I had never been to Wisconsin before, or even come close to it, but it did seem like I had quite a few random connections to the state. For instance, I played the lead trumpet part of “On Wisconsin” so many thousands of times in high school, I think I still have it memorized.
I also have known a surprising number of people who hail from the state. It seems like half of the hall directors at Oklahoma State were from Wisconsin, for some odd reason. I once dated a girl from there. And, a year ago, I had four female college students from Wisconsin live in my house for the summer, while in Dallas for an internship.
That last fact which raised several eyebrows among my guy friends from church, who referred to my Wisconsinite roommates as “leggy blondes”. In turn, I referred to these guy friends as “insanely jealous”. Besides, it just wasn’t right for them to call the girls “leggy blondes”. One of them was a brunette.
Among these Wisconsinners I had met, several of them had told me that I would like Wisconsin. They didn’t have much specific to say about the state, and no big destinations or attractions they could list. They just said it was my kind of place.
When I did finally make it to the state, I discovered what the Wisconsinians had been talking about. With its rolling hills, and its mixture of forest and pastureland, Wisconsin reminded me of the eastern half of Oklahoma. A colder eastern Oklahoma, with a much different accent.
One of the big differences I noticed between the states, though, is that Wisconsin has a large number of resort-style hotels dotting the landscape. I didn’t realize that it was that popular a place to visit. And along with these resort areas came an amazing number of indoor water parks. I could not recall ever seeing an indoor water park; yet here, they seemed as common as complimentary continental breakfasts. Wisconsin seems to have more indoor water parks than warm states like Texas have water parks, period.
The other big difference, of course, is the level of cheese.
No other state seems to tie its identity so much to one simple product. Wisconsinish people seem happy to be associated primarily with processed dairy products. They celebrate it. They wear cheese as a mantle of honor—literally, if you’ve ever seen a Packers game. It sort of makes you wonder if that is all they ever eat.
As a rite of Wisconsin passage, I stopped at a “Cheese Food” store along the highway, to get some authentic Wisconsin cheese. Because, you know, cheese is different in Wisconsin, somehow.
Actually, it is different, as I soon found. When your culture obsesses that much about one thing, you tend to take it to the extreme limits, the cutting-edge of cutting the cheese. They had every type of cheese I had ever heard of, and a huge variety of each type. They put things in cheese that I would never have thought of. Things like apples, and cinnamon.
I picked out a block of apple cinnamon jack cheese, a variety which I was assured was heavy on the apple and cinnamon. It sounded like something that would either be really good, or really bad. Either way, it would serve the purpose of having Authentic Weird Wisconsin Cheese to present to the folks back home for Thanksgiving.
As I drove northwest, I passed signs for a Castle Rock Lake.
Hmm. Sounds interesting. Surely they wouldn’t name something Castle Rock Lake unless there were some sort of Castle Rock nearby. And a Castle Rock sounds like something interesting to visit, if it is not now covered up by water.
I had my own Castle Rock when I was a kid. It wasn’t a big deal; just one of the thousands of limestone rocks that crowned the hills in the pasture that surrounded my house. The limestone rocks were full of holes, and one particular rock I discovered was almost more hole than rock. It was only about 18 inches square—at least, the part that stuck up above the ground was not much bigger than that—and stood maybe 8 inches above the dirt. To an overactive imagination, though, the way that the rough rock face and the holes were arranged seemed to form a miniature castle, complete with courtyard, arched entry gate, and watchtower. From that castle, tiny invisible armies and the occasional matchbox car would journey to distant lands along the dirt-paved cattle paths.
If there were some giant Castle Rock, big enough to name lakes after, that would surely be something worth visiting.
When I stopped for gas, I asked the convenience store clerk if there were some Castle Rock nearby that the lake was named after. She said there was not.
I have learned that convenience store clerks are not the best sources of information.
Several miles down the road I spied the Castle Rock, right next to the highway. A historical marker identified it as such, though the rest area at the rock, and the visible paths where kids used to climb up the rock, were closed for some reason.
Though large enough, “Castle Rock” seemed to be a misnomer, in my opinion. It didn’t have nearly the castle qualities of my own small rock. It looked more like a battleship rock, or something similar, though to be fair the rock was probably named back when battleships looked nothing like that.
I stopped for lunch at a small town called Northfield.
In this case, when I say “small town”, I mean it was a small town even by my definition. I only saw one place to eat in Northfield, and one gas station, and housing for around 100 people. Sure, that puts it approximately one place to eat, one gas station, and one hundred people ahead of the place where I grew up. But, still small.
The one place to eat was Dee Dee’s Diner, and they were obviously not used to having visitors. As I walked in, with an unfamiliar face, the waitress walked up to me and asked, “Are you lost?”
“Lost? No, not really. I was hoping I had found a place to get some food.”
“Oh, then you’ve come to the right place,” she replied, and showed me to a table.
