Three o’clock in the morning is too goddamn early to start my day, and yet here I am, banging out some more of this drivel after lying awake for an hour, reading several magazine articles, and catching up on some of my favorite Twitter and Instagram follows before making a pot of tea and sitting down at the keyboard. That’s just how it goes sometimes.
My best night’s sleep this week was in a hotel in Wisconsin Rapids where I tried and failed to stay awake long enough to watch all of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Sorry, Sam! I caught most of it, so I hope I get at least partial credit. I’m just not the night owl I would like to be, which is why I normally watch the show on YouTube, but hotels haven’t cut the cable and moved to the streaming era yet, and that’s why I was trying (and failing) not to doze off during one of my favorite shows. When I finally caved, turned off the television set and surrendered to the enveloping darkness, I slept the sleep of the just until my phone bleeped at around six-thirty. My Darling B sent me a “Good Morning!” text.
I was in Wisconsin Rapids because it’s the time of year when I drive in seemingly random circles around the state, stopping occasionally to pop into a DMV office and audit them. It’s as bureaucratically awkward as it sounds but I’m an awkward kind of guy so it’s a job that suits me, unfortunately. Some of us aspire to do great things and some of us pop into the DMV office where you are waiting to renew your driver’s license, grab the DMV employee who was just about to call your ticket number and drag him into a darkened back room for an indeterminate amount of time. All in the name of improving customer service, I assure you.
Wisconsin Rapids was littered with the branches of trees that were shattered by a line of storms that blew through the area last weekend, and I’m not exaggerating in the least when I say “shattered.” I saw oak trees that must’ve been hundreds of years old reduced to broken boughs and splintered stumps. Freshly cut-up branches were stacked along the curb of every road we drove down. I’ll bet the city lost at least a quarter and maybe as much as a third of their old-growth trees. One of the guys I talked to said in his yard alone he lost fourteen trees. He must have a pretty big yard, but still, wow. As if cleaning up all that wasn’t bad enough, the storm knocked the power out for days so a whole lot of people lost all the food in their fridges and freezers.
I left Madison with a coworker at six-thirty on Wednesday morning and drove in a big 350-mile-long circle that wound through northeastern Wisconsin, then across the midsection of the state, and finally down the middle back to Madison, where we arrived at about three-thirty Thursday afternoon. This was my first overnight trip but not my last. It’s surprising how many people I talk to believe I’m living the high life on these business trips. I can’t figure it out how they get that idea. We spend hours and hours behind the wheel of a compact car marked with The Scarlet Letter of government plates, which means we have to drive exactly the speed limit: any faster and our supervisor gets phone calls about how we drive like maniacs; any slower and she gets calls about how we’re a hazard to traffic. We have to book hotel rooms that have the cheapest rate, so we’re always next to an Interstate off-ramp where I’m jolted awake every twenty minutes or so by the explosive flatulence of a downshifting semi truck as it exits the highway. And don’t even try to make hotel breakfasts sound like a perk. I tend to go for the watery powdered eggs and heartburn in a sausage patty, but only because the bananas are usually ripe enough to attract fruit flies.
We do get to pick the restaurants we eat at, thank goodness, and we can even find a pretty good one wherever we go. In Wisconsin Rapids, for instance, we ate lunch at a cozy coffee shop called From The Ground Up. Not only did it have delicious food at a reasonable price and friendly staff who jumped to help us, it had a genuine Volkswagen bus parked on top of the rest rooms. When I asked how they even got it in there, the young woman who took my order explained they cut it in half so it would fit through the front door.
If there’s anything about these trips I might consider a perk, it’s that we frequently see something that is remarkable. On the first day of this last trip, after we’d been on the road an hour and a half or so, we passed by a farmer’s field which was apparently playing host to a meet-up of parasailers. The sky over our car was filled with dozens and dozens of wedges of multicolored nylon turning lazy circles over our heads, and more were taking off. It was magical.