Monday, 13 June 2016

Geekrant vs the Tourist and the North Star State

Hello, Geekrant readers, I would call you “Geekranters” but that hardly seems complimentary or edifying does it. So I'll just call you “readers” until someone comes up with a better name. The next few blog posts I make will involve the visit of my friend Neil (a.k.a “Samik”, a.k.a. “Sanj”) to the shores of the United States of America. They also will include reference to and some of the events recounted take place over the Memorial Day weekend.

Memorial Day is a national American holiday originally created in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War to allow for the tending and commemoration of the graves of the fallen. On these electronic pages, I try to temper my natural urge to serious opinionated thought but I would for a moment allow it. In my opinion there is no greater sacrifice than laying down one's life for another or for a cause, a dream, a nation. Those of us who have never experienced such times can sit in the peace bought by their sacrifice and wonder about whether the wars were justified or otherwise, whether there was another way or was diplomacy the answer. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, three men of roughly my own age from my home town died bringing home the pain of that loss to a generation who had never known it until that point. We should always honour their sacrifice, the reason they gave their lives and never once think that our opinions on the righteousness or otherwise of war can allow us to treat them with anything else than the highest honour. These were British soldiers, obviously, but I hope that my next few blogs do not dishonour all veterans, regardless of nationality or dishonor the meaning behind Memorial Day.

Also, writing this has made me think of my hometown and just what home means. After in the same town for the first 32 years of my life, there are few places that compete with it to feel like home. One is our apartment here in Madison and Wisconsin in general. Another lies further north and west. My wife's home state of Minnesota and her parents' house.

If one were so inclined to set out on the journey from Madison to my in-laws house, they would leave Madison from the north and travel along the highway in the direction of the Minnesotan twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul. They would pass Baraboo (home of Circus World and the Ringling Brothers Circus), skirt the water-park loaded tourist oasis of Wisconsin Dells and drive virtually straight through Mauston (pronounced Moss-ton). They would then come to a fork in the road at a place called Tomah. If one dreams of the lights of the Twin Cities, then take the north fork but as is often the case with life, our intrepid traveler should take the road less traveled by and head west.
 After Tomah the hills that guard the way from Baraboo start to become more rolling and now start to become more bluff like in places as the road descends towards the Mississippi.

And that, dear readers, is where the feeling of home begins, the highway crosses the river at a place the French imaginatively called, “La Crosse” and enters Minnesota, The North Star State.

The road then turns north and travels alongside the river. On the driver's left side are high wooded bluffs which rise out of the river valley steeply, in places the trees give way and glimpses can be seen of sheer rock-faces. Here and there, houses cling to the hillside, wooden framed wonders, bleak and isolated looking in winter and incredibly inviting places to live in summer. On the driver's right, the river passes lazily by, although it is in reality far from lazy, full of barges transporting cargo south as far as the sea and dams generating valuable hydro electric power and all the other things dams do. And between these disparate landscapes the road winds itself, sometimes far from the river and then sometimes not as the bluffs stick out into the river like some weather beaten headland on the North Sea.

The names of towns come quicker now, Winona, Wabasha, Kellogg. Each town similar but also different. Making a claim to its own small part of the world. And then after about an hour or so of driving the river road and 3 hours plus of total driving time, the road enters Lake City.

Lake City is a small (pop. 5,063 at the 2010 Census) quiet, pretty town of simple timber frame houses, Lutheran churches and a High School which Mrs Geekrant attended. It is also where Laura Ingalls Wilder, writer of “Little House on the Prairie” lived for six months as a child, where water skiing was invented and lies on the magnificent Lake Pepin, the widest point on the Mississippi.

My father, has always expressed surprise that the widest point of that river could lie on the Mississippi. My father, it is fair to say, enjoys maps and seeing where towns and cities are in relation to everything else. However for him and for many of us bought up in other nations than the U.S., we think of the Mississippi as a entity of the southern states of the U.S. All Memphis Blues and New Orleans Jazz, Alligators and Cajun food. It never occurs to most of us that the same river begins in a mid-western state that borders Canada, a state less known for shrimp fishing and gumbo, as for hockey and lutefisk*.

