Monday, July 07, 2003

North to Wisconsin blog.

We arrived home from Wisconsin on Saturday evening, in time to go to bed at a reasonable hour. The evidence in our yard -- grass that hadn't grown much in a week, and in fact it looked a little brown -- suggested that there wasn't much rain in northern Illinois while we were gone. But at 3:30 a.m. or so Sunday morning, the rains came, in the form of the most violent thunderstorm so far this year. Boom-boom-boom for many minutes. Wonderful, I thought, lying there. Lightning's going to take out the house, a month before we sell it.

The house still stands. But one bolt hit close enough to awaken my iMac, which had been in the sleep mode.

We spent eight days in Wisconsin. I have no excuse for taking this trip, except to quote an old song whose name I can't remember, and which I never much liked anyway, except for one line: distant roads are calling me. So we packed up the green Sienna a week ago Saturday and headed for the furthest north reaches of the state, otherwise known as the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, and the island's mainland counterparts, the towns of Bayfield and Ashland.

The Interstate system peters out before you get all the way to the top of Wisconsin, or into most of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for that matter (which was another trip, and I hope will be again). Of course, it's easy to scorn the Interstates as some sort of inauthentic way to travel, an opinion I don't hold. I've seen some singularly interesting stretches of Interstate -- I-10 in parts of Louisiana, which flies over bayou country, or the desert drive of I-15 across southern California, or (my favorite) I-89 near Montpellier, Vermont, in October.

That said, smaller roads tend to be more fun, and we found some good ones up north. At the northern end of I-39, which runs like a spine through most of central Wisconsin, US 51 takes over, though for a time it's a divided highway of four lanes, and thus exactly like the Interstate. Just north of the wee resort town of Tomahawk (more about which later), the road narrows. By this time, the driving visuals were compelling anyway, and all the narrowing of the road did was bring the scenery that much closer.

Since a mere imaginary line divides them, southern Wisconsin looks in all respects like northern Illinois, a farmland dominated by corn and soybeans, trim farmhouses and silos. The deeper into the state you go, the more cows you see, as you would expect -- coven-foot soldiers of the dairy imperium -- though horses are quite common as well, and on US 45 northwest from Lake Winnebago (or it might have been Wisconsin 15, which connects to US 45), we spotted a camel idling in a field. I noticed it too late to get a good look, but I think it was the one-hump variety.

Yellow deer warning signs are the norm along the smaller roads, and it's no joke. Car-deer accidents are all too common, it seems, with the deer usually getting the worst of it, but occasionally a human dies too. Twice I spotted deer on the road ahead of us. Once, a limber buck dashed across the road against all odds and made it. Later, a fawn frightened out of its wits spent a moment of terror on the lane opposite ours. It did a tight circle or two on the road, and then retreated to the side from which it had come. If it had been a second slower, it would have been hit by an oncoming car; if it had dashed further across the road, we might have hit it. Both of these were daytime encounters.

Gradually as we went northward, the land gave way more to forest, a mix of broad-leafed species in the full flush of summer green, with an increasingly heavy concentration of pines, some of which were clearly Christmas-tree plantation slaves. Also, the land begins to undulate, changing from flat farmland to low hills. On the whole, the Midwest may be flat, monotonously so in wide stretches of Illinois and Indiana and Iowa, but northern Wisconsin has contour. Not hilly, exactly, but certainly not flat.

Wisconsin is well watered along I-39/US 51, rewarding travelers with views of the large Wisconsin River on several occasions, or glimpses of such watercourses the Big Eau Pleine, the Big Rib, and the Plover rivers, along with assorted lakes and ponds, manmade and otherwise. The area around Tomahawk in particular is rich in small lakes -- Spirit River Flowage, Mohawksin Lake and Lake Nokomis, just to name three larger ones -- and this has given rise to a sizable, though distinctly local, resort industry.

Though it's remote by metro Chicago standards, north-central and northern Wisconsin are hardly uninhabited; and though the farms thin out the further north you go, the hand of man is never far from sight. More on that tomorrow.


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