Gills Rock

I was once an inspector for AAA. My job was to inspect and rate hotels, restaurants, campgrounds and attractions for this iconic American institution.

I truly enjoyed working for AAA. The work took me places I never dreamed I would see, and explore, when I was a child growing up in the Deep South. About the farthest we would venture from home, back in the fifties and sixties, was the Gulf of Mexico. Our destinations tended to be either Pensacola, Florida or Gulf Shores, Alabama.

There was the one occasion, though, that we made our way west. Across Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas we crept and crawled in our Plymouth Belvedere, tail fins and all. It certainly felt like creeping and crawling to an active five-year-old. But we did stop in San Antonio to visit the Alamo. This was a grand treat to one who’s imagination was filled with thoughts of Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. And yes! I was gifted with an authentic replica coonskin cap which I wore proudly for many weeks to follow.

But back to the sugary white sands of Lower Alabama and the panhandle of Florida.

Whenever we were lucky enough to go on one of these short trips, usually one or two nights, we would never make plans or secure motel reservations. We piled into the car and headed south. When we reached our destination we would slowly cruise by the little ‘mom and pop’ motor courts and look for a decent enough looking place with a swimming pool. A pool was a requirement. When one returned to the room form the salty waters of the Gulf, there had to be a fresh water oasis we could enjoy before bathing and eating dinner.

How did one know if the establishment were decent?

On one such excursion we were all craning our necks at the places that dotted the shores of this paradise as we made our way past them. My father slowed down considerably as we approached one neatly-manicured inn. He almost came to a complete stop, pointed at an emblem that hung from the motel’s flashing neon sign, and asked, “Do you see that?” My eyes now fixated on the three large A’s and the word APPROVED. “You can trust that place. It’s triple A approved.” And from that day to this, I, for the most part, continue to agree with daddy.

Triple A approved. That is how I found myself in Gills Rock, Wisconsin. Gills Rock is located in Door County. Counties are important to we Southerners and I was taken by the close knit community that is Door County. There were no hotel or fast food chains here, except in Sturgeon Bay, which serves as the southern gateway to the county. It also serves as the county seat of this peninsula.

The Door County Maritime Museum was located in Sturgeon Bay. I had to visit the museum for possible inclusion in the AAA TourBook. The most notable feature, in the opinion of this nautical novice, is the Edmund Fitzgerald exhibit. The ship had a number of layovers in Sturgeon Bay during the winter months. Two of those who perished, when the Fitzgerald sank, were Sturgeon Bay natives.

Now Gills Rock, an unincorporated community, is situated at the northern point of the peninsula and has long been a commercial fishing outpost. Scuba divers also enjoy exploring shipwrecks at Death’s Door, the narrow straight which connects Green Bay to Lake Michigan. I had no desire to scuba dive at Death’s Door but I was intrigued by the opportunity to do some charter fishing for salmon.

My room had a television but no cable. Its reception relied on ‘rabbit ears’ which protruded from the top of the nineteen inch, faux wood box. There was no phone in the room but there was a phone booth outside in the parking lot of the motel, The Shoreline Resort.

The owners of Shoreline also operated a restaurant and bar which was downstairs from my second floor room and observation deck. It was quite good. The chefs and servers were students from a culinary institute. They were both eager and adept. It was great to have such a place mere footsteps from my front door.

I spent a portion of each evening at the bar where one could also get food service.

One night, after a long day of inspections, typing reports, and following my daily walk, I ambled down to the bar. I pulled up a stool, situated myself, and greeted the fellow patrons on each side of me.

The gentleman on my right, already well-lubed, inquired in a voice that was a tad more loud than what one would consider a normal tone, “So where are you from?” I indicated that I hailed from the home of country music, Nashville. “So, are you enjoying Wisconsin?” “You betcha!” I replied in my best impression of the phrase I picked up from the movie ‘Fargo’, which had been released a couple of years earlier. He roared with laughter and repeated the phrase.

