Friday, April 05, 2019

COLUMN: Aurora

Finally. With warmer temps and bluer skies, I can commence one of my favorite activities of springtime in the Quad Cities: leaving them.

I love the Quad Cities and all we represent. But there comes a time when one needs to head out in search of adventure, excitement, and life stories to pass down to future generations and/or fill 800 words in a weekly newspaper column. Spring has sprung, and aimless driving season has begun.

Of course, now that I'm  mature, grounded, and responsible, I can't just pick up and leave the Quad Cities on a whim. It takes a solid, rational reason.

Incoming text, Saturday 3/23: "Northern Lights supposedly visible tonight to the north. Wisconsin?"

That'll do.

Two hours later, with a carload of friends and a freshly selected playlist, we headed north. Because of journalism or something.

The Sun is our planet's life giver -- except when it tries to kill us, which is often. Occasionally, she gets mad and sends solar storms to bombard the Earth with charged particles. The good news is that we've got a natural defense system: our magnetic field, which causes them to dissipate in our atmosphere rather than shower us with radiation.

Best of all, the battlefront is super pretty to look at. The ionization from solar storms throws brilliant waves of color into the night sky at our poles. The aurora borealis (aka the Northern Lights) is a spectacle few people this side of Santa's Workshop get to see firsthand -- but every once in a while, the sun spits out a blast of radiation called a coronal mass ejection that allows the aurora effect to be seen in lower latitudes.

In 1992, a buddy and I were driving home from a late-night DJ gig in Cedar Rapids. Just when we were precisely in the middle of nowhere, we blew a tire. Instead of helping, I stood guard, transfixed NOT by automotive maintenance but instead by the green lights dancing in the sky to the north. It was incredibly random, incredibly beautiful, and incredibly annoying because it was 3 a.m. and we were tired and cold.

This time would be different. Early last week, scientists recorded a mass ejection capable of lighting up auroras all the way to Wisconsin. After a grueling three hour drive of laughs, music, and fun, we finally laid eyes on it.

And by "it," I mean nothing. This time WAS different, because this time there was no aurora whatsoever. I saw some street lights, and by definition they were to the north, but those weren't exactly the northern lights I had in mind. As it turned out, the sun pitched a curve ball and we avoided a direct hit. It's probably the only time I will ever go, "Aw, darn, I wish I was being bombarded by radiation right now."

Instead, we tried to make the best of Wisconsin After Dark. Once upon an aimless drive, I stumbled upon a Wisconsin eatery that had the best brisket sandwich of all time ever. I just couldn't remember the name of the town OR restaurant, but after 20 minutes of hunting for cell signals and Yelp reviews, we found it. A thirty minute drive and a forty minute table wait later, my mouth was reunited with the brisket of my dreams. I'm not one to dole out free advertising, but if you're ever in the town of Monroe, Wisconsin, make a beeline for Pancho & Lefty's. Give the brisket my regards, should there be any left that I didn't eat.

After that, there was nothing left to do but enjoy some sight-seeing in central Wisconsin, which is a good pastime when it's NOT midnight. But darkness never stopped us before, and that's when we took a fateful exit in the town of Verona. We were on an epic drive, so when you see an exit for Epic Drive, you HAVE to take it, right?

It turns out Epic Drive is actually the main drag into the campus of Epic Systems. They're the folks who design the medical coding software that 1 in 2 hospitals use. They are - how to say this politely? - exploding with money. And their massive headquarters is one or two Oompah-Loompahs shy of a Willy Wonka fantasy. There's a castle, a barn, a replica of King's Cross, and an alley that's a Harry Potter homage. There's a Star Wars hallway. Employees use slides instead of stairs. Toy soldiers and Humpty-Dumptys line the roads. It is equal parts amazing and ridiculous and makes me kinda want to be a computer programmer.

Of course, we couldn't see any of this because it was midnight. We could make out the dim outline of a castle followed by the dim outline of a barn and it's a wonder we didn't see the dim outline of an angry security guard wondering why a carload of weirdos were marveling at shadows.

After finding our way out (left at the wizard statue, right at the treehouse,) I looked up and collapsed with laughter. My friends looked at me like maybe I'd spent TOO much time in an Epic wonderland, but I just pointed at the road sign. There we were, 12:40 a.m., cruising down Northern Lights Boulevard. Mission accomplished.

We made it home by -- well, I don't know. Time had lost all meaning by that point. We missed the northern lights, but it was what I needed to get the aimless driving bug out of my system -- for about two days. Now I want to go back during normal human hours and witness more of Wisconsin's finery. After all, there's an International Mustard Museum still on my bucket list.

Happy spring, Quad Cities. Go enjoy it. There's an Epic world out there. 

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