Parke County, Indiana. Looking for the Mill Creek Covered Bridge, I turned left when I should’ve turned right. The road winds through some cornfields until the cornfields end and the road dips into a dark, woody hollow. It’s a foreboding place. A twinge of anxiety in my gut. Just about to the bottom of the hollow, I look to my left and there’s a shack, an old single wide, scrap part of things and stuff on a sloping lot. A guy tending a leaf fire looks up and glares at me through the smoke. It’s a dead end at the bottom. I turn around and driving past the sloping lot I notice a Confederate flag flipping in the breeze. The man’s glare hasn’t left his angry visage. A chill runs through me and I can only imagine how a lone Black man would feel. Actually no – I couldn’t imagine it.
Wisconsin is dairy country and where there’s dairy there’s naturally milk, and where there’s milk it’s just a short hop to cheese. Wisconsin is passionate about its cheese. Chauvinistic. In Green Bay football fans don cheese head hats, gigantic yellow wedges of foam ‘cheese’, to games.
Cheese curds are ubiquitous here. Pubs, restaurants, supermarkets, mom and pop stores, the household fridge and even, as I came to learn, the car’s dashboard.
The Buffalo River meanders through the southern edge of Mondovi, Wisconsin. The town is named after the Battle of Mondovi, where Napoleon’s army defeated the army of the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont. How a town in Wisconsin came to be named after a Napoleonic tussle is a mystery to me.
In the Mondovi IGA grocery store, holding a package of cheese curds, studying it like one might puzzle over a Rubik’s cube.
A woman paused nearby.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I’m not from here.”
“Oh, welcome,” she said kindly.
“Thank you.” Holding up the package of curds I asked her, “What exactly do you do with these?”
“Well, they’re very good deep fried.”
I thought, well, no shit, everything, with the possible exception of liver, is good deep fried.
Since I didn’t bring a deep fryer along with me I asked, “Can they be microwaved?”
“Yes, but not for too long. They’re good as is. If you’re on a road trip you can set them on the dashboard and let the sun warm them up.”
In the end I bought them. During the course of a few days I had them microwaved and cold but they never saw the top of my dashboard. They were good I suppose. And then I was sick of them – and they weren’t good anymore. But I hadn’t had them deep fried yet.
Gumby’s Bar and Grill, in downtown Mondovi. Mostly square, plain. A brick structure with a log façade and a sign that sports Gumby, that guy with the bulging eyes who looks like a stick of green gum partially split lengthwise. Gumby’s got his usual smile. Of course he does. He’s hoisting a mug of beer. That’s not the Gumby I remember. A Schlitz Beer sign over the door. I remember Schlitz. Do they still make it? “Schlitz, the beer that made Milwaukee famous, simply because it tastes so good.” How could I forget that old slogan from the days of my childhood? Me, and three old boys on their lunch break seated in a row at a plain Formica bar. Pizza sounded good. A bacon cheeseburger pie; beef, bacon, mozzarella and cheddar, and dill pickles.
“I’ve never had pickles on pizza before.”
“Neither have, I” replied the bar keep. “It’s the only pizza on the menu I haven’t had.” Not exactly a testimonial.
He was a tall young man, bearded with glasses. A sort of preppy, grad school look about him. Working his way through college, drawing beer and making small talk with barflies?
In the appetizer section, something called a cheese bomb.
I asked the bartender what a cheese bomb was.
”It’s a big square cheese curd. Good but greasy.”
“Oh, yeah. Not something you should eat every day.”
In the end, I ordered the bacon cheeseburger pie and went away happy with dill pickles on pizza, but wishing I’d had the cheese bomb for desert.
There’s a cash crop in Virginia, Minnesota. It’s called iron ore. Located in St. Louis County, Virginia is located in the Mesabi Range, an ugly 110 mile long scar of open pit taconite mines. Taconite is the mother’s milk of the local economy and the signs in every town here make no bones about their local support of mining. It’s hard working blue collar country. Saturday morning at Kunnaris Kitchen and Coffeehouse. The place is jammed and the wait is long. I’m sitting at a table waiting for my order of Finnish pancakes, called Krupsua, to come up. Two guys, one Black, one White, waiting for their to go order, stand nearby. They’re talking politics – the whole gamut. I’m catching snippets.
