It’s that very special time of year again, when many Midwesterners head “up north”, to those mystical places that we yearn for in the winter, and where we can never spend enough time during the summer. We leave the flatlands and humidity of Illinois behind for the rolling woodlands, cool blue lakes, and the crisp clear air of the Great Northwoods! I recently had my greatly anticipated first drive north for the year. As I once again passed all the landmarks along the way that I have enjoyed for more than 50 years, I realized how this simple, 300-mile journey gives me a thrill to this very day.
When I was a child and my family headed north, we left Illinois and cruised past Milwaukee, still just settling into the long drive. There was never anything too exciting until we hit Schreiner’s Restaurant in Fond du Lac. When we first stopped there for dinner, it was a small diner, with yellow vinyl cushioned booths and counter stools. The big thrill was eating pancakes for dinner! We didn’t have pancakes very often, so it was the first indication that something special was going on. We were going Up North!
A few miles farther, we hit the long bridge over Lake Butte des Morts in Oshkosh. Dad always said it was the half way mark as we crossed the lake. My mom’s limited French told us it meant “hill of death”, so we chanted that endlessly, making neck-slicing motions, and gagging sounds. Hill of death! Hill of death! It was another part of the ceremonial journey we were making.
After Oshkosh, the four lane roads ended and we felt like we were really headed into the north. Towns got smaller, roads got narrower, and, especially when we traveled at night, traffic became lighter. We learned the names of the little towns we passed through, New London, Clintonville, and Antigo were the bigger ones, and there were a lot of smaller ones, like Wittenberg, Elcho, and Pelican Lake.
In Winchester, we could see a big church steeple as we came over the hill and down into the town. It always made me think of the song Winchester Cathedral by The New Vaudeville Band and I would always sing the song and do a little seated jiggy dance. It was one more piece of what made the journey exciting and memorable.
Then at Tigerton, we hit the three-quarter mark at the steel bridge. At this point, my dad was getting to be the ringleader of the excitement. His cottage at the lake was just about his favorite place on earth, and with the journey winding down, the anticipation could be almost unbearable.
Near Birnamwood, we passed the large squirrel on an oversized log and the badger who sat on top of the building that housed a gas station. By this time, the miles seemed to pass pretty quickly.
At night, it was pretty dark between towns, and we often dozed, but we always woke up at the Last Seventeen! Only 17 more miles to our town! Everybody was pretty pumped up by then, and while Dad got his second wind and really wanted to speed, it usually was the time of day when you had to watch carefully for deer trying to leap across the road in front of you. We never actually hit one, but there were some close calls at times.
We finally made the last turn and cruised down our road and pulled up in front of our cabin, and wonder of wonders, it was still there! Just like we always remembered! The moon shone on the lake, the loons cried out distantly, deer and raccoons, or some other critters, could be heard moving around in the woods. It was our little piece of heaven on earth and ours to enjoy for the weekend, or week, or summer.
Today, I still enjoy all the anticipation that the landmarks stir up in me. They bring me wonderful memories of hundreds of trips over the years and the fun that waited for us when we arrived.
A lot of things have changed since those early journeys. Schreiner’s has become a much larger restaurant with a blue and white interior; the Butte des Morts bridge has been rebuilt several times and is now a curlicue of entrances and exits on either end; the steel bridge in Tigerton has been replaced by a very ordinary concrete bridge; and the squirrel and the badger now mark the location of a gentlemen’s club. I still hum Winchester Cathedral every time I go by.
But the excitement and the anticipation I feel when I head north has not diminished at all. I still love the lake, the woods, the animals, and the relaxation and family time we all enjoy. I always feel especially close to my dad when I’m at the lake even though he has been gone for over twenty years. I still love to get there and I still hate to go home.
It’s nice to know that at least some things never change, no matter how old you get.
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