Since 1975 when I enrolled at Luther College, I have traveled through the State of Wisconsin on so many occasions it is impossible to count. Our route to Luther always involved a shot up I-90 to Madison, then a rolling trip through the Driftless region to Dodgeville and Prairie du Chien. Finally the 40-mile jaunt up Iowa 9 to Decorah.
There have been many back road journeys as well. It used to be fun to cut down through the Lancaster and Platteville region for a scenery change. Or, the trip up through Tomah and west to Lacrosse or up to Minneapolis-St. Paul was a great way to get tour Wisconsin.
As a birder and naturalist, there have been many trips to Wisconsin for fun and recreation. Starting way back in college, we traveled to the flat plains around Necedah to visit the prairie chicken mating grounds. We rose before dawn to get into the blind. It was cold and blustery, but the chickens came out to dance in the cold dawn.
A few years later I camped with my girlfriend at Necedah. In the middle of the night our tent was surrounded by a pack of coyotes howling and yipping and running around on the wet leaves. Inside the tent we clung together, alternately laughing and gasping as the wild coyotes brushed our tent.
In far northern Wisconsin we rented cabins from friends or camped in the national forests. For years our family visited a charmingly simplistic resort called 7 Mile Pinecrest. It sat on the shore of 7 Mile Lake, one of many such lakes hidden in the national forests. Our getaways were simple. We did not have tons of money but made family fun out of driving the backroads where fawns ran in front of our car, loons called and eagles snatched fish from the surface of the lake.
On those trips I’d go for long runs on the sand trails of the forests. Then I took up cycling, although not that great a bike, and either rode the same sand trails on a mountain bike or ventured out for 20 miles on the rolling roads.
We always acknowledged that we were Flatlanders from Illinois. The real Wisconsin residents who lived in these areas obviously held an even deeper connection to their state.
But not by much, I contend. Sometimes the affinity one has for a place is magnified by its special significance among those who visit rather than own the land. I once fell in love with a girl at Bethel Horizons camp near Dodgeville. The Wisconsin moon rising over a mist-filled valley was partly responsible for that. And over the years, having come back many times to that section of the state to run and ride, the impact of the rich scenery and hills has never been lost on me.
It was valuable to a certain Frank Lloyd Wright as well. You might have heard of him. The architect built his home Taliesin into the side of a Wisconsin hill near Spring Green. He may have kept his home back in Oak Park for access to clients in the City of Chicago and beyond, but his retreat and his style of architecture owe much to the lay of the land in Wisconsin. That illustrates the principal that no one really owns a place except those willing to share it with the world.
In recent years, trips to that region of Wisconsin have produced many fun memories. Just last week we rode 70+ miles in the Horribly Hilly 100. Prior to that, I have ridden in The Wright Stuff Century several times. For all those years of driving through Wisconsin on the way to Decorah, I longed to get into those valleys for a real look at how the land looks and works. There are trout streams and birds singing.
All these years of affinity for Wisconsin have made me appreciate how much time has passed. I recall the week I spent training at Bethel Horizons the summer before my senior year. Every morning I’d rise at 5 a.m. and go running. Then again in the evening before supper with the RA Retreat Teams. I covered 80+ miles in the heat and the hills. The beauty of that place gave me strength.
The city of Madison has also been the scene of some interesting experiences. I’ve raced half marathons in the arboretum. And after that, we hung around downtown on the night that the Wisconsin Badgers hockey team won the national championship. The town erupted in chaos and frivolity. Parade barriers were burned in the streets. People ran around drunk and the cops simply kept watch for real damage versus peripheral activities. Madison has always been something of a liberal town
Madison has always been something of a liberal town by nature. There once lived a portly gentleman named Art that hung around the city center. He apparently drank quite a bit, as evidenced by his rather large belly. Yet he was loved by the students and community of Madison, and he worked as a window washer. Simple existence. Simple needs. He drank by night and washed windows by day. Some students got together and made tee shirts in his honor. “What is Art?” the tee shirt said in bold letters. And below that: “Art is a window washer.”
That enterprise illustrated the conflicted spirit of a town like Madison. Home also to the Capitol, the place opens its arms on summer weekends with a farmer’s market that features both hippie booths and samples of Wisconsin’s prodigious farming economy. The square mixes with liberal and conservative instincts, in other words.
Balance and trust
Somehow over the years Wisconsin has had success in reconciling its liberal side with its healthy business and tourism. Yet in recent years Wisconsin has become a flashpoint for ideological conflicts. Governor Scott Walker set out to gut teacher unions over collective bargaining and won. The fight became a national issue for conservatives that hate unions in general. Still, liberals put up a very public protest that essentially backfired. When Walker was set up for a recall vote, he won again. The headlines brought in tons of money from outside the state and fired up conservative voters who felt they were being bullied by the liberal side of the state’s citizens.
It’s interesting because it feels like Scott Walker wants to gut everything about Wisconsin that smacks of liberalism. That includes cycling. As this article on ThinkProgress documents, Walker is on a vendetta against cyclists, of all people.
