The distant sound of the freight train horn
The rusted old water tower that glowed bronze in the sunset is the image I shall remember of Milwaukee. On the highway that curves above the river—a road on the sort of angle you usually associate with video games—you get the best view of the city, the clock that is larger than Big Ben, and the buildings of the financial district. Mostly driving through the town is a drab experience. The roads are so bad I finally understand the jokes in the Simpsons about potholes like craters. People blame the weather, the salt and grit, the libertarian mindset. There is something lovely about the glow of the rusted water tank, depressing as the deindustrialised aura of the town is.
People overtake you at high speeds when you are driving at or slightly above the limit. They drive like they are all in a big race but have forgotten the route and are haring around trying to get back to the route signs pointing them to victory. The weather goes, in one morning, from rainstorm and ice to warm spring. Perhaps they are all constantly afraid of running into a freak burst of hail. The beards here are so full and heavy they need topiarists to manage them not barbers. The trucks so large they look like they might take off.
I had a wonderful meal with some of the best cheese I have eaten for years, rich and tasty mushrooms, and some very fine beetroot, all from a restaurant hidden on a side street with an unprepossessing exterior. Outside, trucks the size of army vehicles slammed along. Inside, we had long and interesting discussions and a mind-numbingly good key lime custard. In most places, the portions are beyond description. Travelling in Wisconsin has given me a new respect for the American appetite.
In Madison there are signs everywhere that weapons are not allowed, including at the art gallery, although considering the latent hostility we all hold towards each other in art galleries, perhaps these precautions are sensible. Wisconsin is supposed to have a drinking problem, and there is a tavern on every corner. Next most numerous are the churches. The two I have been into during services were not well attended, though it was midweek.
Madison has an excellent second hand bookstore, but the best bookshop was in a strip mall off a main road, which I found when I made a quick stop for a late lunch. Since I was short on time, ravenous, not able to find anything so European as a salad, and could chalk it up to research for my chapter on Ray Kroc, I had a quarter-pounder from McDonalds. So American, to find such a good bookshop in such a place. The McDonald’s tastes better here too.
Turning on the radio as I drove the endless Wisconsin road, I heard about how climate change is going to result in more home runs being hit in baseball (assuming play during the day with no roof on the stadium—roof here being pronounced as if they were imitating a dog) and that you in fact can air fry fish in a wet batter. The doctoral candidate making the baseball predictions declined to try and make money from his ideas at the bookies.
What ties all this together is the lake, a vast, intimidating inland sea, too deep to properly comprehend, that has shipwrecked hundreds of men in its history as the heart of industrial trade in the midwest. What it must take to come to this cold place and settle the land, to break the ice and brave the tide, to put up chapels in the Wyoming Valley and endure the winter that spreads its icy fingers along the insides of the house. I stood by the lake, surrounded by cedars and pines, listening to woodpeckers and the songs of a dozen birds. Behind me were the suburbs of Cudahy, one house with comic yellow drainpipes, another with a hundred cartoon character figures arranged round the yard. I elsewhere drove past a garden adorned with three headless mannequins wearing spotty dresses.
To have such eccentric gardens, idiosyncratic houses, and “We believe…” signs, took generations of graft. Something of the spirit of endurance that got Wisconsin through all those winters and across those waters still shapes the character today, while the water tank rusts and the pick-up trucks slam treacherously along neglected roads. The distant sound of the freight train horn is everywhere—like deep calling to deep, echoing across the towns, large and small, day or night, an irritating and nostalgic sound.
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