In Milwaukee, people are Carhartt hip and sort of salty. In Madison, it’s all genuine smiles. But beyond the coffee shop, we are driving through winding green roads and on big freeways, past billboards about hunting gear and cheese. Billboards seem bigger here – like Augmented Reality cartoons flying at us in 3D. Or maybe they just seem important, defining a landscape where everything feels huge (is the saying everything is bigger in Wisconsin?). Mostly we stay on one straight shot – one huge flat expanse of pale grey that looks painted onto the green hills, narrowing as it stretches in front of us to give perspective and depth. Past a sign for buffalo which I am desperate to see, but miss. Past a castle for cheese. A reminder that one option is to lean into a stereotype. Go further with it before someone else does.
We visit two coffee shops, one on our way up and one on our way down. Our Williamsburgesque coffee shop in Milwaukee on our way up has a barista who says to our questions about the flavors of the various coffees they have “well, I mean, it’s coffee”. We know our questions are maybe pretentious, but we have learned to be particular, to ask questions so we can get what we want when we are spending money we don’t really want to be spending. Our barista (who is distinctly not a Kyle), dryly jokes that he can squeeze the coffee filter into our mouths so we get all of it when we ask to take the leftover coffee from our pourover they would otherwise have thrown away. What does he read in us? Does he read the coasts? Does he disdain the coasts? He certainly has disdain for us.
The grocery store in Appleton is enormous, and I am overwhelmed. There are so many choices, so much space. It’s like a suburb in itself, segregated neatly in gridded aisles: breads, frozen foods, canned foods, snack foods. All the ease and comfort that anti-immigrant America could hope for, writ edible.
Beer is all around us. I’m told beer is very important here, and we are reminded this time and time again by the billboards, the selection in grocery stores, the proliferation of small liquor stores.
We stay in an old house I have always thought was haunted, my whole childhood. Except that now, the dark wood, ornate rugs, and cast iron are trendy. I had never thought of this. That the Scandinavian style pictured in books I shelved in Brooklyn, the style seen everywhere on Apartment Therapy and Instagram, is the same Scandinavian style my grandfather has lived in for the last 90 years. It feels absurd to me. He wheels into the kitchen and hands us a chainmail square to scrub the cast iron. I wonder when we will see ads for those in our feeds later.
We make dinner, opening walnut cupboards to find spices of unknown vintage, using up veggies from the fridge, pan frying the tofu. Dinner is slow; we’re unused to this. We drink wine, which we never do. We listen to stories about people we do not know, stories told in a fascinating way. It’s less that the content couldn’t be replicated in a friend’s apartment or a city bar, and more that the pace is completely outside of time in the way we live it. Not measured in soundbytes or gifs, but on some scale of years, like an ancient tree. I keep thinking that we could never get away with it: pauses in the middle of a sentence for a sip of wine, characters that have intricate ties I find hard to track, and general shape that makes me float somewhere outside, lost in the meanders.
Leaving town, I drive roads I know well from the backseat. Wizard of Oz perfect, rolling green hills, dandelions, fluffy clouds. But driving them, they look completely different, and I don’t recognize them until we approach the Mississippi.
“Lift your feet and spell it out!” I shout manically. “You have to, this is the rule!” But I am driving, my chest too close to home, though we are only halfway there at the wide and muddy border. The sun makes the river glitter like little letters tripping over each other, Wisconsin fading behind us through the rock-blasted walls of the highway. The wheels against the road sing it for us: EM eye essess EYE essess EYE peepee EYE.