Saturday, August 17, 2013

Rust / River / Remembering

You know you're in the Midwest when...
I've missed you, dear petticoat rustlers! For the past week, I've been traveling through the Midwest with my husband and our dog, visiting family and friends and remembering the rusty, gritty beauty of that part of this country. I am delighted to share some highlights from that trip in the form of photos and musings... 

From the shores of the Mississippi in Iowa, we watched a decades-old battle take place. Since 1987, the town of Le Claire, Iowa has pit its finest tug-of-war competitors against competitors from Port Byron, Illinois. A giant rope, weighing nearly 700 pounds, is stretched across the Mississippi river where it divides these states. This Twain-esque tug-of-war sends river water splashing into the air as the rope emerges from the Mississippi and gets taut as the teams struggle to win more rope. Eleven teams comprised of twenty strong people battle for three-minutes at a time; the winning state is victorious in at least 6 of these eleven contests. It was thrilling-- I lost my voice from cheering so loudly...
Rope stretching between Iowa and Illinois, pulled taut over the Mississippi river.
In the photo, they look very serene... but I can assure you, they are pulling with all of their might. 
An Iowa tugger, feeling strong (and mysterious).
My husband grew up along the Mississippi, in Iowa, and so while we were there we visited landmarks around his hometown that he used to pass all the time as a kid. These landmarks included hand-painted signs, murals, hidden drives, and... the Mississippi itself. I think sometimes it is easy to take for granted the mystery and allure of a major body of water if you grew up next to it. So after touring neighborhoods in the car, we hopped onto a boat and toured a little bit of the mighty river itself...

I also grew up next to a major body of water: Lake Michigan. The lake is so big it can be seen from outer space-- I remember many times looking out over the waves and easily convincing myself it was my own little sea... The waters of Lake Michigan carved their way into the state of Wisconsin, and created some of the most beautiful freshwater beaches right next to my home city, Milwaukee.  

Milwaukee is where I grew up, went to college, met my husband, and got married. That city is full of memories and family, rust and bricks, beer and water. We only had about 6 hours to visit Milwaukee, but in that short amount of time, we tried to see as many of those things as possible. The lake, the art museum, the parks, the buildings, the people...


Details from inside Milwaukee Art Museum
From the Milwaukee Art Museum's exhibit on turn-of-the-century tattoo artist, Amund Dietzel

The unbeatable delights of my friend's new restaurant in Milwaukee, Café La Paloma
From Cafe La Paloma
The great big custard in the sky means you've arrived in heaven, otherwise known as Leon's. 
We went back to the Midwest with both the fresh eyes of forgetting and the wise eyes of remembering. Quotidian, casual details can be accidentally and easily forgotten when you go away; returning and finding those details, just as you'd left them, can unexpectedly remind you of their significance. Those things that you have etched into your memories, on the other hand, seem changed when you visit them after a long time, and you happily (and a bit melancholically) see evidence of the march of time, despite your absence. It is a relief to know things you love will change-- murals will fade, families will grow, water will recede and swell, buildings will burn, get repainted, tumble down, or get new occupants.

The Midwest is made of the wonderful (and crazy) people that live there, the rust-belt architecture of industry and hard work, and in some small way, the Midwest is made of the people that used to live there and who left behind a tiny mark of their presence. Like Amund Dietzel who, after arriving shipwrecked in Milwaukee's shores, pressed ink into pages and skin and history, forever affecting the legacy of the region and the style of its people.

It is a place in which I will always feel at home, a place I will always feel compelled to return to, a place I will constantly be remembering and forgetting.  


  1. Very cool piece. I found new appreciation for "The River" from reading Huckleberry Finn last winter. and as you put it so concisely "the march of time despite your absence" so true. I never would have believed my hometown would someday have speakers playing music attached to all the trees downtown, wild.
    Have you been to the Buffalo Bill Cody homestead? It's a perfectly petticoat type of place as you might imagine. --T.Pelo

  2. Ha! Yes, the speakers piping music into the downtown is... creepy. They're doing it now in parts of Milwaukee too (suburban parts) and I just can't understand it. At least the areas where the 3rd shift bars, warehouses and breweries have been mercifully left untouched by these heinous forced-elevator-music machines...

    Haven't checked out the Buffalo Bull Cody homestead- shoot! Looks super neat! Next time we are in the area I will definitely make a pilgrimage there.... thanks for the tip!

  3. Beautiful piece! I really like your "outline and smear" idea. Also the layers and layers of layers! Lovely piece! ~Heather
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