Another travel blog. This about an aimless road-trip from Chicago around the state of Wisconsin in late 2010.
“Do you want the change?” the checkout girl says, and I pause. She’s helped me pack my groceries in an unfamiliar type of tall paper bag of the kind characters carry in American sitcoms, so that’s probably worth something. But the change is four bucks. I’m not rich. Four bucks isn’t insignificant. Can I say, ‘some’? Or, ‘I’ll have two bucks please’?
“Yes please” I say, before pacing away with an awkward guilty twinge.
I walk up Michigan Avenue towards the large hotel which contains the Hertz car rental station. Just like yesterday, when I’d gone to check my reservation, the desk is unmanned.
A young black guy joins me to form a two person queue. He mentions out loud, to himself but not really to himself that he really needs to move to a warmer climate when he graduates. Happy enough to nibble the conversation bait, I smile and ask a question. He responds by telling me about his studies in Chicago, a general degree that will allow him to teach. He ultimately wants to build his own school back in Central America and strongly believes in a hands-on method of teaching employing music and touch.
Returning to the desk, a harried-looking Hertz official hastily prints out forms for me to sign and tells me to go wait outside for someone to bring a vehicle down. It’s the quickest and least paperwork intensive car hire I have ever experienced. Another Hertz man promptly brings down a small red Toyota Yaris from the car park above and, after flinging in my bags, I just get in the driver’s seat. It’s only then that I realise I don’t know what any of the main controls mean, never having driven an automatic vehicle before. Sheepishly, I open the door again, get out and beckon a parking attendant. “Drive, Reverse, Park” – is apparently all I need to know. “Don’t worry about the rest.” He seems confident enough.
With that, I push the stick into drive and take my foot off the brake. The car rolls forward, I dab gently at the accelerator and am eased into downtown Chicago traffic.
It’s fine, this is all fine, fine, keep on the right, it’s all going to be fine, just concentrate, keep on the right, head for the Lake, hug it and head up the one side, simple, easy, fine.
Slowly growing into the Yaris and its controls, I accept that driving it is, yes, actually easy; boringly easy. If this is anything to go by, automatics neuter the driving experience; they do everything for you, give you less control, like holidaying with a tour guide. Not once do I go to depress an imaginary clutch, although I do flap my left hand into the door from time to time, flailing for an imaginary gear stick. I also keep approaching the vehicle from the wrong side, expecting the driver’s door to be where the passenger door is. Doing this doesn’t make me look clever. On a freeway I’m alarmed to be overtaken by someone casually reading a newspaper laid out across the dashboard. Belatedly, I figure it’s a passenger, not the driver.
Assured by an appropriate section of map spread haphazardly across my lap, I cover minor roads skirting up one side of Lake Michigan, through suburbs with Scottish names, Highland and Glencoe – where I first stop for a self-congratulatory coffee to reward myself for being in one piece. This Glencoe isn’t much like the spectacular Western Highland mountain range where I’d driven a couple of years ago. Like much of the drive over the two days, it’s a flat and unremarkable landscape.
The towns are interesting. Many have a makeshift retail park feel to them, and quirky stores like the dogs’ hairdresser ‘Canine Coiffeurs.’ The welcome signs also amuse with their exact population figures, making me want to add a few tally marks.
My next entirely random stop is the small Wolfenbuttel Park on a tip of Lake Michigan near the city of Kenosha. Its name and welcome sign suggests a German affiliation. Thick snow lies on the ground and the closest edge of water is speckled with mini icebergs, as had been the case all the way down in the city. When the tide sweeps in, lapping water sounds twine with the clinking of ice, like shattered glass or a wind chime.
Finding the highway, I ignore numerous junctions to drill on through Milwaukee, with its impressive cityscape not quite on a par with Chicago but still not inconsiderable.
Eventually I stop again, at the small Wisconsin town of Sheboygan Falls. It has a Simpsons-esque ‘Moe’s Liquor Store’, where I buy a bottle of bourbon and discover Moe isn’t very chatty. I compliment him on his strong range of liquor, but maybe he doesn’t understand my accent or can’t summon the effort to try.
More perky is a middle-aged lady assistant in a neighbouring gas station where I take a leak and get a cup of tea. Whether or not people understand my not especially strong English accent is seemingly a hit and miss affair. Earlier in the trip I had to say ‘beer’ to an American air stewardess three times. She looked at me like I was retarded. I don’t have any strong regional English accent and don’t know how else to pronounce the word.
Now the light is beginning to fade beautifully. Today has been a clear, cold, blue-skied day despite constant radio warnings of cloud heading in. Radio stations offer a strong sense of the locals, particularly a warmly mumsy DJ, improbably named Robin Rock. She keeps thanking her listeners for working with her, and speaks a lot about her teenage daughters, how they’d do backflips if they won the station’s big competition prize of a trip to Disneyworld.
She reminds me of the chatty old lady sitting one seat along from me on the short connecting flight from Minneapolis to Chicago. She’d been excited to tell me and the girl sitting next to me how she was going back there soon, this time to see ‘the adult things’ kids don’t like. I had bitten my lower lip slightly and enquired further about what exactly ‘the adult things’ at Disneyworld were. Apparently they were reading descriptions in the galleries and things like that.
The radio songs don’t range too widely: old classics to Americana, with edgier stations going for tracks with indulgent, rapidly boring guitar solos.
Fearing darkness and the distance I have to cover the next day, I impulsively decide not to go as far as the next big city, Green Bay. Instead I take an A-road to chase the dipping golden sun across a wide expanse of plain towards Appleton, the other side of Lake Winnebago.
I find a couple of small, hospitable towns with a pleasant buzz of life about them: Menasha and then Neenah, where I stop. Disappointingly, no motels or any places of accommodation other than a Holiday Inn can be found, so after a brief stroll I head on. Increasingly nervous about my lack of a final destination under the cold, draping darkness, I flick on an internal car light to study the map. Oshkosh is the next large town.
Later in the trip it’s explained to me that place-names had connections with the native Indian past. You easily forget about the historical significance of the Indians to these parts. Or at least I did. There’s a theory that the word “Chicago” has native Indian origins, while the overtones in Milwaukee are even more obvious.
By this point I’m tired and jittery and not thinking straight. I spend about ten minutes finding the correct direction out of Neenah, then at least twenty more getting lost in the suburbs of Oshkosh. The downtown area is sparse and empty and slightly eerie, but contains a single large hotel.
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