I may have added a new element to my daily routine. Prior to last Wednesday, most of my days started with two+ hours of writing, followed by a walk with my dog (on which Manyu usually came along). Later in the day I took a long bicycle ride. Fishing, hiking, reading, and everything else had to fit around those scheduled pursuits.
On Wednesday, however, my next door neighbor Charlie was sitting on a lawn chair in his driveway when I returned home with Jack. I stopped to have a conversation with him. Charlie has problems with his legs, so he seldom comes outside. As I walked up his driveway, I realized I may not have spoken to the man living next door to me since the start of the pandemic. Ever since Wednesday, Charlie has been in sitting outside in a lawn chair every other day when I walk by.
I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Charlie spent most of his adult life there. He moved to La Crosse only after marrying Marla, my widowed neighbor. He’d been the best man at her first wedding. During our driveway conversation on Friday, I asked, “Did you grow up in Green Bay or just move there as an adult?”
“No,” he said, “I’m from Pembine.” When I failed to question that tidbit of information, he said, “You might be the first person in town who didn’t ask me where Pembine was.”
“I trout fished as a kid,” I replied. Charlie knew exactly what I meant. Pembine is a small town in northern Wisconsin not far from the Upper Michigan border. On the eastern side of the state, Pembine is in the heart of trout fishing country.
Charlie then proceeded to explain the demise of each of the towns near his childhood home. “Pembine,” he said, “was a railroad hub during the logging days. Now both the trains and the logs are gone. And, of course, you know all about Niagara.” I did know. Niagara was a company town, its only real employer the paper mill. When Kimberly-Clark pulled out (early 1970s I think), the mill went through a series of unsuccessful owners and the town repeatedly had its hopes for revival dashed.
“The worst,” said Charlie, “was Iron Mountain. It was decimated when Ford left.”
“Ford?” I asked. “Ford had an assembly plant in the UP?”
“Yeah, they did. The UP was where the wood was. The plant closed when Ford went to all steel in their cars.”
I have always known that Charlie had at least fifteen years on me, but this was the first time our age difference hit me square between the eyes. “Cars used to be made of wood?” I asked.
“Well, of course,” Charlie replied. “Are you too young to remember woodies?”
“I remember woodies,” I said, “but those were metal bodies painted to look like wood.”
“Yeah, later,” said Charlie. “The originals were real wood, just like the horse-drawn carriages they were meant to replace. When woodies were done, so was Iron Mountain. None of the towns up there every recovered when each of their industries left. Well, maybe Crivitz. It jumped on tourism before anyone else did.”
I did not speak up to disagree with Charlie on this matter, but Crivitz is no one’s shining example of economic recovery. The town may be the gateway to the best trout streams in northeastern Wisconsin, but, as a rule, trout fishermen and trout fisherwomen do not spend a lot of money. A stop at a bait shop, a meal at a mom and pop diner, sometimes an inexpensive motel room rather than a campsite. Trout fishing is mostly about being alone with nature, and reclusive forms of recreation, as great as they are, do not do much to support the local economies.