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Driving to Door County
Aired on Wisconsin Public Radio's Wisconsin Life, May 22, 2013.
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It’s become a ritual: the weekend that you carved out from your work and your family’s packed schedule, the weekend marked “DC” on your calendar, arrives. After the harried last-minute packing comes the odd relief of turning your back on your own house and driving away; Madison city traffic gradually thinning out; and finally, open road, heading north-east through empty fields.
You pass through places with French and Indian names. There’s an iron sky over Oshkosh and a smell of rain; a cloudburst over Menasha. Four Harleys pass you, the drivers’ gray hair whipping. Just when you’re starting to feel stupefied by driving and your right heel is stinging from bearing the weight of your foot on the gas pedal, you see the “Cherryland” sign that means you’re getting close: “Got arthritis? Drink cherry juice!” You miss the turn for Sturgeon Bay and get lost in Green Bay every time—it’s part of the ritual, too.
But even being lost in Green Bay, there’s the excitement of seeing the water suddenly, down below you, the great paper factories smoking on the right, and finally making the turn onto Hwy 57 for Door County Peninsula.
You cross the bridge at Sturgeon Bay. And then something happens: the sky gets suddenly bigger, the light changes—the air becomes more luminous, full of invisible water molecules. There’s a radiance and openness; you feel as if you are up high. Tired as you are, you start to expand, to breathe more deeply.
You are driving through tall stands of white birch, mostly denuded up to the very top. Wind is a punishing presence here. The air, constantly moving, lets you know you are near a Great Lake. Here it is untrammeled, coming across miles of open water. No hindrance.
You start to see Swedish flags and Ye Olde Norwegian signs. A bar that sells char-broiled Angus steaks and pizza with a blue and white Pabst sign. Mansions and little A-frames, all empty, shuttered, silent, with ferns growing in the yards. Thimbleberries.
And at last, the end of your journey: Whitefish Bay and Lake Michigan, a stunning aquamarine, with light turquoise shallows, and deep turquoise, almost green, in the depths. A fierce wind whips up the pale sand, needling bare feet. There are crickets singing in the dune grass. The sand makes a squealing sound as you walk—grains of quartz scoured out of the Canadian bedrock by glaciers and ground up by eons of wind and waves.
The next day you wake up to silence, brightness, the neighbor’s flag rippling beyond the pine tree, and beyond that, sun-dazzle on stippled water. The lake is gilded with splintered light. There is blown sand over the boardwalk. A great emptiness. Deer tracks on the beach. Walking, you see a bald eagle overhead.
This is what you’ve come to the ends of the earth for: the chance to reflect and stand by a great body of water, to sink into silence. To pass through the Door.