This has been the most spectacular autumn in recent years in the upper Midwest. The colors fabulous, the temperatures perfect. This morning, just a few minutes after I’d dropped my husband at the airport shuttle for the start of his week-long business trip to the hot southwest, I glanced at a still-brightly colored hillside and thought, “Carbon footprint be damned; I’ll take a Sunday drive.”
Sunday drives were a cultural custom in the region where I grew up. Families loaded up and headed out. The drives I remember weren’t full-family drives, however. There were five kids in the family, and I suspect my parents didn’t relish spending Sundays with all of us on board. Perhaps we started taking the drives when my older brothers were all old enough to be left home, because I remember being alone with my parents in the car, though that can’t be right either as I have a younger brother, younger by five years; this would have been the early 1960s. I suspect that he was no doubt riding unbuckled in the front seat between our parents, leaving the back all for me.
My father was a small-town lawyer and quite a few of his clients were farmers. As I recall, many of our drives had the vague goal of checking out property at the center of some legal work, and that meant we traveled country roads at slow speeds.
Though not outdoor people by any stretch, my parents loved looking at the outdoors, and my father especially was pretty knowledgeable about fauna and flora, cultivated and wild. I learned to distinguish varieties of oak trees, cows, farm crops, and road kill.
In other words, Sunday drives were a time to look and listen. My parents and I didn’t say much other than to point out a tree or barn sign or pheasant or vacated homestead or ditch flowers.
I haven’t yet written a book that hasn’t required I get in the car and drive to and around some location. Sure, getting acquainted with the human and natural landscape that will be a story setting is important, but I’d wager that my writing benefits even more from the exercise of looking and being interested in the details that fly by at 30, 40, 60 miles an hour. And that’s why when I road trip I don’t usually turn on the radio or—god forbid—listen to books on tape. I might miss something—an historical marker that needs reading, the road to a scenic overlook, some hardy ditch
Today’s Sunday Drive had a vague goal: visit an “environmental art installation” a couple hours away from Eau Claire and maybe, if time allowed, see some big water.
The Wisconsin Concrete Park
was as wonderful as I’d hoped. It’s on Wisconsin Hwy 13 at the south edge of Phillips. It’s the former farmstead of Fred and Alfa Phillips. Fred Smith was born in 1886, never schooled, couldn’t read or write, but he had opinions and passion and at the age of 62 started expressing them with concrete and bottles. It was a beautiful day to browse the park and think about the artist and his compulsion to make art.
As the park’s home page says, it’s all best seen in daylight.
Back in the car, northbound over the Great Divide, and I reached the turn-around point for the drive– Saxon Harbor, Wisconsin: Lake Superior County Park. Big water.
Nine hours after hitting the highway I returned home to a dark house and two indignant cats. I let them out for their own Sunday prowl, spent a few minutes stretching the miles out of my limbs and back, then settled down with a little something in a glass and a state road map. What sites did I miss? What other roads could I have taken? Who owns that bar? What did the fishermen catch? What if…what if…what if…