Reflections from the Road


I was fortunate enough to be able to take several trips to various parts of the U.S. this summer and thought I would share a few reflections on what I saw and experienced, and how this might be relevant to life in Oshkosh.

In June I spent about a week out West, starting with several days in Denver and Fort Collins, Colorado, while attending a conference and visiting an old friend. Fort Collins was a dusty agricultural town with a state university and a prohibition on alcohol until 1969, when its population was about 43,000. It has since boomed to a sprawled-out population of 144,000, and is now buzzing with breweries, bike manufacturers, high tech industry, and young outdoorsy types. It was named the best place to live in the U.S. in 2006 and has some areas of nice, old houses close to the urban core. I was only there for a day, but had a nice hike through foothills to a reservoir that featured a close encounter with a rattlesnake, ate excellent Thai food in a nondescript strip mall, and drank some great beer at Odell’s brewery. Biking is clearly a priority there and the city is implementing a bus rapid transit system this year. We can’t do much about the rattlesnakes or foothills, but we have some momentum and possibilities for further progress in terms of diversifying our economy and food offerings, improving our bike friendliness and transit system in Oshkosh as well.

Hi there, rattley little buddy. Credit: Kirby Sunde

I stayed in downtown Denver for several days, the first time I’ve been back since living there for a semester of college in the 1990s. Arguably the capital of the Mountain West, it has also boomed since then, to 600,000 people in the city and thousands more in surrounding suburbs. The Mile High City is an interesting place, with a great climate, outstanding recreational amenities, and great views of the nearby Rockies. Its airport is practically in another time zone, though, which is a drawback when flying in.

View from hotel room of Downtown Denver. Credit: Paul Van Auken

Like many central business districts, Downtown Denver is a bit nondescript, though the 16th Street Mall, with its many restaurants, bars, street vendors, public pianos, people watching, and free bus is some great urban space. In the LoDo district, I had the memorable experience of a beautiful Vietnamese American woman (another childhood friend) taking me out to a Polish nightclub for infused vodka, one with horseradish and a pickle chaser and another with jalapeno. Denver’s park system is also outstanding and it has been rated as the third best biking city in the country, with lots of bike lanes and better yet, dedicated trails for safely getting around, several of which follow the city’s waterways. Continuing to improve our public spaces to try to make them great civic spaces, to make our city a safer and more enjoyable place to be a biker or walker, and to enhance our relationship with all of the water around us—along with adding some horseradish vodka to the scene (?)—won’t make us Denver, but could make us a better Oshkosh.

I then flew on to Montana, to hang out with some buddies in Glacier Park and environs. It was a great trip, but there isn’t much that I can directly relate to Oshkosh, other than that the Moose Saloon in Kalispel (pop. 19,277) is similar to what I’d envision a 19thcentury watering hole in Sawdust City looking like, but with better pizza, and the sprawl is perhaps relatively worse and more unplanned than ours (it is the West, after all). Perhaps it is simply a product of being a visitor in places full of visitors, but it also seems like it’s easy to strike up conversations with strangers out West; despite being one of the most homegrown cities in the nation and having a reputation for being parochial, I think Oshkosh compares fairly well in this regard and will hopefully continue to move further in this direction. I would also note that in relatively sparsely populated Flathead County, there are a number of local breweries, and there is a growing microbrew culture in the region.

Enjoying some suds in Flathead County. Credit: Paul Van Auken

As a lover of the barley and hops, I am happy to live in a state with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to local, craft brewed options in this regard. But 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. Finally, while the Fox River/Winnebago System versus the Rocky Mountains/Glacier National Park is not a fair fight, we should think about how we can better integrate nature into our city in every way possible, and particularly as the long-awaited river walk is completed and additional development occurs along the river and lake. Can we create a few additional pockets of green and even a little wild in the midst of the manicured and manmade?

