Inside the Outdoors: There and here, winter has not gone quietly
Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn
As my wife and I watched the “Welcome to Minnesota” sign on Interstate 94 recede into our rear view mirrors, crossing the St. Croix River bridge heading eastward into Wisconsin, we could not avoid a momentary feeling of “good riddance.” It was April 13, the first day of a journey to a destination 1,370 miles away in the Hudson River valley of New York State, to visit family. We were expecting to greet true spring somewhere along the way, and had visions of soon wearing shorts and tee shirts, and needing hats to shield us from the ultraviolet sun rays that dermatologists are always warning us about.
My wife and I are both road trip fans. For her it’s due in part to a deep dislike of air travel, a fact that has nothing to do with the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. She hates the confinement of even the most spacious airplane cabin, and especially the thought of being 30,000 feet above solid ground. Oddly, though I travel little by air, I have no such fears. Just give me a good book to pass the time, and remind me to put the seat belt on when it’s time to land.
Another dimension of our road trip preference is our enjoyment in seeing changes in the landscape as we cover the miles, and the little discoveries that might wait just around the next bend. The most visible change was one that we expected, a transition from a world still ice-bound to one beginning to open up and welcome a new cast of wildlife characters.
When we left North Central Minnesota, most of the lakes were still flat plains of ice, perhaps with a narrow slice of open water where south-facing shorelines concentrated sunlight. By the time we were rolling through the south Wisconsin countryside and approaching northern Illinois this was changing. Ponds and smaller lakes were rippling in the afternoon sunlight. On their surfaces were a variety of waterfowl, the intrepid early migrants that are a reliable indicator of spring’s arrival: Canada geese, ring-necked ducks, goldeneyes, mallards, wood ducks and tundra swans. Great blue herons, too, standing like statues in the shallows, waiting for a frog or a small fish to make a wrong move.
Deer grazed on the newly-exposed and greening grass of roadsides. They seemed unafraid, motivated to capitalize on freedom from the confines of deep snow, and more food options. Their coats were not in the sleek prime condition of fall, but instead looked scruffy, as they begin to shed the dense coat of hollow hair that has protected them from the deep cold of winter. This will soon be replaced by a lighter coat more suited to the warm temperatures that lie ahead in summer through fall.
Another reason we’re fans of road trips is the opportunity they provide to find minor treasures in unexpected places. Places like junk stores, and antique shops that are not so high-toned that you wonder if your pedigree will be examined before you enter. The most promising seem to be shops that are housed in real estate unlikely to be in demand for anything else; places like former school houses, decommissioned churches and store fronts in commercial areas in decline.
We stopped at such a place deep in rural Wisconsin, an old retired brick school house in the town of Hixton. Most likely its students these days are bused to a larger, consolidated school in a larger community somewhere nearby. We arrived just minutes before five o’clock closing time, but the proprietors happened to be staying late that evening “to do the books,” so we were granted the privilege to shop as long as we liked.
It was a school house clearly of another era, with high ceilings, a stage looking out on what had once been a small gymnasium, and built several stories tall. Beside our interest in its contents as an antique shop, one couldn’t help wondering what might have happened to the students it once housed. Had they gone from there to a place of higher learning? Out into the working world? Perhaps to one of the conflicts of their earlier generation?
Sometimes you find nothing of interest in such places. But my wife unearthed an old vintage art print, and I discovered a collectible old duck decoy, and a pair of duck’s head bookends for the shelves in my new home office. Not so bad for the first little exploration of our cross-country road trip.
Further on, motoring through Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the temperature readout on our car’s dashboard gradually edged up into the 60’s, though a dogged wind like you often feel on the prairies of North Dakota followed us. Still, optimism reigned. By the time we reached the Hudson Valley, however, we were greeted by temperatures better suited to long pants and jackets, and snow squalls rained down on us for the first several days of our visit.
We knew from following the weather reports, and keeping in touch by text message, that back home in Minnesota our friends and relatives had been dealt a similar spring weather setback; several inches of snow, in some places. But we suspected they were not totally sympathetic toward our own turn of weather events, and inclined toward feelings of “misery loves company!”