Friday, 29 April 2016

Geek Rant versus the Riverboat Pilot


As anyone who read my last post, of whom I humbly hope their number is not few, will remember, I wrote about mine and my wives travels in the backwoods, the highways and byways and small towns of America's Mid-west. Predominantly I talked about our visit to Galena, Illinois, but that was not the only town that we spent significant time in that weekend.

Ever since I started “courting” my lovely wife and first visited this country I now call home, we have engaged in a tradition of sending a fridge magnet of every state we visit back to my mother as a gift. My father instead receives chocolate mints (which he loves), hats (a Minnesota Twins baseball cap which has a subdued enough logo as to not look out of place while he walks the dog) and Wisconsin Badgers socks (which my mother makes sure he wears). It started with an Illinois magnet bought for some over-inflated price in O'Hare International Airport, Chicago. It now includes magnets from three states, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin, from a city, Madison, magnets extolling the virtues of the Packers fans and the Wisconsin Badgers and at least one cow based magnet from Madison's World Dairy Expo.

So with primary aim of finding another fridge magnet for my darling mama, we decided to head west from Illinois, cross the mighty Mississippi and enter the great state of Iowa.

As I have just said, Iowa lies due west from southern Wisconsin and a good portion of northern and central Illinois. It is named (according to Wikipedia) after the Ioway people, a native American tribe. Not that such a naming is unusual for the Mid-West. Its not really something people from outside the U.S. consider that much  but did you really think Chicago was a European word? 

If you took a quick drive around the Mid-West or simply opened an atlas of the area (or Google Maps if you're in a rush), you will find a curious mix of Anglo Saxon/English place names like, Rockford, Springfield, Spring Green, Dodgeville, Green Bay, multiple towns with the prefix “Fort”, Madison, Mineral Point, St Paul and Native American names like Menominee Falls, Waunakee, Manitowoc, Waukesha, Monona, Winona, Wabasha, Ho-Chunk, Winnebago (and you thought that was just a big camper van) Chippewa Falls even the state names, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, are renderings of Native American names. The pronunciation of these names coming exceptionally easy to a very British guy from North Lincolnshire. (Mrs Geekrant coaches me through the difficult ones)

And on top of that, there is one other culture influencing place names around the Midwest, The French.

The Mississippi: Voyageurs, Steamboats and Legends

It is fair to say that most people in the western world are aware that the French were a major colonial power and that they had a great influence on the modern day nation of Canada, but what I was surprised to discover was how much they affected the growth and development of this part of the U.S.

The French were the first Europeans to explore this region, as “voyageurs”, part explorer, part hunter, part trader, part salesman, they came down from Canada looking for furs and then later the Jesuits followed, looking for souls to save. They discovered the Mississippi and used it as a kind of aquatic autobahn to open up the interior of the North American continent, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Their influence can be seen far beyond their original sphere of influence down the whole length of the river. Names like Lacrosse, Prairie Du Chien, St Louis, Baton Rouge and, of course, New Orleans. These cities became the centres for trade and, eventually, settlement in the area. A whole region defined by the Mississippi.

In this part of the United States, the mighty Mississippi is still essential to trade, industry and commerce. It forms borders between states including the eastern border of Iowa. So when we went looking for a fridge magnet for my mother, we didn't actually go that far into Iowa and by not that far I mean barely a mile. We bravely crossed the Mississippi on one bridge from Illinois and then equally bravely retreated across it once again via another bridge two hundred yards upstream away into Wisconsin. And for the five hours where we weren't nobly traversing waterways we stayed in Dubuque, Iowa.

Dubuque was, by far, the most populated town we visited or travelled through that weekend. 58,000 or so people call this riverside settlement home. However, when we arrived, it was quiet, the traffic sparse this early on a Sunday. I was struck, not for the first time since moving here, by the amount of space that Midwestern towns seem to possess. No dense urban sprawl here, the buildings clinging together as if desperately fighting each other for a place in the sun. Instead, a wide and expansive sight greets the eyes, land is not exactly in short supply out here and everything feels somehow larger than back home, more open and airy. Here it seems, the dream that is the American heartland feels only limited by its own horizon.

We ate breakfast in a bustling cafe/restaurant/diner favoured, it seemed, by the locals. This, it appeared, was where the entire population of Dubuque had disappeared to. A local school sports coach, while in the action of leaving the building, paused for a moment to greet a potential new recruit, families came in and took up tables, 8 or 9 people at a time. Going out for breakfast is far more common here than back home. It has a ritual to it, the orders given and taken in a practiced shorthand as unique to the Americans as drunken demands for a spicy vindaloo in a curry house at 10 at night on a night out in Bradford, West Yorkshire, are to the British. It feels like family. If Ma and Pa Walton and their large brood where around today, this sort of place is where they would breakfast, all of them, including Jim Bob.

