Just another cheesehead in Colby
If you haven’t seen Colby, Wis., lately, you are not in for any real surprises.The tiny town in the center of the world that God bequeathed to the meek doesn’t appear to have changed much since the last time I saw it 27 years ago. The occasion for my return to the place that I spent two weeks of every childhood summer in was a family reunion on my mother’s side.At Milwaukee, in the airport terminal, I run into a woman who used to be a girl I went to college with. Later in Fon du Lac we are checked into a hotel by the niece of a friend from Aspen. What are the chances of these wandering paths crossing? Well, they’re pretty darn good. Stuff like this happens all the time. The world is wide, but the checkpoints that we all pass through are not.The first thing anyone formerly familiar with a town wants to do upon his return is drive down Main Street to see if any memories of it are based in reality. In my case, they were. Nearly every brick in every building appeared unchanged. Whoever owns downtown Colby has kept everything in good repair, but they haven’t replaced a thing that wasn’t paid for with petty cash.Historic preservation is alive and well in this humble part of the world. It’s a combination of economics and common sense. There is no reason to tear down a perfectly good building here; Colbian greedheads simply repair them and spend the savings on motorcycles, snowmobiles, and bigger Winnebagos. Oddly, the same considerations cause Aspenites to level and replace their structures. Property values are such in Colby that it doesn’t make any sense to put money into improvements. Property values in Aspen are so high that it doesn’t make sense not to. Maximizing value is the common goal.One thing that had changed markedly was a rule, the nonexistence of which, way back when, is now dear to my memories. It is now forbidden to reach into the vat at the cheese factory to fish out a handful of fresh curds to eat on the spot. In fact, it is now against protocol to even enter into the workings of the place. I contented myself with a bag of them from the gift shop.While munching on curds and strolling, it is a pleasant surprise to see the town setting up for its annual summer celebration, Colby Cheese Days. It was going on the last time I was here. If it weren’t for the unsustainable level of newborn excitement, I might surmise that the carnival never left. The rides are old, touched up by paint in thick, glistening layers. The creaky beasts of motion, battered and velveted with grease at their joints, surely have been in existence longer than I. It made me hungry for such sustenance, so I had a bratwurst.It’s no great prophecy to guess that the lines will be long for The Zipper, an awful contraption that, for three dollars worth of tickets, will loudly fling, zing, and whirl perfectly suspecting customers upside down, three different ways. It will draw the crowd, not because it is particularly fun, but because it’s new. Apparently the traveling carnival business is competitive. The familiar can only placate the familiars for so long. Good or bad, change is sought, if only to satisfy curiosity.It takes no time at all for the panoply of fun to rise against the incessant everyday world. It is erected on its own plot of City(?) Park that is has owned this weekend every year in memory. As a boy I enjoyed the carnival rides, tractor pulls, softball tournament, rigged games for dusty prizes, and the unique clique of humanity that gathers for events such as this and rock concerts. Where do these people go on Monday? I’m sure it’s the same places I go; we just don’t recognize each other in our costumes.We head out to dinner on a lake so that the colored lights and the eerie carnival atmosphere will be glowing at their peaks when we come back to burn money in earnest. Within a half hour we are at a restaurant on a hill overlooking the water, the same as it has for Friday night fish-frys probably since crappie first hit the pan. We begin with no-fiber food that you can’t stop eating. It’s curds again, this time fried! We wash it down with local beer from a hundred-year-old micro brewery. Yuppies, hell!On Saturday afternoon we pilgrimage to the old ice cream shop. There are two new flavors added since 1980 – cookie dough and cookies ‘n’ cream. I am happy to report that prices were raised only slightly with fat content and serving size not tampered with in the least.My brother in-law, John, and I lean against a bench to enjoy this decadence of rural pride. We laugh ironically at the effects that dairy diets wreak on the untrained digestive tract. My wife overhears us and points to the ancient sign in the parking lot. It’s a giant ice cream cone sturdily propped up by two large cheese wedges, wide side down. “Its artist,” she says. “understood your problem.”Sunday at my cousin’s house is a stew of everything I remember about my summer vacations. It’s a day of lawn games, rowing around the pond, and chasing kids through the woods. It’s their dream home, humble in size and distant from modernity. Like us, their ideal is to maximize space. Unlike us, in Aspen, Colorado, they place a higher value on the property they don’t build a roof over.I sit in the garage with Lance, a cousin-in-law who is really just a cousin with uncommon DNA, and look out across the neighboring farm. He tells me all about it – good folks, it’s hard for the family farm to stay afloat amidst the large corporate operations, the Mrs. takes an outside job to help out financially.I can’t imagine why anyone would sacrifice so much to work so hard for so little financial gain.”They do it for the lifestyle,” Lance tells me. “They can’t imagine doing anything else.” The acceptance of trade-offs for this bucolic existence are as obvious to him as they are to me in a way of life associated with snow-covered mountains. I had been too myopic in vision to consider that there were desirable paths to happiness in places forgotten by me.Roger Marolt continues to chew the fat at email@example.com.
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