Oct/Nov 2012 Travel

Going Home to Wisconsin and Texas

by Michael Spice

Early January, 2011

Heading back South after Christmas in Green Bay with my brother's family, we drive down US 41 through the Fox Cities, and I see a bowling alley where I bowled once with the wife from the early days of our marriage. I wonder about all the people we worked and bowled with then. That was supposed to be our team building moment. I wonder how much of a team they ever became. Acquaintances come and go.

On this winter day, I remember still the sting of hitchhiking out there in January or February of 1990. From the relative peace of my sedan with wife and five-year-old son in the back, I recall the loneliness of that highway, cold and needy, walking and waiting for a ride to someplace better than I was then. Off to Madison or Milwaukee for a weekend in a bigger town with people who were maybe just a little better than the usual suspects back in Green Bay, or if not better then at least different. Maybe I just did not know the Green Bay people well enough yet and never would, with all of my comings and goings. Better maybe because the Milwaukeeans and Madisonites were born in a slightly more urban place or because they had the gumption to move there when they could, I found them more desirable company. I think that those hitchhiking trips were also a way to shock my system and get out of whatever rut I was in and then come back to my boring life and be a bit re-energized from the buzz of having been out there, exposed, on the road and at new parties in unfamiliar towns with new people and not seeing the same old faces all the time.

Being home in winter for the first time in ten years showed me how far away I had gone. Once you get used to warm winters, visits to the Northlands become like trips to Disneyland, almost unreal. Yet there was no doubt that I walked on the ice of Lake Winnebago and showed the boy what the ice fishermen were up to with their big drills and chairs and warm boots. The wife was jogging along the lakeshore, and we walked out to the spit across the little bay we were standing on, and I considered walking across that ice sheet, but even though I had spent a couple winters in that neighborhood as a boy, I knew I did not know what that ice was like in early winter. I decided to play it safe, and we took the running path around the little bay to go see her. One time I had convinced the wife to drive our car out onto Lake Winnebago, which is sort of hard to believe now. But there was a semi-truck parked on the ice as well, just off-shore, and I said to her, "Look, if the ice can hold that thing up, we'll be fine." So we drove around the north end of the lake for a couple minutes. It was January, after all, and the lake was well solid by then. Along the path we walked, and there, I told the boy, was the school where I played viola at age nine. And I played baseball and soccer on these fields just there, between the school and the lake, and over there, the lakeflies gather so thick in mid-summer you have to close your eyes and mouth and nose just to walk through.

It was strange to be home, and for the old man to be gone. The estate empty, not even the years of junk in the yard remained. Just an empty house, and some cedars, and grass that was too tall. It was not a real winter yet, too warm, not enough snow. He had sold off the land bit by bit and now the corn fields I had hidden in as a kid had some artists' shacks and mini-storage buildings on them. Way out in the field where my mom had run the snowmobile out of gas with my little brother and me in the middle of a snowstorm was now a gravel road. That day the snow was up to my little brother's knees, he was maybe four. We had to walk in our Mom's footsteps too so we would not sink into the snow all the time and get snow up our pant-legs. Not sure why she had us out on the sled when we were so small. Being abandoned out there in a snowstorm felt almost life-threatening to us little boys, but for my Mom it was probably just a minor challenge to get her little boys across a meadow and a highway and back to her parents' roadhouse inn. My Granddad sold it off in the mid-70s and moved across the highway to a pretty good spread of land with a new house maybe a few hundred feet from where were stranded that day. That house is in disrepair now from over 30 years of increasing neglect and will probably be torn down when the land is finally sold off.

The other old man, my Dad, is a shadow of the man I once new. A blue collar plugger kind of guy who valued hard work, cigarettes, and an evening of good laughs in the pub with kindred souls over beer and a Brewers game, is now wiped out from COPD, his breathing barely maintaining him. I think back at all the people who tell you to quit smoking, who told him, and how we often defiantly cling to our crutches in the face of our loved ones' requests. Somewhere, sometime we have been kicked around and denied the love we needed and now we use our vices to prove to everyone that we do not need them. Maybe we really are chemically and physically addicted, but I think the emotional control that the vice gives and takes is its worst addiction.

When we crossed the country from South to North, we longed to be home in the North again with loved ones. Of the sights we saw, the rolling hills of Missouri to the South and West of St. Louis were a beautiful, wooded high country, something I had maybe seen before, maybe 30 years ago and so, more a distant dream than a real memory; the kind of beautiful country that makes you think and then wonder if there is anything worth doing in St. Louis / Central Missouri, because it would be nice to live in those hills. On the way back South, we looked forward to it getting warmer and warmer as we got closer to our home in Texas, and while it did get a few degrees warmer, it was already winter even in the South, and the wind was fierce as we screamed across the open country of Oklahoma and North Texas. When we crossed the Red River on the Oklahoma-Texas border, I called Dad to tell him we made it back home safely.


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