Monday, November 16, 2009

COLUMN: Door County Pt. 1

I often sit back and wonder what it would be like to be a normal person with a normal life who does normal activities normally. How do you do it, normal people? I'd love to be one of you someday.

If normal people were to tell you stories of their normal lives, they might go something like, "Today, I went to the gas station. I pumped gas, I paid for it, and I left." I try to be one of the normal people. But why can I not have a normal activity without undue amounts of insanity and/or stress? My stories are more like, "Today I went to the gas station. That's when the ninjas attacked." What is it about myself and my luck that draws the abnormal into my daily planner like a magnet?

It all started with a normal dream. The girlfriend had been throwing some not-so-subtle reminders my way that, as a woefully underpaid education professional, she had a gaping hole in her work calendar named Columbus Day. So I took the day off to match hers and was faced with the "what-do-you-do-with -a-3-day-weekend" debacle. I love you, Quad Cities, I really do. But sometimes what I love the most is leaving you behind in a trail of dust and a quest for adventure. It was time for a road trip.

That's when I turned to the world's worst vacation planner ever: Google Maps. When you look at their website, the world is your oyster. Why? Because the whole world can fit compactly on a 26" computer monitor. And when you're looking at a 26" map of the continental United States, ANYTHING looks like a good and possible weekend drive. Texas? Look, it's only 2 inches away from Illinois. Ohio? We could be there in minutes, right? And that's when my eyes spotted it.

Door County, Wisconsin. One of the Top 10 Vacation Destinations in North America, their website proudly announces. And when I saw that Door County had been proclaimed a top fall foliage destination by none other than NBC's "Today" show, I knew I had my destination. (Because, when it comes to travel plans, the #1 mantra in everyone's head is clearly "WWMLD: What Would Matt Lauer Do?")

For the uninitiated, the Door Peninsula is the little part of northeastern Wisconsin that juts out into Lake Michigan like a finger, essentially creating Green Bay, the Packers, Vince Lombardi, and weird people who wear cheese on their heads. The Door Peninsula is known far and wide for its wineries, cherry orchards, and tree-laden state parks. And if you know anything about me, you know that the three things I live for are booze, fruit, and outdoor activities of any kind. Oh, wait, that's Bizarro Shane.

Still, I was down for seeing some pretty fall foliage -- and if Al Roker says it's pretty, then it's pretty, dang it. And two things kind of excited me about Door Peninsula.

For one, it boasts the most lighthouses of any county in the United States. Now, I've never been super keen on lighthouses. At least I don't think I am. They're kind of outmoded, right? Nobody needs a little light beacon to guide their vessel when you've got GPS and some shrill computer voice in a British accent telling you, "Rock ahead. Turn left in one - point - five miles. Recalculating!" And I've never really thought that lighthouses were particularly pretty or anything. Yet every time I go on vacation anywhere near a body of water, I come home with about 18 photos of every lighthouse I pass. It's sort of inexplicable, really. Maybe I don't fancy lighthouses, maybe I just like taking photos of 'em. I made sure to pack the camera.

For another, I had talked to some of my co-workers about the trip, and before I could say, "We're going to Door Co--," those who had been all started shrieking "FISH BOILS!"

At first, I was assuming they were placing a pox on my family. But, as it turns out, fish boils are the culinary rage of Door County. And since it immediately sounded completely disgusting, of course I was fascinated. After doing some intense research, here is, apparantly, how one properly performs a legendary Door County fish boil:

Step One: Catch some fish.
Step Two: Boil them.

Enthralling, right? But wait, there's more. I know because I watched a video of it on Youtube. First off, in order to boil fish, you first need to look like a grizzled old fisherman with worn-out suspenders and the craziest set of sideburns you can muster. Then you need to find the scariest-looking kettle in the history of the world - think Shakespearean witches but with the added bonus crust of 1000 fish boils of yore. You toss in a pile of whitefish, a pile of potatoes, and a pile of onions. Garnish with - I kid you not - a HALF POUND OF SALT.

Bring to a boil. This is done by placing the kettle o' fish 'n' brine over a campfire. But, since that's kinda boring and all, the "boilmasters" (yes, that's what they're called) decide to liven things up by dumping what appears to be a gallon or two of kerosene onto the fire. This creates an immediate and raging vertical bonfire that alerts the tenants of the International Space Station that soup's on in Door County. Actually, the salt changes the specific gravity of the water, causing the fish oils to rise to the top of the kettle, and the kerosene causes the oils to boil over the side (and you thought I didn't actually DO any research, right?) What you're left with is heaven, if your idea of heaven is boiled fish and taters. I needed to try this.

So that was my mindset when I booked the trip, and that was my mindset last weekend when we left for northern Wisconsin. On the record-setting coldest day of October. In the snow. To a town 6.5 hours away and further north than Toronto. Using all county highways (thanks, Mapquest.) Just your average normal person vacation, right?

Normalcy, thy name is NOT Shane. If you'd care to learn more about how we spent a weekend traversing Door County with flatulent back-alley killer horses and strangers inquiring about our current inventories of cocaine and feminine hygiene products, then join me here next week. You'll discover the answers to such pressing questions as: "How dead can a badger get?" and "How many cherries can the human body safely intake in one setting?" Needless to say, we made it up and down Door County without seeing one lighthouse or a single boiled fish. Stay tuned.

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