November 29th, 2009 - The Ashland Zone

After returning from my hometown of Ashland, Wisconsin, where my wife Sharon, dog Happy and I spent Thanksgiving with my mom, I was struck by the town's ability to consistently come up with surreal imagery, both natural and man-made.
Lying just forty miles from Michigan's 'upper-peninsula', and just sixty miles from the moderately-sized Minnesota port city of Duluth, Ashland has always been a crossroads.
It is a Lake Superior bay town itself, having once maintained seven ore-docks that loaded thousands of Great Lakes ships with raw material commodities such as iron ore, coal, lime, and timber.
At one time it sported a population of over 28,000 sailors, farmers, loggers, and railroaders, now whittled down to just over 8000 northern Wisconsinite families of the former sailors, farmers, loggers, and railroaders, along with college-students, resort traffic entrepreneurs, aging retirees, outdoor sport enthusiasts, and regular small-town folk.
There seems to be something here that brings out the surrealism in people. Maybe it's something about the long winters, or living next to the ionic field of one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, or the magnetic fields given off by the residual iron ore permeating the streets that makes people want to paint mini-murals on their garage doors and decorate their trees with Easter eggs. No one really knows for sure, or at least is afraid to ask.


Here's one of my mom's dried flower arrangements. This is only the slightest bit surreal, I really just liked the light.
The real surreality comes later, as one of our usual field trips with my mom this time of year always involves finding milkweed pods that have gone to seed by driving slowly down country roads, then hopping out of the car, fording drainage ditches and throwing as many as possible into the trunk of the Buick before we get shot, as it is in the middle of deer gun season and we don't have a stitch of blaze-orange clothing on. More surreal still is the ultimate goal: Bring them home, dry them out, and paint them with white and pastel enamels. This is what we do. We don't ask questions.


Of course there is also the City of Ashland, with it's myriad of questionable surreal decisions, such as building an expensive pedestrian tunnel to basically nowhere under the main street, and repaving all the sidewalks in a rural town of 8000 that no one uses except the mail carriers, and they generally skip the sidewalks and go house to house anyway.
Then you have the above park bench with the 'protective' but not well understood snow-fencing. Possibly handed down from the folks that put plastic on their living room furniture to protect it and then never take it off...?  Keeps the resale value high, we presume. Not that it would keep you from sitting on it, but it would make you conspicuous... Okay, we're moving up the surrealistic ladder now, I must admit.


Next, on the back of a garage facing the lake along the 'walking and snowmobile corridor' we begin to visit the domain of the self-styled the garage artists, with this rendering from 'VAN'. The rather forlorn sailor-cat waiting to go back to sea with his table of sunflowers, speaks to us on many levels, including, if not primarily, the surreal.
Below, the comedic (we think) representation of the unknowing property owner proudly polishing his car while a large red Cardinal waits on a telephone wire above, thinking the thought-balloon of "You are mine, all mine.." Um, gives one pause.

 Of course what surrealist art collection wouldn't be complete without surrealist food sculpture, and Ashland never disappoints in this media.
As we were packing up the car to leave, our long-time neighbor Cathy dropped by with some 'cute food' for my mom, which of course had us wondering if she will ever eat it, or perhaps varnish it and add it to the plethora of usual Thanksgiving decorations.

There was 'Tiny' the high-calorie mouse with his chocolate-cherry derrière, and Herseys-Kiss head, with sliced almond ears, of course.
As a companion piece there was the stunning high-calorie dessert turkey representation, with peanut butter chip feet, candy-corn head, bonbon torso, and dipped cookie tail fan.
Um, what more can I say. Words fail me.


Again, not to be outdone in the public works department, Ashland provides for the  "Considerate Pickup of Pet Feces"; the "Mutt Mitt" stations. Presumably for those ill-prepared to bring their own bags for the purpose of self-disposal of pet feces.
The 'Mutt-Mitt' itself is quite a piece of work. Think thick plastic mitten with 'splash-guard' cuff built-in for handing everything from Chihuahua to Great Dane sized 'materials'. I am a little disconcerted that it is called a "degradable" device, instead of "bio-degradable". Perhaps this is so you don't forget that the whole picking up of your pet's feces can be a bit degrading, especially if there is a breach of Mutt-Mitt integrity.

