Sunday, February 29, 2004


"They do talk with a little accent," I said of the people of Baraga County to the woman who interviewed me for an article in the L'Anse Sentinel.

"They're Finlanders," Nancy Besonen said, "you slam the first syllable and let the rest fall where they may." Nancy is a transplant to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a transplant from Chicago, one of two people I met who moved from Chicago to "God's Country." The other was Mike Jensen, the county Extension Director.

A pronunciation guide:
The "A" in "L'Anse" rhymes with the "o" in "on."
Baraga is pronounced BEAR - ah - gah.
Keweenaw is pronounced KEY - win - ah.

L'Anse is up there in the Land of Two Hundred Inches of Snow, as I call it. The only snowfall while I was up there was a few inches my first night in town. Otherwise the weather was lovely, temperatures in the 40s. I was at breakfast one morning at the Shabee Cafe when L'Anse's village manager, Roy Kampainen (CAMP - ah - nun) said to me: "You're getting to enjoy some of our typical February weather." He had finished his coffee and was leaving. The waitress said over her shoulder: "Roy, your nose is getting longer."

Throughout the coming week I'll run some excerpts here of my journal from last week's Vagabond visit to L'Anse and Baraga County. The first excerpt today is notes from my trip north last Sunday.


FEBRUARY 22, 2004

The start of any journey is usually familiar. You are leaving home ground, an area you know. As you move away from center, things become more and more strange to you - the landscape, the people, their customs. At some point you have to admit - gulp - I don't recognize this.

Some of us may be comfortable in this transition to a place that is new. Some of us, on the other hand, experience nausea at this unsettling. I wonder how much of our reaction is encoded in our genes - "nature" - and how much comes out of our experience - "nurture?"

I am somewhere between the extremes. I like to see new things, though they often discomfort me. And I sure enough like to get back home, home being that which fits us seamlessly.

We tolerate the change that we bring upon ourselves better than we handle that which is forced on us. Any changes makes most of us at least a little uncomfortable.

What I have been finding in my Vagabond travels is that the more places I go, the more any place looks like the other places I've been; that is, the less strange the new place seems, the more comfortably it seems to fit right off. Partly that's because wherever I go what I find truly is more like than different: we have more in common with what we encounter, than otherwise. Further, the more places I see, the more I've expanded what is familiar to me. Third, I seem to have begun conditioning myself to adapt.

The more you eat strangeness, the better it tastes. Which is something of an unusual statement coming from an Iowa farm boy who grew up with meat and potatoes, with having things the way they always were.


Northeast of Appleton on Highway 41 - oh, the stink. The rotten smell of paper-making. It looks like beautiful, rural Wisconsin but it stinks. So thick, it hangs like a haze. I'd almost rather smell hog manure.


What you see depends in part on where you look, on when you look, and on what you already know. What we have prepared ourselves to see, generally, is what we find.


I see the huge power-line running northeast out of Green Bay along Highway 41. Where power comes from and where it goes has always interested me, especially since traveling to Thompson and Lynn Lake, Manitoba, and Fort McMurray, Alberta, communities far off the beaten path.

And then the big power-line has disappeared and I don't know where it has gone.


I cannot see while I am recording what I have seen: that's the problem when making notes, keeping a journal, writing an essay. While one pauses to put it down in writing, life goes on.

This is a further problem: maybe what you've seen does not wish to be written down. The world is not ours simply because we've seen it. Is it any less invasive to write a paragraph about people you've seen than to take their photograph without permission?

I do it anyway, yes. I keep writing. But sometimes I get in trouble for it. As, I suppose, I should.


Another power-line where I cross the Oconto River on Highway 141 heading north. A mile farther, there is another big power-line criss-crossing the first. When they say electric grid here, that's what they mean.


North of Lena, Wisconsin: what a pretty name for a stream: Kelly Brook. A quarter mile farther along, an interesting name for a road: Goatsville. Then Little River passes under the road, and there's a sign for Kelly Lake. I don't see the lake.

When I enter Marinette County, I start noticing that the snow is considerably deeper in the plow banks and where it is piled at the end of driveways. Snow is starting to be serious business. Where I'm from, it's just a hobby. Up here, it's starting to look like it's their life work.

North of Pound, Wisconsin, the pine trees are heavy with a burden of snow: it bends their branches. Another big power-line. The plow-banks are another foot deeper than they were where I entered Marinette County. I cross Lost Foot Creek. I cross the Peshtigo River; it is not as big as its name makes me imagine.


When I travel I drive for long stretches with the radio turned off. The noise of it distracts me, even public radio, even music I like. I like the time alone. I like to think thoughts I wouldn't have otherwise: too often we fill our heads with noise because we are afraid to hear ourselves think, we are afraid to listen to silence.


At Amberg, Wisconsin, the piles of snow pushed up at the edge of several parking lots are six and seven feet deep. The branches of the pines are bent quite severely towards the ground, the snow in them like mountain glaciers. Mile after mile, one becomes accustomed to snow.

