2,300-mile cycling trip along the Mississippi River
Part 4: Wisconsin and “Lovely, Lively La Crosse”
By Amanda Hall
Special to the Turnagain Times
Having left Minneapolis, I now greet you from Wisconsin and “Lovely, Lively La Crosse.” This is my hometown where I lived from the time I was 10 until leaving for Alaska at age 22. Part of my large family still resides here, home of one of the oldest and largest Oktoberfests in the U.S.
It is home also to three colleges, two major health care centers, two microbreweries, fifteen Catholic parishes with schools, River Fest, Irish Fest, the La Crosse Queen paddle steamer and The Big Indian statue. It is quite a place to come back to after all these years. And returning by this method, cycling, and staying a week with my little sister helps me to see it with very different eyes.
First of all and unsurprisingly, it is not the town I left. Oh, it’s not as if I haven’t returned at all in the past 38 years. I’ve come back for parental anniversaries, sibling birthdays, high school reunions and the like. I knew it had changed and grown, adding a suburban mall, subtracting several downtown department stores, rebuilding the abandoned bank and grain merchant offices into condominiums along the river. It’s just that as the background to my early life, it was not allowed to become unfamiliar.
It’s disconcerting to get lost in a town you lived in for a dozen formative years. The neighborhoods are just not quite right. This street never used to be closed to vehicles. That street doesn’t really connect the north and south sides now, does it? And what do you mean that a tornado took out the stately maple trees at the house my parents lived in for forty years? “Nothing’s the same anymore, I lament.”
It’s the combination of the recognizable and the changed that has me bemused I guess. I have kept a static emotional picture of La Crosse in the back of my mind for four decades, and like suddenly seeing old friends from high school, there was something familiar that I couldn’t quite place.
It was a great place to grow up, family-friendly and safe. Which of course translates to boring when I became a teenager. Most of my friends could hardly wait to go someplace else. When I returned for my ten-year high school reunion I was disappointed, but not surprised, when I didn’t receive the prize for furthest traveled. That went to a classmate who’d been working in Saudi Arabia as an airplane mechanic. Of my class of 112 or so grads, 75 percent left the town, and most left the area. That many of them returned years later to raise their own families is a testament to the “lovely, lively” reputation the city has promoted so successfully.
La Crosse is a city of neighborhoods, like Portland Oregon, with small houses that are relatively compact, built before each child is expected to have their own bedroom, and are on small lots. There are sidewalks everywhere, on both sides of the streets, with a tree-filled boulevard along the street side. The city plants the trees, but homeowners are expected to cut the boulevard grass and shovel their sidewalks clear of snow and ice. And they do! Homes are built of brick, limestone blocks or timber framing; they are one and a half to three stories high; the yards are fenced or not, and lawns and shrubbery are neat and well clipped. Many of these homes have recently had new windows, siding or roofing installed, new decks or period restoration work done. There is civic pride on display in these neighborhoods. Here you still find the family owned ice cream shop, doing business since 1933, or the local tavern where everyone goes to play pool and gossip. Here you find people who know their neighbors.
There’s a name for the regional culture that this part of the country enjoys: Minnesota Nice. It’s a culture that I’m familiar with, living in Alaska. Many of the folks that live there now started out in places so like La Crosse as to be indistinguishable; Midwest nice. It means talking to strangers in the grocery store. It involves pulling over to inquire when you see a car stopped alongside the road. It’s bringing a hot dish to the new neighbor or watching their kids when they have to run to the store for a gallon of milk; Alaska nice. No matter how far I’ve traveled from my roots, I recognize it when I see it.