After eating, we drove into the Port of Dubuque. This was, and is, a river port. A way-marker on the meandering Mississippi. It reminded me of Grimsby, back home, or Hull, possibly. Only its at least 1,000 miles to the sea and there's no decent fish and chips for 4,000 miles. In the middle of the redeveloped area of the Port is the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.

This, funnily enough, for a history geek like me, was the first large scale, purpose built, Museum I had been to in the U.S. It is split into two parts, an Aquarium with multiple marine habitats displayed, representing much of the Mississippi's eco-system. Otters, sturgeons, snakes, turtles, all swam through recreated roots of submerged trees or basked on rocks in sunlight filtered through large windows. In a water lab area, both the sturgeons and also crayfish, could be touched and an alligator stared languidly out from its enclosure. Mrs Geekrant, gesticulating wildly at a catfish that appeared to be the size of a small automobile, intimated to me that this creature and others of its ilk were one of the main reasons she is never going in the Mississippi again despite being born only five minutes away from its shores. I would have told her to get over it but for two very important reasons.

  1. I want to carry on breathing
  2. My sister has a Fiat 500 that I'm certain was smaller than that beast.

The other main building houses a museum dedicated to telling the story of this big, old, river. Prehistory, Native Americans, Voyageurs, Steamboats. River conservation, the affects of dams on water levels. Outside an old, steam powered, river dredger sleeps at anchor. Its day long gone.

Across from this riverboat sits a riverboat pilot, or at the very least, the sculpture of one. Silently he sits on a bench, gazing out to the river that defined his life and his words (actually he's reading a book but give me some poetic license). His name is Samuel Langhorne Clemens, or Mark Twain, as he is better known.

I remember, as a child, reading how Clemens took his pen-name from a phrase used by riverboat pilots on the Mississippi when measuring depth, Mark Twain denoting a depth of two fathoms. The Mississippi seemed so far away from me then, unreal and dreamlike, a legend on the edge of stories.

So I sat on the bench next to Mark Twain and imagined the great river winding its way down from its beginning somewhere in Minnesota, past the village my in-laws live in, over dams and through locks, touching a multitude of lives until it reaches the sea. And in my mind's eye, I picture all the generations before me who have used it. Proud Native warriors crossing the river to get home, Voyageurs, trading their way into the annals of history and the fabric of the land, Mark Twain, piloting his riverboat into literary fame.

And faced with all of this, who am I? It has been a long journey to get here, a long years wait to be with my beloved, waiting for bureaucracy to work itself out. Many months trying to understand the new world I find myself in, the people, the weather, the endless commercials for medical treatments on network television, the House on the Hill.
Who am I? Is part of my identity now bound up with all the other immigrants and settlers who have found their way here. Is my previous self upstream, never to be returned to and my future self downstream at the sea. I can not say.  So, until I can answer that question, its just Mark Twain, my wife and I and that is all I need for now.

(The list of place names in this blog-post is, by necessity, incomplete and overly weighed in the favour of Wisconsin and Minnesota. This is because I have only really seen this small part of the Mid-West so far. But I'm always willing to learn new place names and have my pronunciation of said place names laughed at.)

(Photo credit for this blog has to go to my mother and her skill with a smart phone camera.)

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Geekrant Vs The General

With much apologies, I admit I haven't written much of late. That eternal struggle against the elements that is the fight for survival in the modern world has occupied my time, or to paraphrase, I've been working. So forgive my lack of regular epistle like bulletins, dear reader and please, read on.

When I first began writing the first draft of this post, I found myself sitting on the balcony of a well appointed hotel not far from Galena, Illinois. I was enjoying the first break of a purely solo leisure pursuits type that Mrs Geekrant and I have managed to squeeze in to our oh so busy schedule since I arrived here 7 months ago. The last throes of the frozen tundra like cold of the Mid-western winter seemed to finally have died a death, although it gallantly tried to soldier on for a while back there. The night was temperate and warm like an quiet evening in the height of summer back home. What is the old expression? “God is in his heaven and all is well with the world.”

So for those of my readers who hail from my mother country of Yorkshire puddings and teashops, cricket matches in fading summer light by the old pavilion and overpriced meat pies at rain sodden football half-times up and down the Pennines and also maybe for a few of my American followers, I will offer my descriptions and potentially my humble opinions of a couple of the small towns of the Mid-West of the USA.


So for those who don't know, the state of Wisconsin where I now make my home is in the American Midwest. The Mid-West is an official geographic region defined by the United States Census Bureau. Until 1984 its official name was the “North Central Region” and it consists of twelve states, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin. It includes the Great Lakes region. Much of the Mid-west is rural with the occasional large city. The largest metropolitan area is Chicago but much of the area is made of undeveloped and beautiful countryside.

