Monday, September 17, 2007

Must Be Crazy

I'm too tired to write much tonight; I'm holed up in a clean if cheap room in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Terrific thunderstorm with hail and ferocious lighting. Glad to get in. Long tiring day but more anxious and even scared than exhilarated. After driving down around the top of Lake Michigan I arrived at my dear friends, Ann and Rod's house in Neenah Wisconsin several days ago--Thursday afternoon. The upper peninsula, UP, of Michigan is a long stretch of nearly barren road in the Hiawatha National Forest--today much of it is logged and the few houses one passes have logging trucks or skidders in the yard. The few restaurants and motels are mostly struggling to survive--and mostly failing at that. once one turns south along the beautiful lake suddenly the human geography changes from poverty and extractive industry to manicured lawns, expensive homes looking out on to the lake and the wealth that is middle America today. instead of logging trucks and scattered farms one encounters Hummers and the usual assortment of chains that past for most of America today. Why would anyone buy a Hummer for God's sake? I'm even afraid to give this question much thought.

Still, there are small towns that hint at an earlier America: bucolic Neenah is pretty neat all over even though there are working class neighborhoods and quite a few real factories still producing real products. Downtown Neenah has the usual assortment of small retail shops and restaurants owned by local people and hanging on for dear life. Ann, Rod and I went to my favorite: Zacatecas owned by Ruben Hernandez, MaryLou Hernandez and their son Ruben Jr. Wow--what a great place to eat. Fabulous salsa, hot chillies and terrific combinacion platters. Like so much of the Midwest today the Hernandez's came to Neenah a few years ago bringing new tastes and, at least for some, a welcomed diversity. Sadly, some midwestern Americans whose parents and grandparents arrived from Germany and Scandinavia a scant generation or two ago now don't want to make a little room for newer immigrants but the Hernandez's are hard working folks who have built a wonderful restaurant and business in the part of Neenah most vulnerable to decline. I'll post a few pictures when I can get my pictures downloaded.

I have to admit that on my way out of town I stopped for coffee at Starbucks happy to find their great flavors there but a little embarrassed that I wasn't giving my business to a local coffee shop on Main Street instead at the interstate exit. Rt. 41 took me north a short way to the rural farms now of central, north central Wisconsin. Hundreds of old barns litter the landscape--almost all in some state of decay. The rural land remains, but the once tiny farms are almost all gone, the farmers working in nearby cities or trying to farm their few acres sometimes producing cabbages, pumpkins, anything but the proud dairy farms they once were.

Tomorrow, the Great Northern Woods and the magnificent Muskie fishing of northern Wisconsin. I must be crazy to be doing this--gas prices are unbearable and the old $35 motel is almost gone the way of the little farms, collapsed barns and empty silos; not sure how Americans make a living today but a drive through the upper midwest is pretty devoid of farmers, factory workers, and miners. Every little coffee shop, restaurant, motel that does live on has its own collection of photos of past endeavors--working men and women whose day has come and gone.

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