"You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."--Thomas Wolfe
Terroir: noun; the combination of factors, including soil, climate, and environment, that give a wine its distinctive character.
I admit I was very lucky. My terroir was filled with close family, trees, lakes, snow, and a young boy's life spent mainly outdoors. There was little opportunity there for a young adult so eventually I was going to have to leave. Which I did. Only to return. Thirty-five years down the line. In the company of a fourteen year old Future Rock Star.
It was his idea. Out of the blue he developed the notion that he wanted to see the little town where I grew up. The larger town where I spent my freshman year in High School. And the trip had to be during winter. To keep it "real". I told him Wisconsin is "real" all year long. That is one of its charms. I was taken aback by the idea of the trip. Since at times I seem to have fallen pretty far from the exalted status I occupied for the first ten years of the FRS's life. There was no way this trip was not going to happen.
In Wausau, I couldn't find my old school. The best of the three High Schools I attended. Finally I asked directions, and we drove up and saw a grand building. That was smaller than I remembered. Emptier too. Now a condo. At least they didn't knock it down.
My old school.
We stayed in Wausau for a few days. Skiing. Watching the Packers lose to the Kansas City team on television. Before a blazing fire in a ski lodge. Finally, it was time to go. To head north. To the terroir. The little town where I spent the first thirteen years of my life.
An hour or two of driving past hundreds of remote taverns set in sparkling fields of snow and we were there. Right away, I drove him by the house where I lived from the beginning to age thirteen. The little frame house shown at the top of this post sitting to the right of the Belair Motel my parents owned. The split rail fence my Dad and Grandpa spent months cutting and building long gone now. Good riddence. It was the bane of my existence when I was tasked to clip the grass from under the lowest rail. With a hand clipper. I didn't realize how lucky I was to live in a land where grass only grew about five months a year. My son stared at the house a little then offered..."that is a very small house". Well, yes. Even more so when there is five feet of snow outside for months on end and you and your little brother are circling each other like badgers in a cage. A little way down the road was the same ice cream stand where my pals and I would get a soft serve cone with dipped candy coating after Little League baseball games. The stand is still in business but closed in winter. As it was then. A half mile farther and we were staring at the school where I attended first through eighth grades along with twelve other children my age. We had two grades in a class room then, one teacher to share between them. Amazingly, out front of the building, covered in snow, was a galvanized pipe "jungle gym" set and a matching swing set. The very same ones I played on at age six. I just stood there staring at them as the memories came roiling to the surface of my mind. I pointed out the east end of the swing set where I gave my fifth grade girlfriend a pink dime store ring. The FRS looked for a moment, sniffed, and said nothing.
I made the hard call to stay in the historic lodge up the street from my family's motel despite the fact the motel is still open. Nothing against the old family business but it lacks three essentials for the 53 year old Epic traveler. Interior hallways. Restaurant. BAR. So we stayed at the Gateway Lodge. The lobby of which is depicted in the two photos I copied wantonly from their web site. Add a gigantic decorated Christmas tree to the second photo and you have the look of what we saw when we walked in.
There was nobody there the week before Christmas so we had the run of the place. The lady who owns it seemed somewhat amazed that I grew up in town and actually came back to visit. From Florida. In December. I showed the FRS the indoor swimming pool where I was taught to swim by the mom of a future Olympic gold medalist. The cool little bar where my Dad used to have a cocktail with visiting dignitaries when he was the golf professional at the lodge resort. They used to have a bartender there who according to my Dad was perfect but for one flaw. He was a drunk. The fellow was a perfect gentleman, knew all the cocktails, never took a dime from the till. He just worked with a length of clear plastic tubing running from one bottle or another in the well up over his ear to the corner of his mouth. Poor blighter would get fired almost every weekend, not remember the event, and come back to work on Monday before they could hire a replacement. Sitting in that bar at night, snow floating down outside the windows, thinking of my Dad, telling stories with the FRS, drinking Canadian whiskey [me] and Coke on ice [him]. Completely free from the workaday world. In a time capsule. I would have stayed in that room a long, long time. Afterward, we would have dinner on fresh Walleye Pike in the nearly empty hotel dining room, twinkling holiday lights all about us above the vintage knotty pine walls.
Mornings found us up early and out into the crisp winter air. There was snowmobiling to be done! We rented a gorgeous brand new machine from a geologist who attended Florida State and headed even farther north. My home town straddles the border of Wisconsin and Michigan. There are hundreds of miles of marked trails through the woods. We turned the prow of our Arctic Cat toward Lake Superior and rode out. It was during the week and we never saw another rider. At one point up in Michigan someplace, we saw a sign nailed to a tree advertising a diner. After a mile sidetrack, we pulled up aside a small frame building where we parked the Arctic Cat and consumed a huge breakfast of fresh blueberry pancakes, corned beef hash, toast, eggs, and bottomless cups of coffee. Nothing like a day out in the snow to build an appetite, I always say.
In the evenings, after dinner, we would put all our winter clothes back on and walk in the freezing dark under a sky full of stars. Down the deserted main street of my home town, past my old house, and down the two blocks of the business district. On one such stroll I paused at the glowing window of the local bowling alley. In towns like mine, the tavern and the bowling alley form a social axis where almost everyone meets almost every day, especially in winter. I looked at that window and wondered if anyone from my thirteen person school class was sitting in the bar. Whether we would recognize each other. What we would say. At that moment, I felt like a ghost. Invisible on the main street of my town. Watching my past unfurl before me. Like a character out of Thornton Wilder. Standing outside the bowling alley, my breath clouding the night air, I realized that there were only two people that I would recognize. A girl named Gina I loved madly for a few weeks. I think she loved me too. For a few days. Requited love marks you with the other person's stamp. If she was in that bar, we would have seen it reflected in each other. And we would have known. But she might not have been in there. The other one may have been there. The one I made cry. The one person that I pray I meet sometime to make it right. I didn't see her. I know I didn't. Because had I seen her, she would have felt nothing. And I would have felt deeply ashamed. But thirty-five years is a long time, even for a ghost. I never saw anyone I knew.
Three days of this idyll and it was time to turn toward home. Taking time, of course, to tour my favorite brewery on the way south. The final night of the trip found us in a nice airport hotel dining on marvelous local venison and, for me, a very nice cabernet. Then an early flight and we found ourselves right back where we started. On the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. The FRS looked ponderous on the trip back. He finally said he had a "really super time". High praise from a fellow his age. He says he wants to live in Wisconsin when he grows up. I just can't wait to make the trip again.
With people and wine, terroir is portable. It goes along for the ride. However long and wherever the trip takes you. But the flavor of your terroir makes you who you are. And, if you are lucky, you get the chance to pass a bit of it along to someone you love. On a trip like this, a son got to see behind the veil of his father's past. And a father got to wander, invisible, through that past. Two boys, simultaneously seeing a very special place through different ends of the looking glass. And seeing into each other as well. Terroir at its most piquant.
Post Script: I will not be posting for about ten days because I leave for Paris in 36 hours!!!!!