Tag Archives: Travel

My Top Five Small Towns in Wisconsin

Throughout my travels in Wisconsin- from my student exchange in the fall of 2012 to the back to back legendary summers of 2014 and 2015- I have been lucky enough to see what might be referred to as the “essence” of the Badger State. And that, I believe, is comprised of its small towns. I am especially interested in those little microcosms of yesteryear, and the way in which these towns formed. The movement and placement of people is traced back to Wisco’s oldest industries- namely logging, the manufacture of paper, dairy farming, and the harvesting of cranberries- but also the state’s long history as a place of recreational activities. So I have decided to make a little list- a list of five small towns that have made a particular impression on me. They are communities from all corners of the state that for one reason or another I have found interesting.

#1 Cedarburg, WI – 2012

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Founded: 1844

Population: 11,400 approx

County: Ozaukee

Trivia: Cedarburg has the oldest covered bridge in Wisco!

Located in Ozaukee County in southeastern WI, this town is perhaps the prettiest on our list. I visited this place in 2012 whilst taking a road trip with my family from Atlanta, GA to Eau Claire, WI. We found that we preferred the pace and scenery of these small towns to the big cities, and opted to see what Cedarburg had to offer, instead of spending our day heading into Milwaukee. Cedarburg has a dreamlike, picturesque quality to it, like the dying dream of a soldier far from home. To me it represents the rural idyll of the American Midwest. It’s the kind of town replicated in miniature railroad sets.

The town boasts a beautiful mill situated on Cedar Creek, a winery, and several art galleries. The streets feature an array of houses that date back to the late 19th century. Therefore, it is no surprise that Cedarburg is a popular tourist destination, and a great stop for a weekend’s drive in the countryside.

#2 Alma, WI – 2012

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Founded: 1868

Population: 770 approx

County: Buffalo

Trivia: Alma is named after the Battle of Alma in the Crimean War! (Alma is a river in Crimea)

I visited Alma in 2012 and I think it is quite a unique and atypical Wisconsin town. It’s absolutely tiny and sits on the banks of the Mississippi River. The land in this part of Wisco is different to the rest of the state, and during our time there we observed bright marshes and high, rocky bluffs thick with trees. Alma is located right next to the Lock and Dam No. 4 of the Mississippi River and you can watch the towboats going through the dam with their cargo. The Lock is also a notable nesting ground for bald eagles, which are among the most magnificent native animals I have observed in the wild. Buena Vista Park is a great place for a picnic, and provides visitors with an opportunity to photograph the Lock and riverboats below. Another strange feature of this town is the Castlerock Museum- which is home to a collection of Roman weapons and armor.

#3 Tomahawk, WI – 2014

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Founded: 1886

Population: 3350 approx

County: Lincoln

Trivia: The Kwahamot Water Ski Club is based here, and they put on a fine show for the locals every summer!

I first went to Tomawhawk in the summer of 2014, during my stay at my friend’s family cabin, which is located about a half hour’s drive away at the scenic Seven Island Lake. Once there we got ready for the aforementioned water ski show. It was still light in the evening, and “the kids” and I headed on over to the local Dairy Queen where we shared a massive cup of Gatorade with multiple straws. We all joked about how “trash” we were, with one lass declaring herself “Duchess Dumpster”. The water skiing was a nice, relaxing way to spend the evening.

Tomahawk is situated at the confluence of three rivers- the Somo, Tomahawk and Wisconsin rivers- that damming has joined together to form Lake Mohawksin. The area was originally inhabited by the Ojibwe peoples, before the postbellum logging boom brought about the founding of the town by American business interests. It’s a lovely place to visit if you are staying Up North during the hot Wisconsin summers, and caters to the cabin folks with some impressive bait shops.

#4 Fish Creek – 2015

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Founding: 1857

Population: 990 approx

County: Door

Trivia: Fish Creek is home to one of the last remaining clockmakers in Wisco!

I checked out Fish Creek two years ago whilst on a day trip to Door County with some folks I consider family. As we drove down the hillside we had a lush view of crystal-blue waters of Lake Superior. We grabbed lunch at an awesome pizza place called Wild Tomato Wood Fired Pizza and Grille- which to this day is the finest ‘Zza I have had outside of Italy.

Fish Creek is very much a community based on tourism. I imagine it would be a completely strange and quiet place outside of the summer months. The town is full of these amazing antique stores and art galleries. The day we went, we visited second-hand bookstores, antique stores, confectioneries, designer clothing stores, local ice cream shops, a hats & caps store and much more. For a long time I examined a collection of fringed leather jackets worthy of a Hell’s Angel. The town is a favorite place of artists and craftsmen alike, and is home to the Peninsula School of the Arts. I honestly cannot recommend this place enough!

