We all know Tom Bodett as the bone-dry pitchman for Motel 6, “We’ll leave the light on for you.” He is also an author and philosopher. The End of the Road is his heartwarming account of life from Homer, Alaska. Early on he waxes philosophic on the enormity of Alaska and a measure of superiority that comes from living in Land of the Midnight Sun.
Standing on the rim of a gaping fjord, I realized that if you were to dump every one of the billions and billions of hamburgers McDonalds ever sold into the bottom, you could barely see them.
Dear Tom, Wisconsin ain’t bad either.
Apropos of the times in general, ten years ago came the Garlic Mustard Weed.
From west to east it spread like disco and bell bottoms, obliterating nearly everything of beauty and taste in its path. If you looked hard, you could find an occasional Daylily or purple Phlox, but the Chicory did not give an inch. Imported from Europe in the late 1800s, Garlic Mustard grew to be four feet tall and smelled like an Italian sous chef’s dirty laundry.
Either repulsed by our current political environment, or it’s simply run its course, the noxious weed seems to be in full retreat, once again rendering a trip through Wisconsin’s blue highways a digitally-detached feast of the senses.
On July 15th we saddled up to celebrate my brother Glenn’s sixty-first birthday with a Sunday morning tour around western Jefferson County. As a kid, Glenn was doing Cross Fit in Kalamazoo, Michigan, twenty years before Reebok made their first shoe. His knees and shoulders have out-performed several limited lifetime warranties, yet still he looks ten years my junior.
Old guys on bikes.
Each ride is preceded by a half-ass hamstring stretch and dueling claims of futility.
“Well, Glenn, by the time we get to Haack’s farm, I will have doubled my miles for the year.”
“I’m with you, I had one-too-many mugs of BTQ at Tyranena last night and my knee is on fire.”
We agreed this would be an easy-social ride.
Then we clipped in, and tried to rip each other’s legs off.
We kicked off from the parking lot at the Lake Mills Veterinary Clinic, the morning so still the fog barely stirred over Rock Lake, lying flat as a mirror. The ground clouds hovered just above the canopy of flowers hunkered beneath, in fallow fields and roadsides. We passed under the interstate, and condos gave way to corn fields. The morning smelled like mist over a marsh.
They were once speed-bumps.
Now, we’re off our saddles and panting hard, refusing to succumb to the rolling hills of Airport Road, two miles into our tour. The highway symphony fades, a breeze picks up, and suddenly it occurs: the fields are alive. The canvas upon which the mid-summer masterpiece is painted is the Queen Anne’s Lace and Golden Alexander. Like tiny wispy white and yellow umbrellas, every ditch-not-mowed, waterway, and hillside shimmers like the Milky Way over a Colorado midnight.
As Glenn opens the gap, my head drops to where blacktop meets road bed. There grows the indefatigable Chicory, camouflaging a thousand empty Miller Lite cans and cigarette butts. Prized by many, her bitter-sweet roots sink deep in the hard-pan. With tortuous barbed wire stems, she is unfazed by drought and tar. Pretty as the weathered farm wife with arms tanned on a tractor seat and shoulders hardened by a thousand bales of alfalfa. The dusty blue fronds of the flower like the bandana that tends her hair from the concern on her brow, the kind in her temple.
Clustered like sorority girls and happy as Pachelbel’s Canon are the Black-Eyed Susans. You’ll find them on the high-side of ditch banks, strewn across meadows and bordering woodlands. A few Purple Coneflowers hang around like gangly wannabees. Their tenacious presence from just after fireworks through the first hard frost is better than Prozac.
You’d never know they were there, but as the mid-July sun climbed the sky, burning through the corn fog and heat waves began to blur the blacktop, they yawned to greet the day. The Daylilies, burnt orange, yellow, red and maroon. The ditch-weed divas, not showing their beauty until after coffee and croissants, and only then if the sun shines brightly.
Thirty miles in, we paused at the corner of West Medina Road and State Highway 73 to insure the ping in my pocket was not a veterinary emergency, and to catch my breath. I took a pull from my water bottle, gnawed a corner off a Cliff Bar and gazed down-valley to Interstate 94. All a-flow with outa-state SUV’s, hybrids and half-tons, they only get to pass through. Between gusts of the west breeze came a crescendo of the hum of radials on concrete and the thrum of a dozing driver jolted awake by the white-line rumble strip.
Between the river of weekenders and our country road cornice rolled a thousand acres of silage corn. Spike leaves jutting skyward to announce the coming tassel and curling to escort any drop of dew straight to its roots. Just beyond, farmer Dave half-emerges from the bowels of his machine shed, absently pulls a faded red shop towel from his back pocket to wipe the axle grease and mumbles a Hail Mary. He hopes for a market break to drive prices closer to break-even. One nostril draw directed my eyes to twenty acres of second-crop alfalfa laying in windrows before the baler gathers it, binds it, and throws it into the wagon behind. The next waft was eighty Holsteins just over the hill.
I finished off our rest stop with a water-bottle-baptism, and a swig. As the lukewarm Gatorade dripped off my chin, I wadded half the Cliff brick into my jersey pocket. I shuffled my left shoe in the Gawd-awful pea gravel and clicked my right into the pedal. Glenn issued disclaimer number two, “I’m starting to see stars, we’ll really have to take it easy.” In two miles he dropped me like a land line.
A delicate flower hanging forlorn from a tiny stem like the outcast who ate lunch by herself resurrects profound sadness of the day Garlic Mustard overtook the last Red Columbine near the trestle over Rock Lake. The ten-year cloud lifted as I spied her in the scrabble beneath the Stop sign at the corner of Medina and Ridge. She’d be the only one we’d see all day.
Flag poles, mail boxes, and an occasional power pole are adorned with purple and white Phlox. After opening the summer flower festival like an a capella gospel group half between Mother’s and Father’s day, they hid backstage for June and July, only to come back to sing harmonies with the headliners for a pre-Fall curtain call.
We rolled into Cambridge on County Road O. I chuckled. Flags, banners and signs beckoned families to check out The Vineyards at Cambridge, a host site for the 2018 Madison Builders Parade of Homes, on the south side of a hedge row. On the north side was a forty acres of summer wheat, recently combined, and spread with manure.
If the notion of another tariff, tweet, or headline makes your stomach turn like Sacha Baron Cohen in tighty whities, ditch the device and take a hike, bike, or a drive.