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...