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Rūs Mental Contagion
Notes from Open Land
by Wendy Lewis

A Small Escape

After reaching Pine City on 35W north, it’s all two-lane roads heading due east to the upper peninsula of Michigan—I remember it well. Even though I’ve not traveled in this direction for twenty-two years, I know the names of these Wisconsin towns by rote memory, the way I learned the alphabet or hold thousands of melodies and lyrics in my head; Grantsburg, Siren, Hertel, Trego, Springbrook. I can still see the view from the back seat, hear the comforting squeak of a thermos in the front seat and smell coffee being poured into the little red cup they shared. I hear Glenn Miller’s signature clarinet line floating over the horn section and can see the blacktop unfurling beyond the hood of their baby blue 1962 Chevrolet Impala. Pine, maple and oak tree branches stretch towards each other from both sides of the road, creating a tunnel of anticipation—anticipation heightened by youth and a summer cabin tucked in the woods by a small, unpopulated lake. 

Humidity had me glued to the porch chair in front of my lap top attempting to secure lodging on the north shore of Lake Superior to no avail while the rain came steadily down and down.  Every cabin, motel and hotel I contacted was booked; it became more and more evident those who plan ahead would thwart our little getaway. Organized, Type A personalities ruin it for those of us who live spontaneously. It pissed me off and the forecast was insuring continued rainfall for the next week so camping had been ruled out entirely. But Kitty had taken off work to have “Mommy Time” and I had to figure something out fast.

I don’t remember how it came to me but it briefly lit up the room. Soon I discovered and booked a $38 room at Bingo’s Motel in Wakefield, 12 miles north of Ironwood on the south shore of Lake Superior, an area on the upper peninsula of Michigan that nostalgia had buried in my bones long ago. Charlotte and Eugene “Bingo” Vittone have owned this motel and surrounding 97-acre property for over 50 years. Doesn’t seem like they are selling. Charlotte was very sweet and accommodating on the phone and told me that they were officially closed on Sundays so they would leave a key in the door of room #4. Days later, Bingo would tell my youngest daughter that all four of his daughters graduated from college and that a college education is one thing that no one can take away from you once you have it. This cliché wisdom would be delivered from the other side of Bingo’s Bar where he was drying lowball glasses with a red-striped towel. The dryer would be going round and round in the anteroom while four road crew guys with dirty hats would be drinking beer and unabashedly staring at us.

Hayward, Round Lake, Clam Lake, Foster Junction, Mellen. It was overcast with intermittent sprinkles as we drove along listening to mix CDs Kitty had made for the trip: Modest Mouse, PJ Harvey, Deerhoof, Chad VanGaalen, Why?, Radiohead, Of Montreal. Two guitars were packed into the trunk, our small duffels and laptops in the back seat, a grocery bag and a cooler filled with whatever food I was able to harvest from my cupboards and refrigerator; cheeses, crackers, almonds, dried cherries, pretzels, peanut butter, six hard boiled eggs, homemade tuna/pasta salad, cookies and two bottles of wine. We had no plans.

Upson, Iron Belt, Pence, Hoyt, Montreal, Hurley, Norrie and finally my beloved Ironwood. A drive through town proffered two prime locations of memory; Joe’s Pasty shop, where I’d eaten those coveted meat and potato pies as a kid and the Ben Franklin, which had sadly been transformed into the local equivalent of a giant gift shop, replete with more cheap tourist kitch than should ever be displayed under one roof. The antique store next door had more to offer and we left carrying a paper bag. Most of the houses in town were weather beaten and askew behind crumbling concrete stoops and crooked, exploding sidewalks that weren’t bike friendly for kids much less remotely navigable for all the old people living in this sweet, dilapidated town. The main street was deliciously shabby, sporting faded, original neon signs and marquees over shops, bars and the local theater house. Not much had been kept up much less updated. This town is clearly struggling to stay on its feet.

