Reflections from the Road, Pt. 2: Disc Golf, Breweries, Public Space, and More

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A while back I wrote a fun column called “Reflections from the Road” after a summer of nice trips to interesting places in the West, South, and Upper Midwest. I shared highlights from these locales and related them to life in this area, focusing on design and use of public spaces, recreation and connection to nature, and brewing.

After recently returning from a two-week road trip to one of the same destinations in the South and back home to Oshkosh via New Orleans, Missouri, and Iowa, I thought I would offer a few additional reflections.

Earlier this week I was able to play some disc golf at the 36-hole County Park in Oshkosh. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. The numerous and extensive patches of wild flowers through which the course weaves were in full bloom and the gold finches and scores of other birds were clearly enjoying it, and it was great way for me to start my day. I didn’t even lose a disc, which was not true during my round earlier in the week, when I got my feet soaked searching for a Roc in long swamp grass, but I was having such a good time that I really didn’t mind.

I extolled the virtues of County Park in a piece last summer. We’re also fortunate to have an 18-hole course at Red Arrow Park, located along Sawyer Creek and adjacent to Pollock Pool and West High School. It features a fun hole that tees off from the top of garbage hill, a unique claim to fame. No serious disc golfer would rate these courses as excellent in relation to higher quality courses in the region or nation, but we shouldn’t take for granted the fact that we have any, let alone two. We’re at a physical disadvantage in Oshkosh with our lack of forested areas and very limited elevation changes, important factors in the disc golf world. But County Park does a great job working within its limitations, in my estimation, and Red Arrow offers plenty of challenge and fun as well (at least for this very marginal disc golfer).

Further, as alluded to, it’s all relative. On this recent trip to the South, we spent five nights at the beach, in July. People think we’re crazy for going to Florida in the summer, which we have done several times now, but we figure that it makes sense to stay next to the Gulf and a pool when it’s hot, so everyone is excited about swimming and relaxing in the sun and ocean breeze, which is kind of the whole point. Plus, we weren’t paying for the rental house, so there’s that.

In any case, I enjoy the beach life but wanted to get out and do something active and see something new, so I did some research and set up a little day trip for myself (I invited my wife and daughters but they had things like shopping and more swimming on their agenda for that day). Though I learned that Tallahassee has a couple excellent disc golf courses, the closest one I could find is at Under the Oaks park near Panama City, an hour and a half drive from St. George Island. That’s too far, particularly for a 9-hole course. But I decided to go anyway. I’m glad I did, because it is a fun little course, nestled, yes, under some very large oaks, pines, and other trees, and along the Inter-Coastal Water Way. I also had a lengthy conversation with a fellow disc golfer, who had made basically the same drive, from Apalachicola, just to play some disc. Among other things (he was really into disc golf) he said that he’d picked up disc golf up in the Midwest a decade or so earlier and raved about the number and quality of courses in this region of the country. Again, we shouldn’t take such things for granted and should try to build upon these assets in Oshkosh.

I then headed a bit northwest to try to find Pitt Spring Recreation Area, which seemed like it would be a cool (as in “neat”, but also as in cool, since both the pool and Gulf were like bath water much of the time due to the high-90s heat) place to take a dip. First, I had to find it. It might surprise you if you’ve not spent time in the Northwestern Florida panhandle, but inland from the beaches the area is largely forested. The Apalachicola National Forest is Florida’s largest, at 571,088 acres, and driving west towards Panama City one will see numerous bear crossing signs. My more immediate concern was getting through the sprawling hell of the Panama City area, but I’m happy to report that I made it, without rear-ending anyone or succumbing to road rage (not really a concern because one of my limited qualities is being a pretty mellow driver, but if there’s anything with potential to cause some simmering, if not boiling anger, it is sprawl-induced congestion–something we thankfully don’t have to worry much about in the Oshkosh area).

Being a flip phone user, I had directions to the place on my laptop, but when my laptop crashed and the gas station I found did not sell road maps, I had to reply upon verbal instructions from the one person there who knew where it was. After what seemed like too many minutes of driving through the forest and a u-turn, I made it to what I thought must be the place, in the Econfina Creek restoration area, with a storm on the horizon and no other humans in site. After a short walk through the trees, with no sounds other than the wind and the very loud and very cheerful chirping of birds, I found the spot, where a family was fishing for bluegills in the crystal clear water using only a small net.