Here’s an excerpt from the piece:
MADISON, WISCONSIN — In just one year, Wisconsin’s bike friendliness ranking from the non-partisan League of American Bicyclists dropped from the third best in country to ninth. If the state legislature approves Governor Scott Walker’s budget, which slashes funding for bike infrastructure, boosts spending on freeways and imposes a new tax on bicycle sales, the ranking could plummet further.
As Governor Walker prepares for a likely run for the White House, he’s been traveling the country touting his record of slashing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, saying he has “put more money back in the hands of the hardworking taxpayers.”
Yet Governor Walker and his allies in the Madison statehouse have found one corporate sector where they’re willing to raise taxes: bicycles. Though they have been hesitant to consider boosting taxes on gasoline or vehicle registration fees, state lawmakers have been pushing a $25 tax on the sale of all new bicycles in the state, on top of the existing sales tax.
At some point we have to consider the intent of such actions, and why both residents of Wisconsin using bicycles for recreation and commuting are suddenly the target of infrastructure cuts and taxes when bikes actually reduce impact on roads, reduce congestion in cities and reflect the long-held value of the tourism industry in Wisconsin.
Perhaps it is the angry emotions of some residents that are driving such moves. Out in the Dodgeville area there was a move in the past year by one county to raise costs of conducting events like The Wright Stuff Century. The move seemed designed to halt all such events, or drive them out of business. Apparently some local drivers hate the seeming inconvenience of cyclists at any time, and event-monitored roads in particular. It is so interesting that in America these days the anger of one constituency so often overrules the potential value of the common good.
When cyclists come to Wisconsin and spend money on hotels, restaurants and retail, it is clearly a good value to the local economy. Wisconsin itself affected communities such as Mt. Horeb by putting through a four-lane road on Hwy. 18. Recently the state set up cleaner interchanges to allow visitors easier access to that community, which in turn seems to be surviving alright based on its tourism connections and adjacency to Blue Mounds State Park.
Commerce and tourism all works together, if you let it. But if you send ugly messages to cyclists in your own state and to visitors as well, there can be real harm done.
The once (admittedly) innocent view I held of Wisconsin as a dream land for recreation and civil balance is eroding quickly. One just wonders what vision a man like Scott Walker might have for America. In Wisconsin he gutted corporate tax rates and the state is now losing money in several key categories. That is hurting is popularity in some quarters, generating full-on hatred in others.
Yet there’s the unsettling fact that despite his heavy-handed style and partisan cuts to budgets, he still won the recall vote. What does that bode for the nation as a whole?
Deep thinking on shallow views
These are things I pondered while riding through the Wisconsin hills last weekend. Touring that natural beauty made me wonder how Walker himself might view the natural resources of the state he governs.
Perhaps he never really gets below the surface of such issues. When quizzed on his beliefs pertaining to evolution during an overseas trip for trade or some other purpose, Walker ineffably “punted” on the question on grounds that his personal beliefs have no impact on (his) politics. He evaded the question again when asked by Politico.com to elaborate on the issue.
But his basic comprehension on such subjects do matter. It is well-known that Walker is a college dropout. Was it an incurious nature or an inability to learn that led him to leave school? Or both? And, if that combined level of low-grade thinking were applied to politics, where would it lead us?
Does Scott Walker even know what the Driftless Region of his state really is? Does he understand that the hills were originally part of a deep ocean once covering that part of the state, and that the limestone layers are the product of millions of years of active seacultures. Or does Walker, based on some sort of immature religion belief, contend that none of that is real or pertinent. His own words focus on God as Creator, but it’s a poor disguise. “Both science and my faith dictate my belief that we are created by God. I believe faith and science are compatible, and go hand in hand.” That would be admirable if there was any sort of indication that Scott Walker’s ability to grasp science were in evidence.
But that’s not the case. The alternative is that Scott Walker is a dog-whistle creationist whose grasp of complex scientific issues, or indeed any complex issue, may not be worthy of trust. I not only think politicians should be required to explain their religious views, but also their grip of science and their understanding of how it intersects with everything that drives the security and economic interests of our nation? Why do we let politicians get away with such shallow descriptions of their worldview and how they think? Isn’t that the basis for character and capability?
Silence of the Shams
Men like Scott Walker deflect such questions because they truly cannot answer them. As a result, their politics are a sham, and subject to undescribed influences that take advantage of the power of his shallow thinking to exploit our governmental process and our natural resources in line with that extraction of wealth.
Walker’s agenda for Wisconsin and now the country is backed by moneyed interests that have every reason to ignore the facts of evolution in favor of the ideology of human dominion and the corrupt purposes to which it can be brought. That’s criminal when it comes to honesty in government.
Furthermore, it certainly appears that Scott Walker cares not one whit what really happens to Wisconsin as long as it fits his vision of what he wants for himself and for his puppetmaster buddies salivating at the idea of another unthinking President in the White House.
We know what that brought us last time with George W. Bush. A gutted economy and a nation at war for more than a decade. It seems the real fight over these issues starts right at home, or in a state near you.