Mary, both barmaid and co-proprietor of Shoreline, with her husband Jim, smiled as she poured my Leinenkugel from the tap. I recognized the jazz tune, be-bopping from the Bose speakers in the corners of the room, as one of Charlie Parker’s. Julie placed a ‘Leiney’ coaster in front of me and then the foamy mug of brew on top of it.

Mary was approaching middle age. Her dark brown hair was bobbed and her eyes were almost the color of her hair. Her smile was warm and unpretentious. She was a beauty. She exuded a humble, yet confident, air.

“Is that Charlie Parker?” I asked her. “Yes,” she answered, and her expression indicated that she was pleased, but not overly surprised at my possible recognition of Bird’s work. “I just got this a few days ago and I really like it,”she then handed me the mini-box in which the discs were packaged. ‘Yardbird Suite: The Complete Charlie Parker.’ “I’ve got that too!” I confessed.

And off she went, to the dining room, with a tray which supported four cocktails, vodka tonics.

At about that time, Peter, one of the student servers, was making a beeline to the rectangular beer chest to grab some bottled beverages. “Nice work,” I chimed in as I nodded at the tattoo on his right forearm.  It was a coyote which was howling at a bright yellow moon and stars, set against an indigo sky.

“Thanks! How about you? Any ink?” I rolled up my right t-shirt sleeve and revealed an interlocking AU, which is the logo my beloved Auburn Tigers. “Nice colors! How long have you had that?” Pater continued. “About a year,” I answered.

The Squirrel Nut Zippers then replaced Charlie Parker’s set and, seemingly, bounced out of the speaker system. I knew who they were only because Peter had shared that with me three days prior.

My food arrived. Baked salmon with parmesan herb crust, and fresh out of Green Bay. I smiled as the aroma titillated my olfactory senses. The fish was complemented by garlic mashed potatoes and a glass of Bogle Petite Syrah.

When the delicious meal had been consumed I asked Mary if I could get a Makers on the rocks to take back to my room. “Absolutely!” she cheerily replied.

I paid, tipped generously, took my bourbon, and headed upstairs to my room.

Now sitting on the back deck of my simple but contemporary style room in Gills Rock, Wisconsin, I could see the point where Green Bay meets Lake Michigan. A flock of Canadian geese, in formation, honked their way across the now dusky sky. I dipped the tip my Dominican cigar into the glass which was one-third filled with Makers Mark.

The words to Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’ came to mind and I began to softly sing them as tears filled my eyes.

“Blue, blue windows behind the stars,
Yellow moon on the rise,
Big birds flying across the sky,
Throwing shadows on our eyes.
Leave us

Helpless, helpless, helpless
Baby can you hear me now?
The chains are locked
and tied across the door,
Baby, sing with me somehow.”

How I wished that this were possible, but she was fourteen hours away and nestled with our children in the lush green hills of northern Tennessee. In a cabin on a tobacco farm which was replete with livestock, we now made our home. It really wasn’t “our” home as we had rented it from a farmer who had been cajoled, by his wife, into purchasing a large, white, two-story home in a nearby subdivision. It was a bedroom community of Nashville which was a mere twenty-five minute drive from this haven in Sumner County.

My thoughts then turned to the mournful lyrics of Hank Williams’ ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.’

“Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is winding low
I’m so lonesome I could cry

I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind the clouds
To hide its face and cry

Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves began to die?
Like me, he lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry.”

And I did.

The tears began to trickle and then pour down my cheeks. I missed her. I missed them. I longed for our home in Tennessee.

I ground out the remainder of my Dominican stogie, wiped my eyes, and went back inside my quaint, but newly refurbished room at this AAA Approved lodging.

I was now completing week four of a five week stint here in an idyllic getaway for many who flee the suburbs and bustle of Chicago and Milwaukee. Weeks one and two had found me in Green Bay. It was there where I ate fish on Friday. “How’s the perch?” queried one elderly female patron. “Fine,” I replied, although it was a bit dry and not so flavorful.

Green Bay was great. I visited Lambeau Field, drank German beer, and dutifully performed the task that had brought me here.IMG_2765

The Packers were my favorite pro football team when I began to follow sports back in the early sixties. I liked the Packers because they won. Their quarterback, Bart Starr, was from Montgomery, AL near where I was born and raised. Starr played Sidney Lanier High School and, later, the University of Alabama.

