I circumvented Rockford and entered the Dairy Land State at a small city renown for its contribution to westward expansion – the Beloit windmill – a venerable trademark among farmers and ranchers all over the west. There was no way other than a quasi-interstate to get to Milwaukee, fortunately only 75 miles down the pike. I cruised into the “Beer & Sausage Capital of America” on I-94. On my right were acres of a rusting rail yard and a grouping of abandoned multi-storey buildings.
It was sad omen to what Milwaukee was losing in terms of being a former industrial might. A few miles further I caught sight of County Stadium, home of the Milwaukee Brewers. Just 32 years after it was built, it already looked dated with antiquated columns supporting the upper deck and roof overhang. It had that distinctive appearance of a 1950s stadium. I still have a 5 X 8 hard-back commemorative photo of the first issue of Sports Illustrated (August 16, 1954) with Eddie Mathews swinging for the fences before a capacity crowd at County Stadium in the background – a real treasure. Milwaukee was known as the Braves back then, having just moved west from Boston.
I made my way down to the lakefront, which was teeming with activity amidst bands, carnivals, and picnickers everywhere. After all, it was the eve of the Fourth of July. However, this pleasurable rite of summer was not confined to just the holiday celebrations from May to September as I had observed in a previous summer trip in 1985. That odyssey included a tour of all the Great Lakes’ shorelines (except Lake Ontario), and everywhere there were people congregated along the lakefronts, from Green Bay to Toledo. My point being was that Midwesterners savored the temperate summer season to compensate for having to endure the long harsh winters. It made sense to me.
I pulled out the Turin velocipede and pedaled around the lakefront parks. It was inspiring to see a city like Milwaukee transform a derelict waterfront into a most pleasurable public amenity. As I biked around I noticed a telltale signature of Midwestern autos – fender rusting, a result of spreading salt on snow-covered streets. I called Owen Hill from a payphone and got directions to his suburban home somewhere west of Milwaukee. He was actually surprised to hear that I had kept my word to visit him. I mentioned that all I needed was a legal and level parking space for the van. He said, “No problem”. I found his sprawling, ranch-style house without any trouble. I had a nice visit with him, his wife Sue, and his two teenage sons. It was another cool, comfortable night in Ol’ Blue on a legal and level driveway.
I was treated to another complimentary breakfast. These visitations were turning out to be okay. Then Owen and I walked across the Burlington Northern tracks to his neighboring Country Club to play some tennis. I never knew Owen as a tennis player – he was on the basketball team (strong forward) and the track and field squad. He later set a NCAA record in the discus throw while at Texas A&M. He had set out to learn to play tennis with a vengeance about ten years ago, and it was quite obvious he had succeeded with his vicious ground strokes and irretrievable net volleys.
I had been playing tennis since I was thirteen, but was hard-pressed to keep up with him. Afterwards, I had to say, “Damn you upstart late-bloomers”. He had a good laugh. We retired to a patio table for a cold brewski (a Miller or Schlitz, of course) and caught up with each other’s past ten years. That was what I had in mind when I started out on this trip – to be able to have a leisurely talk with an old classmate instead of the abbreviated chitchat inherent with the helter-skelter atmosphere of reunions.
That afternoon Owen and Sue’s culinary skills came to the fore as they put together a scrumptious hamburger cookout in their back yard. Owen had invited a bunch of his neighbors over the moveable feast. Later we congregated on the front lawn on folding chairs to watch an awe-inspiring pyrotechnic display from neighborhood yards. I emitted some “oohs” and “aahs”, ever pretending I was in the body of a nine year-old, completely mesmerized by the sights and sounds of exploding fireworks. What a glorious way to end a super Fourth of July!
After yet another home-cooked breakfast (I was getting spoiled), I thanked the Hills for a grand time and was off to see Billy Rodgers in Pittsville, WI, wherever the heck that was. I did consult my Atlas and found the burg of 800 people in the center of the state and discovered, much to my delight, it was easily accessible via state highways. I had covered 1200 miles so far with only 150 miles on Interstates.
As I traversed State Hwy 16 west and north, panning the landscape that was looking more and more like Wisconsin with its diary farms, cone top mini-silos, barns of all shapes and sizes (one had a cow outlined on its roof), and acres of “Ocean-Spray” cranberry farms with smaller individual plots partially submerged in a foot of water. I figured that was part of the harvesting process. Traveling can sure broaden one’s mind. I avoided I-90/94 for a few miles by taking U.S. 12 until heading north on State Highway 80.