Getting off auto pilot

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I love that feeling of turning onto a road I’ve never driven before. That moment when the familiar gives way to the unknown.
When your eyes fill up with brand-new views, and you have to work harder for every moment.
There is no auto pilot here.
When pulling off Highway 90 onto 18 in Madison, you can feel the transition more than just the four and five lines giving way to two lanes. You can feel it in the increasing number of pickup trucks, combines, clotheslines, Chevy Caprice police cruisers and supper clubs.

Western Wisconsin is a delightful place full of rolling hills and liquor and sports stores that hint at an outdoorsy kind of life lived hard in the moments between the long winter.
Wisconsin, in general, is built for summer. It’s built for boats and fishing and drinking beer and jumping off docks and racing motorcycles and watching baseball games on long and lazy afternoons.
The landscape of this region feels transitional, and it is, almost as if the parts that were once covered by glaciers still are trying to figure out what they should be after the glaciers recede. And that’s the difference between time for humans and time for the land.
Beer 3The first Americans built mounds shaped like animals in effigy at the place where it all comes together, where eastern Wisconsin meets western Iowa near the Mississippi, where the eastern hardwood forests gradually give way to the central plains.
It is a sportsman’s paradise, and person with a canoe could almost make a life in the forests and the canyons and the rivers that cut through stone and run to the big muddy and eventually to the sea.
Decorah sits in a valley that is an ancient asteroid crater filled in by shale. To say it is full of Norwegians would be unfair. Decorah is what happens when a culture uproots itself, travels to a new place and settles down again, bringing some of the old and adopting some of the new.
It is the home of Luther College, and there is a fair bit of blond hair and red flags with blue and white stripes wherever you look.
The brewery sits on a steep hill overlooking the main part of Decorah. In much the way that Barley Brown’s, that remote little brewery in eastern Oregon caught my attention many years ago, Toppling Goliath’s name came to my ears through travelers who talked about its splendid beers full of beautiful hops.
Beer 2I had to try it, and so I devised a trip to Minneapolis simply so I could drive through Decorah to try these beers.
The parking lot was full when we found it, so we parked in the overflow.
Two cute servers flitted about the brewery pouring taster tray after taster tray.
Ahead of us, a stately woman with a crown of silver, white hair blocked the main entrance to the bar while ordering for her rather large group of extended family members from Wisconsin. They had chosen the brewery for their get-together, and as cousins and aunts and uncles came through the door, the matriarch made sure each of them got an order, which kept the servers going for about 20 minutes straight.
We were having fun people watching, so we just lounged around the entrance dividing the locals and the tourists.
It seemed as if we, along with the large Wisconsin family, were the only out-of-town folks at the brewery, as most of the patrons wore some telltale sign of their nativeness with camouflaged Decorah hats, local high school t-shirts, or they simply bore the scars of having lived in one place for a long, long time.
We sipped the amazing beers that lived up to every whisper I’ve heard over the last few years, and I dove into a taster tray with four different IPAs, each a slightly different take on hops. They were so refined, it was more like wine than beer. Not too heavy on the malt, the hops are allowed to decorate your palate like a fine perfume adorns a beautiful lady.
beer 1They say a man can live on beer alone, and I truly believe that, but we hadn’t eaten food since breakfast, and the pangs in our bellies ignored the food-is-beer idea.
The server at the brewery recommended the pizza place, but she neglected to say which pizza place.
We judged by the cars in the parking lot, and when we finally found a spot to park, we found ourselves in an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet with as local a Friday night crowd as one could hope.
Rather than walk out, we paid and ponied up to the buffet.
Turns out you can’t judge a buffet by its name. The taco pizza was among the best I’ve ever had, and the fried chicken was amazing. As we tucked in to our taco pizza and fried chicken, we watched as family groups entered, ate, talked, ate some more, talked, refilled their soda and left.
We could’ve stayed and listened to their conversations all night.
A man wore a sleeveless dress shirt and ate a plate full of fried chicken as if it was a Friday night tradition. A highly tanned single father wore his construction clothes and talked the kids out of playing games in favor of a night of television instead. A softball player and her coach father relived the excitement of whatever sport they had just come from watching.
Nobody had a smartphone.
It was as if we had stepped back in time.
That should have been a clue for me.
When we finally peeled ourselves away, we drove out hoping my phone would pull up our location and help me navigate to Minneapolis, our next intended stop.
But it did not. Decorah, it seems, does not support our particular cell service, but I like to think it’s just a land lost to time.
I stopped to buy a paper map, but the gas station attendant told me they no longer sold paper maps, which made me feel slightly panicky.
I asked if she knew how to get to Minneapolis, and she said she’s not good with directions. She offered to call a friend, who told me a quick series of instructions, which basically amounted to keep going north and west, and you’ll eventually arrive there.
So that is what we did. We found a radio station playing classic rock and found our way out of Decorah as Billy Joel explained that it’s still rock and roll to him.

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