Some of the other standouts, on those Packer teams, coached by the great Vince Lombardi, were Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Forrest Gregg and Max McGee.

On my first Saturday night in Green Bay I wound up at the Iron Horse Saloon. But first, Friday night’s proceedings.

I spent the previous night at the Grizzly Rose Saloon. It was enjoyable enough but was too ‘Urban Cowboy/Line Dancing’ and not a classic honky tonk, which I strongly prefer.

I was observing the evening’s said proceedings, at the Rose, when I glanced up from my seat at the massive surround style, polished wood bar, and in through the door strolled a gentleman by himself and scouring the cavernous facility for a spot on which to land. There was an open stool next to me and I knew, somehow, he would make his way to it. He did. We exchanged informalities and began to chat.

I don’t remember his name, I carried it and his phone number in my wallet for months, but I can almost see him now. He was a slight fellow with a scraggly mustache and dark brown hair. He wore a faded yellow Peterbilt cap, worn jeans and work boots. He had just come in off the road having ridden shotgun with a friend of his who was an over-the-road truck driver. Their trip had taken them across the country and back.

As our conversation progressed, it came to light that he had been through Memphis on their return trip to Green Bay. I mentioned that I had also travelled through Memphis but had never stopped there. I was also about to take a territory of my own and it would encompass Memphis, as well as the western portions of Tennessee, Kentucky, and southern Missouri. The entire state of Arkansas would also be included in the territory.

We spoke of Elvis, Sun Records and the Mississippi River before our conversation turned to country music. Now we’re getting somewhere. Our tastes were very similar. We shared a passion for traditional country music and neither of us were keen to the’Boot Scoot Boogi’ and the like. For us it was Haggard and Jones, moans and groans, and not the slick-sliced, overproduced pap that Nashville continues to churn out to this day.

We then began to formulate an idea of the type of honky tonk we’d like to open. BEER was the name we came up with for our place. Just one word… BEER. It would also have a banner strung across the intimate room which would read ‘No Line Dancing’. BEER would harbor the  world’s finest country jukebox. Hell, we were open-minded sorts. The carefully chosen house band would be allowed to perform both kinds of music, country AND western. Who doesn’t like Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers and Riders in the Sky?

True to her name, only beer would be served. Tap, bottle or can! If you wanted whiskey, I would keep my private stash in the office or you could leave it in your car and get a snort or two between sets. No wine! Beer damnit!

Dreams huh? And those that are formed and fueled by alcohol and a mutual love of twin fiddles and a steel guitar.  It was a good Friday night to commiserate with a newly made friend about the sad state of country music. Nothing has changed to this day. The decline continues. RIP Hank Williams. We miss you, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty and Waylon Jennings. Who’s gonna fill your shoes?

“I feel tears wellin’ up cold and deep inside like my heart’s sprung a big break. And the stab of loneliness, sharp and painful that I may never shake. You might say I was takin’ it hard when she wrote me off with a call, but don’t you wager that’ll hide the sorrow when I might break right down and bawl.”

The house band, at the aforementioned Iron Horse Saloon, opened with one of my favorite old Jones tunes on what was a rather pleasant Saturday night in the land of the Packers. Well slap the dog and spit in the fire! We got ourselves some COUNTRY music! And off we went! Yep, the race is ON!

I was so happy to have found some ‘real’ country music in a setting to my liking, nothing against the Grizzly Rose, that I was pickled tink. Well, maybe that’s how the beer would describe my elation. One set led to another and then to another break. I became so engrossed in the music that I had almost failed completely to absorb my surroundings. I downed my last swallow of Bud, climbed off barstool mountain, and took in the scenery. Bikers! That was it, about thirty or forty bikers and ME!

I had never before, but have several times since, found myself in the company of so many leather and bandana clad Americans. I was, initially, taken aback but soon found that there was no need for alarm. It’s all good. Yes, it was.