Pitt Spring Recreation Area. Photo courtesy of Florida Springs

The air was much cooler than on the Gulf and the spring-fed water deliciously cold. Given the impending arrival of a torrential downpour and the fact that I had no one to swim with, I spent only a short time there and then drove back refreshed and ready for some seafood.

I can make a couple brief connections from Pitt Spring to life in this area. One is that with Lake Winnebago and the other waters of the Winnebago system likely being cleaner now than at any time during the post-World War II era, at least in the Oshkosh area, we could do more to encourage swimming in them. Having gone to the Menominee Park beach several times this summer, I have been happy with how clear the water has been and how much fun my girls and their friends have had. With more support from the public and additional investment in the facilities and upkeep of this area (e.g. there are still too many cigarette butts and too much trash left behind by people), we can make the beach  (and other swimming areas around here) the gem that it should be. Further, we do have a creek and woods area near Oshkosh that is a hidden gem, not as gorgeous as Pitt Spring perhaps, and without a natural swimming hole, but wonderful in its own way nonetheless. I’m referring to Waukau Creek Nature Preserve, a 64-acre park owned by Winnebago County that lies less than 14 miles west of Oshkosh and features one of the only free-flowing streams in our area, a nice patch of woods, and some of the best elevation changes in the county. We enjoy hiking there.

Waukau Creek. Credit: Paul Van Auken

Another new thing since our last trip to Northwestern Florida four years ago is a pretty sweet Tiki Bar on sleepy St. George Island. The structure of Doc Myers’ is basically a large bar surrounding by a sizable seating area and covered by a giant thatched roof. Only the kitchen and restrooms are found in a typical building, a small structure in the back, on the second floor. As I touched upon in my piece from 2013, the tiki bar is the thing that is perhaps missed the most about the Pioneer Inn, based upon what I’ve heard and read (it was already closed by the time we moved to Oshkosh). With all of the new and impending development on the South Side, it might not be too long before we have something like this again at the abandoned site. Something else worth mentioning is that when my wife and I hung out at Doc Myers’ we enjoyed a great band that was down from Tallahassee. All six members were black, which was refreshing for us coming from the still-very-homogeneous Fox Valley. It also demonstrated in a small way the beauty of diversity, because while they mostly played covers, many of them were atypical for bands from our area, such as a number of soul and funk tunes, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder songs. Their mash-up of “Superstitious” into Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” had the dance floor packed with a variety of people, as did their soulful rendition of, of all things, Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Fun stuff.

At the conclusion of our time in Florida, we headed home on a westerly course, as opposed to the easterly one we’d taken on the way down. We spent two nights at the Maison St. Charles hotel in New Orleans. With a number of buildings, including some that date back to the mid-1800s, configured around a European-style courtyard that included a nice pool, we all really liked the hotel. We also enjoyed a number of rides around town on the St. Charles Street Car line, which runs 24 hours a day and is very affordable. We discussed the fact that Oshkosh had a similar street car system at one time and what a shame it is that we dismantled it in the 1930s, as so many other cities did. We also enjoyed a great meal on a balcony overlooking Jackson Square and time wandering around, shopping, listening to music, and an encounter with what appeared to be a modern-day pirate (his exchange with me, after I saw him chase after someone yelling, “You’re not that f*&#ing important!”: Pirate: “Has anyone told you that you’re beautiful today?” Me: “What’s that?” Pirate repeats question. Me: “Ah, no, not yet.” Pirate: “You’re not that beautiful.”).

View from Tableau, our lunch spot in Nola on Jackson Square, which, along with the nearby French Market, have to be some of the best pedestrian-friendly public spaces in the country. Credit: Paul Van Auken.

Overall, unfortunately, New Orleans was not a huge hit with the gals, probably due to my daughters (newly 6 and 10) being a bit young to fully enjoy it and it coming a week into a long driving trip (people were basically ready to be home). Further, I caused us to get caught in a deluge, a soaking that put a damper on an otherwise fun day for some of us. Thankfully we could ride the street cars for a while to escape.

