American ways

Driving along the Mississippi River today, my wife and I listened to Muddy Waters singing "I may be getting old, but I got young-fashioned ways." We drove past coal plants, record stores, lock-and-dam installations, and plenty of historical markers. We saw cell towers, hybrid-electric cars, and a small town with "No Frac Plant Near C-FC" signs in what seemed like every single yard.

America is changing.

Of course, that's completely fatuous; it's always changing. That's what makes America America. But the changes happening now -- environmental, technological, infrastructural changes with local and global impact -- are so significant and so tidal that they'll happen without our encouragement. We either let loose the mooring, or that tide leaves our collective boat swamped -- or run aground.

We'd spent the first half of the week in the Twin Cities, visiting Kristine's extended family. The dogs were boarded until Thursday morning, so we had a little slack in the line that allowed us to take a slight detour. It was a jaunt south, to tiny Stockholm, Wisconsin, that I'd wanted to make on numerous trips in the past. Today was my day, and it turned out to be a scenic route dialed in perfectly to the Independence Day holiday.


Stockholm (pop. 66) is home to the appropriately-named Stockholm Pie Company; it has received no shortage of praise, even over the legendary Norske Nook. The trunk of our car was filled with Minnesota beers, and the pie stop was a no-brainer. As it happened, the entire trip took place on the Great River Road, one of the US Department of Transportation's America's Byways routes.

A few observances felt germane to the American Idea as we drove along this road that the US government thinks is scenic and important. We saw some signs in Maiden Rock (pop. 119) that read "Save our bluff!" I assumed this was just due to development and soil erosion. But later, when Fountain City (pop. 859) yards repeated the exhortation, "No Frac Plant Near C-FC," I gathered the two campaigns might be one. For the couple dozen signs we saw opposing the project, only one sign read, "Sand = Jobs."

In Alma (pop. 781), there is an old coal-burning power plant operated by the Dairyland Power Cooperative. The Alma Station plant was built in 1947, and utilizes five units of operation. The last went online in 1960. It's a massive facility, and would be an imposing sight on its own -- if it wasn't paired with the John P. Madgett Station right next door. (Indeed, they now comprise collectively-titled Alma Site.) JPM has been operational since 1979.

The coal comes from Western states, to be burned for Midwestern states' energy needs. It might be easy to see the temptation in exploiting local resources like oil sands for energy, environmental impact be damned. And it might be easy for local workers, perhaps desperate for steady employment (most towns we drove through are bleeding residents), to think that frac mining is the answer.

But one looks at the US Army Corps of Engineers' lock-and-dam setups that dot the Mississippi River (and many, many other waterways), and one is wise to remember that the federal government can do some pretty significant work when it is encouraged and allowed to do so. The interstate highway we'd left in St. Paul, Minnesota (pop. 285,068), and would return to in Onalaska (pop. 17,736), is another example. The Trempeleau National Wildlife Refuge we passed, yet another.

We can save the things that deserve saving, and we can connect the people and places that want to be connected. We can do these things by employing Americans and training them to succeed at these tasks.

As we were leaving Stockholm, miniature triple-berry pie in tow, our cell signal disappeared. An indecipherable symbol (a lonely 'o') appeared where 4G might show up otherwise; the only meaning we could discern from this strange little donut was that it meant "try again later." I hoped we were still on the right highway. (We were.)

o as in "nooooo"

Eventually, the signal returned -- slow, but at least present. When it disappeared again -- completely -- near Holmen, Wisconsin (pop. 9,005), and didn't reappear until we were at the doorstep of the outermost businesses that surround this growing town of nearly 10,000, we'd come to the conclusion that all of these issues -- energy, jobs, connection, environment -- should be addressed in harmony. Cellular networks and wind power both proliferate via towers; certainly there's a way to make that commonality work to everyone's benefit.

Our infrastructure is changing even as its bones stay the same. Cell towers line the same old interstate, but signal strength is still questionable in many areas, and short-sighted politicians still think that less access to data networks is the answer. Our representatives still allow mining companies to write broad-sweeping legislation with big payouts for narrow interests. The federal government is still maligned by many as incapable of any good deed, unless one considers big explosions and unmanned drone warfare to be good deeds.

No, the federal government is the backbone of this country. It's what we celebrate on Independence Day: the day we said we'd be our own country, thanks. "To institute a new Government," the Declaration says. And all the old stuff shouldn't be thrown out because it's old; indeed, the physical infrastructure of America is in serious need of repair and refitting. Flying cars aren't coming any time soon.

But on this Independence Day, as this county creeps closer and closer to 250 years old, it's clear where the tide is pulling us. It's not coal, oil sands, dial-up data speeds and isolation. It's common purpose, interconnectivity, and sustainability. We may be getting old, but we should embrace those young-fashioned ways.