Day 36. WI: disappointments: cows, rocks and houses, pasties

by Kevin May

Bayfield was very pretty. So had many places been that I’d visited, but this one had an extra factor. There was a joy about it, the whole place felt very up and positive.

It also felt as if I had returned to civilization (or, at least, population); as if the east began here. I wandered down to the pier and around the harbor, but the town was barely awake and there wasn’t much going on.

It was only 8.45 when I left, and Alia and another of the girls were just arriving. They were coming in to bake cakes for some fundraising event. To an outsider their gesture just underlined the palpable pleasure about the place, although such behavior probably had its roots in the Lutheran background of the town. There weren’t any of those “No whingeing” signs, or the like. It all epitomized pleasantness and friendly community.

I followed the dotted line in my atlas, justifiably designating a scenic view around the coast of the peninsular. It took me through the ironically named Grand View, which was in a valley and afforded no views of any description, grand or otherwise.

Perhaps it was named after the view of it that you could get if you stood on the crest of the distant hills. I had an ambitious schedule for the day. It was only 400 miles, but I wasn’t out west any longer and the roads were less straight and far more congested.

Wisconsin claimed to be America’s dairyland, but to date I hadn’t seen a single cow anywhere. I came down through Eau Claire and covered over half of the north-south distance of the state without the faintest whiff of a moo.

As I left the outer reaches of Eau Claire, the orange light popped on. I was low on gas but, this being a car made for America, it probably meant that I still had at least fifty miles in the tank. Nevertheless, I was mightily relieved when I finally came to a gas station that was open thirty miles later in Independence.

It was an old fashioned station called Pietreks with full service, as opposed to self. As the guy was filling the tank, he also wiped down the windscreen and started to scrape off the major insect morgue that had established itself on my headlights and front bumper. I asked him casually how often oil should be changed and he replied that “they” said once every 3000 miles. He’d heard the commercials too, but his tone suggested that he didn’t really believe them either.

I asked if there was any place hereabouts that I could get my oil changed, and he said that they could do it for $23.16. It would take about half an hour. The car had done 12,072 miles since I had picked it up. Within 35 minutes the job was done, and the guy was very apologetic for taking so long. They’d checked all the fluids and lubes as well, and put some air in the tyres. The oil had been “pretty black”, and they had had to send out for an oil filter as they didn’t have the right one in stock.

Remarkably, the bill did come to $23.16 precisely. No additional tax. No “sorry mate we found a problem and it cost an extra $150 but, what can I do, it had to be done”. No “that was just the labor cost, the oil was an extra $30 on top”. There was just the apology for taking all of five minutes more than they had promised. It was most refreshing.

The car felt like new as I drove off. I felt comfortable that I had made a wise investment which, with a bit of luck, would see me home to NYC. At Arcadia, I made the minor diversion to Fountain City to look at the Rock in the House. I assumed that it was named as a play on the more famous House on the Rock in southern Wisconsin.

The story was that this house at the bottom of a cliff in Fountain City was smashed by a falling boulder in 1901. The same thing happened with an even larger boulder in 1995, this one being ten times the size of the 1901 rock. The owners packed up and left and sold it to some folks who now kept it open as a tourist attraction.

I parked in the driveway, left my dollar entrance fee in the box and went in to look around. The 55-ton boulder occupied all of what used to be a bedroom. The house was unstaffed, out of superstitious tradition, which was fair enough if it weren’t for the fact that there were souvenirs on sale. I would have been happy to leave money for a T-shirt or something, but all the gifts were locked away in glass cabinets.

I followed the Great Mississippi River Road down to La Crosse, but it was painfully slow. It was now gone four and I was desperate to see the House on the Rock and knew that it was bound to close within the next hour or so. The traffic continued to be unkind and it was already 5.30 when I reached Gotham.

Disconsolate I resigned myself to not seeing one of the few spectacles that I had really been looking forward to since before I had left London. I pulled into Spring Green, the nearest town, and went in to an antique/craft/curiosity shop and asked if they knew when exactly the House on the Rock closed.

They said that it might stay open until six, but the man behind the counter told me that it would be a mistake trying to get round it in what remained of the day. Apparently they reduced the price for late entry and everyone who tried it regretted it and ended up going back again the next day.

I explained that I wouldn’t be here the next day, and enquired whether there was some point where I could see the remarkable construction from the highway. There was a viewing point that I’d come to a bit further down the road. At least that seemed better than nothing, although when I got there I wasn’t so sure.

The viewing point was a bit of a misnomer, unless you happened to be gifted with Jodrell Bank eyesight. Across the valley you could just see a sharp thing jutting out from a cliff. It took a while for me to notice it at all, as a blinding sun was setting immediately behind it. Forlornly I took a photograph, expecting little of consequence to come out.