Pembine, Wisconsin: unincorporated. There are an awful lot of pine trees around here now. Like cops, that many of them in one place makes me nervous. It is three hours from home to this discomfort.

You'd also start to notice big chunks of the earth's underbelly exposed where the highway has cut through rock. Big rock. Snow-covered. Enduring.

Niagara, Wisconsin. Established 1914. Population 1999. The sky is steaming at a little paper-mill. I think it's a paper-mill: Stora-Enso. It is quite a climb out of the city as I head north. A cop has a pick-up pulled over; the pick-up is hitched to a trailer with snowmobiles on it. You see a lot of snowmobile trailers, a lot of snowmobiles being pulled south today.


The Menominee River is a wide one. We are in Michigan. All of a sudden, it's da U.P., the Upper Peninsula. It seems like there's a strip of stores and businesses three miles long, from the Michigan border into Iron Mountain proper. Then Iron Mountain seems to go on not quite forever.

I cross the Menominee River again on Highway 141 and I'm in Wisconsin once more: "Wisconsin Welcomes You."

Three crows big enough to be ravens are serious at a deer carcass along the road. I cross "Old 69 Highway." Florence, Wisconsin, is unincorporated. I believe there is no incorporated community in Florence County. Not much of anything is happening in downtown Florence today, it's Sunday. The Wild Rivers Interpretive Center is at the north edge of town.

I cross the Brule River, then I'm in Michigan again. There's not much but trees in the distance.

Now is it the woods I smell, a paper-mill, or myself? I got a whiff of something like rotten eggs again. I showered this morning. I don't see a paper-mill.

At Crystal Falls I'm starting to feel the sky close up. The jagged landscape. The tall pines.

I suppose the winter business up here is the snow-mobilers. There are trails being groomed, pick-ups pulling trailers with snowmobiles on them, and the occasional line of snow-mobilers coming at you, or waiting to cross the highway.

At one point all the pine trees are on the right-hand side of the road, birch trees on the left.

"Keep Right Except to Pass" says the road sign. The day is warm enough that there's moisture on the road; the tires make a sssst sound. I suppose it is thirty-five degrees out.

On my left, a small grey house with snow half-way to the roof all around it, a little wood smoke coming up its chimney.

At Casagranda Road it seems as though fire came through here many years back. When did the Conquistadors come through, leaving the Spanish name on the road?

Soon enough it's obvious that the other business here is logging. In a workyard along the road there is a great strength of trees cut up and piled like hot dogs in the butcher shop.

The road surface has turned reddish. It still looks like asphalt, but you wouldn't call it "black-top." The asphalt along the shoulders of the road is the "black"-top.

"Shhuh" say the tires, talking to the road like your dad talked to you on a Sunday afternoon when he wanted to take a nap. The snow is melting. But not to worry - there is plenty of it.

In this up-and-down landscape we now seem to be heading more down than up. Are we starting to descend towards Lake Superior, or is that just my wishful thinking? The lake is still too far off to tell. Nonetheless, I imagine I smell fish. I know it's only imagination. But now I have entered Baraga County. And I've crossed into the Eastern Time Zone. I am almost exactly straight north of Fairwater, which is Central Standard Time. Now the snow weighs heavier on the pine trees, the plow-banks along the road are even deeper, the rocks we cut through are bigger, and somehow everything seems more quiet. Is that possible? Do the trees and snow absorb the sound of everything? What surprises me most, I suppose, is that the snow is not as deep as I had imagined it would be. They've got snow here, yeah, but it's not deep enough to get lost in forever.

Just when I think we must be descending steeply towards Lake Superior, why a sign along the road says: "Lake Superior Watershed." We are just entering Covington, Michigan.

There are mixed pines and hardwoods along the edge of the road. The countryside does smell different than our part of Wisconsin.

I cross the Rock River. If it were rock, would it be river? Not a quarter-mile farther along, I cross Parent Creek.

There's another workyard where Highway 141 ends and I have to turn left onto Highway 41: most of a log cabin has been put together there. They will shape and assemble the logs here, take the house apart to ship it, re-assemble it on someone's home-site. I'm twelve miles to L'Anse.

I keep wanting to think I see the lake. It is only a change in the color of the clouds that I see, which might be lake-related perhaps, but it's not the lake.

I smell pine trees, I swear.


I stop at the Hilltop Restaurant for something to eat. I'd had breakfast at 6:00 a.m.; it's now 3:00 p.m. No, actually, it's 4:00 p.m. local time. The special at the Hilltop is a quarter of baked chicken. I order a hot pork sandwich - pork, white bread, gravy, mashed potatoes. Comfort food so far from home. Tanya is my waitress, she is young and sweet and attentive; when she is not taking care of me, she is cleaning off other tables. It's a big place, and though it's not full, a lot of people are eating here, they keep leaving, more people replace them. Hilltop Restaurant is famous for its sweet-roll, they tell us: it's a big cinnamon roll, I'll give you that, so big they need a Ford tractor to deliver it to your table. I have Tanya bring half of mine to the table, she puts the other half in a grocery bag for me. I'm exaggerating only a little bit about the Ford tractor. The menu says that the most they ever had to make of those sweet rolls was 204 dozen in a single, long day. If you have to be known for something, it is always better to be known for sweet rolls than for mass-murder.


