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Slow-Moving Wisconsin Is a Different Kind of Paradise

Times Staff Writer

It was the woman in Lac du Flambeau who hammered home the point.

We were two in a group of 400 bicyclists pedaling our way through Wisconsin. The day’s ride had just ended at the shore of--and with a plunge into--one of northern Wisconsin’s multitude of lakes.

We found ourselves sitting on a grassy slope, letting the hot Midwestern sun bake-dry the sweet droplets of lake water--which were beginning to attract some annoying horseflies and mosquitoes.

“So where are you from?” she asked. It was an icebreaker repeated dozens of times the first couple of days with the group.

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“I’m from Orange County--you know, Disneyland, Anaheim Stadium, Newport Beach? About an hour south of Los Angeles.” I waited for the usual reaction: amazement that someone would come from so distant and diverse a place to ride a bike in Wisconsin.

Her response was swift and shattering.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “That must not be much fun at all.”

It’s what you make it, I told her, and extolled the virtues of the beaches, the canyons, the proximity to the desert, the city and Mexico. I told her how most people who live here think they’ve found something close to paradise, despite the traffic, the crowds, the smog. She wasn’t impressed. She was from Kenosha.

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We sing our own praises often here, sometimes even with justification. But Wisconsinites--and, I suspect, millions of others who live in parts of the country of which we hear little--have a pretty good thing going themselves.

The state capital, Madison, is a sparkling city built on the shores of two lakes--Mendota and Monona. I expected to find a rush of Friday afternoon traffic around the Capitol building--reminiscent of the Capitol in Washington, with its white-granite dome--but the tree-lined square that it dominates was calm.

Some streets off the square have been given over entirely to bus and bicycle traffic. No cars allowed.

As day passed into night, the square grew even quieter. Crickets chirped, and frenzied moths buzzed around neon beer signs, slamming into the plate-glass windows.

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“Batman” was playing at the downtown movie theater. There was no line for the 7 p.m. show; a few teen-agers milled about outside in the humid evening air.

As pleasant as Madison is, Wisconsin’s real charm lies along its back roads, which wind through thick woods in the north country, and lush, rolling dairy land further south. One day, in a shady, wooded stretch of road not far from the logging town of Rhinelander, a bird’s haunting cry broke the monotony of our churning crank sets.

It was a loon, I was told, a skilled fishing bird and living symbol of the north country’s solitude and singularity--not the wacky bird that the unfortunate expression “crazy as a loon” would have us believe it is.

I felt fortunate just to have heard its cry that once.

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There are a few places in Orange County where I get a hint of the uncluttered feeling of timelessness that I got that day near Rhinelander. Upper Newport Bay is one; the distant reaches of Silverado and Modjeska Canyons are others.

As precious as they are, those places are but reminders, museum pieces, of what this land was like before we turned it into a world-class economy, driven by an ever-increasing stream of new arrivals. For better or worse.

So why don’t I move to Wisconsin? There are a thousand reasons. And besides, I like Orange County--we’ve come to an understanding. But I also understand a lot better now why all Wisconsinites don’t just pack up at the first sign of another six-month February and move.


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