#5 Oneida – 2015

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Founding: 1903

Population: 4000 approx

County: Outagamie

Trivia: The largest ethnicity of Oneida is listed as Iroquois, with 56%. The Oneida nation were originally one of the Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee) Confederacy’s six nations, which also included the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora tribes, who banded together to dominate the fur trade in the Ohio Valley.

Oneida- both the name of the town and the Indian Reservation, whose names are derived from the Oneida tribe of Native Americans (who in fact are from Upstate New York, but had been displaced)- has served as the boyhood home of my best friend. It proved to be an interesting community, and one that I feel is wholly different from any of the other towns on this list. I had no idea, prior to visiting, what life on an Indian Reservation would look like. For some reason I always imagined adobe houses, abandoned gas stations, and chain-link fences halfway fallen down. I imagined something barren where nothing grew, something that reflected the poverty of Native Americans and the gradual erosion of their way of life. But of course, not every reservation is the same, and as far as I know the idea of adobe houses in Wisconsin is a quite ridiculous idea.

In June of 2015, my buddy’s mom made us an absolutely massive feast of crispy bacon, chocolate pancakes, and fresh strawberries. A bunch of us then walked Riley (a Brittany Spaniel) and Trout (a pug) in the warm Midwest sunshine. The geography of the reservation included much farmland, and we passed by large barns and pastures that grew soy beans. The houses were modest and clean suburban houses, all with huge yards, complete with American flags and Golden Retrievers.

Through the center of the Reservation runs what one of my buds described to me once as being her favorite river, a little stream called Duck Creek. For those-like her- who are interested in the language, culture and history of the Oneida tribe, the town offers a little museum/cultural center that provides fun information!

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The Time I Got Bon-dangled by Border Patrol

Well I finally made it back to Houston. It’s my fifth stay in the United States and the fourth year in a row I have roomed with my friends for the summer. My return to Texas is also something of a farewell tour; come next year it is likely that my pals will be living in a state with a less punishing climate, and begin their life together as husband and wife. Their wedding will ensure a sixth visit to the US of A, but the years of the mythical summers will come to an end. So it is that this year then becomes my last chance, at least for a while, to see more of what Houston has to offer. The plane came in to land around suppertime and everything was much as I had left it and it was bright in the evening. Out of the window I had an unobstructed view of the low, gray buildings and the low, dark hardwoods. The grass was pale and everything had the sticky quality of a swamp. As we got closer to the runway, more buildings came into view; car dealerships with seas of glimmering car-tops and modest, gray motels, and every building site and industrial complex was low and spread out among the swamplands.

I figured at this point that I’m a seasoned traveler. I’ve been here five times now and twice to the Big Country- so what did I have to fear? No doubt I would be akin to an old guest at a nice hotel, the kind that makes jokes with the doorman and has his lucky room reserved for him by the winking desk clerk. But no, that wasn’t the case. As a general rule the folks at border protection are largely a humorless bunch- and this is no more true than in the case of those who guard the shores of the USA, the nation that, although built by immigrants now considers it something of a curse word. There is something very detached about the way the officers at customs interact with us travelers. The lady who dealt with me asked me to scan my fingers and have my photo taken, before suddenly informing me that I was to be escorted to Immigration for some unspecified reason. I said “Okay” and reached for my passport before she snatched it away and put it in a folder.

“Oh, you’re keeping that are you?” I asked.

“Yes, of course I am” she snarled, in this real patronizing way as though I knew what the hell was going on. She stared me down for a few seconds like I had insulted her, as I looked around for where Immigration was. She pointed me in one direction, before yelling at me to come back and wait for an agent who would escort me. I get taken to this little waiting room and left among a bunch of other miserable looking travelers who similarly have no idea why they have been disallowed entry. Across from me is a mother from India balancing a baby on one arm whilst trying to rein in a screaming naked toddler with the other.

One of the officers came over and demanded the mom get the kid some pants. The mom tried in vain with her one free arm to get the child into some pants whilst he made a screaming wheel of himself on the floor. The officer then came over again and yelled at the woman to control her kid, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this lady had the odds stacked against her. This pattern repeated itself for about 45 minutes and the naked kid started attacking his mom. Everyone watched without saying anything as the little kid- who had been screeching without pause for the better part of an hour now- started clawing at his mother’s face, gauging her eyes, and pulling her hair out. There was murder in his little eyes. Finally the officers, who found there was no luck to be had in screaming at this woman themselves, brought her husband in, and it wasn’t long before he lost his temper and tried to smack the kid like he was a housefly. At this point the officer strode over and wagged her finger an inch from the guy’s face and said several times “NO. NO. YOU CAN’T HIT KIDS IN OUR CULTURE,” in the kind of voice one would use for a disobedient dog. I half expected her to follow it up with “BAD BOY”.