Here, the river widens into a wide lake called Lake Pepin. Ingalls Wilder mentioned it in at least two of her books. It's area is 45.7 square miles, it freezes over in winter and it has its own legendary monster, which I hope that someone has decided to call “Peppy”. It is also incredibly beautiful and picturesque and much used for water sports although they can forget asking me to join in if Peppy really is chilling out somewhere in the depths.

Five minutes drive down the road lies the small settlement of Frontenac and there, on the tree lined summit of a low lying hill lies my in-laws house.

There is a stillness and a wildness to this state, a sense of timelessness that makes me feel that, whenever I set foot there, I am reclaiming some primal part of my soul which too much modern city living has eroded away. It is the 32nd state of the Union. Admitted to the United States on May 11, 1858, just in time to send troops to the Civil War. It is known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”. It is a landscape of woodlands and farms, lakes and prairies. The LA Lakers take their name from the time that they spent as the Minneapolis Lakers. It was also the only state to vote for Ronald Reagan's defeated opponent in the 1984 Presidential Election, native son Walter Mondale.

It was settled predominantly by northern Europeans, in particular, Scandinavians and Germans. The state reflects this in many different places including the name of the state's NFL team, the Minnesota Vikings, the plethora of Lutheran churches and a particular form of Mid-western American English making use of Scandinavian expressions known as “Nordski”. Judy Garland was born in Minnesota, so was Prince, of course and being a geek, I love the fact that Macgyver is from Minnesota. Oh and did I mention Bob Dylan?

So what better place to bring my friend, Neil to give him a deeper taste of this part of America than just one state can enbue.

We had set out on the journey from Madison upon the Saturday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend, Neil having flown into O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on the Friday before. Having spent the morning at Madison's annual “Bratfest” (of which more in another blog), we then spent the afternoon chasing storm clouds along the river road to Lake City and Frontenac. The rain crossed our path in bands, the tree covered bluffs looking, in the misty rain, like something more suited to a tropical Jurassic Park than this northernmost of the contiguous United States.

We arrived at Mrs Geekrant's childhood home under grey skies, during a break in the rain. Neil might have been expecting a subdued welcome, instead he got our niece and nephew running around the house, my father in law grilling burgers out on a still damp deck while his father kept him company, the house full of members of Mrs Geekrant's extended family (including her father's mother who I would be remiss in not mentioning as she is partial to this blog and her encouragement to my writing is appreciated) and as we'd also brought my wife's friend Melissa with us too, Neil could never question the Minnesotan capacity for hospitality and welcome.

I am, truth to say, enamoured of that capacity. The whole Mid-western approach to hospitality and community rivals the Northerners of my own native country where I grew up. But back home, our natural welcoming nature tends to be tempered by British reserve and dare I say a slight cynicism and world weariness that comes from the difficulties that declining industry and damp weather can bring. The Mid-westerners have such an optimism and a friendly politeness that I feel there is not much that can suppress their natural jollity.

I find myself in the midst of my own British reserve incredibly blessed by the apparently automatic way my wife's family accept me. My accent maybe about as far from Nordski as you can get but when I'm there, there is no question of me being treated any less than family, which I know is not everyone's experience with their in-laws. The Midwest, it seems to me, doesn't care about your past, or previous failings, your heritage or your nationality, they welcome you with open arms and try to feed you hotdish (or casserole depending on your state), take you out to breakfast and treat you like a brother or sister from the moment they meet you and I am thankful that I married into it.

So, there really was no better place to start my friend's ten day sojourn than in a old wood framed house, with a porch, on a hill, five minutes drive from the Mississippi with friends and family ready to greet anyone who comes rolling through. I am proud of where I come from and my own family back home and the town I was born in but I have found a place to call home here too. And I am quite happy with it.

*Lutefisk is fish steeped in water and lye until extremely alkaline and then steeped in water till bought to neutral PH. It has a jelly-like consistency.

Frontenac is also known as Frontenac Station, at the time of publishing it was unclear what its present official name is.

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