By David Heinzmann
Once when I was in my twenties and had a month between newsroom jobs, I decided to drive to California to see some friends. I wanted to see a friend in Winona, Minnesota, as well, so I took off in my regrettable little Plymouth along I-90, up through Madison and LaCrosse, headed west.
Parts of that trip still linger in my mind: winding through the Black Hills on the Dakota-Wyoming border in the middle of the night, going slow for fear of hitting a deer or driving off a cliff. Sleeping in my car and waking up shivering in a rest-stop near Cheyenne. Limping into Elko, Nevada with a nail in my tire and being lucky enough to find an actual “service station,” where they fixed a flat for ten bucks. Having my breath taken away by the grandeur of Lake Tahoe, even from the mundane vantage point of I-80. Wearing out my cassette of Emmylou Harris’s Live at the Ryman along the way, and finally rolling through the endless suburbia of the Bay Area at sunset.
I haven’t seen the high plains or the Rockies from the road since, but I’ve driven I-90 through Wisconsin almost annually over the last decade, and that road will always be defined for me as something more than just a leg of the trip into the lakes and rivers of the North Woods. In the back of my mind, it will always be my gateway to the West.
I never feel that pull and possibility more strongly than when I drive that trip solo, as I’m about to do this weekend on my annual trek to meet up with my brother and some guys from my hometown for a long weekend of fishing, beer drinking and extravagant eating.
It always happens somewhere past Madison, as the light is falling, the hills start rolling and the pine trees crowd the road a little closer. I feel like I might wake up in the Badlands instead of a cabin on Little Clam Lake.
I typically enjoy the drive nearly as much as three days of fishing. It’s the only time I listen to books on tape, and it typically takes the drive up and back to finish one. I guess I should say “audio books” because they’re on CDs. (Right, I still don’t own an iPod.) The first couple years I made the trip, it was le Carre books. (I remember stopping a block away from my house at the end of the trip back so I could listen to the last five minutes of The Secret Pilgrim.) Last year, it was Michael Connelly’s A Darkness More than Night, which was good but will always be marred in my mind by the darkness I felt in the middle of the night when a Wisconsin State Trooper pulled me over south of Eau Claire at midnight and wrote me a ticket for doing 81 in a 65. Basically, the speed of traffic out on the big road, but more than 15 over the limit and I sat there feeling the air go out of my lungs as I studied the ticket in the dome light, realizing I had just gotten tagged for $236. I ejected Mr. Connelly from the CD player and drove the last two hours of the trip brooding in silence.
It took a 9 a.m. can of Bud, a healthy portion of bacon and the promise of grilled venison at lunchtime to revive my spirit the next morning. When I said this trip delved into “extravagant eating,” don’t get notions of fancy foodies comparing notes on edible flowers and polenta recipes. These are men who, for the most part, slaughter and butcher all of the meat they eat and feed their families, whether it’s pigs, cows or deer. Lots of deer. Venison and ducks cooked over fire. That’s what this is.
I have noted here before that I do not hunt, and I prefer not to handle firearms. But I do take my cooking seriously and over the years have tried to contribute interesting and even daring kinds of meat to this rolling feast. For the most part I failed, creating a near scandal among the troops by bringing links of sopressata for everyone to snack on. Surely, such fine Italian salamis would be scarfed up nearly immediately. Instead, these brave men cowered in the living room like superstitious natives, terrified of pork that had been cured but not cooked or smoked. Explaining that Europeans had been eating this stuff safely for centuries only made things worse.
Then last year I took a different tack. I was in a certain Italian grocery store on Grand Avenue early last spring buying a sandwich for lunch and wondering why my cell phone always stopped working the second I set foot in the door, when I noticed the exquisite coils of Italian sausage in the deli case. I returned before the trip, bought five pounds of the stuff, a giant jar of the home-made giardineira, packed it in my cooler and headed north. We grilled it for lunch one day, and a star was born. This year I’ve been asked to bring three times as much.
Now, I just need to set the cruise control to fly under the radar. And I need a book for the trip. Recommendations?