Sunday, March 07, 2004


See: Only Connect's March 1, 2004 entry, What About Lobster.



Nancy Besonen, ace reporter for the L'Anse Sentinel, L'Anse, Michigan, captured me perfectly in her March 3rd article about my recent visit to Baraga County in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I'm going to have to make her lead to the story part of my definition of what I'm about; it is perfect.

She wrote: "Tom Montag is defining the character of the Midwest - one character at a time."

She also captured perfectly my gratitude to my wife and to those who have made contributions to this expedition:

"About 75 sponsors have helped Montag along his way with contributions ranging for $20 to $100, but the bulk of his support comes from the home front - more specifically his wife Mary. A nurse for Fond du Lac County, WI, Mary keeps the home fires burning while her husband is on the road doing research two weeks of every month. 'I can't say enough about her,' Montag said. 'Not all of us are afforded a chance to do our life dream. Mary, she's a sweetie. Or maybe she just wants me out of the house'."

Nancy, a tip of the hat, and thank you!


FEBRUARY 26-27, 2004

Along about 5:30 p.m. I headed down to the Canteen Bar & Grill for some supper. The place sits across the street from L'Anse's waterfront park and has a wonderful view of the water out its wide front window. Mike Jensen, the Director of the Extension Service, had told me the Canteen's walleye on Friday nights was exceptionally; he had steered me to that good piece of meat I'd had at Tony's Steak House on Wednesday night, so I was in the mood to believe him about walleye.

I walked in and found a table. When I got my bearings, I saw that Mike and his wife Connie were having supper in one of the booths closer to the front of the place. I went over to say Hello. Mike introduced me to his wife. He asked how my visit was going, whether I'd gotten to ride in one of the snow-grooming machines, and other such talk. Soon enough, they went back to their food and I returned to my table. You don't want your walleye getting cold.

The Canteen's looked so much like a Wisconsin fish fry I couldn't tell you the difference. Indeed, as I'd been told, the secretary at the Baraga County's Extension Service was one of the women waiting tables. I'd met her on Wednesday; she stopped to say hello, and to check that I'd been taken care of.

I had the good clam chowder and salad bar, the "beer-batter French fries," and - of course - the walleye. The walleye was good. The walleye was as good as any I've eaten. Three big pieces of walleye, steaming hot and tasty. I don't know what it is about bars and bar food - these little taverns know how to take care of you on a Friday night. I wouldn't need any dessert. Again.

When they finished eating, Mike and Connie Jensen circled through the tables to mine, to thank me for selecting L'Anse as one of my focus communities.

"No, thank you," I said. "I have been so well received."

"Well, we are proud to be part of your project," Mike said. "Have a safe trip home."

Now I am an Iowa farm boy, admittedly I am a little naive. Yet I pride myself on being observant, you know I do. There I'd sat throughout my meal, eating and gauging how this Friday night fish fry was like those I knew in Wisconsin, how these people are like the people I've met in my eleven other focus communities, etc. etc. I can keep myself entertained for long stretches at a time with such thoughts, just ask my wife, and at the same time I'm listening, I'm watching, I'm paying careful attention.

So I finished my last French fry, the last swig of my soda. I pushed my plate away from me with a satisfied motion and a fullness where my belly is, and I waited for my check to come. I was interested to see how much the scrumptious walleye was going to set me back.

The woman from the Extension Service, who had been waiting on another table in my area, now wiped her hands on her apron and came over to me. "Mike Jensen paid for your meal already," she said.

"No," I said. I thought I'd been paying such good attention to everything around me! "No, he didn't," I said.

"Yes," she said, "all taken care of."

"Well, be sure to tell him thank you," I said. "I think I have his e-mail address, and I will tell him thank you myself when I get home."

I left some money on the table for a tip and started making my way towards the front of the place. "You're bill is all taken care of," said another waitress, thinking I might be headed up to the bar to pay for my food. "We weren't supposed to tell you until you'd finished your meal."


MARCH 7, 1998

I am flying from Milwaukee to Atlanta. Two college girls are my seat-mates. We are Row 16. It is Spring Break.

The girl next to me takes out a composition book. It is her journal. She makes an entry:

"I am so glad I'm getting the hell out of Wisconsin. I can't wait to lay back on the beach. I will wear almost nothing."

The other girl has just broken up with her boyfriend. She shares a poem with her friend, a poem she had written for her boyfriend before the break-up. This girl keeps a journal, too, and the poem is part of her journal. When her friend has finished reading the poem, she flips the page like she is looking for more.

There is no more poem but there is more - something about Ripon, Wisconsin. Something on another page about "F-THEM. F-THEM ALL." Then a single page in huge block letters, near the final entry, filling the whole page, letters that big: "F-YOU."

"I have always been too shy," says the girl next to me. "I have been afraid to tell people what I think. Sometimes it's better if you tell them what's on your mind."

"That's not my problem," says the other girl. "My problem is I tell people what I think. I am never afraid to tell them. It gets you in trouble. Sometimes it would be better just to shut up."

"Honesty is the best policy," says the girl next to me. "I think you should always say what you think."

"Honesty is not always the best policy," says the other girl. "If you stick to that policy, you won't have any friends. It is better to lie or to shut up."

"My brother was six and I was three," says the girl next to me. "We managed to lose our parents in Disney World. We have been self-reliant ever since. We managed to lose them again in Hong Kong and survived. When we got to Paris, they kept a close eye on us. We were such jet brats."

"When I lived in Micronesia," the other girl says, "I had a friend who lived on Okinawa. We lived close to each other, we thought. But Okinawa was 2,000 miles from where I lived. Micronesia, taken all together, maybe has the land mass of Rhode Island. But it's spread out over an area the size of the continental United States."

"I want to lay back in the sun," says the girl next to me. "I want to be alone on the beach. The last thing I want to see are boys."

"My dad called," she says. "I was telling him about my trip. He said, 'Honey, you have to be so careful these days, they've got a drug they can slip into your drink.' I said 'Like, Dad, give me some credit.' What, does he think I'm entirely innocent? It's not like I'm going to the beach to get drunk on my face and get laid. I just want to lay back in the sun and be left the hell alone."



Edited by Mark Vinz and Thom Tammaro
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1995

I have imagined editing a book about "home" here in the middle west. I would ask middle western writers to describe the home they were born to, and then to describe the home they've chosen to inhabit now. And – perhaps the hard part – I'd want them to tease out the connections between these two homes.

Although Imagining Home, edited by Mark Vinz and Thom Tammaro, is not the book I have imagined for myself, it is a very good immersion into parts of the same territory. Admittedly, my definition of the middle west extends beyond the area – generally the "upper" middle west – that's included here. The essayists in Imagining Home represent North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The editors hope "these sixteen essays will offer readers a starting point for exploring and discovering how the landscapes of their homes have been a shaping influence in their lives."

Certainly, as the editors say, "these writers have stayed with the Midwest: loving it; hating it; wrestling with its contradictions, its transparency, its opacity, its ambiguity; but ultimately moving to embrace it."

Many of these writers are native middle westerners. They may have moved around, as did Michael Martone, from his home town, Fort Wayne, Indiana, to some time spent in Iowa. Martone is the author of the collection of essays, The Flatness & Other Landscapes, which itself goes some ways towards defining the middle west. He is also editor of an anthology of essays about the middle west, A Place of Sense: Essays in Search of the Midwest (University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 1988). His work is represented here by "The Flyover" from The Flatness.

Another who is native: Martha Bergland was raised in Illinois, she lives now in Wisconsin. "We felt deprived on that flat square-mile farm" of her childhood, Bergland says, "without even an old orchard, a falling-down barn, a winding creek to play near."

"Still, that square place was our home," she says, "and now that I live in Wisconsin, in a wooded, hilly place near Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River, I miss the flat land."

"Like many, and now perhaps most, middle-class American families," she says, "no two consecutive generations of my family for six generations have lived in the same house or on the same farm, in the same town or even the same part of the country."

What the family is rooted in, Bergland says, "is in memory – and odd patches at that."

From the first landscape of David Allan Evans' Sioux City childhood, "the sky was a bowl of stars you could stand inside." The second landscape from those early years, Evans says, "has been the source of at least 70 percent of the images and experiences I've used in one way or another in poems and prose in about three decades of writing."

Kathleen Norris was born in Washington, DC, she lived in Beach Park, Illinois, and in Hawaii as a child, yet it was into her grandparents place in South Dakota that she settled as an adult. "Place can stick to us in western South Dakota," she says. A writer who knows both Norris's first book of poems and her later work told her: "When you moved to South Dakota, it's like you discovered gravity."

A dusty, rough, backroad drive to the nearest airport in Bismarck, North Dakota, was not hardship for her: "The reward in all of this," Norris says, "was experiencing all over again the incredible roominess of western Dakota, seeing signs a person would miss from the highway." The reward was a suddenness of golden eagle overhead.

Jack Driscoll is not native to the region, either; he was from Holyoke, Massachusetts, I think. Yet he has chosen the place that chose him, Michigan. Oh, his ex-wife had warned: "Don't go out to the Midwest, don't go there." She thought the Midwest "was barren and flat and full of Bibles," the people fifteen years behind the times.

"Trespasser, visitor, resident, native – my burrowing has gone something like this," Driscoll says, "though maybe native spirit will be all I can honestly claim in the end. If so, it will no doubt be enough."

It is such a strangeness, and how it blesses us, this attachment and re-attachment to place, this need to put down roots, to let a place - our special home - nourish us.

Eleven other fine writers have essays included in Imagining Home: Carol Bly, Paul Gruchow, Patricia Hampl, Linda Hasselstrom, Jon Hassler, David Haynes, Bill Holm, Kent Meyers, Robert Schuler, Mary Swander, and Larry Watson.

If you are able to find a copy of Imagining Home, read it, cherish it, learn from it. It should help you understand the terrain of your own habitation.



To the following folks for their recent contributions to the Vagabond Expedition:
#85 Mike & Marjorie Gowdy, Iowa
#86 Roger & Margot Brockmeyer, California

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