Thursday, August 31, 2006

Wisconsin 2006--Central

Merrill, Wisconsin Look at a map of Wisconsin and a little above the state's center, twenty miles north of the booming Wausau, lies the sedate town of Merrill, where my Dad grew up and where much of our family still lives.

Merrill has a population of approximately 10,000 and bills itself as the "City of Parks." I wasn't going to argue with that, as I think the parks almost outnumbered the houses and the houses may have outnumbered the people, who are apparently leaving the town in somewhat alarming numbers. Houses are for sale everywhere and what might pass for a decent downpayment in the Northwest will buy you a nice 4-bedroom house on a tree-lined street in Wisconsin. Jump on the nice freeway for a twenty minute commute to your job in Wausau and you would have it made at $14 an hour.

The town has a somewhat disjointed, army-surplus sort of downtown, where the clear, crowning glory of a wonderful old county courthouse stands out from what is otherwise non-descript. There is a classic, old-school apparel store called Thelma's and a scary tatoo parlor next door. This is not a gentrified downtown, although I believe an old convent had been turned into condos, which seemed kind of progressive.

We stayed at a nice motel well on the outside of town, across from the omnipotent and omnipresent Walmart, a MacDonalds, a grocery store and a few other little stores, which the kids loved. The motel had a new pool and spa, which kept Savanna and I entertained. It was very quiet. In the 50-room motel, I don't think 4 or 5 rooms were ever occupied at one time.

On Friday, we visited Bob and Rose Aikey, (my uncle and aunt), who live nearer downtown and just a few blocks away from the house where my Dad grew up. That night, we went to a fish fry at a local roadhouse. I must mention something right here that struck me about the entire Wisconsin experience: into every public place we went, most noticeably the restaurants, it was absolutely uncanny how we were stared at by the locals. It wasn't so much a "you're not welcome here, stranger" kind of look, but more a piercing, "do I know you from somewhere?" stare. It was very weird--these people are so used to seeing only people that they know, that we became a legitimate curiosity. So different from here in Seattle, where dealing with strangers is the norm, where eye contact is seldom made and where chance meetings of acquaintances in public places is rare.

Next day was the vacation's main event--the Ryan Family Re-union at Kitchenette Park. Family from near and far started showing up at around noon and it wasn't over until nearly dark. A very long day, especially for Tiana who wasn't really into the eating or activities, but a day that went pretty fast with lots of food, beer and miscellaneous activities. We had something like 75 people show up. My Dad was the oldest of his generation, I was the oldest of my generation and on it went to the next two generations. Everybody got along great and it was great fun seeing most of my 21 cousins, many of whom I had never met and most of whom I hadn't seen for more than 40 years.

Sunday morning we were up early for the five hour drive to the airport at Minneapolis. We got their early enough where we had time to jump on the train and went to the Mall of America for a quick visit. It was then back to the airport, a quick run through security and onto our Sun Country flight, for the three hour journey back home.


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