Dee Dee’s was so down-home, it seemed to be a family affair. Besides the relatively old waitress and the female cook, the only other customers were a man and a boy of 10 or 12 years old. They sat at a table at the far end of the dining room, right next to the kitchen, and from watching them I soon realized that they were probably all related in some way.
The waitress asked me what I would have to drink, and I ordered a Sprite. “Regular Sprite, or diet?” she asked.
“Just regular Sprite. Not diet.” I do drink quite a bit of diet stuff nowadays, but typically not for Sprite. What would a diet Sprite be, anyway? Water?
The drink was served in the can, with a Mason jar full of ice to pour it into. You know you’ve found the right place when they serve drinks in a Mason jar.
I started to pour a jar of cold Sprite Zero—Sprite Zero? I almost didn’t notice it at first, but the can she had given me was a diet Sprite. Sprite Zero, to be exact, which I guess means it actually is water.
I faced a decision. I don’t really like to complain, and it was a very small thing. Not what I would consider a problem. But she had specifically asked me if I wanted a diet Sprite, and I said no.
“Excuse me,” I said, when she next came around. “I’m sorry, but this is diet Sprite. The can looks similar, so I didn’t even notice it myself at first.”
“Really? It doesn’t say ‘diet’.”
“Well, no, but it is Sprite Zero, which is diet Sprite,” I explained, pointing to the aluminum label.
She picked up the can and carried it to the back, to confer with the officials.
“He says this isn’t regular Sprite, but it doesn’t say ‘diet’.”
The cook glanced at the can. “Yeah, that’s Sprite Zero.”
“So is it not regular?”
“No, it’s diet.”
“I could have sworn I grabbed a regular Sprite. Where are the regular Sprite cans?”
“Right over there.”
She walked over a picked up another can, inspecting it. “Now, this one says ‘caffeine free’, so isn’t it diet?”
Oh no, I thought. What have I started?
“That’s regular Sprite,” the man at the table confirmed.
“But it says ‘caffeine free’.”
“Regular Sprite is caffeine free,” explained the cook. “Always has been.”
The waitress held up the Sprite Zero can to compare. “This one says ‘caffeine free’, too.”
“But it’s diet,” repeated the cook.
“I thought our diet Sprite was called ‘Diet Sprite’,” she complained. “I could have sworn to it.”
“It was,” replied the cook. “We may still have some Diet Sprite, but I picked up that Sprite Zero yesterday.”
“Well, this is just stupid,” said the exasperated waitress. “Why do they have to have different kinds of Sprite? That’s just stupid. Stupid, stupid.”
“Stupid Sprite,” chipped in the boy, smiling.
Great. Stupid me. I should have just had the water.
As I passed over into Minnesota, I took the very first exit to see a town right on the Minnesota/Wisconsin border: Stillwater, MN.
Stillwater is a town that I knew I would visit on this trip. It is one of only a few specific places that I decided to go to before ever leaving Dallas. And the reason that I wanted to visit Stillwater has nothing to do with the fact that it shares a name with the town I went to college in, though it does have something to do with the Oklahoma version of Stillwater.
When I lived in Stillwater, OK, I dated the aforementioned Wisconsin girl for a few months. It obviously did not lead to anything, but it was a big deal to me at the time. And this Wisconsin girl mentioned to me that Stillwater—the Minnesota Stillwater—was her favorite town. She just thought it was a beautiful town, and was someplace she would like to live.
So, at that time, my overactive imagination entertained the thought that, if this thing really works out, I might someday be living in Stillwater, Minnesota. It’s just this funny idea I got in the back of my head. I didn’t think about it seriously, or obsess over it. But, I also did not forget about it, even though it was only based on an offhand comment, and even though the girl and I split up for good not too long after that.
I just knew that, when I did someday make it to Minnesota, I would visit Stillwater. Primarily, I just wanted to visit because it was supposed to be such a beautiful town. But I also considered, just a little bit, if I perhaps needed to make peace with Stillwater. To say hello, and goodbye, and never wonder again about what might have been.
Stillwater was a scenic town. It had the classic Main Street, with rows of little local shops. The downtown is nestled between a rock bluff and the state line river, which is the St. Croix, not the Mississippi. Still, river boats sat parked at a dock on the south end of town.
The stores lining Main Street were mostly quirky places selling trinkets and oddities. The shops had names like Big Nose Kate’s, and sold things like beads, figurines, antiques, and even a dog poop calendar called Monthly Doos. (Seriously; 12 different photographs of dog poop in 12 different scenic settings.) One store even had a “What the heck is it?” contest, because it was just that difficult to figure out exactly what this junk was they were trying to sell.
Tourists, it seems, will buy almost anything while on vacation, just because they are on vacation and it represents a different place.
That was the problem with the town, though: it was too scenic. It was kept spotless and cute simply to attract tourists, who would have never visited if it were just some nice small town with a real local Main Street. It felt a bit like it was fake, and just putting on a show in hopes you would throw some coins in the case.
Basically, it was not the kind of town you live in; it was just someplace to visit.
So, I visited. But I wouldn’t want to live there.