Guilty Pleasure

Tonight, I did something I’m not supposed to do. Something so sinister, you’ll want to shove Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize straight down my anti-environmentalist throat.

I went for a drive.

I know, in this day of $3-a-gallon gas and instability in the oil-producing parts of the world, I should be ashamed that I did something like that, unnecessarily emitted the emissions of our Toyota Corolla’s lawn-mower-sized engine into the frigid (wind chill -3°!) Fox Cities night air and lined the pockets of some Middle Eastern dictator or Hugo Chávez, depending on where my mom last filled up the car.

But there’s something remarkably freeing about being on wheels, flying through the night, ignoring turn-only lanes and a stoplight or two. (Whoops.) Cranking the radio really loud and pretending you’re Nick Lachey. (Or is that just me?) Spending a good twenty minutes trying to find the entrance to Doty Island only to discover that you’ve been on it twice already. Getting lost and finding yourself again.

I drove for somewhere in the neighborhood of 34 miles. It’s easy to forget, living here in this easygoing town, that I’m really at the center of a metropolitan area containing around a quarter of a million people. Include some more areas, like Oshkosh and Green Bay, and you end up closer to three-quarters of a million people, around 20% of Wisconsin’s total population. Between the Fox Cities and Green Bay, we’re the third AND fourth largest metro areas in the state, behind Milwaukee and Madison. I drove through Appleton, Neenah, and Menasha, without ever passing through countryside.

Wisconsin has two sets of twin cities, and they are oddly similar from what I can tell. Down by Milwaukee, there’s Racine and Kenosha. Up here, there’s Neenah and Menasha. And apart from the size (Racine and Kenosha are much bigger), they seem very similar in character and type. Kenosha and Neenah are nice, former industrial powerhouses turned pleasant commercial cities. They take advantage of their water, too. Menasha and Racine feel economically depressed, gray, vaguely criminal. (Menasha has a gang problem. And less than 15,000 people.)

It occurred to me that I have free will. I could just keep driving, really. I’ve got some money from working this Christmas, I could afford gas and food for quite a while. I wouldn’t even have to go that far. I have a friend in Manitowoc I haven’t seen in three weeks, an uncle in Larsen I haven’t seen in about eight years, a great aunt and uncle in Kohler. Friends in Oshkosh, Madison, La Crosse, Eau Claire, the Twin Cities, Chicago, Los Angeles, San José, San Francisco, all of them people I’d like to get closer to.

But I’ll have to do it without the car.

Read Part 2.  Read Part 3.

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