Learning out Loud in Milwaukee, WI

Wisconsin: Mud races, free ferries, and small towns

The first day of Wedding Weekend brought us to Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area in Southern Wisconsin, the first stop on our Saturday tour. Here, a section of The Ice Age Trail follows a creek bed that has carved a beautiful, fertile canyon that eventually brings hikers to Devil’s Lake. In 2008 a major flood washed out many of the boardwalks and natural walkways that long made up the trail and the beginning of it has since been paved.

Once we were past the paved and gravel portions of the trail, we found ourselves amidst the serene beauty that is Southern Wisconsin.

Along Parfrey’s Glen, a mossy wall carved into the ancient creek bed.

After a short hike it was off to Reedsburg where Danielle had to get her dress fitted for the last time and, as it happened, we ended up being able to take it home that same day! While her and her parents tended to the fitting, I walked around downtown Reedsburg for a few minutes and stumbled across Corner Pub and Brewery. In the early days of Reedsburg the town was a center of commerce for hops, a key ingredient for both flavoring and preserving beer. Corner Pub and Bakery is a 100 barrel brewery tucked in the basement of a classic National League baseball bar. Suspended from the ceiling were banners from each of the teams, with brewers gear featuring most prominently. Other than Sprecher’s root beer the only labels on tap were their own and they were fantastic brews. They were promoting an 1860s rules baseball tournament featuring teams from around the Wisconsin-Iowa-Minnesota border regions.

A mural to the history of hops in Reedsburg, WI on the side of Corner Pub and Bakery.

On our way out of town my soon-to-be in-laws introduced me to a new tradition: crossing the Wisconsin River on the Merrimac free ferry after which we enjoyed a sunset dinner on the shores of Lake Wisconsin.

Dinner at the Fitz on the Lake in Lodi, WI
Sunset after dinner at Fitz on the Lake. Lodi, WI.

On Sunday night Danielle, her sister, and I went to the Angell Park Speedway in Sun Prairie to watch the Badger Midget Auto Races. Midget racing is the kind of event Hunter S. Thompson might have written about in his quest for the American Dream. Our $10 student admission got us an American flag, a can kookie screen printed with Zimbrick Chevrolet’s logo, and entrance to the races. We arrived just in time for the qualifying and introductory races and stayed through the 200cc feature race, won by Norm Ehrke. Greeting us at the entrance was a sign saying if we weren’t interested in the races or were aimlessly wandering around we would be thrown out bit it was honestly hard to imagine not being interested in what was happening (1).

The concept of mud racing is simple enough. These are small cars equipped with motorcycle engines and giant spoilers propelling them around a dirt track. There were at least four different kinds of cars I could remember. The Micros, powered by 200cc engines, were easily the coolest looking if only because of the sloping spoiler that kept them from flying off the track. These little cars had to be push started into the race by pick up trucks which meant there were three pacing laps, the first with the trucks following behind each racer then two to get everybody in line for a fair start. After a few races the mud track has to be smoothed over, a process that involves an entourage for mud-ready trucks and a kind of Zamboni-like tractor making several trips around the track. Presumably this gets the track a little too smooth because each time they did this there were several solo races from each of the different groups.

We were wondering, at the beginning of the race, why this group of kids would run up to the fence as each car went by the stands. As, it happens, this is a huge part of the midget racing experience: as the cars flew around a turn they would kick up a tremendous amount of dirt—giant clods that would fly from the track and over the wall, hitting spectators in the audience. One woman had plexi-glass barriers with kitchen cabinet handles she would hold up to protect her face from the dirt. We each got pelted several times with this dirt but mostly reveled in watching the kids, who were trying get hit with the mud and then throwing it at each other like they were snowballs.

Hard to tell there are cars down there because these things went fast and kicked up a lot of dirt.

The Midget Races were the cultural even of the weekend. I’ve been hearing about them since the first time I came to Sun Prairie five years ago; glad I finally got to witness them in action.

Tomorrow we leave for the Twin Cities, our last stop before the North Shore.

American flag in a can, in a koozie

[1.] It was actually unclear what the conditions for being thrown out were due to a confusing comma in the sign which read: “If you are not interested in the races, or aimlessly wandering around, you will be asked to leave.” But it was clear nonetheless, if you planned on disturbing the race or the audience’s enjoyment of it, you should probably stay home.