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Canoe, Part I


The Wisconsin River runs more than 400 miles from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to the Mississippi River. In its middle section, much of the land on its banks is owned privately, but forests of jack pine and red birch and a few scattered remaining Norway pines lean into it. Eagles and hawks swoop around its bluffs.

Laura Bush, former First Lady of the United States of America, supposedly said that Menomonie -- a town on the Wisconsin and home to a number of canoe rental companies -- was her favorite in America. It's a three block strip of coffee shops, antique shops, and a laundromat. One intersection with a blinking stoplight. Quite a place.

It's about three and a half hours away from Chicago in no traffic, up on I-94. Just outside Madison, which always made for a good pit stop on the way out to the river. We'd spend a night in Madison, drinking beer, eating cheese curds, and staying in one of the trillion motels just outside of town.

Billy organized our crew. A friend of his was heading out on tour with a new band and a big group of guys was going to make sure that we celebrated one more time before he disappeared onto the road, and into whatever life awaited him once he was out there.

Billy in summer is thin as grass and stands a little taller in the warm weather. Of course, we're all a few inches shorter in those Chicago winters, hunched over and pissed off, leaving the house only for whisky. In summer, folks pour into town and the city becomes a kind of throbbing heart. The lake a blue jewel. The harbors fat with boats and frat parties.

By August, we finally wanted to escape somewhere. The problem is that, though Chicago in summer swells with with street festivals and out-of-town visitors, the hinterlands become no more majestic. If you're into the stark beauty of vast flat expanses carved by glaciers, then the country around Chicago is really a playground of wonders. But otherwise, unless you want to get seven hours away by car (or fly somewhere, which, back then, who could afford it), the pickings were pretty slim.

Hence: the Wisconsin River. A night in Madison -- a college town drained of its population in summer and always good for a beer-drenched sloppy evening -- followed by a few days floating down one of the most pleasant slices of slow-moving water in this great land of ours. Or if not one of the most pleasant, then at least one of the closest to Chicago.

Billy called (he always called, never texted or emailed) and told me "I have a plan for a Wisconsin weekend." Which to me sounded just fine. Sign me up. Whatever. But Billy had bigger ideas about what we could accomplish for Vernon's last weekend as part of our little group of Chicago friends. Bonfires and hallucinogens, stringed instruments and whiskey and elaborate tents. It would be, not just a send off, but a SEND OFF.