A Tornado in Wisconsin

A Tornado in Wisconsin

The universe is constantly giving you signs, and if you pay attention, you just might see them. Sometimes, you might see them even if you’re not paying attention.

On the second day of my American motorcycle criss-crossing, I saw the latter kind. I was cruising along thinking about why I’d staked so much – my relationship, my finances, my existence – on spending three months on two wheels. And then there it was, a message from God. Or at least a message from the church outside Cooperstown, NY, that owned that particular sign: “Don’t think less of your self. Think of your self less.”

That is going to prove exceptionally difficult on a cross-country soul search, I thought.

I was right. I thought about myself an awful lot. I thought about what to eat, how much my ass ached, where I was going to sleep that night. It seemed the sole purpose of this trip was to think of myself. A solipsist’s dream come true.

Three weeks and a couple thousand miles after seeing this sign, I pulled into Wild Rose, Wisconsin. I posted up at Slugger’s Sports Bar, lured in by its $1 burger. The eavesdropping, as was often the case in small-town sports bars, did not disappoint.

“I have eight kids,” said an old-timer a couple seats down from me.

“I know what your hobby was,” chuckled the old-timer next to him.

“Could use me a hobby like that!” said old-timer number three.

This was travel bliss. I was thinking quite highly of myself, actually, for having chosen this town, and this bar, and this burger. There was no place I’d have rather been. Then my phone buzzed. A few other phones vibrated simultaneously, and it seemed we’d all received the same message:

Tornado Warning in this area ’til 6:15 PM CDT. Take shelter now. Check local media.

Suddenly, there were lots of places I’d have rather been.

A general hubbub arose and my initial thought was, Do what the locals do. Nobody was fleeing so I ordered another Miller Lite. People seemed concerned, but not panicked.

The bartender, a hearty blond, flipped over to the news, which reported that a tornado had touched down in Plainfield and was moving southeast at 25 mph. I looked up Plainfield on my phone and saw that it was about 15 miles northwest of Wild Rose. It was like a middle school math equations: A tornado travels southeast at 25 mph in the direction of Slugger’s Sports Bar in Wild Rose, which is 15 miles away. How long will it take for the tornado to destroy the bar and everyone in it?

“There are two kinds of adventurers,” wrote William Least-Heat Moon in his cross-country classic, Blue Highways. “Those who go truly hoping to find adventure and those who go secretly hoping they won’t.” I was quickly finding out what kind of adventurer I was. I took to the road to see what I was made of and found out that I was extremely satisfied with the current answer: two Miller Lites and a cheeseburger.

The rain began. I went out and peered at a bruised and angry sky. Another patron had gone out to look as well, so I asked him if this kind of thing was common.

“I been coming up here every summer for six years and I never seen it,” he answered. I returned to my barstool. The bartender came over and asked if I was doing alright with the food. I ordered another beer and told her I was from Boston, so I was going to follow her lead as far as the tornado went.

“Well, if we do need to take shelter, we can all squeeze into the walk-in fridge,” she said. “There’s a whole lot of meat and plenty to drink in there.”

Suddenly a tornado siren sounded and someone shouted, “Get to a safe place!” I flinched, ready to leap off my stool and into the fridge. Everyone else stayed put. Wisconsinites, I learned, have a morbid sense of humor.

The bartender went outside and I followed her like a scared puppy. That’s when I saw the funnel cloud – a silent, gray monstrosity, swirling towards us. It swirled silently over the bar and then away. It was eerie, unnerving, and altogether harmless.

We returned to the bar. Someone called the bar landline to see if it was still standing – they’d seen the funnel cloud heading Slugger’s way. I shook my head and drank my beer. Never has Miller Lite tasted so sweet.

Back at Blader’s Inn, where I was staying, I found Steve, the proprietor, sitting with his wife Dixie and her mom Doris on the balcony. I asked for the advertised $1.50 glass of wine. I must have looked like I needed it, because they gave me a whole bottle.

We got to talking; about the tornado threat; about America; about travelling. Hearing him attempt a Boston accent reminded me of how far I’d come in the last few weeks, and how far I still had to go.

Doris, who looked to be well into her 80s, caught on that I was riding my motorcycle cross-country. “Oh if I had known that this whole time, I’d have already asked you to take me for a ride!”

That night I slept very well. As I packed up in the morning Doris came by. “Oh my, that is a beautiful bike,” she said. She told me about riding around Colorado with her husband when they were young. The memory sparked real joy for her, the infectious kind, and it set me up just right for a day of riding. Hearing her reminisce about her youthful adventures shed light on how lucky I was to be having mine. It was like she was endorsing the journey, and at that moment, rattled as I was by the almost-tornado, I needed it.

I took a photo of Doris next to the bike, and told her that now I would be taking her on a ride.

I did take Doris with me. Not literally, of course, but as I rode west out of Wild Rose and on to other adventures, I thought of her often. I thought that perhaps Doris was one of those signs from the universe, the answer to the koan I’d been struggling with since the church outside of Cooperstown. The trick, I realised, wasn’t to think less of your self, or to think of your self less. The trick was to think more of others.

Cover by Niklas Noonan, inset by the author.

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