I approached and passed the half way point of this incredible seven week adventure in Madison, Wisconsin. The Midwest proved to be the perfect place to rest, recuperate and gather my resolve for the second half of the journey. For me, the Midwest has always been the comfortable old sweater of America. It’s so like Northern Ireland; so well-churched, so farm-based, so small-town-thinking, it’s nothing short of a home away from home for the travelling Ulster woman. After four full weeks on the road it’s impossible to explain how deeply comforting it was to slip into a familiar way of living and feel like I actually spoke the local cultural lingo, (albeit pronounced, in these parts, with a little more nasal intonation than I’m used to).
Familiarity begins with food. There is a lot of cheese here. The locals are almost as passionate about cheddar as the good folks of Coleraine. Wisconsin runs on cheese and, after less than twenty four hours in town, I found myself in the cheesy heart of America at the annual Monroe Cheese Festival and Parade. I thought we did parades in Northern Ireland. I now stand corrected. Perhaps if we could get over our political differences, instead of shouty parades and disputes over traditional routes we could unite both sides of the Northern Irish divide and have one grand parade celebrating something we actually agree on, like cheese for example, or potato bread. We could, like Monroe, invite every small business, every school, church, charity and affiliated organisation to march round town for up to four hours doing back flips and throwing Tootsie Rolls at the expectant crowds who’ve lined the streets on deck chairs and fishing stools. Monroe, should be offered as an example to all parade-plagued towns, of how marching should actually be done. Over the course of a single weekend each year almost half a million cheese obsessives descend upon this small town in rural, Wisconsin. They eat every variety of cheese known to man and a fair few peculiarities known only to die hard Midwestern cheesemongers: chocolate dipped cheese, garlic bread cheese and cheese curds which are these strange little nuggets of rubbery leftover cheese which squeak with pleasure every time you sink your teeth in. They cheer the bands, drink beer and, at the end of the weekend, return to their towns and villages, happy, peaceful and so full of cheese they’ll be constipated for at least a week. Surely this is the future of parading.
Familiarity also extends to people and it was such a treat and blessing to spend some quality time with Noah, Katie, Hudson, (who has recently grown into his wonderful Wisconsin accent) and little Charlie whom I’d never met before. Hospitality has been the thread sewing this whole trip together and i’ve been overwhelmed by how old friends and new friends have generously opened up their lives to share their homes, friends and time with me on my travels. Hudson even shared his bunk bed and whilst he was somewhat concerned that i’d break it, I’m happy to report that I didn’t and actually managed to get a ton of writing completed whilst curled up on his bottom bunk. I also received an incredibly warm welcome at Mystery to Me, a fantastic book store, independently owned by a lovely lady called Joanne. Though the crowd was small, I think this might have been my favourite reading of the tour so far as Joanne’s warm hospitality encouraged people to linger after the reading swapping stories and book recommendations and it was great to actually meet some listeners. We’re so spoilt in Belfast to have No Alibis, (a book store which is much more than a book store to so many people), and it was fabulous to stumble upon another similar treasure in Madison.
I left Wisconsin, well rested on a Greyhound bus. This city has been exceptionally kind to me and I could have stayed so much longer. It was an uncharacteristically warm September and the corn fields were still golden as I pulled out of town, the leaves on the trees just beginning to fold into autumnal shades. I suspect this little part of the world would be absolutely stunning when it finally committed to Fall. I have every intention of returning to find out.