Off-Topic Tuesday: Observations From the Road

This month—and for as long as necessary—we’re largely in repeat mode. This isn’t our first flirtation with reruns: in 2010 I repeated a few posts from my first blog, the Daily Aneurysm, under the rubric of “Off-Topic Tuesday.” Here’s a travel piece from there that doesn’t have anything to do with music. You can skip it if you want, although I think it’s one of the better things I’ve ever written.

Greetings from Coon Rapids, Minnesota, a Minneapolis suburb which, despite its rustic name, has neither coons nor rapids anymore, and is in fact franchised generica as far as the eye can see. . . . I make the trip up to the Twin Cities from Madison four or five times a year, sometimes more, and a trip like that can quickly become a blank. Yet only a failure of curiosity or imagination requires a person to think of the trip as dull. Here’s what there was to notice along the way:

—From the west side of Madison, U.S. 12 gets you to Interstate 90/94. . . . Before you get to Baraboo, you climb the Baraboo Bluff, which is steep enough to have different weather at the top—often it’s much cooler there than down below.

—After Baraboo, you reach the south edge of Wisconsin Dells. For most of a hundred years, it’s been Wisconsin’s premiere tourist trap, although it’s a lot more subtle now than it used to be. Instead of doing it with T-shirt shops and Indian ceremonies, it traps tourists today with giant waterparks and movie multiplexes that make it unnecessary for visitors ever to poke their heads outside their climate-controlled cocoons to see the original attraction, the Dells of the Wisconsin River.

—Farther up 90-94, standing right next to the highway, are the rock formations that are symbolic of Juneau County. They must have been part of the islands in some giant antediluvian lake, but now they stand exposed to the wind as it whistles across the sandy, open spaces of central Wisconsin.

—Up toward Black River Falls you skirt the edges of cranberry country. Cranberries and potatoes love the sandy soil in central Wisconsin. It used to be said that there was something else in the soil of central Wisconsin, madness both latent and not, described memorably in Michael Lesy’s weird and disturbing book Wisconsin Death Trip, which was made into a weird and disturbing film a few years ago.

—Beyond Black River Falls, the topography gets more rugged where the glaciers didn’t reach. The interstate crawls up, down, and through the hills past Osseo, up toward Eau Claire, past Menomonie, and on toward Minnesota. There are some lovely rural vistas up this way—the highway rolls away in the far distance and lopes up the next hill, as cows graze on the hills alongside.

—There’s poetry on the map in western Wisconsin, which is the home of several hyphenated school districts . . . . Osseo-Fairchild, Eleva-Strum, Baldwin-Woodville. Go a bit farther west, off the interstate, and you’ll find Melrose-Mindoro and Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau. The people who created the latter knew something about poetry: the district is made up of the towns of Galesville, Ettrick, and Trempealeau, but they realized that “Galesville-Ettrick-Trempealeau” wouldn’t scan nearly so well.

—“Trempealeau” is the loveliest county name in Wisconsin. It’s pronounced “TREMP-a-low,” and it’s a lovely place, too, tucked between the Mississippi’s picturesque east bank and the hills. But on the poetry scale, it gets some competition from Minnesota. The TV last night was scrolling counties affected by weather warnings, and it mentioned Blue Earth, Yellow Medicine, Faribault, and Kandiyohi.

—Once you get to St. Croix County, within 20 or 30 miles of Minnesota, you’re climbing a very gentle slope on your way to the border. And you’re traveling through a place that’s on the move—St. Croix is the fastest-growing county in Wisconsin, as the suburbanization of the Twin Cities continues eastward. East of Hudson, condominiums are blooming in fields that grew corn and hay a year or two ago.

—After passing Hudson’s sprawling stretch of generica, Interstate 94 drops you quickly toward the river that marks the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota. It’s not the Mississippi—it’s the St. Croix River. It’s very wide here, and the river bends around the point at which the I-94 bridge crosses it. The view of water and sky is spectacular on both sides of 94.

—Almost immediately after crossing into Minnesota, you start climbing again, out of the valley of the St. Croix. There’s a pause in the suburbanization for a moment—the first mile or two of Minnesota seems more rural than the last two miles of Wisconsin. But pretty soon the condos and strip malls bloom again. You can take the measure of the sprawl when you arrive at Interstate 494/694, a loop which at one time represented the outer limits of the Twin Cities. No longer.

—After a few miles on 694 North, you come to the suburb of Mahtomedi, which seems incongruously Arabic in an area settled mostly by Scandinavians. It’s pronounced “mah-toe-ME-die” and not “mah-TOM-ed-ee,” which was my initial guess, and it’s actually derived from two Indian words, mato and mde, meaning “gray bear lake.” Its location along what’s now known as White Bear Lake means it’s always been a vacation spot, from the chautauqua days of the 1880s to the gangster days of the 1920s, when some of the most famous names in crime used to hang out—and hide out—in the region.

—Later on, when crossing into the suburb of Ramsey (the fastest-growing city in Minnesota), you notice that you are driving on Dysprosium Street, perhaps the least euphonious street name in America. But the next street over is Barium Street, and a look at the map reveals Helium Street, Iodine Court, Cobalt Circle, Argon Street, and streets named for krypton, potassium, tungsten, xenon, fluorine, and vanadium. As some cities name their streets after presidents or trees, Ramsey has named its streets after elements. It’s likely that the city (and nearby Ramsey County) were named for Minnesota’s first territorial governor, Alexander Ramsey, but a chemist named Sir William Ramsey won the Nobel Prize in 1904 for discovering the so-called noble gases—which include helium, krypton, xenon, and argon.

There’s history and curiosities wherever you go, not just along the roads less traveled, or the ones not taken. You just can’t let yourself be fooled into failing to look.

(Originally posted on September 13, 2005.)

3 responses

  1. I didn’t catch this the first time around, so I’m glad you re-ran it. The Texas Gal and I have noticed some of those things as we’ve come your way; others – like the cranberry country – would be new. And any mention of Mahtomedi requires me to note that the high school teams there have one of the great nicknames in sports: the Zephyrs.

  2. I echo whiteray’s “new-to-me” thanks for the timely rerun. I’ll either thank or blame you for your observations, depending on whether they save or cost me the outlay for a tank of gas. A trip to Maine a few Septembers ago happened to coincide with the Warrens Cranberry Festival. I had no idea is was such a draw. Oh, sure, I’d seen the signs along I-94 over the years, but mile after mile of the de facto parking lot in the opposite lanes had me wondering whether Lambeau had been moved.

    I wonder if students in the Anoka-Ramsey school district do better in chemistry with their built-in periodic table. “I think the street name begins with a ‘Q'” won’t be of help much in Lakeland, along the Minnesota side of the St. Croix, just south of the I-94 bridge. All of the city’s streets begin with that letter.

    Everyone who ever saw Hot Shots! should know how to pronounce “Mahtomedi.” Writer Pat Proft slipped in the ultimate inside joke in the scene where Charlie Sheen spoke with a Native American inside a teepee. “Owatonna.” “Shakopee.” “Wayzata.” “Minnetonka.” “Anoka.” “Mahtomedi…..” The entire conversation consisted of nothing but Minnesota cities bearing Native American names.

  3. A wonderful entry that makes a place I’ve never visited come alive. As soon as I finished I started thinking about my next road trip, thinking, “What have I never noticed about that drive?”

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