We got up at a decent time, took in the free breakfast in the motel, triple-checked for forgotten stuff, and hit the road.
Before we left, Ben put his cellphone in his pocket. Before we’d left Utah, I made a point of getting a new cellphone, and adding my old cellphone to our plan under a new number. I gave this to Ben – in case we got separated on the road, he could call me, or call home.
We quickly passed out of Illinois into Wisconsin. Our last toll was at the border – one sign that we were passing out of the East. Those tall, whitish yellow trees disappeared too.
The problem with this route is that there’s a big hook in I-90. It goes about 100 miles north to go through La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Rochester, Minnesota, before dipping about 30 miles south again, and then heading due west. It’s tailor-made for a shortcut. But … I wasn’t really thinking about a shortcut, so much as a side-trip.
I never knew my father’s father – he died 6 years before I was born. No one thinks I missed much. What I did know is that he was from Decorah, Iowa, that he’d run away to join the army in 1915, and that my cousins still owned the house he’d grown up in. On the map, there are U.S. highways going west from Madison, through Decorah, which meet up with I-90, and cut off its loop. This was side-trip for the day.
It was also time for the talk. Mary Jo had been bugging me for quite some time to sit down with Ben and have the talk. You know … the talk that fathers have to have with their boys when they reach a certain age. I’d always felt Ben was too young, but he was ten-and-a-half now, and the time was right. Plus, I’d have his undivided attention in the truck. So, starting in southern Wisconsin, Ben learned about the birds and the bees. I spent a couple of hours on all the details, and on answering all his questions. My gosh … I got so into it, that the only time I got lost was during the talk while driving through Madison – I missed my turn off by about 8 miles, and had to backtrack. There are no pictures from this part of the trip.
Eventually, we found the right turn off, for US 18, going west towards Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi River. The talk was finished by the time we hit Dodgeville, about 45 minutes west of Madison. We stopped in a diner there to use the bathroom.
We were in dairy country now, and Ben took this video of windmills on the south side of the road. The terrain was rolling, but not hilly, and the truck had no problem eating the miles.
We made good time, and about an hour later, we dropped off of the plateau of southwestern Wisconsin, into the deep valley floor of the Mississippi. The bridge was narrow, and the river is not impressive there: narrow, brown, and shallow looking. The bottom lands are heavily wooded, unlike the rolling farmland we’ve just spent the morning crossing. On the other side, Iowa is much the same. We climb out of the forested valley into rolling hills, that flatten into the plains as the road turns towards the northwest.
I got nervous that we were going the wrong way, because US 18 had now turned into US 52, so we stopped at a motel in Postville to ask directions. They assured us we were on the right road. I made some small talk with the couple at the desk, and found out that Postville is loaded with New York Jews: it’s a center of kosher meatpacking. But, we didn’t see anyone that looked Orthodox.
We continued on, and came to Ossian (pronounced AH-shun). It’s a tiny place – a few dozen homes strung out along the highway, with perhaps one street running parallel to the highway on either side. The census says 853 people live there. That seems high, but not impossible. In 1915, my grandfather ran away from home. He was between 15 and 20 (I know of no less than 3 birthdates for him). He went all of 15 miles or so to Ossian, and joined the army. My dad said that he did go back to Iowa to visit, but he never really lived there again. By 1925 he was settled for good in Buffalo. Ossian wasn’t worth a stop.
Two shots of the countryside between Ossian and Decorah.
The next stop was Decorah. It reminds me of Cedar City, without the half the population who are transplants with new houses. We drive around a bit, and it’s pretty, even a little prosperous.
We even see a sign in Norwegian on a hotel.
But, I’m lost. I kind of thought it would be small enough to just find Mechanic St., where he was from. I probably would have eventually, but I was getting frustrated looking. We also were either on highways without many pedestrians, or busier streets where I couldn’t stop for directions with a truck.
When I’d gotten the new phone, I’d signed up for a $10/month service that gives you directions. I called it, and put in the address I wanted. But, it was the first time I’d used it, and I couldn’t get it to work: it needed to know where I was in order to tell where to go from there. And I had no idea where I was. I laid the phone down on the seat and started looking for a place to park my big fat truck.