California has just had its election over the governor’s recall. Gavin Newsom, the Democratic Governor, won handily. They agree – it was rigged. I’d like to chime in and tell them I’m from California and they’re full of shit, that Newsom got over 4 million more votes than his closest opponent, a guy named Larry Elder who’s certifiable. My better angel tells me to keep my mouth shut and wait for my breakfast. They also agree that Fox News chief prevaricator, Tucker Carlson, is a swell, upright fellow. White guy spews conspiracy. “Biden has exempted the Postal Service from getting Covid vaccinations because he wants to rig elections. After the 2020 elections there were pictures of ballots being thrown away.”
“It amazes me how many Americans want to be like Cuba,” says the Black guy.
Conversation turns to Critical Race Theory. “All it teaches is that Whites are superior to Blacks,” says the Black guy. Well that came out of left field. Correction – right field. I’m incredulous.
White guy says, “Well that’s just wrong. They shouldn’t be teaching this in schools.”
The world view from conservative Minnesota. I roll my eyes. Krupsua arrives at my table.
Alma, Wisconsin. Small river town, population 716, tucked into the base of the forested bluffs on the eastern shore of the Mississippi. At Alma, Old Man River is over one and one third miles across. Alma isn’t named after someone’s daughter, rather it’s named after the Battle of the Alma River in the Crimean War. What is it with Wisconsin and battlegrounds in the ‘old country’? Alma is the site of lock and dam number 4 (the dam being what a dam is and the lock being essentially a water basin near the river bank, created to allow a barge to travel past the dam without the entire river flowing through the opening). Local businesses put the damn theme of the dam to some damn good use. Get a damn cozy room at the Dam Good Inn. Have a damn good drink at the Dam View Bar. Stopped for a few minutes to take in the view at the damn dam overlook where you can watch barges pass through the lock (a damned long process). Disappointed that no barges were in sight. Damn! Drove nine miles up the road to Nelson, took a narrow barely more than one lane bridge across the Mississippi into Iowa.
It was raining – hard – when I arrived in Georgetown, Kentucky. On the way to Milan, Indiana. The Kia’s info system was telling me it wanted an oil change and I decided that a rainy day with no prospects for photography would be a good day to get it done. The oil change jockey didn’t have the right filter in stock.
“Take about fifteen minutes to pick one up.”
Sat in the car – waiting. Fifteen minutes passed – waiting. Fifteen minutes more – still waiting. Went into the office to ask the manager about the status of that filter and at the same time avail myself of the popcorn that’s always available in auto shop waiting rooms. It was cold and stale. But it was free, so don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Especially in Kentucky. This is horse country.
“He’s on his way back,” said the manager. “Any plans for the weekend?”
“Driving. I’ve been on a four week road trip and it’s winding down. I’m headed for Milan, Indiana.”
“Milan? What’s in Milan?”
“Ever hear of the movie Hoosiers?”
“Yeah, got it.”
(The movie about a small town high school basketball team is loosely based on a team out of Milan).
“Where you from?”
“San Francisco Bay Area.”
He paused, I guess to properly phrase the set up question. “You like it?”
“Yeah. Love being near the ocean. It’s expensive though.”
“Plan on moving?”
My inner cynic sensed that the man was trying to get me to bash the Bay Area, but I wasn’t biting. “Nope. I like the ocean. And my family lives there.”
He softened. “Family’s important. I’ve lived here all my life. Some of my neighbors are childhood friends.”
He noticed the Golden State Warriors t-shirt I was wearing.
” Warriors fan, huh.” I haven’t enjoyed basketball for years till the Warriors recent run. They play real basketball.”
In Kentucky it’s bourbon, horses, basketball, and family. The order is personal preference. From the start we each had the sense that our politics were at opposing polls but in the end we found a commonality in basketball and the importance of family. Maybe there is hope.
Olive Hill, Kentucky. Parked in the lot in front of the Save A Lot grocery store, checking my bearings for the day’s drive. On one side of the store cars are lined up at the Tobacco Shed, a drive through cigarette window. A “convenience” I’ve never seen anywhere before. Here in Olive Hill you can get your cancer booster without leaving your car. A real boon for the folks who might get winded walking to and through the store to get their coffin nails.