A couple of miles further down the road, I found the entrance. The sign said that it was open until 7 pm but that last admissions were at six. My watch said 6.10. I thought that it was worth chancing it. The car park didn’t look promising, with only four cars, but I parked in any case. Just as I was approaching the doors, a voice called out asking me what I thought I was doing.

A fifty-something security guard was walking towards me, shaking his finger and saying that it was closed and that I’d have to come back tomorrow. I explained my situation and said that I’d be happy to pay even if I could only have a quick five-minute look inside. All that I wanted to do was see the Infinity Room (admittedly this didn’t sound like a five-minute pop inside).

He said that he couldn’t do anything as the cashiers had all gone home now. Part of me realized that he was being perfectly reasonable, but part of me thought that he was just being a jobsworth tosser. He clearly had the power to let me in for a quick peak, but then again there was no reason for him to do so and every reason for him not to.

It was about twenty miles to Mineral Point, where I wanted to stop for the evening. When I had called earlier, I had learnt that the town was pretty much booked out for the night because there was a meeting of the Cornish Brethren or something going on over those few days.

It was a town that was supposed to be akin to rural England with hilly winding streets and had originally been founded by Cornishmen. Even without lodging sorted, I thought I’d have a look regardless.

Approaching on the highway, the Redwood Motel was offering good rates and appeared to have vacancies. I made a mental note and drove the mile or so down the hill into town.

The streets were teeming with folk, and so something was obviously happening. I drove the length of Main Street, and concluded that it looked like an interesting place to stay. Driving back to the motel though, I figured that it didn’t look like an interesting hill to have to hike up after a night on the beer.

Contemplating my situation, I decided that I would sooner limit alcohol intake and drive than have to do that walk both ways.

The Brewery Creek Inn, one of the places where I had tried unsuccessfully to book a room, had a blackboard outside advertising pasties. This I had to try. I was just in time as the kitchen was closing at 8.30, Cornish Brethren or no Cornish Brethren in town.

Entering fully into the spirit of the occasion, I ordered a pint of cider with my food. The cider was very good, but it was a sorry excuse for a pasty.

The English are supposed to have a reputation for bland food, but it tends to be the concept of the dish, not the preparation of it that’s bland. It’s the Americans who put all their blandness into the actual cooking, so when you let them loose on a fundamentally dull thing like a pasty, the outcome is sure to be a disaster. You might as well go and chew some damp cardboard.

The couple behind the bar were friendly enough and I wasn’t the last one there, but I got the impression they wanted people to leave so that they could pack up themselves. I bought one of their T-shirts and explained that I had a close friend back in London who came from Cornwall, but they didn’t bite. They just nodded politely and commented that it must be nice for me, or words to that effect.

Across the road was a more buzzy looking place called Riechers’ Corner Bar, so I went there to use up my alcohol quota. It was lively enough, primarily due to the antics of Chris the barman. He was a young guy and clearly a life and soul kind of character. As he promenaded up and down his side of the counter, he seemed to stop and have something to say to everyone and anyone.

He saw my packet of Silk Cut and was intrigued. He picked the box up and examined it really carefully. You’d have thought that he’d never seen a small cardboard box before, rather than it just being an unfamiliar brand.

He thought the “Smoking Kills” health warning in huge letters was hilarious and wanted to show everybody in the bar. Within a few moments, the phone rang and Chris was still within my earshot when he grabbed the receiver. His greeting was unconventional: “Hey, this is Chris. Who the fuck is that?”

It was a fine enough place, but I wasn’t much in the mood. I certainly wasn’t having such a good time that I fancied leaving the car in town and having to walk back. I also felt a little out of place without a mullet and a moustache.

I finished off my beer and set off for home. Back in the motel, there was a piece of paper on my bed saying that Neal from Hoboken had called. For some reason, I didn’t like the fact that they had come into my room to deliver the message. I would sooner they had poked it under the door or something. I hand-washed some laundry and remembered what wonderful things washing machines are.

My schedule had allowed one contingency day for disasters, and to my surprise, I’d  yet to use it. I had always planned to use the extra day to extend my time on the Illinois/Indiana/Michigan leg, if I still had it. The time was coming to make that call, as this part of the journey began tomorrow. The alternative would be to hang on to the contingency and finish with a day in NYC.

When I called Neal back, he suggested that I do that as it would then see me back for Columbus Day, a big deal for the city with its large Italian population. There was also the small matter that Neal and Lisa were going to see Joe Strummer and wouldn’t be there if I got back the next day.

All in all it was a convincing argument. I made up my mind that I wouldn’t extend any of the immediate bits of the trip, especially as time spent rather than distance travelled was proving to be more useful for finding out about each state.

I wrung out my washing, turned on CNN and contemplated the day’s disappointments.

Three quarters of the way round: cumulative mileage 14729