of my best relationships and friendships were forged in Wisconsin.  The state is an integral part of the colorful tapestry of my life and I will always treasure the time spent there and the people I knew there. 

Most importantly, it was in Wisconsin that I met my wife and where we married in 1995.  For all these reasons, I can heartily say On Wisconsin!

Musical Interlude

Another thing I remember about Wisconsin was the awfully dreary winters.  I seem to recall that during the month of January or February, one could go a month or more without seeing the sun, just a gray dark overcoat in the sky above.  Joan Baez sings a song of northern Wisconsin called The River in the Pines where she makes mention of "Wisconsin's dreary clime."  It also references the lumber industry that was so prevalent in that area of the country.  It is not a happy tale.

If you want to know more about Superior

City of Superior
Superior Telegram (newspaper) Superior
University of Wisconsin-Superior
Wikipedia: Superior

Next up: Pattison State Park, Wisconsin


Blue Highways: Cut Bank, Montana

Unfolding the Map

Here we are passing with William Least Heat-Moon through Cut Bank and into the flat plains that make up middle and Eastern Montana.  I went across those plains once, and it causes me to reflect a little on that trip and the experience of being in places that are lonely and flat.  Speaking of which, you can locate Cut Bank on a flat Google map!

The posts might slow down a little for the holidays as I am due to fly to Florida in a couple of days.  I'll bring the computer and see if I can get some posts in as we continue, but I hope that you'll indulge me a little if I'm not as regular over the next week and a half as I have been.

Book Quote

"At Cut Bank, the rangeland and wheat fields and oil wells began.  Montanans call U.S. 2, paralleling the Canadian border all the way to Lake Huron, the 'High-line.'  The most desolate of the great east-west routes, it was two lanes of patched, broken, rutted, mind-numbing pavement running from horizon to horizon over the land of god-awful distance."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 4

You gotta love a town like Cut Bank, Montana when it has a giant penguin. Photo by Adam Helman at his website. Click on photo to go to site.

Cut Bank, Montana

LHM is traveling now over land that I've traveled before, briefly, in the late 1980s.  While I was doing volunteer work in Milwaukee, I was asked to be the best man at the wedding of John, a good high school friend.  John lived in north-central Wyoming in a little town called Cowley, where he still lives to this day.  A lifelong Mormon, John got married to his bride Sally in the temple at Salt Lake City, and as a non-Mormon I couldn't attend the actual wedding.  However, I could fulfill my obligation in Cowley at the wedding reception, so I saved out of the $75 a month stipend I received for my volunteer service and took a Greyhound bus from Milwaukee out to Billings, Montana.  John drove the 85 miles or so to Billings to pick me up and take me down to Cowley.

A lot of the bus ride was through Montana.  Though the route traversed through about half of Montana and was on the interstate rather than the "two lanes of patched, broken, rutted, mind-numbing pavement" of US 2, I distinctly remember the land running from horizon to horizon.  Between Bismarck, North Dakota and Billings, I don't think I had ever seen land so flat in my life.

Imagine being on a calm sea.  You look ahead, behind, and side to side and all you see is water and horizon, a flat, smooth surface that runs up to the edge of the curve of the world and then drops off imperceptibly.  If you were able to actually reach the horizon, you'd see that the drop is not perceptible, but from a distance it almost seems like the edge of a yawning precipice, and that you are in the middle of a circle defined by that precipice.

Going through the flat lands of the upper Midwest and West is similar, except that sight is puncuated by natural features such as the occasional tree and human-made features such as houses and buildings.  These serve as initial welcome breaks in the unending flatness, but eventually they get maddening.  They mock you because they offer a whisper of something different, and then you are back to the flat farmland.  Over all, depending on the time of year (I traveled in the late fall) the smell of earth and manure sits, reminding you that you are in farming country.

As I rode the bus that served as our ship on that flat sea of land, day dissolved into night and night back into day and it seemed like nothing changed, like one of those cartoon backgrounds that repeat as the cartoon characters run, passing over and over the same tree, the same house, the same barn, the same clouds.  Perhaps the people of Montana who ride the bus are a subset of society, but they also seemed to absorb the flat affect of the vastness of the landscape.  That flatness seemed to generate no interest in anything around them, after all if they've been running past the same scenery all their life it was nothing new to them.  Therefore, it was great theater when the mother with the screaming children, clearly out of sorts from having suffered some kind of rupture or upheaval in her life, got on the bus.  The ambience in the bus went from something close to hypnosis to mildly annoyed as the noise permeated the boundaries of the other sleeping and disinterested riders.  At one point, a man shushed at one of the kids.  The mother, in a flash, turned on him and said in an aggressive tone "don't you 'shhh' my fucking kid."  After the novelty of this little exchange wore off, people's ears began to mute the sound of the sobbing children, and most drifted back into their hypnosis once again, noticing only briefly when she ushered her children off at a stop farther down the road.

I am probably overdoing my memory of the flatness, because I'm sure that somewhere along that route there must have been a dip or a rise, a low hill in the distance.  But in a part of the United States scraped by ice age glaciers that scoured the land like a giant frozen sander, those features are few and far between.  I can see where a person, in the middle of the unending plane of the unending plain, especially in the dulling light of a setting sun, might find themselves insignificant in the whole even more than if they were in the shadow of a huge mountain or on the shore of an ocean.  Either that, or they might feel themselves in the center of the planet in the midst of the universe as the stars come out and arc from horizon to horizon.  I can't remember how I felt in that bus that seemed to crawl, rather than speed at 70 miles per hour, across the Montana landscape, but I do remember how happy I was to get to Billings, meet my friend, and head into the high desert toward Cowley.

Musical Interlude

Whenever I hear of Montana, I think of Frank Zappa's song of the same name.  The lyrics are silly, but the underlying music is amazing and shows the musicianship of a number of accomplished musicians including Frank himself.  It also caught the attention of Tina Turner who volunteered herself and the Ikettes to sing the chorus.  I'm giving you a double shot here again, because there's a studio version and a live version from 1973.  I like them both.  Enjoy!


If you want to know more about Cut Bank Cut Bank
Cut Bank Chamber of Commerce
Cut Bank Pioneer Press (newspaper)
Wikipedia: Cut Bank

Next up: Shelby, Montana