In Joseph Conrad's great novel, Heart of Darkness, the character Marlow recounts his voyage deep into a dark continent trying to advance French colonial aspirations. The native people help in the carrying of trade goods. And deep in the continent at a colonial station is Kurtz (i.e. Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now), the demigod and the man most deeply transformed by the experience of being in deep.
Yesterday, I drove across the heart of Wisconsin, listening to Conrad's novel on disk. Wisconsin is a deep and strange wilderness to me. I normally stick to my side of the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers. But my family had given me "trade goods," and told me of the "colonial station" to which I was to bring them.
According to Rand McNally, it was quicker to drive straight across Wisconsin from Winona to Duluth than to go through the more familiar Twin Cities I-35 route. I snuck across the mighty Mississippi river at Winona, and drove up through the very scenic Driftless Area on Highway 93. Green Bay Packers logos were scattered here and there. Eau Claire, with its shopping malls and chain stores, was a refuge of civilization, but just north of Eau Claire the land turned truly alien. A highway sign pointed to Green Bay itself. Three times the straight lanes of Highway 53 passed under "County Road Q".
In the Holiday gas station, on a Sunday, they were selling wine. And cheese curds. Bizarre.
Then finally in Rice Lake, a mile off the expressway, I reached the trading station:
Natives in their simple dress of elastic-waist khakis and polo shirts greeted me. Since I carried an empty 11-inch pie tin for trading, they assumed I meant no harm. If they had known that my true loyalties were with the Minnesota Vikings, I might have been buried in lefse or, worse, whipped topping.
I didn't enter Norske Nook far enough to know if Kurtz was there, in a booth in the darkest corner. Or, if not Kurtz, what demigod would Wisconsinites worship? Maybe good old #4?
Minnesota has colonial aspirations on Wisconsin's own demigod, Brett Favre. That makes me murmur, as Kurtz did on his deathbed, "The horror, the horror."
I traded for a Blueberry Crunch pie. It's a huge pie and we're still eating it. And someday I can dig out the empty tin and send it off with someone else on their own journey across the Heart of Darkness.
I'm going to get it big time from my wife and mother-in-law, who have real Wisconsin and Scandinavian cred and might find the above post, well, insulting. But I couldn't pass this next bit up. After my journey across Wisconsin with a pie tin for trade goods, I'm waxing philosophic.
Marlow, in Heart of Darkness, on the meaning of life:
"Droll thing, life is, that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself that comes too late. A crop of inextinguishable regrets."
Wisconsin, on the meaning of life:
I hate to admit it, but I really prefer Wisconsin's.