Then, as I approached a stop sign, a voice said “turn left”. I had no clue. After I turned, the voice said something about proceeding so many tenths of a mile and turning left again. Then it dawned on me – when I didn’t tell the phone where I was, it went and figured it out all by itself, and was using that information to offer directions. So, I listened, and sure enough, we came up to Mechanic St., and I turned left. Then it said the address I wanted was on the right in about 4 blocks. And there it was: 707 Mechanic St., the house my grandfather had fled 96 years before.
It meant nothing to Ben, and really not that much to me, so I got out by myself, and took 2 pictures.
I was already to get back in the truck, when I decided that I’d better at least knock on the door, and tell them I wasn’t some psycho taking pictures of their house. I knocked, and waited, and sure enough someone came to the door.
And … he looked like … my Dad. There was definitely a resemblance: he had the same kind of broad, but not fleshy, top half to his face. His hairline was the same too. He was about 35, thin, medium-height, and blond. His name was Garic Hjarleid, and he was a third cousin: his grandmother was my grandfather’s older sister Josephine. It was his parents’ house, but they were out. I explained the situation, and curiosity satisfied for both of us, and not much more to say, said good-bye and left.
I made a u-turn at the corner and headed back the way I came. Then I heard shouting. He was running down the sidewalk trying to catch us. I stopped. He said there was going to be a family reunion there in the summer of 2010, and that I was invited. We exchanged phone numbers, and I drove off again. It’s amusing to think about going to such a thing, but it’s kind of extravagant when you live 2000 miles away.
Before leaving town, we stopped at a public bathroom by the police station. We then continued out of Decorah going north on US 52, over a huge bridge over the valley of the Upper Iowa River, and crossed into Minnesota a few minutes later.
In Preston, we turned west on Minnesota 18. Around 4 PM we stopped in Spring Valley to gas up, and get something to eat at Dairy Queen. Twenty minutes later we picked up I-90 and headed west. We’d substituted 250 miles of two-lane highway for about 300 miles of I-90, and I figure we’d lost about an hour … a fair trade.
We were into serious Great Plains now: flat, with farms, and none of the rolling hills of Wisconsin. Three hours later we crossed into South Dakota, and stopped for gas and a bathroom break in Sioux Falls. The sun was going down, so it was a good time to stop – the sun wouldn’t be in my eyes any more when we started out. We stopped at a real dive of convenience store. Fortunately, it was empty – I can only imagine the sorts that frequent it. Ben was fascinated: they sold liquor, they sold ammunition, they sold knives, they sold tons of prepared food that was bad for you – sausages and pastries and fried stuff.
We headed out into a warm spring, South Dakota evening, and it was stunningly beautiful: flat, yes, but green, moist, and wide-open. It was almost like one big turf farm.
Then the bugs came out. Without a doubt, I had the heaviest accumulation of windshield messes I’ve ever had. For parts of it, I was running the wipers, and squirting fluid every 20 seconds or so. It was far worse than when Mary Jo and I drove through the monarch butterfly migration in 1992.
Around 10:30, after almost 700 miles, we pulled into Chamberlain. It was dark by then: deep, country dark, with no remaining hint of afterglow. When we got off the exit, there was no town, and no signs either. The distant lights seemed a bit denser to the left, so we turned that way. After a few miles the scattered homes turned into a small town with a couple of motels. These were privately owned places that were spiffed up enough to join an association like Best Western – sort of like the older places in Cedar City’s downtown.
The pool looked beautiful, but it had closed at 10. Ben was ticked. I begged a little at the desk, but it was really clear that it was a Mom and Pop operation that didn’t have any overnight staff to close it up after us; we’d be keeping their family up.
We walked into the room, and Ben announced that his phone was gone. I immediately knew it was gone for good, because I’d seen him put in his pocket in the morning. We called it, and got no answer. We looked in the truck for it, and didn’t find it. I called Verizon and had the number suspended. Pity; it was old, but I liked that phone – they don’t make them in that candy bar style any more.
We were bushed. I promised Ben we’d go swimming in the morning before we left, and we went to bed.