On the way out of Grayson, Kentucky, I’m sorely tempted to stop at Tudor’s Biscuit World. I’m a sucker for biscuits. Biscuit World features a biscuit called the Mountaineer; country ham, potato, egg and cheese – all the food groups. I figured that I would run into another Biscuit World somewhere in Kentucky. Turned out I would figure wrong. My travels have known a series of missed opportunities. In Virginia I missed out on Hardee’s Fried Bologna and Velveeta biscuit and I still kick myself for that omission. When I travel I usually fail to pack nutritional good sense.
Starbuck, Minnesota, home of the Lefse Hall of Fame. Starbuck claims to hold the record for the world’s largest lefse as recorded by the Schibsted Book of Records (no clue as to what the Guinness folks have to say about that). The famed lefse was baked on July 1st, 1983 and measured 9 feet 8 inches by 7 feet and 1 inch. What’s a lefse? A Norwegian pancake, made with flour, riced potato, butter or lard, heavy cream, sugar and salt. A lefse stick is indispensable to roll, flip or turn your lefse on a hot grill without fumbling. I wanted to try a lefse but alas it went the way of the Biscuit World biscuit and the Hardees Fried Bologna and Velveeta biscuit.
A burger and a beer at Pour Willies in Tenstrike, Minnesota. At Pour Willies the motto is “No pissy attitudes.” I’m down with that. So down in fact that I buy a Pour Willies t-shirt with the motto on the back. Tenstrike, population 186, named for an exclamation by M.R. Brown who, around 1900, set up a trading post on the present site of the town. Celebrating his successful business, Brown was heard to say, “I surely made a Tenstrike in locating my trading post here.” From what I could tell, Tenstrike is a few residences, a small town hall, a lumber yard and Pour Willies.
Stuart, population about 1700 souls, 97.1 percent of them white. On this particular morning the center of this little town in west central Iowa is as quiet as a church on Monday morning. That’s because it’s Sunday morning and I trust that many of the 1700 souls are settled in their pews, busy being saved. One or two cars parked on Division Street. There’s a plaque on the old bank building at the corner of Division and North 2nd:
In 1934 this was the site of the First National Bank. Legend has it that, on the morning of April 16th, 1934 two men purchased a Coca Cola from the drugstore at 104 NE Second Street and then casually walked down the block to the First National Bank. A female accomplice waited in a stolen Oldsmobile sedan while the two unmasked men committed the robbery. Assistant cashier Harold Cronkhite and bookkeeper Lucile Lyddon were ordered to sit down on the floor. Customers Frank Eckardt and Maureen Lydon were also witnesses to the crime.
The two men would later be identified as Clyde Barrow and Henry Methvin. Their accomplice was none other than Bonnie Parker.
At the time nobody knew that First National would be their last bank heist; not Bonnie; not Clyde; not Henry Methvin; not any of the people who were inside the bank on that morning. Five weeks and two days later, Bonnie and Clyde were shot to death in an ambush in Bienville Parish, Louisiana. According to an unofficial count Frank Hamer and his posse shot more than 150 rounds into the couple’s stolen car, with more than 50 finding their targets.
Years of miles on the road have seen untold pin pricks on a map; Salt Lick, French Lick, Cream, Polksville, Anderson, Louisa, Gertrude, Mabel, Alma, Craig, Joseph City, and Eryck (where the main drag is named after Sheb Wooley who in 1958 recorded the unforgettable hit “The Purple People Eater”). The dubious pleasure of Christmas 24/7/365 can be ‘enjoyed’ in Santa Claus (Indiana) or Christmas (Michigan). There was Eagle Harbor, Eagle River, Halsey, Paris (not the one in France), Joliet (not the one in Illinois), Hamburg (not the one in Germany), Milan (not the one in Italy), Cuervo, Oatman.
Points of interest; points of disinterest; points. At Strawberry Point, the world’s largest strawberry. Jacob’s Falls, Winnewissa Falls, Multnomah Falls, Gibbon Falls, Montmorency Falls, The Devil’s Washtub, Devil’s Tower. A giant rabbit in the middle of almost nowhere Arizona. A blue whale made of concrete in the middle of Oklahoma. Museums dedicated to Spam, a POW camp in Iowa, and a botched bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota.