This past week, I went on a 5 day vacation with my parents to Wisconsin. In total, we drove over 1100 miles. The following are “snapshots” of our drive to and from America’s Dairy Land.
Carl Sandburg’s Birthplace and “Remembrance Rock”:
We arrived in Galesburg, Illinois to see the birthplace, and the final resting place, of one of my favorite poets of all time: Carl Sandburg. Son of Swedish immigrants, the small home was situated on a small lot in a working class neighborhood near a park, railroad tracks, and a factory. I think he would approve that he was amongst the very people whose language, life, dreams, and beliefs he captured so honestly in his poetry. Unfortunately, the visitor’s center was closed, so I didn’t get to go inside the home. My dad and I, however, walked to the well-manicured back lawn and walked around the large boulder known as “Remembrance Rock” under which Sandburg’s ashes, along with his wife’s, and two of his three daughter’s lay buried. Around the boulder were stepping stones that led to shade trees and a white iron bench. On every other stone was a quote from his poems such as “Cornhuskers,” and “Baby Faces,” and “Harvest Poems.” My dad and I walked and read every single one, calling out our favorite quotes, and pausing to take in the simplicity and depth of his words. They drew me in and made me feel like I was closer to not only the poet, but that I was really tapping into the power of words and what they can make you feel, instead of think. Some of my favorite quotes on the stones were: “A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on” and “Nothing happens unless first a dream”, and finally, “I rest easy in the prairie arms, on the prairie heart” (which made me want to spend the night outdoors under the stars).
The Mother of Storms
On our way to the Quad Cities, we got trapped in a storm that made me rethink wanting to rest in the prairie arms for the night. The sky turned a fierce gray, punctuated with lightning. Then came the pelting rain. I grasped the door handle as my Dad’s Ford F-150 pickup truck started to slide slightly to the right. I could see the muscles in my Dad’s arms tense and saw the tightness in his face as he was trying to keep us on the interstate. I looked to my right, to see if there was any possible exit route, or at the very least, an open field that we could lay in if we got flipped over and had to escape before lightning struck us. All I saw was the rushing river to my right, and nothing but gray shapes of cars, trucks, and hills to my left. After a little bit of controlled yelling by myself and my mom, my dad finally found an exit, and long story short, we sat it out in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Ah, Wal-Mart. I hate you, but I love you for the familiarity of weathering a storm inside your immense gray parking lot. I also am grateful that the bag of chips, M & Ms and other munchies that I bought for us later were on roll-back prices. Urban sprawl has its perks.
After a few more hours of passing through bucolic scenes of rolling hills, blue skies, and red barns in the Ford pickup (all while listening to classical music), we rolled into to Dubuque, Iowa later that evening. Touring Dubuque, a quaint city with hills that give San Francisco a run for its money, we searched for food. We passed by local, charming restaurants in the historic downtown, sailed past the McDonald’s and Arby’s, and parked the truck in the Casino parking lot where we walked in, found a deli in the greyhound racetrack area, and ate a stale turkey sandwich with processed cheese and Ocean Spray strawberry-kiwi juice. What the casino lacked in fine-dining cuisine, it made up for in the penny slots. I came out $10 ahead. Can’t say the same for Mom and Dad.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Taliesin” in Spring Green, WI
All FLW lover’s beware: all is not what it seems to be. The architecture is still amazing, the scenery is glorious, the views are spectacular, but the buildings such as the architecture school Wright had designed when he was 19, his home “Taliesin” he built about 100 years ago, and rebuilt, and reworked, and redesigned up until his death in 1959, and the surrounding grounds are run down. We spotted a few trees growing from the moss-covered shingles at the Prairie School of Architecture and Design that is still a functioning architecture school. And the landscaping was all weedy and in disarray. Not to mention that you could tell, in the very Asian inspired dining hall that the apprentices had bacon for breakfast. Lots of bacon. We left the building smelling like…bacon. In his home, we sat in the first living room, and we heard more history and interesting details from our tour guide, who was so knowledgeable and detailed in her descriptions of everything from the furniture to the flowers to the carpet on the floor. I was surprised, however, to see how much plywood Wright used in the the structure of furniture, closets, and couldn’t believe that the house had been on fire three times, and each time Wright began his redesign within hours of the fires being put out and the smoke clearing. Say what you want of the man, but he was brilliant in his knowledge of angles, shapes, light, function, form, and colors. Though, our guide told us that if you were a client of Wright’s, he would have more than likely requested to design not just your house, but also your dishes, rugs, furniture, and had been known to choose the appropriate dress for the lady of the house when entertaining so she could become part of the landscape and design. My mom and I both looked at each other and with a glance our eyes said, “No man would tell me what to wear and what I can set on my table…” To say he was anal-retentive to the extreme is an understatement. My mom said it best: “I bet he was so puckered when he died.”
Antique Stores, Trolls, and Insects?
Following the rolling hills, we made our way to towns like Columbus, where there was an 82,000 sq. ft. antique mall that was so full of mildew and mold that we didn’t last longer than an hour. Making my Dad happy, I know. On to Mt. Horeb where the townspeople had a “trollway” in which carved trolls greeted you at the bank, looked at you from the manicured lawn of a barber shop, and glared at you from the windows of a bar. Passing through Madison, the capitol, we saw a car dealership with a huge orange gorilla balloon beckoning you to buy a car there, and sailed past a small “mom and pop” deli that had a functioning circus carousel outside. Ending one day’s journey was a Lake Michigan drive from Kenosha to Racine (the armpit of Wisconsin as it turns out), and into the Racine Modern Art Museum. The theme? Insects. There was pottery and glassware , and jewelry depicting some type of bee, butterfly, or beetle, and a small section of watercolors of praying mantises, moths, tarantulas, and flies. Turning the corner was the dead bug installation entitled “Victorian Wallpaper”. The artist had bought dead, exotic insects from all over the world and pinned them on the wall to create a monotonous flower shape that took up about 300 sq. feet of wall, and made me feel all itchy. The itchiness continued onto her miniature town display (behind glass) of dead beetles in poses of drinking beer at the local saloon, praying at church, mourning at a funeral, and beetles being schooled by the headmistress.
On the top floor was the featured artist and her collection of work entitled “The American Cockroach”. My dad and I climbed the stairs, in search of mom among the bugs. I turned right back around when I saw a video of a cockroach, on its back, in violent death throws. Dad wasn’t too far behind. We figured mom didn’t last. Turns out, she was the one who filled us in on the display as we sat at the Perkins restaurant eating our turkey dinners complete with cranberry sauce, stuffing and mashed potatoes. The artist had photographed “the deaths” of the American Cockroach in all its various forms: one photo was of cockroaches in electric chairs, another photo showed them getting executed, while various other ones showed them in the guillotine. Mom even said that there were photos of limbs, antennae, and wings, while another depicted a hanging. Finishing off the series of photos was a cockroach, tied to a stick, and being burned at the stake. I can’t remember if mom said it was a photo or video that showed the cockroaches being marched off, as if going to Auschwitz, to get gassed to death in the chamber that was in the distance. Either way, I puked up a little bit of my cranberry sauce.
Only in America can this type of journey be taken. From the landscape, to the various places, everything is possible. Where trolls, circus carousels, orange gorilla balloons are considered oddities, while photos of dying cockroaches are considered art. Now I’m wanting to see what else this country has to offer. It’s definitely a temptation for me to hop on the next plane, train, or automobile to “rediscover” America.
*Note: No cockroaches were killed for the sake of art. Someone else had already done it for the artist.* ( Yeah, right, her assistant.)