But, in case you are unfamiliar, instructions are provided to avoid mishaps:
Grab it, turn it (they are getting a little too close to the payload for my tastes in the diagram there), and TOSS, NOT DROP it into the proper receptacle. They left out the turning away of the head and facial expressions of disdain for foul smells, as a public service to you. It's hard to make out in the small image, but there are what look to be 'flames' coming off of little Scottie's dookie. Meanwhile he's wearing his "Get it while it's hot, Jonesy, I'm outta here" expression.
I also thought it subtle that they never mention the real fecal material by the harsh terms of the English language, referring to it only with the neuter pronoun "it."  "Grab it." You know what we mean.

Below we have an interesting graphic that I noticed at the Cenex station as we were gassing up to leave town. The buzzphrase under the gas pump handbill was something on the order of "The Cenex Card - Why not...?!"

Notice that the only person of the three having a great time riding down the hill on the back of shovel with the handle between her legs is the woman of the group. The men meanwhile are standing at the top of the hill waving, going, "Ha ha, see ya! Have a great ride...!" All the while wanting to cover their genitals as they watch her bounce down the hill, and taunting each other with "You go first, Bill...", "No no, you're older, you go first Bob, I've got a family to sire..."
I'm not at all sure what any of this has to do with a Cenex card, but I guess "Just Do It" was already taken.


Other surreal but somewhat more real-worldly objects that we came across on dog walks and the like included the 'Parade of Giant Rivets' along the top of the viaduct on Vaughn Avenue. Had I not grown up in a town with a viaduct, the probability is low that the word would be  so ingrained in my vocabulary that I would have been able to play it in a game of Scrabble last week. Score one for rural America. It's just another warping of the time and space that is Ashland. A viaduct rusts it's rivets in Ashland while a typhoon narrowly averts landfall in the Bahamas. We are all part of the wonderful chaos and uncertainty that stems from what we think we know as "physics." Psh.


This whale of a weather vane has graced this blog before, and it is still kicking. It seems to be slowly becoming Moby Dick, the White Whale, and looked to be pointing dead-north at the time of the photograph.
You pretty much have to have a garage in Ashland, as it is such an outlet for your creative expressions and ornamental bric-a-brac, that one would be out of place without it.

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, after successfully harvesting our fill of milkweed and goldenrod gauls for my mom to paint, I humored my passengers into scouring the countryside to find a place to photograph the sunset, which was shaping up to be a doozy.


After stopping by the cemetery to pay our respects to my deceased relatives, and after leaving with the melancholy feeling I usually get from the family cemetery, we ended up on a road that I don't think any of us, including my mom, had ever been on before.
This is strange as she has lived in this town her whole life, but there are country roads zig-zagging everywhere, and if you don't know anyone down that road, you may never end up on it.
Just as dusk began to fall, we came upon an old farmstead that was empty and for sale. It had the greatest old house, oak tree, and classic windmill across the road. I took a couple pics of the windmill and wish now that I had had more daylight to photograph the whole place, as I didn't have a tripod with me.
I loved the place and fantasized about living there on the drive back to mom's. Not sure what I'd do to pay the rent, but that doesn't matter in a fantasy of these proportions.
It was a cool place, and definitely surreal.



The topper though was the view from the White River Dam at sunset. This was one of those 'changing by the microsecond' times of the sunset, and it was dramatic. The sun was projecting this orange beam from below the horizon that persisted quite long after the sunset had faded, and also somewhat of an 'orange halo' or semi-circular ring through the clouds that you can just barely make out through the top of this photo.
As I jumped the guard rail and ran across the highway to find a solid object to put my camera on and start shooting, another car quickly pulled over and out jumped a couple with cameras in hand that quickly set up to take some photos as well.
I secretly hope that my stopping there was what inspired them to take the time to stop. It too, was a surreal moment.