Wednesday, July 18, 2012

If it's Wednesday, we're heading for Wisconsin...

On Wednesday morning after coffee and Finneman rolls with Ant Weenie, we hit the holiday roads along with, well, ourselves.  Happy Birthday America!  Everyone else must have been chilling in a lake.  Driving North Dakota is endless but easy, one straight highway, speed limit 75, just you and your fracking dinosaur fuel.  Another day, another time zone.  The radio searched and searched, yielding only news from Saskatoon, which immediately reminded me of one of Micah’s favorite movie lines:  “Hey, you American ladies ever been up to Saskatchatoon, eh?”

The kids were lost in the land of Mordor so I began listening to Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” in which he set off in 1960 from Maine to rediscover America.  It was interesting to hear his observations from the year just before my birth (yes, Bella, they actually had cars when I was born) while observing this fair land for myself some 50 years later.  And on its birthday.  “Nearly every American hungers to move,” he informed.  No kidding, I said to myself, shifting in my seat.  We met in Fargo which, as I learned from John, is the halfway point of our land, east to west.  Sure enough, we folded Bella’s map and there on the edge sat Far-go.  Steinbeck’s Fargo had a population of 40K but three times as many folks had flocked to the state’s largest city in the interim, along with the four white pelicans I spotted circling in the ND sky.  “The only good writer is a dead writer.  Then he couldn’t surprise anyone any more, couldn’t hurt anyone any more,” Steinbeck reminded me.  Hmmm.

But before I leave the state whose official language is English and official drink is milk, I should mention that while Andy’s Mom, who is 97 years old, hails from the western border, his Dad was from Casselton on the eastern line.  Besides Andy’s Dad and its population of red squirrels (yep, “We are the squirrels, the mighty, mighty squirrels!”), Casselton is known for its can pile.  As we neared the exit, I therefore began scanning the roadside for this landmark which I have seen before in my travels at one speed or another.  I secretly admit I was rather looking forward to seeing the silver cone-shaped structure as I’d driven the unremarkable-save-for-the-badlands-300-or-so miles from Beach.  Made entirely from thousands of oil cans and named by somebody most decidedly not Captain Clark (and not engraved by him neither), it is known simply as “The Casselton Can Pile.”

At 45-feet, the Casselton Can Pile is actually the world's largest pile of, yes, cans.  It was created in 1933 by Max Taubert at what was then a Sinclair gas station.  Max, who I like to think of as a frustrated artist stuck pumping gas in the squirrel capital of North Dakota, began tossing oil cans in a pile around an old windmill tower, perhaps as an act of rebellion, perhaps simply because recycling wasn’t an option.  Until one day when he finished yet one more oil change and had an epiphany.  A glint of sunlight shone straight down from the heavens and Max began to visualize his life’s purpose.  Most of the cans, naturally, were Sinclair oil cans whose logo is the dinosaur-formerly-known-as-Brontosaurus, which is now called Apatosaurus or by the more technical name of “long-necks,” thanks to the Land Before Time series.

Fun fact.  Maybe you already know this, but the Brontosaurus “mix-up” goes back to 1879, when a paleontologist who shall remain nameless (hint: a male who was also clearly terrible at jigsaw puzzles) stuck the wrong head on an Apatosaurus body and called it a Brontosaurus.  Sticking with the less-controversial Land Before Time nomenclature, this “plant eater” was displayed at Yale for almost a century until scientists discovered the mismatch.  Woopsy!  But instead of politely playing along like the Native Americans at Pompey’s Pillar, they struck Brontosaurus from their books.  And when the US Postal Service tried to issue a stamp in 1989 with the Brontosaurus on it?  Well, it’s been all downhill ever since for them.  Even though the incorrect name still lingers in people’s minds, like my own.  But I still struggle to say sea star too.

Anyhoo, in 1932, a lengthy campaign was begun by Sinclair to choose their mascot, the squirrel already being taken.  They discarded the more frightening T-Rex and Dino was born out of a desire to express the fact that Sinclair oil came from Pennsylvania crude oil, which was millions of years old, and had been around since the age of the dinosaurs.  The company believed that the oldest crude oils make the best refined oils, and they felt that a dinosaur would get this point across to the public.  The peaceful plant eater, whatever his name was, appealed to the public and garnered the most interest.  According to the internet, like most of this, people thought that the Brontosaurus represented power, endurance, and stamina, which are the qualities that Sinclair Oil Corporation wanted people to associate with their products.  But in spite of how much brain energy Sinclair credited us with dedicating to oil, be it crude or refined, the truth is I rarely, if ever, think about it.  Although unlike what I dare to say are “most” Americans these days, I did actually know that oil and gas are fossil fuels which means they may or may not include the remains of dinosaurs, a subject of much healthy debate, it seems.

Meanwhile, back at Exit 331, search as I did, I couldn’t spot the leaning tower of cans.  And the kids were still trying to get to Mt. Doom with Frodo.  So I carried on.  I wondered if perhaps a tree had grown up in the way or a tornado had ravaged the silver pile as I headed for Fargo, only to learn today that the Casselton Can Pile faced demolition in 2008 but was rescued and relocated, of all things.  I also learned that a Sinclair Dino Oil Can sells for anywhere from $10 to $250 on E-Bay, which just goes to prove to the happy company who bought the world’s largest can pile that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  Which may bring unintended encouragement to all the can tossers and other “collectors” on the Oregon coast.

We sped through Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes although we didn’t even see one, scurrying around Minneapolis with the ones still smelling of sunscreen who had.  Minnesota means “sky-tinted water” in Dakota Sioux, which makes you want to say it again, right?  Perhaps even with a feather in your hair or in a sentence including the stereotypical word, “how.”  Dakota, incidentally, is the Sioux word for either “friend” or “pasty white guys,” depending on which website you believe.  And North, well, you already get that one, right?  But I’d be remiss if I didn’t inform that Minnesota’s state motto is “L’Etoile du Nord” which, if you say it in the official state language of North Dakota means “The Star of the North.”  I don’t think this necessarily means that the official state language of Minnesota is French or the official drink wine, however.  I think they might simply be a bit confused.  I blame Canada. 

I-94 cuts across the twelfth largest state at its waist like a slightly crooked belt, reminding me of the joke Hannah tells: “Q: What did the 0 say to the 8?  A: Nice belt!”  Breathing a sigh of relief to be done with the twin cities and fresh out of Minnesota jokes, we crossed over the border river of St. Croix, a tributary of the Mississippi, and promptly entered Wisconsin where we got as far as Eau Claire before stopping for the night at the AmericInn. 

Too tired to drive down to the park for fireworks, Bella and I headed for the hot tub and pool, then watched them from our window under a rising moon instead.  Andy called to say that Christiana was in the hospital.  Seriously?  Two weeks prior she had started her summer job working for the US Forest Service as a Timber Tech, which is supposed to entail relatively safe tasks such as surveying timber sales with the caveat that they are called into firefighting duty as needed.  She was only out of training for one short day when duty called.  As we embarked for the east, she headed south with her crew to fight wildfires in Ely, Nevada.  Andy had received a call from the Forest Service saying she was sick and they’d taken her in for bloodwork.  I tried calling and texting her.  Nothing.  So while we watched the bombs bursting in air and fell asleep, I worried about my second-born, the fainter, under my cool, white AmericInn sheets.  


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