It was into this landscape that we set out from Madison, Wisconsin (Population 233,000 plus) and headed southwest towards the small town of Galena, Illinois (Population, 3,429). Illinois has a reputation for being in the main, flat and open, and I have seen this, small farms with fields that just seem to stretch on forever. Skies so big, they have to been seen to be believed. However Galena lies in the far north western corner of Illinois where the hills rise and form high valleys around tributaries of the Mississippi.

So we drove from Madison, passing small towns like New Glarus (good brewery, Population, 2,172), Oregon (pronounced Orry-Gone not Orry-Gun, Population, 9,231) which started a pattern of isolated farmhouses by beautiful but lonely roads and small towns with picturesque main streets sleepy under the setting sun.

Nowadays Galena is a quiet town nestled in a small valley through which runs the Galena river (formerly the Fever River) It has a pretty tourist feel to it, with a slightly curving main street protected from the river, which floods, by a gentle grass covered levee and flood gates. Buildings cling to the hills above the town. In the early 1800s however, before siltation caused the river to grow much smaller, Galena was a major steamboat port connecting to the Mississippi, a lead mining centre and the hometown of nine Union Civil War generals including Ulysses S. Grant who would go on to be President of the United States.

Having stayed in a hotel upon the Friday night, we entered Galena on a bright Saturday morning. It just so happened that we arrived on the 194th anniversary of Grant's birth. So the town was full of middle aged men dressed in Civil War uniforms, a tall man in Abraham Lincoln's stovepipe hat and dark suit sold homemade creations at a pie auction for the benefit of the town's historical society. We joined a walking tour of the town conducted by a man dressed as Grant and his wife, resplendent in uniform and hooped skirt with parasol.

Finding ourselves the youngest people in the tour by a good thirty years, we followed the anachronistic pair from building to building finding our place among a crowd of hideous Hawaiian shirts and baseball caps. Mrs Geekrant looked on nervously as she saw my highly historical trivia snobbery bristle as a couple, apparently from Kansas City asked “Grant” nonsensical question after nonsensical question, showing America's strange lack of interest in its own history, as if historical study could wait till retirement and golf kicked in (this isn't true of all Americans but many indeed appear unmoved by anything found in their past) I kept my nerdish annoyance to myself. Instead deciding to try and empty the Grant Museums gift shop of everything that it contained. (I came out in the end with several postcards, a book on Confederate reenactors and a mug covered in U.S. Presidential Campaign slogans. This last my wife was amused at, as I don't drink hot drinks.)

Periodically bikers slowly and noisily made their way through the town, taking advantage of the first burst of spring heat. None of them wore helmets, an action that both fascinates and shocks me, as if the American desire for freedom extends so far as to refuse an item designed to protect your life because wearing it might signify bowing down to some shadowy government department ready to rob them of all true liberty.

It was interesting place to stop for a day. The town bustling and crowded, but small and peaceful at the same time, suggesting that somehow the buildings knew that after the weekend the crowds would leave and they could go back to their silent slumber in the high valley.

Now, looking back, I find myself musing on that last observation. The Mid-West is full of little settlements like Galena, tiny hamlets that many people in the U.K. would find difficulty in calling a town, but full of importance and pride all the same. Ripon, Wisconsin, the birthplace of the Republican party, Baraboo, Wisconsin, home of the wonderful Circus World Museum and the Ringling Brothers Circus, Red Wing, Minnesota, home of one of the best work boot manufacturers in the world and a prison that Bob Dylan immortalised in song.
 If I walk, not even half a mile from our front door, I find myself at Union Corners, now a busy traffic filled intersection but one hundred and sixty plus years ago, the place where Union troops mustered before heading off to far off Virginian battle fields.

Driving in the country, one finds one self driving miles and miles between towns but it never feels lonely. Seldom is there a view without a cheerful looking farm and grain silo or a group of houses clustered around a crossroads with a sign declaring itself a city with an incorporation date. Grandiose titles that help remind you that every man who came to America was dreaming of something. That when these plains and hills were first settled people were looking for something greater. Whether they found it or not is an arguable point but maybe it is a clue as to why Americans don't belabour history.

The future is what matters to them, “where will the dream take us next?” and even though these towns are steeped in tradition and probably haven't changed all that much since the fifties, they are towns of fantasy full of charming people and an old fashioned way of living, updated with pick ups and combines. Which makes me think again of cricketers in front of the old pavilion in sleepy Edwardian villages in the dying days of Empire and then I begin to feel that although I'm an alien in these places, not sure where I fit in, that I'm not so alien as I think and I wonder whether could I build a cricket pavilion next to a corn field in the American Mid-west and dream a little...