No one seemed to be checking on us and no one told us why we were here or how long we would be delayed. I swear that room was a Kafkaesque nightmare. We were infinitesimal drops of spray against the high stone walls of bureaucracy. I could observe the officers joking with each other, but as soon as they interacted with us they fixed us with these mechanical eyes, and all sense of human empathy was lost. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Ray Bradbury recently.

Anyway, we were a right motley crew in that waiting room. There were a dozen of us from a dozen different corners of the Earth with a dozen different problems. We were told that we couldn’t leave the room or use our phones. One British girl who was there for having her green card stolen was only allowed to go for a piss with an armed escort. Most of the people’s issues that I witnessed seemed to be mere bureaucratic errors. I overheard things like “Look, lady- just because you have been approved to adopt this baby, doesn’t mean you have completed the adoption progress. You need to go back to Pakistan and call this number…” or “Ah, so it looks like glitches in the fingerprint scanners are logging people as having criminal records, so we have to wade through your criminal history”. It turned out that the reason for my being there was something like this- somewhere down the line there had been a misunderstanding or misstep in their system. I got interviewed by a guy with a thin, downward-curling mouth and steel-colored eyes, who responded to even the most straightforward answers I gave him with a confused “huh”. I guess my student visa from five years ago had confused their system, which is strange, because I have visited the USA in 2014, 2015, and 2016 all without incident. The guy grumbled at me to call a number and sent me on my way, two hours after I had landed.

I got a call from my friend, who informed me that there was an active tornado warning and that he, his fiancee, and their puppy Adelaide had locked themselves in the bathroom and turned out the light. I had to watch out that I wouldn’t get blown halfway to Cuba as soon as I stood outside. But first I had to worry about where the hell my luggage was. I was late, so none of the conveyor belts had bags on them, and I was the only passenger left in the area. I asked the only folks around- a couple cleaners- if they had seen my bag. The answer was that, since it had been so long since my plane landed- or indeed any planes had landed- that I would have to find the nearest British Airways agent and hope that my bag wasn’t destroyed as a potential bomb threat. I passed through a set of doors that informed me I wouldn’t be able to return through, and in the distance in a long, empty room, I spotted my bag casually abandoned beside a wall. I picked it up, and left with the feeling that the day’s drama was behind me.

I went over to the first cab I saw and asked if I could use it. The taxi driver asked where I was going and I told him “NASA Space Center”. He said okay and for me to get inside whilst he loaded my bags. Then, inexplicably, he ran over to his supervisor and had a short, animated conversation. The driver came running back and asked me to leave my bags in the car and convince his supervisor I needed a cab. I did this, and the driver then ran over to us and exclaimed to his supervisor “He asked me to take him to the hospital, I swear!”

“No I didn’t,” I said.

“Get this man’s bags. You can’t take him,” the supervisor said.

“But HE came to ME,” the taxi driver protested.

“Get his bags, now,” the supervisor demanded. Turning to me, he said, “I’m sorry sir. Go to that cab over there. He will get your bags.”

The cab driver, visibly irritated, grabs my luggage and complains that I should get my own bags.

“Really,” I say, “I can go over and get it, it’s fine.”

“No, you don’t have to do it. He’s gonna do it for you, sir.”

The cab driver protests some more and I go over and take my bags off him. The supervisor apologizes to me and I get in the cab he indicates to me. I see them start to argue behind me. I tell the new cab driver “NASA, please” and we finally get going. A couple minutes pass before the driver tells me, “Yeah, that driver back there is gonna get suspended for a week now. Not your fault though”.

We drive into the night and the traffic on the freeway is almost non-existent. The trees give way to lots, and the lots become billboards; blazing violets and reds and blues of neon. We pass by every kind of cuisine imaginable. Everything is lit up, and you can hardly see the clouds for the great roadside advertisements. Soon we pass by the heart of the city and Minute Maid Park, and the whole thing never loses its grandeur. All the verticality of the city is condensed to this one, bright nucleus of skyscrapers that stand above the rest of the city, which spreads suddenly flat in all directions around it.

When I get to the apartment complex it’s raining but the storm has passed. I enter into the old place and Addie starts going mad, springing off her back legs five feet in the air. My friends had ready for me a homemade pizza, a slice of ice cream cake, and a cold glass of Jarritos waiting for me. We all heaved a sigh of relief, and thus, the summer of 2017 began.