After a long road trip out west last fall, I now know that the upper peninsula may be one of the last bastions for Ma & Pa motels. They were all trying so hard to get our attention as we passed them by on County Road 2 and we adored each of them, but were flush with love arriving at Bingo’s. The key was in the lock, as promised. Opening the door revealed more lo-fi glory than we could have hoped for. We hauled the contents of the car into the small, immaculate, 1960’s wood-paneled room, uncorked a bottle of red wine and arranged some cheeses, crackers, cherries and almonds from our cooler on the cover of the vintage Pyrex baking dish I’d just purchased in town. We got some tunes going, set the motel clock to the current time and flopped on the very comfortable bed for appetizers. Eventually we drove back into town and had dinner at Don and GG’s where the food was predictably mediocre but the server was earnest.  I over-tipped her. Late night conversation and songwriting ensued back at Bingo’s. We left the windows and screen door open for cross ventilation and crashed by 11pm.

Black River Harbor. Rainbow, Gorge and Potawatomi Falls, Little Girl’s Point. There was a day when a red and black-checkered blanket was stretched out in the sand near a huge driftwood log I would roll repeatedly on and over when I was a young, brown berry. I know the picnic basket, the metal pails and shovels, the Aunties’ plaid flannel shirts, curly permanents and the endless entreaties for me to come out of the water “your lips are blue, your lips are so blue—honey, come warm up”. Stones upon countless stones, licked smooth and silky, are spit onto shore from the obsessive mouth of the great Lake Superior. The stones are so warm and the lake is so very cold it hurt us just wading in—neither of us were going to sign up for blue lips. Our Midwestern “ocean” rolls like the big water and fresh water waves crash on the beach. We walked for hours through forests, on beaches, alongside rivers up and down hills. When the day was done, Kitty wanted to take on the winding roads back to Bessemer, so she drove. I smoked and watched the trees blur in my peripheral vision.

We took our hunger to Joe’s Pasty Shop; not the tittie club kind of pasty, but rather, the Finnish kind, made of peppered meat and potatoes wrapped in a perfect, flakey crust and served to us from a worn out but still-beautiful, small town woman who needs a job like everyone else. We all have our stories. She had her pack of Merit 100’s and a blue lighter resting neatly on the corner of the counter lined with black Naugahide cushioned barstools. There were huge ashtrays placed every foot down the short counter and at all but two tables in this small room. Non-smokers are ignored or non-existent in Ironwood. There were framed newspaper articles on the walls boasting Joe’s Pasty Shop awards and kudos and their bowling team wins back to the 1960’s. It must have been her man who came in and sat quietly at the counter until she came out from the kitchen. They exchanged private glances and then sat together speaking in low voices while we attended to our food, squirting more and more ketchup on our pasties. The day we left and swung by to purchase some frozen pasties to bring home, he was there again. He remembered me, smirked, and gave a nod. His short-sleeved shirt revealed an enormous scar on his left arm—a jagged, splayed scar that ran from under the cuff of the sleeve past his elbow. Looked like a knife wound.

The men are mostly dark haired and permanently stained from whatever work they do. Many are blue-eyed and have that mysterious, closed-mouth allure of carnies, having seen too much. What they’ve seen makes them silent but their eyes don’t shy. The women’s unspoken burdens are tantamount and their ears are full up—they’ve heard it all. Their darting glances are dismissive but their skin emits a low, electrical hum. I imagine they seek escape in each other, open briefly after the sun is gone and the bars close, and fueled by profound dullness take each other—like a drug. I thought about it as I paid her and left them alone together.

We reentered the cocoon of my car, bellies sated. Finding our way to the old cabin wasn’t as difficult as I had thought it might be. Here was where I spent a month every summer with my spinster aunties and grandmother playing, swimming and bathing in the lake, watching the Ivory soap float. We hauled buckets of drinking water from the spring, made sand castles for tiny tree toads, picked raspberries for the pie my grandmother would make, roasted marshmallows and hot dogs in the fire, rowed the boat day and night, slept or read Archie comics in the hammock, and played cards on the porch after dinner by lantern light. I slept out there often, happy to battle the mosquitoes for the breeze.