In July I road tripped with my wife and kids down to the Florida panhandle to St. George Island. On the way we stayed with friends in the Wrigleyville area of Chicago (so much great stuff within walking distance!), in a rental cabin deep in the Hoosier National Forest on the Indiana/Kentucky (who knew it was so beautiful and forested in Southern Indiana? Not I.), and in a nondescript hotel in nondescript (but well placed) Cullman, Alabama. St. George is a beautiful, peaceful place. We got married on the beach there some years back. It’s a bit difficult to connect it to Oshkosh, but a couple things come to mind. First, our small but growing contingent of waterfront restaurants offer food, fun, and scenery similar to that of island landmark The Blue Parrot, and it died before my time, but I imagine the Pioneer Inn compared even better. Can we bring it back? Also, a salty local joint called Harry A’s has karaoke almost every day of the week in its outdoor courtyard. We are seriously lacking in karaoke options in this town, are we not? Finally, despite being located in Florida, and in a gorgeous setting, St. George and the other towns in the area, such as the biggest one, Apalachicola (pop. 2,200), seem to have maintained a good deal of their sleepy, fishing village authenticity, even while turning to tourism in order to survive. One of the things I love about Oshkosh is its rough around the edges authenticity, and I hope we hold on to it, even as we continue to progress. 

Nature does its thing, St. George Island, FL. Credit: Paul Van Auken

On the way back we stopped in Chattanooga, Tennessee (pop. 168,000). The cleaning up of the Tennessee River and air through grassroots collaboration and federal funding, along with the creation of a river walk and all kinds of related development have made this a case study in urban planning and sustainability, and I’ve been interested in seeing it myself for some time. The city did not disappoint. We got to town late on a Saturday, choosing a hotel near both downtown and Lookout Mountain. I was beat from driving all day, but thankfully my wife was adamant that we go see the city and get a late meal. The city was hopping, and after driving around fruitlessly for a bit, we found a parking spot right next to the Walnut Street Bridge, which was built in 1891, purports to be the longest pedestrian bridge in the world, and spans the bluffs from one side of downtown to the other. We walked, along with a diverse mix of people, to the north side, stopping at that end of the bridge to watch a bit of the Loony Tunes that was playing on the gigantic movie screen in the park below before getting a good meal at Good Dog, a hip local joint that cases its own wieners and uses locally-baked bread. Lots of people were out in the abundant public spaces of a city that seemed to live up to its billing.

Trying to find a spot to enjoy the view from Lookout Mountain the next morning proved more frustrating, as everything in this separate municipality overlooking Chattanooga seemed to be private, off-limits, and/or closed. It made me think of that old Freedom Rock song “Signs.” After asking a dog walker what was up, we finally found a tiny trailhead in a tiny section of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park and made our way to breathtaking Sunset Rock. The lesson: do not take quality, free public space (like Menominee Park) for granted and try to create more of it, as it will pay off.

Chattanooga skyline. Credit: Imilious, Wikimedia Commons

Finally, in late July and in August, we traveled to a couple places closer to home. First, we spent a few days in the Geneva Lake area of southeastern Wisconsin. We went to a family camp on the shores of the lake, hung out with some friends at a lake house in the vicinity, and I did my initial interviews for a new research project about life in the area, but particularly about the Geneva Lake Shore Path. This land use anomaly is a 21-mile walking trail around the entire lake that is open to the public but which traverses primarily private property, through beautiful terrain and the yards of some of the biggest houses you’ll ever see. In a country where this land is my land, this land’s not your land tends to be the dominant mindset, the path is both strange and wonderful.

Research participant recruitment postcard. Photo credits: Maggie Danielson

Can you imagine if the WiowashTrail connected to the river walk and then kept going past the Leach, along the lake, connecting to the Menominee Park path and beyond, looping all the way back to where it heads out of town by Fratello’s? That would be something.

Lastly, we recently spent a couple nights camping along Lake Antoine in Iron Mountain, Michigan (pop. 7,600), only a 2½ hour drive north, just barely into the U.P. I found this to be an interesting area, with a rich history, several iron mines that can be toured, a number of good Italian restaurants, and a well-known ski jump. 

The author and his daughter on a ski jump. Credit: Courtney Van Auken.

The thing that stood out the most was how close nature felt around there (except for while walking and biking along the main street/highway through town) and how well they seemed to understand the importance of their landscape.

Again, we may not have mountains, but we are clearly blessed with natural capital and can likely do more to preserve and enhance it, increase people’s awareness of it, make it even more central to everyday life in Oshkosh.


About Author

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. He is currently living in the central city of Milwaukee while on sabbatical and among other things is writing about Oshkosh through the lens of his experiences there.

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

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