Theory: Disneyland is a frightening place. It’s a representation of something – a country, a flume, a spaceship – but it’s all made of plastic. It’s scary because we know it’s not real, but we act like it is. Fantasies are spooky like that.
Sometimes I feel this way when driving through little towns in the Midwest. Is this main street real – or is it just a facsimile of What The West Once Was? Or am I just a Coastie tourist for whom this picture of Main Street USA is still novel after spending my youth on crusty-but-overcrowded Boston streets?
All these questions streamed through my head as I booked a stay for the Lady Friend and I in a log cabin at the Little Switzerland Inn in McGregor, IA. Just across the Mighty Mississip from Prairie du Chien, a mere 2 hours from Madison, the 19th century log cabin was painstakingly moved from another part of the state to the end of the main drag in this little town. It’s a step back in time, a small erection placed right next to what we think of as Main Street. Or maybe just the image we all have of Main Street?
Maybe it’s just the image that Disney put in our heads.
But there it sits, a restored log cabin, just feet away from the bottom of a bluff that makes that part of Wisconsin and Iowa unique, right next to the sweets shop we’ll eat our breakfast at in the morning, and right across the street from a beauteous gas station/convenience store. The owners make no qualms about the juxtaposition of a centuries-old log cabin across from the bastion of modern transience.
And neither did we.
The town of McGregor is charming. The town’s population maxed out in the mid-1800s at about 2000, and rests at about half that today. Parts of it are nice. Parts of it are rundown. Parts of it seem like they are designed for tourists. Just like Madison. Or Boston. Or Boca Raton.
It’s just part of the scenery. So is Jones’ Black Angus, an Old Fashioned Supper Club just across the river in Prairie-du-Chien. This darkly-lit haven has just the right amount of maroon of both the velvet and vinyl varieties. Told the wait wouldn’t be “too long”, we sat for an hour in the upholstery sipping wine-by-the-glass.
And it was pleasant – the kind of pleasant that comes from not knowing or really having any way to judge the people we saw in front of us, and knowing they were in the same boat. Once seated and greeted by our waitress, Bunny, we took advantage of the salad bar, featuring two blocks of cheese, soup, and deep-fried croutons.
This feels like a Supper Club. Or does it feel like the image of a Supper Club I have in my head.
We didn’t ask what farm the steak came from, and whether it was grass-fed or grass-finished, or corn-free or hormone free. We just ordered and ate. And it was good. So good that it was impossible to take advantage of the Giant Chocolate Cake for dessert. So good, that the only thing left to do, was go back to our cabin in the woods across from a gas station/convenience store, snuggle up by the fireplace, and put a quarter to that $5 scratch ticket purchased just a few hours earlier (a LOSER, by the way).
A tour of the town the next morning did little to assuage my spooky feeling, which was compounded on account of our heavy tater-tot casserole breakfast. Yes, a walk in the Autumn-Sun-That-Will-Soon-Disappear-Forever was the right thing to do. As our proprietor made jokes about being a hillbilly, we realized that whatever it looks like, this place is home to somebody. And it felt that way.
I have a theory that the American Dream is not about having it all – the house, family, dog, yard – but having the freedom to walk away from it all. And smelling the open road through gas stations, supper clubs and log cabins in someone else’s home, even for just a day or two, can fulfill that dream, whether it’s real – or just a figment of a childhood spent dreaming of Disneyland.