The Iron Horse, duh! think about the name for a minute, was not a place where a bunch of weekend warriors happened to show  up one Saturday night. It was a bar for bikers. Owned and operated by bikers. Well, me and my new found Harley hound friends had a big old time. There were no brows furrowed with suspicion or furtive glances. Just slaps on the back and the occasional bursts of laughter.

As midnight rang in Sunday, I turned it over to the rice-burnerless regular patrons of Green Bay’s finest bastion of country music.

There were no such establishments in Door County but there was a restaurant and lounge in Egg Harbor, just a few short miles from Gills Rock, which had come recommended by a couple of the locals.

But before plowing into an evening with a more upscale crowd in Egg Harbor, WI, something needs to be said about one of the neighboring communities more interesting features. It’s Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik in Sister Bay, WI.

Al Johnson’s is famous for its ‘goats on the roof’. Yes, there are real live goats who graze on the restaurant and butik’s sod roof. Lucky for me, when I passed through Sister Bay, that it was August because the goats are NOT on the roof in winter.

I have seen a good many odd or quirky sights growing up in Lower Alabama, but never anything like goats on the roof. I have chased goats. I have eaten goat meat, mostly in the form of an Indian curry, but I had never, before or since, observed goats grazing on a rooftop.

I didn’t eat or shop at Al Johnson’s either. Maybe I should have. Surely they don’t… NO!

Back to the eatery in Egg Harbor. I do not recall its name and I do not remember what I ate there, but I do recall its jukebox. This jukebox was, absolutely, loaded with tunes of Nashville’s finest!

After I secured my position at the bar, in the lounge of the restaurant, I ambled over to this jukebox to select the tuneage for my time there. The bartender asked if I needed any change. I replied in the negative, whipped out an Abe Lincoln and fed him to the music machine. George Jones, John Anderson, Willie Nelson and more were chosen to serenade me and anyone else who might wander in here over the course of the next couple of hours.

There was a father and son sitting a few stools down from me, and after about six or eight songs, the eldest questioned aloud, to no one in particular, “My god! Who played all this sad stuff?” I immediately fessed up in the affirmative.

I love my ballads. Or as Jones himself would describe them, “Slow, slobbing tear jerkers.”

We struck up a conversation and the father wound up inviting me to go out on his boat with him and family the following day. I don’t know if that was just bar talk but I did appreciate the invite. I politely declined as I had other plans on the docket. I was going salmon fishing.

Yes, that salmon fishing that piqued my interest developed into a reality. My reservation was set and it was off to Lake Michigan, on that beautiful Saturday afternoon, in quest of fishes.

As I would come to understand, there is not a lot of “fishing” that goes on in trying to land salmon. Back in Lower Alabama we used to actually cast with a rod and reel or just plunked a cane pole into whatever body of water we found ourselves.

When one salmon fishes, by charter at least, the host or guide takes care of everything and mounts the rod and reel on the back of his boat. The fishing, for his guests, consists on watching the rod and line of one’s setup. If you get a hit then the rod will bend and the IMG_2762bobber will plunge underwater.

There were four of us on this excursion into the Great Lake; the host, a young married couple and moi. The wife of the married folks caught the first salmon. It was a decent sized fish. There were not a great many hits that afternoon but eventually I got a good one and began to grapple with my salmon. These guys put up a pretty good fight. I hooked him, released the lock on the rod and the salmon took off. I would reel a bit and then let him run some more. I finally got him into the boat, after about a four or five minute struggle, and our captain netted him.

This was great fun. But those two fish were the only ones we kept. There were a handful of misses and a couple of false alarms. My salmon weighed about fifteen pounds. I was proud. Pictures were taken by the couple who remembered their camera. I had left mine behind in my room.

Now, it was getting late, sunset was fast approaching and oh captain, our captain, moved to crank the boat. It didn’t start. After several more failed attempts at cranking, he realized, as did we, that our vessel was not crankable. And the diagnosis? A dead battery. So here we are, a good ways out on Lake Michigan, with our salmon all dressed up with no place to go.

