I imagine there could be a great debate about it – which highway is the loneliest one on the planet.
But the contrast was striking that day, considering the way it started – awakened by incessant traffic sounds outside our hotel window as I lay staring up at a dimly lit ceiling. I was trying to listen for a pattern or rhythm in the blaring car horns in the world’s busiest city.
Hours later my wife, Wendy, and I found ourselves on what seemed to be the world’s loneliest of highways. It was a dead-straight stretch of road cutting through tag elders and cranberry bogs in Wood, Juneau, and Monroe counties in central Wisconsin. It was Wisconsin Highway 173.
Just six hours prior we were taking off from busy LaGuardia Airport on our return home from New York City. With the midtown-Manhattan skyline in the distance we lifted off, bound for Minneapolis to retrieve our car from our daughter’s home. Goodbye to the city that never sleeps. Goodbye to the tiny Malaysian restaurant with the out-of-this-world dumplings and Sake, a rice wine. Goodbye to art galleries both mainstream and quirky. Goodbye to speeding subway cars.
The flight was uneventful, almost enjoyable. Before we landed in Minneapolis several inches of snow had fallen. We had a little foreshadowing incident on the highway as our Lyft driver headed out for the 10-minute drive to retrieve our car. The fresh snow caused a nearby car to glide effortlessly about in a fashion similar to the elegance of a choreographed figure-skating routine. It crossed three lanes in an arcing fashion that seemed to be happening in slow motion. Our driver was calm and collected. Because of his skill we avoided a time-delaying fender-bender by inches.
But there was an uneasiness knowing we were heading back to Aniwa, Wisconsin, in less-than-ideal road conditions. We were in a bit of a fog after a long day of travel. I started driving but needed a break soon after we neared Menomonee, Wisconsin. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Wendy took over at the wheel; I fell asleep in the passenger seat.
It’s not possible to tell this story without revealing who missed the turn-off to head east on Wisconsin Highway 29. And I know it’s increasingly difficult to be lost on the roads with the widespread use of global-positioning systems. But for no particular reason we didn’t have it on. Let’s just assume Wendy didn’t want to wake me from my much-needed reprieve into dreamland. And let’s also acknowledge that a highway at dusk with fresh snow swirling about can be as disorienting as fetching the cows in the fog at 4 a.m.
Because I had made the decision to use Highway 173 to work our way to I-39 and get back on track, I took the wheel. Wisconsin Highway 173 runs with a bit of a diagonal southwest to northeast. It originates near Wyeville and ends in Nekoosa. From Valley Junction to Babcock it’s built on an old former main line of the Wisconsin Valley Railroad – later the Milwaukee Road. Because of that it’s dead straight.
We could see the taillights of a vehicle ahead. It soon became apparent those lights were a long way ahead of us. Once they disappeared over the curvature of the earth, that lonely feeling crept in. It was dark, 10 degrees below zero, and a swirling mist of snow snaked its way across the highway around us. Then the light went on indicating a tire with low air pressure. Then I noticed the fuel gauge flirting with the one-eighth line.
“Did we renew our AAA card?” I asked Wendy.
We were feeling small. The tag elders seemed to be reaching out from the edge of the highway. According to the nice GPS lady – we decided to re-connect with her – the next town was Babcock.
As we approached the tiny unincorporated town, I called my friend Les who farms near Rudolph. I needed to hear a human voice. His response was as I expected.
“You guys are in the middle of nowhere,” he informed me.
And “no, I don’t think so” he replied to my query, “you think there’s a gas station in Babcock?”
As we entered the little unincorporated census-designated place I was struck by it. It was tidy and nestled in for the winter. Were the homes all as white as they looked, or was it a combination of night-weary eyes and the wintriness of the scene? There was an Ocean-Spray Cranberry warehouse at the town’s edge.
And there is where I leave the story until next week. And by the way, Les was right. Babcock doesn’t have a gas station.
See you next week for part two of “Take a trip on the Loneliest Highway on Earth.”