We dropped into Bingo’s Bar for directions to Chaney Lake, and headed out past the old Sportsman’s Bar on County Road 519. About ten minutes down the road, we saw a mangy creature loping in front of us.  I was thinking what Kitty was thinking – rabid, natty-haired raccoon.  The slow realization—porcupine—then another, road kill, a few miles later. We’d never seen one in the wild—these sloths of the north woods. We found the tiny turnoff just past the mile marker, which had a signpost bearing the names “Gothblad” and “Schutlz”. We descended onto the rough and rutted gravel road nestled in a magical way beneath thick, overarching trees. In the clearing down the final hill, a man in a red shirt, red cut-off sweatpants and a grimy hat carried something heavy in a plastic bag. I slowed, rolled down my window, introduced myself as a relative of Margaret Colman’s and wondered if it was okay to see our old cabin. 

“Ahhh… I know you”, he declared. “You’re one of the Lewis clan!” We exchanged familial connections and then he explained that the cabin was still standing but he had to dispose of the bagged porcupine, having already removed his toenails and many of his quills.  “I make jewelry”, he laughed, “I’ll see you up there.” Kitty and I wandered around the property and peered in through the dirty windows with drawn curtains. It looked like a storage space now, junk piled to the ceiling, far from the quaint tidy place I had so loved as a child. Invited into the Gothblad cabin next door, I was served rosé wine on ice.  As we sat around their table overlooking the lake, I remembered Bob, the junior to his father (now deceased), as the strapping young buck my sister and I ogled over as girls. Recently retired, he’d worked as a chemical engineer for the DNR and his wife Bonny still coaches high school track in Spooner where they live. His blue eyes twinkled as he told stories, offering us sliced vegetables from their garden from a paper plate. Before we said goodbye, he made us guess how many porcupine quills were in two small ball jars he’d set on the table. We were all wrong—it totaled 1,000—and Bob had counted each of them as he removed them. Bonny shook her head lovingly in his direction.

Our family cabin, now shirt-tailed out to other married-in relatives, has fallen victim to disputes between them, Bob said. “They only come up once a year for a day to mow”, Bob said, “and once every couple years some of the guys come up to hunt.” The outhouse was listing heavily to the right and the door wouldn’t close anymore. Meanwhile, developers purchased the land just around the point and are preparing to erect condos. But from our vantage point on the Gothblad’s deck, the lake and opposing shoreline looked the same as it had looked when I was a child. The only thing missing was the creaky old dock, which had finally collapsed into the lake. 

219 E Ridge Street is where we found my 94-year-old 2nd cousin I’d always called Auntie Muggs. When we got there around 11:00 AM, she had Meals on Wheels arriving at 12:30 and her bridge club showing up at 1:00 so we wasted no time. She really hasn’t changed much except her teeth are pretty much gone and her hearing is not far behind.  Still, she caught us up on her kids, grandkids and great grandkids and went on to tell stories from my childhood. She’s got mischievous blue eyes tucked into the folds of her doughy eyelids and she’s easy to love—a survivor without a controlling bone in her body, which may explain why she’s still here. She said she never even takes an aspirin—has no pain—even though she looks unsteady on her feet, and clearly, her mind is in full working order. Her granddaughter recently gave her a subscription to the Star, which she loves reading as much as any other newspaper including The New York Times, the perk being she can hold trashy conversations with the youngsters about the latest dirt on Brittany Spears or Paris Hilton. She reiterated what my grandmother Rhea, her aunt, always told me, “Do the crossword puzzle every day—it’ll keep you sharp.” She made a joke about how my Aunties and my mom all took piles of vitamins every day and how she used to give them grief about what a waste of money it was.  “And now, they are all dead and here I am!” We laughed hard about that.

Low hanging grey clouds covered us for three days but we never got rained on and it was easy on the eyes. We ate a greasy, breakfast at Mama’s Café on our way out of town counting 28 bars along the three-block main street of Hurley, and accidentally added an hour to our trip home because I took the GG scenic route back to Mellen after we’d just come from Mellen. It didn’t matter. We were lost in conversation—we were doing time.

Mental Contagion
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