Ahab called the coast guard, to come jump us off, and the wait began.

Darkness descended upon us, as did hunger. It was only thirty or forty minutes before the Coast Guard arrived but it seemed like an eternity. Then there was the business of getting us going. That didn’t happen. We were towed back to safety in the harbor at Gills Rock. It was now around 9 PM. I let the couple have my salmon, as they planned to cook them, and proceeded to make haste to the inn for some sustenance.

There was a restaurant, nearby, that I had intended to evaluate that Saturday night. I called them and they said they would be open until 10 o’clock. I made it over there a few minutes before the kitchen closed and was fed. I didn’t opt for salmon. I had enough of that for the day. Something for land lovers was more to my liking.

All’s well that ends well.

Then it was a stop by a convenience store for beverages and back to my room and the nineteen inch telly with the protruding rabbit ears. I could only pick up one channel clearly enough to be watched. So there it was… me, Dennis Quaid, Jessica Lange and John Goodman all enmeshed in ‘Everybody’s All-American’. The thinly-veiled story of the great Billy Cannon, his time with the LSU Tigers, and the entirety of his life.

Hold that Tiger!

“Well I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that it did not hurt…” Not true, but it makes a good segway.

What does one occupy himself with on a Sunday in Door County Wisconsin? I had my fill of fishing. I had been to the Maritime Museum. So, it’s off to Sturgeon Bay for a couple of hours at the cinema and then, maybe, a small sack of cheese curds.

You might ask, “Just what is a cheese curd?” Well, as you may know, Wisconsinites are fond of their cheese, as am I. Packer fans are affectionately known as ‘cheeseheads’. You’ve seen them in those silly cheese wedge hats they wear to  Green Bay games.

But the curd!

From our dear old Wikipedia:

“Cheese curds in cuisine, or cooking, are the solid parts of soured milk either eaten alone or used in various regional dishes, mostly in eastern Canada and the northeastern and midwestern United States. They are sometimes referred to as ‘squeaky cheese’.

Cheese curds start off with fresh milk. The milk is pasteurized, much like in the process of creating cheese. During this process, rennet is added to clot the milk. After the milk has been pasteurized, the result is a mixture of whey and the early stages of the curd. This mixture is then cooked. Next, it is pressed to release the whey from the curd, thus creating the final product of cheese curd.

Their flavor is mild, but can differ in taste depending on the process in which it was made. It has about the same firmness as cheese, but with a springy or rubbery texture. Fresh curds squeak against the teeth when bitten into, a defining characteristic due to air trapped inside the porous material. This “squeak” has been described by the New York Times as sounding like “balloons trying to neck”. After 12 hours, even under refrigeration, cheese curds lose much of their “fresh” characteristic, particularly the “squeak”. Keeping them at room temperature can preserve the squeakiness.

The curds have a mild flavor and are sometimes somewhat salty. Most varieties, as in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Vermont, or New York State, are naturally uncolored. The American variety is usually yellow or orange, like most American Cheddar cheese, but it does not require the artificial coloring.

Fresh cheese curds are often eaten as a snack, finger food or an appetizer. They may be served alone, dressed with an additional flavor, or with another food, such as a small smoked sausage or piece of cured pork, with the elements skewered together on a toothpick. Examples of flavorings applied to fresh curds include jalapeño chili peppers, garlic, various herbs, or spice blends such as Cajun seasoning, with garlic and dill on cheddar curds being a popular combination.”

There you have it, folks! All you ever wanted to know about cheese curds… and MORE!

Well… all good things must come to an end. I did may fifth and final week in Wisconsin and it was back to 1025 Brinkley Branch Rd. in the beautiful hills of northern Tennessee.

I made one final stop at a house of cheese and then it was down the eastern coastline of Wisconsin to Manitowoc. I spent the night there at a Super 8 Motel. I would traverse the remainder of the drive on Sunday, all told about twelve hours.IMG_2764.jpg

I couldn’t wait to see Miss LeCroy, Luke, Leah and Misie (our Bichon Frise)!

Wisconsin was great! But, “There’s no place like home.”