Before I register at the L'Anse Motel, I drive through downtown L'Anse. The Keweenaw Bay of Lake Superior, just off the edge of Front Street, is frozen over. There are cities of fishing shanties set out on the ice.

I'm a little surprised at Main Street. Essentially the downtown is only a couple blocks long. I had imagined more. Yet, as with Fowler, Indiana, I know there will be so much pulsing beneath the surface of what you see. You just have to want to find it.



Why write about place?

To understand the place.
To understand the history and pre-history and natural history of the place.
To understand the geology and geography of the place.
To understand the people of the place and their culture.
To understand the condition of the place and its prospects for the future.
To understand ourselves.


FEBRUARY 24, 1998

This morning: this is not Wisconsin. It is much too thick and grey. The sky today has no magic. Everything has been beaded with moisture. The road is wet. If you'd set down your airship out of the greyness, you could be anywhere.

Yet even as I say that - my breath catches. The land rolling away - I belong to it. Where the hawk lives, I see the hawk find its perch. I almost taste it now, this morning, the musk of the earth enveloping me. If I had stayed in Iowa, would I have grown to love that place so well? Would it have shaped me differently? This place is as plain as the Iowa farmland I knew as a child, yet even in the day's greyness it now seems somehow more radiant. I will never be the same.

Look at me now, this strange man, writing this.


FEBRUARY 25, 1998

Traveling lets us see a landscape new to us, unfamiliar. We leave our home place for another, different, new land; other, different people. As a result, we see with new eyes. We could "travel" through our home country in a similar fashion if we could learn to see with new eyes. The same ol' same ol' piles up, though, and soon enough we don't even notice the most spectacular beauty just outside our doors.

I want to travel my home country, to see it every day freshly, not to let the familiar blind me to the beautiful right here, right now.

Perhaps it is our comfort which makes us blind. We know there are few dangers here - we don't have to watch so carefully. We are so familiar with our routes that when asked to give directions we realize we don't know the names of streets we drive every day. Instead we start to describe the landmarks we have been using unconsciously to guide us. It is a shock to recognize we are so blind among the familiar.

The very ground wants to explode with meaning. "Honest, Officer," I'd have to say, "I was not paying attention when it erupted, so I didn't see it happen. Then when I noticed it, it didn't seem like such a big deal so I didn't call anyone."


by Richard Shelton
The University of Arizona Press, 1992

Richard Shelton's Going Back to Bisbee won the 1992 Western States Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. The frame of the book? Shelton is driving from his home in Tucson, Arizona, back to Bisbee, down in the extreme southeast corner of the state: Bisbee is an old (I should say "ex-") mining town where Shelton started his teaching career. Shelton takes us "back" to Bisbee in a lot of senses, both personal and historical.

Shelton drives literally across the Arizona landscape, he drives through some personal memories, he tells of us the history and pre-history and natural history of what he is seeing. And at one point he stops to plant his butt in the San Pedro River along the way, then sleeps briefly on its banks, dreaming "the dream I haven't had in a long time." In the dream he is at a picnic along the river, a huge red bull comes charging from the underbrush, Shelton picks up a four-year-old girl and runs from the bull. "The bull is inches behind us," Shelton writes. "I can hear him snorting and panting as he runs. There is a barbed wire fence in front of us, but I cannot make it. The bull is too close. I throw the child as far as I can. The picture freezes. The child is in the air, sailing over the fence. Her mouth is a round O screaming. Her hair is flying behind her. I am falling...."

Shelton recognizes that the landscape is invested with not only "natural history," but some personal history, the stories of the native people, those of settlers and miners who tried to wrest a living from the land. He recognizes, too, that the great wheel turns - that what made a prosperous mine no longer makes us prosperous, and those who choose to stay do so for reasons of their own. All those stories and memories and reasons, in Shelton's telling, make interesting reading.

Going Back to Bisbee is not exactly William Least-Heart Moon's Prairy Erth, but the two books have much in common. Shelton might not say he was doing the "deep history" that Least-Heat Moon talks about, yet what he achieves is similarly powerful. He has created one more book for me to refer to when I think about how local history ought to be written, when I think about how I am going to put together all the pieces of the puzzles that I have been playing with. His book is nothing if not a splendid and sterling example of what "local history" can be, throbbing with the fullness of one's own experiences mixed with the stories of those who still live on the land and of those who have come before, some of those "ghosts" who inhabit all landscapes.

And, in Shelton's hands, I have to say, the shape of the telling is as enjoyable as the story he has to tell.

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