The impending deluge, along the Mississippi River in New Orleans. Credit: Courtney Van Auken

After Nola, we headed north, through the bayous, flatlands, and heat of Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas until we reached the St. Louis area, not to sightsee but to sleep. First, we stopped for dinner at O’Fallon brewery in the not-lovely (to me) suburbs. But the beer was good. We particularly enjoyed the Gold (golden ale), Hemp Hop Rye (amber ale), and St. Louis Red.

We also had some great local beer back on St. George: the Mill Pond Dirty Blonde from Oyster City Brewing Company, something else that is new since our last trip there. In my reflections from 2013 I wrote, “with a fruitful combination of university people, private sector professionals and blue-collar workers, a goodly number of visitors of our own, and a number of establishments that are very serious about the suds, I think Oshkosh could do much more to capitalize upon its own rich brewing tradition.” As I write on my front porch on a beautiful summer day in the ‘Kosh, I am happy to report that we have made tangible progress in this regard, with Bare Bones Brewery recently celebrating its second birthday and increasingly available at area establishments, Fifth Ward Brewing Company slated to open in the fall, a new brewpub in the plans for the South Sides’s Granary site, which is currently being renovated, and the Ruby Owl now on Main St. and specializing in craft beer.

We then made a couple noteworthy stops on our way to see friends in Waverly, Iowa. Our first stop was Hannibal, Missouri, famously the hometown of Mark Twain, who when he was still a young Samuel Clemens was a Mississippi River tugboat captain. Neat place surrounded by high bluffs, with excellent local peaches, Tom Sawyer’s whitewashed fence, Jim’s Journey Huck Finn Freedom Center, and the Mark Twain Brewing Company, which we didn’t have time to sample, unfortunately.

Hannibal riverfront. Credit: Courtney Van Auken

That day we headed to downtown Iowa City for lunch. First, though, we played, because downtown Iowa City is famous for not only the original state capitol building and the University of Iowa, but also its pedestrian mall, which features a very nice, large playground and a fountain designed for frolicking, along the lines of a splash pad.

Fun at the Ped Mall in Iowa City. Credit: Courtney Van Auken.

Back in 2013, I wrote about downtown Denver, “the 16th Street Mall, with its many restaurants, bars, street vendors, public pianos, people watching, and free bus is some great urban space.” This is all basically true of Iowa City’s Ped Mall, which goes back to 1977 and seems to remain vibrant, while other U.S. cities have removed their pedestrian malls. Here, we have an enormously successful version of this (the downtown farmers’ market), but it only happens once a week during the warm months. Would a permanent ped mall in downtown Oshkosh work? I don’t know. But I do know that our public spaces could be even better, and we could apply some lessons from Iowa City to the Opera House Square area, a successful town square that could be even more of a draw if enhanced to encourage more daily use, through such things as a children’s play area.

Next, we spent a night with our dear friends the Jensens, where we played some music, and to continue the theme, Mike and I did some disc golfing at Waverly’s small-but-nice riverside course.

Finally, we reached my parents’  house, the last stop on our 3,000-mile road trip. Forest City, Iowa,  among other things, is home to a relatively new and pretty great 21-hole disc golf course in the park, up the road from the home of my adolescence, that we called East Woods back then. In addition to having a nice time with my mom, we got to hang with my old pals, including the ones who started Paddler’s Tap, and have some craft brews (that’s all they serve at this unique joint in the old “uptown”), while my girls “showed” their new hermit crabs from Florida in the Pet Parade against ten fancy dogs, and we listened to live music on the closed-off Main Street for the annual Puckerbrush Days celebration in this rural town of 4,000 people .

With this bit of full circularity I will conclude another set of reflections from the road. Until next time, cheers!

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Paul Van Auken

Paul Van Auken has been a member of the sociology and environmental studies faculty at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh since 2007, after completing a Ph.D. in sociology from UW-Madison. A native of Iowa but resident of Wisconsin since 1999, Paul conducts research on issues related to neighborhood, community, land use planning and access to public space, sustainability, and teaching and learning. He also practices public sociology, regularly writing a column called “Shortening the Distance” for Oshkosh Independent.

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