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Sunday, June 08, 2003

Farewell Wisconsin

I owe Frank Paynter—and fellow Madisonite, Dorothea Salo—my regrets as I was actually in their fair burg but made no contact with them. Apologies, guys, but I was in and out in less than 24 hours, and was bustling about the whole time.

It’s too bad, because Frank, after breakfasting in Madison with me this winter, had suggested a spring or summertime visit to his farm for a barbecue. We’ll have to take a rain check, Frank. Keep the briquettes glowing and I’ll keep the brewskis iced, although I guess that’ll be for my lonesome as you don’t imbibe anymore. And maybe we can drag Dorothea and David out there. Have you guys gotten around to meeting yet? If not, too bad. Seems to me that you would have a lot in common—techie-talk, all-around smarts, sharp wit, writing talent, and disdain for the establishment.

Anyway, I was in Madison to help my son, Jonathan, pack up and bid goodbye to the beer halls and cannabis pads of this venerable college town. He had had no luck in finding someone to share the trip west, so I decided to inject myself as the co-traveler. The lad was duly appreciative, I’m happy to say.

The timing was right. I had been ready to unload our second car—an aging sedan—and buy a small hatchback. I also hadn’t taken a cross-country auto trip in many years, and that was something that I wanted to experience again.

When good ol’ Southwest Airlines came up with an irresistibly low fare to Chicago on one of their periodic 24-hour-take-it-or-lose-it specials, I decided to roll the dice, buy the ticket, and see if I could make an attractive car purchase over the Internet in the Chicago or Wisconsin area. Then, if the plan worked, I would pick up the car, get Jon, and head west.

My gamble worked out just fine. I got a great deal on a Matrix—a sporty new mini-wagon from Toyota. It’s on a Corolla frame, gets great mileage, yet has lots of cargo space—plus a very jazzy interior. I couldn’t be more pleased.

I purchased the car from CarMax, a giant super-store operation with a large and active Internet division—featuring extra-low prices with no-haggle pricing. What a great way to buy a car compared to the bad old days of grinding it out with obnoxious salesmen and layers of sales managers and F & I (finance and insurance) hucksters.

Everything is done by Net, phone and fax. When you show up, a friendly, no-pressure guy or gal in pleasing polo shirt is there to run you through the car’s operation, give you the keys, and send you on your way. About a fifteen-minute proposition. It’s no wonder that the old-line, Neanderthals of the motor trade are falling by the wayside. They will not be missed.

Since the car needed to be broken in at lower speeds and varied RPMs, we decided to cross the state on two-lane roads. We followed the bucolic Wisconsin River Valley to its mouth--the bluffs where the first white man, Father Jacques Marquette, laid eyes on the Mighty Mississippi in 1673—at Prairie du Chien. Then we went up alongside the great river for a couple of hours to La Crosse, where we enjoyed a final Wisconsin microbrew and pleasant dinner before bidding a fond goodbye to the Badger State.

The drive along the great river was something I had always wanted to do, but never had. I wasn’t disappointed. If we hadn’t had a schedule to keep, I would have been content to have ambled up one side of the river and down the other for days, enjoying the majestic vistas, staying in the quaint river towns, sipping brews in the old waterfront taverns, watching the river traffic float by, and fantasizing about all the history that’s gone up and down this great waterway.

But, alas, it was time to point the car westward. We crossed the wide, wide waters and ventured into southern Minnesota. After a thirty-mile belt of lovely, forested river bluffs, the endless prairie was about to begin. . . . (to be continued)


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